Philippa Boyens Interview Part One
A BIG thanks to Gorel for this transcript of the Philippa Boyens panel at Mythcon, check it out!
Di[Paula DiSanto]: What did you do before this? Tell me some background in terms of writing experience, and of your kinds of experiences in the area of your career in writing.
PB[Philipa Boyens]: It’s interesting, we went to Cannes. I got introduced, and the person who was introducing me said, “making her debut as a screenwriter”. And I suddenly thought, oh, I am, that’s right. Because I’ve been working on this for four years now. It didn’t feel like a debut, but it is. So really this was my first professional venture into screenwriting. Before that, I worked with a lot of film-makers when I was executive director of the museum of […]. Prior to that I worked in theater, and that’s my background. And I came to writing from working with actors and working on performance pieces, helping some plays. I actually gave writing away. And I didn’t really have an expectation of coming back there. I had worked with a lot of friends, done script editing, read scripts, which is one of the avenues through which I came to be involved in this project.
Di: And exactly how did you get involved?
PB: I can remember it very clearly. My partner at the time, Steven Sinclair[?], … had worked with Fran and Peter before, on Feebles and […]. We got a call, we were at my house and we got a call from Fran. And he put the phone down and he said, you’ll never guess what Fran and Peter are working on. And I was doing something and said, “Oh, what?” or something like that. And he said Lord of the Rings, and I just went, “You’re kidding!” […] I think my next thought was, “They’re mad!” Which I found out is true. And then I thought, well, that’s very brave, a thing to attempt to do. Which I also found out was true, that Peter is really brave. But further to that, so Steven started working with them, he sort of playfully said “Ah, six weeks.” [laughs] They asked me to read a treatment, which I did. And I was very nervous about doing that because it was my favorite book. They knew this, this is why they had asked me. […] But when I did I got very excited because I could see it, and subsquent to that, a sort of very broad overview draft. I gave them some notes. And then, they rang and said, “Would you like to be involved as a writer?” I thought, “Um…yeah!” [laughs]
Di: That took all of two seconds.
PB: Yeah. [laughing]
Di: I understand that originially the script was in two parts. Going from two parts to three parts has obvious advantages. Was it a struggle, were there any disadvantages to going to three?
PB: No, I don’t think so. I think that’s the best format to tell the story, as a trilogy. But I don’t know if it was a disadvantage. Because there was a lot of time pressure, that was the key at that time. New Line came on board, Bob Shaye’s famous decision to want to make three movies. We had to work very, very hard. It was almost a page one, well, not quite a page one rewrite, but it involved…
Di: A serious restructuring…
PB: Yes, rethinking.
Di: Did you get to the point where you do have this extra time, you had to make some hard decisions, some things had to be left out. Was it difficult to make those decisions?
PB: I have to say this is not me being smooth. I do like to think of it, and the choices that we made, that we chose to leave some things untold, rather than left out. Unsaid. Because they’re there to be discovered for people who come to the book, and for those people who know the stories and love the stories, they understand them. So, in terms of that process, the advanced[?] story of the Lord of the Rings, I think this audience especially, which is why it’s such a great audience to talk to, will know that the advanced[?] story, the actual story, is very strong in the Lord of the Rings. When I read that first treatment, that’s when I realized it lends itself to cinema in a wonderful way.
Di: Did New Line have any preference for things to stay in or take out.
PB: No, again, honestly they were maginificent to work with. They worked from a place of trust, they trusted Peter, and they trusted his vision. They were incredibly suppportive. They have been throughout the whole thing. There were some wonderful people there who understood this story and understood these books like Mark Odesky, Bob Shaye himself. We were very lucky to go work with some great film makers. They’re part of the film making process.
Di: Did you have time for table readings. Just to explain, a table reading is where you’re getting the cast together before you actually start shooting so the director and the screenwriters can hear the key actors reading their part all the way through and start to get a feel for the rythym of the story and that sort of thing, if you have to make some possible changes. I know that you’re going into production sometimes, and boom, so did you have time for that?
PB: Not an official table reading. We did a lot of work with the actors. Fran and I were involved because it was understood because of the nature of what Peter was intending to do, which was to shoot three films out of sequence, that it would be a continual creative process. One of the things is, we knew we wouldn’t have the entire cast, we had 22 main characters in the movie I believe, we never really had the entire cast in one place. We were shooting all over the north island and south island of New Zealand. So what we tended to do was to work on scenes and work with the actors that way. I do remember [laughs], I think the women of the audience will appreciate this, it was late one night when we were in Queenstown. We’d done a light revision on a scene between Aragorn and Boromir, and Fran and Peter worked with them, and Fran and Peter had to go to a dinner. I had Sean Bean and Viggo in my hotel room reworking the scene. At the time, all I was focusing on was, “Oh, this is Aragorn and Boromir, this is wonderful.” It was only after they left that I went, “That was Sean Bean and Viggo Mortenson, in my hotel room!” And subsequently some girlfriends of mine went, “What were you thinking!?” And I have to admit, I was thinking Tolkien! I think that says more about me than I need to disclose. [laughs]
Di: Speaking of Viggo, his casting came very, very close to the [beginning of shooting]… Did that impact you at all? Did you make any changes? He’s a very different type personality.
PB: Yeah, oh, I have wonderful Viggo stories. I truly can’t imagine another actor playing him now, Aragorn. Fate has driven a lot of this project. The day that fate decided he was the right person to play Aragorn was a lucky one for us. I can tell you a little story. He apparently takes a long time to decide on, he chooses his projects very carefully. So suddenly he was offered these three films, to come to New Zealand, for a huge commitment. Peter did a call with him, the studio did a call with him, talked to agents, and Fran and I talked to him about some of our thoughts. Aragorn as a character was one of the more difficult characters because of his journey. Wonderful character, brilliant character, but certainly a character that… dramatically, you need to really think through the story. So Fran and I talked to him about some ideas, and he asked us questions. He really just asked us questions, and we began to realize these were some very acute questions that he was asking. Anyway, he had some time to decide, it was a very short period of time, I can’t remember how much. I was in the main office, Peter’s office, and he was shooting and I think Fran was on set with him. We hadn’t heard an answer from him. I think New Line honestly had, but we hadn’t. A phone call came in, and Jan Bacon[?], our wonderful assistant, said “It’s Viggo Mortenson on the phone.”, and she said take it. So I picked up the phone and went, “Hullo?” And this voice said, “Hi, this is Viggo Mortenson.” And he said, “I wanted to ask you a question.” And I thought, oh no, it’s going to be about schedules or time frames, and I went, “Yes?” And he said – and I had no idea if he had committed or not – he said “So, how old was I when I was taken to the elves?” And I just went, “Yes!” [pumps arm] And I have to tell you, this is true, he turned up at the airport, I think he had bare feet, with a copy of the Volsunga Saga in his bag, which he took off his shelf.
Di: I’m not sure if this is true, I’ve been reading it on the web, that when Tolkien sold the film rights, he had a proviso saying that no new scenes could be added. Is that true?
PB: No. I think that might be a bit of an urban myth, but no.
Di: If you needed to you could invent scenes?
PB: Yeah… Again, the process of inventing within somebody else’s work is…. to me it doesn’t feel that good doing it. We are trying somehow to stay true to the characters. There are opportunites within the stories, as everyone here understands, where things are told in reportage, and one of the great, wonderful opportunities you get to do with film, and what I hope that fans of the book are going to embrace and love, as much as I did seeing it, is things such as the meeting between Gandalf and Saruman. Because that is a moment that you can bring alive on film.
Di: It would seem because of the scope, and you had to cut everything down, that it would be more exposition, being able to link things together. DId you find that that was true, that if you had to invent that it would be to serve the story telling for the audience?
PB: Yes, absolutely… and the characters.
Di: We’ve seen two trailers, thus far. What I noticed in the trailers is that a lot of the on screen dialogue was a paraphrase of Tolkien’s actual dialogue. Was there a stylistic reason for the rephrasing beyond the fear that this might sound too archaic for modern audiences?
PB: I think Tolkien’s language is brilliant, it’s wonderful. And we were so lucky to have actors such as Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Ian Holm, you know, wonderful, wonderful actors, who could take an approach and lift off the page all of that language. In terms of archaic constructions, sometimes it’s very potent and powerful to leave it as it is. Sometimes you do it to be clearer. Sometimes it’s just something to do with length. I think one of the things you need to do in film is to make it immediate. Peter wanted from the very early stages, and one of the things that drove him when he talked to everybody involved in the creative process was, make it real. And that was from the design perspective, from the performance perspective, from the writing perspective. And in making it real you need to make it immediate, and in doing that you are going to have to relook at some of those constructions. […]
Di: So we’ll see a mix of verbatim dialogue and a sort of paraphrase.
Di: Were any scenes rewritten to take advantage of specific actors, their strengths and their quirks?
PB: Yes, absolutely. It was a great gift to myself and Fran and Peter to be able to work with the actors. They began to assume in your mind the characters, they became the characters. Seeing Ian McKellen walk on set as Gandalf is just something incredibly extraordinary. I think it was, I just thought of it, Trevor Nunn, I think it was, I saw a documentary done by the Royal Shakespeare Company. And he said that: Shakespeare had always been best informed and enlightened by the great performances of great actors. And this is not denying the contributions of great scholars. That holds so true to someone like Ian McKellen playing Gandalf, and his insights into the character are extraordinary. Whenever he walked on set, you just got a sense of security. [laughs] Gandalf’s here, it’s OK. I’m sure he wasn’t thinking this in his head, he’s thinking, “What is this?” [imitates Ian looking puzzled at something he’s reading]
Di: Did you have to any rewriting to speed up a scene or even slow it down, where you could tell from the available footage that you had shot so far that maybe something needed to be longer or shorter? If it was longer, did you figure it would be edited?
PB: Certainly. If you can you write long, so that you have that luxury of making that choice, making decisions. Editing’s about making choices and making decisions, the best way to tell it. As a screenwriter you can suddenly realize that you’ve said something more than once. Which one was the best way to say it? In terms of lengthening things, sometimes as writers, I think we went into that, often with the support of the actors to hold onto those moments. And Peter embraces those kinds of things, to try to do them to their fullest capacity.
Di: I know a lot of people will be interested in this. Was the decision to expand the role of Arwen directed from New Line or was it the three of you saying we really need to pull this out and go to The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen, and put that into the body of the story?
PB: It’s so interesting the feedback that you read about the character of Arwen because most of it’s incorrect. Ultimatley we drew absolutely on the appendix. People say her role is expanded… there is one sequence which was done for very practical reasons, and I absolutely stand behind it, which I think you’ve probably all seen [laughs], that works incredibly well. I think you wouldn’t be serving the film, you wouldn’t be serving the audience, you certainly wouldn’t be serving the book if you ignored her character. What stands out for me in the first film, and I have to say that Liv Tyler has a quality about her that is just extraordinary, and what stands out to me is Arwen is a voice in this film who does not give in to despair. Not that necessarily other characters will or do. But in the midst of all this is someone who knows and understands how they feel and is holding onto it and is holding true to their feelings. And that requires enormous openness and understanding and wisdom, and Liv just gives that. And her Elvish is great!
Di: When it was originally published the novel was broken into three volumes from the directive of the publisher. There was no way they were going to do that all at once, because of the cost of the production. It broke up fairly easily because it is six books within one work. When you were breaking up the film, in terms of the, I don’t want to say cliffhanger but it almost works that way in the novel, did you find you had to shift where it broke differently, between the end of the first film and the end of the second film?
PB: I think we’ve pretty much stayed true to the structure of the novels. In terms of shaping ends, one of the biggest things we had to do and one of the most difficult things to do, was at the end of the first film, to leave the viewers with a sense of fulfillment. It can’t be just a cliffhanger. You have to feel that you’ve been on this journey, that something has happened, that something enormous has happened, and it does, as you feel in the book. A change has occurred, a change that’s going to drive the second story forward, but also actually has brought one of your main characters, or your main character, to a point and he has achieved something. So we’ve worked very, very hard. What was interesting was working an action based climax into an emotional climax. And I feel personally for myself, and I’ll be really interested to see how you feel about it, the emotional climax of this great sequence at Parth Galen, and on the slopes of Amon Hen, which is very driven and it’s this amazing sequence with Boromir, and it’s everything you can, in fact I truly believe it’s more than you can imagine. But what stands out is the emotional climax which…[sighs]…it’s wonderful, an incredible performance by Elijah Woods.
Di: Which of three installments of the film did you find the most difficult and the most challenging in regard to keeping the pace and flow of Tolkien’s story?
PB: In terms of each film? It’s really hard. Rivendell nearly killed me. Nearly killed Fran. We were like, “Don’t make us go back there.” [laughs] But it’s such a brilliant moment in the book, and you want to serve that, but really if you look at it the story does stop in a way, and you must restart it. So it’s how do you get through that so that the story doesn’t just stop. How do you embrace what that place stands for, thematically, and you have Alan Lee doing concept drawings of the house, so it’s just exquisite. How do you feed into the story and drive the story. Lothlorien, again, and I’m not picking on the elves, it can become a place where you stop and have a cup of tea, which you can’t do. But I hope, I hope, that we’ve managed to capture some of the extraordinary stillness and light, and everything… I have no words.
Di: It has been reported on the internet that the original prologue that was shot for the Fellowship of the Ring, which details the history of the ring, has either been removed or moved to a different location in the film. If it has been moved there are places to put it. I think I remember reading that Peter was concerned that might have been dumping too much information on the audience, and trying to integrate it so that they’re getting this history in a more natural way. It could be put in the Shadow of the Past or the Council of Elrond. Could you tell us about how that was rethought?
PB: It’s a little bit apocryphal, that story, I have to tell you. It’s not completely true. It’s part of the process by which these films were developed, the creative process, it was a difficult one. I was talking to Fran about it actually. It’s an enormously difficult process, but it was our process, it was the process that we had to do to make these films. In terms of the prologue, or lack of, or is there one, or whatever, you’re going to have to wait and see. [laughs] But I can say that the back story, that serves the story, was very difficult to do. It’s finding the places where it isn’t just exposition, it should never be just exposition. It shoud be character driven, it should be as much as possible character driven, it should be action driven. It should, again, feel real. So the back story was difficult, which was we needed a prologue. And certainly, Gandalf’s return to Bag End is very important, and it is obviously a very important imparting of information to the main character, but what you find is it’s also a point in the film when you want something to happen. When you need for it to continue to drive forward because you spend this time in Hobbiton, and it’s so wonderful, [excited] this cart comes over the hill and you see it all, it’s beautiful! It’s wonderful, and to embrace that peaceful world, but to understand that that is under threat is very important. Peter was very good, he never closes doors, he’s incredibly open. He’s always thinking, how is an audience, and as big an audience is possible is going to receive this, and what is the best way to tell the story.
Di: I know there was some reshooting. When the decision was made to do that, did the three of you get together, or was this assigned to you to do a rewrite or two of you or all three of you?
PB: We did it all together. The reshoots were part of the natural process of pickups, which is a part of the process of film making. Fran especially is incredible at structure and she always kept her eye on that and then she’s sit down and talk it through, and Peter as well.
Di: You were happy with the reshoot portions fifting into what was already there?
PB: Oh, sure. These guys has been in these characters for fourteen months, they could walk into it easily.
Part II coming soon!Posted in Old Special Reports on August 7, 2001 by xoanon