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Gags, Gollum and PJ: My Report from Lincoln Center

January 11, 2004 at 8:41 pm by Luthien  - 

My Lincoln Center weekend started a little bit after 7:00 pm, when I ascended to the 10th floor of the Rose Building to attend a cocktail reception for the cast members participating in the Lincoln Center event. The setting was sumptuous—windows surrounded two entire sides of the room, with a gorgeous view of downtown NYC and the Hudson River, dapper waiters (aka aspiring actors) bringing around trays of hors d’oeuvres and glasses of wine, candles and glasses and food set out—and Elijah Wood casually chatting to a group of fans and signing autographs for the children who were there. All of the actors, with the exception of Liv (who had unfortunately cancelled just the day before), made appearances at the reception, and were all unflaggingly gracious, lighthearted and open. I got to speak briefly to Bernard Hill and Andy Serkis (who will be at the Barnes and Nobel at Union Square tomorrow at his book-signing), and it was definitely a highlight of the evening.

Next, after the reception and brief photo shoot which occurred outside in the lobby of Alice Tully right after the film had started was….well, Return of the King, of course, as brilliant and breathtaking (and tear-inducing) as ever, followed by the Q&A, which other fans have already dutifully reported. I was able to record the entire Q&A on my voice recorder, and will type it out in transcript format shortly after I finish this report. Stay tuned.

Today, though, was the Conversation with Peter Jackson, which started promptly at 2 pm and was hosted by Richard Pena, director of the Lincoln Center Film Society. First, a short film composed of clips of all of Peter’s other movies, along with clips of many of the movies which influenced his work, was shown to the audience, and then Peter appeared again via satellite from NZ, towering above the audience on the big screen—so wonderfully larger than life.

The first question Richard asked him was about what NZ meant to Peter, and about the ways in which NZ had influenced his work. Peter started off by saying: well, it’s where I was raised, so NZ obviously means a lot to me on that level. But as a filmmaker in NZ, Peter pointed out that it has many advantages: you’re not locked into trends or the entire Hollywood hierarchy, and NZ filmmakers tend to be “mavericks”, which allows more freedom and independence. He also stressed the laid-back attitude of the film-making industry there, and the fact that because so few movies are made in NZ each year, there is a particular excitement and joy which crewmembers have when working on a film that’s priceless.

The next question was about the fact that there aren’t many examples or images of NZ filmmaking, and Richard was curious about how that might have affected Peter’s work. Peter answered that the very first NZ film he saw was Sleeping Dogs, in 1967 as a teenager, and that he was cringing at the NZ accents. He then went on to talk about making Super 8 films as a child, and about how difficult it was to get a job in film as a young man because there wasn’t much of a real film industry—he applied for a job at a film laboratory (which was his very first job interview) and was turned down. His first film, Bad Taste, was shot while he was working as a photo engraver doing photo lithography for a small newspaper, starring fellow co-workers who had time to shoot on Sundays with him. The entire movie took approximately 4 years to make, and was all done on weekends, out of his own pocket money, by and large. After Bad Taste’s success at the Cannes Film festival, though, PJ apparently marched back in to his boss’s office and gave his notice. From then on out, he was a filmmaker.

There was a short film of movie clips shown, showing scenes from Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles, Forgotten Silver, Heavenly Creatures, Braindead and the Frighteners, followed by more questions about the making of Meet the Feebles (w/ Fran, whom he had met in 1977, Richard Taylor and Jim Booth), Braindead and Heavenly Creatures. Peter did mention that a lot of his humor was derived from Monty Python, which he watched as a child and adored, and that horror flicks (“splatter films”) are the best kind of film to make if you have absolutely no budget, which is what he had when he was first starting out.

This was followed by another short film of clips, this time from all three LotR films, which got the audience considerably more excited (people were breaking out in loud applause by the end of this film). Peter was then asked about the creation of Gollum, and how that went about, and gave his standard answer about how this was an organic process that happened step by step—first by beginning to use Andy Serkis’s facial expressions and body language in the artistic design of Gollum, followed by using him as an actor and CGI guide during the principle shooting, followed by the idea of motion-capture. More information on the creation of Gollum can be found in Andy’s new book, of course.

At this point, the other actors were brought on stage again, to the great delight of the audience, and Bernard Hill, Andy Serkis, Elijah Wood and Sean Astin took up their customary places—right underneath Peter’s gigantic, pixelized chin. The next question asked by Richard Pena was a huge, overly-grand question along the lines of: well, you all have been living Tolkien, and thinking about Tolkien night and day for years now, and probably know Tolkien better than any other group of people on earth, so tell me: what does Tolkien really mean by this work? What was Tolkien really trying to say? Hmmmm. REALLY hard question, which Peter answered admirably (although many of the things he mentioned are nothing new to an avid Tolkien fan). He began by stating that Tolkien was a very opinionated man, who was very regretful of the fact that England had lost its ancient mythology, and that in many ways, Middle Earth was Tolkien’s way of trying to create an ancient mythology for England. He also mentioned that LotR was fueled by things which irritated JRR—the loss of the English countryside, the industrialization of England, the motor engine, the enslavement of men in the service of industry etc. Elijah aptly pointed out that LotR was also hugely motivated by the things that Tolkien loved, as represented by the shire (Sean Astin chimed in “pipeweed” among the things that Tolkien loved), and of course, Tolkien’s love of languages and history is very visible in LotR. It was a really difficult question, and as volumes and volumes of work have been written on this very subject, it’s hard to sum it all up in a few paragraphs—but PJ did a very good job of doing just that.

About halfway through the question on exactly how the size of the hobbits was accomplished successfully throughout all three films (again, a question we’ve heard answered many times before); Peter’s image suddenly disappeared from screen, apparently due to some kind of satellite glitch. And that’s when things got really interesting.

Left to their own devices, the actors began to tell stories about the different gags which occurred on set, which the audience eagerly ate up. Sean began by explaining that at some point during the shoot the actors received gift packages from Gillette, which prompted the filming of a small “commercial” as a Gillette spokesman, which ran something like this: “Hi, my name is Sean Astin, and I play Sam wise Gamgee in Lord of the Rings. Hobbits don’t grow facial hair, but actors do! When I’m on Mt. Doom and I need a real close hobbit shave, I pull out my special, safety-tested Gillette razor….” This brought peals of laughter.

Not to be outdone, Bernard Hill told a story about a gag that occurred while he and Viggo were shooting Viggo’s “Christ-like” entrance at Helm’s Deep after being “saved, fed, watered and given injections by his horse” (at this point, the actors riffed on Viggo’s entrance for awhile, imitating him pushing the doors aside and shaking the sweat out of his hair, with many flourishes and exaggeration). Apparently right before they were filming this scene, Bernard and Viggo had been discussing the merchandizing which would be accompanying LotR, and how tiny, miniature, plastic models of themselves would soon be available in toy stores all over the world. As the cameras began to roll, and Bernard delivered Theoden’s lines about Saruman’s impending army, Bernard asked: “How many?” and Viggo answered: “Thousands and thousands, milord. They will scam you, m’lord. They will cast your head in plastic, you will be on the shelves of every child under the age of 12, you will be underfoot, on the carpet, stuck with gum, etc.” To which Bernard (still in character and trying to save the scene) asked again: “How many?” And Viggo answered: “I already told you, m’lord.” At this point, a cell phone rang on set, and Bernard said (still in character): “somebody answer the phone”, and at that point, the entire scene dissolved and Viggo ended up on the floor laughing.

Since the other actors seemed reluctant to share more of their gag stories (despite Bernard’s urging), Bernard decided to talk about another orchestrated gag, which occurred to him while Peter was explaining that the Uruk-Hai trying to break into Helm’s Deep were just like a visit from someone you don’t want. This reminded Bernard of Jehovah’s Witnesses who come proselytizing on your doorstep (“no offense meant to anyone here who is a Jehovah’s Witness”), so he and Andrew Lesnie (the DOP for the films) put together a shot of approximately 30 soldiers of Rohan answering the banging of the Helm’s Deep door with shouts of: “Who is it?” and “It’s the Jehovah’s Witnesses, don’t let them get in!” followed by all 30 of them shouting “GO AWAY!”

Sean Astin offered up one more story, talking about how he found it hard to find his place caught between such large personalities as Peter Jackson and Sir Ian McKellan, and about how, during FotR, his character was purposely kept somewhat distant from the audience (perhaps to keep Sam’s strength and nobility a secret for the later movies?), so much so that after awhile, he was practically begging for a close-up. So during the shooting of the eavesdropping scene in bag end, he kept trying to slip his face into the shot, at the edge of the screen, and when Ian grabbed him and pulled him through the window to ask him what he was doing, he said: “I just wanted a bit of a close-up, sir”, at which point Ian pushed him aside and said “No, no”, vying in front of the camera with him until Sean fell off the table (but according to Elijah, Ian helped Sean back up and even gave him a little kiss).

And then, BAM, suddenly Peter Jackson is back on screen again, and quickly realizes that the actors are telling blooper stories. The audience begins to call out things like: make a bloopers tape! We’ll pay good money for it, and Peter did say that he imagined a bloopers tape would be made at some point and released on DVD (again, to wild cheering), but not for several years yet, he cautioned.

To end the evening, Peter told one last story about a gag that was played on Viggo Mortenson during filming at Dunharrow. Peter gave Hugo Weaving a pair of Matrix-style glasses, and as Viggo entered the king’s tent to meet with Elrond, Hugo Weaving stood up, removed his cloak, revealed his glasses, and said: “Your Dunedain disguise cannot fool me, Mr. Anderson.” Peter called this the “ultimate geek moment.”

All in all, it was an incomparable day, and I felt incredibly lucky to be there, but even luckier to have such a dedicated, gifted and down-to-earth cast and crew working on a project that is so precious to me. Keep posted for the transcript of the Q&A following last night’s RotK screening, plus PHOTOS!!

Luthien, over and out

Posted in Old Special Reports on January 11, 2004 by

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