The Quest for ‘RINGERS’
The creative team behind RINGERS: LORD OF THE FANS share a common love of J.R.R. Tolkien’s magnificent books.
In January 2002, playwright and Tolkien scholar Cliff Broadway enjoyed a chance meeting with director Carlene Cordova while standing in line to meet Sir Ian McKellen at a book signing. Aside from meddling in the affairs of wizards, two minds began burning brightly together that day, and a new writing partnership was born.
The timing of this meeting was fortuitous. It had been a mere month since the U.S. theatrical release of Peter Jackson’s stunning Fellowship of the Ring, and the “newest wave” of fans made a clear showing. In attendance were several older folks who had been reading “The Lord of the Rings” since the 1960s — standing alongside them were new Ringer fans many years younger. This combination of old-school fans with kids learning about hobbits for the first time caught Carlene’s eye.
Soon the director was asking herself: “The Lord of the Rings” is nearly 50 years old — how does such a huge, unwieldy book have such staying power? How did so many generations fall into its pages?
Carlene and Cliff starting working together to interview the stars for TheOneRing.net — the most insanely popular Tolkien resource on the Net. Building on the momentum of Jackson’s three-film release pattern, a genuine phenomenon was unfolding right before their eyes. Working with TheOneRing.net allowed the intrepid director and interviewer rare access to both the actors and the creative forces behind The Lord of the Rings Trilogy; but the road would carry them much farther as they explored Tolkien’s ongoing pop legacy.
As the filmmakers researched myriad pieces of pop culture influenced by Tolkien, the idea to create RINGERS: LORD OF THE FANS took shape. There was a long list of classic rock music one could point to that was Tolkien influenced. There was an entire “fantasy book” section in the bookstore that would never have been there if not for the breakthrough of Tolkien’s trilogy. And there were parents doing the unheard of — spending time reading to their kids while they awaited the next two films to hit their local theatres. Book sales reached record heights as the films reaped box-office gold. The time had come to put this whole thing into perspective, and nobody was in a better position than Carlene and Cliff at the time RINGERS started rolling film in earnest.
The director soon recruited Josh Mandel, a UCLA Film School graduate, to be the Director of Photography and Co-Producer. Long-time friend Danny Lukic (director/writer of the comedic short musical Dogs) came on board as producer, while Catherine Frizat became Associate Producer. A remarkable creative force was added with the inclusion of Editor Arnaud Gerardy (editor of the Joe Strummer documentary Let’s Rock Again). The additional support of producer Jeff Marchelletta would complete the team.
The fans themselves were to become an integral part of RINGERS. The summer of 2003 was spent pursuing and taping the original true-blue community that was the bedrock of Tolkien’s popularity. The RINGERS team would visit the largest genre fan events in the world, including the San Diego Comic-Con International and the annual Dragon*Con in Atlanta, Georgia. Soon additional events were recorded by other Units shooting in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Bonn, Germany.
The most effective means of recording fans’ comments came in the shape of a “confessional booth.” Inspired by a similar device used in reality T.V. shows, the confessional was designed to help interviewees close out the noise and distractions of the Convention Hall, so they could speak directly to the camera about their love of Tolkien. It was a magic key for many people. They could speak in private without interruption. They could speak straight from the heart. They could address everyone in the world of fandom from one point of view. The resulting footage was everything the filmmakers hoped it could be — filled with genuine warmth, laughs, musings, surprises, bad puns, shameless self promotion, slapstick comedy, gentle tears, and creativity of every kind!
Building trust was important: Other documentaries have derisively portrayed genre fans as awkward nerds — worthy of guilty laughter if not much else — but Carlene and Cliff are two of the most serious Tolkien fans one could ever hope to meet, and their honest approach to documenting ‘Ringer fans’ was respectful and generous in the utmost. After all, their undiluted love of Tolkien brought them together and would ultimately lift RINGERS up to a different class of film (indeed the generous spirit of fandom brought the first cautious investors to the table; it was by the grace of a small dedicated fan-base that the production received its earliest financial support).
Gaining interviews with the stars of Jackson’s films was a certainty. The ensemble of actors were quite familiar with the RINGERS team. Elijah Wood and Ian McKellen had seen Cliff, Carlene and Josh holding microphone and camera on every red carpet in town. Having attended numerous “Rings” related events (and the spectacular Oscar Parties produced yearly by TheOneRing.net), the stars of Middle-earth relaxed into conversations with Cliff about nothing less than the sprawling creation of Tolkien’s mind. The pleasure of more thoughtful discourse was woven on camera; covering the trilogy’s thematic reach, spirituality for the modern world, and the heart of humanity as reflected in the Hobbits themselves.
RINGERS had the best access to “Rings” luminaries that any documentarian could hope for. As the scope of the film broadened to include the worlds of music and fantasy literature, efforts to secure interviews with the best and brightest of those worlds were met with “Yes, I’d love to!” from all quarters (Ralph Bakshi being a notable exception). Authors such as Clive Barker and Terry Pratchett offered exclusive interviews, bringing to the table their keen insight into Tolkien’s literary legacy. While David Carradine provided a bracing portrait of the 60s generation and their adoration of Tolkien. Rock legends Geddy Lee (RUSH) and Lemmy Kilmister (Motörhead) quickly came on board, explaining first-hand how the Rock scene shifted under the weight of Tolkien’s high-fantasy influence. Carlene knew the lines between pop culture and literary masterpiece had blurred together decades ago, but for the first time several key players in this phenomenon were able to explain how it happened.
The director’s dynamic approach to her subject was to juxtapose the “professional” interviewees with the “fan confessionals” — who uniformly supported each others’ views — highlighting the commonality that crosses generations of Tolkien enthusiasts. The earliest tapes were transcribed by an army of Ringer fans who volunteered their own time to help the production. As hundreds of hours of footage and transcripts came pouring in, Cliff wrote to the online fans about progress on the production: “Every day we look forward more and more to bringing this film together. It’s really sparking our own excitement as we continue to work on it. This material is coming together so wonderfully, with the awesome contributions of so many spirited individuals, that we can’t help it! Enthusiasm like this is infectious.”
Throughout 2003, “Rings” events unfolded around the world, and the RINGERS team was there, cameras and enthusiasm in tow. By November of that year the production had been in full swing for almost two years without proper funding. The filmmakers had dedicated themselves full time without any compensation; but the time had come to fly around the world and back. The team arrived in London and then onward to visit Tolkien’s world of Oxford, just in time for the U.K. Tolkien Society’s annual conference.
Carlene noted that day’s spirited shenanigans in her travel blog: “Cliff tried his first ever pint of Guinness at a quaint pub called The Rose and Crown. Our sound technician Mikey Murray and Cliff later joined in for the Hobbit Dancing seminar at Oxonmoot. Josh and I just filmed it and laughed at them.”
Prominent Tolkien academics sat down to relay their side of the story, then it was off to gather footage of the countryside where a young lad named John Ronald Reuel Tolkien grew up. Carlene recalls the journey: “Our next stop was the Mosely Bog where we hiked a little while and shot flora and fauna alike. Mosely Bog was a place where I could imagine a young Tolkien leading his younger brother through the thick forest, telling him stories of Ogres and faeries in the woods. While on our travels in England we were frequently asked what we were filming. As a rule we always tell everyone that we’re filming birds and buildings. That we’re great bird and building enthusiasts. As luck would have it, on this day, all of our filming was entirely of birds and buildings. Some trees too. There will be lots of trees in this documentary. They were so very important to Professor Tolkien, and they are to me.”
The filmmakers quickly arrived at their next destination — New Zealand — for the World Premiere of the highly anticipated The Return of the King. Transitioning from the revered halls of academia to a wild star-studded ticker-tape parade through downtown Wellington was a unique thrill. Carlene keenly recalls the uplifting energy: “Wellington reminded me of the beautiful San Francisco Bay Area. A lovely windswept, cosmopolitan city perched on the edge of a bay. The people couldn’t be nicer. And let me just state for a minute how well we were treated by EVERYONE. I mean Ringers is a very small film. On a very small budget. We were staying in youth hostels and dining on the cheap with picnic lunches and so forth, yet we were treated like ROCK STARS by Village Roadshow — New Line Cinema’s Australasia Distributor. Many more people involved in the films went out of their way to be so nice to us. We were not even asking and things were being offered. It was very special. I’d like to think that everyone just got into the “spirit” of Tolkien and realized that what we’re all doing is for the love of this story.”
Peter Jackson, Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, and many others were asked the most difficult questions. “Rings” co-screenwriter Philippa Boyens touched a chord with the whole room as she reflected on the books’ longevity. But the real star of Jackson’s movies is the countryside of New Zealand itself. “Breathtaking” is the only word fit to describe the South Island — where RINGERS shadowed a special tour bus of fans on a pilgrimage to visit the actual shooting locations. The journey to Middle-earth was complete, but a full year of post-production work was yet to commence.
The heartbeat of RINGERS is in its Rock soundtrack, and the director wanted nothing less than wall-to-wall music. As Arnaud carefully edited to the rhythm of Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On” and RUSH’s “Rivendell” an entirely new sound was being created across town. Three classic songs from the 1970s Rankin/Bass animated The Hobbit and The Return of the King were given a vibrant new-rock spin by indie bands Arlo and World Without Sundays and the striking Australian singer Greta Gertler. The extremely talented drummer/composer Robin DiMaggio scored the film — creating a chain of musical styles going all the way from jazz to folk to grinding psychedelia and a healthy dose of rock.
RINGERS spent 21 months shooting on three continents — in 16 major world cities. As editor, Arnaud Gerardy’s task was to reign in over 150 hours of taped footage and interviews, waiting patiently for Carlene and Cliff to finalize the script. It was a gargantuan effort; and the writers delivered one segment at a time. The film soon took shape as five decades of popular culture were condensed into 95 minutes. Dominic Monaghan (Merry Brandybuck) was delighted to step up as narrator, providing his own gregarious energy and love — he is a natural born storyteller. Soon Executive Producer Tom DeSanto came on board, bringing his passion for fantasy and business acumen to help the project find the best possible audience.
RINGERS: LORD OF THE FANS will make its World Premiere at the Slamdance Film Festival in January 2005. With little else besides love, goodwill, and years of dedication bringing it all together, the film serves as a remarkable dénouement to the past 50 years of the worldwide following of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.”
Much too hasty,
RINGERS Producer/ Writer/ Interviewer