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Catching Up With Mark Ordesky

TheOneRing.net is happy to announce that this September, to celebrate the birthdays of Bilbo and Frodo, we will be releasing a digital book all about The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films. For this project, we interviewed many of the people responsible for these blockbusters, including Mark Ordesky, executive producer of the LOTR movies. With Ordesky’s new series, The Quest, premiering this Thursday, July 31 at 8/7c on ABC in North America, we thought it would be fun to share with you a sample from the book, Ordesky’s tell-all interview where he explains how he became involved with The Lord of the Rings, why he left New Line Cinema, and how his time working on the LOTR films inspired his new television series.

Catching Up With Mark Ordesky
By J.W. Braun

Mark Ordesky will never forget the day he was told he would be a production executive for The Lord of the Rings movies. “My boss, [New Line Cinema founder] Bob Shaye, said to me, ‘Listen, Peter Jackson is your friend. He slept on your couch. You love the The Lord of the Rings. So you’re going to be the canary in the mine.’”

ordesky1.jpgBorn in Sacramento County in 1963, Ordesky fell in love with fantasy at a young age. “I was introduced to Dungeons & Dragons in the 1970s when finishing elementary school,” he tells TheOneRing.net, “and like so many others, I took to it immediately and passionately. A friend I played with gave me a box of books: required reading. Really! In that box were The Chronicles of Narnia, The Chronicles of Amber, the Robert E. Howard Conan stories, the Eternal Champion books, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. That was about when the Rankin/Bass version of The Hobbit was on television, followed by Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings film in theaters. I remember just finishing up the books about the same time I saw those movies and how much fun it all was.I really became a fantasy fanatic. By high school, I was Dungeon Master of my own ambitious Dungeons & Dragons games with my brother Joel and a group of our best pals. That campaign lasted throughout high school, college, and slightly beyond. They were great times, and it was really wonderful to sustain and grow a gaming world for so long with the same core group of best friends. To this day, we reunite in San Francisco every summer.”

Unfortunately, Ordesky was unable to major in “dragon slaying” in college. So while attending the University of Southern California, he pursued his interest in journalism before switching gears. “In 1985, I was completing my print journalism degree, was editor of the university newspaper, had interned at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and Los Angeles Times… but nonetheless felt being a professional journalist might not be the right direction. It was during this time that I wrote a short story for a creative writing class. It was about (big surprise) a naïve, idealistic student journalist investigating a campus murder alongside a grizzled, cynical professional journalist. Through an unexpected series of fortunate circumstances more likely to happen in Los Angeles than anywhere else, my short story got put in development at Columbia Pictures’ Tri-Star movie unit, with Matthew Broderick considered to play the student journalist character based on me. Like many development projects in Hollywood, the movie never materialized. But this turn of events created an opportunity to learn the ropes of script analysis and to become part of the film industry. And during this period, I realized that my real skill was recognizing talented people and movies and advocating for them.”

Ordesky began working for Republic Pictures, an independent film corporation that had made hundreds of B movies throughout the Golden Age of Hollywood. In the 1980s, with cable television and the videocassette rental market emerging, the company was reinventing itself.

“I did home video acquisitions,” Ordesky recalls. “I used to watch a bag full of videocassette movies every weekend, driving my then fiancée crazy. Around 1987 there was a video sent to me by the New Zealand Film Commission for consideration as a U.S. acquisition. I really, really dug the film. I was totally gobsmacked by it. It was just audacious and bold and clever, and so distinctive. It was called Bad Taste, and it was directed by a guy named Peter Jackson.”

Starting off as side project in 1983 while Jackson, then 22 years old, was working for his local newspaper, Bad Taste (or Roast of the Day as it originally was called) was supposed to be a ten to fifteen minute short starring Jackson and his friends about a door-to-door money collector and his encounter with aliens. But what started as a hobby kept becoming more ambitious, and by the time he had finished in 1987, Jackson had a ninety-two minute “feature.”

“Unfortunately,” Ordesky recalls, “I was not able to convince my bosses at Republic Pictures to let me license the distribution rights. They thought I was crazy for wanting to buy this ‘foreign’ film about flesh eating aliens from outer space attacking New Zealand. But I told myself that this was a director to keep an eye on. Then I moved from Republic Pictures to New Line Cinema in 1988 to be a story editor, which basically meant that I was a junior executive. One of the first things I did was to write Saul Zaentz, inquiring about the movie rights to The Lord of the Rings. The correspondence went unanswered, which didn’t surprise me as a newbie junior executive writing a multiple Best Picture winner!”

At about that time, New Line Cinema was preparing to make The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, and Ordesky put Jackson’s name forth as a possible director. Ultimately, Jeff Burr was chosen, but not long after, Jackson was paging through a copy of Fangoria magazine when he came across his name as one of the directors passed over for the project. Not yet 30 years old and having completed only two low-budget features (one of which hadn’t been distributed yet), Jackson was stunned to see his name in an American magazine.

“By that time,” Ordesky explains, “Peter had finished a movie called Meet the Feebles. Then he made another film, Braindead. And just like Bad Taste, I tried to license those. Again it didn’t work out. But I did talk about him enough that I was able to persuade my superiors that we should hire Peter to do a screenplay draft of A Nightmare on Elm Street, which would have been Part 6, had it been made.”

ordesky2The Nightmare franchise, featuring Freddy Krueger, was New Line’s crown jewel.  After Freddy’s introduction in 1984, New Line released a Nightmare film every year for the remainder of the decade, with the exception of 1987. But going into the ‘90s, New Line executives felt the franchise was losing steam and needed new ideas. Jackson came up with a story about a police officer falling into a coma and becoming trapped in Freddy’s nightmare world. When Jackson came to Los Angeles to discuss it with New Line, he was able to meet with Ordesky professionally – and personally. “Peter crashed on my couch at one point, and I introduced him to Risk. That was the only time I ever beat him. Once he learned the game, I never beat him again. He was just too good a strategist. But the thing was, there was another Nightmare script in development by someone else at that time, because we were always commissioning Nightmare on Elm Street scripts. (We figured if we didn’t use yours for Part 6, it might be Part 7 or Part 8.) So there was simultaneous development, and while Peter presented an amazing script, Bob Shaye went with the other. But it was fun to work with Peter and to have him in my ratty apartment with all my Dungeons & Dragons paraphernalia and my Frank Frazetta posters and so forth. And it did get Peter his first Hollywood paycheck.”

As the ‘90s rolled on, New Line Cinema scored a number of hits, such as The Mask, Dumb and Dumber, Austin Powers, and Ordesky’s Rumble in the Bronx; all of which stepped away from conventional Hollywood formulas and stayed with the changing popular culture while other studios lagged behind.

“At New Line, we couldn’t make traditional star-driven films. We were not a company that was going to get access to Tom Cruise. The star-driven vehicles were going to go to Paramount, or Warner Bros., or one of the more traditional studios before us. So Mike De Luca, who was president of production during the time of nearly all the hits you’re describing, realized that what you needed to do if you didn’t have giant movie stars to create opening weekends was to be right on the leading edge of pop culture. You needed to know what motivated audiences apart from just the traditional elements. He used to say, ‘We can’t afford stars. We need to create stars.’ And the way you did that was you take a new or distinctive idea, and give [it] to talented people so that it [becomes] greater than the sum of its parts. So it’s not a coincidence: all those hit New Line movies were left of center, the sort of films and franchises that fit into our model.”

Meanwhile, Peter Jackson had a breakthrough film in 1994 with Heavenly Creatures, for which he and his partner, Fran Walsh, were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. The film caught the attention of Miramax, a studio that acquired it for distribution and signed Jackson to a deal giving them a first look at anything he was developing. The next year, when he proposed adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s books into movies, Miramax obtained an option to make the films and set the project in motion.

“I knew they were developing it,” Ordesky says. “I was immensely jealous and crestfallen that it was happening without me, and that it was happening with Peter without me. But there was nothing to be done about it, so I just sort of thought to myself, ‘At least I’ll get to see these cool films be made.’”

Meanwhile, Ordesky kept busy. “At the time, I had made a pivot to acquiring finished films and was running Fine Line Features. I’d go to the film festivals like Sundance to go after art house films and compete against Miramax and a number of other companies to acquire them. So that put me in a realm of dealing with a lot of auteur, singular vision filmmakers; people like Peter, who were not traditional. And I dealt with a lot of international filmmakers, which ended up being my thing.”

TORNMMUnknown to Ordesky, things were not going well between Jackson and Miramax. Initially, they had decided to make two Lord of the Rings films, possibly to be followed by one Hobbit movie. But Jackson’s vision was too expensive for the studio, and he was unwilling to compromise. By 1998, with anger building on both sides, Miramax and Jackson finally agreed that it wasn’t in their best interests to continue working together, and the studio gave Jackson an ultimatum: he had to find another studio to buy out the project or get out of the way so new writers and a different director could be brought in to do the films the way Miramax wanted. Jackson was given just four weeks to find a new backer. Knowing he was on the brink of losing the project, Jackson knew he needed someone at a studio who understood The Lord of the Rings, who would believe in him, and who was willing to make a film against the conventional wisdom of Hollywood.

“I was going about my business when my phone rang,” Ordesky recalls, “and Peter told me about his struggle and what was going on. He and his agent were sending out packages to all the studios to see if anyone was interested, and he had an in-room presentation he was preparing for anyone who responded. I remember him saying, ‘We have a small window, Mark, but it’s our chance! A chance for us to make a movie together!’”

It was, of course, a calculated move on Jackson’s part. Like a master Risk player, he was avoiding the more conventional strategy of having his agent submit a request to New Line’s chairmen and instead trying to make inroads underneath.

“I think he thought that I was a bit nuts and that I’d do anything to get this done,” Ordesky says. “And he was right.”

By the time a meeting was set up between Jackson and New Line, the other major studios had already declined. They considered the idea of making two films costing hundreds of millions of dollars too great of a risk – particularly with an unproven director at the helm.

“Looking back on it,” reflects Ordesky, “I personally feel that I had more information than everyone else. I didn’t see it as risky or foolish, partially because at that point I’d been at New Line long enough that I really sensed that this was an absolute fit. And I knew Peter Jackson probably better than most of Hollywood. I knew him as an artist. I knew him as a human being. I knew him from the point of view of character and stamina and ambition. And when we had the big meeting with [New Line founder and co-chairman] Bob Shaye, I was incredibly hopeful and enthusiastic that we would have a good result. But Bob, a very successful filmmaker and businessman, is very hard to read, and it was not immediately evident throughout the course of the meeting how it was going. But then Bob asked, ‘Well wait a minute, there’s three books, why are you proposing making two films? Shouldn’t you be making three films of three books?’ It was then I knew there was a real shot.”

In fact, New Line was having a big problem developing sequels to their successful films, such as Dumb and Dumber and The Mask. One solution to the problem was to plan multiple films at once, an idea that was floated for The Foundation Trilogy (based on the books by Isaac Asimov) only to have the project fall apart and the option lapse, leaving New Line with nothing but bills. It was at that point that Shaye stepped into his meeting with Jackson and began to realize the strategy might work with a different set of books.

“The meeting ended, as most of these meetings end, with ‘Thank you, we’ll consider this and come back to you,’” Ordesky recalls. “Bob wanted to speak to Michael Lynne and the other members of senior staff.  And we talked about what we thought of the idea. For me it was pure belief and advocacy. All I wanted was to see the films happen. So I was making a case for Peter. I was making a case for the fantasy genre. I was making a case for The Lord of the Rings specifically, and particularly as a fit for New Line. The Lord of the Rings was a branded property, but in a genre that Hollywood had ill-served and somewhat neglected. Rings had a worldwide, multi-generational fan base, but also a super motivated core of fans for whom the stories were beloved. And then there was the sequel issue. We were all very conscious of the fact that New Line had had trouble making sequels, most notably to its Jim Carrey movies. I made the point that even in a two film version of Rings, let alone a three film version, one would have the advantage of making the sequels in advance. There would no struggle to assemble sequels in terms of deal-making or talent availability. Given New Line’s circumstances, that was a persuasive point to make. Yes, nobody had ever made three films like Rings before. People had made two movies back to back as successful sequels to a prior hit, but nobody had made three films where you were making two sequels in advance: essentially one epic 11-hour film, where you were frontloading the production schedule with material from the first film. But there were also great advantages to it. Economies of scale. If there was some remote location that was featured in more than one of the three films, you could visit that location just that once. Obviously there were great challenges and production and creative issues that had never been faced before, but on the other hand there was this amazing business opportunity to create unprecedented production efficiencies as well.”

At this point, it’s probably not necessary to say that Mr. Ordesky had drive and determination. But it was also right around this time a giant mistake taught him a lesson that sealed his commitment to The Lord of the Rings.

“Soon after the meeting with Peter, I was one of three acquisition executives bidding for The Blair Witch Project at Sundance, and I second-guessed myself and let it get away.” The film was acquired by Artisan Entertainment for $1 million. It went on to gross $248 million at the box office. “It was a devastating mistake. It nearly cost me my operational autonomy at New Line. And I realized something profound, not just about the movie industry but about life. There are very few times when you possess real personal conviction. So when you’re fortunate enough to have it, I think you have a responsibility to see it through no matter what. I let The Blair Witch get away because I ignored my initial conviction, and I remember as The Lord of the Rings was preparing to formally move ahead, and it was seen as such a big gamble, I thought to myself, ‘No matter what happens, I am not going to make the mistake I made with The Blair Witch on The Lord of the Rings. Because I have a conviction about this. It’s from my childhood, I know it’s right for me. It’s right for New Line, and the re-ascendancy of the fantasy genre is nigh.’ (Remember that Harry Potter was on a parallel track with Rings at the time.) I vowed: ‘I’m not going to let this opportunity get away, even if it costs me my entire career.’”

When the deal between Miramax and New Line was finalized, and Frodo Baggins had a new home, Ordesky was thrilled. But it turned out to be just the beginning.

“Bob said, ‘We want to try to make this happen.’ And that’s when he told me I was going to work on the films in New Zealand. He said, ‘Peter is your friend. You’ve always pushed for him. You read The Lord of the Rings when you were a kid. So you’re going to be the canary in the mine.’ At that time, I had heard the expression, but I didn’t really fully know what it meant. Growing up in Southern California, it didn’t resonate with me the way it might have. And I was surprised to be trusted with this opportunity. It was one thing to advocate the films, another to manage them. At that point in my career at New Line, I think the most expensive film I’d supervised was probably $6 million, and then they put me on this $270 million dollar film as a production executive! Then again, this really goes to the heart of New Line’s corporate culture, which was amazing. There was a real value on pride of ownership. That if you felt the sense of ownership in something, you would work harder and smarter and better – as opposed to something that was an assigned task. So at New Line, if you brought something in and advocated it, you would most likely see it through to the finish.”

The first order of business was to figure exactly what kind of project this would be. “We had agreed the films would be made in New Zealand as Peter intended. I think New Line assumed they would be three movies of roughly two hours each, give or take. Peter has famously said, ‘The right length for a film is the right length.’ There was an initial thought that maybe the release dates would be six months apart. But after discussions, and when we all got into how the films were actually going to be made, everyone came to the conclusion that releasing one year apart was the right way to go about it. As the films expanded in scope and ambition, it also became apparent that we needed someone with a lot of experience doing big budget films in overseas locations. That meant Barrie Osborne, known for his contribution to successes like Apocalypse Now, The Matrix, and Baz’s The Great Gatsby. He met with Peter in Wellington, and the deal was sealed.”

Meanwhile, Ordesky finally had the chance to meet Saul Zaentz, who still owned the film rights to The Lord of the Rings. “I first met him in 1999. As production continued, I saw him at least once a year and got to spend a fair bit of time with him, which I thought was great considering I’d sent him that letter he never answered in 1988! One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest [from 1975] is still one of my top five films of all time. I admired the way he navigated Hollywood on his own terms. He was not afraid of a fight. In 2013 when I heard he was ill, I reached out to him again, but he was too ill to speak by then. It would have been lovely to speak to him one last time, but I was fortunate to be able to spend the time with him that I did.”

Zaentz died in 2014 at the age of 92 on J.R.R. Tolkien’s 122nd birthday (January 3).

Back in the middle of 1999 (summer for Los Angeles and winter for New Zealand), The Lord of the Rings project was preparing to transition from pre-production to principal photography, and Ordesky had thousands of details to oversee.

“Bob Shaye used to jokingly refer to me as the translator, because not everyone at New Line was as steeped in Tolkien or The Lord of the Rings as I was. Whenever you have a big franchise movie, particularly one being made far away, it was important for me to make sure the studio was getting what it bargained for and that the filmmakers were getting all they needed. In the early days, casting was obviously a big priority. There were so many primary roles to cast. And most of them wouldn’t be cast with stars, so there was a wide-ranging process. There was casting explorations in New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Peter would inevitably narrow it down to anywhere from five and ten actors whom he favored for a given role, one a favorite, and it was my job to show those people to the powers that be at New Line and get Peter’s choices approved. That was incredibly energizing and was one of the big, first creative endeavors I undertook on behalf of the filmmakers.”

One piece of casting proved problematic.

“Stuart Townsend was someone that Peter really wanted for Aragorn. He had a vision for Stuart, and New Line chose to support it. Like most of the other lead actors, Stuart went down to New Zealand well before filming for horse training, sword training, language coaching; whatever he’d need to help play his character. And it was toward the end of that process, as principal photography neared, that Peter realized Stuart wasn’t the ideal match for the part. I was in London when I got the call that we were parting ways with Stuart. And Peter rang me and said, ‘We need new ideas.’ Now you have to realize, the film was scheduled to shoot in a week! This was very last minute. I remember being flipped out, wondering, ‘how are we possibly going to recast the role so quickly?’ And I wrote three names on a piece of paper: Russell Crowe, Jason Patric, and Viggo Mortensen. I had met Viggo some years before. My assistant at New Line, Jackie Tepper, would push me whenever she saw actors she thought I should know. And she flagged Viggo back in the days of Indian Runner and The Hunt for Red October.

(Interestingly, Mortensen, before becoming known, was also in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, the one Ordesky wanted Jackson to direct.)

“And so, well before The Lord of the Rings,” Ordesky continues, “I ended up having a meeting with Viggo. He’s not really a guy for taking meetings. He’s a wonderfully non-Hollywood guy. But somehow my assistant, through her persistence, convinced Viggo’s manager that we should have Hollywood lunch. And he was incredibly polite and gracious. He told me he was Danish, and I found out the town where his family originated translated into English as ‘Ring-town’. Because I was such a fan of The Lord of the Rings, that stuck in my brain. Years later in that London hotel room, I thought back to that and thought he would be worthy of playing Aragorn. Turns out that Peter, Fran, and Philippa were already ahead of me as Viggo was on their lists too.”

Mortensen, who enjoys his camping trips, wasn’t the easiest actor to reach. But the casting director made contact with his agent, and it didn’t take long to get an answer (which is probably because the filmmakers made it clear they didn’t have very long to wait for one). Ordesky recounts: “His manager told him, ‘you need to read this script, and if you like it, you need to be on a plane in 48 hours to New Zealand.’ As it turns out, Viggo’s son Henry had been reading The Lord of the Rings, which was a wonderful bit of serendipity. And Viggo, like most great actors, liked to take on roles that frightened or challenged him in some respect, so he came on board. And throughout the shooting we became good friends.”

Any film project has its difficulties, but with three and a half years of shooting, with up to seven units going simultaneously, the complexity of The Lord of the Rings shoot was mind-boggling. And that doesn’t even factor in the availability of the actors and the crazy New Zealand weather throwing a wrench into the best-laid plans.

“It’s like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle on a moving table when someone’s always hiding the piece you need,” Ordesky explains. “There are always these crazy variables. That’s part of the challenge, and that’s part of the satisfaction.”

Throughout the project, Ordesky flew back and forth between Los Angeles and New Zealand over thirty times, but as time went on he found himself in New Zealand most of the time.

“Relationships are always best in person. And if you’re really going contribute and be helpful, you have to be present. New Line wanted me in New Zealand so they could hold me responsible and have trusted insights into the production. And there were always heaps to do. From the sublime to the ridiculous: I can remember one time running around the set trying to get the actors to approve their Burger King toy visages,” he says with a chuckle. “My only regret is that we shot in so many amazing New Zealand locations, all these amazing, natural places, and I missed a lot of them because I was usually dealing with stuff in Wellington. But the locations I did see were spectacular. The natural beauty of New Zealand is no special effect. It was great to see how that manifested in the films.”

Meanwhile, the world around Ordesky was continuing to evolve and change. In the past, films – especially those made in remote locations – could be made with relative secrecy, with the studio carefully releasing information for publicity purposes as it saw fit. In the 1990s, that began to change, with websites (like that shady site, TheOneRing.net) sending spies to production to take photos and post reports which were instantly available to everyone. (The Lord of the Rings filmmakers had a special disadvantage: Tolkien fans knew their story nearly scene for scene!) It was a new issue for studios, and many didn’t know how to deal with it. Some engaged in squabbles with fansites. New Line’s Senior Vice President of Interactive Marketing, Gordon Paddison, took a different approach.

“Gordon was a real groundbreaker,” Ordesky recalls. “He embraced the internet as a community-building marketing tool. I remember him walking me through how we were going to engage the fansites like TheOneRing.net. And I can remember thinking how cool it was, because the films were by fans for fans. Me, Peter, Fran, Philippa, a lot of the actors as well – we were all fans – and the Internet offered an open architecture for communication. And Peter was answering the fans’ questions on the websites even before production. He’s continued to interact with the fans on every film he makes. For me, it was great to have the feeling that you were among the fans while you were making the films.”

And then there was a revolution in technology of a different sort. When New Line had acquired The Lord of the Rings from Miramax, we lived in a world of VCRs and LaserDiscs. By the time The Fellowship of the Ring was released, the DVD market was exploding.

“I didn’t really think about it as it was happening,” Ordesky admits, “because when you’re making a movie, you’re really only thinking about making the movie. But during the process of having to cull The Fellowship of the Ring down from four hours to three hours for the theatrical version, it was really sad that an hour’s worth of great material was not going to be seen. And certainly a lot of those scenes would be out of place in The Two Towers and The Return of the King. If they weren’t in The Fellowship of the Ring, they wouldn’t be able to live correctly in one of the subsequent films, and so the idea of an extended DVD was something Peter really took to, because it was a way to honor the work and give the audience a whole deeper experience in home entertainment. It made the decisions of losing material a lot less painful if you knew that those scenes – the ones that Peter felt warranted it – could live on in the extended versions. So we had that, plus the wonderfully thorough behind the scenes documentation of the movies. And the DVD sales and rentals ended up giving New Line a huge additional revenue boost that likely wasn’t anticipated at the beginning of the project.”

The DVDs also made people like Ordesky, who were just names in the credits back in the videocassette age, more visible: giving them a forum to talk about their work and giving the fans a greater appreciation for what they did. Suddenly Ordesky went from another face in the crowd to someone Tolkien fans began to recognize. “It was surprising,” he recalls. “The first time I was asked for an autograph I actually looked over my shoulder, wondering, ‘Is Sean Bean behind me? Is Viggo behind me?’ Then I turned back to these two fans and accidentally said aloud what I was thinking: ‘You don’t want my autograph.’ I thought they were confused. But they said, “No, we absolutely want your autograph, because you’re us! You’re a fan. You played Dungeons & Dragons, you played video games, and you helped make this happen.’ I was hugely moved by that. It’s one thing to think about doing something for the fans in abstract terms, but this made it personal and powerful.”

In the end, Ordesky enjoyed the films as much as the fans. “My favorite moments in the films are a lot of the same ones that move me most when reading the books. The hobbits facing the Nazgûl at Weathertop, the loss of Gandalf in Fellowship, the defense/victory at Helm’s Deep and Aragorn’s courage in The Two Towers, and Sam carrying Frodo up the side of Mount Doom in The Return of the King. But there are many dozens more moments that I love just as dearly. They’re such wonderful books, and they’re such wonderful films. To be able to work on The Lord of the Rings is more than would be reasonable to expect in a hundred careers. It was born of my childhood fascination with Tolkien, with Dungeons & Dragons, with all those fantasy books I was reading back in the ‘70s, and to channel that into my passion for Peter Jackson and his team in New Zealand that I got to know in the ‘80s, and see those two things synthesized into something like The Lord of the Rings movies, it’s something for which I’m very grateful. Anything more at this point is a bonus. I live in bonus time.”

With the success of The Lord of the Rings, fans began to speculate that The Hobbit would follow. But that was easier said than done. “There was an issue with the film rights to The Hobbit, which were fragmented and in multiple hands. Then there was a dispute between New Line Cinema and Peter Jackson’s company, Wingnut Films, regarding issues of monies owed, and it’s hard to proceed making movies together when you’re in that sort of situation. Those complications kept pushing The Hobbit further down the road, and there were moments when we all thought The Hobbit just might not happen at all. It just seemed so challenging and complicated.”

Meanwhile, Ordesky became involved with New Line’s next big fantasy project, The Golden Compass, a film based on the book of the same name (also called Northern Lights in some regions), the first of a trilogy of books by Philip Pullman collectively called His Dark Materials.

“New Line was looking for another literary-based fantasy franchise, and Ileen Maisel, New Line’s head of European production, had found the books and knew their author. New Line decided to proceed with the first film from the first book, and I was invited to work on it with Ileen because of my visual effects experience and my experience working on big budget movies overseas. I didn’t have the same ownership on Compass as I did on The Lord of the Rings. It was Ileen’s discovery. But I lived in the U.K. for the better part of a year, and it was wonderful to work on the film.”

While in England, there were some developments with The Hobbit film project that put Ordesky in a difficult position.

“New Line’s option for The Hobbit, which came along with the acquisition of the option for The Lord of the Rings, had a time limit, and so we needed to either move forward with the project or lose it. At the time, there was still a dispute between Peter and New Line. So I was asked by the management at New Line to communicate to Peter’s representatives that New Line was going to proceed on The Hobbit without him. I felt hugely conflicted. I didn’t want to make the call. I knew that New Line couldn’t be persuaded out of this course of action. The decision had been made. But I knew the call would be hurtful, and I felt disloyal to Peter making it. At the same time, I was a New Line employee, and my bosses were asking me to do it, so I wrestled with myself. Do I do what I’ve been asked and make the call?  Or do I not make the call, because I have a friendship and history with Peter, and I feel like I’m betraying him? Ultimately I reluctantly made the call to Ken Kamins, Peter’s manager. It was unbelievably painful. When I’d finished, I immediately wished I hadn’t. To this day I wish I hadn’t, because looking back, that information could have been communicated to Peter another way. I could have said no and kept my integrity. When the news broke the next day, I took a lot of grief, as I was woven into the narrative about how the news had been shared; which was completely reasonable since I had made the call. I deserved the grief. That’s why I’m glad you asked me about this, because I’ve always wanted to share my feelings about the incident, and it’ll be great to have it on the record. It’s something I regret, even though my relationship with Peter recovered.”

In 2007 The Golden Compass was released. While it went on to succeed at the box office internationally, it did not perform well in the United States.

Compass was a challenging movie to market in the United States. Part of the struggle was that the books, like their author, take a very distinct perspective about institutional authority and power. There was likely a smarter way for New Line to get out in front of the issue earlier in the film’s life cycle. The film grossed 300 million dollars outside the United States which is sizable, but it only grossed about $70 million in the U.S. Same film, different markets and marketing.”

While in the United Kingdom, Ordesky also helped produce another fantasy film, Inkheart, based on the book of the same name by Cornelia Funke. After that, he returned home to a studio in transition.

“By the time I got back to Los Angeles, it became apparent that Time Warner, the parent of both New Line and Warner Bros. (and so much else) was concerned about having duplicate movie studios both with their own distribution systems. They thought it was one thing for both companies to make movies, but in the matter of distribution there was a question of duplication of effort, overhead, and costs. Ultimately, the decision was made by Time Warner to change New Line into a production division of Warner Bros. As New Line was being downsized, my contract expired. At the time, there was still uncertainty surrounding The Hobbit, and I knew the folks at Warner Bros. and ‘New Line 2.0’ wanted to supervise The Hobbit films themselves. So I thought,‘If there was ever a time to start my own company, this would be it.’ It was still bittersweet because I wasn’t going to get to work on The Hobbit. And there was the secondary issue of whether The Hobbit films would happen at all with everything going on. I obviously wanted them to happen, because I wanted to see those stories told to complete the journey, literally there and back again. So I was happy to see the disputes resolve.”

After leaving New Line, Ordesky, along with former New Line executive Jane Fleming, founded a media company called Court Five to produce films and television. In 2014 they produced The Quest for ABC, a fantasy-based competitive reality show [which will premier this Thursday, July 31, 2014 on ABC in North America].

ordesky3“The seeds of The Quest were really planted in 1999 when we were in preproduction for The Lord of the Rings. You had the actors traveling to New Zealand early for horse training, sword training, and archery training and so on, so they would look natural and confident and skilled. Back then we’d get videotape updates in Los Angeles, and Jane and I would watch in my L.A. office, and she’d say, ‘You know, it’s not fair. I’d like to go to archery camp, horse camp, and sword camp. That would be so cool!’ And then we thought, ‘wouldn’t everyone want to?’ So cut to years later, and we have our own company, and someone pitches us a reality TV show in the LARPing space [live action role-playing]. And when the conversation was over, Jane turned to me and said, ‘You know what that reminds me of? It reminds me of those old video tapes.’ And we thought about taking twelve real people with a passion for fantasy films/literature/gaming, people with a desire to transcend their everyday lives, and give them the opportunity to compete to save a besieged kingdom in an immersive fantasy environment. To do it we utilized an amazing, real castle location, 3D projections, animatronics, prosthetics, production design, and a cast of scripted actors gifted at improv. One of the contestants emerges from the competition the ‘One True Hero’ by overcoming challenges and eliminations conceived and designed to sync with an unfolding scripted narrative. But the contestant experience is real-time reality television. We developed it for four years with the creators and executive producers of The Amazing Race and Queer Eye. (A lot of people have described the show as ‘The Amazing Race: Middle-earth’.) We pitched it to the networks, and it made sense for ABC. They were having success with Once Upon A Time, and even though we didn’t conceive it this way, you can see from their perspective where they saw it as complimentary programming. We’re very proud of it.”

Meanwhile, Ordesky has been able to enjoy The Hobbit movies as a regular fan. “I saw the first film three times. I saw it in Los Angeles at the normal frame rate, because I wanted to match the film with my own visual recollection of how The Lord of the Rings looked. Then I saw it at the high frame rate, because that was the way Peter intended for it to be seen. And then I was in New Zealand with my wife’s family, and I went to a cinema there to see the film for the third time – which felt like it completed my journey. Like I closed the circle. And I wrote that to Peter and Fran. I said how grateful I was that I was able to experience the film as a fan with no other expectation of what was going to happen than my recollection of the book and my own excited hopes.”

When he thinks back to 1998 and the beginning of his days with The Lord of the Rings, Ordesky can’t help but remember his boss telling him he was going to be the canary in the mine. “I didn’t really know what the expression meant, so I looked it up and realized it was a coal mining expression. And many years later, on the other side of it, I thought to myself that maybe I wasn’t the canary in the coal mine. Maybe I was the canary in the gold mine.”

Posted in Lord of the Rings, LotR Movies, LotR Production, New Line Cinema, New Zealand, Television, TheOneRing.net Announcements

Looking Back at Hobbit Dates

Whether you’re man, beast or a mountain, time stands still for no one, and we are only here for a brief moment enjoying our small fraction of eternity. Yesterday marked the official release of the second Hobbit movie, and it stands as one of several important dates in Hobbit history. It’s reminiscent of December 14, 2012, the date An Unexpected Journey finally opened for most of the world. (That was a Friday also.) And what of November 27, 1977? That was the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and it was the first day people could finally see a movie based on one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s books: an animated adaptation of The Hobbit. January 3, 1951 is a lesser recognized date, but it was then that the second edition of The Hobbit became available – the one with the updated “Riddles in the Dark” chapter that brings the book in line with The Lord of the Rings. And finally, there’s September 21, 1937, a Tuesday. That’s when The Hobbit was first published and this whole adventure began. I thought it would be fun to look back through the years through the eyes of these dates, and so here now is my little time capsule:

World Population:

September 1937: 2.2 billion
January 1951: 2.6 billion
November 1977: 4.3 billion
December 2012: 7 billion
December 2013: 7.1 billion

These are, of course, estimates. And it was especially ridiculous to talk about the “sixth billionth” or “seventh billionth” baby, since the number of people in the world, due to deaths and births, is a fluid number always bouncing around. But it is said that somewhere in the world, a woman is giving birth every second. (Personally, I think we should find this woman and stop her.)

Population of India

September 1937: 303 million
January 1951: 363 million
November 1977: 645 million
December 2012: 1.3 billion
December 2013: 1.4 billion

To put this in perspective, there are less than six million people in my home state of Wisconsin.

The Pope:

September 21, 1937: Pius XI
January 3, 1951: Pius XII
November 27, 1977: Paul VI
December 14, 2012: Benedict XVI
December 13, 2013: Francis

Interestingly, John Paul II became the pope in 1978 just before the animated Lord of the Rings movie was released and died in 2005 just after the extended edition of The Return of the King came out. So he’s our LOTR movie pope. (It’s also curious that Hobbit movies were made just before and just after his time as pope. Maybe there’s some spiritual significance to it all.)

Ages of Maury Laws, Christopher Lee, and Misao Okawa:

September 21, 1937: 13, 15 and 39 years old
January 3, 1951: 28, 29, and 52 years old
November 27, 1977: 53, 55, and 79 years old
December 14, 2012: 89, 90, and 114 years old
December 13, 2013: 90, 91, and 115 years old

Maury Laws was the music composer for the aforementioned animated Hobbit movie. (Laws did the music for most of the Rankin/Bass specials, including Rudolph the Red-nose Reindeer and the animated Return of the King.) Interestingly, he lives here in Wisconsin not far away from me, and I was able to catch up with him last month.

“I usually had about a month to score the background music for a film. The songs were written first. That was before the film was made. The action was animated to the music. First there was a script which I read. In a film the songs are part of the story and have to relate to the plot. I then worked with the lyricist to write the songs. I would go through the script with the director to decide where background music should be used. Animation has a lot of background music. An hour show would most likely have forty five minutes of music, including the songs. All the music had to be orchestrated and recorded to exactly the times it was written to. Making a film is very complicated and has several elements that have to work together. There is picture, dialogue, sound effects and music all mixed together in the last process of the production. Many people are involved.”

I mentioned to him that my favorite song of his was “Leave Tomorrow Till it Comes” from The Return of the King and he remembered it well. “I always thought it was a pretty good song,” he said. I shared with him this updated version and he enjoyed it, seeming genuinely touched to see how his music lives on. “When the shows first came out I used to always watch them. Now I don’t always watch. It’s fun sometimes to watch them again.”

As for Misao Okawa, she’s a Japanese woman who lives in Osaka. The interesting thing about Okawa is that she was born in the same decade as Professor Tolkien. To put it in perspective, she was 65 when John F. Kennedy was assassinated and almost 66 when the Beatles first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show – older than both Kennedy and Sullivan. Not to say she’s been around for a while, but in a few years she’ll be referring Elrond as a young whippersnapper.

World Leaders:

1937: FDR, Hitler, Chamberlain, Stalin
1951: Truman, Stalin, Attlee, St. Laurent
1977: Carter, Callaghan, Brezhnev, Trudeau
2012 & 2013: Obama, Harper, Putin, Cameron

Apparently when a landmark Hobbit day happens, we have to have a Democrat as President of the U.S.

The average cost of a movie ticket in the United States:

September 21, 1937: 23 cents
January 3, 1951: 47 cents
November 27, 1977: $2.23
December 14, 2012: $7.96
December 13, 2013: $8.30

The cost of a U.S. postage stamp:

September 21, 1937: 3 cents
January 3, 1951: 3 cents
November 27, 1977: 13 cents
December 14, 2012: 45 cents
December 13, 2013: 46 cents

Dow Jones Industrial Average:

September 21, 1937: 157
January 3, 1951: 239
November 27, 1977: 844
December 14, 2012: 13,135
December 13, 2013: 15,755

Average price of a gallon of gas in the U.S:

September 21, 1937: 20 cents
January 3, 1951: 27 cents
November 27, 1977: 62 cents
December 14, 2012: $3.38
December 13, 2013: $3.24

Believe it or not, a gallon of gas cost only about $1.15 in the U.S. on December 19, 2001 when The Fellowship of the Ring came out!

U.S. National Debt:

September 21, 1937: $37 billion
January 3, 1951: $255 billion
November 27, 1977: $718 billion
December 14, 2012: $16.3 trillion
December 13, 2013: $17.2 trillion

I hear that Minas Tirith had a surplus under King Elessar’s rule. But then that was a monarchy and he didn’t have to deal with Congress.

Films that just opened:

September 21, 1937: One Hundred Men and a Girl
January 3, 1951: King Solomon’s Mines
November 27, 1977: Close Encounters of the Third Kind
December 14, 2012: Hitchcock
November 22, 2013: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Films that will open next year: 

April 4, 2014: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
May 16, 2014: Godzilla
November 7, 2014: Interstellar
November 21, 2014: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay
December 17, 2014: The Hobbit: There and Back Again

Popular formats for buying music:

1937: 78 rpm records
1951: 78 rpm records
1977: 45 & 33 rpm records
2012 & 2013: Digital downloads

Hit Songs:

September 21, 1937: “One O’Clock Jump” (Count Basie)
January 3, 1951: “The Tennessee Waltz” (Patti Page)
November 27, 1977: “You Light Up My Life” (Debbie Boone)
December 14, 2012: “Diamonds” (Rihanna)
December 13, 2013: “Wrecking Ball” (Miley Cyrus)

TV Show Debuts:

Late 1937: “The Disorderly Room” (UK)
Early 1951: “What’s My Line”
Late 1977: “The Love Boat”
Late 2012: “Guys With Kids”
Late 2013: “Almost Human”

The American television industry had not yet taken off in the 1930s, but when The Hobbit was first published, Professor Tolkien could have watched several English shows, including “The Disorderly Room” (if he had had a television.) I’m not too sure he would have enjoyed “Guys With Kids” though.

Events:

September, 1937: The Chinese Revolutionary Army defeats the Japanese in the The Battle of Pingxingguan
January, 1951: Nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site begins
November, 1977: British Airways begins London to New York service aboard the supersonic Concorde
December 2012: A shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, United States, leaves 28 people dead, including 20 children.
December 2013: The China National Space Administration achieves Earth to Lunar transorbital insertion of their Chang’e 3 probe.

The Elementary School shooting happened the same day The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey came out in the United States.

Popular Baby Names:

1937: William, Donald, Mary, Betty
1951: Patrick, Russell, Sue, Linda
1977: Steven, Jeffrey, Amanda, Jennifer
2012 & 2013: Liam, Mason, Olivia, Ava

I’ve always found the change in the popularity of names to be an interesting area of study. If I were to say the names “Elmer” and “Mildred”, you’d think of a couple of grandparents; yet there was a time when these were new and hip baby names. It’s fascinating to look at how names come in and out of style, and what names become dated while others become timeless. (I think “Michael” is fairly safe.)

Deaths:

October 17, 1937: J. Bruce Ismay, managing director of Titanic and survivor of the sinking
November 2, 1950: George Bernard Shaw, Irish writer
December 18, 1977: Cyril Richard, voice of Elrond in the animated adaptation of The Hobbit
December 11, 2012: Ravi Shankar, Indian musician and friend of the Beatles
December 5, 2013: Nelson Mandela, South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, politician, and philanthropist

Hope you enjoyed!

- Celedor, December 14, 2013

Posted in Events, Miscellaneous

JW Reviews the New Hobbit Soundtrack

J.W. here. Today the second Hobbit soundtrack by Howard Shore has been released, which to me makes this day the equivalent of Christmas morning. As I said in my book, The Lord of the Films, I believe Shore’s music for The Lord of the Rings is the finest film score of all time. And the music for the first Hobbit movie? You can read my thoughts about that one here.

But now it’s time for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. And here is my track by track analysis for the Special Edition, with one asterisk indicating a track not available in the Standard Edition and two asterisks indicating a track that has been extended. As of this writing, I’ve not yet seen the film it scores. So away we go!

DISC 1

1. The Quest for Erebor (3:23)

Full of sadness and mystery, this track is reminiscent of the prologue music in the previous films and serves as somewhat an overture, introducing the main themes. It leads right into the next track…

2. Wilderland (4:56)

This could be called “The Quest for Erebor Part II”. It picks up the tempo in the second half, creating a sense of urgency and danger with its percussion driving the brass and strings. Definitely a good one!

3. A Necromancer (2:54) *

Descending broken thirds mean you know who. (Actually the familiar Sauron theme is buried within the texture here, though it peeks through the surface from time to time.) Obviously this is one of those evil themes, with rumbling brass and high strings being Shore’s music of choice for such occasions.

4. The House of Beorn (4:52) **

This low key and mysterious piece isn’t very memorable. It’s sort of “A Necromancer Part II”, with more of what we just heard in the previous track.

5. Mirkwood (5:31) **

Like the forest itself, this dark, creepy piece serves its title well, using a choral backing to set the mood. It’s sort of The Hobbit’s version of “The Paths of the Dead”.

6. Flies and Spiders (9:35) **

This one is very Star Wars like! It begins somewhat heartwarmingly before getting going, and then it’s like John Williams scoring a space battle, with the violins flying around their E strings and working the sixteenth notes. Curiously the Smaug motif appears here as well, brief but memorable. Overall, it’s one of the standout tracks of the album.

7. The Woodland Realm (5:15) **

This begins with the familiar choral backing we’ve come to associate with the Elves, with the texture reminiscent of Rivendell and Lothlórien but also new and different. It quickly becomes dark and dangerous, however, playing out even more creepy than Lothlórien, which suits the forest it is in.

8. Feast of Starlight (2:48)

Dark and somber, yet uplifting all the same, this piece is highlighted by solo woodwinds and a female voice. and is quite beautiful. It reminds me of “Aníron” from The Fellowship of the Ring. Curiously, the history of the Ring theme works its way into the end.

9. Barrels Out of Bond (1:50)

Full of staccato and anticipation, this little number is the audio equivileant of the question “What’s going to happen next?!” It doesn’t last long, but what’s here is exciting.

10. The Forest River (5:10) **

What happens next is a brisk tempo, with excitement in every note. This one is sure to be a crowd pleaser, with a spirit of adventure so bold, you could mistake it for the film’s climax. The piece builds throughout before a thrilling, percussive finale.

11. Bard, a Man of Lake-town (3:18) **

Somewhat anticlimactic after the last piece, this is dark and somber and pure filler.

12. The High Fells (3:38) **

The circular strings that introduce this piece create a lofty sense of anticipation before a creepy voice works its way in and out, creating a sense of mystery and suspense that’s heightened by tremolo strings. It’s not the most memorable piece, but it’s one of my favorites.

13. The Nature of Evil (3:20)

This is highly reminiscent of the black riders chasing Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring, with low rumbling evil themes and high strings that will make you scream, “Get orf the Road!” It picks up momentum as it continues and becomes jarring.

14. Protector of the Common Folk (3:37)

This lighter fare works its way into a little string jig. It comes across as a harmless, filler track.

DISC 2

1. Thrice Welcome (3:34)

This rhythmic piece works its way into the familiar chromatic theme from the Unexpected Party, though it mostly just dances around a new, short descending motif.

2. Girion, Lord of Dale (4:15) **

Dark and somber (like much of the album) there’s a majestic quality here that reminds me of the Argonath.

3. Durin’s Folk (3:04) **

A standout. Building into a force of Middle-earth, this piece features a rare use of distortion by Shore. With its boldness and self importance, you can almost see the Lonely Mountain as you listen to it.

4. In the Shadow of the Mountain (2:15)

This reflective (and short) piece starts off sprite and fun before getting dark and moody.

5. A Spell of Concealment (3:22) **

With screeching strings and a feeling of anticipation, there’s no mistaking this one for anything but a dangerous, evil piece. Sauron’s themes (including Barad-dûr) return in full force as the track works its way into a frenzy.

6. On the Doorstep (7:46)

As you can imagine, this track is filled with anticipation and wonder, though a lot of it is low key and mellow. Still, it’s quite pretty and one I could listen to over and over.

7. The Courage of Hobbits (3:00)

Beginning with the Shire motif, this gets dark and mysterious in a hurry, working in a chiming gamelan. This leads us to…

8. Inside Information (3:48)

… which begins with more of the same before working its way into the Smaug theme. The track is a marvel, unlike anything Shore has done in Middle-earth before and quite frankly knocked my hobbit shoes off. It weaves together its themes and instruments in a unique way to create a sense of awe and wonder.

9. Kingsfoil (2:25)

One of the few warm, heartlifting pieces, “Kingsfoil” includes a female voice and is quite comforting, a refuge from the more frightening pieces of the soundtrack.

10. A Liar and a Thief (3:41)

Returning to low brass and high strings, there’s no doubt what’s going on here: anger and rage building itself into a terror. Shore takes his time, not rushing a single note, and the result is JW ducking for cover by the end.

11. The Hunters (9:55) **

Combining several different themes, this pulse raising adventure track will go on my ipod in my workout playlist. Backed by a recurring percussive rhythm, the piece is full of suspense and danger.

12. Smaug (6:29) **

It’s curious that Tolkien didn’t use “Smaug” as a chapter title (opting instead for “Inside Information”). I realize he didn’t want to give away any of the story with the chapter list at the beginning of the book, but a Smaug chapter is a foregone conclusion from the beginning. Personally, I think “Smaug” as a title would have a simplistic beauty, like “Mount Doom” in Return of the King. Ah well, the soundtrack uses both titles!

This track is not quite as memorable as “Inside Information”, but gets going towards the end and builds towards something powerful, with percussion and voices in overdrive mode.

13. My Armor Is Iron (5:16)

This is just an extension of the previous track, with more of the same and a resolution. (Actually, I think I like this one more, because it’s more to the point.)

14. I See Fire (5:00)

Ed Sheeran sings this one well, but I can’t say I like the song as much as Neil Finn’s “Song of the Lonely Mountain”. (The fans on youtube sure like it, however, so what do I know?) It’s a fine song on its own (and lends itself to covers), but I’m not sure it makes me think “Hobbit”. It’s more bluesy than the other closing songs. Then again, I’m sure some people find it a nice change of pace.

15. Beyond the Forest (5:27)

Oh, this one is pretty. A female voice opens it up, and it develops into a somber run through of the film’s themes.

Closing Thoughts:

I must say that this album wasn’t what I was expecting. It’s better! It knew it would be darker than the first Hobbit soundtrack, but I didn’t think it would be so different and so rich. The Smaug theme, which recurs throughout, is the standout, perfectly capturing the awe and wonder of the dragon. But there’s something more. There’s a build and development in the music, almost like a story in itself, that is lacking in the first Hobbit soundtrack. By the latter half of the second disc, I’m listening not only to hear the beauty of the music, but to hear what happens next. There’s a sense of urgency and importance that I couldn’t turn away from. Is there some filler? Yes, particularly early. But overall, I couldn’t be more happy with what Shore has done here. Now I just have to see the movie!

Posted in Ed Sheeran, Hobbit Movie, Howard Shore, soundtrack, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Remembering C.S. Lewis

It should have been front page news, or at least worthy of a front page teaser: “Beloved author C.S. Lewis dies, details inside.” Today we might imagine that it was on the evening news, that newspapers around the world devoted a page to his life, and that fans around the world acknowledged the loss. But actually, it was barely mentioned, and most people took no notice.

It wasn’t because the media didn’t recognize his importance, or because people weren’t interested in him; it was because most people were distracted.

C.S. Lewis died, of all days, on November 22, 1963 – exactly fifty years ago today. Unfortunately, someone else died the same day. As the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy’s death was certainly more important historically. It was more shocking. It was more newsworthy. Indeed it was the news story of all news stories, and even today – especially today – people talk about where they were when they found out about it. (In fact, I just posted a video of my dad recounting what it was like to meet Kennedy and subsequently learn of his death.)

But let us not, whatever else happened fifty years ago, forget about C.S. Lewis. To me, the Inklings are the literary equivalent of the Beatles. They dismissed the stigma of their genre and encouraged each other to put together great works of art that are as imaginative, fresh, and exciting today as when they were written so many years ago. As a fan, it’s difficult to conceive of the void that would exist had they never filled it.

In a lot of ways, Lewis and Tolkien are the yin and yang of fantasy. Lewis liked to write quickly, allegorically, and did not like to edit his manuscripts. Tolkien, on the other hand, wrote slowly, methodically, and did as much editing as writing. And so it was that Lewis wrote all seven Narnia books inside of six years whereas Tolkien spent a whole decade and beyond working on The Lord of the Rings. The two sets of books are two different types of fantasy, but just as Star Trek and Star Wars can coexist, so can these great works of literature, each balancing out each other’s charm. The same can be said for Lewis and Tolkien, two great friends that were so different, yet so connected.

Today let’s remember C.S. Lewis and celebrate his life. He remains a great friend to many a reader, even fifty years after his passing, and his stories will continue to delight children for the next fifty years and beyond.

“I am sorry that I have not answered your letters sooner; but Jack Lewis’s death on the 22nd has preoccupied me. It is also involving me in some correspondence, as many people still regard me as one of his intimates. Alas! that ceased to be so some ten years ago. We were separated first by the sudden apparition of Charles Williams, and then by his marriage. Of which he never even told me; I learned of it long after the event. But we owed each a great debt to the other, and that tie with the deep affection that it begot, remains.” – J.R.R. Tolkien

Posted in Miscellaneous

10 Things You Know About The LOTR Movies (That Aren’t True)

If you’re like me, you love your Tolkien. You’ve read all his books, you’ve seen all the film adaptations, and you’ve got a restraining order against you saying you can’t get within 200 feet of Liv Tyler. But hey, even if you’re not exactly like me, as a fan of TheOneRing.net you’ve probably heard a lot of things about the making of The Lord of the Rings movies. You know that Gandalf hitting his head on the rafters of Bag End was really an on-set accident, and that Sean Astin cut his foot on a piece of glass. You might have even heard that The Two Towers didn’t win the Academy Award for Best Score because it was ineligible. But, much like the idea that Salem, Massachusetts once held witch burnings, or that the U.S. has a national holiday named “President’s Day”, these things just aren’t true.

1. The myth: Peter Jackson discovered The Lord of the Rings when he bought a paperback copy to read on a train ride. He became an obsessive fan and later came up with the idea to make film adaptations.

Why we think it’s true: the publicity materials for film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit

But actually: According to Jackson himself in his authorized biography, he was introduced to The Lord of the Rings by Ralph Bakshi’s film adaptation. He then bought a copy of Tolkien’s book that was a tie-in to the film (with Bakshi’s art on the cover). While Jackson did enjoy the book, he hardly became an obsessive fan. After reading it once, he set it aside and never bothered to read the book again… until his wife suggested it might be a good source for a fantasy film in 1995.

2. The myth: New Line Cinema made three Lord of the Rings films because there are three books.

Why we think it’s true: Logic, the DVD bonus materials

But actually: The number of books didn’t factor into the decision.

You’ve probably heard the story: Jackson was preparing to make two The Lord of the Rings films for Miramax when he was asked to condense everything into one film to save money. Jackson went to New Line Cinema to plead with them to buy-out the project and make two films instead of one. Bob Shaye, head of New Line Cinema, replied:

“Why would I want to do two films? There are three books. Why not do three films?”

It’s a good story, but there’s one problem: Bob Shaye himself has said that it’s bunch of baloney. “I didn’t say, ‘Aren’t there three books’ or whatever,” Shaye later said in an interview for the book, Peter Jackson: A Film-Maker’s Journey. Shaye was thinking more in terms of business than in terms of Tolkien. “I was cognizant of my discussions with Michael Lynn about our need for sequels. I knew that, after conferring with Michael… we were going to make three films.”

“Bob was getting pretty excited,” New Line executive Mark Ordesky said about the meeting, “because he sees what Peter was saying artistically, but because he’s also seeing three video releases, three network television sales…”

Interestingly, turning The Lord of the Rings from two films to three films would turn out to be quite the challenge for the writers. (In retrospect, maybe four would have been better!) But regardless, New Line Cinema was having trouble making sequels to their more successful films, and when Shaye saw an opportunity, he pounced on it – regardless of how many books Tolkien used to tell the tale.

3. The myth: While shooting at the Bag End set, Ian McKellen accidentally hit his head on the rafters. Because it was a funny moment, and McKellen gamely kept going with the scene, Jackson decided to keep it.

Why we think it’s true: Jackson says so himself in the DVD commentary.

But actually: McKellen himself addresses the issue on his website, writing “Peter, for once, is wrong. The head-banging was my idea but I’m glad if it seemed spontaneous, the aim of all actors.”

4. The myth: Jackson pays homage to Ralph Bakshi’s animated Lord of the Rings with a scene where the hobbits hide under the roots of a tree.

Why we think it’s true: It’s not in the books, yet it’s in both the animated and live action adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring.

But actually: The story is a little more complex.

It is true that this manner of hiding is not in Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring. Near the beginning of the book, the hobbits do hide from a “black rider” (twice). In their first encounter, Pippin and Sam hide in a hollow away from the road (Merry is not present) and Frodo hides next to a tree – though not under its roots:

“Just in time he threw himself down in a patch of long grass behind a tree that overshadowed the road. Then he lifted his head and peered cautiously above one of the great roots.”

The second encounter is similar (which is probably why both film adaptations condense it to one):

“They had no time to find any hiding-place better than the general darkness under the trees. Sam and Pippin crouched behind a large tree-bole, while Frodo crept back a few yards towards the lane.”

So the idea of the hobbits hiding under the roots of a tree with the Black Rider peering overhead, (and the iconic framing,) is an invention of Bakshi’s film. In 1985, a young artist by the name of John Howe used the scene as a basis for a painting. On his website, he says, “This painting was inspired by the Bakshi movie, where the Hobbits cower under a tree root as the Black Rider seeks them. I thought it was the best scene in the movie, and it must have trod a path in my subconscious, as it certainly is nowhere to be found in the Fellowship of the Ring. After a long hike on the West Coast Trail of Vancouver Island, I returned with exactly this photo – minus the hobbits and the Ringwraith, of course, and painted it for my own pleasure.”

The painting subsequently appeared in the 1987 J.R.R. Tolkien Calendar and caught the attention of Peter Jackson. Later, when Jackson was making his Lord of the Rings movies, he showed his people John Howe’s work: “Peter so enjoyed a beautiful painting that John Howe had done,” Richard Taylor later said, “that all of our brief and the Art Department’s brief was to try and generate the very feeling of this painting.” (In fact, Jackson even had a tree imported to the path just for the scene.)

And so in the end we actually have Jackson’s interpretation of Howe’s interpretation of Bakshi’s interpretation of Tolkien. And the best part is, the scene really works!

5. The myth: For the battle of Helm’s Deep in the animated Lord of the Rings, director Ralph Bakshi used footage from the 1938 historical drama Alexander Nevsky.

Why we think it’s true: The internet says it’s so.

But actually: It’s a mix-up of information.

Director Ralph Bakshi did indeed use footage of Alexander Nevsky (which wasn’t a legal issue, because the film is in the public domain) but not for The Lord of the Rings. He rotoscoped the footage for his 1977 film Wizards after 20th Century Fox refused to increase the film’s budget to allow him to animate the battles in a traditional way. The film was a success, and after this positive experience with rotoscoping, Bakshi decided to use it extensively his Lord of the Rings movie; but all the live action was shot by Bakshi himself in Spain. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the money to animate all the shots, so he resorted to posterizing some of the footage (mostly in the second half of the film) instead.

6. The myth: After Bakshi’s film failed at the box office preventing a “Part 2″, Rankin/Bass decided to finish up the story with their version of “The Return of the King”.

Why we think it’s true: The internet, the media, and common sense

But actually: This is one time common sense will work against you.

Heck, we all know critics and fans hated Bakshi’s film. We all know he didn’t make a Part 2 and that Rankin/Bass stepped up to the plate with their own sequel. It’s not hard to read between the lines and guess what happened.

But the truth is stranger than fiction.

To begin with, and this is going to be the opposite of what you’ve always heard, Bakshi’s film was actually a box office success.

“The theatrical release in 1978 had a domestic total gross of nearly $90 million at the box office,” said Amit Desai, WHV Vice President of Family, Animation & Partner Brands Marketing said in a press release to announce the film’s release on Blu-ray.

Actually, Amit, it was more like $30 million. But considering the film’s budget was $6 million and that the movie made some additional money overseas, it’s safe to say the film turned a healthy profit and was a success by 1978’s standards.

Whatever the case, “Part 2″ was never made, opening the door for Rankin/Bass… except that Rankin/Bass was already in the room, so to speak. A year before Bakshi’s LOTR film was finished, and before anyone had yet seen the Rankin/Bass adaptation of The Hobbit, Rankin/Bass was already hard at work on The Return of the King. From the November 27, 1977 edition of the New York Times:

“We will go on to complete our next Tolkien work, which will continue the characters we have established in ‘The Hobbit,’ and will be adapted from ‘The Hobbit’ and the last book in the Ring trilogy, ‘The Return of the King.’ At this point we are scripted, the music is composed and recorded, our backgrounds are painted, the sound track is partially completed, and new characters are designed-such as Frodo Baggins.”

It’s really bizarre when you think about: there were two different animation studios working on The Lord of the Rings at the same time, and for a period it looked like they were both going to be adapting the same material at the same time. Yet the movie that actually makes millions of dollars gets no sequel, and meanwhile the other guys do The Return of the King as a sequel to The Hobbit simply because it sounds like a good idea. If it seems like some crazy person was involved, I’ll remind you that the guy who held (and still holds) the film rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is the same guy who once sued John Fogerty for sounding too much like Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Whatever the case, the result is interesting: the independent choices of all parties involved coincidentally led to two animated Lord of the Rings movies by two different studios covering different ground, yet the two movies nearly dovetail and form a Part 1 and Part 2.

7. The myth: Cameron Rhodes plays Farmer Maggot in The Fellowship of the Ring movie.

Why we think it’s true: The film’s credits, Wikipedia, TheOneRing.net

But actually: someone else plays Farmer Maggot

It sounds like the ultimate imposter caper, something out of “Catch Me if You Can”: this guy, Cameron Rhodes, has fooled the media into believing he’s “Farmer Maggot” in the Lord of the Rings films, and now he’s able to work the convention circuit and sign autographs for $10 a pop.

Actually, this isn’t a case of someone who had nothing to do with The Lord of the Rings movies sponging off their success. (That’s my territory, darn it!) Rhodes, in fact, was bought on board the Lord of the Rings film project before Ian McKellen, Elijah Wood, and most of the other actors. Early on, Jackson needed voice actors for a first pass at the script, and he had Cameron Rhodes (as well as Craig Parker and Peter Vere-Jones) record an audio version his Lord of the Rings. Rhodes was later cast as a hobbit in The Fellowship of the Ring, with a part that was derived from Farmer Maggot’s story in the book . Flanked by his dog, the character tells a Black Rider, “There’s no Bagginses around here. They’re all up in Hobbiton. That way!”

Here’s the problem: Rhodes’s character, which seems awfully young to be the curmudgeon, old farmer from the book, is never actually named in the film.

I can hear it now: “J.W, you’re being silly! Just because he’s not named doesn’t mean he hasn’t got a name. After all, Lurtz’s name is never spoken in the film either, but he’s still Lurtz.”

That is true, but there’s also this: later in the film, another character based on Farmer Maggot is introduced. He’s called Farmer Maggot, and he is a curmudgeon, old farmer, and he’s not played by Cameron Rhodes. He’s played by a scythe… and the voice of supervising sound editor Mike Hopkins (who sounds quite different than Rhodes). This is like the reverse of a composite character: we’ve taken a character from the book and given him two different parts! We could, perhaps, say that Hopkins is Farmer Maggot Senior and Rhodes is Farmer Maggot Junior (or just pretend they’re the same character) but there’s really nothing in the film to indicate this. Moreover, if there’s only to be one actor credited as Farmer Maggot, wouldn’t it be common sense to credit the guy who’s actually identified in the film as Farmer Maggot?

Well, there’s the catch. You see, credits don’t really exist for the sake of the audience (as this whole section illustrates: it’s unlikely anyone would say to themselves, “I wonder who plays that hobbit with the dog? Maybe he’s the son of that farmer hobbit and shares his name. Maybe I’ll just look for that other hobbit’s name, it will tell me who played his son.”) The real reason credits exist is because they are, along with monetary compensation, part of the agreement between a studio and the cast and crew. Simply put, New Line Cinema agreed to credit Rhodes as Farmer Maggot. This also allows him to credit himself as “Farmer Maggot” at appearances. And the truth is that Rhodes has a substantial enough part to deserve recognition. (Isn’t his contribution to the film fabulous?) Meanwhile, Mike Hopkins probably saw his voiceover in the film as part of his duties as Supervising Sound Editor, for which he’s given proper credit. So it all works out in the end. But that said, Mike Hopkins – who sadly died in a rafting accident in December – will always be Farmer Maggot to me.

8. The myth: While shooting a scene for the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, Sean Astin cut his foot on a shard of glass.

Why we think it’s true: It’s mentioned in all the bonus materials and you can read about it all over the internet.

But actually: While Astin did cut his foot, nobody was able to find the sharp object. (For those of you who live in New Zealand, what an opportunity this gives you! If you can find the object in question, you’ll have a great piece of film memorabilia. Maybe Mr. Astin will even sign it for you.) In his book, There and Back Again: An Actor’s Tale, Astin talks about what happened: “When the crew prepared the lake for this scene, they ran a rake along the bottom to smooth and make sure nothing was there. Unfortunately, they might have churned something up that was buried. Also, I was putting such force into the way I was marching into the water, while wearing just my hobbit feet, that anything with a sharp tip was going to do some damage.” While we’ll probably never know what the object really was, Astin has speculated that it might have been a branch – something the crewmembers might have overlooked before and after the accident in their search for a something sharp.

9. The myth: New Line Home Entertainment ripped off the fans by releasing two different DVD sets for each LOTR film.

Why we think it’s true: After we all bought the first DVD set, New Line released a better one.

But actually: New Line released the DVDs in a very fan friendly way

People are still mad about this one. The most popular review of The Hobbit on DVD and Blu-ray at amazon? A two star rating berating Warner Brothers: “As with the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Warner Bros. is trying to stick it to the consumer again by hoping people will buy both versions.”

Setting aside that Warner Brothers had nothing to do with The Lord of the Rings extended editions, let’s take a look at what actually happened:

Back in 2000 and 2001 two things happened simultaneously: DVD players began sweeping over the world, replacing video cassette recorders, and Jackson’s first Lord of the Rings film was taking shape. Jackson and New Line Cinema looked at the situation and, in an epiphany, realized that they were now going to be releasing The Lord of the Rings films into two different markets with two different sets of demands.

For the theater, pacing and running time are vital to success, because there’s no pause button and it’s important for the film to have a flow that keeps people into the story as it moves from scene to scene. It’s also important to remember that theatrical audiences are sitting in foreign chairs, sipping their sodas, waiting to eventually use the bathroom and go home. But maybe even more importantly, the shorter a film’s running time, the more opportunities it has to make money, since it can play more times each day.

For DVDs, it’s a different ballgame. Pacing is less of an issue, because people often watch them in parts, almost like reading a book, and people are watching from their comfy chair or couch, taking bathroom breaks whenever they like. With no pressures limiting the running time, the director can let his hair down and tell the story in a different way with more details and more character development: and fans love it. Just as importantly (and unlike video cassettes), DVDs offer a chance for commentaries and bonus features you could never have in theaters.

So in late 2001, New Line decided there would be two versions of The Fellowship of the Ring. Their first order of business was to manage the theatrical cut and theatrical run, so it wasn’t until 2002 that they mapped out a DVD strategy. But when they got around to it, their idea was impressive: the theatrical cut would be released on DVD along with all the bonus material they already had in the can (trailers, tv specials, and anything else that didn’t require any work) and an “extended edition” would be released with new scenes (requiring new effect shots) and new bonus material assembled specifically for the set. Because the theatrical set was basically just an assembly of ready material and the extended set was something that need to be developed nearly from scratch, the two sets were going to be ready at different times.

All fine and good, you might say, but why didn’t New Line Home Entertainment tell people about the extended edition before people ran out and bought the theatrical cut?

They tried!

They issued a press release and personally shared the information with us here at TORN. It was exciting news! If you were a huge fan, you could get the theatrical set and the extended set, and you’d get both versions of the film and all that bonus material. The two sets worked well together, because they contained no overlapping material and gave you the most bang for your buck. On other hand, if you were just interested in the extended edition set, you could skip the theatrical set and save some money. And if you weren’t a big Lord of the Rings fan, but you liked the movie in theaters and just wanted to pick up a cheap DVD with the theatrical cut, you could buy the theatrical set. It seemed like New Line had covered all the bases and found a way to please everyone.

We posted all these exciting details on TheOneRing.net for the world to see, including a list of specific features on each DVD set, but the problem was the world didn’t see it.

Back from 2001 to 2003, before social media like Facebook and twitter, there was a definitive dichotomy for the public’s appetite for LOTR movie news: a season and an off season, so to speak. If we posted a story in December or January, it was big news. Fans would talk about it on message boards, the media would pick up the story and include it in newspapers, and everyone seemed to be in the loop. On the other hand, if we posted a story in May, June, or July, it was more likely to fly under the radar. People were out and about enjoying their summers (or winters in the southern hemisphere), and they certainly weren’t checking iPhones or iPads for the latest news. So the details of the DVDs went unnoticed (and unpublished by most newspapers, which didn’t really care), and after fans rushed out to buy the theatrical DVDs when they were released in August, they were quite angry when they found out there would be a better DVD set released later. (We could say that what we’ve got here is failure to communicate.)

As a postscript, it’s worth mentioning that the home video market has changed since the time of The Lord of the Rings movies. The emphasis now is to get the movies into stores as cheaply as possible, which is why The Lord of the Rings Blu-ray sets have no new bonus features. It’s interesting to note that if The Lord of the Rings had been released five years earlier or five years later, we probably wouldn’t have gotten the magnificent extras that are now part of posterity.

10. The myth: The Two Towers music wasn’t eligible for the Academy Award for Best Score

Why we think it’s true: The media widely reported it, and most fans still believe it today.

But actually: It was declared eligible.

The music of The Lord of the Rings is timeless and one of the greatest aspects of the stunning trilogy. The Fellowship of the Ring was nominated for and won the Academy Award for Best Original Score. The Return of the King was nominated for and won the same award. The Two Towers? Nothing. Not even a nomination. What the heck?

Ask a knowledgeable fan and he’ll tell you. “It wasn’t eligible because of a silly rule at the time.” In fact, it still says as much on Howard Shore’s Wikipedia page:

“Shore’s score for The Two Towers was deemed ineligible for submission to the Academy, due to a new rule that disallowed the submission of scores which contained themes from previous work.”

More accurately, Shore’s score was submitted but subsequently called into question due to the new rule; as TORN and newspapers throughout the world shared with everyone. Unfortunately, most people missed the follow-up story where the Academy said it was indeed eligible.

“The music branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences moved Friday to deflect a brewing controversy by postponing a ruling that would have disqualified for nomination a popular musical score. [Howard] Shore… was notified Friday afternoon that ‘The Two Towers’ will remain eligible after all for this year’s Oscar. Said Charles Bernstein, music-branch governor: ‘Due to the lateness of the date, and the crunch that takes place at the end of the year, the committee felt that it would be much more fair to leave this year alone and apply the rule in a more clearly articulated form next year.’”

Of course, The Two Towers was still not nominated, but that was due more to stupidity than rules.

So there you are. Ten myths cast into Mount Doom. Now I just have to find a way to start a TV show called “Middle-earth Mythbusters” where I do cool experiments to confirm or bust the things we’ve learned from The Lord of the Rings. Can you really reforge a sword? Is it really possible to toss a Dwarf 15 feet? Can you really forge a Ring that turns you invisible? Tune in next time and find out!

Posted in DVDs, Lord of the Rings, LotR Cast News, LotR Movies, LotR Production, Movie Fellowship of the Ring, Movie Return of the King, Movie The Two Towers

Tolkien Manuscripts to be Shown to Public

Marquette Libraries’ Department in Milwaukee, Wisconsin has been home to the original manuscripts of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings since the late 1950s. In exciting news, the department is hosting several public showings of selected original manuscripts on certain Friday afternoons this year and next. These showings are open to the public, and no reservation is necessary. The presentations will take place at 2:30pm (Central Time) on the following dates:

May 17, 2013
July 19, 2013
September 13, 2013
November 15, 2013
January 17, 2014
March 7, 2014
May 16, 2014
July 11, 2014
September 12, 2014
November 21, 2014

The presentations will be held in the Prucha Archives Reading Room (3rd floor, Raynor Library) and will run approximately 45 minutes. For more information on the archive and presentation, you can visit the J.R.R. Tolkien Collection’s website.

Posted in Hobbit Book, J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings, LotR Books, The Hobbit, Tolkien

J.W. Reviews The Hobbit Chronicles II Book

This month on J.W. Braun’s Bookshelf, J.W. takes a look at The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Chronicles II: Creatures and Characters by Daniel Falconer and Weta Workshop. Meanwhile, he announces a new contest and answers your questions in the mailbag section below.

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Posted in Books Publications, Hobbit Movie, Merchandise, The Hobbit, WETA Workshop

Nine Absurd Ideas for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (That Were Actually Considered)

Thomas Edison once said that to truly reach your potential, you must consider all ideas before discarding the poor ones and developing the good ones. (Actually, I just made that up. But it’s an internet tradition to attribute your own beliefs to a famous person to give your thoughts validation and respect. By the way, did I mention Tolkien wants you to buy my book?)

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Posted in Hobbit Book, Hobbit Movie, Lord of the Rings, LotR Books, LotR Movies, The Hobbit

J.W. Reviews The Hobbit Chronicles Book

This month on J.W. Braun’s Bookshelf, J.W. takes a look at The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Chronicles: Art & Design by Daniel Falconer and Weta Workshop. Meanwhile, in his mailbag feature below, he shares another riddle and answers your questions about Peter Jackson’s cameo in The Hobbit, the first Hobbit movie’s Oscar that’s not really an Oscar, and more.

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Posted in Books Publications, Hobbit Movie, Merchandise, The Hobbit, WETA Workshop

Nine Mind-Blowing Reasons We Are Able to Enjoy The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings Books and Movies

You’ve probably heard of J.R.R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson. You might think they’re the reason we can all enjoy The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings books and movies. Well… okay, they are. But you might not know how close you were to never being able to enjoy the adventures of Bilbo and Frodo in the way you know them, save for some other amazing factors. What am I talking about, you ask? Well hang on to your magic rings; it’s time to look at nine mind-blowing reasons we are able to enjoy Tolkien’s books and Jackson’s movies.

#1: A 10-Year-Old’s Book Report

Today there are many different options for writers searching for a way to share their work with readers. You can self-publish, write an e-book, post something on a website, etc. (You could even be a dinosaur like me and actually go through a publisher.) Back in the 1930s, however, Tolkien had only one real avenue to share The Hobbit with a wide audience: George Allen & Unwin, a publishing firm. One of Tolkien’s students had recommended the story to a friend who worked there, and the firm took a look at the manuscript. When I say they “took a look”, you’re probably thinking that some English literature expert carefully examined the work before reporting to a committee for a discussion and a decision. But actually what I mean is, “One of the guys gave the manuscript to his 10-year-old son and told him to write a book report on it.”

That’s right. The Hobbit – and by extension The Lord of the Rings, all the movies, TheOneRing.net, and the distribution of billions dollars – ultimately had their fate decided by a 10-year-old (Rayner Unwin) and his pencil. Now, I don’t know if you have children, but my wife’s a schoolteacher, and according to some of her students’ book reports, The Hobbit is about “Bible the hobo who chases dragonflies.” Thankfully, Rayner did a better job, although the heck of it is he wasn’t overly impressed with Tolkien’s work. The 10-year-old gave The Hobbit a backhanded compliment, saying it “should appeal to all children between the ages of 5 to 9.” His praise, however, was enough for his father, and the book was published.

Rayner’s importance doesn’t end there. In 1951, he began working for Allen & Unwin as an adult, and one of his first tasks was deciding what to do with Tolkien’s next manuscript, The Lord of the Rings. Upon reading that one, he had two thoughts: first, it was a work of genius, and second, it was going to cost more to publish than the firm would ever make on its sales. He published anyway. (Aren’t you glad he did?)

#2: Fritz the Cat (1972)

Based on the comic strip of the same name, Fritz the Cat was an X rated animated film directed by Ralph Bakshi, When the film ran into financial trouble, Bakshi convinced a record producer named Saul Zaentz to invest in the project in exchange for the rights to distribute the soundtrack. The movie (released well before anime overexposed the idea of naughty cartoons) went on to become a box office sensation and made Zaentz a fortune.

Flash forward a few years: Bakshi is working on a film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings for MGM when there’s a change in executives, and the new guy wants to kill the project. Who does Bakshi ask to help bail him out? Saul Zaentz, who had begun to dabble in films. At the invitation of Bakshi, Zaentz acquired most of the rights for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and produced Bakshi’s animated Lord of the Rings.

I can hear it now. “Okay, Bakshi and Zaentz made a crappy Lord of the Rings film. Big deal! Maybe it would have better had there been no Fritz the Cat then.”

Calm down, Chief. There’s more.

To begin with, the animated adaptation of The Lord of the Rings is significant for introducing a certain 17 year old Kiwi to the wonders of Middle-earth. Sitting in his seat at the Wellington Plaza, Peter Jackson was so fascinated by what he saw he ran out and bought the book with the movie’s tie-in cover art. You can argue that even had he not seen the film, he might have read the books and become a fan anyway, but consider this: Jackson isn’t one of those Tolkien-obsessed fans who grew up reading the books over and over. He saw the Bakshi film, read the books once, and that was it… until he became interested in making his own film adaptations.

But there’s also this: Zaentz never sold the rights and still holds them today – having recently celebrated his 157th birthday. This is an important point, because you have to understand that most people in the industry do not act like Zaentz (who is slightly looney and once sued John Fogerty for plagiarizing himself.) For Zaentz, making movies has been more of a hobby than a business. Since 1972 he’s produced ten of them – with three winning the Oscar for Best Picture. Had the rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings been in other hands, it’s likely we would have seen a far different “Tolkien movie” history. Would we still have Hobbit and LOTR films? Sure. We’d probably have more of them, with some studio doing a reboot of the franchise every few years like The Incredible Hulk or Star Trek. We might even have some lousy TV movies mixed in there as well. (Maybe even a Saturday morning cartoon show called “LOTR Kids” about the nine fellowship members sharing adventures together as children and overcoming the bullying of kiddy Sauron.)

I for one am happy that instead of countless crappy adaptations, we got nothing for twenty years and then were given three blockbuster Lord of the Rings feature films. So let’s give Fritz some thanks, even if he gives us the finger in return.

#3: The English Patient (1996)

You’re probably familiar with the movie The English Patient. It’s that 90s film starring Lord Voldemort that won a bunch of Oscars. What you might not know is that without the movie we probably wouldn’t have The Lord of the Rings movies (which did not star Lord Voldemort but did win a bunch of Oscars.)

The English Patient was produced by a guy named Saul Zaentz and was supposed to be made for Twentieth Century Fox, the studio footing the bill. Fox, however, backed out at the last minute, and Zaentz was left with a cast and crew in Italy and no money to shoot the movie. Almost immediately, however, Harvey Weinstein stepped in and acquired the project for his studio, Miramax (named after his parents, Mira and Max) and saved the day. Zaentz was grateful and promised to return the favor if ever an opportunity presented itself.

Meanwhile, a pair of filmmakers named Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh were working on post production for The Frighteners (1996). Jackson suggested the two might want to do a fantasy film next, and Walsh asked if it were possible to do The Lord of the Rings. Jackson assumed the rights were unavailable or tied up, but he figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask – so he went to the studio he was working with and said, “Hey, do you think Fran and I could make The Lord of the Rings?” That studio was Miramax, and the guy he was talking to was Harvey Weinstein, who loved the idea. Weinstein contacted Zaentz and called in his favor to get an option to make the movies, and Jackson was on his way to making Middle-earth magic.

#4: Ken Kamins’s Ingenuity

It’s 1998. (It’s not, but pretend it is.) Peter Jackson is summoned to a meeting with Miramax in New York. The studio has a great new idea: it’s going to make The Lord of the Rings as one film. They have a whole new approach to the story: The Mines of Moria? Skip them. Saruman? Gone. The Battle at Helm’s Deep? Gone. Gondor and Rohan? Merge them and make Boromir and Éowyn brother and sister. Maybe kill off some redundant hobbits.

I do have to mention here that Miramax wasn’t intentionally trying to be stupid. The problem was the budget. They had $75 million to spend on The Lord of the Rings and that was it. Given the choice between two low budget films or one with a modest budget, they chose the latter under the premise that it was most likely to make money. (After all, there’s a reason the film industry is called an industry and not “charitable contributions to the arts.”)

Jackson, of course, was horrified and said he couldn’t write and direct what they were proposing. Miramax, however, held firm and said, “Take it or leave it.” Jackson and Walsh talked about the ultimatum privately and then decided to say no and move on to other things. They asked their agent to tell Miramax they were out, and they figured that was that.

Jackson’s agent was Ken Kamins, and he did make the call, but with a wrinkle: he reminded them that this whole project began with Jackson and Walsh and asked if the two writers could find another studio to buyout the project and do it the right way. And that’s exactly what happened. In fact, that leads us to…

#5: Jim Carrey

Back in the early 90s, Jim Carrey was known as that weird guy on “In Living Color.”

That all changed in 1994 when he was transformed into a bankable Hollywood star thanks to Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Dumb and Dumber, and The Mask. The latter two were brought to us by New Line Cinema. This maverick studio was great at finding new stars and making and distributing hits; they just had trouble with sequels. Remember how funny Carrey was in “Dumb and Dumber 2” and “Revenge of the Mask”? Of course you don’t! Because he wouldn’t do them. Instead he went on to make big money for other studios. So we got new actors in Dumb and Dumberer and Son of the Mask – which, quite frankly, were terrible. Back in 1998, New Line executives were concerned about this problem, and one of the execs joked that they should just start shooting sequels to their blockbusters before they were finished shooting the blockbusters.

At just about this time, New Line was contacted by a guy named Peter Jackson. He said he had this Lord of the Rings project he was working on and was wondering if New Line would be interested in acquiring it from Miramax. “They’re only willing to make one film out of it,” he explained, “but we feel the only way to do it right is to do two films at once.”

New Line: “Two? Just two? Why not three?”
Jackson: “As I was saying, three films. We feel the only way to do it is three films.”
Christian Rivers: “Isn’t it a little late in the process to…”
Jackson: “To find myself a new Beacon keeper? No.”
Rivers: (silence)

What New Line Cinema didn’t know was had they turned Jackson down, Miramax was ready to fire Peter Jackson, replace him with John Madden, and make the one film version described above.

Thank you, Jim Carrey. Thank you.

#6: Sean Connery’s Confusion

Think about all the scenes in The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies with Gandalf. Now think of all of them without Ian McKellen and with Sean Connery in his place.

“Shauron is coming for the Ring, my boy. Keep it shecret, keep it shafe.”

(That’s my Sean Connery impression. Thank you, I’m here all week! Try the veal.)

One of the big concerns New Line Cinema had about The Lord of the Rings was whether or not the films would have the star power to get the casual filmgoers to buy a ticket. So they wanted Connery. And they wanted him badly. How badly? They would have ended up paying him about $450 million to play Gandalf.

Connery turned down the part because he didn’t understand the script. Years later, he reflected upon the story after reading the books and seeing the films: “”I read the book. I saw the movie. I still don’t understand it.”

He did add something that we can all agree upon: “Ian McKellen, I believe, is marvelous in it.”

#7: Harry Knowles

It’s easy to sit at home on the couch and fantasy-cast movies. “Dude, they should make a movie out of that “Smoking Cactus” book and cast Sam Elliott as the Texas Fryfish.” Heck, I’ve fantasized about the girls from Happy Hobbit playing damsels in distress, whereupon I rescue them and they begin fighting over me. But perhaps that’s taking the “fantasy” in fantasy-casting too literally. The point is, it’s fun to match up actors and characters. But how many times have you approached the actor and told him about the character… and then approached the director and told him about the actor?

In 1998, supergeek Harry Knowles had a cameo in the movie “The Faculty”. Here’s what happened in Harry’s own words:

“I remember, I was sitting on the steps of THE FACULTY’s set where Elijah [Wood] is going to be running from Robert Patrick. There was a break in shooting, because as Robert was running with the steadi-cam, he slipped and fell and they were checking all the equipment out. Elijah joined me on the steps and asked how things were going. It was mid-afternoon and I told him that I had spoken on the phone with Peter Jackson that day. That Peter was going to try and make THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Elijah had never read that book, but he had read the Hobbit, and loved that. That’s when I looked at him and told him he would be perfect to play Frodo.”

Wood, of course, then went on to make his own audition tape in his own makeshift Hobbit costume.

Meanwhile, Harry went on to have more discussions with Peter Jackson, including Q&A’s which he shared on his website. Jackson told Harry about his plans: he was going to cast an unknown British actor as Frodo. Harry had an idea of his own and said so: cast Elijah Wood!

Maybe Wood would have been cast as Frodo without Harry’s heads up or help. Either way, Harry’s championing of Wood as Frodo – going all the way back to 1998 – gives him plenty of Geek-Cred in my eyes. (I actually had a shirt once that said, “I have Geek-Cred.” Unfortunately, my wife accidentally spilled something on it. The gasoline probably would have come out in the wash, but my wife also accidentally set it on fire. But I digress.)

Then again, perhaps the real hero of the story is Robert Patrick’s clumsiness. Who knows? Had he kept his footing, the butterfly effect might have led to Dustin Diamond playing Frodo. And that’s even scarier than being chased by a Terminator.

#8: Jar Jar Binks

Yousa probably wondering if mesa gone coo coo here. (Happened long ago.) Sure, on the list of “Reasons Star Wars Rocks,” Jar Jar ranks at roughly 4,285,433 – just ahead of Princess Leia’s Life Day song.

But here’s the thing: while the people working on The Lord of the Rings were having all kinds of trouble with Gollum, George Lucas was busy making dozens of breakthroughs in CGI to bring Jar Jar to the screen. Jackson decided from the beginning that Gollum would be CGI, but by 1999 it was beginning to look like the impossible dream. Thankfully, Lucas was happy to help out Weta, and thanks to Jar Jar breaking new ground, Gollum did not end up as a man in a suit.

#9: Gray Horsfield

Quick question: who defeated Sauron? Was it Frodo? Aragorn? Gandalf? No, it was Gray Horsfield, a real name that’s so awesome, no fiction writer would have the cojones to use it.

Back in the early part of the last decade when Weta was working on the final Lord of the Rings film, they were in a jam: they needed to show the destruction of Sauron’s tower (Barad-dûr) but it wasn’t physically possible to blow up the model, and it probably wouldn’t give them the look they were hoping for anyway. At this point most films would have gotten together a team of digital artists and given them a month to work on doing it CGI. Weta didn’t need a team, however, because one guy did it himself. In two weeks. While everyone was on vacation. Gray Horsfield basically worked 20 hours a day everyday while everyone was on break blowing up Barad-dûr and blowing away everyone from Weta Digital when they returned to work. Frodo may have failed, but Gray sure didn’t.

So there you go. From a ten year old’s book report to Gray Horsfield’s dedication, that’s nine pieces of the puzzle that fell into place to give us some great books and movies. Doesn’t it make you feel like you won the lottery and didn’t even know it?

(I can’t believe you actually read this whole thing.)

- J.W. Braun

J.W. Braun is a Tolkien scholar and author of The Lord of the Films, published by ECW Press in 2009. You can find out more about J.W. at jwbraun.com

Posted in Lord of the Rings, LotR Movies, The Hobbit, Tolkien

J.W. Reviews The Hobbit Visual Companion

This month on J.W. Braun’s Bookshelf, J.W. takes a look at The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Visual Companion by Jude Fisher and also gives away a couple of prizes. Meanwhile, in his mailbag feature below, he shares a riddle and answers your questions about Tolkien rewriting The Hobbit and the scriptwriters messing up a quote in The Lord of the Rings movies.

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Posted in Books Publications, Hobbit Movie, The Hobbit

JW Reviews The Hobbit Soundtrack

J.W. Braun here. Readers of my book, The Lord of the Films, sometimes comment that I must have a musical background and that it’s obvious I’m a big fan of Howard Shore’s music for The Lord of the Rings. Well, both are true! I play the violin, viola, and piano, and I think The Lord of the Rings score is the greatest score of all time.

Today, the soundtrack for the first Hobbit film has become available in a two disc set. While it will probably take me months to truly appreciate it, here are my track by track thoughts today.

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Posted in Hobbit Movie, soundtrack