The much-hyped Star Wars prequels may be getting some serious competition from an epic movie trilogy about to be made in New Zealand, reports Helen Barlow. GEORGE Lucas might have Star Wars, and he might even be shooting parts two and three of his prequels in Sydney, but there’s another mega-production taking form on the other side of the Tasman. Peter Jackson, the George Lucas of Christchurch, is about to tackle The Lord Of The Rings. He has already spent two years devising the three films, and it hasn’t been without its hiccups.

At first Miramax Films (Shakespeare In Love) was going to fund the JRR Tolkien trilogy as two movies, and it would have been the company’s most expensive effort ever. But Miramax, who love stars like Gwyneth Paltrow at the centre of their movies, baulked and good-manneredly gave Jackson a month to come up with another company.

American outfit New Line, of Boogie Nights and The Wedding Singer fame (and more of a risk-taker than Miramax), decided it would make the films. It would also be its most costly project and, what’s more, it would be happy with three movies and no stars.

It was a great relief to Jackson that the original books (and not what he calls “some strange hybrid version”) could be filmed, and that Hollywood would be of little consequence since, as usual, he would make the films in Christchurch. And what Hollywood star wants to spend 18 months there?

“I feel quite safe and sort of isolated in New Zealand,” said Jackson. “I guess I feel that I’m out of that (Hollywood) system that I don’t particularly like. So it’s a good place to be.”

Jackson, who was born on Halloween in 1961, had been lauded internationally for his films Heavenly Creatures and his splatstick movies (a genre he invented) Bad Taste and Braindead. He had been hankering to do a bigger movie and when the long-awaited remake of his favourite film, King Kong, fell through – under the weight of Godzilla and Mighty Joe Young – The Lord Of The Rings seemed the obvious choice.

“The Lord Of The Rings is big but it’s such a wonderful property that it’s worth spending five years of your life to do,” said Jackson, talking at the International Festival of Fantasy Films in Brussels. “If it was anything other than Lord Of The Rings, I probably wouldn’t do it, but it is such an amazing story and an amazing book that it’s an honour and a privilege really. “But I wasn’t one of those total Lord Of The Rings aficionados. I read it when I was 18 and I didn’t read it again until the whole idea of doing the film came up, 17 years later.

“I was thinking about what to do after The Frighteners (his horror movie starring Michael J Fox) and I was really thinking about what is possible with computers and technology now, what amazing new places and creatures you can create. I realised this could be the ideal time to finally make Lord Of The Rings, because for 40 years it hasn’t been made as a live action movie.

“I know there have been various film-makers that at times have tried to do it, some scripts have been written, but it has always been one of those unfilmable stories. (In 1978 an animated film of the first two books of The Lord Of The Rings was directed by Ralph Bakshi.) I thought probably the time of it being unfilmable has come to an end with the advances in computer technology.”

Jackson is one of the few movie directors who truly understands the technology as well as the creative process of movie-making. He can produce the costly special effects relatively cheaply in New Zealand, but with the help of computer experts from around the globe.”I’m absolutely hopeless on computers,” he said with a laugh. “I understand what they do, which is important, I understand how they do it, but I can’t actually type in the instructions myself.”

In the three Lord Of The Rings films there will be around 65 speaking parts, and while prosthetics and other special effects will be used, the only fully computerized character will be Gollum. “He’s the little emaciated guy who’s been kind of poisoned by the ring over 500 years,” Jackson explained. “He is actually a key character in the second and third films, but he doesn’t do much in the first. There are all sort of creatures and monsters that will be created on the computer but Gollum’s different because he says dialogue and has to have an emotional connection in the story. He’s very much a real character.”

Jackson’s screenplays for Lord Of The Rings have taken form at his Christchurch home, where he has recruited his usual collaborator, partner Fran Walsh, as well as two local writers, Stephen Sinclair and Philippa Boyens.For those experiencing memory loss from their childhood, The Hobbit actually preceded The Lord of The Rings in the Tolkien saga, and told the wondrous tale of the unassuming Bilbo Baggins, who discovers a mysterious ring.

The Lord Of The Rings begins with The Fellowship Of The Ring (which is followed by The Two Towers and The Return of The King) and follows Frodo Baggins, nephew of Bilbo, as he discovers that the ring left to him by his uncle is very powerful, particularly for the evil Lord Sauron. So with his friends Sam Gamgee, Merry Brandybuck and Pippin Took, he undertakes an adventure to try to destroy it.More than 50 million copies of The Lord Of The Rings have been sold in 25 languages since the books were first published in paperback form in the 1960s. Tolkien, an English Professor at Oxford University, created the series out of his life-long interest in languages, myths and legends. His world is like a utopian peace-loving Europe, filled with wizards, elves,dwarves, dragons, goblins and more fanciful characters, like hobbits, orcs, balrogs, woses and ents.

Most of the players will be unknown, though the exact casting has yet to be decided. Jackson denied reports that Sean Connery will be in the film. “That’s just stuff that’s on the Net,” he said. “I mean, Sean would be fine, I’d love to work with him one day, he’s one of those icons. But he’s never been approached and I suspect it’s not going to happen in this movie. I can’t quite imagine Sean Connery coming down to New Zealand for 18 months.

“Whoever will be in all three of these movies will basically be spending most of 18 months in New Zealand. So it’s much better to work with unknown actors, who are happy just to do the work.” The much postponed Lord Of The Rings shooting date is now September, and Jackson promised it was set in stone.

But what of his smaller genre films? “Certainly whatever happens with Lord Of The Rings, no matter how successful or unsuccessful it is, I’m definitely going to make some smaller films next, because I’m making a big movie now, I’m making the biggest film that I ever want to make,” he said “I don’t need to make anything bigger than Lord Of The Rings, but it’s a great experience.”