SHOW: Fresh Air

DATE: February 26, 2002


This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”)

Sir IAN McKELLEN (As Gandalf): In the lands of Middle-earth, legend tells of the Dark Lord Sauron and the ring that would give him the power to enslave the world. Lost for centuries, it has been sought by many and has now found its way into the hands of the most unlikely person imaginable.

GROSS: Sir Ian McKellen describing the premise of “The Lord of the Rings.” The unlikely person put in charge of the ring is the Hobbit Frodo Baggins. The trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien was adapted into three films, directed by our guest, Peter Jackson. Part one, “The Fellowship of the Ring,” has received 13 Academy Award nominations, including best film and best director. All three films have been shot. Jackson is currently halfway through editing the second film, which will be released around Christmastime. The third film is due out in December 2003. Director Peter Jackson is from New Zealand. He first became known in the States for his 1994 film “Heavenly Creatures.” His other films include “The Frighteners” and “Meet the Feebles.” Peter Jackson spoke with Barbara Bogaev, who often guest hosts FRESH AIR. Before we hear their interview, let’s hear a scene from “The Fellowship of the Ring.” The wizard, Gandalf, played by Ian McKellen, is asking Frodo, played by Elijah Wood, if he can detect anything unusual about the ring.

(Soundbite of “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”)


“The Lord of the Rings” saga is such a monster project, and the plot is so dense and complicated and detailed. Did you have one unifying concept going in to making the film that helped you organize such an overwhelming amount of material?

Mr. PETER JACKSON (Director): Well, I think the process of adaptation of any book–and I guess “The Lord of the Rings” is the most extreme example–it’s simplification, but not simplifying it enough to lose the essence and the spirit of what makes the book great. And obviously, “The Lord of the Rings” requires a little bit more simplification than most books because Tolkien absolutely delighted in the complexity and the detail and going off on tangents, which, in the book, creates an amazing world. You know, it creates a feeling of this authentic culture in history of Middle-earth, but the actual plot is relatively simple. I mean, the plot of “The Lord of the Rings,” at the spine of the story, is obviously about Frodo Baggins, this Hobbit, who has to carry a ring through many dangers to take it to the one place in Middle-earth, this land where the ring could be destroyed.

So really, I mean, we obviously focused on that as being the main plot of the film, and we were very picky about what other extraneous elements of the book we should be including, because the movie, we felt, had to basically be driven by that single story line.

BOGAEV: Did you make a conscious effort to base or ground the movie in some kind of historical feeling or historical fact?

Mr. JACKSON: Sure, yeah.

BOGAEV: Because it feels very real, and I think that played a part in that.

Mr. JACKSON: Right, good. No, good. And I’m saying good because making it real was actually our mantra during the shoot. I mean, I think a lot of people that haven’t read “The Lord of the Rings” but have heard about it would have assumed that it was set on another planet, that it was like pure fantasy, that it was almost like science fiction, you know, and Middle-earth was another world somewhere else. But that’s not the case at all, because Tolkien was really creating a mythic prehistory. He was creating what he described as being events–he was recounting events that took place on Earth in a form of early Europe about seven or 8,000 years ago. And so we really took our lead from there; that in a sense, no, we’re not making a fantasy film. What we’re doing is making much more of an historical film.

So we approached the historical element as if we were making “Gladiator” or “Braveheart,” you know, from the point of view that you would research ancient Rome or you’d research medieval Scotland if you were making those films, and we had to research the world of Tolkien’s Middle-earth as if it really existed. And Tolkien wrote an enormous amount of material about this world so we were able to investigate the different cultures. Because at this time in our history, the world was populated not just by human beings but by elves and Hobbits and orcs and dwarves, and we just approached it as if it was real. We just stopped thinking of it as a piece of fiction.

BOGAEV: I thought the evil stuff in the movie was great, that the battles–and there are large epic battles–the lava-belching volcanoes of the evil kingdom and the black-robed horsemen.

Mr. JACKSON: Mm-hmm.

BOGAEV: They’re hooded, they’re riding these huge black, sweaty horses. Is it easier to figure out ways to depict evil cinematically in a fantasy than to depict goodness? I noticed the Hobbits and the elves–they’re good, too. But they–especially the elves, come off as kind of plain vanilla.

Mr. JACKSON: Yeah. The forces of evil–the antagonists in Tolkien’s story–there’s both the good and bad side to that because you do have some very potent, visually interesting creatures like the orcs and like the Black Riders. I mean, there’s something–because it is interesting, because I agree with you that the Black Riders, who are the Ringwraiths, who are these creatures that hunt for the ring, they are nothing more–I mean, it’s the image of the Reaper, really. It’s the black, faceless cowl, you know, robed creatures, who–there’s something that just is scary about those sorts of characters. You don’t need to make them incredibly overdesigned, you know. Just the simplicity of it is scary.

But so we had that and we had the orcs. And we had obviously–Christopher Lee plays a wonderful character who represents really most of the views of the antagonist. But the fundamental problem with “The Lord of the Rings” that we are continuing to confront as we move into the second and third film is the fact that the main baddy, Sauron, manifests himself as a giant, flaming eyeball. And now in a movie–if you’re writing a movie from scratch, just an original movie, you would never choose to have your villain be a giant, flaming eyeball. It has some limitations.

BOGAEV: It’s unfortunate.

Mr. JACKSON: There’s certain limitations to it. And so we do have to grapple with that. It comes across incredibly well on the printed page as this, you know, very ethereal concept that you–is actually quite chilling. But in a movie you have to be very, very careful how you depict that stuff.

BOGAEV: Yeah, I think you’d have to be very careful with a lot of this stuff that’s kind of pseudo-medieval fantasy. So much can go wrong.

Mr. JACKSON: Yeah.

BOGAEV: They can almost seem a parody of themselves.

Mr. JACKSON: It can.

BOGAEV: And there is, in fact, a parody of “Lord of the Rings” already. I believe it’s called “Bored of the Rings.” And the only line…

Mr. JACKSON: I’ve never…

BOGAEV: Do you know this?

Mr. JACKSON: I’ve never read it. I’ve seen it. I’ve never read it. I’ve deliberately avoided it because I thought it would contaminate me too much.

BOGAEV: Oh, really? That can happen?

Mr. JACKSON: Oh, yes. Oh, yes.

BOGAEV: You shot all three films back to back.


BOGAEV: How did you do that? Did you shoot them as three separate movies in your own mind, in the organization or as one long one, thinking you’d break them up in post production?

Mr. JACKSON: Well, we shot them as one long one. We had three screenplays, so we definitely wrote and structured three separate movies so that they had a beginning, middle and an end in themselves. And so that’s how the scripts were, three separate scripts. But once we started shooting the stuff, we really just didn’t think too much about, you know, film one, film two, film three. We just scheduled it and shot it as if it was one continuous film. And we were always jumping around. We didn’t just stick to one movie. You know, on a Monday we might be shooting something from film three. On a Tuesday we’d be back to doing a scene from film one; you know, film two on Wednesday. It was just very intimate.

And then we also had–and then the other thing is we had multiple units shooting, so we–so I might be directing a piece of drama with the actors from film two and on the same day there might be a battle scene being photographed by the second unit that was from film three. So we’d be looking at footage each night, you know, and even the footage that we looked at on a single day was spread around the three different movies. So it was done very much out of sequence, and with us really just thinking of it as one, you know, probably nine-hour-long movie.

BOGAEV: There’s some amazing landscapes in the film, locations, shot in your native New Zealand. The evil empire of Mordor is always depicted with active volcanoes and black mountains…


BOGAEV: …and ominous rocky terrain. Where did you film that?

Mr. JACKSON: Most of the Mordor scenes were filmed on Mt. Ruapehu, which is a genuine active volcano that’s in the middle of the North Island.

BOGAEV: I believe you had ski lifts that shuttled the crew up and down for those scenes?

Mr. JACKSON: Yeah, well, we shot during summer because during winter it’s a ski resort, and it’s covered in snow, obviously, but during summer the snow’s thawed away, so we got the resort to activate the ski lifts for us so we could shuttle people around, yeah.

BOGAEV: Did it get a bit toasty there?

Mr. JACKSON: It was rugged. I mean, it’s volcanic rock. It actually got–it was actually very hard–you know, people would get lots of cuts and bruises because it’s that kind of rock that’s hard to walk on, and it was all very sharp and pretty dangerous, yeah.

BOGAEV: What was the hardest terrain you filmed in or the roughest shoot?

Mr. JACKSON: Well, we did quite a few scenes where we had to helicopter people in because we looked around for the most stunning locations we could find, and often these, obviously, don’t happen to conveniently be next door to a road or near a hotel. You know, they’re obviously very wild and rugged. And we flew around in helicopters, found these places, interesting rock formations. And the scenes in the first film–there’s a scene where they have to hide from a swarm of crows that have been sent out to look for them. And they hide under rocks as the crows fly overhead. And that was shot in a place where we could only fly everybody in and all the gear in on choppers, so we had four or five choppers just ferrying people up and down the hill with all the equipment.

That particular scene we had to–because it was also dangerous to some degree because these are quite high, rugged mountains, and we’d always have to take survival kits up so that if in the event that the clouds suddenly came in and we didn’t have time to get people off the mountain, there would be a possibility of having to stay overnight with–you know, just like sleep there. So we always had these survival rations. We had Primus, you know, stoves. We had sleeping bags. We always had that stuff available in case we ever got stuck up there. But fortunately it never happened.

BOGAEV: You know, Tolkien fans are so dogged and diehard. Were you ever dogged by them during shooting? Did they ever show up and…

Mr. JACKSON: Well, surprisingly not. Not really. There was–occasionally there’d be somebody hiding in the bushes with a camera and you’d get home at night, and you’d go on to the Net and you’d see a photo of yourself from some time during that day shooting the scene, and someone had been hiding, snapping pictures. But they genuinely really didn’t make themselves visible. We didn’t really have situations where we had much problem from the fans. I think helped by the fact that we were obviously down in New Zealand shooting, so we were fairly isolated.

But it was a unique experience because normally–I mean, I’m used to making films in New Zealand–other films I’ve made where, you know, no one has a clue what you’re doing. They’re original screenplays, you shoot your movie, no one knows anything about it and then, you know, you take the film to Cannes, to one of the film festivals, and then you’ve got to work really hard to make people even aware of the existence of the film. And in this situation it was almost the extreme opposite where we’d go to work every day, you know, doing shooting over this 15-month period, and we were acutely aware that there were millions of people who were watching and listening for any information about what we were shooting on that day.

But it was actually a positive. I mean, ultimately I thought it was a very positive thing because getting through 15 months of shooting is obviously a very arduous process, and the presence of the fans, the presence of the interest of the fans, of this incredible excitement and anticipation that was out there for the last two or three years, we all felt every day that we’d better deliver the best possible film that we could make.

BOGAEV: I’m talking with filmmaker Peter Jackson. His new movie, “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” has 13 Academy Award nominations, including best picture, director and screenplay. We’ll talk more, Peter, after the break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: Back with New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson. His new film “Lord of the Rings” has tallied 13 Academy Award nominations. Jackson’s other films include “The Frighteners” and “Heavenly Creatures.”

You grew up in a small town in New Zealand. I think I read the nearest movie theater was a bit of a drive away. But you started trying to make movies when you were just nine or 10 years old. What got you into it?

Mr. JACKSON: Yeah. Watching the original “King Kong” on TV–the 1933 “King Kong,” which I watched when I was nine or 10 years old. And then, you know, there’s a lot of that movie that really inspired “The Lord of the Rings” in a funny kind of way, too, because it swept me away and it was escapism. It took me from my seat into the world of the film. I was transported, which is what great movies do to you. Obviously, if you’re in the audience and you just forget you’re sitting in your chair and you go into the film and participate in the movie. And I loved what “King Kong” did to me and I just thought it’s the magic of film, this is what I want to do.

And I had a disadvantage because New Zealand at that time–you know, we weren’t making movies. You know, there was no feature films whatsoever being made in New Zealand; hence there was no film industry; there were no film schools. And so I ended up–my parents had a super 8 movie camera for taking home movies, and so I ended up grabbing that. It was obviously in the days before video cameras, but super 8 was kind of the video version–the film version of what video cameras are today. And so I’d be filming little movies with my super 8 camera all the way through my teen-aged years. And they got more sophisticated.

BOGAEV: Well, what were your childhood early movies like?

Mr. JACKSON: Well, they were little five-minute things, two-minute things. They were like monster–clay monsters, clay dinosaurs that I’d animate, stop-motion animation on the kitchen table. I got friends together to do a World War II movie at some stage, digging a trench in my parents’ back yard and putting up sandbags and barbed wire and making sort of a little war movie. Horror movies–I made a vampire film, a zombie film. And these were like–you know, they were usually quite short. When I was at school I made a Monty Python sort of parody, because I had started to love “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” the TV show, which was screening in the late ’60s, early ’70s. Then by the time I was 20, I had a 16mm camera and I started to make a movie in the weekends with my friends. And I was in the movie. I directed it. I did camera work most of the time. I built all the monsters. It was a science-fiction/horror film called “Bad Taste.”

And after four years of shooting basically on Sundays, we had a feature film. And then the New Zealand Film Commission took that to the Cannes Film Festival and it literally was a home movie, but it was, you know, finished with sound track and music and it was an hour and a half long. And they took it to the Cannes, I think, in 1988, and it sold. It sold to like 30 countries in the space of a few days at Cannes, and was regarded as being highly successful by the New Zealand Film Commission, who then obviously wanted me to make more of these. And they were sort of prepared to support me. So suddenly we had the government–because the New Zealand Film Commission is like a government-funded agency. So suddenly we had the government making horror films–funding horror films in New Zealand, which I always found quite amusing.

And so I made “Meet the Feebles,” which was a really outrageous sort of adult puppet film, but like th…

BOGAEV: Now, I have to interrupt you here…

Mr. JACKSON: Yeah.

BOGAEV: …because “Meet the Feebles”–I have a description of it that I just have to read.


BOGAEV: `A backstage musical that rivals “Springtime for Hitler” for aggressive tastelessness. “Feebles” is cast entirely with puppets and actors in foam rubber animal suits. The plot involves the efforts of a third-rate vaudeville animal troupe to land a syndicated television series. Back-stabbing, gluttony, drug overdoses and interspecies lust are the order of the day.’

Mr. JACKSON: That’s a fair description.

BOGAEV: Well said. It is just so hard, though, to imagine that the folks at New Line Cinema gave you, Peter Jackson, the director of “Meet the Feebles,” $270 million to make…


BOGAEV: …three movies based on the most revered work of literature.

Mr. JACKSON: It’s a mystery. I mean, “Heavenly Creatures,” which was a film that I made a few years ago, that in a way broke me out of the horror mold and gave me some legitimate sort of art house attention. And that–you know, I think when people saw that, they realized that I was capable of doing a little bit more than just sort of special effects stuff.

I mean, “Lord of the Rings” was made as a low-budget independent film. I mean, it was because we made it in New Zealand, we made it with a lot of the same crew that I’ve used on my other movies; the same kind of infrastructure. We made it the New Zealand way, not the Hollywood way. And you know, what that enabled us–because obviously it wasn’t low-budget; we still shot it as a low-budget film and so all that surplus money could go straight onto the screen. So we were able to build enormous sets and have hundreds of extras and, you know, hundreds and hundreds of computer shots and all the wonderful costumes. You know, we had–that’s where all our money got spent, which we’d never been able to do before. Obviously, making low-budget films you just can’t spend money on any of that stuff. So now we had all the money that we needed to bring this world to life.

BOGAEV: Is there now a Hobbit village amusement park in Wellington, New Zealand, or something like that? Does this live on in ancillary marketing?

Mr. JACKSON: Well, there should be. There should be. I mean, the Hobbit village was absolutely amazing. I mean, people can see it in the movie. It was the most beautiful thing. We built the Hobbit village a year before shooting commenced because I wanted all the grass to grow. And we planted real vegetables like carrots and brussels sprouts and cabbages in the gardens of the Hobbits so that–and we had gardeners doing the gardening so that over a year everything sprouted and germinated and it was just amazing. And then we shot there for about two weeks, three weeks, I think we shot there. And we finished and it all got bulldozed down. It all got returned back to farmland again. And it was sad. I mean, we all said, `Why can’t this be kept? Why can’t people come to visit the Hobbit village when the film comes out?’ And we actually all feel really bad about that, but one of the problems with film sets in themselves is that they’re never built to last. And so, you know, it was built sort of to do the job for the film and it would start falling to pieces if tourists started to climb all over it, you know, so…

BOGAEV: Well, Peter Jackson, thanks so much for talking with me today.

Mr. JACKSON: It was a pleasure. Thank you.

GROSS: Director Peter Jackson, speaking with Barbara Bogaev. His film “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” is nominated for 13 Academy Awards. Jackson is currently halfway through cutting the second film in the trilogy. It’s due out in December. Part three is scheduled for release in December 2003. I’m Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, pictures from the Vietnam War from the other side. We talk with Doug Niven about tracking down pictures taken by North Vietnamese photographers and collecting them in a new book. Also, David Bianculli reviews the new sitcom “Watching Ellie,” and Ken Tucker considers Johnny Cash’s career on the occasion of Cash’s 70th birthday.

(Soundbite of music)