Here’s the gist of this evening’s 30 minute BBC “Front Row” special on the impact that Lord of the Rings has had in New Zealand – it included an interview with Peter Jackson that was notable for its fluency and relaxed style.
The programme shifted between two interviews conducted by Francine Stock – one with Jackson and the other with Peter Calder of the New Zealand Herald.
Peter Calder started by revealing that the pendant that Ian McKellen could be seen wearing at the Oscars was a New Zealand “greenstone” – a form of jade that is sacred to Maoris. Calder said this was an honour for New Zealand and that it reflected the tremendous affection that members of the cast developed for the country during their time there.
He went on to describe Peter Jackson as utterly unpretentious and joked that they must have had to drug him to get him into a tuxedo for the Academy Awards – and that they then probably had to staple it to him. He said Jackson is “the apotheosis of the can-do” mentality that is prevalent among New Zealanders and that he epitomises what they call “a number eight fencing wire man” (fencing wire apparently being the Kiwi equivalent of Canadian duct tape).
There is sadness in New Zealand that Peter Jackson’s personal efforts were not recognised with an Academy Award but the New Zealand film industry is extremely proud to have beaten off global competition in the highly specialised areas for which LOTR won Oscars. Unfortunately the New Zealand government recently stopped giving tax breaks to the movie industry (this reportedly angered Peter Jackson) and there are concerns that countries such as South Africa and Australia could now come up with more attractive deals for film-makers.
Peter Jackson began his interview by describing LOTR as the Holy Grail of movie-making. Filming it was a thrilling experience and he referred happily to a quote of Hitchcock’s: that most people’s movies are slices of life, but his are slices of cake. When asked how Hollywood might have tackled LOTR, he said he felt that Hollywood has a tendency to over-design in order to make fantasy films very obviously removed from reality; his own goal, on the other hand, was “to make it as real as possible”. JRR Tolkien wrote in such a way that Middle Earth seems completely authentic and Jackson wanted that to come through in the movie.
When asked about the process of turning the books into a screenplay, he explained that it was necessary to simplify. He needed to identify the “A” plot and in this case it was the story of Frodo and the Ring. Most scenes had to be selected to advance that plot, although there were, of course, other sub-plots.
At this point in the programme we heard a short clip from the movie – Frodo saying that he could see “some form of Elvish” on the Ring, and Gandalf reciting the sinister “One Ring” verse. Although not intended for radio the dialogue created a superb effect, especially with Howard Shore’s music hovering in the background.
This marked the beginning of a discussion on the archaic language of the books. Jackson was asked if this was hard to do “straight” and he laughingly admitted that if they hadn’t had Ian McKellen, they’d have been in trouble. Wherever possible they had tried to preserve Tolkien’s dialogue since they were unable to include any of his marvellous descriptive passages. This meant that they sometimes took dialogue from the book and moved it to a different scene, or gave it to another character in order to preserve it, even if it came from a scene that wasn’t in the movie. This was duly illustrated by another clip – Frodo saying (in Moria) that he wished the Ring had never come to him, and Gandalf explaining that he was “meant” to have it (from chapter 2 of the book).
Jackson was asked in passing about the heavy metal scene that had appropriated LOTR during the 70s and 80s and he politely expressed the view that it had nothing to do with Tolkien and that it was not something he was interested in.
Would a Hollywood director have taken on a movie that deals so obviously with loss and looming disaster? Jackson wasn’t sure, but joked that at $300 million LOTR must be the most expensive independent movie ever made. When asked how he dealt with the stress of handling such a large budget he said that three years would have been too long to have stressed over it so he developed a good protective mechanism. It was not his job to worry about the budget – instead, he concentrated on doing his bit to reduce the financial risk by making a good movie.
Was it difficult working so closely with his partner, Fran Walsh? Jackson replied that many relationships break down when one of the partners is involved in the long hours and sometimes weird lifestyle that go with movie-making; in the case of Fran and Peter, however, both partners fully understood and shared the same lifestyle and this proved to be an advantage.
Finally, Jackson was asked if he thought that the reaction to FOTR would influence his work on the second and third movies. “Almost certainly”, he replied. The filming has already been completed but the material now needs squeezing and shaping for effect. He needs another month or two to decide on things that he might not otherwise have done with the next two movies.
Thanks to The Speaking Clock for that!