Here’s an article I found in the German Cinema magazine, along with a brief portrait of Liv Tyler and a more detailed portrait of Viggo Mortensen. I translated and transcribed the articles.
The Lord of the Rings The two Towers
Into the heart of Evil
Everything about part 2 of the Epos: Gandalf’s rebirth and Frodo’s Odyssey through the Dead Marshes. Plus: Peter Jackson, director and Fantasy-Revolutioniser; Viggo Mortensen, Aragorn star and punk rocker; and: win a trip to New Zealand.
Actually Peter Jackson could be in the best mood. He’s sitting at the pool of the Four Season Hotel in Beverly Hills, a steaming mug of tea in front of him. The April rain from the evening before has washed away the smog from the air. Vases with freshly cut flowers are placed everywhere. But the New Zealander isn’t impressed by this kitsch idyll. Because he’s at a place that he dislikes from the bottom of his heart. I never had the ambition to become a Hollywood director. In his eyes, the movie city is Mordor, in Tolkien’s story the heart of evil. They hire the foreign film makers because of their creativity, but then they want them to deliver hollow commercial products. That won’t ever happen to me.
About six years ago, he spoke words like these easily. Back then he had just finished the queer horror comedy The Frighteners for the cost of modest 17 million dollars. The ordeal of fire for his principles had still to come. Cinema audience all over the world know by now how this ended. With the first instalment of The Lord of the Rings he proved that a blockbuster doesn’t need an FX-Overkill. Besides he made the Fantasy-Genre acceptable. With The two Towers, the second instalment of the trilogy, he shows even more impressive, who’s the more powerful: The creative Kiwi and not the Hollywood companies.
Yet at first Jackson hadn’t been considered as a suitable candidate for the Million Dollar Game about Middle Earth. In the late eighties he had taken the Splatter Fan Community by storm with films like Bad Taste. With the Oscar-nominated adolescence-drama Heavenly Creatures he gained critics’ merits in 1994. His first dream project, a re-make of King Kong got shredded during the decisions of Universal. But in 1997, the deal of his life was within reach. He convinced Miramax company to purchase the rights for J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which were owned by producer’s pope Saul Zaentz at that time (One flew over the cuckoo’s nest, Amadeus). But only two years later on the next setback followed. Miramax only wanted to produce one Ring movie, not two, like previously agreed. Jackson was desperately looking for sponsors.
Fortunately Mark Ordesky, an old friend and mentor, was in the management of New Line Studios. His boss, Bob Shaye, granted the stubborn freak an audience. It’s told that he offered an extension to three films from the beginning, corresponding to the literary form. But before he signed the contract, he consulted Saul Zaentz.
In the meantime the triple Oscar winner had met Peter Jackson and his wife Frances Walsh for a dinner in San Francisco. Ever since his failed animated version in 1978, Saul Zaentz wanted to develop a real movie of the Tolkien epos. But directing candidates like John Boorman (Excalibur) failed with their concepts. But not his guest from the far side of the world. Peter had a passion that I didn’t realize in any of the others. For all of the others it was just a chance to do a good movie. He wanted far more than that.
Just the place of this dinner was under a bad star. Co-owner of the restaurant Rubicon was Francis Ford Coppola, Synonym for the megalo-maniac director who had hopelessly miscalculated himself with his extravagant visions.
But psychologically Jackson is on the opposite side of the spectrum. And this exactly explains why the New Zealander did not experience an Apocalypse Now. Whereas Godfather Coppola acted the big shot like a big circus director, the Lord of the Hobbits took the part of a teamplayer.
One word is the leitmotif of all the stories from the Lord of the Rings set: Comraderie. Whenever he thought it necessary, the director shared his power. In writing the screenplay, the real wirepullers were Frances Walsh and Philippa Boyens. Whereas Jackson was dealing with production, they worked on scenes and dialogues every day. The actors gave lots of inputs. There were real seminars about the different roles. Whenever the actors had questions about their characters, the authors answered. Especially The two Towers shows that two women did the storylines. It’s not only swords and wizards that drive the story, but also love and jealousy. And of course it’s no coincidence that the background story in the prologue is presented by a female narrator.
Jackson even put the design of this world into others’ hands, even though he owns an extensive library with Tolkien- and Tolkien-related literature. From England and Switzerland illustrators Alan Lee and John Howe were flown in, who had brought Middle-Earth to paper countless times before. As Europeans they were experienced in the style of old cultures unlike most New Zealanders. We didn’t want to copy other Fantasy movies, we wanted to interpret the story, John Howe points out.
Even in directing, Jackson left the field to others. Because of the extraordinary dimensions of the project, there were up to seven teams at work, each one with a different director. Jackson himself sat in front of several screens like a mix between a Buddha and Big Brother, and watched the material that kept being submitted via satellite.
Jackson’s way of working explains that in the age of effect spectacles the species of directing dictators belongs to the extinctive kind. For that, there are just too many minor directors part of the game. Nevertheless, The Lord of the Rings is everything else but lived democracy. Richard Taylor, who was awarded with two Oscars for his fantastic tricks and make-up work on The Fellowship of the Ring points out clear who was the boss: Peter has done a job like Alexander the Great.
The respective teams listened exactly to the voice of their Lord in the Ring. There wasn’t much of creative freedom anyway, because all of the scenes had been laid down detailed in Jackson’s storyboard. So they rather shot one take too many, than one too less, so Jackson had enough material to choose of. Important scenes were done by the master-director himself anyway. Despite the dimensions of this project he remained in control of his vision. That’s why he kept his actors at close reins. He watched exactly the movements, told them about dialogue tempo and rhythm. He forced Gandalf Ian McKellen to 24 takes for a mini-dialogue. With Mikro-Management like this he even brought veterans like Ex-Dracula Christopher Lee on the edge of desperation.
Peter Jackson was pushing for realism from the beginning. That’s why he refused to use computer graphics whenever possible. If in doubt, he’d rather have the fantastic scenarios built as models. In impressive sizes. For example, the mountain fortress Helm’s Deep was constructed on a scale of 1:8. There was a 4-m-high puppet of Treebeard, the bizarre forest creature. All this wasn’t just looking impressive, it also made the entrance in the world of Middle-Earth easier for the actors. I felt like I was living in another world, Karl Urban, who gives his debut in the Two Towers as prince Éomer, confirms.
With his inclination to perfectionism, Peter Jackson didn’t stop for anything let alone for his sponsors. Backed up by the success of The Fellowship, he squeezed a couple of millions out of New Line, to prepare The Two Towers to the high expectations. It didn’t really make it easier, that the storylines got even more complex than in Part 1.
The story parts into three separate storylines: Sam’s and Frodo’s odyssey to Mordor and the adventures of their scattered fellows in the country of Rohan. Also, the effort in effects increased immensely. There is the first spectacular battle of the trilogy at the mountain fortress Helm’s Deep, and with the outcast hobbit Gollum a fully digital character is being introduced, on whose plausibility the most important storylines depend. Therefore Jackson extended the re-shootings far over the planned time. Until the last, he was working on effects, especially on the appearances of the Ents, the tree creatures who live in the forest of Fangorn. Die impersonated spirits of nature have the ability to walk, but in a very slow manner, but have the ability to blast mighty walls by the incredible power of their roots.
There are two different stories about Jackson’s deep occupation with the Ents. The first tells, he was so pleased with the visual appearance of the good-hearted Ents, that he went and developed more scenes for them. The second story tells exactly the opposite: The first Ent-animations had failed. Fearing the Ents being disliked like the Star Wars Ramble-Alien Jar Jar Binks, Jackson ordered a major overhaul for the wooden rangers. No matter which one of the stories is right: There was lots of overtime work – even though Jackson already had expanded his effect team. It was planned that the effect team was to be expanded on 110 workers in the end 350 were hired. Compared to the Fellowship, the efficiency of the processors grew about 10 times as much.
Insignificant (an attribute that forbids itself with The Lord of the Rings) in all this expensive and extravagant production only one person: Peter Jackson himself. Physically, he could be Coppola’s cuddly cousin. His wardrobe only seems to consist of t-shirts and shorts. If he has to dress formally (that happens rarely enough), he wears shoes.
The comparison to the barefoot Hobbits pops on one’s mind, since they also like to stay unrecognised and don’t think much about exaggerated politeness. But Hobbits are a conservative people. Jackson’s mind instead is subversive. Someone like this doesn’t let Hollywood take him in. I do my kind of movies. That’s it. That’s why he did the Ring production in funny, small New Zealand, where no one was able to try and botch-up in his job. Where other laws – his laws – counted. Jackson’s first commandment was You shall have fun even at the hardest work. And his crew had fun.
Not only that a string quartet was on-set all of the time, playing during the breaks, there also were some other obscure Ring rituals that confused non-prepared guests. For example, one day Peter Jackson welcomed a group of New Zealand Generals, who were to make their soldiers available for mass scenes. When they entered the Hall of the costume designers, a fully-dressed Drag Queen was waiting for the Generals. Even worse everywhere the soldiers looked, they saw men in Drag and women in men’s clothes. It was then that they were explained that the costume designers were celebrating their annual Frock Day, a day when men wear skirts and dresses and women wear pants. And everything else that belongs to it. Peter Jackson did get his soldiers anyway.
The Crowning of the Stubborn
Loner, Stubborn, Punk-rocker in spirit. How of all people – Viggo Mortensen became as Aragorn a hero and a sex symbol
He is the most stubborn star who was ever put on the list of the 50 most beautiful people by US glamour magazine People. He avoids mirrors and hates parties. He recorded three albums between lyric and noise together with Guns ‘n’ Roses guitarist Buckethead. He was married to punk rock singer Exene Cervenka. For his book A hole in the sun he photographed nothing but swimming pools. And this man is now on eye level with Britney Spears and Hayden Christensen. (note: Britney Spears?? That’s a downright insult to Viggo!!) Now it’s definitely too late to change my name into Vic Morton he grumbles. He fired the agent who suggested changing his Danish name into a more mainstream pseudonym.
Until the very day when he was chosen to become a ranger, Mr. M. had done 32 movies from his debut in Witness to 28 Days with Sandra Bullock. In between: a steady change between ambitious projects that didn’t find an audience and simple parts that secured him paying his rent (Daylight, Psycho). Apart from an hypnotic guest appearance as Lucifer in God’s Army, his hard-on-the-outside/good-at-heart manner is most intensive in Ridley Scott’s army flop G.I. Jane. As Demi Moore’s slave driver in the Navy-training camp he quotes D. H. Lawrence I’ve never seen a wild animal feeling self pity. Viggo Mortensen is the kind of guy who puts out a flame with his fingers.
He owes the part that made the loner a sex symbol to a workplace accident. Shooting to The Fellowship was already weeks in progress, when Peter Jackson separated from Aragorn-actor Stuart Townshend too young. Viggo was old enough. The 44-year-old remembers, shaking his head: There was that call ‘Hey, Viggo, do you want to go to New Zealand tomorrow for 1 ½ years?’ He said no. Until Henry Mortensen, his then 11-year-old son, told his father (who had never read Tolkien) Aragorn is the coolest guy in the book!. Already Viggo’s call back gave an impression that the ultimate Aragorn had been found: Okay, how old was I when I came to live with the Elves?
Viggo fits in very quickly. The son of a Danish father and American mother grew up in New York, Buenos Aires and Venezuela. After school, the nomad travelled through Denmark as a carpenter. And now New Zealand! Adventures! At the plane, he studies Tolkien’s work and discovered motifs of the tales that he read as a boy. In northern mythology there’s no promise of a paradise. Knowing that one did right is the only reward one has to expect. The man who left the plane was Aragorn.
Veni, Viggo, vici. The crew greeted the newest member of the Fellowship like a hero. His total fusion with the part is notorious like a legend that is told on camp fires. When Peter Jackson once called him Aragorn for hours, no one corrected him because no one noticed. When Viggo cracked a tooth during an action scene he called for superglue and continued the scene. Viggo sleeps in his boots. Viggo retired to the woods by himself for days. The method actor weights out: I was fishing a couple of times, but I didn’t live in the woods. How would I receive my call for duty every day? Viggo despises cell phones.
But he can’t deny his sometimes noxious devotion: Sometimes I was so exhausted that I hallucinated. At a time, I really thought Liv Tyler was an Elven princess! Fortunately, there was always somebody to watch over me. We were a real community. Like a big circus family.
Elijah Wood praises Viggo’s infectious energy: I bow to Viggo. He saved us. Viggo is embarrassed about the fuss: There is no star in Lord of the Rings. The Fellowship is a unity. Away, bad spell vanity! Viggo turns stained t-shirts to the left side, and as jewellery, he only has the one ring: As a memory and a sign of attachment to the Fellowship he has kept Aragorn’s ring.
It’s his hands that betray him. They’re never the strong, callous hands of a fighter. Those beautiful fingers belong to an artist. In the Hitchcock-remake A perfect Murder in 1998, Viggo played a deceiving painter. An average movie, yet it means much to him. It was nice to kiss Gwyneth Paltrow. And all paintings in his film-studio were his work. That Douglas refers to his work in one scene as trashy, but potent that’s still a reason for Viggo to party.
The artist Viggo Mortensen has shown his work in Athens, New York and L. A, four books have been published. His spoken-words-CD’s are sold out. Viggo’s pictures reveal him as a watcher of the little things, saving the moment. He always keeps dried flowers in his pick-up truck. His paintings are always a work in progress, he’s always able to add something: collages, over-painted photos, parts of poems symbols of a world in motion. Worth up to $ 5,000.
To the opening of his Sign Language exhibition in New York back in July about 1300 fans showed up. I know they didn’t come because of my photos and paintings. Viggo grants himself a smile But now that they’re here I hope they like them. If not, than not.
But he’s not always seeing things so casually. Sometimes I stand in front of my pictures and I think: God!! What’s all this?? Then I question everything. Am I a good actor? A good father? I should stop harassing people with this shit. I can understand some people jumping out of the window. When the doubts threaten to eat him up, he calls his Danish relatives in (can it be true?) Ringsted, leaves L. A. in a hurry and relaxes in his cabin in the mountains of Idaho. You have to face your demons. I have to tolerate my mistakes. His creative output isn’t limited to one form. His curiosity puts the shy guy in front of the camera. His longing for independence ties him to the arts. The working progress and the result are mine. That’s why he distributes his books himself: His publishing company is named Perceval Press after Perceval, the knight from the Arthur’s tale who searched the holy grail.
Viggo keeps on searching. Do I have an aim? I want to be happy even if I play a tortured person.