ROTK Lincoln Center Event
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By Celebrial (Diane Rooney)

Day Two of Trilogy Weekend featured a satellite conversation with Peter Jackson in New Zealand, joined onstage in the second hour by cast members Sean Austin, Bernard Hill, Andy Serkis and Elijah Wood and hosted by the Film Society’s Richard Pena.

Asked about the development of Gollum at the start of the LOTR hour, Pete explained, because the character had dialogue, it was more difficult to realize than a troll or balrog. He was excited by Andy Serkis’ audition in London in April 1999, especially how Andy created the voice with movements and body language. Later, he decided to bring Andy to New Zealand for filming, figuring his film could be used to inspire the designers and he could work with Elijah and Sam, especially in dialogue. As work on the film progressed, Pete decided to render Gollum via motion capture because it brought both a sense of reality and speed.

The scene in “The Two Towers” which develops and defines Gollum’s dual personality was written and directed by Fran Walsh during the pick-up shoots. Pete commented that it became one of the best-known scenes in the film.

In discussing the background of LOTR, Pete explained Tolkien’s belief that England had “lost its mythology in 1066” and therefore set out to create an English mythology, taking place some 6000-7000 years before the present. He commented, “Tolkien was motivated by things that irritated him,” such as the industrial revolution and the resulting destruction of the English landscape. Tolkien hated the rise of the machine age, feeling it enslaved mankind. We see his vision of this in the portrayal of Isengard.

Pete also commented on Tolkien’s experience as an officer in WWI. At that time, each officer had a soldier, called a batman, to assist him. Tolkien based Frodo and Sam’s relationship on this. The author lost many friends in WWI, an experience Pete believes helped inspire the importance of courage and friendship and the treatment of warfare in the books. He does not believe WWII, which was taking place when Tolkien wrote the books, was a direct influence as “Tolkien was not interested in modern politics.”

The first hour focused on Pete’s films pre-LOTR. He talked about how young the New Zealand film industry is: the first color feature film was “Sleeping Dogs” in 1977, which came out when Pete was 16. He said he was actually surprised to hear New Zealand accents in film. The young and relatively small industry means that it’s easier to be a maverick. There’s no hierarchy, no studio machine. “People make movies because they like it.”

Peter Jackson began making films in Super 8 format when he was about 7. After leaving school at 17, he applied for a job at a film laboratory, his first job interview, but was turned down. He took a job as a newspaper photoengraver, which he had for seven years. He then began shooting in 16MM, but explained, because that 16MM film is more expensive, he was spending about half his weekly salary of NZ$300 on film stock and processing.

Richard Pena asked how “Bad Taste” ended up being supported by the New Zealand Film Commission. Pete laughed, agreeing the film was a bit “subversive” and not the image of New Zealand the Film Commission would like promoted. “Bad Taste” started out as a short. Pete shot every weekend while working at his photoengraver job, using coworkers as actors. After shooting for a year and a half, he took a week’s vacation, rented editing equipment, and edited the film in his mother’s dining room. The first cut ran about an hour – too long for a short, so he evolved it into a feature, spending a total of four years filming it.

After investing NZ$17,000 of his own money, in the last year he got funding from the New Zealand Film Commission in NZ$5000 increments. These funds were used for costumes and special effects, which at that time were largely made in the oven in Richard Taylor’s apartment. After filming for another year, they asked for NZ$200,000 for post production and received it. The film was marketed at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival and made a profit in sales to distributors in two days. In fact, Pete commented, it is one of the most profitable films ever made in New Zealand.

Pete commented, “Your career is defined by the people you meet.” In his case, this included meeting Fran Walsh and Steve Sinclair in 1987, and Jim Booth at the NZ Film Commission, who had worked hard to give him initial funding.

Pre-production work was well advanced on “Brain Dead,” with financing from the NZ Film Commission and outside investors, when the outside investors pulled out and the film had to be shelved. Pete, Fran and their associates decided instead to make “Meet the Feebles,” which they wrote in three weeks and began filming in another three weeks, again with funding from the NZ Film Commission. Pete explained that his concept of the film was based on “The Muppets,” and what life was like for Kermit the Frog when he left the stage, went back to his dressing room, lit a cigarette and opened a beer.

“Meet the Feebles”was very difficult to film because of the puppet’s movements, so the film went over budget and got behind schedule. The Film Commission was not happy, and threatened to remove Pete from the film if he didn’t begin editing. There was still one more week to film, so Pete, Fran, and their associates pooled their own money to pay for the last week of the shoot. They filmed at night, and Pete edited the existing footage during the day. They were terrified the Film Society might find out they were still shooting, so film was sent to the lab under the code name “The Frogs of War.”

Because “Meet the Feebles” sold well, they were able to go back to “Brain Dead.” Pete described “Brain Dead” as an homage to the great zombie films of the early and mid-80s, such as Evil Dead, Day of the Dead, and The Reanimators,” the “type of films I enjoyed seeing.” He offered a tip for aspiring film makers: if you have a low budget, zombie films are a good way to make an impact rather than drama. He agreed that zombie film makers need to be fearless because each film has to be more outrageous than the last.

Another influence Pete acknowledged was Monty Python, which he watched on television as a child. “Salad Days,” in which an English garden party turns to mayhem, was a particular favorite.

Peter Jackson’s films moved in a different direction with “Heavenly Creatures,” based on a 1954 murder in Christchurch, NZ. He explained this was a film Fran Walsh especially wanted to make. Pete described Christchurch as a town where the English class system was still present, where a murder like that portrayed in “Heavenly Creatures” was “more an embarrassment than a tragedy.”

They researched contemporary newspaper accounts of the murder and made use of original locations, including the tearoom where Juliet Hume and Pauline Parker had tea with Pauline’s mother before murdering her. They also interviewed people familiar with the case. Pete explained that when working on the script, they listened to Mario Lanza albums (music the film’s characters loved) for inspiration. They used “The Humming Chorus” from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly in the murder sequence, even changing the film rate to match the tempo of the music.

Everyone left with a deeper insight into and greater appreciation of Peter Jackson and his films.

LOTR Trilogy Weekend at Lincoln Center

Saturday, January 10: The Trilogy plus Q&A

By Celebrial (Diane Rooney)

I purchased my tickets for the Trilogy Weekend on eBay (don’t ask) so I was in shock when I arrived in New York from San Francisco and learned that Peter Jackson would not be present in person but via satellite, due to editing commitments for the extended edition of “Return of the King.” Saturday started with Sean Austin and Elijah Wood welcoming everyone to the screening of “Fellowship.” In the afternoon, Bernard Hill and Andy Serkis introduced “The Two Towers.” Bernard explained that TTT moves from the world of hobbits to that of men and their human problems. He joked that as Theoden, he was concerned with needing a shave and “that strange guy hanging around my niece.” He had nothing but praise for Peter Jackson, saying “I was proud to be part of it, and proud of what Pete did for the books, the films, and the actors.”

Andy Serkis described LOTR as “a fantastic experience” and Peter Jackson as “a compassionate man on an incredible scale.” He also acknowledged the “computer wizards and the incredible envelopes they have pushed over the past four and a half years” to bring Gollum to the screen. All four cast members introduced ROTK, with Andy Serkis taking pictures of the audience and joking that he’d email copies to everyone.

The Q&A session with the four cast members and Peter Jackson (via satellite from New Zealand) started around midnight. On the big screen, Peter loomed over the cast, causing them to compare him to Sauron and joke they could see up his nostrils.

Pete reprised the chronology of the films’ production. After three years of pre-production, principal photography took fifteen months (late 1999 through 2000). Post-production for each film took a year. He started by putting together a first edit at the beginning of the year, using this to determine what scenes would need to be to be written and filmed in pickups, which were shot in mid-year. The pick-ups, lasting five or six weeks, were built into the schedule and enabled the films to both incorporate refinements in vision and subtly emphasize parallels to contemporary events.

In commenting on the balance between character and action in the films, Pete emphasized the humanity of the films, saying it was important that the spectacle not overwhelm the story. He noted, “the story is what’s important,” as conveyed through character, dialogue, and performance. Pete said “we have lots of battle footage we didn’t use.” He noted especially that in ROTK the personal story is most intense. He commented further, “The whole point in making Fellowship and Two Towers us to get to Return. It was always our favorite when we were shooting.”

He also emphasized his fidelity to the main story, Frodo’s journey, saying he decided what book elements to include based on whether they assisted moving that main story forward.

Regarding future projects after “King Kong,” Jackson said he was interested in directing “The Hobbit” although the story was less complex than LOTR, noting “it would be weird for somebody else to do it.”

Bernard Hill’s comments focused on how the films kept bumping up against world affairs, about how the film story of the battle between good and evil was playing out in real life as the films were being released. He noted “a blistering connection” between Two Towers and the events of 9/11.

Asked about the challenges of working on location for 15 months, Sean Austin said, “We loved living in New Zealand, being part of something special, bigger than ourselves.” “I learned a lot about myself, my energy level and attention span,” he added.

Bernard said the hardest thing for him was “leaving New Zealand,” for the last time, without a return date for pickups, describing the feeling as “a hole in the middle of my soul.” Now that the Trilogy is complete, the millions of fans worldwide who want more know exactly what he means.