Justifications, tears and triumphs, an interview with Phillipa Boyens
Onto our intrepid round table of journalists’ last interview of the day: Phillipa Boyens (co-writer). It was a marathon effort by anyone’s standards especially after a night on the booze, but anyone who found this a trail needed a good smack in the chops. So after quickly downing two coffees, a tall glass of water and a few slaps in the face, I felt about as ready as I could’ve been. Luckily for us, New Zealander Phillipa was alert, full of irreverent fun and an embodiment of the most endearing Kiwi qualities (of which there are legion). She’s also a radiant woman, very hard to dislike and full of open, positive energy yet practical. Off we go
PB: “How are you guys holding up?”
Umm okay. What about you, you poor love?
PB: “Okay but a bit drained. How’s this for a deal: let’s not talk about The Lord Of The Rings?”
Umm cool. What about King Kong?
PB: “Yes! Give me some ideas! We’re just starting the script.”
Okay, firstly are you rewriting the whole thing from scratch?
PB: “Yeah. Well no. We’re basing it on the 1933 version. He’s definitely going to be a gorilla. We thought about changing him into a Kiwi but [laughs], it didn’t work.”
[male reporter] Why are you setting it as a period piece?
PB: “Coz it’s a fantastic well Pete should really answer that but I think one is, one of the reasons he became a filmmaker is because of the very first movie; so he’s honouring that. But actually, if you look at the ’30s, it’s an incredible era and it’s a much easier era to work in than it is today. To me, it’s the decade the world shrank. That’s the decade where there still seemed possibilities of a creature like Kong existing y’know like deepest, darkest Africa.
“And it was a very dark decade. The writers from the era describe a huge depression. It’s got fantastic stuff that you can draw on; like I’m going to draw on the depression for Anne’s background. And yet the appetite the audiences had for film and Hollywood the pure escapism was rampant. They just wanted to escape that whole thing.
“Yet at the same time, capitalism or just the possibilities of the world were at a high. Like I said, [to the people of the time, there was the possibility] that there was an island out there with these men desperately trying to find it. We’re still in the process of making it real, coz that’s what Pete wants. He wants it to feel real, so we’re still grappling with that concept that there was an island that could exist in the world, under the radar, where dinosaurs could exist and that there could be this huge gorilla on it. How do you make that work?
“That’s one of the things you can look at, when you set it in the ’30s, you have that ability literally. It’s the decade where it stopped taking you six or seven weeks to get to England from Australia. Suddenly you could do it in a week. It was also a decade of adventure, where they embraced the future and things like that. And there’s also the great clothes c’mon!”
We all agree.
“Yeah you know, not unlike Indiana Jones. That proves this era works in people’s hearts and minds. It gives you that, ‘of our world but not of our world’ feel. Interestingly enough, Fran found this thing on the internet no, in her research I don’t know if it was on the internet. She did find that for some people, King Kong is so ingrained in the New York culture, that urban myth has supported his existence. You know, you can still freely get little statuettes of Kong on the Empire State. Urban myth actually says that a giant gorilla did climb th Empire State Building! Why mess with that it’s a gift! That’s great [giggles] and totally not true [everyone else laughs]. But people think it is?”
[Me, in one of the recurring questions I had for anyone involved. After all not only have they adapted one of my favourite books in The Lord Of The Rings, but now they’re faithfully adapting my favourite monster movie. My friends and I were so impressed that we wrote, recorded and performed three songs in three nights, a trilogy of songs kinda like a three-act tongue-in-cheek ‘rock opera’ for the filmmakers going on to work on Kong that’s (PJ, Phillipa, Richard Taylor and Andy Serkis) as a personal, handmade present. They were all gracious and surprisingly pleased to get them] Were you a fan of the original King Kong?
PB: “I love the original Kong. There’s some interesting things that happen in that, in that it’s a very, very simple story in that we just watched Homicidal? Have you seen that? One of the William Castle movies? Talk about cutting to the chase! It’s all about ,’a homicidal maniac on the loose!’ Which is a great example of 1930s storytelling you just cut to the chase. You sort of just grab the audience and ugh! Rip the into it [giggles]. That’s what I love about the original King Kong. You know we try to be too clever sometimes. You see all that high concept scriptwriting but it’ll be interesting to see.”
[Me] You’re spot on. As soon as they hit the island, there’s zero fat. It’s one scene after the other and no pauses.
PB: “Which is one of the primary things you do in the screen writing. You start it as close to the story as you possibly can which is what we need to do with this one. But umm I love this process part. Everything’s still possible.
“I remember The Lord Of The Rings days before we went through the nightmare of realising, ‘ah well, it’s not possible because we’ve already shot this instead! And damn, this is such a good idea [wicked laugh].'”
[female Woman’s Day reporter] I saw you at a Writer’s Seminar in Auckland.
PB: “Was that with Ed Foley?”
[female Woman’s Day reporter] Yes, I think so. I remember you being so enthusiastic that you’d just finished writing The Lord Of The Rings. Looking back now
PB: “[shrugging off in comical nonchalance] Ahhh, I was so naïve. I just thought the third one would be the easy one, because we’ve finally got an end and it’s done, it’s over but actually it was really hard. Just because I sound like I’m whining and complaining but it was trying to make the multiple storylines fit together; trying to deliver on all those great characters that you’ve met other with in the other two films; honouring the book (but you can’t have that many endings even though we managed to fit quite a few in [squeals with delight]!); but y’know finding our way through all of that stuff was harder than we thought it would be.”
“I remember when we started this project. Actually it was when we’d just wrapped production. We were sitting and having a cup of tea and Peter said, ‘you know what’d be really cool? If we were hypnotised so we didn’t know anything and could you sit and watch the films.’ Now I know actually get what he meant. We don’t get to do that. I know for myself and Fran Walsh [co-scriptwriter] – who I just want to acknowledge by the way, because if Peter was the heart of these movies, she was their soul – that we can’t watch them without seeing things we’d want to improve or change. Not yet anyway. But to see them with an audience who love them is as close as we can get.”
Could you give us an indication of how what the Tolkien estate’s approval process on the films and script were?
PB: “No. Actually they wouldn’t have attempted to do that either. It wasn’t that kind of a process. They left us to decide for ourselves. Professor Tolkien himself, when he was writing letters about the concept of these being turned into movies, one of his letters actually said he’d put them in the hands of other people because that was not his thing. He hoped other hearts and minds would come to them with art, music and drama, and use them to bring his world to life in the best way they could. In a way, that’s just what we’ve done.”
[male reporter] How much debate was there about the endings, because there were quite a few?
PB: “Yes, absolutely. We left quite a few out. They’ll be on the Extended DVD. That’s our second bite at the apple, our, ‘oh no, we can do better!’ forum [laughs].”
[male reporter] Were there any parts of the book you thought would be unfilmable but worked out how to do?
PB: “Not in terms of the technology. If we could imagine it, they could conceive a way to make it happen. It was more the classic story-telling problems that everybody faces: making sure we kept the pace right; the tension right; that we had enough clarity in what we were doing that we actually telling a story and there was a reason behind doing what we were doing, and that the characters also had a reason for doing all the things they were doing. All of those things were much harder than any technology problems because Weta were so on top of it. For me, that is.
“None of the really hard things were technology things, they were the hard drama scenes; like the scene were Gandalf says, ‘I can’t see him any more.’ And Aragorn is saying something else. That was a hard scene to write because it had to have the right feel, the right pace, but it’s all about an awkward moment so how were we to do it? How much were we to include? The audience wants you to keep moving and it can’t be exposition. They couldn’t suddenly say, ‘I know! Let’s ride out to the Black Gate!’ They had to go for a real reason and it had to feel also like a reversal, if you like. It was all of those things and that made it really hard. Those sorts of things were much more difficult. “And, the multiple characters. That was hard to maintain.”
[male reporter] Do you feel a sense of relief that you’ve got out of this project with Tolkien fans on your side?
PB: “Dunno yet. We’ll see. It’s funny because in one of the last round-table interviews, one of the very first questions and I could see he was quite upset was, ‘[told in stilted, barely measured anger] How do you justify Frodo sending Sam away? And was that true to Tolkien?’ That’s interesting because you can really see people care. Now we know this, we know people passionately love these books and why shouldn’t they? We do. We can destroy for them, this world they love so much. So yes, I did have a sense of that.
“But I also know what my job is. And that’s that I had to bring these books to life with Peter and Fran. We didn’t do anything arbitrarily we did it because we needed to make these books work onscreen.
“And the reason why Frodo sent Sam away, just so you know, is: what would happen if he didn’t? He would have a very long climb up the stairs, then you would get Sam which happens in the book get lost in the tunnel which not dramatic. If you just think about what you would have if you didn’t do something there, you understand why we did it which is why we did it.”
[Female reporter] Did you see the article, Running Rings Around Hollywood, about you guys taking the scripts to Hollywood and being turned down by everyone? Did you feel any pressure?
PB: “Yes. In the early days, it was an organic process, because in the early days we did a selling script and yes we did pander to the studios when I say pander, I mean trying to be realistic in what they’d give the time of day to. You can’t sell someone in Hollywood on this love story between two great characters and that they only have one scene together. Or that she basically stays home and, in the book, is embroidering [everyone laughs] his banner. They’re just not going to respond to it! So we did do things to bring Arwen more into it.
“Thank God for Liv because she had a very strong instinct that it was wrong. And we felt that it was wrong and it was wrong. We had to find a way, which was part of the endless revision process, to tell the truth of that story. It’s a very private and intimate love story. It’s actually not a boy-meets-girl love story. It’s a boy and girl who’ve known each other for decades and decades and have loved each other that whole time. It’s actually quite a mature story and we spent a huge amount of time on it.
“That’s what I like about and it’s not in the book! but when she’s leaving Middle-Earth because she cannot conceive of their future. I love that she stays because she sees the child, because to me it’s more interesting. And it has truth. If you go into the appendices, you’ll see they did have a child and that she was very aware that she was staying for a very specific reason: to give away one kind of life to offer another kind of future.
“But you try pitching that in Hollywood! It’s a theme of these films. If you try pitching the theme of this film, which is ‘death’, they just say go away [laughs].”
[Me] Would you like to work with these actors again, as a sort of repertory company?
PB: “I’d love to work with all of them again. They’re all wonderful really great. Seriously. I’d love to work with ALL of them again. I don’t know about Kong, though I know they’re all volunteering to come down to be killed by him; but we’ll see. Elijah, Billy and Dom want to be in the first wave of sailors destroyed by Kong. He’s definitely climbing the Empire State again You gotta do it. Eh?”
And that was it for the last interview of the day.
We all made it.
Thanks and credit must be extended the other journalists who shared these round-tables with me. Each of us had to share the talent time with others. I’ve endeavoured to credit the journalist when their names and publications where mentioned; unfortunately this rarely happened. This one’s dedicated to them.