Peter Jackson Talks With Bernard Hill
Like rain across the meadows OR Pelennor Fields Forever in the hall of Theoden king, a conversation with Bernard Hill
Bernard Hill (Theoden):
Any Briton worth their salt knows Bernard Hill. Despite his relatively unknown status elsewhere (though international audiences may have previously know him best as the ill-fated captain of James Cameron’s Titanic – bet no one ever asks him to drive their boats Peter Jackson has immortalised him in the powerhouse, difficult role as King Theoden of Rohan for The Lord Of The Rings movies), Hill is a staple and giant of the British acting community and is especially well known for his array of depictions of the working class. Like me, he’s also originally a Manc (short for Mancunian – from Manchester if you need that subtitled).
Even you had trouble placing the face, it’s likely you’ve seen it many times before. A master of becoming the character, Hill has also been seen on the big screen in Gandhi, True Crime, The Scorpion King, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Ghost And The Darkness and No Surrender. He’ll next be seen as the father of the male protagonist of Wimbledon, co-starring Kirsten Dunst.
He’s probably best known to me for his work in British productions from stage and the movies (Shirley Valentine, The Bounty, Blessed Art Thou, Going Off Big Time, The Criminal and the highly recommended Mike Leigh debut, Hard Labour); yet I’ve always been mesmerised by him in TV series such as the now-legendary, hard-hitting realist play-for-the-day turned-mini-series, Boys From The Black Stuff, Dennis Potter’s Lipstick On Your Collar (as a deranged uncle it also featured Ewan McGregor’s first appearance), as well as award-winning productions of I, Claudius, Henry VI trilogy and Richard III, Antigone, and Great Expectations.
To me, this was one of the bigger moments of The Return Of The King junket day, though various journalists had no real idea of who he was. Those who did, knew to be prepared.
As Bernard enters the room, we greet him with a hearty, ‘Hello! How are you doing?’
BH: “[amiable English accent] Very well thanks. How are you?”
[Female NZ reporter] We just made Sean show us his tattoo but there’s so few of us left now, we hope you all don’t mind?
BH: “I wasn’t allowed a Fellowship tattoo. I had to have one, but I wasn’t allowed a Fellowship tattoo.”
[Female NZ reporter] So which one did you get?
BH: “Ummm. There’s a guy called Mike Greelish, who was one of the leather patterners down at Weta, and I was struggling for a tattoo ‘motif’. So I went to see him about some travel patches made for some of the guys as leaving presents and I wanted some stamps put on them their own stamps. So Aragorn had his own stamp etc, stuff and stuff, and they said, ‘oh, here they are.’ And there was one lovely one and I said, ‘oh which is this?’ and they said, ‘that’s Theoden’s stamp. His personal motif.’ And he said here you are. And I said, ‘Christ. Thanks!’ Then I thought, ‘hmmm ‘ and took it down to a tattooist and he redraw it slightly smaller because it’s quite big and then he drew it on my arm and tattooed it.”
[Me] Would you mind showing us?
Rolls up his sleeve.
[female Woman’s Day reporter] Is it a horse?
BH: “No. It’s like a Celtic motif. It’s nothing kind of nothing identifiable.”
[Me] So even after all your experiences and other projects, this film meant that much to you enough to for you to get a tattoo? That’s pretty impressive. Have you any more tattoos?
BH: “Well yeah. It’s a big thing getting a tattoo the first time. You can’t go out the next day and wash it off. It’s there for life. Your kids are going to see it and your grandkids are going to see it [laughs sheepishly]! And my father had one of a big sailing ship on his arm that was a constant source of embarrassment to him as he became more and more of a snob.”
We all laugh.
BH: “Well he was in the Royal Navy [laughs]! Joe Jack from Manchester a miner. And then he went off to the Navy in the war and all that kind of stuff, and then obviously had that as a memento a jack the lad Manc.”
[Male reporter] It’s a long way from the Mike Leigh films and Boys From The Black Stuff you did in your early career, to the wilds of New Zealand. How’s that been?
BH: “Oh I dunno. Very similar. Coz they were small budget films with not much fat on them in terms of finance. And although this has got a fair bit of funding, the feeling is very similar. Coz on low budget films, you’re not there for anything other than the work coz there’s no money in it and very little kudos you’re just there coz it’s a worthy project and it creates a kind of camaraderie and group feeling that’s well, I thought, unique to that level of filmmaking; but it came out here. It’s just the same. Someone said, it might’ve been Liv, ‘it’s the most expensive low budget film I’ve ever worked on.’ And everyone knew exactly what she was talking about. I think it was Liv. You can say it was me if you like in case she doesn’t like it! But somebody in the room said it. It’s a very specific feeling, and because of the way Pete organises his work and sets and stuff it’s a very egalitarian society he operates and there’s no hierarchical difference between someone who gets the coffee and someone who kills one of the Uruk Hai or someone who directs the bloody thing it’s the same people.”
[Me] Do you mind talking for a moment about Boys From The Blackstuff, because I remember seeing it on TV when I was living back in Manchester at 12 years-old and I still remember how it became a household name across England. And how your character and the catch-cry, ‘gizza job,’ seemed to be on everyone’s lips. Was that fun to do and even more, was it hard to live down?
BH: “Let’s not bore everyone here with that stuff. Let’s talk about The Lord Of The Rings not Boys From The Blackstuff. That’s another conversation maybe. We don’t want everyone else falling asleep [everyone laughs].”
[female reporter] What did you think of the movie?
BH: “I saw it yesterday. I thought it was wonderful. I was frightened really at the beginning. I didn’t know what was where it was going to go. I think people were more worried about this one than the other ones really. Because we had to get One right, coz it he didn’t get One right, Two and Three would have sat on the shelf somewhere. But after, Two, well, he could resurrect the whole thing with Three. But if he didn’t get Three right, that would have been it. He would’ve gone out on a bad note really. The whole thing would’ve been tarnished by the memory of Three. But I think that was why more people were worried about Three than anything.”
[female reporter] Were you ever worried when you first signed on that Peter Jackson wouldn’t be able to pull this off?
BH: “No. No. I mean Peter’s an intelligent guy and he’s got a massive crowd of people around him. You’ve only got to wander around to I mean, we got shown around the different areas and elements and sections and it’s pretty obvious that you don’t get all these things because you’re an average filmmaker. You get this because you’ve got a great dream and a great vision, backed up by, really, what’s turned out to be a phenomenal talent. I don’t think people were aware of that as much as they are now. But it’s certainly proved to be the case. I mean he’s a phenomenal, phenomenal filmmaker.”
[same female reporter possibly Lizzie from Triple M] What was it like filming those huge battle scenes? Was it really full on and rigorous?
BH: “Yeah. It was f***ing hard work. It was really, really hard work. Coz we all had the stuff on and that armour was heavy. It was difficult to move in and stuff and because we were strapped in so tight, breathing wasn’t the prime concern really [all laugh]. And we were all sitting on horseback.
“The stunties were all in that plastic stuff, that head-to-toe prosthetic stuff. And that stuff was sweaty and smelly. They had to be de-fungus-ised every day. It felt like you were putting on a whole suit of dish clothes every day and they stank of bleach or some kind of disinfectant. So you had to go in that, then they stick the head on as well, then the helm on top of the head. I’m not going to complain [all laugh]! They suffered a lot more than I did. And they were on foot and they used to fall over and get hurt and get trodden on and all sorts of stuff.
[Me] Was the arc of the character meaty enough for you?
BH: “Well we worked that out when we went to the workshops coz there was no real script to start with. It was a rough precis of the book with all the unfilmable stuff taken out. And then we worked that, and as each thing became more relevant to the schedule, we’d work those things out.
“So I went to Peter and Fran’s house, with Peter, Fran and Phillipa, and worked on the script. A lot of us did. So we had a say from the very beginning. It was a very kinda organic procedure where we could say, really, where we thought the character should go and they had their own ideas obviously. They’d been working on it a lot longer than we had. But they put their ideas in and I put mine. They listened to mine as I listened to theirs. It’s a real trick to get to a stage in a movie like this, where you can actually determine the lines you might say.”
[Me] So what are some of the things you brought to the table for Theoden?
BH: “Two main areas. One was the ‘tkatkatkatka’ [extends his arm as if holding a sword and makes the sound of the sword touching each of the Rohirrim’s weapons]. That was all my idea – which terrified me. That came out of a visit to the Weta workshop in the first week. I saw all the spears and weapons and stuff like that; and for some reason I thought of Pelennor Fields y’know, like you do [chuckles] and I thought of a kid going down the railings with a stick hmmm the king touching everybody’s spear it might be a Rohan tradition that kind of thing. I was thinking in those kind of terms; that the king gives his spirit and sword to them, that he goes into their spirit somehow through the spear, and we’re all in this together. This is it, we’re all going to die, but you’ve got the king’s spirit in you. That kind of stuff.
“So I phoned Phillipa and Fran and said, ‘I’ve got this idea for Pelennor Fields.’ They were like, ‘Pelennor Fields?!? That’s nine months away [chuckles]!’ So I said, ‘but I’ve got this idea!’ And they said, ‘well okay, what is it?’ So I told and they, [sounds like their contemplating it] ‘hmm, okay.’ So I kept bringing it on, and they were like, ‘yeah! Okay! We’ve got it! We’ve written it down. And y’know ‘
“Then I thought, ‘s**t! What have I said?!?’ Coz I couldn’t do it. From the horse performers point of view, I couldn’t have done it. Then I went to more and more horse training, and I took more and more lessons; maybe 20 hours a week. And that’s apart from riding socially on the weekends and I turned myself from a rider to a horseman. And that was the pay off really that fact that we actually went out and did it, that we filmed it, I did it and it was my idea. That was a real trip.
“And I actually DID it. I thought it was going to be Because they knew it was one of my big things, they gave me this unbelievable dialogue to say. ‘Ride for ruin and the world’s end.’ For something to say, you don’t get better than that, really. ‘Death! Spears shall be broken a red day.’ I can’t remember now but God, was it a good speech.
How many takes did you do?
BH: “A few. We had trouble with the horse because,” and Bernard talks of the horse like his opinion was perfectly valid, “he didn’t like it [everyone laughs]. We had to swap the horse because he didn’t like it, and this is the horse I trained on. He didn’t like the death bit. He didn’t like death so when we rehearsed it, the first AD said, ‘okay, well we thought we’d do this and stand here and blah blah.’ You know, we rehearsed it properly. And I’d done a little bit and showed them what we were going to do. And they’re all there, 250 of them, and I said, ‘okay now I’m going to shout death. DEATH!’ And they all went, ‘DEATH!’ And the horse went ‘bye! Not my idea of a good time no, sorry! Horses don’t do this.’ [all laugh] So we had to leave.”
“Oh then the other one was the fact that in that arc of development, which is what you were referring to earlier on, I’m persistently interested in this duality that exists within everybody’s dichotomy. That there is good and evil in everybody; that you have to have evil to have good and vice versa which is why we’re fascinated by the good and evil dilemma we face today, I think. It’s because we have the microcosm of it inside ourselves. We are the embodiment of good and evil it’s all inside us. I don’t believe there’s anything on the planet that we’re not actually a part of. That we are everything.
“Look, once the earth cooled down and started to form into seas and the crust and stuff like that, nothing left and nothing arrived. So we’ve been in a stable state for a couple of billion years. So, everything that’s here, including ourselves, is all part of the same organic process. As we’ve developed and stuff, I think we’re a microcosm of the whole. That’s pretty deep!
“Anyway, I think that’s true.”
[An aide interrupts to whisper that Executive Producer Bob Shaye has arrived. Bernard seems unruffled and seemingly unimpressed].
BH: “Alright, okay. That’s good. Tell him to wait or come in. He might learn something.”
“Where was I? So inside every human being, there’s all the properties that every other human being has. Some human beings are born into some predicaments and some into other different predicaments. Now one of those predicaments, maybe, is that you have to be a king or queen. And inside that, the human being is always there. Now you might have this terrible thing you’ve been trained to do for your whole life to be a king and all that, with the rabble and the cheerleading and being royal and keeping the troops going and all that. In the old days, it was to get them to the stage where they could actually believe that they could die honourably.
“But underneath that was the human being that had the doubts and fears. So I wanted that in it. I wanted a king that, beneath all the surface, which is why you get that moment on the battlements of The Two Towers. When he’s going, ‘no one’s ever breached this Deeping Wall! No one’s gonna get in!’ And Aragorn says, ‘what are you talking about?’ And Theoden says, ‘What do you want me to do? If they’re going to die, I want them to die well. So when YOU’RE king, and one day you just might be, just LEARN. [laughs]’ Which is what happens. In Film 3, Theoden’s dead and he’s there, Aragorn’s the king.”
At this point, his talent wrangler virtually drags Bernard out of the interview room because he chooses not to be rushed by anyone.
With a distinguished and genuine, ‘thank you guys,’ he’s pulled out of the room to his final appointment of the day.
Funnily enough I bumped into Bernard on two other occasions before the weekend was through. One was on the Red Carpet where he saw me directly opposite the speech stage right near the mouth of the Embassy Theatre and in the front row. Pole position! – and, in typical Bernard Hill style, broke off from a TV interview partway through his last question to say hello, ask how I was and share the moment. He was to chat with me for a good few minutes (quite something on a red carpet I can tell you) and I’m still looking for that quote on the end of my tape but that’ll be the last thing I transcribe. His assistant recognised that Bernard seemed fond and relatively friendly for me and broke the ban by mouthing a question as to whether I’d want a photo with him. Did I what?!? The guy had been a personal hero for 21-years! As luck would have it, I ended up getting two photos.
The next time I saw him was at the lavish After Premiere party, early on when he was taking a time out in a slightly open to have a cigarette in what was supposed to be a non-smoking affair. He looked less relaxed and more like he just wanted to go home for some rest or be in the sanctuary of the fellowship of actors. But all did their bit to honour their guests before nipping out the back door (I saw John Noble, Bernard and Liv among the 2000+ but the people I actually talked to from the production were Lawrence Makoare, a slightly frightened looking Sarah McLeod [she seemed so surprised to be recognised, she may have thought I was stalking her or something!], as well as Paul Morell and Peter Tait, the actors who played the King Of The Dead and Shagrat and their respective partners yes, there’s more story there. The latter two told me quite a few nuggets and couldn’t believe I recognised them without prosthetics. They deserved some attention too and were much less under siege than the ‘stars’).
Given my reputation for the tobacco you might remember my One Ring Super Spy moniker, Ciggie Fagash (yes the same person who supplied Xoanon and OneRing.Net with the first pictures of Saruman, Galadriel and Gimli as well as other scoops) I was glad to be offered a spot next to him to cure my gasping need for a smoke-o.
To my eternal despair, all eight of my photo sets were lost/stolen at the Adelaide Premiere; including the one Viggo’s assistant took of us together on the red carpet. Sure I don’t have the material evidence of my trip or photos taken with the two kings any more (even though my friends, family and workmates all pored over them before the loss), but as Viggo pointed out when talking about his own souvenirs:
“Like everyone I got my sword, but if that doesn’t get through customs or gets stolen, lost or damaged, in the end it’s not that a big deal. It’s just an object. The thing that I know I take with me – and everyone else does – is something that’s inside: the memory of the experience. That’s the gift I take away with me.”
Of course, I’ve also got my tapes and modest photos friends took. But these interviews weren’t just for me. You don’t have to believe it, but after sharing so many years with you as an invisible community, poring over every detail, becoming prouder and prouder, I thought of you all on the entire trip. These memories and questions were for all Tolkien fans and fans of Peter Jackson’s films especially the ones who couldn’t make it or weren’t allowed into the junkets themselves. That’s why I share them with you.
If you ever want to drop a line, I’m at
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 for my parents and the Mancs.