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LOTR Behind the Scenes

September 6, 2004 at 3:58 pm by Tehanu  - 

LORD OF THE RINGS
BEHIND THE SCENES

Part 1: The Fellowship of the Rings

Imagine if you, a fan, had been allowed to wander about the filmset – all the filmsets – as “The Lord of the Rings” was being filmed. For several years, you were able to watch people working on any task related to the films, ask them any questions about what they were doing, even to linger in doorways and listen to Peter Jackson or Richard Taylor plan what kind of movies they intended to make and discuss the best way to achieve that.

Well, none of us is ever going to have that opportunity. But Costa Botes did, and he distilled the best of his five years of observation (That’s 21 hours of footage) into three 90-minute documentaries.

These are a fly-on-the-wall view of what it was like to make those movies. They give a sense of the grinding, endless, enormous work that it was for everyone, and how it must have seemed at times like a terrifying, insurmountable task. At the same time, they capture the incredible spirit that drove people forward with a mixture of joy, courage and determination. Like the Fellowship themselves, the people making the film slogged forward with a kind of blind faith that even though they couldn’t see the overall plan or imagine how it fitted in to the whole, somehow if they gave of their best, the effort would be rewarded with success. Or maybe just that if they gave their all, that in itself would be its own reward. How incredibly rare that is in film making!

At the centre of the maelstrom is Peter Jackson, often captured on the fly as he directs the cast, makes a decision or explains something to the crew. The documentary shows him more often working with crew, cast, and management than talking directly to the camera, and so you get a sense of how much everything depends on him. You also realise how tightly-knit and interdependent are his crew.

A little has already been written about the scene where Peter Jackson Loses His Temper. The extraordinary thing about it is that he is so restrained, so reasonable, that if it were anyone else you’d probably only say he was a little tetchy. Some people can get angrier than that six times before breakfast, and have a whole door-slamming, crockery-smashing fit while under far less pressure. Costa Botes’ documentary shows you both why Peter Jackson doesn’t do that, and why he doesn’t need to.

Having said that, nothing in this documentary is explicit. It doesn’t announce its conclusions or channel your thoughts with mood-setting music. It moves quietly into different spaces and allows people to talk about what they do. You’ll meet or observe the language coaches, the armourers, the stuntmen,the actors, the horse-wranglers, the costume department, the special effects technicians, the artists, and the extras. There is charming footage of the hobbits’ small-scale doubles, who are characters in their own right. Unforgettable moments such as Viggo Mortensen in full Aragorn kit troutfishing at Mavora Lakes between takes. There is an astonishingly frank exchange between PJ and Barrie Osborne about the films’ escalating budget (in relation to the CGI required for Gollum). The ball is left in Barrie’s court to either allow PJ to make the films how PJ wants, or end up with “Lost in Space production values.” The documentary can’t follow up what happens next, but it’s obvious from the finished films that Barrie succeeded in championing Peter’s cause.

The documentary shows how some things are done – some of the visual and aural tricks that are used. If that takes away some of the magic of the films, it replaces it with a sense of delight and wonder at the startling, clever, and sometimes funny solutions the crews come up with. It’s an eye-opener to see how claustrobphobic the Bag End sets are when they’re in use – it’s incredible that the actors could appear to be moving so freely inside a set that was crammed with other people operating lights, cameras, microphones, wind machines and whatnot.

The documentary flips between people that are happy in their work, and the moments when people are overwhelmed by it. There’s the recurring nightmare of the missing radio transmitters which the film units absolutely need, and the person responsible for locating them absolutely can’t get in time. It’s a potential disaster and people are at the point of tears over what was probably only the latest of a hundred problems. Ngila Dickson is interviewed at a point where the costume people are being driven insane by the logistics of multiple locations, schedule changes, and the endless copies and doubles of every single costume item. She looks exhausted.

There was footage of the appalling flooding in Queenstown that washed away sets and screwed up the outdoors film schedule. There was the day when it started to snow on location, and the cast and crew gamely tried to keep going until it was impossible. There were the team of chainmail makers, slowly going mad as they clipped together chainmail rings all day every day for 2 years. Through it all people seemed to find a sense of humour to keep them going no matter what.

For contrast there were the hobbit boys improvising a capella jazz scat on Weathertop, or laughing and carrying on their jokes between takes. We see Gandalf riding into Hobbiton one of umpteen times – this time his hat blows off; riding in again on that cart, only this time he’s giving Frodo a quick lesson in Sindarin. “The Lonely Mountain…..so that’s the singular?” asks Frodo. There are a few such tantalising scenes that never made it into the finshed films.

The wonderful thing about about this documentary is that clearly people trusted Costa Botes and became so used to him that they almost forgot he was there – he and his crew seemed to be part of the furniture of the set, able to candidly observe åwhat went on around them. The result is that you see people laughing, swearing, and working through disasters and triumphs. The whole thing leaves you in awe at the achievement of every last one of them.

There is talk that the documentaries will be included in a special edition of LOTR in 2006, but given the vagaries of Hollywood it’s not certain that they’d appear as we saw them here in NZ these past few weeks.

We can only hope that the diehard LOTR fan community will have many more opportunities to see these documentaries on the big screen, exactly as they are. They were not made to be a promotional tool; they are a testament to a unique work which needs to be recorded for posterity. So far they have only been shown at the Film Festival here in New Zealand, and they deserve a far wider audience which will appreciate and honour the determination which drove the film makers to achieve what seemed impossible.

Posted in Old Special Reports on September 6, 2004 by

The Floor Plan from WETA Workshop

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