Peter JacksonThe plan was to be impartial and emotionless in the printed word and provide interested parties (hopefully you dear reader) all the facts and information from Peter Jackson’s un-press conference in San Diego as possible.

After all, he had 40 or so of us delighted to be trapped in a room with him in a small but luxurious hotel a few hundred meters from the convention center where the world’s biggest celebration of popular culture was taking place. It was the end of the first day of the four-day event and Jackson had swooped into town, showed off his first ever public screening of “District 9,” and then convened Geek Court.

peter-jackson-2009No cameras were allowed for this event. This was an intimate fireside chat in a sweltering room where everybody preferred to have the air conditioning off so they could hear and where the open bar went largely ignored. Hotel staff was walking around begging people in whispers to take a bottle of hotel-branded water. Watching somebody pass out wasn’t too far fetched.

Jackson didn’t seem uncomfortable — not even with the heat. My plan was, in a room full of bloggers (sorry “internet journalists”) to report the facts without filtering it through my impressions or prejudices. As the highly personalized reports from the event started to roll in, my plan seemed a good one. Perhaps, I thought, I would even transcribe the whole of the conversation and put every single “Jackson word” out there.

The plan completely melted when my digital voice recorder somehow disappeared, probably at terminal 40 in the Delta wing of the San Diego airport. Disaster. Don’t bother calling me an idiot, I have covered that myself for at least the next calendar year. What is left?

PICT0448Well, me blogging about my Jackson-centric experiences at Comic-Con with a few notes and quotes I managed to jot down in case the recorder didn’t work. Here we go! delivered its own update of what we think is going on with “The Hobbit,” on Thursday, hours before meeting with Jackson. A day later I could have provided a wealth of information but even with Richard Taylor sitting on stage with us, concrete facts are scarce while conjecture and supposition make for fun speculation.

Studio hosted, “District 9,” turned out to be approximately half fans who had won tickets via Twitter and other Web sites and half geek-media from all the usual suspects of film-obsessed online destinations. The first seat in the taped off area I tried to sit in was denied to me. It was being saved – as it turns out by Dominic Monaghan with Elijah Wood on his other side. I wonder if my blush was visible in the half-light when I realized I tried to sit by an actor.

I ended up next to a conversational and cool guy from Who knew they did more than sell tickets? On my other side was the loudest man I have ever heard at a theater. Each time he burst into laughter at a joke or howled at a surprising special moment, I wondered if he were a studio plant. But plant or not, “District 9,” is a smart action / sci-fi film that was significantly better than I anticipated. In fact, I loved the film. This is so I will not delve too deeply in the foreign sci-fi setting, but I think we can safely say that Jackson recognized director Neill Blomkamp’s talent before their mutual work on “Halo,” fell over and he wanted to empower him to make something after that film fell apart.

PICT0450Jackson also had at the screening, or perhaps Sony provided, a beefy security guard, the likes of which I have never seen him with before. (And this was the second time he and I shared a theater screening. At least I didn’t ask to sit by him! (And now I have “name / experience dropped” sufficiently to be a true geek blogger.)

After being wowed by “District 9,” there was barely time to digest what had transpired before trudging a few blocks to the secret meeting place where Jackson had his non-traditional press event. I was probably the last to arrive and things had just started so I was forced to sneak around the edge of the room and place my (now lost) digital recorder a few feet away from him. The conversation started naturally with the film we had all just watched. I have yet to see anybody really get the guts of what we talked about in that room out to readers regarding “District 9.” Perhaps when we get closer to the August 14 opening more will be written.

Jackson has changed since TheOneRing first had a real association with him over 10 years ago. They physical differences have been obvious for a few years when after ROTK he lost a lot of weight but there are other changes as well. Erica, our own Tehanu, has obviously had the most shared time with Jackson, and would be most qualified to address that but lives are busy and we don’t talk much. Instead of being the director that famously pitched his vision of two LOTR movies to every studio in Hollywood after Miramax decided two films were too pricey and decided to sink everything into a single film, he is now the director that every studio in Hollywood is chasing around.

PICT0441He hangs out with James Cameron (Weta did the effects for the film “Avatar,” – Oscars to follow) Steven Spielberg (“TinTin” collaborator) and Guillermo del Toro. He can probably do anything he wants to do in the film world. Once upon a time there was a showdown between New Line “we-will-never-work-with-him-again” brass and Jackson. The studio and all its bosses are gone or swallowed up while Jackson, and his dream to be involved with “The Hobbit,” remains. He is now a power-broker in Hollywood despite spending very little time there.

So the guy sitting in front of and chatting up the geek-press was not quite the same guy that showed up at the first fan-sponsored Oscar party. How could he be? He is rich, influential, respected, free and powerful to a degree almost nobody else can imagine. A result of his position on the world stage — because he is most certainly a celebrity of significant magnitude — is that virtually everybody he ever meets wants something from him and yes fellow fans, that includes us. Maybe we only want his time or maybe we want a photo or an autograph or we want to tell him a story or pitch our talents but even those who are giving him presents want something from him.

peter_jackson_and_guillermo_del_toroSo this older, wiser, richer, more powerful, healthier Peter Jackson was not the same guy as before, but he was still passionate about his projects, still valued the contributions of others and still was a visionary. He knows how to tell a story on screen and he knows how to captivate an audience in person despite his rather soft voice and mild manner.

Inevitably talk led to “The Hobbit,” and after some already awkward questions or transitions, Jackson pre-empted a lot of the talk by giving an explanation and overview of the whole project. Before Comic-Con, a Los Angeles Times blog posted a poll asking which would be the favorite to take the role of ‘The Hobbit’. The next thing anybody knew, these names were being posted as actual possibilities for casting and the producer of the movie wanted to lay those to rest even though we reported here, and later Empire confirmed that no announcement would be happening at Comic-Con.

So I was shocked that the room seemed surprised when Jackson explained that nobody had been cast yet for Bilbo or any other role. I recorded much of what he said word-for-word before the audio was lost. This has been previously reported but it bears repeating.

“We are about three weeks I would say, give or take a little tailwind, we are about three weeks from turning over the first script for the first film to the studio.” (He used “four weeks” a time or two during the rest of Comic-Con in other forums.)

The handed-in script is a big step to making the dream of the film a reality, Jackson explained because it allows the studio and filmmakers to come up with a shooting schedule and a budget. The budget for the first film will be an indicator of the budget for the second film, giving studio and filmmakers a chance to start negotiations with actors, agents and to put all the needed pieces in place to make a movie.

The process in getting to the 1st-draft stage isn’t as simple as some might imagine.

PICT0473A“We worked on an extended treatment of the two films which we pitched to the studio on a long conference call. That was about three or four months ago. That went well and they liked the idea. (Before) none of us where really sure if it should be one film, or if it should it be two films,” he said.

“There was talk about doing ‘The Hobbit’ as one movie and making a ‘Hobbit,’ and ‘Lord of the Rings,’ bridge movie. We didn’t really know ourselves but as we worked through the story line we thought ‘Well obviously we could squeeze ‘The Hobbit’ into one movie, but In a three hour movie you would be amazed at how much of the story you would have to lose.”

“The book, well the book is what the book is and we just worked through a process and included all the events that we would like to see in the film, plus the fact that we wanted to embellish a few things and put a little extra narrative that includes Gandalf and what he was doing with the Necromancer and various side stories that are happening. So we decided really that the two movies we are doing would actually be ‘The Hobbit.’ ”

He also was asked and talked about the writing process. A questioner wondered how having del Toro on the writing team (which usually consists of Jackson, Phillipa Boyens, Fran Walsh) would change the dynamic of coming up with a script. Jackson claimed that it changed the process very little at all. They still went about working at the story in the manner they were always accustomed to, but with one more guy in the mix. Disagreements were discussed and usually decided by the team where ego or “I am in charge,” never has had a place.

He laughed that GDT was funny and the meetings were entertaining and that according to their schedules they sometimes worked on parts separately and then brought back parts to the group.

Hobbiton Set 2009This isn’t news to folks who keep a regular eye on TORn but yes, the structure of “The Hobbit,” will be two films covering the book and much of the material in the appendices, although he never used those words. He referred to side stories regarding Gandalf’s whereabouts during his absences from Bilbo and the dwarves, which leads us naturally to the White Council and the greater matters of Middle-earth. He talked about this slightly more during the “District 9,” panel in front of the large 6,500 seat auditorium where he stole a moment to head off future questions. I wasn’t able to be in there because I had just covered a “District 9” press conference with Jackson, Blomkamp and leading actor Sharlto Copley and the studio’s allotment of seats went to agents, friends, executives and others. Getting in the traditional way (waiting in long lines) would have not yielded a seat and really, I couldn’t complain a bit. I had been given two interview settings already.

In the large public arena he gave the most detailed information yet about the adaptation of “The Hobbit,” and other materials it includes. Perhaps he let his guard down a little more than when we was with the blogger crowd or perhaps he didn’t want to repeat himself or perhaps he wanted to tell the fans more. He said:

“Tolkien wrote ‘The Hobbit’ first. And he expanded and developed the world of Middle-earth way bigger and larger and more detailed than he knew about when he wrote ‘The Hobbit.’ And he did a lot of retrospective detailing. So ‘The Lord of the Rings,” contains a lot of information of what was happening during the years of ‘The Hobbit’ and events that were happening outside of that particular storyline, you know, things that were happening behind the scenes in Middle-earth and the geo-politics and things.”

KongPremeire 081“One of the things that we were really excited about when we got to be thinking about it, is that we can take that expanded information and we can apply it to ‘The Hobbit’ and sort of make it fuller and more epic and really put ‘The Hobbit’ in the context of the greater activity that is happening in Middle-earth at that time. So to do all that, we figured that we really needed two epic films to really be able to tell that story. So that is the plan.”

One thing Jackson repeated all three times I heard him address the topic of ‘The Hobbit,’ was the status of the film not being green-lit. He said it to the bloggers who took the news freshness and ran with it online. He said it again at the “District 9,” news conference because Hobbit questions kicked up. He said it in front of almost 6,500 fans and asked us to contact the studio and ask them to treat the filmmakers kindly when it came to budget.

What is stunning is that a studio, even in tough economic times, has any fear at all about the financial outcome of ‘The Hobbit’ films. They are sitting on two movies that will count worldwide receipts of more than a billion – each. How strongly do I believe that? If I could invest my own money and be paid a return at the same rate that the studio will be paid, including the risk of loss, I would be all in with every penny I could scrape together. Accountants don’t get films in the same way viewers do but these films will light up the boxoffice. Is the del Toro-Jackson writing team dreaming up set pieces and special effects that are going to scare studio executives?

“Everybody assumes we have a green light,” he told the traditional media. “The studio is not going to make a film with an open checkbook.” But it seems to me that Jackson wanted to drive this point home. He wanted fandom to hear loud and clear that officially nothing is signed, sealed or delivered. They have agreed in principal obviously and Weta is meeting with Guillermo del Toro at least twice a week to discuss something and they don’t pay their people with promises, but it sure is crystal clear that they are still using development budget and not official movie budget. Jackson asked fans as far back as the ROTK Oscar Party to Make The Hobbit Happen ( and I think he is still asking fans to exercise our collective voice and make sure Warner knows that we want our Hobbit films.

DSC_6933I also had a lengthy and frank off-the-record discussion with an executive about how all this might play out over the next few months. I took from our discussion that things will happen very fast. One day there will be no film and the next day a studio will say the word, sign a paper and Wingnut Films, Weta, casting agents, location scouts and the whole machine that is a film production will assemble. New Line knew Wingnut and how it operated but Warner will not, and people like Barrie Osborne may or may not be back to help the film along. From the moment the film is officially a ‘go’ things will be crazy.

It may be difficult for TORn readers to see it, and a new studio will not understand us either and will hire somebody and pay them a fair bit of dragon gold to make an official Web site ten months before the film opens, but the flurry of crazy activity is about to start. We really are at the calm before the storm. The time is short.

In fact the time is so short that casting might be a wee tricky. Actors will likely be required to be available for much of 2010 but a quick check of the calendar reveals that people who like to work are likely to already be planning next year. Actors like to line up jobs and have steady work rather than sit around and hope somebody offers them parts in Hobbit movies. Agents try to earn their money by lining up paying gigs for the clients they service.

PICT0505Ian McKellen for example, has kept 2010 open. While Jackson explained with great clarity that nobody had been offered the role of Bilbo and he wouldn’t expect any actor to sign a contract without a script and nobody was even authorized to make a job offer before the film is officially funded, is there a Bilbo alredy chosen?

Del Toro has hinted that the writers have had the same or similar people in mind for roles and he has hinted on our message board community that announcements were close. So while Jackson was telling the truth it seems possible or likely that some friendly, non-binding conversations have taken place between Wingnut and the future Bilbo. A good way to start an investigation would be a careful check of who has an open schedule for 2010.

The final point I recall from Jackson’s fireside chat is that he will not be looking over del Toro’s shoulder. He described his personal discomfort as he began to ponder the making of another Middle-earth film. He felt that rather than servicing the story as it deserved, he would be competing with his past work. He thinks of these Hobbit movies as epics and he just didn’t like the head-space he was in. Rather than be uncomfortable as he approached it, he decided the best thing for the story, and for him, was to let somebody else tackle this project.

PeteCConJackson also talked about a list of other projects not TORn related:

District 9 – plenty written elsewhere

The Lovely Bones – He showed us 4 minutes of footage from the completely finished film. The content was designed for marketing and distribution. I love the source material and I was wowed by it. Author Alice Sebold hasn’t been involved but has been updated on the film’s status and made her peace with the film as an adaptation. Oscar candidate? I think so.

TinTin He talked a fair deal about working with Spielberg and the challenge of making this beloved flat comic look just like the author drew it but in three dimensions where characters turn heads, move and talk. Motion capture was used a lot here and just the process of this is wonderous to think about.

Téméraire This series of books is still very much on his mind, if not his immediate schedule. He would like to see them all done as a big film series.

World War I aircraft Did you know Jackson has a larger air fleet than the national government of New Zealand? He does, and he showed some films he has made for museums and to test cameras (he is finally being won over by digital) for fun. This love for aircraft felt linked to Téméraire and its dragon warfare and is clearly linked to planes vs. King Kong.

Questions, comments or clarifications? Drop me a line.