Welcome to this months “Getting to know…” questions that need answering. It’s based on the old Getting to know you threads that I used to post on the message boards here on TORn, so those familiar with them will know that the questions can be a little crazy and the answers even crazier.
This month we’re asking questions of author of “The Frodo Franchise” and TORn Staffer, Kristin Thompson.
Hi Kristin, and thank you for taking part this month.
Me: Besides answering these questions for me, what’s the silliest thing you’ve ever done?
Kristin: I’ve done lots of silly things that wouldn’t be of much interest to TORn’s readers. One particularly silly thing relates to The Frodo Franchise, though. In the autumn of 2002, I had decided that I wanted to do the book, and I knew I needed to get someone very high up in the film’s production interested in supporting me in such a project. That basically meant Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, or Barrie Osborne. My problem was making contact. I didn’t know how to go about it, and I was still trying to decide whether it was even possible.
I happened to be invited to give a paper at a conference of film historians in Adelaide, Australia in November, 2002. Here’s where it gets silly. I figured that, since there would be Australian and New Zealand film scholars at the conference, by the law of six degrees of separation, someone there might know one of the big three and could help me made contact. Indeed, I foolishly decided that if the conference ended without me finding such a person, I would give up on the idea of doing the book. A few days into the conference, I was losing hope. I was realizing something I know all too well at this point. There is no real contact between film academics and the world of filmmaking, and why I should have thought there could be baffles me now.
I can tell this story against myself because against all odds, I met the ideal person. Annabelle Sheehan was at that point an administrator at the Sydney Film, Radio and Television School. Her background was as a film editor, and she had worked with Barrie and was a friend of his. Six degrees of separation apparently works. Annabelle knew my publications and introduced me (via email) to Barrie, and he agreed to support my project. So silliness paid off!
Me: What was your favourite cartoon to watch when you were a youngster?
Kristin: I’m old enough to have watched old theatrical cartoons on black-and-white television. They were shown on local kids’ programs after school. My favorites were the old Warner Bros. cartoons with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, like The Great Piggy Bank Robbery. Obviously I had good taste. When I grew up, I ended up becoming a film historian and realized that those cartoons, especially by Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett, were now considered great classics.
I actually met both Clampett and Jones, having the great luck to have the latter agree to visit our campus (the University of Wisconsin-Madison) when I was teaching a class in the history of animation way back in 1978. One of the highlights of my career, obviously!
Me: What’s your most favourite form of relaxation and/or indulgence?
Kristin: Being pretty obsessive, I have a way of turning things I’m interested in from relaxing activities into academic projects. Hence my decision to become a film historian, my little-known book on P. G. Wodehouse, my plunge into being an Egyptologist, and my book, currently underway, on Tolkien (involving close analysis of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings).
But I’m a big classical music fan, and I’m certainly not expert enough ever to write anything about that. I’m particularly fond of the works of Jean Sibelius, which seem to me very much in the spirit of Tolkien. There’s a combination of beauty, grandeur, and melancholy common to both. (Given that they were both inspired by the Kalevala, I’m hardly the first person to notice this. Fantasy novelist Ellen Kushner famously called Sibelius’ music “liquid Tolkien,” which seems a nice way to suggest the connection.)
I’ve been to Finland twice but haven’t had a chance to get out and see some of the landscapes that inspired Sibelius and that undoubtedly would have thrilled Tolkien.
Obviously travel is one of my favorite indulgences!
Me: You are having a dinner party with Tolkien as the only guest. What (and why) would you serve him for starters, main and desert? And what drink would you serve?
Kristin: Obviously I have to assume that I’m hosting him here in my home in Madison, Wisconsin, USA, so I have access to our local ingredients. I also know that he was a true old-fashioned Englishman in his tastes in food, not being terribly keen on exotic or elaborate dishes from abroad and especially not French cuisine.
That said, he writes so enthusiastically about mushrooms that I have to assume he liked to eat them himself. One of my best dishes is mushroom risotto with rosemary, so I would start with that. I would center the meal around a simple dish including our fine local beef or pork. My main talent as a maker of desserts is pies, and I think a pie made from our famous Door County cherries would please our favorite author.
I would accompany the meal with a good New Zealand wines, of course. What better than the wine of Middle-earth?
Me: There’s a lot of research behind getting “The Frodo Franchise” written. What was the most difficult piece of information to find, or person to access?
Kristin: You would think that the hardest information would be about the production itself, since there was so much security surrounding the filmmakers and the facilities. But once I got Barrie Osborne’s support and cooperation and New Line’s permission to interview the filmmakers, it was smooth sailing. All the filmmakers were incredibly friendly, welcoming, and knowledgeable.
One of the most difficult—and crucial—things to research was the early history of the project. Relatively few of the people I interviewed had been around since 1995, when the idea of making LOTR was first raised and followed up, and those who were hadn’t necessarily been involved in the dealings that went on. Even though the film was in pre-production at Miramax for 18 months, the studio never announced that they were making the film, so there was virtually no coverage of that era in print or on the internet.
With Peter’s support, I was able to contact Ken Kamins (who was his agent at the time and is now a manager and producer linked to Wingnut). He proved a real goldmine of information about the chronology of the negotiations with Miramax and Saul Zaentz, as well as the dramatic events of the project going into turnaround in 1998 and getting picked up by New Line. I think I’ve got the best account of that 1995-1998 period in the production, and it’s largely due to Ken.
Me: What triggered you into starting the Frodo Franchise?
Kristin: I had pretty much ignored the making of LOTR until I read about the Cannes preview and party in May, 2001. (There’s a section on it in Chapter 1 of my book, for those who don’t know about that epochal event.) After that, I started following news about LOTR in Variety and other trade papers. I saw the first film and, despite the inevitable disagreements about adaptation decisions, I liked it a lot. Naturally I continued to follow news about it.
The thing that struck me overall was how important this film was going to be historically. I know the conventional wisdom is that a historian should work on an event after it has happened, to get some perspective on it. But I could tell in 2002, well before the second part came out, that LOTR was enormously successful and innovative in the way it used new filmmaking technology, in the way the publicity was handled on the internet, in the way DVD supplements were produced, and so on. The success and revolutionary approach to the making of the first video game reinforced that view.
I realized that this film was going to have an enormous influence, not just as a film, but as the core of a franchise. Indeed, it would be the model of film franchises that would be followed from that point on, in the way that Star Wars had been two and a half decades earlier. So not only was it an important set of events, but it could provide a way of explaining to the general public how franchises work in Hollywood. There has been a tendency to dismiss big franchise films, but here was one that worked by most criteria and produced respected films.
I was convinced that someone needed to write a book about the franchise, but it’s an enormous topic, involving DVDs, video games, the internet, new methods of publicizing, new types of licensed products, and so on. Plus the impact on New Zealand’s filmmaking and tourism industries had to be covered. Obviously nobody else was going to write such a book. I rather nervously concluded that it had to be me. So in the autumn of 2002, as I’ve mentioned, I started trying to make it happen.
I should mention that some other books on the LOTR film franchise have appeared, all of them anthologies of essays by multiple authors. There’s some terrific stuff in them, but I hope it won’t sound too horribly self-serving to say that there’s an advantage to having a single, unified viewpoint across the various components of the franchise (the video games, the DVD supplements, and so on).
Me: What is the most interesting find you discovered from working on it?
Kristin: My idea of interesting may not coincide with other peoples! Let me give you one from the filmmaking side and one from the business side.
When I went to Wellington for the first time in October, 2003, the biggest surprise to me was the selective digital grading being carried out by Peter Doyle with the computer program he had helped design especially for LOTR. This kind of color grading caught on amazingly quickly and is now used by almost every film. In those days it was highly innovative and had only been used on a few films, using somewhat unpredictable, experimental systems (Pleasantville and O Brother, Where Art Thou? primarily).
The approach was so new that I didn’t know enough to be able to interview Peter Doyle about it. But he did give me a demonstration of the process, sitting at a computer in a room with rows and rows of people working away at other computers, grading shots from The Return of the King. It’s a beautiful process to watch, and it turned out to be another way in which LOTR was immensely influential (as Barrie predicted to me when I first interviewed him). There’s an all-too-short supplement about digital grading on the FotR extended DVD set. I wish more demonstrations of the process would be included on other DVDs.
On the business end, the most interesting thing I discovered was partly revealed by the 2001 Cannes event. Variety reported about how the screening of the preview footage greatly relieved the 26 international distributors who had put up huge fees for the rights to all three LOTR parts, sight unseen. They had had no assurance to that point that what they had invested in would not be a disastrous flop.
That called my attention to the fact that LOTR was an independent film. These were mostly smallish independent companies, and New Line itself was an independent producer. That report in Variety was the first article I clipped. Later trade-paper coverage in 2002 revealed that the international independent and foreign-language film markets had gone into a big slump in 2001 (partly as a result of the dot-com bubble bursting in 2000).
By early 2003, it was apparent that the slump was being reversed, and one big factor in the recovery was the money pumped into those 26 international distributors by LOTR. The trilogy saved some of them from going out of business; others it put on a healthy footing. This big Hollywood epic turned out to be a great boon to small, alternative sorts of films.
I think of all the things I wrote about in the book, that one big effect of LOTR was the least known, even within the film industry. Apart from those few articles, there were no sources for exploring that subject. I was once again very lucky in getting to interview Jonathan Wolf, who runs the American Film Market, one of the world’s biggest events for buying and selling independent films. He knows that subject inside-out. I also talked with Mads Nedergaard, a manager at the Danish distributor that had LOTR. Between those two, I was able to shed light on what I found a fascinating, largely obscure side of the film’s influence.
Me: I heard you’ve been working on an excavation in Egypt. I’ve always been interested in Egypt too, and have read quite a lot of books about the excavations there, so I would love to know some more. How did you become involved in that sort of project?
Kristin: I had been fascinated by archaeology as a child, especially ancient Egypt after a visit to Chicago’s Field Museum when I was 8. As an adult, I always vaguely figured I’d take a tour of Egypt—one tour, and that would be that. I finally went in 1992 and got hooked. I was especially intrigued by the Amarna period, when the Pharaoh Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti imposed monotheism on a traditionally very polytheistic society. I started reading as much as I could, attending conferences, and eventually giving papers myself and publishing about the very distinctive Amarna art.
Luckily for me, just as I was getting a little experience as a scholar, the expedition at Tell el-Amarna needed someone to register hundreds of statuary fragments that had accumulated in the storeroom there, and I was able to accept! It’s very difficult to get onto an Egyptian expedition, since archaeology is more heavily regulated there than in any other country. My rather short list of talks and publications was enough to let me join the group.
By the way, it’s obvious that Tolkien was influenced to some extent by ancient Egyptian culture. The question really is, how much and in what way.
Me: Do you know if Tolkien and the LOTR movies are popular in Egypt?
Kristin: I have to say that I don’t have any personal knowledge of the popularity of Tolkien’s writings in Egypt. I would imagine that those who have studied abroad are aware of him. The films are probably fairly popular. I remember being in Cairo during one of my first seasons on the expedition and seeing one of the Jurassic Park sequels playing at a big theatre, so the big films certainly make it there. The Egyptians are keen on home video, so at least in the cities people probably see them.
I did discover, however, that Egyptologists tend to be big movie buffs. One of the first subjects that comes up around the expedition-house dinner table is what movies and TV shows each of us has brought on DVD. (I made a big hit this year with Rango.) Almost all the members of our team are fans of the LOTR films. I remember that during my second season, in March of 2002, I took the soundtrack of The Fellowship of the Ring with me on my first-generation iPod. The person sharing my workroom (the world’s leading expert on ancient Egyptian charcoal) also had the FotR soundtrack on his iPod, as did one other team member. There are tattered paperback copies of all three LOTR books in our communal library of books donated by team members.
By the way, most Egyptian expeditions have Second Breakfast. No, it’s not the film’s influence. It’s just that the field teams have breakfast early. Our group has first breakfast around 6 am, and the field team leaves at 7 am. They have a pause mid-morning for second breakfast, which keeps them going until the excavation ends at around 2 pm and they return to the house. We typically have lunch around 2:30, with dinner at 7. The late afternoon is spent dealing with the finds and working on detailed plans of the site.
I’m not a field person. I stay at the house most days, working on registering the statuary. But we house people have second breakfast anyway, to tide us over until that late lunch. Needless to say, I was quite amused by the “second breakfast” scene in FotR, since I had already participated in the expedition for the first time in March of 2001.
Me: This question is from Rosie-with-the-ribbons, she was in Egypt last year and wanted to ask you the following; “In regards to Egypt. I was absolutely amazed and had a hard time getting my head around the fact that I was actually walking in buildings that are over 3.500 years old. How did you see/feel about that?”
Kristin: That in itself is amazing enough. Still, what’s equally amazing to me is how long the ancient Egyptian civilization lasted—about 3100 years. When you think that the USA is only a bit over 200 years old, you have to wonder how a culture could last that long, with the same basic system of governing, the same basic writing method, and the same basic artistic style. Here’s one way I try to convey that length of time to people. Cleopatra VII (yes, the Cleopatra) was the last dynastic pharaoh of Egypt; she committed suicide in 30 B.C.E., and Egypt became a mere colony of Rome. We are closer in time to Cleopatra (2042 years) than she was to the building of the Great Pyramids of Giza (about 2600 years)! And they were built around 500 years into pharaonic Egypt’s history.
Since my work involves the statuary fragments at Amarna, I’m dealing with artifacts that are about 3360 years old. I routinely handle them, measure them, clean them, study them, occasionally fasten them together, photograph them, and so on. I’m long over the phase of being nervous about touching them, obviously, but it’s still a huge thrill to walk across the ruins of a building and find an ancient fragment and think about how long it has been sitting there, waiting for me.
Kristin: Let me end by saying that I joined TheOneRing.net staff last year. I’ve posted a few news items but haven’t been as active as I would like. My hope has been to write an occasional series about my experiences researching The Frodo Franchise. I made three trips to New Zealand in 2003 and 2004, spending a total of about ten weeks there. I kept a diary, and I think I could come up with anecdotes that would interest TORn readers. At least, the few that I’ve written about on the Message Boards have gotten good responses. I hope to post the first entry this month.
Me: Thank you again, Kristin, for agreeing to speak to us this month, I’m really looking forward to your series about your experiences researching and writing The Frodo Franchise. And I’m still jealous about your trip to Eygpt, thank you for sharing some of your experiences there with us.
Once again thanks to all our Message board regulars, Ataahua, DanielLB, Rosie-with-the-ribbons, silneldor, Peredhil lover, grammaboodawg and dernwyn, for this months’ questions.
Till next time from TORn’s resident Tiger.