[Part 1 in a series from The Frodo Franchise Author Kristin Thompson]

Me and My Book

I’m a film historian by trade. I got my Ph.D. in film studies in 1977 and have written several textbooks and academic books on various topics in the field. In 2007, my book The Frodo Franchise: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood, by Kristin Thompson, came out from the University of California press. As we all wait for the release of the first part of The Hobbit, I thought some of you might be interested in some of my experiences while researching the book. I had a lot of access to the filmmakers for interviews and was given facilities tours during the last part of the post-production on The Return of the King.

I first conceived the book in 2002, when it became obvious to me that Peter Jackson’s film (I call the three parts one film, as he does) was going to be very, very important historically for a wide variety of reasons. The technology (the techniques developed to animate Gollum, the selective digital color grading) would be revolutionary. The internet campaign was pioneering, as was the filmmaking team’s approach to cooperating with the video-game designers. It was a big franchise film—and a fantasy at that—and yet it won the respect of critics and Academy-Award voters as no such film ever had. (The Fellowship of the Ring had won “only” four Oscars, but I knew even then that The Return of the King would be awarded lots.) Somebody should write a book about it, I thought. But probably nobody would, not the way it should be done, with interviews with the people involved. Not while the film was still in production. I concluded that it was up to me. Was it possible, though, to get the kind of access I would need? I set out to find out.

In January of 2003, through a mutual friend, I was put in touch with producer Barrie Osborne. Fortunately, he was interested in having such a book written. Without him, my project would have been dead in the water.

I originally hoped to get to Wellington while pick-ups were still being shot. It turned out not to be quite that easy. Barrie stuck by me through the eight long months that it took for New Line to consider my project. As they requested, I obtained letters from both the Tolkien Estate and Tolkien’s publisher, HarperCollins, saying that I wasn’t violating their trademarks and copyrights. I promised not to publish my book until after the three parts were out. (They obviously didn’t know how long it would take me to write it and especially how slowly academic presses work!) Finally, in early September, I got the go-ahead from New Line, and Barrie said I could come to Wellington soon. The film was well into post-production, with special effects and sound-editing going on. Some people, especially the designers, whose work was largely done, might have time to talk to me. To me the crucial thing was that most of the crew members were still in town, many still working on The Return of the King. As soon as I got the word, I set about planning to go to Wellington.

This series will be my memoirs of the three research trips I took to New Zealand in 2003 and 2004, as well as other trips I took to Los Angeles, London, Copenhagen, and other places where people I needed to interview lived (including Ian McKellen!). After this initial entry, I won’t go chronologically but by topics. I’ll deal with things like the big spoilers I learned about (and kept to myself) and my talks with all the main designers. Yes, I also interviewed Peter, who generously gave me one hour, and Philippa Boyens and Richard Taylor and many others, some of whom you know from the wonderful supplements on the extended DVD editions.

The roughly three years I spent researching and writing The Frodo Franchise added up to one of the high points of my life, of course. Every single day I spent in Wellington, I thought, “How did I get here?!” In this series I hope to convey something of what it’s like to fly to New Zealand and be able to talk to a lot of incredibly talented and friendly filmmakers and see the places where they work. As a scholar, I had been given an unprecedented opportunity. No other academic historian has ever been given such access to an epic film of this sort while it was still in production. For a fan, it was a dream come true.

Preparations on Short Notice

After my eight of waiting and going through the necessary formalities, never being quite sure that the project would ever happen, in early September of 2003 I suddenly faced the prospect of going to Wellington in less than four weeks. I didn’t have a place to stay or any idea of whom among the crew I might be able to interview.

These problems were solved by the fact that Barrie arranged for me to have a point person for my stay: the unit publicist, Melissa Booth. As an academic researcher, I had never before had a point person, and after dealing with Melissa, I wish I could have one for every project. (You can see Melissa efficiently handling a small on-set press junket in one of the King Kong “Production Diaries.”) My first question when I emailed her was about a hotel. She recommended the Victoria Court Motor Lodge, where some members of the cast and crew had been occasionally been put up.

Not the major talent, obviously; it’s not that fancy a place. But it turned out to be a very comfortable and conveniently located base of operations. In fact, I’ve stayed there on all four visits to Wellington. (I made a quick nostalgic trip for a few days in 2007 when my husband David Bordwell and I had month-long fellowships at the University of Auckland.)

Going to New Zealand at that point was something of a gamble. I didn’t know whether I would be able to talk to any of the filmmakers. I figured at the worst I could get some interviews with people from government organizations that in one way or another were connected with the LOTR films. Those appointments I could at least make in advance. By the time I set out, I had arranged to talk with executives at Film New Zealand, the New Zealand Film Commission, Tourism New Zealand, and others. All extremely helpful—and fortunately I ended up getting several filmmaker interviews and facilities tours on that trip as well.

I immediately booked for a three-week stay in one of the Victoria Court’s “executive” rooms, which basically added a bedroom onto the usual studio room. For such a long visit that proved very useful, since I could spread my work out in the main room.

My three weeks of lead time were spent on such tasks as acquiring a professional-standard digital recorder. You could probably actually record sound for LOTR on that machine, but I figured the expense was worth it. After all, my project lived and died by those interviews. It turned out to be very useful, since I recorded some of my interviewees while sitting in a crowded restaurant or with construction going on right outside the window. Only once did some brief passages get lost. I talked with stunt performers Kirk Maxwell and Sharon James in a coffee shop, and occasionally the espresso machine’s wooshing defeated even my sophisticated microphone. Prior to my departure for Wellington I also bought my first digital camera. Although I was, of course, never allowed to use it inside the filmmaking facilities, I did take several of the illustrations that ended up in the book. Still, I won’t have very many exciting photos to illustrate my series. You’ll probably see quite a few frames from the extended-edition DVD supplements, since a lot of what I saw ended up in them.

The Trip

Booking my flights to Wellington was an elaborate procedure. I live in Madison, Wisconsin, which is “flyover territory” in the U.S. You can’t get directly to many places, so it took me two flights just to reach Los Angeles, where I would catch my Air New Zealand flight to Auckland.

I have to ‘fess up that I flew business class every time I went to New Zealand. That first time, I estimated that my research might take three weeks, but I knew I also needed flexibility. If I got chances to interview people after I was scheduled to return home, I had to be able to change my bookings easily and on short notice. That ended up being a wise move, since on two of my three visits, I stayed an extra week and got some important interviews. As you’ll see in the course of this series, the help and cooperation I got from everybody associated directly or indirectly with the film was extraordinary.

Auckland has the only airport in New Zealand that you can fly into from the U.S. The Air New Zealand flight from Los Angeles was twelve hours in those days and probably still is. The trip was wonderful, and Air New Zealand rapidly became my favorite airline. The country is only seven time zones away from Central Time, but it’s very far south. I found to my delight that that particular combination allowed me somehow to pass through jetlag and come out the other side by the time we landed at 6 am, Sunday, September 28, in Auckland.

Once through passport control, I transferred to the domestic terminal via a handy shuttle-bus and took a one-hour flight to Wellington. The airport there has a single runway, stretching from just south of Evans Bay on the north to Lyall Bay in the south.  Depending on the wind, you might land or take off in either direction, but both ways you come in low over water. That’s Lyall Bay in the photo, and beyond it the Cook Strait, with one of the ferries headed for the South Island. The building in the foreground was at the time the headquarters for the film’s production company, Three Foot Six. At the time I took that photo, the offices were full of, among other things, people mixing sound for The Return of the King.

Naturally as my flight was landing, I was thinking that this was the very airport that lay just over a ridge from the Stone Street Studios. (Part of the airport side of that ridge is in the foreground of the photo.) Famously the non-soundproofed walls of those studios meant that noise from planes landing and taking off had led to the periodic interruption of shooting. Probably the very plane I was on had often done so. The whole thing became a little more real to me. The giant figure of Gollum reaching for the Ring, which had originally graced the façade of the Embassy Theatre for the premiere of The Two Towers, was in those days still sitting atop the main airport building (see below). I had arrived, not in Tolkien’s Middle-earth, but in Peter Jackson’s.

Settling in

To get to the Victoria Court, I took one of those small buses that deliver multiple passengers to various hotels and inns. Being one of the last to be dropped off, I got a quick tour of the waterfront of Wellington’s beautiful Lambton Harbour, a glimpse of Te Papa Museum, where the big touring exhibition of LOTR artifacts originated, and a look at the downtown area.

The Victoria Court caters primarily to couples and families who are touring New Zealand on their own, and there were often recreational vehicles parked in the lot. Mainly they were staying there before catching the ferry to the South Island. At the time, Wellington wasn’t considered much of a tourist attraction. Sure, that area is gorgeous, but much of the rest of the country is even more gorgeous. Things have sure changed since!

After unpacking, I checked out my neighborhood. There was a handy local chicken take-out place half a block away (now, alas, closed), and a little beyond that stretched Cuba Street, that funky area of town with nice restaurants and shops where the cast had often hung out. All of downtown was a short walk away.

The Victoria Court’s rooms all have little kitchens, so I figured I could cook for myself most nights. Who wants to eat dinners alone in a restaurant every night for three weeks? Plus I needed that time most days to labels my interview diskettes and, most of all, plan for my upcoming interviews, many of which were scheduled on a day’s notice. In those days I had to go to a local internet gaming establishment to get onto the internet and do my email. The gentleman who ran the establishment and took in the money for hourly rental listened to the tale of my project and was most hospitable during all three of my stays in Wellington. Over the next few days, I discovered the ubiquitous New World grocery stores, and laid in supplies. I also walked past the Embassy Theatre, which at that point was closed for the renovations that would make it fit to house the world premiere of The Return of the King, only two months away.

Meeting with Melissa

Any worries I might have had about getting some interviews with the filmmakers were soon set to rest. On 11 am on Monday morning, the day after I arrived, I met with Melissa Booth at a coffee shop near the Victoria Court. I don’t think she had been told much about my project, so I showed her an outline of the chapters and told her a bit about what I needed to know. Although I’m sure Melissa had little experience dealing with academic types like me, she quickly grasped what I was up to. Immediately she made up a basic chapter-by-chapter list of the people I should talk to and promised to start making appointments for me to interview them.

Within hours Melissa had set up my first meeting for the very next day. That was pretty easy, actually, since it was with a colleague who shared her office at the Three Foot Six building: Judy Alley, the merchandising coordinator. For a project concerning the whole franchise, Judy was obviously a crucial figure.

Melissa soon set up some additional interviews for later that week. Eventually, though, her duties as unit publicist loomed, and she just gave me the contact information for the people on that initial list and let me set up my own appointments.

That proved a smooth process. Somehow Barrie must have conveyed the message to the whole crew that the production was cooperating with me on my book. I never had anyone evidence the slightest bit of reluctance to talk with me.

 To be continued