readers will remember actor Thomas Robins as Deagol, from that wonderful scene with Andy Serkis at the opening of The Return of the King; and some sharper-eyed viewers may also have spotted him (under heavy prosthetics!) as Young Thrain, in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.  What you may not know is that New Zealander Robins also works as a producer and director, and TORn recently had a chance to chat to him about his latest project.  It’s an intriguing one, for sure, and involves combining New Zealand film makers with the nascent movie industry in Laos!  Staffer greendragon talked to Robins to find out more, and of course to ask him about time spent in Middle-earth!  Read the full interview – and find out how you can get involved with Robins’ new movie project – after the break.

GD: Thomas, fans of Peter Jackson’s movies are of course familiar with you as an actor, but you’re also a producer and a director; can you tell us a little about your work behind the camera?

TR: I am based in Wellington here in New Zealand, and have a production company (KHF Media) which I own with my good friend David Stubbs.  Over the last 5 or so years we have been producing documentaries, dramas, comedies, short films, interactive projects, and are currently developing three feature films.  Our biggest success to date would be the interactive drama series Reservoir Hill.  It was a dark, teenage online series, where after each episode you could text the lead character advice and see her receive your text in real time.  We would then use these texts to help create the next episode that we shot the following week.  The first series won New Zealand’s first International Emmy® award, and the second series was also nominated, so it was a brilliant time for us here.

MIPTV 2010 - SPECIAL EVENT - THE INTERNATIONAL DIGITAL EMMY AWARDS CEREMONY - DIGITAL PROGRAM - CHILDREN AND YOUNG PEOPLE - RESERVOIR HILL - KHF MEDIA LTD - NEW ZEALANDI also have my own small production company (Flow Productions), where I develop other personal projects.  It’s under this umbrella that I’m hoping to develop a feature film with a group of filmmakers in Laos, with a working title of Heart People.  It’s early days and not an easy project to get up and running, but that’s the case with all films!  We are looking at a variety of ways to get things moving, because at the end of the day we need to spend time with these guys developing the story.  Skype is cool, but you can’t beat developing ideas face to face with a bunch of creative people!

We have a concept for a film about a New Zealand woman who escapes her own personal tragedy, only to arrive in Laos and find herself embroiled in the dark world of illegal logging and mining, in an area she had gone to help protect.  Our plan is to make a gripping, heartfelt film with a group of Laotian filmmakers.  Now we need to knuckle down and turn it into a cracking script.  It’s a long term, but very special project.  The guys from Laos are amazing and hopefully we can all meet up and make some magic happen!

GD: I had no idea there was any film industry in Laos!  What’s the film business like there?

TR: Neither did we!  But after some research we discovered there are some amazing people there doing great things.  This group of filmmakers we’ve been talking to (Lao New Wave Cinema) are creating excellent films on tiny budgets, and we want to join forces with them and make something special.  The Laos industry isn’t exactly flush with money, but it is certainly full of talented and motivated filmmakers.

GD: Why Laos? How did you become involved with this project?

thomas robins1TR: We travelled to Laos last year and the country simply got into our souls.  We knew that we wanted to do something special there, not just as tourists, and the film industry was the obvious choice.  So when we got back we did lots of research and found the guys from Lao New Wave Cinema.  They had made several films, including an excellent thriller called At The Horizon.  We emailed them and before long we were Skyping, had become friends and were throwing around film and story ideas. Now that we have the basis of an idea, we need to meet up and develop it.

GD: Crowd sourcing is the latest trend in fundraising; what made you decide that it was a good fit for funding this project?

TR: I was never sure about crowd sourced funding… I guess I always wondered why people should donate to these kinds of campaigns.  But to secure a little funding for this Laos film so early in the process is very hard, through the usual funding channels.  Most funding agents need to read a pretty substantial treatment of the story, and the problem for us is that we need to spend time face to face with the Laos guys before we can write up such a document.  As I mentioned, you can only do so much over Skype (especially when the connection drops out so often in Laos!); to really develop a story we need to be together and to research the area that the film will be set in.

So after investigating development-funding options, we realized that crowd sourced funding was the obvious choice.  Crowd sourced funding through Boosted here in New Zealand is a way for people to engage with, and support, the arts if they want to. Here is the link to Heart People, if any TORn folks are interested!  [click here]

GD: If it’s not too blunt a question, why should TORn’s readers be interested in/care about this project?  What’s exciting about it?

TR: Not too blunt, and a very fair question!  As mentioned, I was a little uncomfortable about asking people to donate to our project.  I wouldn’t ask people to fund our film just so we could all get work!  So firstly, rest assured no one will be paid for the early development of this film – it’s all done for love at the moment.  What we need is to get to Laos, spend time with the Laos New Wave guys, then all head to Xiengkhouang (where the film will be set) to meet the locals and research the area.  We will also be shooting some pretty pictures along the way (behind the scenes footage) with an excellent Director of Photography, with whom I have worked a lot.  He has agreed to do this for free!  At this stage we want to put together a package for film funders, so hopefully we can produce a properly funded film between New Zealand and Laos – a film created with cast and crew from both countries.  As Kino (from Laos New Wave Cinema) said, it will also help take the Laos film industry to the world, an industry that is very much in its infancy.  It’s a cool project with a cool bunch of people.

We promise to keep anyone who supports this project updated throughout the process, via Facebook, boosted, email and twitter, etc.  This is a unique and special project, and we want anyone kind enough to donate to personally feel part of this film’s journey and ultimately (hopefully) its roaring success!!!

I also thought TORn readers might be interested in other film projects being made here in ‘Middle-earth’/New Zealand, even if there are no Hobbits in them!

GD: Will you appear in the film, or do you stay firmly behind the camera when you’re in the producing/directing role?  Maybe a ‘PJ style’ cameo?

thomas robins2TR: Tough question!  My instinct with a film like this would be to answer “no”! HOWEVER, with the exception of my short film The Present (which only had three cast members), I don’t think I have ever produced or directed anything where I didn’t end up making a cameo.  I just can’t help myself!

GD: Of course I have to ask you about Lord of the Rings.  You are the only actor in Middle-earth to have appeared with Andy Serkis showing his own face on screen!  Do you think Andy was relieved to have a scene where he didn’t have to be in the motion capture suit?

TR: Absolutely, I am sure he was pleased to have been released from the shackles of a mo-cap suit!  No one looks good in one of those!  It was over ten years ago now, but I have very fond memories of shooting that scene with Andy – it was a very tough few days physically but an amazing experience too.  It has been cool to watch Andy’s success – he’s an incredible actor.  You should check out his performance in the superb TV series Accused, he is brilliant.  It was cool to see him very briefly at The Hobbit premiere here in Wellington last year.  I took my daughter (a self confessed Lord of the Rings freak) and she was so excited to meet him and get a photo!

GD: What was it like going back to Middle-earth for The Hobbit?  Did you find the studio set up had changed significantly, or did it feel similar to how things were during Lord of the Rings shooting?

TR: It was really cool going back.  Everything seemed much bigger – the crew, the studio, the catering… everything!   There was this great confidence about everyone too.  They had made three amazingly successful films a while back and were doing it all again; it was really cool.  It was funny too, because there were many of the same people working on The Hobbit who worked on Lord of the Rings.  It was nice to see them again.

The funniest thing was when I said hi to people, yet no one knew who I was at all because the prosthetics I was wearing for Young Thrain were pretty extreme!  I only did a few days, but again it was an amazing time and experience.  I’m extremely lucky to have been involved with these films over the years.

GD: Thanks so much for taking time to talk to TORn, Thomas.  It’s always great to catch up with Middle-earth actors, and find out about their latest projects.  Any final messages for TORn’s readers?

TR: I have never had any contact with TORn before, so it is great to finally be in touch!  I have heard amazing things about your site and those who visit it; I also hear the TORn parties are excellent too!  One day maybe I might be able to get to one of them – I live in hope!  Many thanks for your support TORn!  All the best!

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There you have it – another charming cast member from Middle-earth!  If you’re interested in knowing more about Heart People, the project combining the New Zealand and Laos film industries, check out the video at this page.  You can donate to the ‘Boosted’ crowd sourcing campaign by clicking here.