The kindle version of TheOneRing.net’s new book, Middle-earth Madness, has been selling at Amazon for the last week. Now it’s available for Nook!
We’ve previously shared a sample chapter about Lord of the Rings executive producer Mark Ordesky. Now here’s another sample, our interview with Sylvester McCoy.
Behind-the-Scenes with Sylvester McCoy (Radagast)
Let’s be honest. If you were sitting at a pub having a pint, and the fellow next to you was rambling about how he was almost Bilbo Baggins in the movies, you’d wonder if he’d had one too many of the Gaffer’s home brew. But if that fellow happened to be Sylvester McCoy, you should know two things: first, he’s telling you the truth, and second, the craziness has probably just begun.
“I was up for Bilbo Baggins originally,” McCoy says, referring not to The Hobbit but to The Lord of the Rings movies. “And it got down to me and another person. Just two left of the many hundreds that started off on the journey. And I didn’t know Ian Holm was the other person, but if I had known, I would have known I wouldn’t get it, because Ian Holm is a brilliant, wonderful actor. And later I was delighted to be at least in his company. But that was the beginning of the journey toward Radagast.”
Sitting down to chat with TheOneRing.net, McCoy is as eccentric as the wizard he plays, at times pretending to have birds under his hat and at other times playing a pair of spoons for our entertainment. But then his journey from almost-Bilbo to Radagast was anything but conventional itself.
“The Bilbo audition was the beginning of it. Then [the filmmakers] saw me as the Fool in King Lear in New Zealand, and they offered me the job of Radagast. And when I went to see them, we were chatting about the fact that I didn’t do Bilbo Baggins. And they said, ‘We think maybe that’s a pretty good thing, because we’ve written you a bigger part.’ I thought, ‘I have to read the book again.’ It had been years. And I read it, and I kept thinking, ‘Where is Radagast? Where is he?’ And I thought ‘Oh dear, what kind of part is this?’”
McCoy, born as Percy Kent-Smith in Dunoon, Scotland in 1943, is a jack of all trades, having been a comedian, a busker and, of course, a character actor. Taking his stage name from a character he played in a comedy act (An Evening with Sylveste McCoy: the Human Bomb), he gained international fame as the seventh Doctor in the long running British television series, Doctor Who. (He still carries his question mark umbrella with him, showing it off to us while we chat.)
“When I took over as Doctor Who from Colin Baker,” he explains, “he had an umbrella in this story, so I ended up with an umbrella, and I actually quite like it. I’m a proppy person. And in my mind I could see an image of the shape of me with an umbrella—the shadow thing—and I said, ‘Let’s make it with a question mark.’ And one of the great designers of the Doctor Who shoot said how wonderful she thought it was. She thought it was very witty and, in a sense, understated. I find the question mark [costume] overstated, and if I had had my way, or if I would have done the fourth season, I would have gotten rid of it. Because it was too many question marks. People should be continuously saying, ‘Why the question marks? What does it mean?’ But no one ever did, because people just ignored it. In real life they wouldn’t, would they?”
As McCoy alluded to before, a few years before joining the cast of The Hobbit, he toured for two years as the Fool in King Lear. Playing the king was Ian McKellen, who was willing to bare it all for the production. “Originally, [director] Trevor Nunn wanted us both to take our clothes off, but luckily I had this harness on, so I didn’t have to. In order to be hung I had to have a harness I could be strung up on. So thank goodness I was hung at the end of the first act, or otherwise I would have had to have been very well hung to compete with Ian. Because my God, who can compete with Ian?”
Stepping away from the “biggest little wizard” competition, we ask McCoy about the beginning of his time in New Zealand as he was preparing to shoot The Hobbit.
“I love doing conventions, and I was doing a convention in Auckland, and the whole thing kind of fitted into my call on The Hobbit. They were going to send a car for me on the Monday night after the convention finished and drive me down to Piopio, which is kind of halfway down the North Island, but then they changed their minds because of the weather. So I was on the stage—trying not to talk about The Hobbit to the conventioneers—when my phone rang! And so I answered the phone, and I said to everyone, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s The Hobbit! The Hobbit [people] are on the phone!’ And they all got very excited. And The Hobbit people wanted to come and pick me up a day earlier. And I said, ‘Well, I’ll have to talk to the organizers of the convention.’ And before I had finished, the organizer of the convention knew as much about it as I did because someone in the audience was texting or twittering, telling everything that was going on. But anyway, they ended up sending a helicopter for me. And so I got to fly all that way at seven in the morning and see half of the island, and it was stunning. You could see Middle-earth, with the mist coming off the rivers and the lakes and another kind of softer mist coming out through the woods. I mean, that was really magical.”
Though Radagast is only mentioned once in passing in Tolkien’s version of The Hobbit, director Peter Jackson assured McCoy there were bigger plans for the “tender of the beasts,” as the wizard’s name translates to. It didn’t take long for McCoy to fall in love with the part.
“It’s great. It’s a nice role to do. When the costume arrived and I looked at myself, suddenly Radagast emerged. I’m not really a method actor. I get an instinct about something. Sometimes it feels quite magical. Suddenly something arrives. Working with Ian in the theatre on the stage, he does that. He stands on the side of the stage, and he knows the lines and the moves and all that, but you can see the mysterious, spiritual part of it only comes when he steps onto the stage, and it’s so exciting. And I started to realize I was doing the same—partly because I didn’t know what he was going to do and what emotion or strength I would require.”
And how long did it take to get into that make-up and wardrobe? “Oh, a couple of hours, really. They gave me a prosthetic nose. It was quite simple, really. They stuck on a nose, and it was slightly bent. And then I had big ears, but you couldn’t see them because of the hair. Then they gave me a funny little tooth; a sweet little snaggletooth. It was alright, except for bird whistling. I had to learn how to whistle again with a tooth. The Dwarves had it worse. I knew some of those actors from Britain before, and I came in and was having lunch; I was sitting next to this dwarf, and I didn’t realize it was an old mate of mine, Ken Stott! I didn’t recognize him until he spoke. I was given an aide-mémoire [a cheat sheet] with the pictures of all the actors playing the dwarves. It was really handy, except it wasn’t the characters. So I was going around with this, and you couldn’t tell who was on this aide and who was there.”
It didn’t take long for McCoy to begin shooting at Rhosgobel. “I’d just arrived a couple of days before, and the scenes I did there were the first scenes. They picked me up at four in the morning, and I didn’t get home until ten at night. And I literally could not walk. I was utterly exhausted. Because I was the only person there; with a stuffed hedgehog. So there was no one else to pass the buck to. It was just me. But when I went into the cottage I just fell in love with it. It was so beautiful. A higgledy-piggledy place. And I loved the idea that he was so in love with nature that he wouldn’t cut down a tree that decided it was going to move in and live with him. You know, he was like, ‘Come live with me, great oak!’ But it was very hot. They had to blow in air to keep me cool. It was so enclosed. There were no false walls or anything like that. You know, sometimes they have a set and they can take a wall away so they can shoot from there. No, they built the actual thing. It’s a shame they’ve taken it away. I’d loved if they had kept it, really. Because people would be delighted to be able to go through it. The detail! I cannot tell you the beautiful detail on the set. And some of it’s not seen, really, on the screen. But those artists that work on The Hobbit are just brilliant and detailed and so enthusiastic. Their love for it is just a joy. New Zealand is so far away, and especially in the old days before the internet, Peter said if they wanted to get anything they’d have to write and wait six months for it to come from Europe or England or America to get there. So they had to invent their own stuff and be creative in that way. And out of it has grown this wondrous, creative industry.”
McCoy, of course, had to learn Elvish to save Sebastian. (Or at least he had to learn a couple lines of it.) But don’t ask him to repeat it! “I did know what it meant when I was saying it at the time. I had to learn it and say it properly again and again. It was a bit of a nightmare trying to get it, you know. The pronunciation had to be so precise because there are some people out there who are so pernickety about things,” he says, looking straight at us. “And you don’t know how much that drives us poor actors mad! But I can’t remember now what the Elvish was. As an actor, as soon I’ve done something it’s gone. Because I’ve only got so much room in my head! I mean, I’ve been an actor now for forty-odd years. And I’ve been one of those very, very lucky actors who’s continuously been employed in something or other. So many lines have gone through my head, they go in my ear, they come out my mouth and that’s it.”
After working with the stuffed hedgehog (used to give him a reference before the computer generated version was added), it was on to rabbits—which were no more real! “For a while I thought they were going to get real rabbits. Because, they’re based on these very large rabbits in northern Belgium, and I thought maybe I was going to have trained real rabbits, which would have been quite cool really. But then they would have all pooed all over the place and made more rabbits while we were watching and all that. But the wizards of Weta are marvelous. There’s a bit in the film where we’re kind of waiting, and one of the rabbits is stamping his foot on the ground, and another one is doing something else, and they’ve all got individual little quirks about them. Astonishing really. Bloody upstaging rabbits!”
They say not to work with children or animals. Didn’t anybody warn McCoy? “They did, but I thought I was going to get away with it on this film because I was working on green screen, so there weren’t any animals there. I had to imagine them. And I didn’t know those wizards at Weta were going to come up with these birds and animals that were going to upstage me like mad. Like Sebastian the upstager. I mean, look at him! No, it’s true. Don’t work with children or animals or Weta animals.”
McCoy, of course, spends frequent screen time with his old friend from the stage. “Serena McKellen,” he calls him, knowing McKellen would appreciate the mondegreen. “I was working with him in London, and he just got ‘Companion of Honor’, which is another one of those medieval honors that they dish out in modern Britain. And we were going into the stage door, and he said ‘My dear boy, I’ve just become a camp onion of honor.’”
Asked if he was able to meet fellow wizard Christopher Lee, he replies, “No. That’s really sad. I didn’t meet him, because he’s getting on a bit and to travel out to New Zealand from London would be too much for him. So again, the magic of film, they went and filmed him in London. You know that scene [in Rivendell] where they’re all together sitting around the table? He’s not there. He’s in London. But it was so real and so clever. Galadriel walks right behind him. It was just so wonderful. But I —oh, I can’t talk about the next film. I want to! I’m so excited! I want to tell you all about it, but I can’t. I got a letter the other day that said ‘McCoy, keep your mouth shut!’ Or something along those lines, anyway. I’ve been programmed by Weta to cover my mouth whenever I’m going to give a spoiler.”
Overall, McCoy says he enjoyed working in New Zealand. “Yes, it’s funny really, I expected that I would be overawed by it all, but Peter Jackson is so good at making people relaxed. And the people of New Zealand, all of them (there are only four million of them in the country) must have somehow been connected with it. They’re great. They’re laid back, and you feel very relaxed. That was great. I mean, there are some times when you know the epic moments that you’re involved in—you felt the weight of that. But most of the time it’s just great fun. I did a scene that I’m not supposed to talk about with Cate Blanchett, and I would have given my fee back just to do that scene because she’s great. She is absolutely amazing, and she’s so lovely and down to earth. I mean, she’s like Australian royalty. She’s so elegant, so intelligent and beautiful, but she’s also very, very friendly. Her children were there, and it was great getting to know her.”
McCoy was also very impressed with the Dale set, which he had the opportunity to see as a ghost town before it was shot. “I went out with Andy Serkis, who was acting as second unit director. He invited me to come out one Sunday when no one was there. It had been built, and he was just going around kind of walking out some shots for the burning of it. So they spent all these millions building this amazing town, and then they burnt it down. But it was lovely. We had lunch there, and it was like being in some Italian village on top of a mountain. It was glorious.”
So was it a good idea to expand the film series to three parts?
“Yes! My agent thinks it’s a good idea. My bank manager thinks it’s a good idea. I’m not arguing with that one, really. In a way, I was slightly despondent I never got offered anything in Harry Potter. Continuously while it was going on, people kept saying to me, ‘Why aren’t you in Harry Potter?’ And I said, ‘Well, no one asked, or maybe I was busy.’ I don’t know whatever it was, but it would have been quite nice.”
Looking back at his career, McCoy can’t help but think about his clothes and the man who has been collecting them, a genre fan by the name of Peter Jackson. “He is a great collector of things. He’s got warehouses of stuff. He has got my Doctor Who costume. He’s also got my Radagast the Brown costume. I’m hanging on to my street clothes like mad. He’s not getting them. I have to have something to walk about in!”
Speaking of that seventh Doctor, when McCoy was cast as Radagast, many thought he might be given a “question mark” staff and some fans still look for, or think they see, a question mark in his costume. “No, there aren’t any,” he admits. “It’s a different part altogether. The only hint of Doctor Who in it is that I have to talk about rrrrabits, and there is a bit of rolling of r’s.”
And so what’s left for McCoy? Something different, he says. “There are some actors who we love and adore who are the same in everything, and we like that. You know, Sean Connery never changes his accent, but he gets away with it because we love that accent. He got an Oscar for a Scottish Irishman, if you know what I mean. And there are others: Bob Hoskins, who had a great Cockney accent, and John Wayne. And we love actors like that, but I’m not that kind of actor. I’m a character actor. I want to be different.”
Here is the complete table of contents for Middle-earth Madness, a book that covers the first two Hobbit movies and looks back at The Lord of the Rings:
The History of The Hobbit Films
Behind-the-Scenes with Richard Taylor
An Unexpected Journey (AUJ)
AUJ: A Long Expected Success
AUJ: An Unexpected Failure
II: An Unexpected Party
III: The World is Ahead
IV: Roast Mutton
V: On the Run
Behind-the-Scenes with Sylvester McCoy
AUJ Soundtrack Review
Inside Information with Richard Armitage
VI: A Short Rest
VII: Over Hill and Under Hill
VIII: Riddles in the Dark
IX: Out of the Frying-Pan, Into the Fire
Getting to Know Kiran Shah
A Look Back at TheOneRing.net News
Inside Information with Graham McTavish
The Desolation of Smaug (DOS)
DOS: A Deep Disappointment
DOS: A Dazzling Success
X: Queer Beginnings
XI: Lost in Mirkwood & Attacked by Spiders
XII: The Elves & the Woodland Realm
XIII: Barrels out of Bond
Behind-the-Scenes with William Kircher
DOS Soundtrack Review
Inside Information with Peter Hambleton
XIV: Bard the Smuggler
XVI: To the Doorstep
XVII: Inside the Mountain
XVIII: The Wrath of Smaug
Inside Information with Jed Brophy
A Letter to the Cast and Crew
Nine Mind-Blowing Reasons
Looking Back at The Lord of the Rings
Worldbuilding (From The Frodo Franchise)
Q&A with Design Artist Daniel Falconer
Hobbiton (From The Lord of the Films)
The Legacy of The Lord of the Rings Films
Getting to Know Mark Ordesky
Middle-earth Fans: Dressing the Part
Looking Back at the Animated Hobbit
TheOneRing.net is happy to announce that this September, to celebrate the birthdays of Bilbo and Frodo, we will be releasing a digital book all about The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films. For this project, we interviewed many of the people responsible for these blockbusters, including Mark Ordesky, executive producer of the LOTR movies. With Ordesky’s new series, The Quest, premiering this Thursday, July 31 at 8/7c on ABC in North America, we thought it would be fun to share with you a sample from the book, Ordesky’s tell-all interview where he explains how he became involved with The Lord of the Rings, why he left New Line Cinema, and how his time working on the LOTR films inspired his new television series.
Catching Up With Mark Ordesky
By J.W. Braun
Mark Ordesky will never forget the day he was told he would be a production executive for The Lord of the Rings movies. “My boss, [New Line Cinema founder] Bob Shaye, said to me, ‘Listen, Peter Jackson is your friend. He slept on your couch. You love The Lord of the Rings. So you’re going to be the canary in the mine.’”
Born in Sacramento County in 1963, Ordesky fell in love with fantasy at a young age. “I was introduced to Dungeons & Dragons in the 1970s when finishing elementary school,” he tells TheOneRing.net, “and like so many others, I took to it immediately and passionately. A friend I played with gave me a box of books: required reading. Really! In that box were The Chronicles of Narnia, The Chronicles of Amber, the Robert E. Howard Conan stories, the Eternal Champion books, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. That was about when the Rankin/Bass version of The Hobbit was on television, followed by Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings film in theaters. I remember just finishing up the books about the same time I saw those movies and how much fun it all was.I really became a fantasy fanatic. By high school, I was Dungeon Master of my own ambitious Dungeons & Dragons games with my brother Joel and a group of our best pals. That campaign lasted throughout high school, college, and slightly beyond. They were great times, and it was really wonderful to sustain and grow a gaming world for so long with the same core group of best friends. To this day, we reunite in San Francisco every summer.”
Unfortunately, Ordesky was unable to major in “dragon slaying” in college. So while attending the University of Southern California, he pursued his interest in journalism before switching gears. “In 1985, I was completing my print journalism degree, was editor of the university newspaper, had interned at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and Los Angeles Times… but nonetheless felt being a professional journalist might not be the right direction. It was during this time that I wrote a short story for a creative writing class. It was about (big surprise) a naïve, idealistic student journalist investigating a campus murder alongside a grizzled, cynical professional journalist. Through an unexpected series of fortunate circumstances more likely to happen in Los Angeles than anywhere else, my short story got put in development at Columbia Pictures’ Tri-Star movie unit, with Matthew Broderick considered to play the student journalist character based on me. Like many development projects in Hollywood, the movie never materialized. But this turn of events created an opportunity to learn the ropes of script analysis and to become part of the film industry. And during this period, I realized that my real skill was recognizing talented people and movies and advocating for them.”
Ordesky began working for Republic Pictures, an independent film corporation that had made hundreds of B movies throughout the Golden Age of Hollywood. In the 1980s, with cable television and the videocassette rental market emerging, the company was reinventing itself.
“I did home video acquisitions,” Ordesky recalls. “I used to watch a bag full of videocassette movies every weekend, driving my then fiancée crazy. Around 1987 there was a video sent to me by the New Zealand Film Commission for consideration as a U.S. acquisition. I really, really dug the film. I was totally gobsmacked by it. It was just audacious and bold and clever, and so distinctive. It was called Bad Taste, and it was directed by a guy named Peter Jackson.”
Starting off as side project in 1983 while Jackson, then 22 years old, was working for his local newspaper, Bad Taste (or Roast of the Day as it originally was called) was supposed to be a ten to fifteen minute short starring Jackson and his friends about a door-to-door money collector and his encounter with aliens. But what started as a hobby kept becoming more ambitious, and by the time he had finished in 1987, Jackson had a ninety-two minute “feature.”
“Unfortunately,” Ordesky recalls, “I was not able to convince my bosses at Republic Pictures to let me license the distribution rights. They thought I was crazy for wanting to buy this ‘foreign’ film about flesh eating aliens from outer space attacking New Zealand. But I told myself that this was a director to keep an eye on. Then I moved from Republic Pictures to New Line Cinema in 1988 to be a story editor, which basically meant that I was a junior executive. One of the first things I did was to write Saul Zaentz, inquiring about the movie rights to The Lord of the Rings. The correspondence went unanswered, which didn’t surprise me as a newbie junior executive writing a multiple Best Picture winner!”
At about that time, New Line Cinema was preparing to make The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, and Ordesky put Jackson’s name forth as a possible director. Ultimately, Jeff Burr was chosen, but not long after, Jackson was paging through a copy of Fangoria magazine when he came across his name as one of the directors passed over for the project. Not yet 30 years old and having completed only two low-budget features (one of which hadn’t been distributed yet), Jackson was stunned to see his name in an American magazine.
“By that time,” Ordesky explains, “Peter had finished a movie called Meet the Feebles. Then he made another film, Braindead. And just like Bad Taste, I tried to license those. Again it didn’t work out. But I did talk about him enough that I was able to persuade my superiors that we should hire Peter to do a screenplay draft of A Nightmare on Elm Street, which would have been Part 6, had it been made.”
The Nightmare franchise, featuring Freddy Krueger, was New Line’s crown jewel. After Freddy’s introduction in 1984, New Line released a Nightmare film every year for the remainder of the decade, with the exception of 1987. But going into the ‘90s, New Line executives felt the franchise was losing steam and needed new ideas. Jackson came up with a story about a police officer falling into a coma and becoming trapped in Freddy’s nightmare world. When Jackson came to Los Angeles to discuss it with New Line, he was able to meet with Ordesky professionally – and personally. “Peter crashed on my couch at one point, and I introduced him to Risk. That was the only time I ever beat him. Once he learned the game, I never beat him again. He was just too good a strategist. But the thing was, there was another Nightmare script in development by someone else at that time, because we were always commissioning Nightmare on Elm Street scripts. (We figured if we didn’t use yours for Part 6, it might be Part 7 or Part 8.) So there was simultaneous development, and while Peter presented an amazing script, Bob Shaye went with the other. But it was fun to work with Peter and to have him in my ratty apartment with all my Dungeons & Dragons paraphernalia and my Frank Frazetta posters and so forth. And it did get Peter his first Hollywood paycheck.”
As the ‘90s rolled on, New Line Cinema scored a number of hits, such as The Mask, Dumb and Dumber, Austin Powers, and Ordesky’s Rumble in the Bronx; all of which stepped away from conventional Hollywood formulas and stayed with the changing popular culture while other studios lagged behind.
“At New Line, we couldn’t make traditional star-driven films. We were not a company that was going to get access to Tom Cruise. The star-driven vehicles were going to go to Paramount, or Warner Bros., or one of the more traditional studios before us. So Mike De Luca, who was president of production during the time of nearly all the hits you’re describing, realized that what you needed to do if you didn’t have giant movie stars to create opening weekends was to be right on the leading edge of pop culture. You needed to know what motivated audiences apart from just the traditional elements. He used to say, ‘We can’t afford stars. We need to create stars.’ And the way you did that was you take a new or distinctive idea, and give [it] to talented people so that it [becomes] greater than the sum of its parts. So it’s not a coincidence: all those hit New Line movies were left of center, the sort of films and franchises that fit into our model.”
Meanwhile, Peter Jackson had a breakthrough film in 1994 with Heavenly Creatures, for which he and his partner, Fran Walsh, were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. The film caught the attention of Miramax, a studio that acquired it for distribution and signed Jackson to a deal giving them a first look at anything he was developing. The next year, when he proposed adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s books into movies, Miramax obtained an option to make the films and set the project in motion.
“I knew they were developing it,” Ordesky says. “I was immensely jealous and crestfallen that it was happening without me, and that it was happening with Peter without me. But there was nothing to be done about it, so I just sort of thought to myself, ‘At least I’ll get to see these cool films be made.’”
Meanwhile, Ordesky kept busy. “At the time, I had made a pivot to acquiring finished films and was running Fine Line Features. I’d go to the film festivals like Sundance to go after art house films and compete against Miramax and a number of other companies to acquire them. So that put me in a realm of dealing with a lot of auteur, singular vision filmmakers; people like Peter, who were not traditional. And I dealt with a lot of international filmmakers, which ended up being my thing.”
Unknown to Ordesky, things were not going well between Jackson and Miramax. Initially, they had decided to make two Lord of the Rings films, possibly to be followed by one Hobbit movie. But Jackson’s vision was too expensive for the studio, and he was unwilling to compromise. By 1998, with anger building on both sides, Miramax and Jackson finally agreed that it wasn’t in their best interests to continue working together, and the studio gave Jackson an ultimatum: he had to find another studio to buy out the project or get out of the way so new writers and a different director could be brought in to do the films the way Miramax wanted. Jackson was given just four weeks to find a new backer. Knowing he was on the brink of losing the project, Jackson knew he needed someone at a studio who understood The Lord of the Rings, who would believe in him, and who was willing to make a film against the conventional wisdom of Hollywood.
“I was going about my business when my phone rang,” Ordesky recalls, “and Peter told me about his struggle and what was going on. He and his agent were sending out packages to all the studios to see if anyone was interested, and he had an in-room presentation he was preparing for anyone who responded. I remember him saying, ‘We have a small window, Mark, but it’s our chance! A chance for us to make a movie together!’”
It was, of course, a calculated move on Jackson’s part. Like a master Risk player, he was avoiding the more conventional strategy of having his agent submit a request to New Line’s chairmen and instead trying to make inroads underneath.
“I think he thought that I was a bit nuts and that I’d do anything to get this done,” Ordesky says. “And he was right.”
By the time a meeting was set up between Jackson and New Line, the other major studios had already declined. They considered the idea of making two films costing hundreds of millions of dollars too great of a risk – particularly with an unproven director at the helm.
“Looking back on it,” reflects Ordesky, “I personally feel that I had more information than everyone else. I didn’t see it as risky or foolish, partially because at that point I’d been at New Line long enough that I really sensed that this was an absolute fit. And I knew Peter Jackson probably better than most of Hollywood. I knew him as an artist. I knew him as a human being. I knew him from the point of view of character and stamina and ambition. And when we had the big meeting with [New Line founder and co-chairman] Bob Shaye, I was incredibly hopeful and enthusiastic that we would have a good result. But Bob, a very successful filmmaker and businessman, is very hard to read, and it was not immediately evident throughout the course of the meeting how it was going. But then Bob asked, ‘Well wait a minute, there’s three books, why are you proposing making two films? Shouldn’t you be making three films of three books?’ It was then I knew there was a real shot.”
In fact, New Line was having a big problem developing sequels to their successful films, such as Dumb and Dumber and The Mask. One solution to the problem was to plan multiple films at once, an idea that was floated for The Foundation Trilogy (based on the books by Isaac Asimov) only to have the project fall apart and the option lapse, leaving New Line with nothing but bills. It was at that point that Shaye stepped into his meeting with Jackson and began to realize the strategy might work with a different set of books.
“The meeting ended, as most of these meetings end, with ‘Thank you, we’ll consider this and come back to you,’” Ordesky recalls. “Bob wanted to speak to Michael Lynne and the other members of senior staff. And we talked about what we thought of the idea. For me it was pure belief and advocacy. All I wanted was to see the films happen. So I was making a case for Peter. I was making a case for the fantasy genre. I was making a case for The Lord of the Rings specifically, and particularly as a fit for New Line. The Lord of the Rings was a branded property, but in a genre that Hollywood had ill-served and somewhat neglected. Rings had a worldwide, multi-generational fan base, but also a super motivated core of fans for whom the stories were beloved. And then there was the sequel issue. We were all very conscious of the fact that New Line had had trouble making sequels, most notably to its Jim Carrey movies. I made the point that even in a two film version of Rings, let alone a three film version, one would have the advantage of making the sequels in advance. There would no struggle to assemble sequels in terms of deal-making or talent availability. Given New Line’s circumstances, that was a persuasive point to make. Yes, nobody had ever made three films like Rings before. People had made two movies back to back as successful sequels to a prior hit, but nobody had made three films where you were making two sequels in advance: essentially one epic 11-hour film, where you were frontloading the production schedule with material from the first film. But there were also great advantages to it. Economies of scale. If there was some remote location that was featured in more than one of the three films, you could visit that location just that once. Obviously there were great challenges and production and creative issues that had never been faced before, but on the other hand there was this amazing business opportunity to create unprecedented production efficiencies as well.”
At this point, it’s probably not necessary to say that Mr. Ordesky had drive and determination. But it was also right around this time a giant mistake taught him a lesson that sealed his commitment to The Lord of the Rings.
“Soon after the meeting with Peter, I was one of three acquisition executives bidding for The Blair Witch Project at Sundance, and I second-guessed myself and let it get away.” The film was acquired by Artisan Entertainment for $1 million. It went on to gross $248 million at the box office. “It was a devastating mistake. It nearly cost me my operational autonomy at New Line. And I realized something profound, not just about the movie industry but about life. There are very few times when you possess real personal conviction. So when you’re fortunate enough to have it, I think you have a responsibility to see it through no matter what. I let The Blair Witch get away because I ignored my initial conviction, and I remember as The Lord of the Rings was preparing to formally move ahead, and it was seen as such a big gamble, I thought to myself, ‘No matter what happens, I am not going to make the mistake I made with The Blair Witch on The Lord of the Rings. Because I have a conviction about this. It’s from my childhood, I know it’s right for me. It’s right for New Line, and the re-ascendancy of the fantasy genre is nigh.’ (Remember that Harry Potter was on a parallel track with Rings at the time.) I vowed: ‘I’m not going to let this opportunity get away, even if it costs me my entire career.’”
When the deal between Miramax and New Line was finalized, and Frodo Baggins had a new home, Ordesky was thrilled. But it turned out to be just the beginning.
“Bob said, ‘We want to try to make this happen.’ And that’s when he told me I was going to work on the films in New Zealand. He said, ‘Peter is your friend. You’ve always pushed for him. You read The Lord of the Rings when you were a kid. So you’re going to be the canary in the mine.’ At that time, I had heard the expression, but I didn’t really fully know what it meant. Growing up in Southern California, it didn’t resonate with me the way it might have. And I was surprised to be trusted with this opportunity. It was one thing to advocate the films, another to manage them. At that point in my career at New Line, I think the most expensive film I’d supervised was probably $6 million, and then they put me on this $270 million dollar film as a production executive! Then again, this really goes to the heart of New Line’s corporate culture, which was amazing. There was a real value on pride of ownership. That if you felt the sense of ownership in something, you would work harder and smarter and better – as opposed to something that was an assigned task. So at New Line, if you brought something in and advocated it, you would most likely see it through to the finish.”
The first order of business was to figure exactly what kind of project this would be. “We had agreed the films would be made in New Zealand as Peter intended. I think New Line assumed they would be three movies of roughly two hours each, give or take. Peter has famously said, ‘The right length for a film is the right length.’ There was an initial thought that maybe the release dates would be six months apart. But after discussions, and when we all got into how the films were actually going to be made, everyone came to the conclusion that releasing one year apart was the right way to go about it. As the films expanded in scope and ambition, it also became apparent that we needed someone with a lot of experience doing big budget films in overseas locations. That meant Barrie Osborne, known for his contribution to successes like Apocalypse Now, The Matrix, and Baz’s The Great Gatsby. He met with Peter in Wellington, and the deal was sealed.”
Meanwhile, Ordesky finally had the chance to meet Saul Zaentz, who still owned the film rights to The Lord of the Rings. “I first met him in 1999. As production continued, I saw him at least once a year and got to spend a fair bit of time with him, which I thought was great considering I’d sent him that letter he never answered in 1988! One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest [from 1975] is still one of my top five films of all time. I admired the way he navigated Hollywood on his own terms. He was not afraid of a fight. In 2013 when I heard he was ill, I reached out to him again, but he was too ill to speak by then. It would have been lovely to speak to him one last time, but I was fortunate to be able to spend the time with him that I did.”
Zaentz died in 2014 at the age of 92 on J.R.R. Tolkien’s 122nd birthday (January 3).
Back in the middle of 1999 (summer for Los Angeles and winter for New Zealand), The Lord of the Rings project was preparing to transition from pre-production to principal photography, and Ordesky had thousands of details to oversee.
“Bob Shaye used to jokingly refer to me as the translator, because not everyone at New Line was as steeped in Tolkien or The Lord of the Rings as I was. Whenever you have a big franchise movie, particularly one being made far away, it was important for me to make sure the studio was getting what it bargained for and that the filmmakers were getting all they needed. In the early days, casting was obviously a big priority. There were so many primary roles to cast. And most of them wouldn’t be cast with stars, so there was a wide-ranging process. There was casting explorations in New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Peter would inevitably narrow it down to anywhere from five and ten actors whom he favored for a given role, one a favorite, and it was my job to show those people to the powers that be at New Line and get Peter’s choices approved. That was incredibly energizing and was one of the big, first creative endeavors I undertook on behalf of the filmmakers.”
One piece of casting proved problematic.
“Stuart Townsend was someone that Peter really wanted for Aragorn. He had a vision for Stuart, and New Line chose to support it. Like most of the other lead actors, Stuart went down to New Zealand well before filming for horse training, sword training, language coaching; whatever he’d need to help play his character. And it was toward the end of that process, as principal photography neared, that Peter realized Stuart wasn’t the ideal match for the part. I was in London when I got the call that we were parting ways with Stuart. And Peter rang me and said, ‘We need new ideas.’ Now you have to realize, the film was scheduled to shoot in a week! This was very last minute. I remember being flipped out, wondering, ‘how are we possibly going to recast the role so quickly?’ And I wrote three names on a piece of paper: Russell Crowe, Jason Patric, and Viggo Mortensen. I had met Viggo some years before. My assistant at New Line, Jackie Tepper, would push me whenever she saw actors she thought I should know. And she flagged Viggo back in the days of Indian Runner and The Hunt for Red October.”
(Interestingly, Mortensen, before becoming known, was also in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, the one Ordesky wanted Jackson to direct.)
“And so, well before The Lord of the Rings,” Ordesky continues, “I ended up having a meeting with Viggo. He’s not really a guy for taking meetings. He’s a wonderfully non-Hollywood guy. But somehow my assistant, through her persistence, convinced Viggo’s manager that we should have Hollywood lunch. And he was incredibly polite and gracious. He told me he was Danish, and I found out the town where his family originated translated into English as ‘Ring-town’. Because I was such a fan of The Lord of the Rings, that stuck in my brain. Years later in that London hotel room, I thought back to that and thought he would be worthy of playing Aragorn. Turns out that Peter, Fran, and Philippa were already ahead of me as Viggo was on their lists too.”
Mortensen, who enjoys his camping trips, wasn’t the easiest actor to reach. But the casting director made contact with his agent, and it didn’t take long to get an answer (which is probably because the filmmakers made it clear they didn’t have very long to wait for one). Ordesky recounts: “His manager told him, ‘you need to read this script, and if you like it, you need to be on a plane in 48 hours to New Zealand.’ As it turns out, Viggo’s son Henry had been reading The Lord of the Rings, which was a wonderful bit of serendipity. And Viggo, like most great actors, liked to take on roles that frightened or challenged him in some respect, so he came on board. And throughout the shooting we became good friends.”
Any film project has its difficulties, but with three and a half years of shooting, with up to seven units going simultaneously, the complexity of The Lord of the Rings shoot was mind-boggling. And that doesn’t even factor in the availability of the actors and the crazy New Zealand weather throwing a wrench into the best-laid plans.
“It’s like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle on a moving table when someone’s always hiding the piece you need,” Ordesky explains. “There are always these crazy variables. That’s part of the challenge, and that’s part of the satisfaction.”
Throughout the project, Ordesky flew back and forth between Los Angeles and New Zealand over thirty times, but as time went on he found himself in New Zealand most of the time.
“Relationships are always best in person. And if you’re really going contribute and be helpful, you have to be present. New Line wanted me in New Zealand so they could hold me responsible and have trusted insights into the production. And there were always heaps to do. From the sublime to the ridiculous: I can remember one time running around the set trying to get the actors to approve their Burger King toy visages,” he says with a chuckle. “My only regret is that we shot in so many amazing New Zealand locations, all these amazing, natural places, and I missed a lot of them because I was usually dealing with stuff in Wellington. But the locations I did see were spectacular. The natural beauty of New Zealand is no special effect. It was great to see how that manifested in the films.”
Meanwhile, the world around Ordesky was continuing to evolve and change. In the past, films – especially those made in remote locations – could be made with relative secrecy, with the studio carefully releasing information for publicity purposes as it saw fit. In the 1990s, that began to change, with websites (like that shady site, TheOneRing.net) sending spies to production to take photos and post reports which were instantly available to everyone. (The Lord of the Rings filmmakers had a special disadvantage: Tolkien fans knew their story nearly scene for scene!) It was a new issue for studios, and many didn’t know how to deal with it. Some engaged in squabbles with fansites. New Line’s Senior Vice President of Interactive Marketing, Gordon Paddison, took a different approach.
“Gordon was a real groundbreaker,” Ordesky recalls. “He embraced the internet as a community-building marketing tool. I remember him walking me through how we were going to engage the fansites like TheOneRing.net. And I can remember thinking how cool it was, because the films were by fans for fans. Me, Peter, Fran, Philippa, a lot of the actors as well – we were all fans – and the Internet offered an open architecture for communication. And Peter was answering the fans’ questions on the websites even before production. He’s continued to interact with the fans on every film he makes. For me, it was great to have the feeling that you were among the fans while you were making the films.”
And then there was a revolution in technology of a different sort. When New Line had acquired The Lord of the Rings from Miramax, we lived in a world of VCRs and LaserDiscs. By the time The Fellowship of the Ring was released, the DVD market was exploding.
“I didn’t really think about it as it was happening,” Ordesky admits, “because when you’re making a movie, you’re really only thinking about making the movie. But during the process of having to cull The Fellowship of the Ring down from four hours to three hours for the theatrical version, it was really sad that an hour’s worth of great material was not going to be seen. And certainly a lot of those scenes would be out of place in The Two Towers and The Return of the King. If they weren’t in The Fellowship of the Ring, they wouldn’t be able to live correctly in one of the subsequent films, and so the idea of an extended DVD was something Peter really took to, because it was a way to honor the work and give the audience a whole deeper experience in home entertainment. It made the decisions of losing material a lot less painful if you knew that those scenes – the ones that Peter felt warranted it – could live on in the extended versions. So we had that, plus the wonderfully thorough behind the scenes documentation of the movies. And the DVD sales and rentals ended up giving New Line a huge additional revenue boost that likely wasn’t anticipated at the beginning of the project.”
The DVDs also made people like Ordesky, who were just names in the credits back in the videocassette age, more visible: giving them a forum to talk about their work and giving the fans a greater appreciation for what they did. Suddenly Ordesky went from another face in the crowd to someone Tolkien fans began to recognize. “It was surprising,” he recalls. “The first time I was asked for an autograph I actually looked over my shoulder, wondering, ‘Is Sean Bean behind me? Is Viggo behind me?’ Then I turned back to these two fans and accidentally said aloud what I was thinking: ‘You don’t want my autograph.’ I thought they were confused. But they said, ‘No, we absolutely want your autograph, because you’re us! You’re a fan. You played Dungeons & Dragons, you played video games, and you helped make this happen.’ I was hugely moved by that. It’s one thing to think about doing something for the fans in abstract terms, but this made it personal and powerful.”
In the end, Ordesky enjoyed the films as much as the fans. “My favorite moments in the films are a lot of the same ones that move me most when reading the books. The hobbits facing the Nazgûl at Weathertop, the loss of Gandalf in Fellowship, the defense/victory at Helm’s Deep and Aragorn’s courage in The Two Towers, and Sam carrying Frodo up the side of Mount Doom in The Return of the King. But there are many dozens more moments that I love just as dearly. They’re such wonderful books, and they’re such wonderful films. To be able to work on The Lord of the Rings is more than would be reasonable to expect in a hundred careers. It was born of my childhood fascination with Tolkien, with Dungeons & Dragons, with all those fantasy books I was reading back in the ‘70s, and to channel that into my passion for Peter Jackson and his team in New Zealand that I got to know in the ‘80s, and see those two things synthesized into something like The Lord of the Rings movies, it’s something for which I’m very grateful. Anything more at this point is a bonus. I live in bonus time.”
With the success of The Lord of the Rings, fans began to speculate that The Hobbit would follow. But that was easier said than done. “There was an issue with the film rights to The Hobbit, which were fragmented and in multiple hands. Then there was a dispute between New Line Cinema and Peter Jackson’s company, Wingnut Films, regarding issues of monies owed, and it’s hard to proceed making movies together when you’re in that sort of situation. Those complications kept pushing The Hobbit further down the road, and there were moments when we all thought The Hobbit just might not happen at all. It just seemed so challenging and complicated.”
Meanwhile, Ordesky became involved with New Line’s next big fantasy project, The Golden Compass, a film based on the book of the same name (also called Northern Lights in some regions), the first of a trilogy of books by Philip Pullman collectively called His Dark Materials.
“New Line was looking for another literary-based fantasy franchise, and Ileen Maisel, New Line’s head of European production, had found the books and knew their author. New Line decided to proceed with the first film from the first book, and I was invited to work on it with Ileen because of my visual effects experience and my experience working on big budget movies overseas. I didn’t have the same ownership on Compass as I did on The Lord of the Rings. It was Ileen’s discovery. But I lived in the U.K. for the better part of a year, and it was wonderful to work on the film.”
While in England, there were some developments with The Hobbit film project that put Ordesky in a difficult position.
“New Line’s option for The Hobbit, which came along with the acquisition of the option for The Lord of the Rings, had a time limit, and so we needed to either move forward with the project or lose it. At the time, there was still a dispute between Peter and New Line. So I was asked by the management at New Line to communicate to Peter’s representatives that New Line was going to proceed on The Hobbit without him. I felt hugely conflicted. I didn’t want to make the call. I knew that New Line couldn’t be persuaded out of this course of action. The decision had been made. But I knew the call would be hurtful, and I felt disloyal to Peter making it. At the same time, I was a New Line employee, and my bosses were asking me to do it, so I wrestled with myself. Do I do what I’ve been asked and make the call? Or do I not make the call, because I have a friendship and history with Peter, and I feel like I’m betraying him? Ultimately I reluctantly made the call to Ken Kamins, Peter’s manager. It was unbelievably painful. When I’d finished, I immediately wished I hadn’t. To this day I wish I hadn’t, because looking back, that information could have been communicated to Peter another way. I could have said no and kept my integrity. When the news broke the next day, I took a lot of grief, as I was woven into the narrative about how the news had been shared; which was completely reasonable since I had made the call. I deserved the grief. That’s why I’m glad you asked me about this, because I’ve always wanted to share my feelings about the incident, and it’ll be great to have it on the record. It’s something I regret, even though my relationship with Peter recovered.”
In 2007 The Golden Compass was released. While it went on to succeed at the box office internationally, it did not perform well in the United States.
“Compass was a challenging movie to market in the United States. Part of the struggle was that the books, like their author, take a very distinct perspective about institutional authority and power. There was likely a smarter way for New Line to get out in front of the issue earlier in the film’s life cycle. The film grossed 300 million dollars outside the United States which is sizable, but it only grossed about $70 million in the U.S. Same film, different markets and marketing.”
While in the United Kingdom, Ordesky also helped produce another fantasy film, Inkheart, based on the book of the same name by Cornelia Funke. After that, he returned home to a studio in transition.
“By the time I got back to Los Angeles, it became apparent that Time Warner, the parent of both New Line and Warner Bros. (and so much else) was concerned about having duplicate movie studios both with their own distribution systems. They thought it was one thing for both companies to make movies, but in the matter of distribution there was a question of duplication of effort, overhead, and costs. Ultimately, the decision was made by Time Warner to change New Line into a production division of Warner Bros. As New Line was being downsized, my contract expired. At the time, there was still uncertainty surrounding The Hobbit, and I knew the folks at Warner Bros. and ‘New Line 2.0’ wanted to supervise The Hobbit films themselves. So I thought,‘If there was ever a time to start my own company, this would be it.’ It was still bittersweet because I wasn’t going to get to work on The Hobbit. And there was the secondary issue of whether The Hobbit films would happen at all with everything going on. I obviously wanted them to happen, because I wanted to see those stories told to complete the journey, literally there and back again. So I was happy to see the disputes resolve.”
After leaving New Line, Ordesky, along with former New Line executive Jane Fleming, founded a media company called Court Five to produce films and television. In 2014 they produced The Quest for ABC, a fantasy-based competitive reality show [which will premier this Thursday, July 31, 2014 on ABC in North America].
“The seeds of The Quest were really planted in 1999 when we were in preproduction for The Lord of the Rings. You had the actors traveling to New Zealand early for horse training, sword training, and archery training and so on, so they would look natural and confident and skilled. Back then we’d get videotape updates in Los Angeles, and Jane and I would watch in my L.A. office, and she’d say, ‘You know, it’s not fair. I’d like to go to archery camp, horse camp, and sword camp. That would be so cool!’ And then we thought, ‘wouldn’t everyone want to?’ So cut to years later, and we have our own company, and someone pitches us a reality TV show in the LARPing space [live action role-playing]. And when the conversation was over, Jane turned to me and said, ‘You know what that reminds me of? It reminds me of those old video tapes.’ And we thought about taking twelve real people with a passion for fantasy films/literature/gaming, people with a desire to transcend their everyday lives, and give them the opportunity to compete to save a besieged kingdom in an immersive fantasy environment. To do it we utilized an amazing, real castle location, 3D projections, animatronics, prosthetics, production design, and a cast of scripted actors gifted at improv. One of the contestants emerges from the competition the ‘One True Hero’ by overcoming challenges and eliminations conceived and designed to sync with an unfolding scripted narrative. But the contestant experience is real-time reality television. We developed it for four years with the creators and executive producers of The Amazing Race and Queer Eye. (A lot of people have described the show as ‘The Amazing Race: Middle-earth’.) We pitched it to the networks, and it made sense for ABC. They were having success with Once Upon A Time, and even though we didn’t conceive it this way, you can see from their perspective where they saw it as complimentary programming. We’re very proud of it.”
Meanwhile, Ordesky has been able to enjoy The Hobbit movies as a regular fan. “I saw the first film three times. I saw it in Los Angeles at the normal frame rate, because I wanted to match the film with my own visual recollection of how The Lord of the Rings looked. Then I saw it at the high frame rate, because that was the way Peter intended for it to be seen. And then I was in New Zealand with my wife’s family, and I went to a cinema there to see the film for the third time – which felt like it completed my journey. Like I closed the circle. And I wrote that to Peter and Fran. I said how grateful I was that I was able to experience the film as a fan with no other expectation of what was going to happen than my recollection of the book and my own excited hopes.”
When he thinks back to 1998 and the beginning of his days with The Lord of the Rings, Ordesky can’t help but remember his boss telling him he was going to be the canary in the mine. “I didn’t really know what the expression meant, so I looked it up and realized it was a coal mining expression. And many years later, on the other side of it, I thought to myself that maybe I wasn’t the canary in the coal mine. Maybe I was the canary in the gold mine.”