Lure Of The Rings

  • Share
  • Read Later

Viewers, beware. The Two Towers, the dazzling second installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, picks up exactly where the first one left off. No Star Wars–style scroll to bring you up to speed, no quick compilation of scenes from the first film, no opening Cate Blanchett narration-nothing. It begins in medias res, as though you had just stepped out for a few seconds to get more popcorn. If you didn't see last year's The Fellowship of the Ring, Peter Jackson, the trilogy's wizardly director, isn't about to cut you any slack.

"I know that New Line [the studio releasing the films] would have preferred us to have a little catch-up," says the director, sitting in an office in Wellington, New Zealand, speaking in a cheerful Kiwi accent and peering from behind a mop of curls and plate-size wire-rim glasses. "But I think that's a very TV kind of device. I figured the amount of people going to see Two Towers without seeing Fellowship would be fairly minute. If you can't at least spend $3 or $4 to rent it before you see Two Towers, there's no point in going."

You don't often hear directors telling you to stay away from their pictures. But Jackson is the definition of a purist. For him, The Two Towers is not a sequel to The Fellowship of the Ring; it's simply the three-hour second act of an epic nine-hour trilogy called Lord of the Rings. The complete dvd should be available in, oh, 2004.

At first, the co-chairmen of New Line, Bob Shaye and Michael Lynne, weren't at all happy about the lack of any kind of pro-logue, but they ultimately relented. It was another of their epic gambles. "We ended up agreeing with him," says Shaye, "because it wasn't the same old cliché, ‘When last we saw the Lone Ranger ...' ''

When last we saw Jackson, one year ago, he was one very jittery Kiwi. His Lord of the Rings trilogy was considered perhaps the riskiest endeavor in motion-picture history. Based on J.R.R. Tolkien's mythical sword-and-sorcery three-part novel, the movies were all filmed at once during a mammoth 15-month shoot. Jackson, a relatively unknown director who seldom stepped foot outside New Zealand and who was best known for quirky, low-budget films, was given a $270 million budget. The cost ultimately climbed to $310 million. If the first movie had tanked, then New Line (which, like Time, is owned by AOL Time Warner) would have had two more bombs in the can, already ticking.

"The pressures on us before the first film came out were, obviously, fairly extreme," says Jackson, 41. "We never talked about that much. Nonetheless, it was there with you every single day."

The gamble paid off. Fellowship turned out to be the second highest grossing film of 2001, just behind Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and established Jackson as the Kiwi George Lucas. The movie went on to gross $860 million worldwide and was honored with 13 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.

Fellowship was released only three months after the Sept. 11 attacks, and its good-vs.-evil quest spoke to audiences looking for old-fashioned moral clarity. Just as readers in the 1950s (when the books were published) found parallels to World War II, and hippies of the 1960s delighted in Tolkien's peace-loving hobbits, a new generation has embraced Tolkien's nostalgic vision of a lost world, an imagined past both idyllic and brutal. Indeed, the passion for the first movie and this one is part of a growing obsession with fantasy, a collective journey to a mythical past where evil is punished and virtue rewarded.

Even though it's hardly in doubt that The Two Towers will be a smash at the box office, Jackson is still on edge. "The pressure last year was, Is the studio going to survive?" says the director. "The pressure this year is, Are people going to like this one as much as the first one?"

The answer is yes, or at least probably. Fellowship was often quiet and deliberately paced. Two Towers is an unabashed action film. Even Ian McKellen, as the wizard Gandalf, does his share of fighting. Those who appreciate the finer points of Tolkien's work may be taken aback by the new film's high-tech grandiosity. "It's impressive," says Two Towers star Viggo Mortensen, "but if you have that much emphasis on special effects, it's unavoidable that you'll lose some of the poetry and intimacy of the story." Still, those who prefer grunting, beastly warriors brandishing scimitars to gently dancing hobbits will be thrilled. Two Towers, says Jackson, "definitely isn't as cute [as Fellowship]. It has a much more gritty kind of edge to it."

The film's vast scope ranges from the snowy, unspoiled peaks of Middle-earth (shot in various New Zealand locales) to the city of Isengard (a composite of models and computer-generated imagery), which is destroyed-spectacularly-by a brigade of towering, treelike creatures known as Ents. Meanwhile, the hobbit hero Frodo (Elijah Wood) continues his quest: he must destroy the magic Ring before the Dark Lord Sauron can use it to rule the world. Aragorn (played by Mortensen, who transforms himself before your eyes from brooding beefcake to full-blown movie star) sets out across the desolate plains of Middle-earth to salvage what's left of mankind. Arrayed against him is an armada of Uruk-hai, armor-clanking warriors who make Freddy Krueger look positively cuddly. The battle of Helm's Deep, a rather brief episode in Tolkien's book, becomes a battle for the survival of the human species and the breathtaking centerpiece of Jackson's film.

The director readily admits that of his three films, Two Towers departs most from Tolkien's work. "We were aware that we were making films for the hard-core Tolkien fan base as well as everyone else," says Jackson, who co-wrote the script with Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh. "In the beginning, it was a difficult tightrope to walk, but then we sort of abandoned thinking about it. If we make a good film, we'll be forgiven, whatever the crimes we commit to the book." Arwen, the beautiful elf played by Liv Tyler, doesn't appear in the book. But in the film, Jackson has love scenes between her and Aragorn-a romance based on an appendix that Tolkien later wrote about their doomed relationship.

The love scenes were added last summer. Though most of the trilogy was filmed during the initial shoot, which began in 1999, Jackson has done additional filming for both Fellowship and Two Towers. Even after six weeks of reshoots last summer, the filmmakers felt they were still missing a scene that tied all of Two Towers' story lines together. Last September Boyens and Walsh composed a monologue for Sam, the hopeful hobbit played by Sean Astin, in which he urges Frodo to stick with his mission. "There is good in the world, and it's worth fighting for," says Sam. The writers first thought it was too corny. "Doesn't that sound like something George Bush would say?" says Boyens. It's now one of the high points of the picture.

The Two Towers leaves off, naturally, with a cliff-hanger, which will be resolved in The Return of the King, the final installment, set for release next year. A rough cut of that movie has already been assembled and is in Jackson's vaults. Producer Barrie M. Osborne is trying to wrangle the cast back to New Zealand for more shooting next summer.

Ask Peter Jackson how Lord of the Rings has changed his life, and he answers, "What life?" For five years, he has devoted himself to Lord of the Rings, always with Walsh at his side. Though they have never married, they share two children (Kate, 6, and Billy, 7) and a rambling old house overlooking the bay in Wellington. They met at a screening of Jackson's first movie, 1987's Bad Taste, a gross-out horror flick about human-eating space aliens. What in the world did Walsh see in the young filmmaker? "I think it was the brain-eating sequence," says Walsh, who was writing for television at the time and shares Jackson's macabre sense of humor.

The two began working together almost immediately. Their screenplay for the brilliantly creepy 1994 Heavenly Creatures, about a well-known New Zealand murder case, earned them an Oscar nomination and put them on Hollywood's radar. Universal soon enlisted Jackson to direct The Frighteners, a 1996 horror-comedy starring Michael J. Fox. It didn't scare up much business, but it did enable Jackson to add a computer division to Weta Workshop, the struggling special-effects company he had formed years earlier with Richard Taylor.

Hoping to make use of the newly enhanced facility, he began musing on the idea of a fantasy film. "I thought, Nobody seems to be making those anymore," says Jackson. "Fran kept saying Lord of the Rings was the prototype [for fantasy], and if we can't think of something better, we shouldn't bother. Eventually we came up with the obvious question: What's happening with Lord of the Rings? Why don't we try doing that?"

He and Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein began planning a two-part adaptation of Tolkien's trilogy. Soon, however, Weinstein got nervous about the cost. And Jackson got nervous when Weinstein suggested they scrunch the tale down to just one movie. In 1998 Miramax allowed the filmmaker to shop the project to other studios, but on two strict conditions: whoever bought it would have just 72 hours to repay Weinstein the $12 million he had spent on preproduction costs, and Weinstein had to be guaranteed 5% of the gross.

It was a tough sell. "Harvey offered very severe terms," says Ken Kamins, Jackson's agent at ICM. "Also, people thought Peter was untested for something of this size." Mark Ordesky knew better. An executive at New Line-and an old friend of Jackson's-Ordesky championed Lord of the Rings to his bosses, Shaye and Lynne. "Everybody around the world knew about this series of books," says Shaye, who suggested they should make three movies. "It was so wonderfully presold. It was like Superman or Batman." By making them all at once, they reasoned, the cost per film would be diminished; most of the stars, for example, would take just 1.5 times their usual fees for all three movies, effectively working for half price. The studio also followed its usual business practice of selling off international rights to cover production costs. New Line's initial investment in the franchise was just about $25 million per movie.

Though Jackson's contract dictates that each film be no longer than 2 hr. 20 min., New Line agreed to a nearly 3-hr. running time for Fellowship. "The question was, How good is the movie?" says Lynne. "We all thought it was incredible." That's not to say that New Line and Jackson haven't had some strong disagreements. One of the most memorable battles was over the ending of Fellowship; New Line executives wanted a more action-packed finale. "But I don't think we ever got into a screaming contest," says Shaye.

Jackson is getting more than 10% of the pictures' revenue, and much of that new fortune is being pumped back into his business. Besides the special-effects house, he owns a production company, also based in Wellington, and he is building a postproduction facility near his home. "Ever since I was a kid dreaming about being a filmmaker," says Jackson, "I've never imagined going to Hollywood."

Earlier this year, Jackson lost five weeks of valuable postproduction time glad-handing Academy members in the U.S. to win Oscar votes. "It was a rather unpleasant experience," he says. "If we're lucky enough to get any more nominations, I'll happily show up at the awards show, but I really don't want to do the parading around."

Jackson is also hoping his facilities will entice other Hollywood filmmakers to pour money into the New Zealand economy. Some of Tom Cruise's next movie, The Last Samurai, will be shot there. Jackson's empire is just a short drive down a winding mountain road from the house where he and Walsh live. They are a curious couple; she is as thin as he is round, and they amuse each other endlessly. Besides co-writing the screenplay, Walsh directed bits of the trilogy. "We have very similar tastes, and that leads to an enormous amount of trust," says Jackson. "These films are too big for one person." In a year he and Walsh will be nearly finished with Lord of the Rings, and they are already planning their next project. Jackson says it will be closer to the scale of Heavenly Creatures. "He owes me a small one after this," says Walsh. There's nothing small about what they have accomplished so far.

| | |