Peter Jackson Talks Unanswered Questions And Eccentric Dwarves On The Set Of The Hobbit

Peter Jackson in The Hobbit Press
(Image credit: (Photo by Darren Gerrish/WireImage))

Peter Jackson has had one seriously strange career. The filmmaker began his career in the late 80s, and while he earned a cult following for his horror comedies, such as Bad Taste, Dead Alive and The Frighteners, he was hardly a household name and most definitely not a mainstream success. That all changed in 2001 when Jackson became the first director to successfully adapt J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. His small community of fans exploded in popularity, as audiences flocked to theaters three Decembers in a row. And now, more than a decade later, Jackson is ready to take his followers back to Middle Earth.

This past May I joined a group of fellow journalists to travel to New Zealand to visit the set of The Hobbit, and in between takes Jackson was kind enough to find a few minutes to talk about his latest epic endeavor. Over the course of our discussion we had the opportunity to broach a number of subjects, including embracing advancements in filmmaking technology, finding the reality in Middle Earth, and the elements from the Tolkien’s novel that needed to change in order to both work for the film version and fit into continuity with the Lord of the Rings movies. Check it out!

As a filmmaker, is it important for you to make this production feel like Lord Of The Rings, or do you want it to feel like something entirely different?

Neither, really. Obviously it shouldn't feel like anything entirely different but at the same time the characters-- The way that I went into it when I got involved as a director was that I'd go into it as exactly the same filmmaker that did Lord Of The Rings, like I'm returning to Middle Earth. In the sense that it's a real place, I'm there to tell another story, but the characters within the story, as well as the story itself, but the characters within the story, since you're dealing with thirteen dwarves, it gives you a different tone and a different feel in places than Lord Of The Rings did. Lord Of The Rings was incredibly good and evil, black and white. The world was at stake, Sauron. It was pretty basic, and the tension that was involved in the story. Whereas this one has a slightly more of a fairy tale quality, slaying dragons and going for gold. Just trying to get gold out of the mountain. The elements of the story give you room to change the tone slightly, but in terms of the look and the feel and the filmmaking style I wanted to keep it pretty consistent and keep everything feeling like it's the same world.

When it comes to continuity, in the book, whenever Bilbo puts on the ring, he doesn't really feel the negative effects, but obviously when Frodo has the ring in the trilogy it's a much different story. Are those kind of things that you reflect back on and try to fix within The Hobbit?

Yeah. Obviously that's all embedded in Tolkien, 'cause Tolkien, he didn't know anything about the ring when he wrote The Hobbit and then he wrote a whole trilogy around the ring twenty years later. The way that it's rationalized, and I think people in the Tolkien world have rationalized it as the ring doesn't really gain its power until Sauron comes back and actively starts to look for it, so it's asleep for a while and in the days of Frodo it's getting very agitated and it wants to find its way back to Sauron. We're taking that approach. But we are very gradually building up the effects of the ring within the movie. So the first time he puts it on it's simply a magic ring, but each time he puts it on the effect of it gets to him a bit more. We're doing a little story within that.

Is it still going to be that same effect where he is in that shadow world?

Well, he's in a shadow world, but not quite the nightmarish one that was in Lord Of The Rings. Again that was more influenced by Sauron and the Eye of Sauron and all that, so we're not dealing with that this time round, but it's the beginnings of that, it's the infancy of that.

Can you talk a little bit about just expanding the story in terms of Gandalf's storyline. Some of the actors that we've talked to have hinted about that, but—

[interrupts] Whoever it was has, they have to be shot.

But it seems like when you read The Hobbit, it just seems Gandalf arbitrarily picks Bilbo, and we're hearing that there is a grander reason for why he's picked, and for why Gandalf is around him. Maybe not just plucking them out of trouble whenever. Can you expand on a little bit of the necessity answering the questions that haven’t been answered?

It is interesting. It does go back to what we were talking about before when you do have the slightly weird situation where, obviously you guys know all this, where Tolkien wrote this book as a children's book in 1936, I think it was, and then later on he wrote The Lord Of The Rings and obviously this world grew in his mind and eventually he wrote The Lord Of The Rings, and then he tried for several years-- He was toying with the idea of republishing The Hobbit as a rewritten book that would tie in to Lord Of The Rings. That never really happened, but a lot of the material ended up in the appendices of the later editions of Return Of The King. I think it was tagged on to the end of that. So that was a lot of his material that he was at one stage, continuing to rework back into a revised Hobbit.

So we've got access to all this material, so we are able to delve into those appendices and search for little clues about bits of story and some of them are only half formed. You get the feeling that maybe if he ever did sit down to really flesh it out we would have got a lot more information from some of those writings. We are taking that and things shouldn't be arbitrary in movies. I always get frustrated if suddenly something happens and it has no particular reason for happening. Yeah, Gandalf visits Hobbiton, he loves hobbits, he remembers hobbits are very insular and they're very contained. Their suspicious of the outside world and he just remembers this young Bilbo Baggins as a young child who was the one Hobbit that he sees that loves adventure likes danger, loves scary stories. That has a more outgoing spirit, and when he wants a hobbit to be a burglar on this adventure he returns to Hobbiton many years later and he finds Bilbo. He deliberately hunts down Bilbo, because that's the hobbit who he thinks would be the best one to pick for this. He's appalled and shocked to find at the end of 18 years Bilbo's become stuffy, and ultra conservative, and not at all like the little boy that he remembers. So that's the beginning of their relationship really.

So does the innate goodness and innocence of the Hobbits play into this?

Yeah. A lot of people in this story have agendas. Dwarves want to get their homeland back. The Elves want to get-- Thorin wants to get what's owed to him in the mountain, what he perceives as being his, and Bilbo is the one person that doesn't have those sorts of motives, but he finds himself caught up in this crazy adventure with these characters that he's got to deal with and come to terms with. It's interesting.

It took so long to get The Hobbit happening. There were all the problems and all the ins and outs. When did it become apparent to you that so many things seemed to be pointing to you coming back to the director's chair? When did it become apparent to you in your heart that you would come back to it? And what made you want to ultimately do it?

When Guillermo [del Toro] left it was a surprise, although, we sort of felt that the whole MGM situation that was happening at that time was a blur in my mind now, it was so long ago, but when they were nearly going bankrupt and they couldn't-- Warners were trying to do it without MGM and they wouldn't do that. It was a situation where it looked like-- When Guillermo left we didn't have a green light and we didn't have a movie, and so it was freewheeling, in a sense, for at least two, maybe three months after he left we really-- I was there as a caretaker, but it wasn't like anything much could be done 'cause there was no budget, there was nothing really. We didn't know what was going to happen with MGM. But we were working on the script with Fran [Walsh] and Phil [Boyens] and Guillermo for a period of time beforehand. We were starting to work up the characters and so I was beginning to get connected to the material quite well.

I never wanted to do The Hobbit in the first place 'cause the idea of having an ensemble of thirteen dwarves terrified me and I thought, well, it's going to be much more interesting to have another filmmaker dealing with that I'll just go with it and see what happens. I thought it was a nightmare that I thought would be much more interesting to see what somebody else did with it, but the weird thing with this is that having ended up where I am, the fact that there's thirteen dwarves in it is the great joy of the movie. I've actually swung a 180 degrees round now. It's like I suddenly think, "Wow, this movie is really cool because of all these characters, these eccentric dwarves." And we've given each of them personalities and things and they are very much the heart of the story. Bilbo is the soul of the story, but the dwarves and their wanting to reclaim their homeland is very much the heart of the story. I like these guys now. Actually I'm pleased it ended up the way it did.

In The Hobbit, Tolkien is really exploring these ideas of modern versus ancient views of heroism. Is that something that you're exploring here? Is this a search for heroes, because we have Bilbo who is going to move into the next story, and Legolas who is going to make the move into the next story, and Thorin who doesn't make the move into the next story, and are we going to have this idea of what makes heroes and what makes successful heroes versus unsuccessful heroes?

The book has some of those themes. Thorin is very much an anti-hero in some respects. He's become so obsessed with what he believes to be the right thing that he crosses a boundary in way, with the dragon sickness and things. So he is an interesting character, and Bilbo-- The Hobbits are always the greatest heroes 'cause they're us, they're the unlikely hero who is thrust into this incredible danger and they have no choice but to get the goodness within themselves and the strength within themselves and try to survive and get through it, so they're always the most interesting heroes. They're not flawed, they're just unlikely heroes. They're not the sort of person you would really think would be able to take on a dragon, but when you see them actually doing that, I find that sort of heroism in films really interesting. Legolas is just a hero. I don't identify myself with Legolas that much. Just go and let Orlando do his thing and it's great for the movie. It's good.

With Lord Of The Rings all the issues that came with trying to get the books on to the screen pre-dated you even becoming involved in it, whereas with The Hobbit it seems like it must be the biggest challenge of your career. It just seems like there's been one thing after another between MGM and the labor issues here in New Zealand, and everything. Is this the biggest pain-in-the-ass challenge you've ever had to face as a filmmaker?

The film has been… making the movie has been a lot of fun. Since we've started shooting it's been pretty plain sailing, touch wood. It's been just a joy. I've been having a blast. It was an incredibly painful couple of years leading up to it, yeah. That was the most stressful time. So stressful that I got an ulcer, which was awesome, but anyway the ulcer was actually quite good because it gave everybody six weeks of extra pre-production time which I think everyone was delighted when I was laid up for six weeks, they couldn't believe their luck. 'Cause literally the Art Department, Wardrobe Costume, they all got an extra six weeks to prepare for the movie, so I think there was a lot of people that were quite happy about that. It was tough, but once we got it running it's been fantastic. It's been a lot of fun. I hope the fun that we've had is a spirit that goes into the movie. I hope you see that on the screen.

I want to ask you real quick about the technology. You've been pushing the boundaries of technology in all your films, but this one specifically, you've the slave motion cam. You have 48 frames per second. You have 3D. Could you talk about the technology you're bringing to this film.

I just think that we're living in a world where the technology is advancing so rapidly. You're having cameras that are capable of more and more-- The resolution on cameras is jumping up. Three or four years ago filmmakers using digital cameras were shooting at 2K and now we're shooting this at 4K and I'm sure within three or four years it'll be 8K. It's just going insane with the development, the speed of it, and likewise projection. And shortly the one thing we're all hanging out for is brighter projection for 3D, but the laser projectors are on the horizon and they're certainly going to massively improve the brightness, and theatres are building bigger screens. And it's really a question of do you just say, "Okay, this is what we've been used to for the last 75 or 80 years, and that's what we're going to stick with." Or do you explore ways to actually harness this technology to give people a better experience, and we're also, as an industry, we're facing a situation where less young people, especially, are coming to see films anymore. It's too easy to watch them on your iPad. Too easy to stay at home and play games, and so I think anything that we can do to provide a more immersive and spectacular experience... filmmakers have been doing it: 65mm, 2001… Kubrick and David Lean, they shot in these huge big formats to try to make it sharp and clear and that was like the equivalent of 5K in the film stock days. Todd-AO was 30 frames a second, wasn't it, for Around the World in 80 Days. There's been people trying to push it, but of course the just effect for seven or eight decades projectors were pretty much locked into 24 frames per second. We had to get past the mechanical film age to be able to explore other things, but it will be interesting. I personally think 48 frames is great, but we'll just wait till everyone can just see a whole full length movie, graded and timed and we'll see what people think.

Eric Eisenberg
Assistant Managing Editor

Eric Eisenberg is the Assistant Managing Editor at CinemaBlend. After graduating Boston University and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he took a part-time job as a staff writer for CinemaBlend, and after six months was offered the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and take on a newly created West Coast Editor position. Over a decade later, he's continuing to advance his interests and expertise. In addition to conducting filmmaker interviews and contributing to the news and feature content of the site, Eric also oversees the Movie Reviews section, writes the the weekend box office report (published Sundays), and is the site's resident Stephen King expert. He has two King-related columns.