Peter Jackson knows what you’re thinking. Again with Gandalf and dwarves and Middle-earth? The original Lord of the Rings trilogy grossed $2.9 billion and won a total of 17 Oscars when it was released over the course of three years. And now Jackson is doing it again with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey — the first of three films, already in theaters, except this time he’s working from one slim volume instead of three fat books and the novelty has worn off.
The director is familiar with the sentiment, especially after Guillermo del Toro ( Pan’s Labyrinth), who was originally signed to direct the first Hobbit movie, left the project after 18 months of pre-production delays and problems and Jackson replaced him.
“I wanted to be involved as a producer and screenwriter at the very least, because I wanted to put my stamp on the movie,” he says. “I felt a little protective of it. But I initially didn’t want to direct it because I felt like I would be competing with myself to some degree with the previous films. Having Guillermo in the mix solved that, because we’d have a fresh director with a fresh eye. I really enjoyed working with him and started getting into Tolkien all over again. When Guillermo left, I understood The Hobbit more. We weren’t just copying The Lord of the Rings. It’s largely new characters with a different tone — even comedic at times — so I decided to grab it for myself.”
He also came up with some new cinematic toys to make sure The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey looked like no other movie before it. The Miami Herald talked to Jackson and screenwriter Philippa Boyens about the technological difficulties the project presented, the changes and additions they made to the story and their decision to expand what was originally going to be two movies into a trilogy (at a total cost of $500 million).
MH: Philippa, you spent a lot of time working on the screenplay when del Toro was going to direct. Did you have to start from scratch when Peter took over?
PB: We did in some ways have to start over. Guillermo is an incredible wit and so funny, and he helped me fall back in love with Middle-earth. We were writing a film for him, and it would have been a great film, and I would have loved to seen it. But when Peter took over, we started with fresh ideas, because we were writing for a different filmmaker.
MH: How did it feel to return to a universe you had already explored so fully over the course of three films? Did you suffer any Tolkien fatigue?
PB: I wasn’t reluctant, but I wasn’t eager. I’m a huge fan of Tolkien, which is how I became a part of this project in the first place. But there was a part of me that felt like I had already done this, and there were a lot of other stories I wanted to tell. Then you start to work on it and it feels like an old love — a familiar place you haven’t visited in a while. That’s what I wanted to convey to the fans: Something that is well loved and known but still filled with surprises.
MH: Peter, some people have interpreted the decision to stretch the book out into three films as a cash grab. How do you respond to that? PJ: I understand why people might think that. Because Tolkien wrote it for children, it’s told at a very breathless pace. It’s a series of episodes of a fast-paced adventure. It’s a very different book from The Lord of the Rings. Once you adapting it into a screenplay, you want to make sure the movie feels like it came from the same author as the previous ones. So you have to add things here and there. You’re also dealing with a book that hasn’t been out of print for 75 years. You have to make a decision of what you’re going to be leaving out, and you’d have to leave out some very iconic parts. At first we still thought we could do in two films.
But Tolkien also wrote a lot of material that he was going to use as a kind of expanded version of The Hobbit to make that book tie in better with The Lord of the Rings. He never finished the book, but his son published all that material as an appendix to The Lord of the Rings. So we got to just not do The Hobbit but also supersize it with other material. For example, the sequence in the movie with Cate Blanchett and Christopher Lee, that’s not in the novel.
MH: So the decision to make three movies came from you and not the studio? PJ: It was definitely our decision, and it was purely a creative one. There was so much material we hadn’t shot yet, and it would provide us the opportunity to expand the story greatly. We knew we were never going to return to Middle-earth again — this was our last shot at it — so we asked the studio if we could do another 10-12 weeks of shooting next year and expanded it to three films.
MH: Tell me about your decision to shoot the film in 48 frames per second instead of the usual 24.
PJ: It came about because four years ago I directed a six-minute King Kong film for the Universal Studios tour in California and that was done at a high frame-rate. It intrigued me, because it looked so immersive and realistic, and the 3D was so fantastic. It didn’t feel like you were looking at a movie; it looked like you were looking at the real world.
The technology didn’t even exist four years ago. Projectors capable of showing it hadn’t even been installed in theaters 12 months ago. But we realized that by the end of 2012, there would be a lot of cinemas that could screen it in that format, as well as the regular 24 fps. [Roughly 500 theaters in the U.S. have been outfitted with the proper projector. For a complete list, visit www.48fpsmovies.com].
MH: Some of the reaction to the technology has been negative. People say it makes the movie look like a soap opera. Everything is too clear.
PJ: The controversy doesn’t surprise me. I’m going to be fascinated where it all ends up. I’ve always been happy to bet on myself. I’m a regular guy, a film buff, and I’ve grown up with the experience of watching movies in 24 fps like everybody else. It took me a while to get used to the higher frame rate as well. I’ve been looking at 48 fps footage for a year and a half, and I think it looks fantastic. Now when I see a movie at 24 fps, I think it looks so crude and primitive.
The way that it’s shaking down is the real film buffs are noticing it’s different, and these are often critics and bloggers who write reviews. The average person doesn’t react that way, especially younger people. Thousands of people have seen The Hobbit :Aan Unexpected Journey now and I haven’t met anyone under the age of 20 who said something negative about the frame rate. Those are the kids who are happy to watch movies on their iPads now and we need to get them back into the theater, because it is no longer the first place people think of when they want to see a movie. We need to use technology to enhance the cinema experience.
MH: The 3D is tremendous, though. I’ve never seen better, not even Avatar. PJ: Normal 24 fps photography has a lot of motion blur, and our brain sharpens it for us. But in 3D, you have different motion blur coming into your left and right eye, and your brain is having to work to put the two together and clean that up, and that’s what causes eye strain and fatigue. In 48 fps, because the images are so crisper, it’s much easier for your brain to resolve the pictures. It’s a much more efficient way to see 3D.