Philippa Boyens on adapting The Hobbit, deleted scenes and more

Interview Ryan Lambie 19 Dec 2013 - 06:21

We sat down with The Hobbit and Lord Of The Rings co-screenwriter Philippa Boyens to chat about Smaug, deleted scenes, Tolkien and more...

NB: The following contains mild spoilers for readers unfamiliar with The Hobbit novel.

As both screenwriter and producer, Philippa Boyens has regularly collaborated with Peter Jackson and fellow writer Fran Walsh for well over a decade. The Lord Of The Rings trilogy came first, a sprawling, acclaimed string of fantasies which earned a combined gross of almost $3bn.

After the lavish remake of King Kong (2005) and the 2009 adaptation of Alice Sebold's novel The Lovely Bones, Boyens and her filmmaking partners embarked on what would become another Middle-earth trilogy: The Hobbit.

When we sat down in a somewhat chilly hotel room to chat about the middle film in the series, The Desolation Of Smaug, Ms Boyens seemed satisfied, relieved and perhaps a little sad that her involvement with Tolkien's work is all but over - filming wrapped on the final chapter, There And Back Again, earlier this year.

Modestly describing herself as a lover of Tolkien's books rather than a scholar, Philippa Boyens nevertheless has a detailed knowledge of Middle-earth history, so it was a pleasure to hear her thoughts on writing The Hobbit trilogy, what Guillermo del Toro brought to the production during his tenure (he was originally set to direct before delays led to his parting), what we can expect in There And Back Again, as well as the inevitable deleted scenes we'll find on the films' home release.

You’ve been working on this trilogy for quite some time now.

Yes. I was only just thinking back to the first structural meetings - where we were sorting out the story and everything - back in 2008.

And Guillermo [del Toro] is credited as a contributor to the script on this one. What ideas of his made it in?

Well, it doesn’t work that way - you can’t say what was his specifically. I think, if Guillermo had ended up directing the movie, a lot of stuff would have been in there. But what he did bring to it, I think, was fresh eyes, to look at the storytelling so it could be distinct from Lord Of The Rings.

And also, he was there when we decided we needed a female character, and he was very much a strong supporter of that. He was part of that natural progression, that need to have a female character. We looked at a number of ways we could do it - Bard could have a wife, there are some female characters that we know exist within the world of Professor Tolkien. For example, Elrond has a wife.

Then we suddenly realised - and this is part of what Guillermo brought - that she has to be her own person, not somebody’s wife. And she needs to be her own character. The whole idea that she would be a fighter, once we decided to make a female character, became part of the decision. We asked, where does she come into the storytelling? Here would be a good place. She’s an Elf. What kind of Elf? Then you suddenly realise that she needs to be a guard, because that’s how she can interact with all these characters - there really isn’t another way to do it.

So yeah, he was part of that process. What was nice about it was, you are taking a risk, and you are messing with someone’s story, but he was someone who was like, “Yes, we should do this.” 

In comparison to the Lord Of The Rings books, The Hobbit’s tiny. It must have been quite demanding to get three epic movies out of it.

Well, yes and no. Because it’s part of a greater story. There’s a lot of The Hobbit in The Lord Of The Rings - in the Appendices, for example. It’s not just the Appendices, either - there are lots of references to The Hobbit throughout The Lord Of The Rings. So there’s that. Professor Tolkien rewrote it himself over and over again. He didn’t stop writing The Hobbit, actually. But you’re right, it is actually a children’s book. But when you look at the dimensions of it, there’s so much action in there. What do you lose? What do you leave out? Those are the things we had to look at.

And the other thing is, you can write about things like Giant Spiders, but actually seeing them is a whole other thing. And another thing: they go on the journey, they get to the mountain, that really should be the end of the story in any other world, but it’s not. And a whole other element comes into it - it’s quite tragic.

It’s interesting, because even people who’ve read the book say, “Oh, I loved The Hobbit. It’s so much fun”. And I say, “Yeah, but it’s sad though, at the end.” And they go, “Is it? Why?” And I say, “Well, because people die.”

They say, “Oh... that’s right.”

It has a very different feel, so at the end of the story, it becomes something else, other than a children’s tale. That was one of the reasons why we felt we needed to... once we got to that place, The Battle Of The Five Armies, that piece of storytelling, you really did feel like you’d stepped into another world - you’d stepped into The Lord Of The Rings. And then bringing in the battle of Dol Guldur, and the discovery of who and what the Necromancer is, then you’re again, in a different tale from the little tale of The Hobbit.

We know from The Lord Of The Rings where Gandalf goes. We know what he does. And do do you show that or not? Once we decided that, yeah, we wanted to do it, it became three films. [Laughs]

With adding all these extra elements into the story, you end up switching points of view quite a lot, so it’s not all told from Bilbo’s point of view any more. He weaves in and out. Was it quite difficult to get that switching right on the page?

Yes, juggling that was. But I also think it’s one of the reasons why we did it, because you do need to leave them and go off. It’s good to be able to do that. And that was something we learned from The Lord Of The Rings - at the end of The Fellowship, especially, the story split.

What’s your relationship with the fanbase of the books like? Were you nervous about their reactions?

Yes and no. I feel we’ve been really lucky, actually. And I think people think I’m a Tolkien scholar, and I’m so not. I’ve met real Tolkien scholars, and they’re the real deal; I just happen to love the books. But when I do meet those people, what generally happens is we engage in a conversation.

Some people hate and loathe what we’ve done to [the books]. And that’s fine - I understand that, I completely respect that. Everyone should be able to have their own point of view. But what I generally find is that they’re interested in the choices we made. They may have made different choices, but they are interested, as a piece of history almost.

What I also found, which is really nice, is that a lot of them are pleased because it brings this new generation to the stories. I had a really funny story from a teacher who’d set The Lord Of The Rings as a text. And there was a question that she had which was to describe something or other.

But we’d changed things from the book, so it included Frodo. And half the class had included that in this piece, so of course the teacher said, “Okay you guys. I know you only watched the movies and didn’t read the books!” [Laughs] 

What scene or moment are you most excited about audiences experiencing in There And Back Again?

Ah, my God. The fighting in this one, [The Desolation Of Smaug] is pretty cool, I think. The fighting in the next one is just extraordinary - because it’s real. It’s do or die. And I think Richard Armitage, especially, as an actor, has an extraordinary trajectory. And what’s great about it is, you care about him. He has this grandeur and stature as a character, but then he disintegrates before your eyes - and it’s heart breaking. Then you become invested in him coming back. He’s got to be the Thorin we know and care about. But that’s the thing: does he?

You and Peter [Jackson] and Fran [Walsh] seem like such a close team. Can you talk a little bit about your collaborative process of writing? Are you involved once filming starts, for example? Are you on set every day?

Not every day, but we’re often there writing and bringing it to Pete. We’re literally there with pages in our hands. I’m lucky, that’s how I feel. It’s something that seems to work. Respect is a really important thing from both of them. You follow an idea and see where it goes - you don’t say no to an idea. You say yes to an idea. I think good ideas find themselves.

They make me laugh. Pete’s very funny, so it’s never a bad day going to work with him.

When you’re writing, are you actually sitting in the same room, the three of you?

Yes. Definitely. We’re neighbours. My commute is across the lawn, so yes we do. We spend a lot of time. But once we start filming - and this is another thing I like about Fran and Pete, is that they respect everybody. The actors especially. So we start with the script, but it’s not sacred - we try not to be too precious about things.

So an actor comes in, and helps us create the character. Once we get to that stage, and Peter’s filming, we’ll see that this storyline’s working, but this one might not be. Fran and I tend to do the rewriting, but Pete’s always there. He’s a really good writer himself. He tends to leave dialogue and things like that to us.

The perfect example of this is a character like Alfred, played by Ryan Gage. He’s not in the book at all, but he began as a small character, but he’s such a good actor, and so funny. He sort of grew in the telling, his character.

How do you explain the longevity of Tolkien’s source material?

Because I think it’s universal. I think you have the characters. Yes, he wrote epic stories and set them against a huge mythological backdrop, but there’s a humanity about the central characters, especially the Hobbits, that is endearing and enduring. Even though they’re not human, they seem human. 

Did you ever talk about the themes of greed in this film, which are quite current in today’s climate?

Yes. And what you get to be able to do is embody that in an actual character, who’s a giant manifestation of greed, which is Smaug. But also the obscenity of wealth. There’s something obscene about that much gold, and we liked the idea of the giant gold statue, that that was what Thror was working on before he died, which was this huge golden statue.

There’s some extraordinary stuff, which I hope will be in the extended cut, which is something as simple as Bilbo taking one small cup. And how even that drove Smaug completely insane. You know, “I will not part with a single coin. Not one piece of it.”

And for what? It’s for nothing. He can’t eat it. So yeah, that’s the dragon’s sickness. And yes, I don’t think that is too far away from what you see today, absolutely.

What about The Silmarillion? Do you think that could ever be put on the screen?

Yes. I do, and it won’t be us! That’s for another generation I suspect. But once you get past the first hundred pages, there’s some extraordinary things. There are some creatures in there that are brilliant. But it won’t be us.

What are your future plans? Have you considered doing something without Pete and Fran?

Yeah, absolutely. Yes, we work together, but I want a break. That would be neat, I think. But it’s fun. We have a lot of offers, which we’re lucky to have, but I like telling stories and I love writing for film. So yeah.

Was there ever a point over the last 14 years where you got really tired of Lord Of The Rings?

Yes, very much so. And I didn’t imagine that we’d do The Hobbit. And that was another great thing about working with Guillermo - he helped us fall back in love with that world. Seeing through his eyes kept it fresh. But I did feel that a lot. It’s hard, you know? You can repeat yourself. 

You had some extra filming to do this year. Did that change things greatly, or was it just pick-ups?

It was mostly just pick-ups, yeah. But as soon as you have that opportunity, you did other bits of storytelling, which is what we did. And it was quite... it was ten weeks’ worth, so...

What was the biggest challenge in this specific script?

Probably the stuff we had to leave out, and knowing we had to leave that stuff out.

So are we in for an extended edition?

There’s more! I think it’s really good. Thrain, Thorin’s father, we get to meet him in the extended cut, hopefully.

Seeing the film trilogies from the outside, how are they supposed to be different? Are they meant to be for the same audience?

Same audience, very much so. I think we made that decision very early on. If we’d made Lord Of The Rings afterwards, I think The Hobbit would have been a very different film. If we’d started with The Hobbit, we’d have made the world differently. But we didn’t, and I think that’s good, actually. I think it was the right way round, funnily enough.

As a fan of the books, did you take anything from the set?

Did I take stuff? Oh God, yes. I still want something, and they’d better give it to me! I want the rune stone, the one that Kili has. I like that idea. We came up with that idea because I think it’s the sort of thing a mother would give to her son. [Clasps hands together] “Just remember to look after yourself.”

It’s actually made of Labradorite, which is beautiful. I’d never come across it before, and it’s extraordinary. I want that. I’ll have to see if they’ll give it to me!

Peter Jackson’s said he thinks his direction and storytelling has improved over the years. When you compare yourself then to now, are you a different writer?

Hopefully, you learn stuff, so yes. There’s a chaos when you don’t know what you’re doing. Sometimes it doesn’t pay to be too sure of yourself, you know? It was chaotic and mad, but there’s a beauty to that, which gives you freedom.

I think the star of this film is the directing. And Pete always surprises me. He just loves what he does with a real passion. It’s because he wants to see it, he wants to experience it. I think that’s what any great director does. He’s pushing the envelope, so film keeps growing, and what film is stays alive.

I mean, I think there’s a real fear that theatres will vanish. That whole experience of receiving something collectively in a theatre, I mean, is that on its way out? I don’t know. It could be. But I think that would be very sad. So hopefully we give you a reason to go and see it on the big screen.

Honestly, Peter’s a big kid. He fell in love with filmmaking when he was really young, and that’s a passion that he still has to this day. And you need to be like that, because this is a very difficult business. I don’t mean just critically in terms of the way things are received, but that it’s gruelling to make a film. Anyone who can make a film has my utmost respect!

Philippa Boyens, thank you very much.

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug is out now in the UK. Our review is here.

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