As we charted in this article here, the earlier films of director Peter Jackson didn’t offer too many clues that he was the man to both bring J R R Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings trilogy to the big screen, and also that he’d made such a raging success of it. From his fun, shlocky early work though was a man learning his craft, one that he continued to hone with the underappreciated and hugely-fun comedy horror The Frighteners, and the rightly Oscar-nominated Heavenly Creatures.
Jackson, though, had his eyes on Tolkien’s trilogy from his early days, but realising Middle Earth on the big screen had long been seen as a formidable challenge. Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated movie was the fruit of the labours to that point.
It was just off the back of finishing The Frighteners, though, that saw Jackson finally pursue Lord Of The Rings as a film project in earnest. There were rights issues to resolve, and those weren’t cleared up until 1997. Jackson and his team originally figured that their adaptation would span two films, and as such, after a year of work, two screenplays were produced. Two expensive screenplays to make, as it happened, which then led to a proposal from Miramax Films, who was backing the project at the time, to cut two films into one. The likes of Battle Of Helm’s Deep would never have made it to the screen.
Jackson refused to cut the scripts down, and shopped the project around. New Line Cinema bit, and rather than making one film, it opted to go ahead with three. More scriptwriting was clearly required.
It did all mean that early pre-production work could begin in the summer of 1997, and it did also mean that New Line was betting its at-the-time not very big house on a massively ambitious project. With a combined budget of $300m – back when that was still considered an enormous amount of money in film terms – and a shoot that would last more than a year, it was little wonder that so many other studios opted for caution. New Line, however, rolled the dice.
Here’s the latest in our series of nerdy facts videos, that digs into a few things you may not know about The Fellowship Of The Ring…
In that video, we’ve touched on Sean Astin’s bumpy-but-fascinating book, There And Back Again. Astin gives a wide-eyed account of being in the midst of such a massive project, in particular how he got involved in it in the first place. As is often the case, he took a call while driving in Los Angeles from his agent. And she simply told Astin “Listen… Peter Jackson is doing The Lord Of The Rings trilogy for New Line. You’ll need a flawless British accent by Thursday!”
It was Tuesday afternoon.
Astin drove straight to a bookshop, picked up a three-volume set of The Lord Of The Rings, and got to work. A lot of reading, a long session with a dialect coach (Michael Caine’s voice was an influence on Astin’s approach), and lots of help from his wife later, Astin was ready for Thursday. Peter Jackson wasn’t at the audition himself, which was being taped, but Astin was pleased with what he did.
But then the long wait started. Then the rumour that someone else was being targeted for the role of Samwise. Astin, again, moved quickly. He sent footage from several of his films spliced together for Jackson’s attention, along with a “deeply sincere” letter to him. A second audition duly followed, and this time Jackson was there. The job offer came through shortly afterwards.
Yet it didn’t make Astin rich. Notwithstanding the fact that Samwise was viewed as one of the two core characters at the heart of the films, along with Frodo, Astin was offered $250,000, the same fee he’d taken home for his work on Encino Man many years before. The problem? It was $250,000 for three movies. Less agents fees, taxes, and for a work commitment of up to two years, it was a low offer. But there was no question of Astin turning the job down.
And, in fact, when the films eventually became the multi-billion dollar franchise we know it as today, New Line stumped up for bonuses for the cast.
It’s well worth digging Astin’s book – There And Back Again – out for more insight on the Lord Of The Rings film from a cast member’s perspective too. There’s a sense that the definitive book on Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth adventures is yet to be written, but it’s a very good place to start…