For most of us, Peter Jackson needs little introduction. Having adapted Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings as a blockbusting, Academy Award-winning trilogy of films, he’s become one of the most recognisable and popular filmmakers currently working. And as he entered the room for a roundtable interview on a rainy Berlin afternoon this week, a respectful hush greeted him – a sign, perhaps, of just how well-liked his movies are.
But as Jackson sat down with his gigantic mug of tea (something he takes with him everywhere, an effervescent Evangeline Lilly would later tell us), it became clear that if Jackson’s considered geek royalty by many fans, he doesn’t think of himself in those terms at all. As he began chatting to an assembled group of writers about his latest instalment in The Hobbit trilogy, The Desolation Of Smaug, he talked about how lucky he felt to have been given the chance to adapt Tolkien’s work – a job his younger self could only have dreamed of.
“I’m just a lucky guy,” Jackson told us. “I’m the kid who got his parents’ Super 8 camera when he was eight or nine years old, and loved Ray Harryhausen, loved Jason And The Argonauts and King Kong, and dreamt of making fantasy movies. I never, ever thought I’d be the adapter of Tolkien. I never even allowed myself to have that thought. I just wanted to invent my own stories.”
In a brief yet illuminating interview, Jackson argues the case for 48 frames-per-second, and casting Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug…
Why do you think Tolkien remains so popular?
It’s a good question, and quite a personal question. I don’t think there’s necessarily an intelligent answer I could give you. He’s popular because he writes well, he writes good stories, he creates good character, he creates mythology.
You know, people have asked me what meaning I’d put on the movie today, with the dragon and the gold – what the dragon means today. And I think that’s why Tolkien is so successful, because he studied mythology. He was a professor at Oxford. He loved the Norse sagas. He loved Greek mythology.
And he tried to create a mythology for England, because England essentially lost its mythology in 1066, when the Normans invaded. Their oral stories – because all mythology originated as oral storytelling long before they were recorded on paper – were lost. England lost whatever mythology it once had. And so he set about trying to create a mythology for his country.
He knew the rules of mythology. He knew the way those stories become timeless. And they are timeless – they have appeal no matter what country you live in or what era, whether you read The Hobbit in 1936 or 2013. You still get the same entertainment value from them.
Swedish fans have been waiting for Mikael Persbrandt and Beorn for a long time now. And there’s not very much in this film, and I’d like to ask you, why was there just that short appearance, and also I’d like to know what more we’ll see of him in the next film.
His character does do more in the third film, in ways I won’t explain. But he does have more to do, and he does come back into the story. We almost set him up in this one, for things that are going to happen in the third film. Because what’s really great about that character – we kind of took from Tolkien and went a different way – is that we made him a fairly enigmatic figure. He’s not necessarily a good character or a bad character. He lives by his own rules; as he says in the movie, “I don’t like dwarves, but orcs I like even less.”
That’s how he chooses which side he’s going to be on. And there is going to be a little bit more of him in the extended cut of this film. We shot scenes with Mikael. But when we cut the film together, and looked at the length and things, we shaped it and structured it for the best way we thought it would work for the cinematic version.
So you’ve got a couple more things to look forward to: you’ve got a couple more scenes in the extended cut of this film, and some more of him, which I won’t be describing, in the third movie!
Does current technology allow you to put all your ideas on the screen, or are you still limited in some ways?
No, anything you can imagine can now be put on film. Which is interesting, because the responsibility becomes storytelling again. It becomes about entertaining audiences. Audiences are only going to be entertained to a certain point by visual effects technology, and what you ultimately engage with are characters and emotions. So it’s a good thing and a bad thing, technology.
But because it’s unlimited now, because you can imagine anything and put it on film, hopefully it’ll make everyone put their focus back on story and characters again.
How has your approach changed from Lord Of The Rings to The Hobbit, in terms of technology?
I don’t think I have a different approach, but I do have a little bit more freedom, I guess. I use a lot more handheld cameras now. In this movie, in the last 20 minutes or so, I pretty much shot it all myself with a handheld camera in a digital space. We created the dragon spaces in a digital environment, and even though we had actors and we cut to the actors, I was still able to go into this environment with a camera – it’s kind of difficult to describe – it was a motion capture stage, and I had a camera that was being tracked by a motion control system. And I was able to look at the screen and I was literally in the movie. Smaug was walking over my head, and I’d position myself to be exactly where I wanted when his feet hit the ground, and I was able to choose which lenses I wanted to shoot him with.
So the technology allowed me to get inside the movie itself, and shoot it like a documentary, like a combat cameraman. A handheld cameraman.
What made you choose to shoot The Hobbit films in a high frame rate, and how do you feel about the accusation that audiences find it tiring to watch?
Well, 48 frames is by far the best way to see this film. I think we screened it to the press in 24 [frames per second], but that was a decision we made because we wanted people to respond to the movie as a movie. Last year, people were talking about the frame rate as well as the movie, and the debate got a little bit confused.
Look, 24 frames is not a perfect frame rate. It’s an arbitrary frame rate which was born in 1927 when sound movies first started to come in. Cameras used to be hand cranked, which was usually about 16 or 18 frames per second. But because with sound, they had to have a constant speed, a perfect speed so the sound didn’t wow and go up and down. And also film stock was very expensive, so they came up with the slowest possible speed they could, which still maintained the fidelity of the soundtrack as it existed in 1927, which was optical. But it was the fewest number of frames they could get away with, because they wanted to save money on every foot of film.
So 24 frames was arrived at in a very arbitrary way, and it’s become the way we’ve become used to seeing things. But 24 frames isn’t very good, especially with 3D, and especially with action, because it strobes. It flickers; every time you move the camera, it judders. When you’re shooting in 3D, both eyes are getting hit with different degrees of these artefacts, which is what gives you eye strain; that’s why you get headaches watching 3D movies. 48 frames makes it much smoother.
There are twice as many screens in 48 frames this year than last year. It’s by far my preferred way to see it. It looks really great at 48 frames.
Why did you choose Evangeline Lilly for this movie, and why did you create this role in the first place? Also, what is the appeal of Benedict Cumberbatch?
In a novel like The Hobbit, Tolkien is the narrator. It’s Tolkien that’s telling you the story, almost like he’s reading it to you. It’s very much his voice describing the characters and what’s happening to them. In a film, you can’t do that. In a movie, you don’t have that ability to have a narrator, unless you want me on screen talking about the movie – which you don’t, believe me!
So in a film, the only way to tell a story is through the characters’ dialogue and the decisions they make. The Hobbit doesn’t have characters with an enormous amount of depth, particularly, and so we had to create a lot more story for characters like Bard, who was in the book, and when it came to the Elves, we had the Elvenking, who doesn’t even have a name in The Hobbit.
He’s named in The Lord Of The Rings, retrospectively, Tolkien refers to him as Thranduil and gives him a son, Legolas, but he’s not even given a name in the book. But we needed to tell the story, and we needed characters to tell that story, to be able to give dialogue to them and create relationships and conflict. So we mapped out, right at the very beginning, that we needed Thranduil and we needed his son Legolas, and we deliberately set out to create a female character. The Elves gave us the opportunity to create a female character in a book which had none.
Casting Elves is very difficult. Elves are ethereal, they’re beautiful, they’re timeless. We always have tremendous difficulty casting Elvish characters, and Evangeline was someone who we had met. We hadn’t worked with her before, but we had met her over the years. And she was terrific in the book. And because she’s such a Tolkien fan herself, she was a little bit worried about taking on the role. But I knew that if she did accept the role, I knew we’d be in good hands because she wanted to help create the character in a way that would honour Tolkien, and a way that is in the spirit of the books and the characters. Which she did.
As for Benedict Cumberbatch, we auditioned for that character about two or three years ago, because we did all our auditioning before we shot a single frame of film. It goes way, way back, before the shooting of the first film. I hadn’t seen Sherlock, and I didn’t know who he was. He was a pretty unknown actor to me, and he just had such a great voice, and again, he loved Tolkien.
He had a great, intelligent take on the character. You always want to work with people who want to make the same film as you, so when you meet with an actor, you talk a lot about the character and the role, and making sure they want to do the same thing as you. And Benedict had such a wonderful approach towards Smaug, as this huge, intelligent, psychopathic dragon. He is essentially a psychopath [Laughs]. And it’s a great way to approach a dragon. There have been so many dragons in movies, so how do you do it differently? It was scary.
Ever since I started doing The Hobbit, people would say, “What’s Smaug going to look like? What’s Smaug going to look like?” It was pretty scary, when there’s so much anticipation out there. You want to do the best job you can, so we took this approach of making him as dangerous as we could. As intelligent as we could. We interviewed a lot of actors, and Benedict was the guy who impressed us the most.
Peter Jackson, thank you very much.
The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug is out now in the UK. Our review is here.
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