Philippa Boyens interview: The Hobbit trilogy, Tolkien, 48fps and more

With the first in The Hobbit trilogy almost upon us, Nick met with writer and producer Philippa Boyens for a chat...

As screenwriting debuts go, The Fellowship Of The Ring is quite an impressive one. As one third of the writing team on the Lord Of The Rings trilogy (Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh being the other two), Boyens has won Oscars, Baftas and numerous other awards for her work. She has since stepped up to a producer role, working on District 9 and the Hobbit trilogy. However, she still remains a warm and friendly person to meet, and also gifted with an encyclopaedic knowledge of all things Tolkien…

Whose decision was it to make The Hobbit a trilogy, and what opportunities and problems did that create?

It was a joint decision between myself, Peter and Fran. We sat down and watched Pete’s first cut of film one, which was earlier this year I think around April or May, and I felt really good about it. But then I thought about it and realised there were certain story threads we would never be able to tell. It’s a deceptive book, it’s crammed packed with moments of adventure – each chapter in itself is its own individual adventure, and it’s wonderful, although quite episodic which is not usually ideal for turning into a film. But which bit of this beloved children’s story do you leave out?

When you take something which is so densely written, especially when it’s someone like Peter Jackson translating it onto the big screen, it’s going to take more than a couple of seconds to show for example stone giants, and the encounter Bilbo has with them up in the Misty Mountains – that’s literally like two lines in the book!

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Taking the opportunity to tell it in three films meant that we were properly able to go into the storytelling that exists not only in The Hobbit. Professor Tolkien didn’t actually stop writing The Hobbit after the book, he continued writing for it long after. The are a lot of events that relate to Bilbo Baggins’ adventures with the dwarves that exist only within The Lord Of The Rings. For example, one of the things we would never have been able to show or tell is Battle of Moria, between the dwarves and the orcs, which began this deep and ancient hatred between these two races, which is actually quite powerful and incredibly dramatic. It also gives us this great villain too, Azog the Defiler, which as the front of The Hobbit is this lovely, rollicking children’s adventure lacks a villain, he’s this powerful antagonist that film adventures need. 

How did having Guillermo del Toro on board as a writer change the dynamic? What was able to bring to the table?

One of the best things for me about working with Guillermo, besides the fact that he’s one of the funniest guys you’re ever going to meet, and one of the smartest as well, is that he helped me fall back in love with the world of Middle Earth. I was seeing it with fresh eyes. He has a great love of fantasy and is incredibly well-read. He has a vast amount of knowledge, not just of mythology within the English speaking world but of all cultures. For me he helped me see the world with that sense of wonder you need to see it with. It’s treading that line between treating it a part of perfect history, which is what we sort of did with Lord Of The Rings, but also maintaining the integrity of the fact it is a piece of fantasy, and its populated by these incredible, extraordinary creatures.

Was it difficult to strike this balance between the more whimsical nature of The Hobbit, and the more grown-up Lord Of The Rings?

This is a tale that grows in the telling. I know Tolkien said that about Lord Of The Rings, but it’s very much so with The Hobbit. It does start out as this rollicking treasure hunt to go and reclaim some gold from a fire-breathing dragon, but then you go deeper into the story and as it progresses that’s not the whole of the story at all. In the midst of all this he meets an extraordinary character called Gollum and finds a small gold ring, which as we know thanks to making Lord Of The Rings first and not second, has huge massive ramifications for the entire world of Middle Earth. So these little simple events you just can’t pass over them lightly.

Moving on from The Hobbit, what do you have lined up for future projects? I know Temeraire was mentioned at one point?

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Yes, I love that piece of storytelling. It’s extraordinary. I think we need to get through the next two and then have a bit of a break for myself. But there are some brilliant projects out there that I’d love to take on I have to say. There’s a few I’d love to see Pete tackle. 

Any in particular?

I’d love to see him do Mortal Engines. Especially now that you’ve seen what he can do with 48fps.

What’s your personal opinion of 48fps? It’s been quite divisive.

I think it’s a brilliant thing to do. Look, every filmmaker now has the ability to choose how they deliver the experience to an audience, and so why would you not explore that avenue? It’s new, it’s a bit different. I’ll tell you a really funny thing I’ve noticed happening with it and the 3D. As I’m seeing more and more audiences watching it, at the end of the film people are getting up and they’ve still got their 3D glasses on. They’ve forgotten to take them off as they’ve become so immersed in the visual storytelling that they’ve forgotten they’re wearing them. With a lot of 3D, the first thing you do is take the glasses off, but with this you get them walking out with them still on!

Philippa Boyens, thank you very much.

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opens in UK cinemas on the 13th December.

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