Peter Jackson is tired. But of course he is. The director has devoted the last three years of his life to bringing the world of J.R.R. Tolkien’s bestselling book The Hobbit to the big screen. That’s in addition to the 16 years he spent getting another trilogy, the critically and commercially acclaimed Lord of the Rings, off the ground. To use an obvious Tolkien analogy, Jackson is now Frodo at the foot of Mount Doom, with the finish line just off in the distance. Once he reaches it, his two-decade journey into Middle-earth will be complete. And what a journey it’s been! Six films––including the upcoming, The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies––$5 billion in ticket sales, 17 Academy Awards, a new generation of children introduced to Tolkien’s magical world of elves, hobbits, dwarves, Orcs, and goblins.
True, The Hobbit trilogy hasn’t received the same fanfare as its predecessor. Noticeably absent are the multiple award nominations and high praise from critics. But the audiences are still rolling in. The first two chapters in The Hobbit series grossed $1.9 billion, with The Battle of Five Armies, the final chapter in the trilogy, expected to add a substantial amount to that number. Good reviews or not, Jackson is just happy people are still interested in the end result.
The filmmaker spoke to The Daily Beast from the film’s London junket to reflect on his two decades of exploring Middle-earth, his thoughts on Tolkien purists upset with the new trilogy, evading the MPAA’s initial R rating on the most recent Hobbit film, and his plans for the future.
I usually start these interviews off by asking “How are you doing?” which is kind of a throwaway question for a movie junket. But, I am actually really curious this time. It’s been a long journey adapting these six films. How are you doing as the last one winds down?
I haven’t had much time to process that. I am obviously exhausted. We finished the movie about a week ago. On the last day I worked on it, it was like a 40-hour day. I haven’t fully recovered from that yet. So I have to apologize if I sound a bit exhausted. But I haven’t had time to process the actual emotional end of it yet. I don’t think I am going to feel sad or regretful in any way, particularly because I feel very proud of the films we ended up making. You know, you set out to do something, and I have achieved what I set out to do to the best of my ability. Right or wrong, good or bad, I feel that I tried my best and did my best. So I am OK. I am good. I think people seem to enjoy the films we made and fans go to them four or five times, and for a filmmaker, you couldn’t wish for a better result really.
Coming into this trilogy, what was the scariest aspect of revisiting Middle-earth for you?
Well, there are sort of two answers to that. As a filmmaker what was scary was the thought I had initially before I started shooting: Was this going to be just repeating myself or trying to be in competition with myself? So that was a fear. And the other thing, and more practical thing with The Hobbit, was the concept of a story with 13 dwarves... you have to somehow pull out the ones to feature. That was a daunting thing with The Hobbit. You almost wish Tolkien had stopped with six dwarves [laughs]. It was just like, Oh my god. The first part of it, I just turned up on set and realized, I am actually really enjoying this. I enjoyed going back into Middle-earth again. It wasn’t repeating myself or copying myself. It was a different story, different dialogue, most of the characters were different. So I was wrong to have that fear. I really enjoyed it. Still, we had the 13 dwarves to deal with, but at least in this movie we get to knock a couple off, which is a relief.
All the previous Tolkien films you’ve done begin with a flashback or a prologue of sorts. Return of the King had Smeagol, An Unexpected Journey featured Frodo and an older Bilbo. However, Battle of Five Armies jumps right into the action. Were there thoughts to adding some sort of intro?
When you’re shooting three films back-to-back and releasing them a year apart, the one thing you can do, which you usually can’t do in filmmaking, is to have the knowledge and assurance that a year later, the next film is going to come out. And we thought, You know what? [Let’s do] a cliffhanger because we know we are going to carry on the story. So why not take advantage? It’s not the end of the story, we have another film, we’ve already shot it, it’s going to come out in a year from now, so why wreck things up? Why not finish hard on a cliffhanger and the next one just jump straight back in? It was a rare opportunity. You have to be able to shoot them at the same time to be brave enough to do that. And hey, in six months time, they will be on DVD and they are just going to run together anyway.
Of course people will be doing a marathon of Hobbit films once they come out, just like they did with Lord of the Rings.
Well, you have to talk about the nutcases that do the marathon of watching all six!... Obviously The Hobbit is the story of Thorin Oakenshield’s quest for the Lonely Mountain, and Lord of the Rings is the story of Frodo’s journey to try to destroy the ring. But they are nonetheless connected and they feed into each other and are in the same world.
You’ve mentioned wanting to distinguish the battle in this film, which is this really large, 45-minute fight scene. There are so many moving parts. How do you keep something like that together, narratively speaking? I assume it’s difficult.
Um, yes. It is. But in a way, the battle is almost a distraction. It’s not really the problem. Because really you could have these characters running through the streets of New York and you can have the same issues. It’s that you have multiple storylines heading towards a climax and you kind of want them all to climax at the same time, or certainly in the right order. So you’ve got the classic narrative puzzle that you’re trying to weave and shape. So the battle is almost irrelevant, in a funny way. The battle is really a setting and that’s the action that they’re doing. But it doesn’t make it any easier or harder… Our characters are just in the thick of the story. So we have all these narratives now, which are thundering towards a conclusion and we are just having to weave them all together so that you feel like the pace is working.
I don’t mean to undervalue the battle, they could be holding a knife and fork with their hands and be sitting at the table eating, or they can have a sword in their hand and fighting for their lives, it’s still the storytelling and the narrative that these guys are on that you’re really focused on.
At the very least, I feel like you upped the cool factor with this battle. Particularly with Legolas and the scene where he climbs up a crumbling tower. He’s always getting the flashiest action sequences.
Legolas is fun. It’s good to have the challenge. When we did The Lord of the Rings, we shot some cool stuff in the first one where he pulls arrows out and fires them fast, and I thought that was incredibly clever. And then The Two Towers came along and we came up with that thing where he slides down the stairs on the shield, which was just a throwaway gag. [We thought] that would be cool. But also in The Two Towers, we had the scene where he was jumping on a horse. What happened there was, Orlando [Bloom] wasn’t supposed to do that at all. The horse was supposed to stop and he was supposed to climb on the horse like a normal person… And before we got to that, Orlando fell off the horse and cracked a rib.
We kept on shooting for another year...and were never able to get the shot of him climbing on the horse. So in the cutting room, we got a plate of a horse and put a CGI guy getting on him. With the freedom of doing that, we were able to do a non-human, flip-y thing. So when that film came out, audiences literally cheered. It was a cheer that we got for something that was a complete fluke. And then we did pickups for Return of the King, we just felt we had to top that. There was this thing that had developed: What’s the next cool thing that the elf is going to do? So when he shows up in these films, we were like, “Oh we’re going to have to do [something cool] again.” That fight on the tower is just brutal.
It is. In fact, and correct me if I am wrong, I feel like there are way more beheadings in this trilogy than Lord of the Rings, many of which come at the hands of Legolas.
There probably are. See, the trick too, as a filmmaker, you’ve got guys fighting with blades. They don’t have guns or machine guns or grenades. So when you want to kill people, you’ve got limited options. One of the weird things with these films, which I must confess I actually quite enjoy, we sit around thinking how we are going to kill an Orc. You actually turn into a psychopath. And actually I can think of a hell of a great way to kill Orcs but I am always restricted by PG-13, unfortunately.
What would you have done if you had the R rating?
Oh all sorts of great things. I will tell you what, you wait for the extended cut of this film. There are a few Orc killings that we actually got knocked back. Because when we submitted this to the MPAA we got an R. So what you’re seeing is the result of heavy editing to even just get the PG-13. But there will be a little bit of Orc killing to be seen in the extended cut.
Let’s talk a bit about Evangeline Lily’s character Tauriel, who isn’t in the books. There was a bit of an uproar from Tolkien purists about her being included in...
Yeah, there’s negative reaction from Tolkien fans, but then you have a nine-year-old girl who goes to the movie and she’s delighted that there’s a character she can relate to. So it depends on what side of the track you want to come from. But sorry, I interrupted you…
...I was just going to ask that you had to have expected that response from some, right?
Oh yes. But look, let’s forget hardcore Tolkien fans. I think it’s humanly impossible to make a movie that everyone rejoices and praises. You know, Citizen Kane, you’re going to find some people who sit there saying “What a load of boring crap.” You know what I mean? So you sort of don’t even worry about it and just go for it. There can’t be a committee who decides these things.
We had a very thin book that we had to create characters with some different complexity. And there aren’t that many you can do. The dwarves move from one place to the other. So the elves in the Woodland Realm were an obvious [choice]. In The Hobbit, Thranduil [an Elven king] isn’t even named. He’s just called the Woodland King. And there are no particular elf characters––you just have this one guy. And we obviously know there’s a son, because in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien names Thranduil and reveals that he had a son [Legolas]. So that gave us a clue. Everybody thinks that Orlando [Bloom] came to these films as a sexy box-office [draw], but we actually needed characters, and he was such an obvious character, it’d be nuts if we didn’t use him. Then you’ve got the king and you've got a son, and stories are best told with three people, not two, because then you can create conflicts and triangles. So we wanted a third elf character. Was this a chance to put a female role in the story? Because there are so few female roles. Also you do have a lot of young girls seeing this film, and they should have somebody in there who they can empathize with. It was a very cold-blooded decision. Yes, OK, a female elf. And that was how it came about…
You have to be aware of your audience or otherwise you’re just not doing your job. I just think of all those eight-year-old, nine-year-old, 10-year-old girls who come to see these films. Who are they going to actually empathize with? At least they have Tauriel. At least they know how to kill Orcs now. So that could come in handy one day. We are teaching girls good skills!
Were there any filmmaking lessons you learned on The Lord of the Rings that you took with you on The Hobbit? Things that you decided you wouldn’t do again, or things you should do differently?
You’re always going to have stuff you’re learning, because you’re at film school any time you make a movie. You come out of it and sometimes you don’t know what you learned because it’s unconscious. But the thing with The Hobbit I will tell you... I went into it very unprepared. Because Guillermo [Del Toro, the original director] had 18 months of prep, and he couldn’t do the films and I took them over and I only had six months of prep. I didn’t have time to highlight any storyboards, and then it was just suddenly dumped into three movies. And I was sick. I had an ulcer and I was still sore when I was on the set. So I look at the movies and actually see my mojo getting stronger and stronger.
People ask me what’s my favorite movie and I say the third one because that’s when I really felt like I had got my act together. I came away from the end of The Hobbit more excited about making movies than I ever had. I just felt myself getting better and better, stronger and stronger as a filmmaker, and that is sort of embedded in the movies. Now I just want to make movies. I am jazzed up about the whole process, which doesn’t normally happen after doing one movie. Doing three in a row got a momentum going and I want to keep that momentum going.
Do you feel like you can conquer anything on the film landscape after making these massive trilogies?
Hmm, I don’t know. You have to make movies that you empathize with. I go to the movies and I see films that other filmmakers have done, and they are wonderful and brilliant films, and I think, I could never have made this film. You sort of have to make the films that you connect with. And I am a fantasy guy. I have been a Ray Harryhausen fan since I was six or seven years old. But I can go see a Scorsese film. I can never in my life make a film like that, but man, I enjoy them. When I see a film like that, it’s escapism. Ultimately the joy of cinema is it’s not a machine making movies, it’s an individual making movies. I mean obviously there are a lot of shitty movies, but if a film is good, it’s going to probably be good because it is made by a filmmaker who put passion into it.
So what do you want to explore next? I know you have another Adventures of Tintin movie.
Yes, Tintin, we will be doing that at some point soon. But what I want to explore next, there are a couple of New Zealand films I want to do. The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit has a connection to New Zealand, but it’s been 20 years since I’ve actually done a story set in the country I live in. Heavenly Creatures was the last time I made a film where New Zealand was part of the story. Fran [Walsh] and I have a couple of true stories that we want to do that are New Zealand movies. We really want to do something now that’s connected with where we live rather than something that’s a Hollywood thing. One day we will go back to [that]. But we’re not getting any younger.
As you’ve mentioned, the rights to future Tolkien books are still with the estate. But even if you did have the chance to adapt them into films, would you even want to, especially after making two trilogies?
Well, it’s a very hard question. It’s a hypothetical one. I’ve never really thought about it because we have got projects that we can do that aren’t impossible, that aren’t full of legal complications. But the truth of it is, they probably will one day [be made]. The Tolkien estate doesn’t want to release the films because it’s a decision that the current executors of the estate believe in. But at some point that may change, the executors may change, and those rights may suddenly surface.
But look, it depends on how old I am [laughs], and whether I have the energy anymore. Having been happy to hand The Hobbit to Guillermo [Del Toro] and then doing it myself, I definitely ended up with a stronger sense of ownership of Middle-earth than I ever had before, and it would be kind of hard to sit back and watch another filmmaker do stories if they were connected to these ones. If they weren’t connected, then sure. But if it was something connected to this mythology that we’ve done, if I had the energy and the strength then I would really want to do it. Never say never!
[This interview has been edited and condensed]