NEW YORK — After more than a decade of total immersion in the dense environs of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth that produced three monumental movies in “The Lord of the Rings” cycle and three Academy Awards (best picture, director and adapted screenplay for “The Return of the King”), Peter Jackson was prepared to turn over the directing reins for three epic films based on “The Hobbit” to someone else.
Early in the development of the three pictures based on Tolkien's slender children's volume (“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” plus “The Desolation of Smaug,” due out in 2013, and “There and Back Again,” coming in 2014), the Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro of “Pan's Labyrinth” fame was set to direct the trio that would serve as prequel to “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
But when “The Hobbit” faced several delays in preproduction due to legal tangles, labor disputes and the bankruptcy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, del Toro moved on to other projects and Jackson (already on board as producer and co-screenwriter) stepped back in to assume directing duties.
During press interviews hosted by Warner Bros. at the Waldorf Astoria, Jackson talked about his initial reluctance to direct again and the complications he faced in adapting Tolkien's lighter and larkier 1937 book.
“I guess I thought that I wouldn't enjoy it is the truth. Because I thought I would be competing against myself to some degree,” the bearded filmmaker said. “And I thought it would be interesting to have another director. Guillermo was involved for a while, for over a year.
“It was still another six months after he left before we got a green light,” Jackson said. “And in that time I just thought, ‘well I am actually enjoying this.' We'd been working on the script with Guillermo all that time and we were producing it for him. And also I'd come to realize something that I hadn't really put my head around before — that there was a lot of charm and humor there that ‘The Lord of the Rings' didn't have. So I thought that returning to Middle-earth and telling a completely different story about another time would be enjoyable.”
In “An Unexpected Journey,” a reluctant Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), journeys to the Lonely Mountain with the good wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and 13 riotous Dwarves to reclaim a treasure stolen from them by the dragon Smaug.
“I thought, you know, this is not ‘Lord of the Rings.' I'm not going to try and make another film exactly like that,” Jackson said. “This gives me an opportunity to do something different. And after all the trials and tribulations we had up to then, the first day of shooting I was completely happy I was there.”
Still, Jackson was bombarded with questions about the logic of turning Tolkien's rather slight children's tale into three epic-sized movies.
“We were originally doing two films,” he said. “But it's really a question of what you leave out. It's a misleading book. It's written at a very breathless pace, so that pretty major events in the story are covered in two or three pages because it was written almost like a children's bedtime story.
“But once we started to develop the scenes — and plus we wanted to do a little character development and conflict, plus the fact that we also adapted the appendices from ‘The Return of the King,' which is a hundred-odd pages of material that Tolkien developed that takes place around the time of ‘The Hobbit' — we decided to expand the story. Tolkien himself wrote that material to tie it in more with ‘The Lord of the Rings,' which he wrote 17 or 18 years after ‘The Hobbit.' So all of those elements combined give us the more than enough material to (make three films).”
Additionally, Jackson said, from the director's chair he's been able to attend to many finer details of continuity that will help tie the six films of the “Hobbit” and “Rings” trilogies into a coherent whole.
“One of the things that made this film so enjoyable to me was being able to connect little things from ‘The Lord of the Rings' to ‘The Hobbit,'” he said. “For instance, there was a scene from ‘The Fellowship of the Rings,' where they stop at a crossroads and there's a quiet moment when Gandalf is talking to Frodo, and he's talking about the events in ‘The Hobbit' and about the fate of Bilbo, ‘the pity of Bilbo rules the fate of all,' meaning that Bilbo had the chance to kill Gollum but he didn't. And the fact that he didn't is now directing the story; it's now created the story of ‘The Lord of the Rings' for good or for bad.”
In “An Unexpected Journey,” Jackson and company recreate that intense, extended sequence in which Bilbo Baggins first encounters Gollum (Andy Serkis) beside an eerie, underground lake in the Misty Mountains. There, Bilbo seizes the “precious,” cursed golden ring and does fierce battle with the wild-eyed Gollum.
“So it was really interesting, 10 or 12 years after we'd shot that scene (in ‘Fellowship of the Rings”), to go come back and actually show the moment where Bilbo stays his hand,” the director said. “And also the reason that he doesn't kill Gollum at that moment when he has the opportunity to is that Gandalf has said to him that true courage is deciding when not to kill rather than to kill. Just completing those little circles was one of the most interesting things about this.
“And in a way, if we hadn't shot the films in this order we might not have been able to do that,” Jackson said. “Because I'm much aware that once these three movies are done and have had their theatrical life, they'll be seen as part of a six-movie set, which is the way they will exist from that point on. So I am very conscious of making it feel like a very organic story with synergy and everything clicking together.”