'Lord of the' Rings', the trilogy voted in several turn-of-the-millennium polls 'best book of the twentieth century',becomes the greatest film gamble of the twenty-first. Usually, Hollywood waits for box office gold before greenlighting sequels: here, for the first time ever, all three books have been filmed at once.
Hundreds of millions of dollars are riding on the first film, 'The Fellowship of the Ring'. And much of that pressure weighs on the slender shoulders of its 20-year-old star, Elijah Wood. He should be used to that by now. Wood plays Frodo Baggins, a young 'hobbit' also entrusted with an awesome mission: withhold the One Ring from its Lord, the evil Sauron, lest he enslave Middle-Earth ('One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them; One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them'). Resisting its corrupting power as well as the armies of evil, he must carry the ring to the darkest depths of Mordor, and hurl it into the Cracks of Doom. And though Frodo and his friends are assisted by the stoutest and bravest among dwarves, elves, wizards and the new race of men, the strongest of all turn out to be the little hobbits.
In the films, young Wood is assisted by such veteran thespians as Ian McKellen, Christopher Lee and Ian Holm, but it is he who has to carry the trilogy. "Fifteen months shooting!" he says. "Part of me probably did go crazy, but it was an incredible experience, a journey for all of us that mirrored the book, a real endurance
Midway through the arduous filming in New Zealand's breathtaking mountainscapes, they scaled up to six-day weeks. "None of us have been that tired or fatigued in our lives. But just when you start to forget what you're part of, you think: It's 'Lord of the Rings'!, and it lifts you up again."
It is a classic 'underdog' tale in which the little people (quite literally - hobbits are only 3'6" ) triumph over the most powerful, where the most ordinary can shine when called on to do extra-ordinary things. Therein lies much of its appeal, even with those who initially shrink from the idea of reading something that
a)has heroes with names like Baggins and
b) is debated at conventions and on internet sites.
When the Fellowship of the Ring was first published in 1954 the Sunday Times wrote that the world would be divided into two kinds, of people: "Those who have read 'The Lord of the Rings" and those who are going to."
The world is now equally divided: between those who read it and loved it, and those who would rather stick Elf-darts in their eyes.
Their loss. Not only is 'The Lord of theRings' an epic tale of breathtaking imagination that has more in common with Norse legends than the '70s rock albums, Dungeons & Dragons games and Roger Dean posters it inspired, but it also has rather more substance than, say, 'Star Trek' as a source of nerdish nit-picking. For though you can buy a Klingon dictionary and blueprints of the Warp Drive, these were all invented after the fact to feed the fan industry. whereas JRR Tolkien, an Oxford don specializing in Anglo-Saxon and Middle English, wrote 'The Lord of the Rings' partly to make use of the complicated
histories, geography and especially languages -15 of them in all -he had already devised for its imanginary setting of Middle-earth.
And, in a grisly way, it has never been more topical. On publication, newly half a century ago, critics saw in it an allegory of WW1. Not quite. "It is neither allegorical nor topical," Tolkien later wrote. "One has indeed
personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead."
Tolkien had fought in the Battle of the Somme, and spent most of 1917 in hospital with trench fever.
Now the West is at war again, the clash between Good and Evil will once more strike a chord (nearly too closely - the second part, fortunately not out until the end of next year, is entitled 'The Two Towers'). "That can't hurt," agrees Wood "Those themes of courage and honour and standing by each other to overcome evil are more relevant than in a long time."
He is behind the war, though in a more thoughtful manner than some of his compatriots. "Bin Laden is a complete rejection of everything Islam stands for. It's unfortunate people in America don't know enough about Islam, because bin Laden's interpretation is complete bollocks. In fact, the actual definition of a jihad
includes that you we not supposed to kill women and children, can't destroy buildings, or a tree that has leaves on it. Technically, they are not issuing a jihad, they are making their religion fit the way they feel."
He also adds, quite charmingly, that he feels "quite proud" of Tony Blair's handling of the crisis. "He's a little bit more... literate than our President". Education is important to Wood. Intelligent and articulate (we discuss favourite Shakespeare flicks for quite a while - he enjoyed the Branagh four-hour Hamlet; I
outpseud by countering with the 1964 Kozintsev), on screen, too, he as always seemed a wise head on
young shoulders. It made him a remarkable child actor, and it is carrying him through that difficult transition to grown-up star. If you don't recognise the name, you'll have seen many of films: after bit parts in 'Internal Affairs' and 'Back to the Future II', he landed his first plum role at just eight, in Barry Levinson's 'Avalon'. Since then, there has been 'The Good Son', opposite Macaulay Culkin; Rob Reiner's 'North'; 'Forever Young' with Mel Gibson; 'The War' with Kevin Costner; 'Flipper' with Paul Hogan; 'The Ice Storm', memorably making out with Christina Ricci wearing Nixon masks; and lately blockbusters 'Deep Impact' and 'The Faculty'.
"I've always felt older It's something throughout my life I've always dealt with" says the actor who, at the age of eight, left Dad behind in Iowa when Mum, sis and bro uprooted to LA to pursue showbiz. "I spent the majority of my childhood working among adults. I'm 20 now and I'm just starting to catch up with how I feel. I couldn't relate at all to teenagers my age."
Which is tricky when you're interviewed by Just 17 about your favourite colours. He surprised one
interviewer when a group of giggling teenage girls approached their table and asked Wood to 'say something' for their video camera. He closed his eyes for a moment and stifled the giggles by proclaiming:
'There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow men. True nobility lies in being superior to your former self'
"That's from 'Siddhartha'. It was bugging where it came from, I couldn't find it all and then I saw it on a Radiohead website."
Such web-literacy is good news for Brandy who posts messages to 'Lord of the site Imladris.net under the moniker 'Masseuse of Frodo's Harem'. I invited the fans contribute questions the night before interviewing Wood, and got a dozen good ones by morning. (Though the self-styled High Queen Of Arnor just said: 'I don't think I would ask Elijah anything - I'd just stare. There's something about his eyes...')
Though Wood is alarmed at what hardcore devotees will think of him when they discover he hasnít actually read "Lord of the Rings", only 'The Hobbit', he is chuffed by the notion of questions from fans.
"First up: You worked with Ian Holm on 'Lord of the Rings'. Ian Holm was Frodo in the BBC radio version [recorded 1981, to be repeated on Radio 4 in January 2002]. Did you talk to him about that?"
EW: "The pathetic sad thing is, I didn't ask him about it once!Of all actors, Ian Holm resonated Bilbo more perfectly than anyone. To see him come alive in such a realistic way was a treat. He's the Daddy - he is, man. He came in, two weeks, and was done, but he was amazing, all of us were in awe. Suddenly this guycomes in and Bilbo arrives."
Would you like to act on stage?
EW: "Yeah, I have considered it Facing one's fear- that's something that really freaks me out, so I really want to do it"
Are you religious or spiritual in any way?
EW: "Yeah, probably more spiritual than reilgious, I'm not a huge believer in or supporter of organised religion. It's run by people, and people tend to tarnish the purity of what religion is about I was raised a Christian, I
believe in the Bible and that's a good thing - I believe more in a personal relationship with God than having to go through priests. I believe in prayer. Yes, and that it is listened to' I do believe my life has been blessednso much during my
20 years, i canít believe that thereís not someone looking out for me."
"And how about if you had not been so blessed? Wouldn't you change your tune?"
EW: "People have free will They have a choice to lead the lives they have. There are people who are unlucky or born into challenging lives, but everyone has the choice and the power to move themselves out of a difficult position."
"What was the hardest scene to film?"
EW: "Probably the scene at the end of the third book, where Frodo is a shadow of himself, nearly taken over by the Ring, it almost becomes like a drug. He's an addict in away, he's afraid of anyone taking it over. How to go with that, that was challenging."
He's been smoking so hard during the interview, I can hear the wheeze in his lungs. Couldn't he just imagine someone taking his cigarettes away? He laughs. And finally, at the end, the 20-year-old pokes through.
"How will it feel, when trying to be taken seriously as an actor, to be immortalized as an action figure?"
EW: "Man, the action figure is a bonus! I'm a collector, so that's pretty rikkin' cool."
"Peter Jackson has been living in a state of permanent exhaustion for some years now.
"You sort of get used to it" he shrugs.
He also admits that actually, he quite likes it too. "Iím tired all the time but thatís not to say that the whole thing hasnít been enjoyable because it has. Very enjoyable".
The 'thing' in question is Jackson's mammoth three-film adaptation of JRR Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings', the first of which, 'The Fellowship of the Ring', will be showing at 10,000 cinema screens worldwide very soon.
You might think its director would now be putting his feet up and reflecting on a job well done. He isn't.
Once part one is released, he'll get to work putting together part two, due out a year later.
But what possessed this likeable, laid back 40-year-old, best known for 'Heavenly Creatures', to take on such an enormous, some would say impossible task in the first place? He's not entirely sure who came up with the idea, but he can remember discussing it with his long-term collaborator, writer Fran Walsh, when they
were making 'The Frighteners' together in 1995.
"I don't know where it came from, but the concept of 'Lord of the Rings' just popped into our heads as a possible future project. I guess one of the first things you think is: why hasnít it been made?" Jackson believes that the sheer scale of the story put most film-makers off, and any who did consider it felt that it needed to be trimmed down into one or possibly 2 films.
And you just canít do that, you canít compress it
it because it is too well-known, and youíd have to lose so much of what people love about the books, and so it never happened. The key for us was to do what we did and take this huge risk, which it obviously is, and say,
"We are going to make three movies, but we will shoot them at the same time"
New Line provided the budget of $270 million, and Jackson promised a shooting schedule of 274 days
filming in his native New Zealand, which offered beautiful and suitably varied locations for Middle-earth.
"We finished bang on the last day. It was a little bit frantic, but we got there."
There were, of course, plenty of headaches along the way. Stuart Townsend, 30, originally cast as Aragorn, was replaced by Viggo Mortensen just as filming was about to start.
"After a period of time we realised that we had made a mistake and that the Aragorn of the books had to be older and more rugged and weather-beaten. It was completely our fault. I had a chat with Stuart Townsend and he felt the same".
The weather, too, provided plenty of unexpected challenges during the 14-month shoot, which started on October 11th 1999 and finished December 22, 2000. They were snowed out of one location and flooded out of others. Jackson, at the helm of as many as six different units, would switch to covered locations and carry on.
"One day we would be shooting something from part three and the next something from part one. And
that's pretty much the way it went. It was like shooting one long, seven- or eight-hour film."
A big bear of a man usually to be found dressed in shorts and a Tshirt, Jackson is, by all accounts, unflappable. Which is probably just as well.
"Peter has a thriving family life," says Ian McKellen, who plays Gandalf. "And you are brought into the family. All the initial discussions about the film were always in his living room. He wants you to be yourself as he is."
Jackson is a huge Tolkien fan, and approached the books as if they were historical novels rather than fantasy. "There are fantastical elements, there are monsters and incredible cities and armies, things that are certainly fantastical in nature, but we always treated it as if we were making an historical film. This really
happened, these people really went through this and we were trying to dramatise that."
Now he has made cinematic history himself by directing three films simultaneously. Along the way, there were times when he felt he was completely bonkers for taking on such a tast.
"Plenty of days, believe me, But it was still great fun , though...."