The magic of any film production is that it occurs on the borderline of fiction and reality and a set visit offers a glimpse into the strange, wonderful alchemy that transforms one into the other. What accounts for the sheer scale of that magic when it comes to the set of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey certainly has a great deal to do with gargantuan soundstages, hundreds of costumed extras and intricate, state-of-the-art camera rigs designed to capture images like no one ever has before. Mostly, though, Peter Jackson has found something even bigger than all of that, blending into fantasy the impossible beauty of his entire country. To step into New Zealand is to enter Middle-earth.
Earlier this year, ComingSoon.net had the opportunity to visit the Wellington set of Jackson’s massive three-film undertaking that, at the time, had already been in production for more than 225 days. Unfortunately, much of the actual shooting that occurred during our visit must remain, for the time being, a secret, but we had the opportunity to speak with quite a bit of the first film's talent, including a number of newcomers to J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth and some very familiar faces.
"The way that I went into it when I got involved as a director was that I'd go into it as exactly the same filmmaker that did 'Lord of the Rings,'" Jackson explains, "like I'm returning to Middle-earth. In the sense that it's a real place and I'm there to tell another story."
Published nearly two decades before "The Lord of the Rings," "The Hobbit" was Tolkien's first foray into a decidedly less complicated Middle-earth. Part of Jackson's challenge with adapting the story is to bring fans back to the cinematic world of his seminal trilogy while still capturing the qualities that make "The Hobbit" unique.
"[Y]ou're dealing with thirteen dwarves [and it] gives you a different tone and a different feel in places than 'Lord of the Rings' did," he continues. "'Lord of the Rings' was incredibly good and evil, black and white. The world was at stake… Whereas this one has a slightly more of a fairytale quality, slaying dragons and going for gold. Just trying to get gold out of the mountain. The elements of the story give you room to change the tone slightly, but in terms of the look and the feel and the filmmaking style, I wanted to keep it pretty consistent and keep everything feeling like it's the same world."
"'The Hobbit' is an adventure story for kids and told in the first person by someone who might read it to you before you go to bed," adds Ian McKellen, reprising his role as Gandalf. "Tolkien's in the story, [going] 'I, I, I'…[T]he tone is clearly very, very different, and that will be reflected. It's reflected in the script, it's reflected in the casting, and it will be reflected, presumably, in the finished film[s]."
One of the early decisions on the project was to expand the narrative to fill multiple features. At first planned as a two-part film, Jackson's vision for "The Hobbit" wound up becoming so grand that it was decided it would be best delivered as a trilogy.
"Yes, there are scenes which are not in the book, but that doesn't say they're not in Tolkien somewhere, or in the back of Tolkien's mind," McKellen continues. "[W[hen Gandalf leaves the dwarves to get on with their job, you get to discover why he is supporting them. And that involves an overview of Middle-earth, which Wizards and High Elves get involved with."
Although the broader sense of Gandalf's character is instantly familiar to fans of Jackson's first trilogy, McKellen is quick to point out that he hasn't actually played Gandalf the Grey since "The Fellowship of the Ring," appearing in "The Two Towers" and "The Return of the King" as Gandalf the White.
"I don't make much connection between White and Grey," he explains, "and I've never really liked the White. I never said I didn't like playing him, but I didn't warm to him. He's a man with a mission. He's a commander and he's a man working right at the end of his tether. Gandalf the Grey -- I think Peter agrees -- is a much more congenial person, humane and full of all sorts of life, particularly when he's with the Hobbits."
There's one Hobbit in particular that Gandalf takes an interest in and, although fans will recognize the character of Bilbo Baggins from the first trilogy, they'll know Middle-earth newcomer Martin Freeman from his work on British television series like "The Office" and "Sherlock" as well as from films like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
“All I was told -- which I think was flattery and probably bollocks -- was, 'You are the only person to play it,'" laughs Freeman about getting chosen to take on the role of Bilbo.
Ian Holm, who played the part in the original trilogy, will also be back for "The Hobbit," playing an older version of the character in bookend sequences. While he was certainly familiar with the earlier films, Freeman explains that he made a conscious effort not to mimic Holm's take.
"[T]here's only so much you can run with someone else's thing," he says. "It's very helpful, in the way that it's brilliant as he is always brilliant, and it's a beautiful establisher of that character. A very loved one, for obvious reasons. But it can also hamper you if you're thinking… 'How would Ian have done this?' Then I'm f-ed. So I've got to let that go."
Freeman's first week of shooting brought him face to face with another key player in "The Lord of the Rings," Andy Serkis' Gollum who, as in the book, loses his precious to the Hobbit in a game of riddles.
"[It was] fascinating as a baptism of fire," Freeman says. "But friendly fire, because he's so good. That character is so beloved and he knows that character, obviously, as well as anybody knows anything."
In addition to resurrecting Gollum through performance-capture technology, Serkis is taking on the monumental task of directing second-unit throughout the production.
"[B]efore principal photography started, Pete said, 'Will you come and direct the second unit for about a year-and-a-half?' Serkis recalls. "So it was a big, big turnaround. But Pete's known that I've been heading towards directing for some time, and it's just a wonderful opportunity. It's fantastic working with a crew that I love and that I've been working with for many, many years, on various different projects. It made total sense."
Because Tolkien wrote "The Hobbit" before he ever conceived the elaborate history of the ring, the film version needs to reconcile Bilbo's use of it with the ominous elements that appear later in the story.
"I think it definitely has an effect on him," Freeman explains, "Maybe I shouldn't say how much of it is negative or positive, but it's clear that it has a pull on him, that, I guess would be recognizable from 'Lord of The Rings.' But it takes a different turn.... It definitely still has to matter that he is in possession of this thing and I think a lot of the time, even he doesn't realize why he wants to hold onto it so much, but there is an unspoken hold that it has on him. An unconscious hold."
Bilbo isn't the only diminutive hero with a quest, though. At the beginning of the story, Gandalf forces the Hobbit into joining up with a band of 13 Dwarven warriors who are planning a heist of the golden treasure guarded by a dragon, Smaug. (A room full of online journalists was shamed when [REDACTED] corrected us that it’s actually pronounced “Sm-ow-g” rather than “Sm-aw-g” due to the nature of the Elven language). Part of bringing the Dwarves to the screen meant finding unique characters for every single one: Balin, Dwalin, Fili, Kili, Oin, Gloin, Dori, Ori, Nori, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur and their leader, Thorin Oakenshield, played by Richard Armitage.
"Thorin is very much an anti-hero in some respects," says Jackson, "He's become so obsessed with what he believes to be the right thing that he crosses a boundary in a way."
"The real height of Thorin is five-foot-two," says Armitage who will be digitally reduced for the final film, "so actually he's not really that short… They put lifts in my shoes because they wanted Thorin to be half an inch taller than Dwalin, so actually they made me slightly taller. But what's really crazy about it is that when you've got all the gear on, the padding, the costume, you feel bigger than your real self, so mentally, I've been walking around for the last year as a bigger version of [myself]."
Not unlike the One Ring, there's an object that Thorin craves from Smaug's hoard called the Arkenstone, a gem that, if he can recover it, will signify his right to rule amongst his people.
"The Arkenstone is certainly something which he covets and craves," Armitage explains, "and he knows that without that gem, he can never truly be king… I think the burden of taking his people back to their homeland, which is so massive, makes him a lonely figure. Knowing that his grandfather failed and his father failed. If he doesn't do it, there's no other member of his line that will ever do this."