The press tour for “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” must be nearly as epic as the film itself. Earlier this week, we shared what we learned from Peter Jackson at the New York press conference for the film (and don’t forget to read our review of the movie). Later that day, Jackson was joined by his fellow writers and producers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens in a post-screening Q&A moderated by Entertainment Weekly‘s Deputy Managing Editor Jeff Giles.
With the film shown to our audience in the 3D, 48-frames-per-second version, discussion about the innovative, somewhat divisive format was front and center. The team also went into greater detail about the production as a whole, particularly focusing on Gollum and looking back on pivotal moments in the making of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, including who really directed the fan favorite scene in ‘The Two Towers‘ (hint: it wasn’t Jackson). Here’s a bunch of highlights from the conversation, but as for the 48fps debate, don’t ask Jackson’s writers. “I love both the 24- and 48-frames-per-second versions. I’m the screenwriter, so I think it’s all about the story,” Boyens laughed.
Peter Jackson says using a hyper-real, immersive format for fantasy films actually makes seem more real.
Peter Jackson: Reality is what I’ve always tried to do with these films, “The Lord of the Rings” as well. I do feel that having it as real as possible actually enhances the fantasy. I don’t really want to make a stylized film or anything too surreal. As a director, I think my natural style of moving the camera around and using wide-angle lenses, which I do with all of my movies, it’s subconscious in a way, but what it does is me trying to involve all of you in the movie. I’m trying to have you participate in the film as much as possible. For my style, 3D and high frame rate is a gift to me because it enhances what I’m trying to do….
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The filmmaker had to cut a deal with Warner Bros. in order to afford the cost of shooting in 48fps.
Jackson: First of all, Fran and I paid all of the extra costs out of our own pocket. One of the deals was that if they allowed us to shoot at 48, we wouldn’t add anything to the budget, so that was the spirit in which it was done. Fortunately, Fran and I own the visual effects company WETA, the post-production effects company in New Zealand, so we can help mitigate those costs a little. The other thing is that we had to promise that we could have a 24-frame version as well. The studio, they were very supportive, but we had to guarantee them that we would produce a 24-frame, a second version that would look exactly the same as a normal 24-frame film, which it does. The reality is that on the first day we started shooting this movie, we had to set the camera at 48 frames, and we had to commit to that. And you could say that on the first day of shooting, which was March last year, there wouldn’t be a single cinema that could actually play the movie, so [laughs] a few hundred million dollars, and no one could actually play to screen the movie at that time. They could because of the 24-frame version, of course; we had a safety backup plan….
With technology having moved along 10 years, “The Hobbit” filmmakers say Gollum is essentially new and improved.
Fran Walsh: It was live motion capture on the stage. [Martin Freeman‘s Bilbo and Andy Serkis‘ Gollum] were interacting and we were recording Andy’s performance as it happened. We didn’t do that 10 years earlier. He had to reproduce it after the fact, literally step out of the frame and Frodo or whoever he was working with would work with an empty space, and then we’d put Gollum in later. So this time they were able to connect.
Jackson: Even though we wanted Gollum to look the same and have that continuity, beneath the surface of his skin, he’s a much more sophisticated digital creature than he was back in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ days. Because a human being has got a lot of very complex muscles around eyes and your mouth, very, very fine, which is how we do expressions, and how an actor in particular gives that sort of subtle type of performance. You can see pain in their eyes without a great deal of obvious expression. There’s a little bit of tension around the mouth that convey a lot with very little. So we tried to build all of those muscles into the digital Gollum that is much more sophisticated than he was 10 years ago. What that ultimately means is that Andy’s performing and he’s got all these dots on his face and he’s got a camera on a helmet that’s pointed straight at his face and the computer is reading the subtle, tiny movements of all these little markers that he’s got glued to his face, and he’s got lots of markers on his face. And the camera is reading and tracking each of the movements of the markers, transferring that to the puppet of Gollum, and it’s activating all the same muscles in Gollum’s face that match Andy’s. So the ultimate goal is that every moment of acting and every nuance that Andy Serkis is doing gets accurately translated to the Gollum puppet. In the ‘Lord of the Rings’ days, it was always a bit of a broken pipeline that we had to help it with some extra animation. It wasn’t perfect, but it’s much more accurate now.
Jackson, Walsh, Boyens discuss a famous scene in “The Two Towers,” and expanding “The Hobbit” into three films all on page two.
What Peter Jackson describes as the “best scene” in “The Two Towers” wasn’t directed by him.
Jackson: Fran directed probably the most famous scene in ‘The Two Towers,’ which is the scene where Smeagol and Gollum talk to each other at the camp when the two hobbits are sleeping. It was the scene that sort of established the whole schizophrenic idea of the character, and it was a very late idea that Fran had. We shot most of the movie, but Fran said, “Well, we haven’t nailed the Smeagol-Gollum relationship really.’ It wasn’t really that clear, and she wrote this scene that made it very clear, except it was just the very end of the shooting, and I didn’t have time to shoot it because all my days were full with things that I had to shoot that were already scripted. So we built a little set and we got a tiny crew together, a very small crew, and we said to Fran, ‘Well, if you want this scene in the movie, you’re going to have to shoot it yourself.’ And Fran shot that scene, and it’s actually probably the best scene in the movie.
Philippa Boyens says it was Jackson’s idea to turn the two films into a trilogy.
Boyens: I think it was Peter. I think he suspected, but it did come to all of us together when we watched Pete’s first cut of the first film. I think we had a sense of the fullness of what we wanted to tell and what was left to tell and what you could tell and the possibilities of what the story could be, but we were actually surprisingly being quite conservative and I know Fran and I especially wanted to know that it was playing as a story first. You have to trust that, you have to feel are people are going to want to invest in this story? Does it have enough juice? Do you care about it? The whole sense of Azog the Defiler, I mean, just the name was enough where you want to go there and you want to tell that quite powerful story about the hatred between dwarves and orcs and where that comes from and being able to do that for example. And also the great thing about working with Pete is that he never gives up on a great idea. He never lets go of it. Even if you turn up the night before and say, “I know we wrote the scene, and I know it’s this way, and I know you’ve blocked it, but we had this thought.” The great joy about working with him is that he will do it. He will find a way to make it happen. And I think I know from a lot of my friends who are writers, that’s very rare in a director because being able to be that imaginative and that brave is rare.
The filmmakers weren’t worried about losing an additional year of their lives by expanding the the scope of the films from two to three.
Jackson: It was actually almost the reverse. Because as Philippa was saying that we had other ideas for the story that we could put into three movies if we went there. We are going to have to shoot for another 10 or 12 weeks next year. We haven’t shot three films, but we have these ideas about how it could become three from two. Really the thought was that we’re not going to come back to this world again. This is probably our last journey to Middle Earth as filmmakers, so it’s now or never. We’re not going to be able to in two or three years time, go to the studio, “Hey, could we do these other ideas?” Because it just wouldn’t make any sense as a standalone film. What makes sense is we could work them into the three as a continuous story. So we literally had to figure out: do we put our hand up now and do it, or do we regret it?
Jackson says the studio’s response to an extra film was a “responsible” one not just looked at for commerce.
Jackson: It was certainly interesting to see the studio’s face when we suggested three movies. They had no idea it was coming. They were very responsible actually. They said, “Look, we like the idea, we’ll support it, but we gotta know that it’s going to work as three individual movies, that it’s not going to be just padded out or stretched out.” We’d had mapped it all out on paper. The three of us had worked out a restructure on paper of how we’d actually get the beginnings and ends of these films and how the shape and the emotional arcs would work within the three films.