As you can likely tell, we’ve been in the presence of Peter Jackson a lot lately as the New Zealand director has spent plenty of time in New York of late. Last week, Drew Taylor spent time with Jackson and “The Hobbit” cast at ‘The Unexpected Journey’ press day — Jackson defended the controversies surrounding 48fps and explained why he expanded the films into three movies — and Kimber Myers attended attended a screening of the film that included a post-screening Q&A featuring the director and his co-screenwriters, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens.
At the end of that conversation — wherein Jackson called 48fps and 3D a “gift” to his style of filmmaking and revealed that Walsh directed what he described as “the best scene” in “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” — the trio launched into a long story about almost losing “The Lord of the Rings” films to a different director and screenwriting team. Hardcore fans will know it, but as Jackson himself said, he wanted to tell it “because it doesn’t get told very often.” We decided to let the filmmakers tell the story, mostly uninterrupted, simply because that’s the best way to hear it: straight from their mouths. It also shows just how close the three ‘LOTR’ films that many love and cherish almost didn’t happen.
They initially pitched “The Hobbit” to come first with “The Lord of the Rings” to come afterwards.
Peter Jackson: We went to Harvey Weinstein after “Heavenly Creatures.” We pitched the idea of doing “The Hobbit” first actually. My original idea [was] do “The Hobbit,” and if that’s successful, we’ll do “The Lord of the Rings” as two movies, back to back after that. Harvey went away and looked into the rights because we didn’t know how the rights were placed at that stage. We just asked Harvey to inquire on our behalf and he came back and said “The Hobbit” was difficult because MGM owns some of the rights, and the Saul Zaentz Company owns some of the rights, but “The Lord of the Rings” was a lot easier because it was entirely owned by Saul Zaentz. MGM didn’t have anything to do with “The Lord of the Rings.” And it so happened that he was in business with Saul Zaentz at that exact time — they were just making “The English Patient” together. So we had no idea that Saul Zaentz had the rights, so it was just a very, very lucky piece of timing that we made that phone call to the right person at the right time. And Harvey got excited about the idea, and he ended up supporting the development of “The Lord of the Rings” for a couple of years,
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Then, according to Jackson, the Weinstein’s completely “blew it” by telling the filmmakers to make only one ‘Lord of the Rings’ film saying, “You’ve got to squeeze it into one film.” They then almost lost the entire project to director John Madden.
“It wasn’t really his fault,” Fran Walsh said. “Disney ran the numbers, and they said, ‘Fantasy films don’t make money.’ “
“That’s right because Disney owned Miramax at this time,” Jackson added. “And then just to finish this story because it doesn’t get told very often. Then Harvey said to Fran and I, “You’ve got to make one movie, or I’m going to take it away from you, and I’ve got John Madden lined up to direct the one movie, and I’ve got Hossein Amini to write the screenplay.” He had other people all set to go on making “The Lord of the Rings” as one film, and then our manager negotiated a four-week turnaround where he said to Harvey, “You’ve got to give Peter and Fran a chance. They’ve worked on this for too long. You’ve got to give them a chance to set it up somewhere else as two films.” Harvey gave us four weeks to do that, and then he was going to take it back and it would be the end of us.
Crunch time and the last and final option eventually came through. But Jackson and co. played a little ruse to attract attention.
Peter Jackson: Within that four weeks, we contacted every Hollywood studio. We were in New Zealand. We put sort of a show reel together with all the tests and the designs we’d done to show people a 20-minute VHS tape. We contacted every studio in Hollywood and said, “We’re going to get on a plane. We’d like to show you our tape, let you read the scripts for our two ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies,” and every single studio passed. They didn’t even meet with us. They didn’t want to meet with us. They just said, “No, no, no.”
And the only two companies were New Line and Polygram. We met with Polygram first, and they said, “Look, we’d love to do it, but we’re in the process of getting sold….We just can’t commit to this sort of project in the next three weeks.’ Which was the only time left to us. And that meant that we only had one company left to us, only one shot, which was New Line.
I remember we had a meeting with New Line the following day, so what we did was we kept canceling it, and we kept saying, “Listen, we’re really busy, we’ve got to take a meeting about it here, we’ve got to take a meeting about it. It’s going out of control. We’re not going to be able to see you today, but we’ll try to fit you in before the end of the week.” And we put this whole pretense on that this project was so eagerly sought after [laughs], which is complete crap. And we went into New Line’s office at the end of that week, and the credit really ultimately belongs to Bob Shaye who was the head of New Line at that stage. He looked at the reel and said, “You know what I don’t get is why you want to do two films.” And we thought, “Oh, here we go. He’s going to try to make us do one film now. The same story.” But the very next thing he said was, “Why would you do two films when there’s three books? Why wouldn’t you do three films?” And that was the way he took the project on. – reporting by Kimber Myers
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” opens on December 14th.