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Peter Jackson Recalls Blowing Up at Studio on ‘Lord of the Rings’ Set Over Budget Battle

Jackson also opened up about how the movie's $2 million Cannes screening saved the production.

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING, Peter Jackson, Liv Tyler, 2004, (c) New Line/courtesy Everett Collection

Peter Jackson on the set of “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”

©New Line Cinema/Courtesy Everett Collection

Peter Jackson revealed in a new interview with Deadline that a battle with New Line Cinema over the budget for his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy led to at least one blow up on the film’s New Zealand set. Part of what attracted New Line to Jackson’s trilogy was that the director budgeted each film at $60 million. New Line was risking a lot at the time, from betting on an untested tentpole director like Jackson to agreeing to shoot all three “Rings” films at once, so the $60 million price tag for each film played a big part in minimizing these risks.

“Peter was either trying to blow smoke around my head or he didn’t have a clue himself, but when we sent our own production team down to Wellington to see what was going on, they came back and said the first film could not be made for anything less than $120 million,” said Bob Shaye, the New Line chief who shepherded “Rings” at the studio. “I went back to [New Line’s international chief Rolf Mittweg] and I said, ‘We’re going to have to change the percentages and the prices that we’re getting for international because Peter just got it wrong. You can’t make this film for $60 million. It couldn’t be done. Rolf said, ‘I definitely want it and it will be fine.’ So, we went for it.”

Jackson was in the middle of filming the Helm’s Deep battle scene from “The Two Towers” when producer Barrie Osborne was sent to the set to send a grave message to the director.

“It was a period of time when New Line were at their most angry with us in terms of the budget,” Jackson said. “I am on the parapet, probably with Viggo [Mortensen], and I see Barrie. It took him about 30 minutes to huff and puff his way to get on the top, and so I kept on shooting. Barrie arrives and says, ‘I have the studio, I’ve got to connect you with Michael Lynne of New Line.’ I ask why. He says, ‘Oh, he’s going to threaten to sue you and sell the house from under you to cover the cost overruns.’”

Jackson continued, “Barrie was just the messenger, but it was one of the only points where I really snapped. I said, ‘Just tell Michael Lynne that I’m shooting this fucking film and I’m doing the best job I can, and I’m not going to interrupt my day with a phone call like that.’ Barrie picked up the cellphone and made his way back down to the car and drove off.”

What ultimately eased the studio and the financiers’ fears about the film’s increased budget was a 2001 preview of “The Fellowship of the Ring” at the Cannes Film Festival. New Line spent a whopping $2 million to screen 26 minutes of the film, including the Mines of Moria and Balrog sequence, and throw a party that immersed attendees in Middle-earth sets.

“Everybody thinks the make-or-break moment of a big movie is the opening weekend, but in some respects, I think that Cannes screening was our opening weekend, certainly in terms of all these distributors being on board,” Jackson said. “The success of the movie in its initial release was going to depend a lot on the amount of effort and hard work that the different distributors put into the film, because they were all in charge of promotion and marketing in their own territories. What that Cannes screening did was it motivated and united all of them in the sense they realized this could be huge if they put in the extra effort.”

Jackson also credited the Cannes preview screening with reinvigorating his cast, as many of them had never seen finished footage until the festival. “Imagine being Elijah Wood or Ian [McKellen], and you’d shot the mines of Moria scene in New Zealand probably a year and a half earlier with green screens, running around the studio shouting at things,” the director said. “When Ian confronted the Balrog, he was on a green screen stage looking at a tennis ball. And then you’re suddenly seeing the finished sequence scored with all the visual effects. … I just remember them all being very, very excited that all that work in New Zealand was going to pay off.”

Head over to Deadline’s website to read more from Jackson the 20th anniversary of “The Lords of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.”

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