It's been almost a decade since Peter Jackson completed The Lord of the Rings, the $3 billion trilogy for which he swept up bucketloads of Oscars and, in the process, became one of the rarest of Hollywood players: the supernerdy outsider who can make his own way in big-budget blockbuster land. But since that triumphant moment, Jackson, now 51, has directed only two movies, 2005's King Kong and 2009's The Lovely Bones, both successful films but not even close to LOTR altitudes. He has dipped his hands into a few other hits, producing one of the best sci-fi thrillers in recent memory, District 9, as well as Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin. But in December, after years of legal wrangling, a studio going bust, a midcourse change of directors and seemingly endless gridlock, he finally returned to J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth with his long-awaited The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the prequel to The Lord of the Rings. Despite the long delays and much hand-wringing over the project (he burst an ulcer before the shoot), Jackson never doubted The Hobbit would reach the screen. "It was too big a title and it's too big a property," he says. "It was going to happen with me or without me."
To keep the same tone as his first films, Jackson reassembled the LOTR team, working with his wife, Fran Walsh, and his writing partner and producer, Philippa Boyens, on the script. And perhaps most important for the continuity, Sir Ian McKellen returns as the wizard Gandalf. "It's a relief to everybody who likes the book that it's been made by a Tolkien enthusiast," McKellen says of Jackson. "Peter, Fran and Philippa are making the movies for fans. And it turns out that beyond the millions of them, there's another group of people who like cinematic storytelling the way that Peter Jackson does it."
Jackson, who is worth some $450 million, still lives in his native New Zealand with Walsh and their two children, Katie and Billy, and owns a mansion that, in true rich-geek chic, houses the interiors of Bilbo Baggins' home. As he finished editing the first installment of the three-part film, Jackson sat down with RS and talked about the production, how such a short children's book could be stretched into three movies, and why he was afraid to make The Hobbit in the first place.
In 2004, you told Rolling Stone that you never wanted to make a three-hour film again. What happened?
[Laughs] I don't know. At the time that I was doing press for Return of the King, everyone was asking me if we'd ever make The Hobbit, which always struck me as a more difficult book to adapt. The Hobbit is a children's story, whereas The Lord of the Rings is much more adult, so, whilst you could have made The Hobbit as a children's story if it was the first film, after The Lord of the Rings, I just couldn't quite see how you reconcile the tones of the two books. The Hobbit seemed a bit daunting. I guess it's the old story of you should never say never. I certainly have learned that.
So after LOTR, you were hesitant to dive back into Tolkien. What changed?
I had to make a decision, because Guillermo del Toro, who was on the film for 18 months, ultimately left, because MGM was having financial trouble. As a producer on the film, I had to decide whether or not we'd look for another director or whether I'd just take it over. It was a decision that, really, fate brought on my shoulders. I just thought, "Well, I've enjoyed developing the script, so it could be fun."
What do you think is the lasting appeal of the story? It's not a very complex tale.
That's part of its charm. Tolkien started The Hobbit as a story for his children. It really has that quality of a kindly father sitting down with his kids and telling them a great, cracking yarn. It has comedy and enough excitement and tension to keep kids enthralled. I don't think its lasting appeal is any more complex than it just being a great little story. But it certainly wasn't written as a treatment for a movie.
How hard was it to stick with the tone of your Lord of the Rings movies and stay away from the children's-story element?
I just didn't want to be a different filmmaker. I didn't want to suddenly say, "OK, I'm not the director who made Lord of the Rings anymore, I'm the director who's now making a much younger children's story, so I'm gonna change my style."
Bilbo is one of literature's great loafers. But over the course of the story, he transforms – did that speak to you?
I can certainly relate to Bilbo. It's a very pre-World War II English thing. The hobbits really reflect that English sensibility that the world extends to the borders of the Shire, and anything beyond those borders is to be treated with suspicion. That very English sensibility was obviously part of Tolkien's culture. He was born in the Victorian era before there was air travel and before there was an ability to see the world.
But Bilbo actually grows so much from his travels almost because he was once so fearful of the outside world. . . .
That is one of the themes, and it continues in The Lord of the Rings: Once you do go outside your safe haven, you're faced with extreme danger and adventure, and you come back home, but you're never the same again. In Bilbo's case, he's sort of eccentric and he comes back even more eccentric. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo leaves, and he comes back damaged. That's an element of Tolkien's experiences in the First World War – you had an entire generation of English boys who hadn't seen the world going over to fight in France, and they came back home very different people from the boys that left.
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