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.
The Hobbit is a very thin book and yet you've made it into three movies. Why?
It's almost like an optical illusion, The Hobbit. You look at the book and it is really thin, and you could make a relatively thin film as well. What I mean by that is that you could race through the story at the speed that Tolkien does. If you really study The Hobbit, you'll be surprised at some of the memorable scenes written in such a brisk, breathless style with not a pause for dialogue and character. That's not the type of film that we ever want to make.
So are you changing the story?
We want to make a film that has a little bit more depth than what Tolkien was after when he wrote the book. I was surprised when I reread it because I remembered this huge sequence in Lake-town, and it's only two pages. If you're literally shooting the script at that pace, you've got no room for character development. We haven't been indulgent in the way that we've made these movies. We've simply used the narrative that Tolkien laid out.
And there's stuff from outside the book too, right?
Yes, the other thing we've done is we haven't just stuck to the pages of The Hobbit, either. We've got the rights to adapt what would be the appendices from The Return of the King, about 125 pages of material. Tolkien was writing about what was happening outside of the pages of The Hobbit but happening in Middle-earth at that exact time. So we are doing sort of The Hobbit supersized with this extra material.
There's been some criticism that this is a nakedly commercial ploy. How do you respond to that?
No. Look, it would be nakedly commercial if the studio had come to us, the filmmakers, and said, "Why don't we turn this into three movies, because we can? And we can market and sell three films, blah blah blah." But they didn't. We approached them. We felt that we had a story we wanted to tell, we had characters that we wanted to develop. We wanted to use material from the appendices that we otherwise couldn't have used. So we approached the studio and pitched the idea of why it would make sense to do it as three films. And it certainly wasn't commercially driven – it was a creative choice from us.
What do you think of Tolkien's worldview? His profound sense of nostalgia . . .
He was a Victorian. He had an incredible love of the English countryside. Clearly he absolutely adored the natural world. The overriding thing in these books is his descriptions of the land and the plants and the weather and the trees. He once said that the internal-combustion engine was the greatest evil that had ever been brought to the world. That's where his sense of nostalgia comes from. He literally saw an English countryside change in his lifetime. The pastoral quality that he loved was eroded away by engines and machines. That's what he mourned.
That was part of Tolkien's appeal in the Sixties. Did that aspect attract you, too?
Uh, no. I just like the stories [laughs]. I didn't read them for any particular theme or message. Although it's certainly in there.
Making big blockbusters looks like a forced march. Is making a movie of this scale as grueling as it seems?
Yes [laughs]. There's creative opportunities all the way through the day, and that's the thing that you have to keep trying to put at the forefront. But there's also a schedule. There's also the need, when you walk on the set in the morning, to have a certain amount of script pages that you have to shoot that day. You have to compromise. So it is grueling. There's continual pressure to somehow let the creativity not get buried under that stress.
Do you still enjoy it?
I don't – shooting the movie is not my favorite part of the process. I love writing, and I love postproduction. That's great, because you start to reassemble the film and you sit there and you start to really put the film together, finally. The shooting of it is the most stressful part of the process.
With all the advances in technology, which you clearly love, do you ever worry that storytelling will fall by the wayside?
No. No. No. No. No. Look, we're human beings and we want stories. We're always going to be entertained and have our emotions touched by humanity and by things that we recognize in our own lives. So whilst every now and again we'll be happy to watch a bubblegum film, it's never gonna be the only things that get made.
What's going on with this new frame rate you've introduced? You shot The Hobbit at double the normal frame rate to make it seem more lifelike. But there was a lot of backlash about it at Comic-Con.
I'll give you a brief summary: We made a decision to shoot The Hobbit at 48 frames a second, twice the frame rate of a normal theatrical feature film. The higher frame rate gives you the illusion of the real world. It gives you a feeling of life. It's immersive. It really looks fantastic. It just has a seductive quality, and it frees us from everything that has constrained the frame rate over the last 80 or 90 years. Probably 20 percent of the cinemas will screen the 48-frame version, and we will see how audiences react to it.
Do you think audiences were just a little freaked out, because it was so lifelike?
No, no, no. It's gonna be cool. When you see it playing, your initial thought is "Wow, it's different," and different is always something we have to get our heads around. But I've always been a guy who's had faith in myself. This isn't a decision that's driven by what audiences want. It's not driven by anything other than what I think is cool. If I think it's cool, the chances are, hopefully, that other people will too. I've always been happy to take a gamble on myself.
It's interesting that you say that, because you did gamble on yourself. Your path to being a director was an unusual one. You left high school at a very young age to go to work. Is this a course you'd recommend to other people?
I've always had a philosophy that if you want to be a filmmaker badly enough, there's nothing to stop you going out and grabbing a camera and making films. In my day it was a Super-8 camera, but obviously now it can be an iPhone. I've never really been one that's had much appreciation of film school. Obviously everyone is different, but I had a lot of kids coming to talk to me about wanting to be an apprentice, and people saying, "I badly want to make films. I want to direct films. Can I come and make tea for you?" And I'm saying, "Well, why do you want to make tea for me? You should just get a camera and shoot a film." It's almost a Darwinian kind of thing. Only the strongest are going to survive. If you really want to be one of those lucky ones that get to be filmmakers, you just gotta show how determined you are. You have to show how you're not gonna ask for anything. If you've got the talent, you're gonna manage to fight your way to a career, but it has to be a fight. If you don't have that fight, you shouldn't even be thinking about doing it in the first place.
So what keeps you motivated? There's no white whales for you anymore.
I just get excited about stories. I've always felt that I make movies for myself. I'm not somebody that has a great deal of interest in what the world wants to see. I have to get excited about a project myself and to the point that it becomes a film that I desperately want to see. So therefore I start the process of trying to make it so I can see it. It sounds a bit simplistic, but that's the heart of it. That's the truth.
Who do you enjoy as a filmmaker?
I get inspired when I see great films. It drives me. I love Spielberg's films, Scorsese, Jim Cameron. I've got pretty commercial sensibility. If I could meet a single filmmaker, it would be Buster Keaton. He's my favorite because he wrote and directed and obviously acted in his best films. I can watch Keaton films forever and still laugh.
What's it like working so closely with your wife, Fran Walsh? If I worked with my wife she would probably kill me. . . .
She's the only person who I ultimately, totally trust and believe would make the same decisions as me. Fran does an enormous amount of work that I can't do. She's a producer on the film as well as a writer. She's my partner in all sorts of ways. And I totally trust her instincts. Everything she chooses and decides is exactly the same as the decision I'd make. She's the only person I've ever met that I feel that safe with.
This story is from the December 20th, 2012 - January 3rd, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.