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‘The Hobbit’ closer to filming after long delays

- Associated Press - Thursday, February 10, 2011

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND (AP) - The cast members of "The Hobbit" on Friday declared themselves ready for the cameras to roll on the next edition of mythical adventures from Middle Earth, after months of production trouble.

Hollywood studio funding problems, a threatened actors' boycott and ulcer surgery for director Peter Jackson have plagued pre-production on the $500 million, two-movie project.

Some cast members spoke to reporters Friday on location in New Zealand and said they were putting the troubled history behind them.

"We're all optimistic, ready to go," said English actor Martin Freeman, who will play Bilbo Baggins.

Freeman and 13 actors who play dwarf characters said they enjoyed the first month of preproduction, in which they trained in the gym, rode horses and practiced dialect to prepare for scenes depicting long journeys and dramatic battles between good and evil.

The twin movies of J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy novel about a short, hairy-footed hero are expected to take up to two years to make, with the first timed for release in late 2012.

"The Hobbit" is a prequel to "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy by Tolkien that Jackson helmed to blockbuster film success in 2001-03, winning best-picture and best-director Oscars for the finale.

Jackson in the process established his home country of New Zealand as the nearest thing to a real-world version Middle Earth for many fantasy fans and has worked toward making "The Hobbit" since 1995.

Jackson underwent surgery last month for a perforated stomach ulcer and said Friday he was "under a medical form of house arrest" though he would be "be jumping back into it very soon."

Filming is set to begin March 21. Other cast members, including Elijah Wood and Ian McKellen are set to join the production in coming weeks.

New Zealand actor William Kircher, who plays Bifur, a dwarf, dismissed concerns that an actors equity threat to boycott the production over pay levels for local actors had nearly seen the movies' location shifted to Europe.

"It's 2011 and we're here to do the work," he said. "We don't even think about it. It's last year's news."

Last October, New Zealand changed labor laws and tipped in extra tax breaks for Hollywood studios MGM and New Line Cinema to ensure the Hobbit films would be made in the country.

The changes mean actors and others working on the films will be hired as contractors not employees. The union had wanted local actors and other production workers to be hired as full-fledged employees on union contracts.

New Zealand received a huge boost to its tourism and film-making industries from "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

Irish actor James Nesbitt, cast as the dwarf Bofur, said the union row had not affected the project.

"That's something that's in the past and now we're moving forward on this," he told The Associated Press. "We're here to do this fabulous job and we're looking forward to it."

Freeman, whose films include "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" and "Hot Fuzz" but who may be best known from Ricky Gervais' "The Office" television comedy, said playing Baggins was the role of a lifetime.

"I'm not often grateful to people who employ me," he said, adding, "I'm extremely chuffed about it."

(This version CORRECTS Freeman's first name to Martin.)

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