- The Washington Times - Friday, December 14, 2001

NEW YORK CITY It is difficult to imagine a director better suited to J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" than the 40-year-old New Zealander Peter Jackson. Mr. Jackson's "The Fellowship of the Ring," a three-hour rouser that opens Wednesday, is the first installment in an epic three-film adaptation of the Tolkien trilogy. It promises to take the holiday season by storm.
At a glance, Mr. Jackson could be mistaken for an inhabitant of Tolkien's fanciful realm of Middle Earth. While not as diminutive as a hobbit, he is short and rotund. His unkempt thatch of dark hair and thick beard suggest one of the hirsute critters drawn by cartoonist Edward Koren perhaps the friendliest hedgehog in the forest. Here at the Waldorf Towers Hotel to promote "Fellowship," he has enhanced his slightly undomesticated appearance by padding from suite to suite in his bare feet.
Mr. Jackson's earlier trips to the United States to promote his previous features of note "Heavenly Creatures" in 1994 and "The Frighteners" in 1996 marked him as a very savvy and appealing young filmmaker. All the same, his fondness for the Tolkien classic came as a surprise. "Lord of the Rings" attracted and frustrated two prominent directors in the 1970s, Stanley Kubrick and John Boorman. A disappointing animated feature in 1977 discouraged any further attempts until Mr. Jackson revealed his interest in the mid-1990s and began inquiring about the movie rights.
The movie itself a quest saga set in a Celtic domain of little folk, big folk, magic folk and demonic forces called Middle Earth is a stunner. It tells the story of the desperate mission of the youthful hobbit Frodo, who inherits a magical but potentially corrupting doomsday ring and struggles to elude capture and death by marauders and monsters who crave the object for despotic purposes.
With the subsequent installments, "The Two Towers" and "The Return of the King," scheduled to open for Christmas 2002 and 2003, respectively, Peter Jackson would appear to be king of the mountain among moviegoers who appreciate a rip-snorting and soul-stirring adventure fantasy. The prospect of a phenomenal success hasn't changed Mr. Jackson in any perceptible respect. He remains the unassuming and agreeably shaggy movie freak first encountered in 1994.
"I set out to make a film I'd enjoy watching," Mr. Jackson reflects. "In the simplest terms, that's what I always do. I feel strongly that, ultimately, you can't make films for other people. If I were to try to appease a large cross section, there'd be a real danger of the film becoming too homogenized and bland."
Without intending to, of course, he seems to be describing the sort of miscalculation that clings to the recent movie version of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," which stagnates with literal-minded deference and misplaced fidelity.
"So I said," Mr. Jackson continues, "that being a fan myself, I'd love to see a good movie version. If I walked into a cinema, I'd have certain expectations. That was the film I tried to make. It's my interpretation."
He was wary of the fidelity issue. "When I read reviews, I often think they're reviewing the degree of fidelity more than the film itself. The Harry Potter thing is the most recent example," he says. "What I've attempted to do is be responsible as a filmmaker, primarily. You can walk in off the street, having never read 'Lord of the Rings,' knowing nothing about Middle Earth, and still be able to follow our movie."
Mr. Jackson had wanted to make an ambitious fantasy production of some kind. Fond of the books when young, he reread them in 1995 and "imagined them playing out on the screen." What eventually surprised him was that the realization exceeded his fondest expectations.
"The movie I imagined at the start is very different from the movie that exists now, in a good way," Mr. Jackson says. "People like Alan Lee and John Howe, the most famous of the Tolkien illustrators, came onboard as conceptual designers. They visualized a much more wonderful Tolkien world than I could have. The actors brought the characters to life in ways that were better than what I imagined. We had Howard Shore do a wonderful score."

From the outset of his career, Mr. Jackson has collaborated with Fran Walsh as a screenwriter. She also is his spouse and the mother of two Jackson children, who have fleeting roles in the first reel of "Fellowship" as juvenile residents of Hobbiton. Miss Walsh shares the screenwriting credits on the emerging trilogy with her husband and Philippa Boyens, a playwright and producer with no previous screenwriting experience.
Looking back, Mr. Jackson says only a remarkable stroke of luck made it possible for them to persuade a major American distributor to bankroll a new movie version of "Lord of the Rings." With understated bemusement, he remarks, "If you were imagining financing three 'Lord of the Rings' movies on a handsome budget, you'd never have me do it. Never ever in a million years would I get the job. You'd never hire a little New Zealand special-effects company to do all the effects shots. That's not done. It's not common sense."
The Jacksons got the ball rolling in 1995 by inquiring about the film rights. At the time, they had a "first look" deal with Miramax Pictures. Any project they proposed had to be offered to Miramax first.
"We found that Saul Zaentz had the rights to the books," Mr. Jackson explains. "That was a good thing. We called Harvey Weinstein at Miramax, who was in business with Saul at the time, since Saul was producing 'The English Patient.' Miramax developed a two-picture project with us for a while. They decided they couldn't afford that, so they wanted to reduce it to a single film. By then two years had gone by. It was the middle of 1998. We thought a single film was a bad idea, that it would compromise the books too much."
Mr. Weinstein gave the Jacksons a month to strike a better deal with another distributor. "Everybody in town passed, basically," the director recalls. "This was again the two-picture project. After the deadline, Harvey intended to hire someone to do his own one-picture version. We wouldn't be involved anymore. At that point, I thought the project would come to an end for us. I really didn't think we'd get somebody to finance our version."
To his amazement, Robert Shaye of New Line proved not only willing, but keen on upping the ante.
"Bob suggested doing three films," Mr. Jackson says, "to coincide with all the books. I couldn't believe it. It was one of the most remarkable moments. I went to the meeting thinking this would be our last chance. Instead, we came out of the meeting with three movies."
A "Lord of the Rings" trilogy also became feasible because of the economies available shooting entirely in New Zealand; the three films were made for $92 million or $93 million each, about half the budget otherwise required.
Eventually, the company spent 18 consecutive months doing all the principal shooting. Mr. Jackson will take his time editing the unreleased installments. A few pickup shots and quite a bit of special-effects enhancement remain to be completed. To a considerable extent, however, the trilogy was made in one stupendous production period, with the company based in Wellington, New Zealand, home to the Jacksons and many of the crew members.
Costs are just cheaper in New Zealand, Mr. Jackson says. "Really, the only reason these films could be made is that we're based in New Zealand and can use that to our advantage."

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