Forget 007. The motion picture event of 2012 is the first instalment of The Hobbit. Film Critic Tony Earnshaw meets the cast of the long-awaited trilogy.
They amble onto the dais in a long line, 17 actors, a producer and a director. Settled in the middle is Peter Jackson, the man who made movie history with his stupendous film trilogy of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings saga.
Flanking Jackson are his producer and wife Philippa Boyens and Martin Freeman, the actor for whose services he performed some fancy footwork. Sir Ian McKellen sits close by, as does Andy Serkis, both providing links to the earlier films by reprising their roles as the wizard Gandalf and the pitiful, demented Gollum, respectively.
The remainder represents the band of dwarves that form the core of the film led by Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield along with mad-eyed, eccentric, bird lime-covered wizard Radagast, aka Sylvester McCoy.
Facing an eager Press from all points on the planet, Jackson looks weary. More than that, he looks relieved. For this is a story that almost didn’t make it to the screen.
It was a tortuous process. Rights to The Hobbit were co-owned by Warner Bros and MGM. When the latter teetered close to bankruptcy it looked as if the film was doomed. Then there was the in-and-out situation involving original director Guillermo Del Toro, who took over from Jackson when he stepped aside, choosing only to produce.
Tired of the delays afflicting the project, Del Toro withdrew. Step forward Peter Jackson to assume command of his old ship. Then, having found his ideal Hobbit in Martin Freeman, he learned that the 40-year-old actor was committed to making a second series of Sherlock and was most assuredly unavailable.
“I was in a state of panic,” reveals Jackson. I was having sleepless nights. I was lying awake one night watching the second episode of Sherlock on my iPad. I thought ‘You would make the perfect Bilbo. How did we end up where we are – in this disaster?’
“I got up in the morning and made some phone calls. I had the audacious idea to shoot as much as we could then let Martin go back to the UK to do Sherlock and then continue on again. I asked the studio and Martin to see if he was okay with that and it was the best phone call I ever made.”
Adds Freeman: “I was amazed and delighted when that call came up because I’d already said goodbye to The Hobbit. I had this very long and involved conversation with my agent and I said ‘We’re going to have to let this go, aren’t we?’ A couple of weeks later he rang again and said ‘It’s back on’. I took it as a huge compliment and I still do.
“It showed they had faith in me. They must have seen something in me that could play worry but with humour.”
Freeman clearly enjoyed the ride. Whether he’s prepared for Hobbit mania, however, is anyone’s guess. He laughs when he recalls that he “spent 2011 being quite exhausted” criss-crossing the globe filming The Hobbit, Sherlock and working on a play.
“It was very, very tiring but like all things when you’re tired for the best reason and you’re doing something you love, you get through it. The fact that I didn’t think I’d get to do The Hobbit made it easy.
“Obviously Bilbo is not a superhero, so I wasn’t bench-pressing 200lb every hour, but as an actor you do have to be healthy and prepared for being away from home.
“You’re away for so long in a completely different world both figuratively and literally, you come back to your world and your home and it takes a while to return to normality.”
For Andy Serkis, originally engaged for just two weeks to play Gollum once again, The Hobbit elongated into a 200-plus day shoot when Jackson invited him to be second unit director. He was thrilled.
McKellen was less so. Enticed back as Gandalf because he couldn’t bear to think of another actor in the role, he found himself embroiled in the camera trickery of creating dwarves, hobbits and other folk and grumbled “this is not why I became an actor”.
“I’d forgotten I was wearing a microphone and everybody including Peter heard,” says the 73-year-old knight with a sheepish smile.
“There are a number of devices to accomplish [these films] and none of them are really congenial to acting, which is about spontaneity and looking the other actor in the eye.
“Sometimes, cruelly, you are actually not in the same space while you’re filming the same scene. There are two cameras recording me large and the dwarves smaller. It’s absolutely magical when you see it.”
He adds: “Behind the camera they all seemed to be old friends: the cameraman, the person who did my make-up, the woman who looked after my costume. In front of the camera there were new people but the whole tone of the film was exactly as it was before [on The Lord of the Rings]. It was like a very, very expensive home movie.
“Most of the interiors of The Lord of the Rings were filmed in an old paint factory. This time we were in the state-of-the-art King Kong studios and the lunch… the sandwiches were the best food I’ve ever had on any job!”
Jackson has enjoyed being at the forefront of cinema technology and The Hobbit pushes the boundaries like never before, though the jury is out on whether the super-fast 42 frames-per-second film speed is what epic cinema demands.
It’s a long way from Jackson’s roots as an only child, making 8mm films with cardboard spaceships and rubber monsters in his parents’ garden.
“It’s not just the movie,” he insists when asked about the scale and scope of his pictures.
“It’s the occasion of going out into a dark room and seeing this huge image on screen and being transported into this escapist piece of entertainment. I really hate the idea that I’m a director making a film for an iPad. That’s really depressing. I’d go and lie on a beach in Fiji if I really did think I was doing that.”
For Boyens, the Tolkien aficionado whose knowledge of his world was crucial to the success of the first trilogy, the trick on delivering The Hobbit was in adhering as closely as possible to the source material while recognising the compromises required to elongate the story beyond the novel’s 300 pages.
“Professor Tolkien did say when he wrote this vast mythology that he hoped it would have a life of its own – that other minds would be brought to it,” observes Boyens. “I can imagine he would have huge issues with a lot of it. But doing a film wasn’t his job. That was our job. It’s a film. It’s not the book.”
What appears certain is that while everyone thought The Lord of the Rings was a one-off, there will be no follow-up to The Hobbit. Which makes the familiar talk of bonding, brotherhoods, family atmosphere and shared community spirit all the more important.
It’s oft-reported by actors on so-called movie boot camps – where they learn how to wield a sword, fire a weapon, ride a horse or drive a car – that they became more than just travelling players. On The Hobbit such emotions clearly went beyond mere talk.
James Nesbitt, the 47-year-old Irish actor playing Bofur, transplanted his wife and daughters to New Zealand for the length of the shoot. He sums up so many of the cast’s feelings about that unforgettable shared experience.
“The film essentially is about a hobbit and 13 dwarves and they go on this journey,” he says.
“As actors we got the opportunity to go on this journey together – to grow, to get to know each other – and to enter Peter’s Middle-earth, this vast, extraordinary world that he also manages to make very intimate. There was a crew of hundreds and hundreds of people on this shoot and they all knew each other. Some of them are here today and we will remain friends.
“It was also a lifestyle change – about taking my family away to the other side of the world. I don’t know if the job will change my career but my family is certainly changed. There were challenges – there always are – but it was incredibly rewarding. Middle-earth was great but New Zealand was class.”
When a film arrives with this kind of hype, it’s difficult not to get carried away on the wave of expectation. However, the ever grounded, Freeman remains refreshingly pragmatic about the future.
“I’m an actor, I’ve chosen a life of insecurity,” he says. “I try not to expect anything because there is no guarantee of anything at all. I’ve been told before, ‘Your life is going to change after this comes out’ and it didn’t, everything remained the same as it was before.
“Obviously this is a huge film, but any premature expectation or patting on the back is a very dangerous thing to do because it can only come with disappointment.”
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (12A) is on general release from today.
Facts behind Middle Earth
It took a team of 350 people to design and create Peter Jackson’s vision of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
For the first time, Jackson used state of the art digital cameras to record the action in 3D at an unprecedented 48 frames per second.
Set 60 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings, the original small-scale set for Bilbo’s home at Bag End should look familiar. It was pulled out of storage, restored and substantially enhanced for The Hobbit.
Look out for Barry Humphries, best known for his comedic alter-ego Dame Edna Everage, who makes an appearance in the film as the hulking Goblin king.
The film also features Martin Freeman’s Sherlock co-star Benedict Cumberbatch who provides the voice of the fearsome dragon Smaug.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and The Hobbit: There and Back Again, which complete the trilogy, will be released in 2013 and 2014 respectively.