Feature: THE HOBBIT An Unexpected Press Conference

PrintE-mail Written by Paul Mount

Mayfair’s luxurious Claridge’s Hotel has, since it was founded in 1812 as Mivart’s Hotel, played host to the great and the good of the entertainment industry and can count the likes of Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Yul Brynner, Spencer Tracy, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor,  Mick Jagger, Brad Pitt and Lady Gaga (not together) amongst its famous guests and Gordon (“**** off out of my kitchen”) Ramsay currently runs the hotel’s main restaurant. But December 11th 2012 saw a contingent of dwarfs, hobbitses and wizards descend upon Claridge’s swanky Ballroom - Europe’s finest press hounds in hot pursuit - for the official Press launch of The Hobbit - An Unexpected Journey, director Peter Jackson’s eagerly-anticipated return to JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth, so unforgettably brought to life in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003).

Starburst Magazine could hardly pass up the opportunity to mingle with the Middle-earthers and set off to Claridge’s as fast as its outsized furry feet could carry it. Softened up by delicate refreshments including tea served in bone china (and not in a chipped Dalek mug as we might be more used to), finger sandwiches and mini mince pies (well, it is nearly Christmas) the Press pack took their seats as event host, broadcaster Edith Bowman, welcomed to the stage the cast and crew of The Hobbit - An unexpected Journey. In attendance: Peter Jackson (Director, co-screenwriter), Philippa Boyens (co-screenwriter), Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins), Sir Ian McKellan (Gandalf), Richard Armitage (Thorin Oakenshield), Andy Serkis (Gollum), Sylvester McCoy (Radaghast the Brown), James Nesbitt (Bofur), Ken Stott (Balin), Aidan Turner (Kili), Mark Hadlow (Dori), Jed Brophy (Nori), John Callen (Olin), Peter Hambleton (Gloin), William Kircher (Bifur), Dean O’Gorman (Fili), Graham McTavish (Dwalin), Adam Brown (Ori), Stephen Hunter (Bombur).

Below are the highlights of a precious hour spent in the company of The Hobbit and friends…


On finally unleashing The Hobbit for public consumption…

“It’s always exciting when a film’s about to be released because you spend two or three years making it and trying to preserve the secrets of the movie and trying to focus on getting the film made and then there’s that moment in time when suddenly you have to hand it over to the whole world - in our case to 25,000 cinemas around the world - so I’m looking forward to it. I’m extremely proud of  the movie; we’re in the entertainment business, we make these films to entertain people so it’s the whole point really, to get it out there.”

On casting Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins…and nearly not getting him…

“Back when we were originally thinking about The Hobbit Martin was the first person that came to mind and was the only person we ever wanted for the role but during that process - and we probably spoke to Martin about eighteen months before we started shooting - it was hard for the film to get a green light because MGM, one of the co-rights holders, was having financial issues and the studio was being sold and it wasn’t possible to proceed with the movie until that situation was resolved and we were kind of in a waiting pattern to some degree. Then during that period Sherlock arrived and by the time we could actually formally offer Martin the role the shooting of the second series of Sherlock was due to land right in the middle of The Hobbit shoot - and we were shooting for about a year-and-a-half - and I was in a state of panic I think and we couldn’t think of anyone else because unless that piece of casting is absolutely perfect you’re really jeopardising the films and jeopardising then investment in the films and the audience’s enjoyment. So I was having sleepless nights and I lay awake one night with my ipad and I’d just downloaded Sherlock and I was watching the second episode at about four o’clock in the morning sitting there watching Martin and thinking ‘God, he’d make the perfect Bilbo, what the Hell is going on, how have we ended up where we are and this is a disaster’ and then I got up in the morning and made some phone calls and basically I had the idea which was pretty audacious in the way the film industry works to shoot as much as we could and then to stop filming and let Martin go back to the UK to do the second Sherlock shoot and then continue on again with us. I asked the studio, checked in with Martin to see if he would be up for that - it was the bets phone call I ever made quite honestly!”

On the structural similarities between The Fellowship of the Ring and The Hobbit - An Unexpected Journey…

“It’s Tolkien in the sense that both stories start in the Shire in a fairly innocent way and in the case of The Hobbit Bilbo has the situation where the dwarfs invite themselves to dinner and obviously Rivendell’s part of the book because they stop there but in a way the similarities end there, the story goes in a completely different direction as the next two films proceed.”

On persuading Christopher Lee to return after his publicly expressed disappointment at being cut from the theatrical version of Return of the King

“I’m very pleased he’s in this film. He and I are fine; he was very upset to be cut out of the theatrical cut of Return of the King but he is in the extended cut which is the one that, when people look at the three back-to- back, it’s always the extended ones they watch. It was great that we brought the White Council into the story of The Hobbit; they’re not part of the novel but Tolkien wrote a lot of additional material that he was intending to use to expand the Hobbit post-Lord of the Rings to make the two stories tie in but he never wrote that book but a lot of his notes are in the appendices of Return of the King and so the White Council which comprises Saruman and Galadriel and Gandalf and Elrond are part of his greater idea for the story. I did talk to Christopher the other day  to ask him about coming to the premier and he did say ‘Am I still in the movie?’ Thank God this time around I could say ‘yes!’”

On shooting in 3D…

“As a director I’ve always been somebody who tries to transport you from your seat into the adventure on the screen. I don’t want to treat the audience as observers to something being projected on the screen, I like a sense of involvement which is why my natural directing style involves moving the camera around a lot and using wider-angled lenses so for me 3D is just something that can enhance that experience. I think 3D technology is going to improve; certainly what needs to improve is the projection of 3D in the sense that as soon as you put the glasses on the light level drops and I know that when I  see 3D movies that’s always a frustration but hopefully there’s only a year or so to go before the laser projectors come in which is the next generation of projection which will lift the light projection up to the same level as 2D films.”

On finding time to sleep during a massive shoot like The Hobbit trilogy…

“To me you have a responsibility when you’re making a movie, you’ve got a responsibility to audiences for whom you’re trying to make a film which is worthy of the money they’re going to pay at the door when they go into the cinema, a responsibility to the studio who are giving you a lot of money and entrusting it with you to make a film for them, you’ve got a responsibility  yourself - I was an eight year-old kid in New Zealand dreaming of making movies one day and I’m doing exactly what I wanted when I was a kid - so sleeping seems like something you should do much later on. You’ve got to concentrate and get the film done first so I find it hard to take days off while we’re working on a movie to some degree - I try to because I’ve got a family, I’ve got kids so I try to balance it as much as I can - but you do feel that there’s so much responsibility on your shoulders you should be spending that time doing what you’re supposed to be doing and making the best film you can.”

On the future of filmmaking and the movie-going experience…

“I’ve been thinking about what cinema is going to be like in ten years or twenty-five years and it’s difficult to say. There is a degree of jeopardy at the moment with the film industry because with all the alternative ways that people have to see movies now, right from your home entertainment systems down to your iPhone and your ipad - I really hate the idea that I’m a director making a film for an iPad, that’s kind of depressing, I think I would go and lie on a beach in Fiji and retire if I thought I was really doing that. It is a time when cinema audiences are dwindling and I think that as an industry we have to be looking at what we can do to increase and enhance the experience of going to a cinema, making young people especially come to the cinema and I don’t think we should be thinking that the technology that we created for theatrical presentation in 1927 should be what we need to be using in 2012, I think we should be looking at the technology we have available and how we can make the experience more immersive, more magical, more spectacular because it’s not just the movie it’s the occasion of going out with friends into a dark room full of strangers and seeing this huge image on a screen with incredible picture and incredible sound and being transported into an escapist piece of entertainment, that’s what I love about cinema. It’s going to get bigger, it’s going to get sharper; if I was going to predict anything I’d say that because of those reasons I think that cinema exhibition and what we’re going to be as a society, what we’re going to respond to, is going to be larger and more immersive experiences, something like IMAX where you go in and see something that’s so huge you’re never going to be able to stick that on the wall of your lounge or hold it in your hand, it’s something that’s truly awe-inspiring as an experience. It’s not that the entire film industry needs to make those kinds of films or even screen movies in that way, the idea is that cinema has always had a variety, it’s always had film-makers making films that are special for them so there’s always something that, no matter who you are, there’s always a film that will appeal to you and variety’s important as well.”


On returning to Middle-earth, adapting one book into three films…

“It was a process actually but in the end Pete’s always said that stories find their level and you’ve got to trust that process and we were lucky because we got to go back to a world that we loved and got to work with characters such as Andy Serkis playing Gollum and Sir Ian McKellen, returning characters that we all really loved and we knew that we were also going to introduce these other wonderful characters as well so we focussed on the characters as much as the actual story and in the end it was a lot of fun and fairly easy.”

On what J.R.R. Tolkien might make of the filmmakers’ changes to his stories…

“Professor Tolkien did say when he wrote this great mythology, of which The Hobbit is but a part, that he did hope it would have a life of its own like all great mythologies do and that other minds would be brought to it, bringing drama and music to it. I can imagine there’s a lot he’d have huge issues with but then turning it into a film wasn’t his job, that was our job. But I also suspect there’d be a lot he’d rather enjoy because you can tell he had a great sense of humour. I think he would have particularly enjoyed Sir Ian Mckellan’s Gandalf because the moment in the film I particularly love is when Bilbo says ‘I’m sorry, do I know you?’ and Ian’s response was so perfect when Gandalf says ‘I’m Gandalf, and Gandalf means me!” which was for me the coming together of a beautiful piece of writing by a great English writer with a sense of whimsy in the whole ‘good morning’ scene but delivered by one of England’s great actors.”


On getting the role of Bilbo Baggins… and nearly not getting it…

I was rehearsing a play in London at the time and mentally I’d already said goodbye to the Hobbit, I’d had to pass - it was really dull and boring to not do it. I remember very clearly because I was going to see Benedict Cumberbatch in a play at the National Theatre and I had this very long and involved conversation with Michael, my agent, and I remember saying ‘We’re going to have to let this go, aren’t we?’ and he went ‘Yeah, I think we are, sorry’. I’ve never really been one to dwell on things, onwards and upwards and all that, but I would rather have had not to do that but later  I was rehearsing a play myself and I got a call from Michael again saying it was back on and I said ‘what do you mean?’ and he said ‘Peter’s rearranged it’ so I was amazed! Suffice to say I was extremely surprised and I took it as a huge compliment - and still do.”

On handling the rigours of jumping back and forth between the UK for Sherlock and New Zealand for The Hobbit

“I handled it just by the glee of being able to do it really. I felt very lucky that I’d spent the last couple of weeks doing two jobs that I really adore, two very different parts, two very different Universes and in two very different parts of the world. I didn’t really get the chance to unwind, I spent 2011 being quite knackered because I was in New Zealand from January to May and then literally straight off into Sherlock and then straight back into this. It was very, very tiring but like in all things when you’re tired for the best reason, when you’re doing something you love you kind of get through it. Woe is me, I’ve got to do Sherlock and The Hobbit! I didn’t think I was going to be able to do The Hobbit so the fact that I was able to do both was fantastic.”


On returning to New Zealand to find the atmosphere on set more or less unchanged…

“I found it very similar. Behind the camera they all seemed to be old friends - Peter and his team, the cameramen, Rick who did my make-up, Emma who did my costume. In front of the camera there were new people but the whole tone of the film was exactly like it was before, like a very, very expensive home movie, with that sense of having fun, of knowing why you were all there and wanting to be with each other. The big improvements were in the actual buildings; most of the interiors in Lord of the Rings were filmed in an old paint factory which wasn’t heated, it wasn’t sound-proofed, it was next to an international airport - you had to do the takes in between the planes taking off which meant that every single word of Lord of the Rings as far as I was concerned was added later. This time we were in the state of the art ‘King Kong’ studios which James Cameron and Steven Spielberg queue up to use and as for lunch - it was served this time not in a flapping tent that’s threatening to blow over in windy Wellington but in an actual building! The best food I’ve ever had on any job - that’s another reason to go to New Zealand!”

On the process of working with actors playing dwarfs…

“I adore all the dwarfs, they know that. There is a special dwarf and he knows who he is… but the trouble with the dwarfs is that despite what they are in real life they have to look smaller than me on the screen and there are a number of devices to accomplish that and none of them is really congenial to acting which is about spontaneity and about looking the other actor in the eye and working with him or her. Often in these films you don’t have that necessity and sometimes, cruelly, you are not in the same space when you’re filming the same scene - there are two cameras recording me ‘large’ and the dwarf ‘smaller’ and then by film magic which I don’t understand the two pictures are put together and it’s absolutely magical when you see it but not when you’re doing it. On the first day I rather ashamed myself by grumbling to myself that this sort of filming wasn’t why I’d become an actor and I’d forgotten I was wearing a microphone so everybody including Peter heard but I was rewarded the next day with love because my little tent where I get made up inside the studio had been made up overnight; there were remnants of old Rivendell, there was fresh fruit and flowers and carpets and cushions, dancing boys and girls and I was made to feel that it was going to be all right and indeed it was and we found other ways of doing it too.”

On finding and playing Gandalf…

“The trick of it, as Michael Caine said, for the film camera, is that you don’t arrange your face you just think and the face will magically do as little or as much as is required but it’s wonderful to be able to do a scene and then, at Peter’s invitation, go and put on the 3D glasses and watch what you’ve just done because then you can see that you’ve done too much or too little, which is the advantage you don’t have in the theatre where you’re entirely reliant on other people’s reactions so you can sort of edit yourself… ooh, acting’s difficult, isn’t it really?”

On the differences between Gandalf the Grey and Gandalf the White…

“One of my favourite scenes in these four films that we’ve currently got is after Gandalf has tumbled to an apparent death after the Balrog incident (The Fellowship of the Ring) and the music swells and little Elijah yells silently and I feel the grief watching the character I play die forevermore - except he doesn’t but he comes back as the most boring man or wizard that could possibly ever be invented in a sense. He’s a driven man, his beard‘s been cut, he’s dyed his hair white, he seems to have stopped having any sort of fun in life and of course he’s got to save Middle-earth and he’s on a mission so it’s wonderful to come back to the Gandalf that people seem to think about. Gandalf the White doesn’t even wear a pointy hat!


On recreating Gollum for the brilliant ‘riddle in the caves‘ sequence…

“It was fantastic to come back and rekindle my relationship with Gollum and Smeagol and to get to play one of my favourite scenes that Tolkien wrote, with Martin in the cave with the ring. It was the first thing we shot in the movie so day one out of 276 was Martin and myself in Gollum’s cave kicking off that scene and the way Pete wanted to shoot it was to treat it like a piece of theatre so we basically shot that entire scene time and time again and it was just incredible to watch Martin begin to find Bilbo’s character and we just really enjoyed bouncing off each other and creating that scene.”

On directing the second unit…

“I was only really supposed to come back for two weeks to reprise the role of Gollum until a month beforehand when I got an email from Peter saying  ‘would you like to come down and direct the second unit?’ so again my time in New Zealand to complete the journey in Middle-earth suddenly grew to 200 days of shooting. I had the most incredible experience learning from one of the world’s greatest filmmakers with an amazing cast shooting beautiful New Zealand and in the company of dwarfs and it was really incredible.”

On getting into the mindset of Gollum…

“As an actor you’re always putting a part of yourself under the microscope so as Gollum/Smeagol there was an opportunity to run riot. One of the great things about this role is that he’s overcomplicated, you feel sorry for him, you feel pity for him, you hate him; when we were first working on the character for Lord of the Rings we thought it was very important to answer the question of ‘what does the ring mean to all of the characters and if the ring was given to you, how would you deal with the ring of power?’ So when we were creating the character of Gollum, he - or Sméagol - had a weak personality and wasn’t able to cope with the power of the ring but it was  important to find something very real, something that it could mean to you in this day and age and for me it was always about addiction. Gollum is entirely based on the notion of addiction, the way that the ring possesses him, makes him craven, lustful, depletes him physically and psychologically and mentally. Gollum is called Gollum because of the way he sounds, writes Tolkien, and the voice had to be bound up with that, it wasn’t just a case of coming up with a voice, it had to be based on something so it had to be something that was to do with his psychology and how we would see Gollum’s pain and how he was going to carry that pain. It was going to be in his throat so I needed to find something like an involuntary action that would spark off the physicality and the voice working together and… well, a cat coughing up furballs was the way we found into Gollum’s voice!”


On playing Radaghast the Brown…

“When Peter, Fran (Walsh, co-screenwriter) and Phillipa offered me the job they said ‘There’s a lot of shit in it.’ They said it was a shitty part and I said well, someone’s got to do it so I accepted it. For those who haven’t seen it I get very close to birds and they kind of leave deposits on me and I smell a lot. Made for me really!”

On not playing Bilbo in the original Lord of the Rings trilogy…

“I was up for the part all those years ago and, according to my agent, I got down to the last two actors, the other being the amazing Ian Holm. I was a bit miffed - you’re always a bit miffed when you don’t quite get things - but I was also delighted to be in such company but when I met Peter and Philippa and Fran later they said to me . ‘Well, maybe it’s good thing you didn’t get it because we’ve written you a rather interesting part’ and I think maybe they were right!”


On the family atmosphere on set and amongst the crew…

“They make you feel very welcome. It’s very long way away and it’s a very long time so it was with some trepidation that we went but also you’re arriving on the other side of the world when there’s no script which is a leap of faith and it’s something that is bewildering to begin with but that was dispelled as soon as we arrived; I was certainly made to feel very welcome.”


On learning the physicality of becoming a dwarf…

“We learned dwarf movement with a wonderful man called Terry Notary and he was very keen to emphasise that dwarfs move in a very particular way and they move in a different way to humans and we spent a great deal of time working on that. The interesting part was that, despite all the work we did with dwarf movement, once we’d put the costumes on they were so very heavy it meant that we didn’t have to make any effort, we just became dwarfs. Those costumes were fantastic.”


On the experience of playing a dwarf and summing-up the whole experience of making The Hobbit

“It was a dual thing for us. The Hobbit is essentially about a hobbit, a wizard and thirteen dwarfs who go on this journey and as actors we got the opportunity to go on this journey together, to grow together, to get to know each other and, like the dwarfs, to go on this journey together, to enter Peter’s Middle-earth, this vast, extraordinary world which he also somehow has the way of making very intimate. There’s a crew of hundreds of people who work on this yet we knew each other and that is no small testament to the man. It was also a lifestyle change, it wasn’t just about Middle-earth it was about taking a family away to the other side of the world for a long time and I had the daunting prospect - but then the incredibly-rewarding journey - of taking my daughters to the other side of the world where they got to be integrated into a new and rich culture, where they got to see an extraordinary change of life, where their lives have certainly been enhanced. I don’t know if the job will change my career but certainly my time there changed myself and my family’s lives.”

After an hour Edith Bowman called time on the Press conference and as the stars and crew took their leave the assorted hacks and photographers packed up their gear and set off into the chilly December afternoon air. Starburst Magazine helped itself to another couple of mini mince pies on the way out. Well, it is nearly Christmas…

The Hobbit - An Unexpected Journey opens in UK cinemas on December 13th 2012.


Get your copy of our Tolkien special by clicking Gollum!


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