With the imminent release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in cinemas, I recently had the pleasure of chatting with one of the films writers and producers; the charming, lovely and always brilliant Philippa Boyens.
As far back as 1957 numerous producers, including the late great John Lennon in collaboration with the equally departed Stanley Kubrick, have tried to bring J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic Middle Earth fantasy novels to cinema, but while Tolkien himself at times intervened to prevent certain enterprises from eventuating, many other attempts simply failed under the weight of the leviathan works. It wasn’t until 1966 that Oscar winning producer William Snyder screened a twelve-minute animated short in New York City that ‘The Lord of the Rings’ first made its mark on cinema history. Unfortunately, in the decades that followed only a few, deeply flawed animated attempts managed any headway, imbuing Tolkien’s literary masterpiece with its own mythological watermark as one of those elusively unfilmable stories.
Then in 2001, New Zealand born director Peter Jackson released his own live action version of ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, delivering a richly detailed epic that blended the grandeur of Tolkien’s written word with a visual spectacle that remains unparalleled in contemporary filmmaking. And with the monumental success of the film and its two sequels, ‘The Two Towers’ (2002) and ‘Return of the King’ Jackson (2003), along with his writing and producing partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, were elevated into to Hollywood’s A-List.
Having garnered numerous accolades for their work across the LOTR trilogy (including the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for The Return of the King), 2005’s ‘King Kong’ and the dark supernatural crime thriller ‘The Lovely Bones’, Jackson, Walsh and Boyens have finally come full circle, making their way back to complex mythology of Middle Earth and embarking on an adaption of the equally ambitious, if slightly more comedic LOTR prequel, The Hobbit.
“We knew this was going to be set against the backdrop of the LOTR films to a certain extent.” Reveals writer/producer Philippa Boyens when questioned about the distinctive lighter tones that imbue the pages of The Hobbit against the seriousness of Tolkien’s LOTR novels. “But simply because they’re the films we made first and that’s just the reality of it. But you’re absolutely right – the tone is quite different and we didn’t want to lose that either.
“I think what it comes down to is identifying tonally the bits of what you would call the children’s tale; and what it is about that children’s tale that adults love. And it is funny, and endearing and absurd; but mostly funny though, I have to say. And those are the bits we wanted to protect and keep.”
Having re-written the rule book in adapting such large-scale effects-driven blockbusters, including their telling of the 1933 classic ‘King Kong’, Boyens, Walsh and Jackson have also garnered success with far more intimate stories, as evidenced by the dark suburban 1970’s drama The Lovely Bones, and to a lesser degree with their work as producers on Neil Blomkamp’s surprise sci-fi think tank District 9. Success Boyens attributes to the process in which the trio craft and nurture their projects.
“We always start in the same room, generally on the same page.“ She explains. “We start by looking at what type of film we’re making – what’s the tone? What’s the heart of the film? What are we aiming for and what does the film deliver to the audience? – all of those sorts of questions. We do that all together, and it can take days and often weeks.”
“I think it’s a very collaborative process, mostly because that’s how Peter works. I’ve always thought that’s because he’s very secure in his own talent. He can happily encompass the ideas of other people – always listens. As a writer, it’s great to work with a director like that.
“And also, by the way, he’s a pretty damn good writer himself.”
But with fans eagerly awaiting the release of the first film, aptly titled ‘An Unexpected Journey’, the production has been far from ideal with a number of delays and legal actions casting dark clouds over pre-production, many of which stemmed from Jackson’s public feud with the head of New Line Cinema Robert Shaye. Then in 2007, after both combatants had buried the metaphorical hatchet, it was announced that Jackson would act as producer with Guillermo Del Toro directing. Enthusiasm for the project again started to escalate with fans taking to the Internet in hordes with rumours and speculation of what Del Toro’s vision would mean for the franchise. However after numerous further delays – this time mostly attrubued to political and union stand-offs – Del Toro was forced to exited the production due to other commitments, effectively leaving three years of work behind him. A decision that forced Jackson back into the director’s chair.
“Peter, from the word go, was really keen not to be hands on.” Explains Boyens when pressed on Jackson’s reluctant return as director. “And that wasn’t a cynical thing. It was just that he thought maybe it would be better filmed by someone else.
“I noticed that sort of changing when he started the writing process – you get into it as a writer and you find your way back into the story purely on the basis of being a writer. And you do fall in love again.”
But not only did the film need once again need to be retooled for Jackson’s return, but with principle photography approaching its conclusion, Jackson and New Line Cinema made the surprising announcement that the two part film would be reworked for a trilogy, effectively forcing Boyens, Walsh and Jackson, once again, back into the writers room. This time, not to just rework existing content, but to shape a new dynamic that would encompass a complete trilogy. A situation borne from a decision that Boyens is quick to defend against allegations of studio greed.
“You know what? It was probably one of the most sensible things we’ve done. We have done some crazy things but that’s not one of them! I think it was done for the right reasons because it came about really naturally. It came about when we sat down and got to see a cut of the film which happened earlier this year.”
“What we felt collectively was, okay we need to make some choices about how much of this tale we tell? Do we go into the bits that are untold? Is it working emotionally? Are these characters drawing you into the storytelling? But does it also have that slightly epic sense that it’s part of a bigger tale?
“A lot of the elements we’re talking about are entirely to do with the greatest story of Middle Earth and specifically how the events in The Hobbit impact on that.
“So we went to the studio and said, ‘What do you think?’ And it was interesting. It was never another money-making exercise for them. They weren’t like ‘Ca-ching! Another movie!’ They wanted to know that there was enough story there and that it was the right decision to make – and they came to the same conclusion.
“We kind of knew how we could do it and it felt natural. It’s never felt like a stretch.
“Yeah, we tweaked a bit and had to shift things. But we wanted a great end to film one that pushes you into film two – great visuals as well as a great natural climax but more importantly, we wanted the characters to arrive at a certain place so that you can move the story forward – not a physical location, but an emotional location – and I think we found that.”