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Director Series: Peter Jackson

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By Bill Desowitz
Peter Jackson admits that he had a preference for the third book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Return of the King, not only because it wrapped everything up so powerfully, but also because it represents Tolkien’s work in microcosm: the epic scope in equal balance with the emotional intimacy. Not surprisingly, Jackson feels proudest of Return of the King, which opens Dec. 17, through New Line, for the very same reason. He discussed with Below the Line how he worked with his crew in attaining the right balance in Return of the King while revving up the emotional intimacy.
Below the Line: Let’s discuss how everything comes together with greater intimate focus in Return of the King.
Peter Jackson: Well it’s intimate but it’s also the most epic of the films. It has the biggest and the smallest. We ended up with the usual combination of locations and sets. The sets were the biggest that we built for the three movies. The City of Minas Tirith was built in the same quarry that we used for building Helms Deep on the Two Towers, and we actually incorporated Helms Deep into the set. We used some of the walls from Helms Deep and we dressed them and tightened them, but the Minas Tirith was like four or five times the size of Helms Deep. It filled most of the quarry and it had a network of streets winding up the hill. It was a huge set. And that stood for many months.
BTL: How did production designer Grant Major work with concept designers Alan Lee and John Howe?
Jackson: Well, Alan and John would provide pencil sketches. They would come up with conceptual renderings of the scenes and between the two of them they sort of visually did every single scene in the film as pencil drawings and then Grant would take the pencil drawings and would use those as inspiration to then design the final sets. He’d obviously apply a three-dimensional fitting to figure out the scale and the size, and he’d take what was usual in the pencil drawings and obviously he added a lot of his own input to it. And then it was [set decorator] Dan Hennah’s job to take Grant’s plans and do the practical set construction. And Dan supervised the construction of the sets, the builders, the set finishers and the greens people. He was the person who basically made the sets come to life on the stage.
BTL: And what about cinematographer Andrew Lesnie?
Jackson: I’ve ended up having a great collaboration with Andrew now. We’ve been working on this for so long. What I find that is great about Andrew is that he is totally flexible…he thinks on his feet, he doesn’t come to the set with a pre-conceived plan that he absolutely wants to stick to. He plans and we pre-light and we think ahead, but he’s very adaptable, which as a director I appreciate obviously because I also like to be adaptable myself and no matter what your story boarder has pre-visualized, there’s a certain element of improvisation that occurs and that’s how I like to work. Kind of keep it spontaneous, which obviously Andrew enjoys because I’ve always tried to work with input from Andrew and some of the other key crew. We block the scene, we have our storyboards but we’re saying, ‘Hey, we could do better,’ so sometimes if Andrew’s pre-lit the storyboards we suddenly find that we’re swinging the whole thing around and we’re doing something completely different as just a thought that we’ve hit on that day, and Andrew’s great. He just says, ‘fine, no problem. Just give me a few minutes and I’ll have it fixed.’ He’s very, very fast and I appreciate that sense of haste because it just makes the day move quite quickly, and get everything moving on the set.
BTL: What about Ngila Dickson, your costume designer?
Jackson: Ngila is fantastic. I mean, the real grief with the costumes was not to create fantasy costumes. Not fall into the trap that because it’s a fantasy movie it has to look like a fairy tale. We really didn’t want fairy tale to be the look of the film and so Ngila was involved with the rest of us in doing a lot of research into historical styles. And since we tried to base − even though we were creating fictitious cultures − we tried to ground them in the reality of our history but skewing them off to the side. So, for instance, you know we’d have conversations with Ngila about the elves. What do elves look like? How do they dress? What should the wardrobe look like? And we made decisions that if the elves existed on Middle-earth six or seven thousand years ago, which is what Tolkien was basically writing, an epic pre-history of our world, we decided that the last remains of the Elvish culture would be the Art Nouveau. The Art Nouveau architectural sort of design style is the last thing that the Elves have left so we would then take that back and apply that Art Nouveau feeling to the wardrobe and to the designs. Rohan was based on a more Viking kind of Scandinavian culture. And so the brief that Ngila did superbly was to basically create your own cultures, but have them related in some way to things that are from our history so that they don’t feel like they’re science fiction or from another planet.
BTL: And what’s interesting, for instance, is how Aragorn’s costumes change in Return of the King to reflect his acceptance of his role as king. You have more pronounced reds in his costumes.
Jackson: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, you know, those were the costumes that were a trick because Viggo didn’t want to be encased in suits of armor that made it difficult to move. He still wanted the flexibility to be able to fight, to move towards the final scenes. But we obviously wanted his wardrobe to reflect his new status. And so Ngila had to design a much more fabric-based sort of fighting costume for him. In the final scene where they march on the black gate we tried to abandon the idea of using breast plates and armor and lots of metal and so Ngila came up with a very elegant, regal looking kingly outfit for him.
BTL: Also the Hobbits.
Jackson: Yeah, well, I mean with the Hobbits we broke down Frodo and Sam’s costumes. The closer they got the more they shed of their costume and the more dirty and grubby they got. I mean, it was a plan from the very beginning because Ngila worked out a detailed timeline over the course of the three movies. And so for Frodo or Sam, they left Hobbiton with a maximum amount of wardrobe they could possibly wear. They had waist shirts and waistcoats and jackets and cloaks, and she worked out in all the stages of the journey that bits of costume should get discarded and broken. It all had to be planned because we shot out of sequence and what Ngila had to do at the very beginning she had to basically have the wardrobe for all three movies prepared at the start because within three weeks of beginning the shoot, we started shooting The Fellowship of the Ring in 1999. But within three weeks of beginning we were shooting scenes from The Return of the King. So you could imagine that for a wardrobe designer you had to have plotted out every particular change and development in the costume and the breakdown of the costume all the way through the three movies to be ready for any eventuality.
BTL: What was it like working with Jamie Selkirk as your editor on this one?
Jackson: Well, we used three different people for each of the three films because the footage was coming in so thick and fast. There’s over six million feet of film and we wanted to have people who were concentrating on each film and not having to juggle between all three movies. So Jamie is the person I’ve worked with all my career and has cut all my previous films. We assigned him the third movie, and as I was shooting Jamie would assemble the film, and so by the time I came in to work with him I was officially in post-production on The Return of the King. Jamie had spent a lot of time working over and refining The Return of the King and I had seen it a number of times on tape through the last two or three years. I’ve looked at the assemblies, I’ve looked at fine cuts − actually they were really tight. And then at the beginning of this year, I sat down with Jamie and we started to go through the footage using his cut as a basis, and obviously being the director I’d want to change things and look at other takes and the two of us edited the film together. We got to a point where there were also shot pick-ups that we had to shoot. We had to cut the pick-ups very quickly as we were shooting them so that we could install them into the movie, and we basically ended up with about four-and-a-quarter hours of film. Then from that point the process became one of crafting the film, and I liken that process to starting with a big block of marble and a chisel and a hammer, and you start chipping away and the statue’s in there somewhere and you just have to chip the bits of marble away to try to find it. And sometimes the statue evolves as you’re chipping away. I like to be very flexible and experiment and we tried a number of different things and ways to structure the film.
BTL: What seemed to work best do you think in terms of balancing the emotional with the epic?
Jackson: Well, I think that the emotion was the critical thing because we wanted the last 40 minutes to be as emotional as they could possibly be and I was worried about the length because I think that there’s a certain length that people switch off the movie. They’ve been in the cinema too long. And because the most powerful emotion was at the end of the film, I wanted to make sure that that end wasn’t coming too late. And so I really tried to get the film as short as I possibly could. You know, ideally, it would have been three hours. As it is it’s three hours and twenty [minutes]. And as we’re going through this process we’re obviously discarding scenes, we’re taking sequences out of the film to shorten it, and those sequences then become potential DVD scenes. We haven’t cut the DVD yet; we’ll be doing that when I go back home, but we look at everything we didn’t use.
BTL: Watching Return of the King and keeping the whole trilogy in mind, I got the feeling that we were going to hell and back and waking up from a dream and ending up in a kind of scarred bliss.
Jackson: Well, Tolkien’s themes were very much about the fact that whilst there were things worth fighting for and going to war for your freedom, there were no winners in war. That even if you were the victor you are never going to be the same person again. And I wanted that melancholy in and I also figured we had deserved to have a tranquil, slow finale − because we had been in this film for nine hours.
BTL: What was Jamie’s main strength here?
Jackson: You know Jamie’s got a really good feel for the pacing of the film; he’s also got a very good feel for the balance. We worked together on trying to figure out how much the epic of the story should be compared to the intimate because Tolkien created that dynamic. That’s why the book is so wonderful. It has all the battle and Tolkien really loves describing these huge battles, but really what’s memorable about the book of The Lord of the Rings are the characters. They are what is beloved about the story. We wanted to make sure that at no time did our battle scenes or our epic spectacular scenes actually overwhelm the intimate storytelling as they could have done. We had plenty of battles to choose from, we had lots and lots of fighting and we could have had as much of it or as little of it as we chose, and so what’s in the final cut reflects our sense of having enough to keep the film spectacular [quality] but letting the intimate story particularly of Frodo and Sam be the spine of the movie.

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