NEW YORK — Warner Bros. spared no expense tonight ringing in the arrival of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” with a New York premiere and an ornate after-party at Guastavino’s on the east side. The space’s “soaring granite arches and catalan vaulted tiled ceiling,” to steal from its own PR, served as a perfect palette for Middle Earth-inspired wares. Wooden tables decked with candelabras and other similar decor offered a comfortable dose of Hobbiton as Jackson, stars Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis and Ian McKellen, “Argo” director Ben Affleck, actors Patrick Stewart, Elijah Wood, Liv Tyler and many more filled the room to capacity.
The toast, of course, is to Jackson’s accomplishment, the first in a new, sure-to-be-expansive trilogy of films adapted from J.R.R. Tolkien’s intro to “The Lord of the Rings.” And hopes are rightly high that the film will land just right with fanbases both old and new to send this one soaring at the box office. But while the film’s aesthetic and feel certainly hearkens back to the franchise Jackson launched in the early aughts, there were attempts at mining a new identity, and much of that was inherent in the enterprise.
Take Andy Serki’s performance-capture turn as Gollum. The effects work used to bring the character to life a decade ago has advanced considerably, to the point that it can be captured in real time, for starters. And while the overall CGI effect isn’t too far off from those renderings years ago, that’s also partly the point, as a drastically improved look would have felt inorganic to the whole. But Serkis was also after something fresh in his portrayal, which, to this viewer’s mind, is the best work he’s done on the franchise.
“Before it was about revenge,” he told me amid the crowd of admirers. “But this time the Sméagol aspect of the persona is very much there. He’s had no contact beyond dead trolls and he’s almost desperate for contact with others.” And that makes the betrayal Gollum experiences from Bilbo Baggins late in the film — the theft of his beloved ring, his “precious” — all the more powerful, he said.
The scene was actually the first one Jackson and company shot in the new film. In it, star Martin Freeman was still finding his character in many respects, while Serkis was obviously very much in tune with his. But a decision was made to shoot the complete scene every take, to let it play out in its entirety. And in that, discoveries were made, often times late in a take as Serkis and/or Freeman tapped into something along the course of it. And indeed, the moment is sort of a short film unto itself, as there is such a tangible arc to its unfolding.
“That chapter in the book, ‘Riddles in the Dark,’ it has its own shape,” Serkis told me. “And what’s in the film is very faithful to the book.”
Speaking of Freeman, he told me he was of course bowled over when he got the call from Jackson asking him to take on the role. And for a moment, it seemed scheduling was going to make it an improbability, but Jackson waited because he had found his man. And that gave Freeman all the confidence in the world.
“A lot of people ask me, ‘Were you scared,'” he said. “And the truth is I wasn’t. I would tell people if I was but Peter makes it very comfortable.”
With Freeman taking on the younger embodiment of Bilbo, played by Ian Holm in the original trilogy and the earlier scenes of “An Unexpected Journey,” there was something to mimic in a sense. He picked up certain elements and gestures, noting how the character “isn’t really much of a gentleman,” and things of the like. But all along the way, he has never met the actor. (Though his favorite Holm performance, if you’re wondering, comes in Terry Gilliam’s “Time Bandits.”)
The experience of an 18-month shoot (off and on) was certainly unique in his experience, though. He likened it a bit to working on a television series. “In both you have to inhabit a character for a very long time,” he said.
And indeed, we’ll be with the character ourselves, as while the latest film may be hitting theaters ina week’s time, we still have “The Desolation of Smaug” in 2013 and “There and Back Again” in 2014. So hopefully Freeman is game for many more of these events along the way. Jackson’s vision of Tolkein is hardly a sprint. It’s a marathon.
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” opens nationwide December 14.