WELLINGTON, NZ. On many films, directors build in a certain amount of time to do pick-ups after production is completed, a few weeks to return come back and lock down a few shots or even a few scenes that either didn't go perfectly originally or that they realized were integral to telling the story.
Peter Jackson doesn't do things the way normal directors do. Since he has generated billions of dollars for his studio partners and basically constructed a production empire of his own down in New Zealand, he gets to create his own definition for “pick-ups,” which most filmmakers would probably call “basically making the darned movie.”
It's early June 2013 on the set of what will come to be known as “The Battle of the Five Armies,” the third film in Jackson's adaptation of “The Hobbit.” A group of reporters is on-set for what everybody is calling “pick-ups,” but that's a term Jackson needs to clarify.
“Well, this particular block of shooting, these 10 weeks we're doing now is a little different,” Jackson explains. “Because what we normally do is we shoot everything and we then edit the movie. And we always make sure we have three, four, six weeks of pick-ups allowed for. And we do that at the very beginning before we even, because I don't want to get into a position where I have to shoot the movie, edit, and then go to the studio and then say, 'Can you please give us money to do another six weeks of filming,' because that is never a good thing to do. So we know we're going to want to do it. We've done this for the last twenty-odd years, so we've never had a situation where we haven't really improved the movie by having those pick-ups. So when we do a deal for a film at the very beginning, we always budget the film, and you schedule the movie, you're budgeting with principal photography and then you're budgeting your post, and then we budget for a period of however much time we think we need for pick-ups, which usually are slam-bang in the middle of the cut. So we give ourselves time to edit. And obviously, then you have to actually write the pick-ups. So we had to just budget and guess what the cost is going to be. We keep all the sets and costumes, but we haven't written them yet. So you're literally budgeting a period of shooting without actually having any idea of what the content is. But you give it your best guess. And that's how the pick-ups normally is. We come up with ideas while we're cutting and thinking of things and ways we can tighten the story or develop it or enhance it, and we use that period of time.”
Even that sounds unique, but Jackson hasn't gotten to the different part yet.
He continues, “But this time, we have that process for the second and third movie, but we also put aside the Battle of the Five Armies largely from our principal photography. So half of these five weeks is really shooting the battle that we didn't shoot first time around. Which I didn't want to shoot because I wasn't prepared for it. I went into this movie very unprepared, in a way, to tackle a film of this size. So the plan was always we'll give ourselves time to get the first chunk down and get the first film out, and then we'll come back and shoot the battle in 2013. But then also, we've added five weeks, which is how I describe the normal pick-ups for films two and three.”
Yes. You're getting that right. We're talking about pick-ups on the third “Hobbit” film, but what's actually being shot when we arrive is nothing less that The Battle of the Five Armies itself, or at least a goodly portion of it. Jackson didn't just leave himself some coverage of missing camera angles or expositional dialogue. He left himself with the climax to the entire trilogy.
Part of why Jackson has saved this hefty piece of action for the end is that he knows he's filling his own hobbit-sized shoes when it comes to this set piece, having raised the bar and won himself an Oscar in part on the scope and scale of the “Lord of the Rings” movies.
Having already defined and redefined the epic reach of Middle Earth combat, how will The Battle of the Five Armies be different? How will he excite audiences who have been somewhat desensitized to orc-on-dwarf-on-human-on-elf combat?
“Well, the thing that I've come to do with battles, it was largely a process of discovery back in the 'Lord of the Rings' days, was that, in itself… People are jaded now with digital shots. Entire cities get destroyed and you can do anything else, and ultimately, it's lost its fascination really, the CG, massive, big battle shots.”
Wait. Is Peter Jackson saying that The Battle of the Five Armies won't be built around CG, massive, big battle shots?
“Obviously, we're having some of those,” Jackson tells us reassuringly. “[W]e discovered a rule, basically, on 'Two Towers' on Helm's Deep… You kind of lost interest in it if you went more than three, four shots at the maximum without picking up on where one of your principal characters was in the battle. You're literally seeing extras fighting, seeing digital wide shots. It's all part of it, obviously. It's all part of the texture of battle, but you have too much of that and you're literally just, 'Oh, okay, fine. I get it.' So one of the things we did with the Battle of the Five Armies in particular, and in designing the script and the narrative, is that we made sure that the story that we're telling in this third movie, that the story is continuing through the battle. So in other words, you don't get the story to a point where everyone's suddenly, 'Oh, stop, we're going to launch into a huge battle now,' and then the battle's over and you do a denouement in the end. We actually have a lot of conflict happening between characters, we have people in different places that are needing to get to each other… And some of it's not all battle-related, some of it is personal stuff that's there. And so we kind of pushed the story where the battle kind of interrupts the story, it gets in the way of the story, but the story kind of punches its way through the battle, and that's what we've deliberately tried to do with this. So you're literally seeing it through the eyes of multiple characters as they are still doing what they need to do to fulfill their journey on the movie.”
So should we be expecting that The Battle of the Five Armies will take up some huge chunk of “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”?
Jackson says no, suggesting that the battle will only be between 20 and 25 minutes.
Of course, Jackson also said that “The Hobbit” would only be two movies, so if the third movie ends up being all-battle-all-the-time, don't hold that against us or even against Jackson. Actually, before he thought “The Hobbit” was going to be two movies, Jackson thought “The Hobbit” was going to be a pair of movies that he wouldn't be directing, a project he'd be watching over, but still leaving in Guillermo del Toro's capable hands to direct.
That didn't happen and now, with the end of this new trilogy in sight, is Jackson pleased that he ended up being the person behind the camera for all six Tolkien films?
“Ultimately, it's been a joy,” Jackson says. “I'm very, very proud of these films. I'm very, very proud of these films. I'm very excited about the second and third films, just the stuff we've been shooting in the last few weeks, having done a cut of the second movie, and we've edited a lot of the third movie. So I've got a feeling of those. And then coming back in and doing what we've been doing, I'm excited. I think they're going to be really cool. This is ultimately what you do it for, is because you feel like you're making a movie that you really want to see finished and you want other people to see it. And I'm glad that I've done it.”
He reflects, “The Guillermo version of these movies would have been his films, and that would have been interesting, too. But ultimately, when that didn't happen, it was like, 'Do we really want to bring in somebody else? Or should I do it?' And I'm pleased that I've done it now. It's been a joy, actually. I've had a lot more fun on these movies than I did on 'Rings,' just in terms of waking up in the morning and having a good time on set. Yeah.”
Watching Jackson at work, you never doubt his enjoyment for a second. We spend two days on the set and Jackson is constantly standing off to the side of the camera serving as a mixture between a cheerleader and the on-set narrator.
This isn't some “300”-style stage where nearly everything is green screen and the actors are being forced to imagine the environment from soup to nuts. We're in a small tent on Stage K at the “Hobbit”-centric studio and two days of events are taking place on the watchtower at the Ravenhill Fortress. There's a full stone courtyard with parapets and balconies. There's stony rubble that speaks to the age of the fortress, but also to the violent chaos of the battle taking place. Outside, it's winter in New Zealand and inside it's winter in Middle Earth, as a good amount of time between shots is spent shoveling new dustings snow from plastic buckets and then applying gouts of dark “blood” from a squirt-bottle. Is it dwarf blood? Hobbit blood? Orc blood? It depends on the moment.
Naturally, we're not shooting in sequence, so sometimes Bilbo Baggins and the dwarves are fending off various invading hordes — They look like ninjas in green body suits, but they'll presumably be orcs when all is said and done — and sometimes they're watching the battle below with growing concern and, in one shot, they're experiencing a wave of hope.
So sometimes the actors have plenty to work with on the set, but sometimes they're seeing things that either aren't happening live or perhaps haven't been shot yet. Jackson tailors his direction accordingly. When Bilbo and Dwalin and Thorin Oakenshield and company are in the middle of action, Jackson is shouting small modifications constantly, asking for variations that range from minor body adjustments to more crucial emotional shifts that could cause the scene to be read very differently depending on which take eventually gets used. But when our heroes are witnessing something horrifying, Jackson is spinning a colorful yarn so they know exactly what they're seeing, punctuating certain beats with urgent shouts and embellishing the details when he thinks that a more graphic recounting might earn him a more visceral response.
When Jackson talks about the amount of fun he's having, you believe him. And a lot of what he's most enjoying are the expansions from the book that allowed or forced, depending on your view of such things, him to turn a 300+ page book into a trio of movies which, it could be reasonably argued, will ultimately take as long to watch as the tome might take to read.
“Being able to do a lot of things that we loved the idea of doing while we were shooting the movie but never could squeeze in. It's being able just to develop the characters a bit more and to delve into areas that obviously aren't in the book. This movie has sequences with Gandalf and the Necromancer, Dol Guldur. It sort of continues that storyline that happens through the second movie, it sort of carries on into this film. We obviously have Legolas and Tauriel who are essentially new characters. Legolas not being in the book and Tauriel being new, we have a storyline that we were able to– And Thranduil we're bringing into that and creating a storyline between the three of them that we otherwise wouldn't have been able to do. We are developing Bard more, too. We were able to actually give his character a little more depth and complexity. So yeah, it's just being able to push those to their maximum rather than Short-chang[ing] the characters a bit.”
The extra screen-time also lets Jackson and company build in bridges between the “Hobbit” trilogy and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, which includes an evolution of tone. When it's suggested to Jackson that the first “Hobbit” movie had more levity than the “Lord of the Rings” movies, but that dark material is coming up, he agrees.
“Yeah. Everyone always talks about the films being dark, it's kind of like a badge of honor…” he says. “It's deliberate, but it's also kind of organic with the book. In this movie in particular, principal key characters die in the film. There's not a hell of a lot of ways to make that humorous… But the way that we are building this story up is the reality that within a couple of years when the theatrical releases are done and behind us, all that will exist from that point forward is going to be ultimately six DVDs or downloads or whatever the hell they're going to be. That is what we're going to leave in our wake, is six movies, not three. And that we do want a consistency that people, kids in twenty years, that aren't even born yet, can start at the beginning and work their way through. And so it's been very important to me to have a progression through those six films. And so, yes, it does. The second movie certainly, and into the third, the whole tone is becoming much more 'Lord of the Rings'-like than our first movie was.”
Though there's a big Battle still to come — Heck, as we're on set, the second movie, “The Desolation of Smaug” is still in post-production — it's possible to see the light at the end of the Tolkien tunnel for all involved. The day before, we'd found Ian McKellan in a contemplative mood on the eve of his final scenes. We asked Jackson if he's feeling emotional about the looming end, or if he views it as more like passing a kidney stone.
“'Passing a kidney stone,'” he laughs. “It's a bit of both, to be totally truthful. It's a bit of both. Like, we're arriving today, and it's like I suddenly realize that this is a reality. It's Ian McKellen's last day. He's doing a little bit with us at the end of the day. We won't get to him till the very end of the day today. Couple of shots that we need for finishing off the thing we're doing here. And then he's done. It's him walking out of Gandalf, hanging up his hat and putting his beard on the shelf and walking away from Gandalf forever I would imagine. So that's going to be a bit hard tonight. I'm not really looking forward to that because Ian's a joy to work with. So those hit you a bit hard. It's Orlando's last day tomorrow. We're doing a bit with him tomorrow, and then he's finished. Yeah, those are the things that are emotional simply because of their friends really, and you love working with these guys and suddenly they are… You realize, 'We're never going to be doing this again.' Not this particular film. But the other side of it is that, yeah, I will be very, very proud of these movies and very happy to have done them. But… I felt exactly like this at the end of 'Lord of the Rings.' When you go into a project for– That was seven years, this is probably going to be five years by the end of next year I imagine. Maybe even longer, maybe six years. You are ready to move on for sure, yeah.”
“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” opens on December 12, 2014.