It is June 2012, I am on the set of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit,” and the director is clearly still reeling a bit from the negative press surrounding his use of 48 frames per second.
“My feeling about forty-eight frames is– I’ve got two schools of thought about it, really,” says Jackson of the emerging format, which was criticized by some following the screening of early “Hobbit” footage at CinemaCon a couple of months prior. “[Cinema] audiences are dwindling. And the audiences that are dwindling the most, that are more reluctant to come to the cinema than in years gone by are the young teenagers, mid-twenties. They’re the ones that are happier to stay at home on their iPads or playing games on TV…
“…So I think anything we can do to use the technology that we have available today, not the technology of twenty years ago or fifty years ago, but technology that exists today to actually create a cinema experience that is fresh and more immersive and more dynamic and something that really kind of pulls the audience into the film, I think that’s a good thing. And I think we are foolish as an industry if we’re just saying, ‘You know what, the artifacts of twenty-four frames a second that we’ve all lived with for seventy-five, eighty years, that’s the look of film and so we’re just going to stay with that.’ I think that’s not doing the industry a service, to be quite honest.”
All of that being said (the 48fps question yielded Jackson’s longest-winded answer by far), the director certainly doesn’t want to alienate audiences by taking away the option of letting them watch the films at the traditional 24fps frame rate. Indeed, change can be hard.
“It’s not something you want to ram down people’s throats,” he says. “If people want to see the movie exactly as they saw ‘The Lord of the Rings’ twelve or thirteen years ago, that opportunity is there. There’ll be plenty of cinemas running it at twenty-four frames. But let’s give this forty-eight frame idea a go. …So I just think it should just be regarded as being an interesting experiment, I guess. Obviously, by the time the second movie comes out, which you’re writing about now, we’ll know what happened. People will either like it or they won’t. I suspect I know what the answer is gonna be. But two thousand and thirteen, we’re all gonna know.”
But do we know? If anything, the response to the high frame rate experiment on the first film was mixed at best, scathing at worst, with many critics deriding the 48fps as giving the visuals a “flat,” “plastic,” “cheap,” “BBC” quality that took them out of the film rather than “immersing” them in it, as Jackson had hoped. As for the general public, the response is harder to gauge – though the truth is that the majority of movie theaters chose not to screen the film in the HFR format, meaning most people saw it in traditional 24fps.
In any event, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” was a phenomenal success at the box-office – a seemingly inevitable result given the enormous popularity of the “LOTR” films – bringing in more than $1 billion worldwide (albeit with the benefit of a decade of inflation and 3-D surcharges) despite not being, in the final analysis, quite as beloved as the original trilogy. And still, it was a project that very nearly slipped through Jackson’s grasp.
A little background: Jackson and wife/creative partner Fran Walsh originally (and understandably) wanted to make “The Hobbit” first before embarking on “The Lord of the Rings,” but were ultimately hamstrung by rights issues with the book, half of which were owned by producer Saul Zaentz and half of which were owned by United Artists (later bought by MGM).
“Our original plan was to make ‘The Hobbit’ as a single movie, and then if that was successful, then to do ‘The Lord of the Rings’ as two movies back to back,” Jackson explains. “And that’s what we pitched Harvey Weinstein back in about ’95 or ’96. And then what happened with that is that he immediately jumped on it as an idea and examined, investigated all the rights issues. But even back in those days, the fact that MGM had the split rights for ‘The Hobbit,’ he came back to us and said, ‘Listen, ‘The Hobbit’ is really tricky because MGM own half the rights, and so even if I get the other half from Saul Zaentz,’ or whoever had them at the time…I can’t do the film, but why don’t we do ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ where it’s much cleaner, clearer chain of titles?'”
Unfortunately for Jackson, the phenomenal success of the “LOTR” films did nothing to alleviate these issues when it came time to embark on “The Hobbit” once again.
“‘The Lord of the Rings’ happened simply because of the MGM rights situation, which ultimately nearly overturned this film,” he tells us. “After twelve or fourteen years it was still an issue that we had to deal with.”
Beyond that, a round of contentious financial issues that arose between Jackson and New Line over profits related to “The Fellowship of the Ring” further jeopardized his involvement in “The Hobbit,” which in 2008 was officially handed over to director Guillermo del Toro – though Jackson remained an active participant as co-writer and executive-producer. After Del Toro departed the project in 2010 due to continued delays, Jackson signed on to direct the following year – though he claims that much of Del Toro’s “DNA” remains in his version of “The Hobbit.”
“He did a whole design pass of both films,” says Jackson (speaking before the project was officially announced as a trilogy. “He was working on it for about fourteen, fifteen, eighteen months or something, quite a long time. And so he had a whole design run. When I started the movies after he left, I kind of went back and looked at all the designs and then looked at everything that the guys had done and I had [conceptual designers] Alan Lee and John Howe do new stuff. And so, you know, some of the bits of Guillermo’s stuff that I liked, I kept, and other bits, I did new stuff for.”
So how different would Del Toro’s version have been? While Jackson certainly can’t provide any kind of a definitive answer (though he did say that much of Del Toro’s artwork for the Lake-town set remained intact), the general feeling I came away with was: quite a bit.
“The film that he designed was a very del Toro looking type of film, which was cool, and that would have been a different movie to this and it would have been really interesting,” he says. “But I can’t make somebody else’s film, obviously. So when I came on, it was like, ‘Okay, well, let me have a look at everything and I’ll kind of start again.’ But still, all of the stuff he did that I liked and the good ideas, I certainly kept quite a few of them…But I’ve also pulled back on a lot of it to steer it more to the look that we did on the original ‘Lord of the Rings’ films.”
Given the years-long turmoil surrounding the making of “The Hobbit” – a late-in-the-game dispute with Actors’ Equity in Australia nearly forced the entire production to move to England – it’s practically a miracle, then, that when all is said and done, Jackson’s passion for the project is still so immediately apparent.
“It was very stressful for about six weeks, six, eight weeks. And then I had an ulcer, which– I don’t know if the two are related but I ended up– I won’t blame the Australians for that. Although, well, you know, it’s debatable,” he jokes. “But since the day we started shooting it’s all been great. It’s actually been a huge amount of fun. So the surprise for me has been how much I’ve enjoyed it. I’m happy I’m doing it. I’m really, really pleased to be doing it. And that’s a surprise. I didn’t know how much I’d quite enjoy it till I started.”
“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” hits theaters on December 13.