Larry D. Curtis, as part of the team at TheOneRing.net, has been comprehensively covering the works and adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien for more than a decade, making the not-for-profit site the leading source about The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings for fans and film makers world wide. Curtis represents the site at conventions and events around the US including the DragonCon in Atlanta. You can read his The Hobbit Countdown here at Movies.com every other week.
Everybody knows the Hobbit movies (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and The Hobbit: There and Back Again) have begun production after years of legal entanglements and roadblocks. But to accommodate Martin Freeman’s schedule for Bilbo, shooting has been paused while he works on Sherlock, the television series with Benedict Cumberbatch ... who also voices Smaug in the films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s source material.
Director Peter Jackson and his team always had Freeman as thrit top choice. In fact long before the movie was even given a green light from Warner Bros., New Line and MGM, his name was at the top of the list to take on the role filled by Ian Holm in the Lord of the Rings trilogy of movies. In fact, Freeman said publicly that he regretting not being able to do the films but was dedicated to Sherlock both intellectually and contractually, at which point the production offered to work completely around his schedule. So, at the height of the New Zealand's cold season, shooting stopped.
This was convenient not only for the busy Freeman and Cumberbatch, but it allowed Peter Jackson to stop by Comic-Con to appear with Steven Spielberg to chat about Tintin. It allowed second unit director to do the same, giving him time to promote Rise of the Planet of the Apes along with Tintin.
But Jackson was busier than that, traveling to the U.K. to get Christopher Lee on film in what can only be presumed as part of the White Counsel that happens on the periphery of the core Hobbit book. Lee’s inclusion, while an honor to the venerable actor, is also telling about some of the content of the story.
Readers will remember that Gandalf, partly as a plot device for Tolkien in the children’s book that allowed the Dwarves and Bilbo to get into serious trouble while the wizard was away, is constantly running off with vague references to things that need his attention. While an amusing part of a child’s tale, having the beloved Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey disappear for large portions of a movie or two and miss all the big action sequences with spiders, trolls and Elves would deliver an unsatisfactory cinematic experience.
And, drawing from the Appendices in the LOTR books, the wizard was plenty busy looking after the greater concerns of Middle-earth and not the small party of Dwarves and their burglar for hire.
McKellen, on the London stage during the shooting break, may have also filmed with Lee, although it is easy to envision Jackson’s team simply getting footage of Lee and combining it with the rest of the sage collection of figures that plot the fate of Middle-earth presumed to include Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and her new wardrobe opportunities, Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) and perhaps Celeborn (Marton Csokas). However, knowing Jackson and his co-scripters Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro , it wouldn’t be surprising to find others involved.
But now with all that coming to a close, actors are beginning to head back to New Zealand, and no doubt the production is in overdrive to have everything ready to shoot for the robust remainder of the schedule -- which is reportedly 200 more days, more than twice as big as many, many movies. Serkis, as second unit director, has reportedly been busy shooting action sequences as well as dialog. The performance capture master has apparently already shot his portion of the film, excluding pickups that Jackson routinely employs as he edits the film in its later stages.
Gollum, while one of the most memorable roles of the The Hobbit, plays a relatively small part in one of the segments of the serialized story. While the Dwarves, Goblins and Gandalf enter into a big fray, the non-fighting Hobbit is dropped in the dark and winds up deep under the earth where he engages in word play in the chapter Riddles in the Dark. So Serkis, while playing a pivotal role linking the two parts of the new film back to the LOTR trilogy, has limited screen time and probably all of it in a single location with a single character.
To free up the now-director, Jackson scheduled the shoot to get his work in Gollum’s cave with Bilbo finished early so Serkis can wear a single hat (and no mo-cap body suit) at a time.
Other actors have tweeted in recent days that they are headed to Wellington to begin preparation for work on the films. Weta has doubtless been busy with props, costume designs, and dressing sets but some of the training and preparation associated with pre-production requires actors to be present. Luke Evans, playing Bard the Bowman, told TheOneRing.net at Comic-Con that he hasn’t set foot on set yet but needed to be there soon for fight training and to experience his costume for the first time. His tweet later confirmed this:
“photo shoot for Dazed and Confused with awesome photographer Rankin tomorrow in LA before I fly to NZ for the Hobbit. Bring on the Bard!!!!!”
Stephen Fry, who plays an adversarial role to Bard as the Master of Laketown, also let the world of Twitter know that he was headed south:
“Flying from Cape Town to Jo’burg to Sydney to NZ tomorrow. Will be Tuesday by the time I land in Wellington. Hobbitry beckons.”
If sources are right, the 3D cameras should roll again next week. Nearly everything that was done so far in the first 46 days of the shoot was contained in Jackson’s own studio in Wellington. The size and ability of his studio has earned the coastal town on the North Island of Kiwi land the nickname “Wellywood,” but apparently much of the rest of the shoot will be on location at places all around New Zealand.
This in-the-field shooting will likely mean that Serkis and Jackson will be separated by many miles and check in via monitor instead of being able to walk over and converse as in the early portion of the shoots. During these next 200 days that much of the money around the production will be spent.
Bard and the Master of Laketown will wrestle for control of Laketown to combat a giant dragon that is attempting to incinerate the floating city and possibly wipe it out of existence. The cinematic possibilities and Jackson’s visual flair will have plenty of chance to shine there but it isn’t hard to imagine healthy special effects budgets and elaborate real sets on the water. Remember the pitched battle of Osgiliath across the waters of a river in Jackson’s LOTR films? Throw a magnificent fire-breathing dragon into the mix in a pitched battle involving citizens trying to save their town and it’s easy to imagine an epic, and expensive, film.
And, even with the standard-setting LOTR battles around Minas Tirith, Jackson’s team will be creating the Battle of Five Armies that pits Elves and Men at odds with Dwarves uniting against Orcs and Goblins and bats and wargs with a dash of shape changing and eagles tossed in for good measure along with whatever the screen writing team cooked up. Tolkien wrote very little detail about that potentially grand visual feast, leaving Jackson the chance to do almost anything he wishes without going against the cannon of Tolkien. Expect Jackson to go big -- and expensive.
There are also strong clues in casting announcements that we will be shown glimpses of the ancient conflict between Dwarves and Goblins, including a devastating battle before the gates of Moria where the Fellowship emerged after Gandalf took on the Balrog of Moria.
Yes, The Hobbit has been shooting, but on a scale of what it is to come, the shoot was intimate and small. Now it is time for Jackson, Weta and a new slew of actors to get back to Lawrence of Arabia-style fantasy filmmaking.