Tuesday, December 11, 2012

John Gosling's weekend movie preview, featuring (of course) The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

This will be John Gosling's final Weekend Movie Preview column for at least the immediate future.  I am quite thankful that we was willing to contribute his exhaustive and informative pieces for the last several months, and it is fitting that he finishes this up for an obscenely detailed run-down of the history of the lone new release this weekend (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey), as it was his educational historical essay on The Amazing Spider-Man that brought him to my attention in the first place.  If you have a moment, please take a second to thank him in the comments section below.  He already has my thanks and my gratitude.

The Hobbit was written by J.R.R Tolkien and first published in 1937, to great acclaim. The fantasy novel told the tale of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins and his adventures with a group of dwarves, alongside Gandalf the Grey. Hugely influential, not to mention successful, it led Tolkien to write the Lord of the Rings trilogy, further establishing the world, characters and history of Middle Earth. Essentially written for children, The Hobbit's short story nature seemed ripe for adaptation, and indeed, it has appeared in many various guises over the intervening years including (but not limited to) stage and radio plays, computer games, comic books and an animated feature in 1977.

New Zealand director Peter Jackson became involved in a feature film version of The Hobbit back in 1995, while working on The Frighteners. At that point he was known primarily for his work in the splatter-horror genre but had changed tact completely for his 1994 real life drama, Heavenly Creatures. Jackson saw The Hobbit as the first part of a proposed Tolkien trilogy, with parts two and three covering the events of The Lord of the Rings. Teaming up with Harvey Weinstein, they attempted to secure the rights to produce a film from Saul Zaentz (who had acquired them in 1977), but quickly ran into a host of problems. Zaentz did indeed own the right to produce a picture based on The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but didn't actually possess the distribution rights - they were held by United Artists who hoped to do something with them. Further muddying the situation was Universal Studios, who offered Jackson the chance to direct his dream picture, a remake of King Kong. 

A year later the rights situation was still no closer to being resolved, and Weinstein's attempt to purchase them from UA also came to nought. Jackson took up Universal's offer, with a view to direct a Lord of the Rings picture once work on the Kong remake was completed. However, by 1997, King Kong had been put on indefinite hold, at which point Harvey Weinstein contacted Jackson, his partner Fran Walsh and long time collaborator Philippa Boyens with the offer to solve the Tolkien rights issues out once and for all. At that point UA still held on to The Hobbit rights so all concerned put their efforts into adapting The Lord of the Rings into two pictures.  Budget issues prompted the Weinsteins to reduce the two films into a single two hour movie, which would have resulted in the merging or wholesale removal of many plots and characters from the story, along with the reduction of all of the planned action sequences. Jackson baulked at this idea and began shopping the project around other Hollywood studios. 

It would ultimately land at New Line, who instead of offering to finance two pictures, proposed a trilogy. The rest, as they say, is history. The three Lord of the Rings pictures would go on to see incredible critical acclaim and huge financial success. But post-release of the final film, all was not well between the studio and the director. At this point, MGM entered the frame. Having bought United Artists, they had come into possession of the rights to The Hobbit, and proposed a co-production with New Line. There had been much talk of Jackson returning to work on The Hobbit but negotiations stalled when the directer launched a lawsuit against the studio over lost revenue, in 2005 (Subsequently, a number of parties would launch similar suits against the studio). Jackson figured this was almost a trivial matter to rectify and wouldn't stop movement on The Hobbit but New Line boss Bob Shaye took great exception, branding him greedy and publicly stating that Peter Jackson would never direct another film for New Line. 

Rumours were widespread that the studio had offered The Hobbit to other directors, including Sam Raimi, but no real progress was made. MGM halted production because they did want to work with Jackson on an adaptation and hoped for a resolution. By August 2007, with New Line having suffered a string of disappointments and failures, Shaye set about repairing bridges between himself and Jackson. By December, MGM and New Line issued a statement that Peter Jackson would return to produce two Hobbit films. December 2011 and December 2012 release dates for the pictures were put in place shortly after. Having ruled himself out of directing the films (stating that he did not want to compete with what he had already produced in the LotR trilogy) the hunt was now on to find a director to finally bring The Hobbit to the big screen.

Peter Jackson had discussed working with Guillermo Del Toro on a Halo movie back in 2005 and while that hadn't come to fruition, the two had stayed in touch. Del Toro was announced as director on the new films in April 2008 and The Hobbit officially entered pre-production in August of that year. Having previously been vocal about his dislike for the books, Del Toro buried himself into Tolkien's entire world and made in-roads into winning over the fan base. He divided his time between America and New Zealand while working on the outline and structure for the films with Jackson, Walsh and Boyens. Del Toro found himself writing from early morning to mid-afternoon, before spending time at the WETA workshop, approving designs and ideas across the whole production. After a number of intense writing sessions, many lasting in excess of twelve hours, the team were ready to submit their work for approval.

Story development on The Hobbit has been increasingly complex, ironic given that it is a relativity short book. Confirmed and denied at various points throughout its history, the initial rumour was that the first film would follow the events in the original story, and that the second film would act as a bridge between The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Rings. There was also talk that both pictures would focus solely on the main story, and that Jackson was talking about making a third film, made up of largely original material, that would act as a Rings prequel. He also mentioned during development that the biggest issue was that the original story was lightweight, with a number of incidents occurring away from the reader, and only hinted at (remaining unexplained or disregarded in some cases). If they were not planning on an original bridging flick, they would need to create such sequences to fill out the backstory of the two films. But they were restricted too in that they had no permission to use any material from The Silmarrillion. 

Despite all the time spent on the project, it was still at a relatively early stage, with the greenlight to start work on the actual scripts not coming until March 2009. It's also important to note that this was only the go-ahead to start scripting, not for the actual physical shooting of the films. Meanwhile, WETA were pushing forward with creature design and reinvention - Del Toro hoping to revolutionise the animatronics industry with what they had planned. He'd also begun thinking about casting, both new characters and those who would return. But in spite of their best efforts, the script was proving troublesome and resulted in physical production (based on story approval) being pushed back into the middle of 2010. This caused many to suspect the film would not meet its December 2011 release date (something confirmed in January 2010 by Alan Horn).

But a bigger issue was about to raise its head, which would put the entire production in danger. MGM's financial woes had already seen the delay of two finished movies (Red Dawn and Cabin in the Woods) and had caused work on the 23rd James Bond film (Skyfall) to come to a grinding halt. The Hobbit too, would not escape the studio's problems. With scripting taking longer than expected, production had already been pushed back at least once. Work continued on all aspects of the project but MGM refused to commit to a shooting start date and sought to delay things further. Fans were outraged at the situation and urged MGM to sell the rights to New Line. 

Having been on board since April 2008, and with a potential two years still to go (Including almost 270 days of shooting, excluding a gap while The Hobbit Part 1 was edited), Guillermo Del Toro opted to exit the project. He stated on May 30th 2010 that with no confirmed start date, he could no longer remain at the helm of The Hobbit, in part due to commitments on other projects. The studios wanted Jackson to return, but also entertained the idea of hiring, amongst others, Neill Blomkamp, David Yates and David Dobkin. By late June, Jackson was said to be in negotiations to return to direct, and by October 2010, New Line announced that not only would he return, but that the project had been officially greenlit for production with a February 2011 start date confirmed. The two films would shoot in 3D and were to be subtitled An Unexpected Journey and There and Back Again, due for release in late 2012 and 2013 respectively. The Hobbit was finally on, and back in familiar hands.

With the film being set before the events of Lord of th Rings, it was expected that only a few characters would make a reappearance. Sir Ian McKellan would return as Gandalf The Grey, though his participation wasn't a forgone conclusion. He was under no contract and stated that he wasn't sitting around waiting for the call. However, by late November 2010 he hinted via his website that he had signed on board, something he confirmed in early January. Andy Serkis would also reprise his role as Gollum, providing the voice and the motion capture framework for the character. He would also help Jackson direct too, taking on the role of second unit director. Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett would return as Elrond and Galadriel, with Christopher Lee taking up the mantle of Saruman The White once again. For the key role of Bilbo Baggins, Jackson (and Del Toro) had realised that Ian Holm would be too old to portray the character (as he had done in The Lord of the Rings) but he would still feature in The Hobbit as the elder Bilbo. 

In casting the young Bilbo, Martin Freeman was chosen. Freeman had been approached for the role in late 2010 but commitments to the BBC show Sherlock forced him to turn down the offer. However, a few weeks later Jackson confirmed that Freeman had indeed been cast as Bilbo (his Sherlock co-star, Benedict Cumberbatch was cast as the voice of Smaug, and also provided motion capture work for the character). For the roles of the thirteen dwarves who Bilbo accompanies on their quest, Jackson chose a mixture of newcomers and established players, including James Nesbitt, Being Human's Aidan Turner, theatre actors John Callen and Adam Brown, along with Spooks star Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the dwarf company. Stephen Fry, Barry Humprhies and Billy Connolly would also take on supporting roles, and both Orlando Bloom and Elijah Wood reprise their roles in a limited capacity. 
The vast majority of the production crew on the previous trilogy would also return to work on The Hobbit series, including the WETA Digital team (WETA Workshop had long been involved since before scripting began), cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, editor Jabez Olssen (who graduated from being Additional Editor on Rings) and Howard Shore, who would once again provide the score.

As he did on Rings, Jackson planned on shooting both films together, with the first day of principal photography falling on March 21st 2011. New Zealand once again served as the primary filming location (though major issues regarding the use of labour and unions almost caused the film to up sticks to Eastern Europe) with some studio work taking place at Pinewood in the UK. A second block of filming ran from August to December 2011, though The Hobbit's official final day of principal photography fell on July 6th 2012. In all, the production shot for 266 days. As stated when the movies were greenlit, shooting took place in 3D (as opposed to any kind of post-production conversion). Furthermore, Jackson also shot the film at 48 frames per second, twice as many as the conventional method. While the picture would play at the normal speed, the extra frames, it was hoped, would enhance the image to an incredible degree. It also meant that to fully appreciate the new method, special projectors would be required. The first footage presented at 48fps debuted at CinemaCon 2012 in April and was met with mixed results. While some were impressed, many felt it gave the footage an almost TV movie quality. There was also the issue of image clarity, with the picture being so clear that it actually took viewers out of the film and highlighted that they were simply watching actors on a set. In its defence, Jackson has stated that he was not surprised by the reaction of those who saw the ten minute presentation at CinemaCon as it generally took longer for the eyes to adjust to the new filming method. Either way, since then, the studio has appeared to play down the 48fps shooting/presentation method, while ensuring people that the vast majority of showings will be in traditional 24fps 3D. With all the pieces having finally fallen into place all eyes looked towards December, but there was one final card to play.

Throughout the project, one thing many people couldn't understand was the need to make two films based on The Hobbit when it was actually quite a short story. As mentioned, Peter Jackson had stated they would be expanding the book, taking in elements not described for the reader, along with a little invention of their own. So, in July 2012, when the director announced that The Hobbit was now a trilogy, more than a few people raised concerns. The plan was to take footage envisioned for parts one and two (though more from the latter) and assemble a third movie. They also planned on shooting additional footage and mining further Hobbit-related information from the extensive appendix of The Lord of Rings trilogy. There and Back Again would now be the title of this third part, while film two became The Desolation of Smaug. The studio announced a December 2013 release date for Smaug, with There and Back Again slotting into summer 2014. The first teaser for An Unexpected Journey appeared online in December 2011, with a proper trailer debuting in mid-September of this year.

Box office-wise, Fellowship of the Rings was something of an unknown prior to its release in 2001, but opened to $47M, on its way to an impressive $315M finish. The sequels, The Two Towers and The Return of the King, would go on to bigger openings ($62M, $72M) and better finishes ($342M, $377M). Global performance was even stronger, with the trilogy amassing a staggering $1.8 billion dollars (and that excludes the US tally). Anticipation is incredibly high for this new film, though initial reviews have run from below average to very positive, with the picture's padded out runtime and younger demographic target being amongst the criticisms - the 48fps filming method has also come in for some harsh words. Whatever happens, after such a long journey, The Hobbit will finally make its debut this weekend at over 4,000 theatres.


Adrien Alexander Benson said...

Fantastic work John! Your well written, insightful looks into films and their history have undoubtedly added to the canon of "useful-only-to-me" trivia (which I so desperately crave). Thank you and I'm sure I speak for all of us here when I say we hope to see you again soon.

Alan Worsley said...

I have also really appreciated the amazing detail into the behind the scenes history of these films. Thanks John!

POI Fanatic said...

Thank you for giving us exhaustive, awesome articles every week, John. I have enjoyed reading them.

robin said...

thanks for sharing.


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