Eight years after Peter Jackson first hit upon the idea of bringing The Lord of the Rings to the big screen, his ambitious dream has been realized. Here, in the first of a two-part interview, the director draws a deep breath and looks back at his monumental achievement, from its surprising beginnings to its triumphant conclusion.
It's been a long journey. Now that it's over, what are you feeling?
Well, it's very mixed feelings. I know there won't be The Lord of the Rings anymore for us, which is sad. But it's also okay, because we've put our heart and souls into this project and we made three movies that really don't belong to us anymore. They're out there for other people to enjoy, and it's time for us to move on.
Did you grow up reading the books and dreaming of making them into films?
I think it was 1978 or 1979 when I first read the books. I was going on a train journey to Auckland, to attend a course as a photo engraving apprentice, which was my job at that time. And I thought, what on Earth can I do on this 12-hour train journey? So I bought myself The Lord of the Rings, and I sat there watching the landscape of New Zealand sliding by the train window while reading the story.
I would love to say I had this vision of making the film, but when you're 18 years old and a photo engraving apprentice you can't possibly imagine you're going to be making The Lord of the Rings one day. I thought, wow, this will make a great film, I can't wait until somebody else makes it. I never ever dreamt it would be me.
When did you first realize you might be able to tackle it yourself?
We were making a film called The Frighteners in 1995, and it was the first time we used extensive computer effects. We had set up this little company called WETA, and we were doing these ghost effects and I was starting to get very excited by what computers could do. It was a realization we had arrived at a time when just about anything you could imagine was possible to put on film.
Which made you think…
…what type of film have we never really been able to do that could now happen? And I thought fantasy, a film with huge cities, creatures, battles -- things that up to now really been impossible to show on film. And The Lord of the Rings came into my mind. It had been nearly 20 years since I had read the book, so I immediately read it again. In fact, I still had my same old copy on the shelf.
Where did you go from there?
I made a phone call to my agent and asked him if he could explore who had the rights to The Lord of the Rings. I was imagining it would be secured in the vaults of some studio or corporation, and wouldn't be accessible. It was only through a series of very lucky, fortuitous circumstances that we managed to actually get the rights.
Well, the book is incredibly long. We overcame that to some degree by being able to do three movies, which was the greatest thing that could ever happen to this project. But even so, it's a very complicated book. Tolkien fleshed out the characters and the events with all this backstory. That's fine for a book, but it's really hard to put into screen. Except without it, you can't really tell the story properly. So, how much detail we gave as opposed to how little detail we could get away with was very important.
And, of course, there are so many characters.
Normally in a movie you wouldn't choose to have as many characters as we had to deal with. And we obviously removed a huge amount of characters from the book. The ones in the film were just about the limit of what we could manage with our screen time and with the structure and telling the story.
What was your philosophy to casting this film?
There were two things: One was finding actors to represent some of the most beloved characters in history. Everybody that has read the book has imagined Frodo or Gandalf or Aragorn or Arwen, and we felt that responsibility acutely. The other thing was to make sure these actors were actually nice people. We were going to have to work with them for three years, and that's a long time to work with someone you don't like. We were lucky, we got it right. They have been the most wonderful cast.