The Frodo Franchise: An Interview with Kristin Thompson (Part One)

For those of you in and around film studies, Kristin Thompson requires no introduction. Her historical research and close formal readings of film have helped set the agenda for our field for the past several decades. For many of us, Film Art: An Introduction and Film History: An Introduction, both co-authored with David Bordwell, represent a first introduction into core concepts in the field, yet both books are more than the usual textbook rehashing of familiar content, managing to be groundbreaking work in their own terms. Also with Bordwell and with Janet Staiger, she wrote the monumental Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960, a book which became the focus of debate for the better part of a decade, pushing for a new paradigm which fused close stylistic analysis with institutional and cultural history. As a solo author, she has expanded upon that argument with Storytelling in the New Hollywood, a book which explores what does and does not change about the structure of narrative in contemporary films, and Breaking the Glass Armour, which is a book I push upon any CMS student whose thesis work requires close reading.

Thompson, thus, is one of the most established scholars in our field. She is also, though she sometimes contests the word, a fan. When I was in graduate school in Madison, she took me to some of the meetings of the local Tolkien Society and introduced me to some of the leaders of the city’s fan community. Her newest book, The Frodo Franchise: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood, brought her roles as fan and scholar together. There are few books that take us as deeply into the thinking behind a major motion picture as this one does. Thompson seems to have talked to literally everyone involved with this production and distilled it all into the epic story of how one of the most important film franchises of recent years came to become the phenomenon it is today. This is so much more than a really literate Making Of book, though, given her ability to place what occurred on the set in New Zealand into a larger picture of global trends impacting the film industry. And, for once, what fans create — their fan fiction, art, and online discussions — are treated seriously and alongside what was generated by the Powers That Be. I have argued that two media franchises have transformed the relations between Hollywood and its fans: the first, Harry Potter, has been discussed here a lot lately, Lord of the Rings is the second, and Thompson helps to explain the strategies by which Peter Jackson won over skeptical fans and brought them into the center of the production process. For those interested in transmedia storytelling, there is also a lot to like about this book which takes us deep into the production of the LOTR computer games and the development of the DVD package, among other topics.

Today, I begin the first of a three part interview with Thompson about her experiences writing the book, about her relationship to fandom, and about the things Lord of the Ring might teach us about branded entertainment in our transmedia and transnational era.

Can you tell us something of your own personal stakes in this project?

What led you to do a book about the Lord of the Rings films in the first place?

Like so many people of the Baby Boomer generation, I had read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when I was in high school. The Ballantine editions came out in 1965, and I read them right away. So I was there when a book that had mainly been popular in the U.K. suddenly became a campus craze in the U. S.

I loved the books, of course, and I have re-read them at intervals thereafter. Being of a scholarly bent, I read some essays about the books, as well as a biography of Tolkien, the volume of his letters, and the various drafts that his son Christopher has published at intervals.

In fact, when the films were being made, I was in the early stages of writing an analytical study of The Hobbit and LOTR. I had amassed quite a few notes by the time the films started coming out. Writing literary criticism may sound odd for a film historian, but it isn’t as implausible as it might seem. I’ve written a book on P. G. Wodehouse, and I have one published essay on The Hobbit that gets cited occasionally.

When New Line announced news of the film project in 1998, I, like many long-time fans of the books, was highly skeptical that an adaptation could do the books justice. Still, I had no doubts at all that the film was going to be hugely successful. (I won a $20 bet that Fellowship would gross more than $600 million internationally.) Still, I didn’t pay much attention to the film until the spring of 2001.

That was when New Line showed a twenty-six minute preview of the film at Cannes, including much of the Mines of Moria segment. I read about the rapturous reception of the film and how it was changing people’s doubts about LOTR into enthusiasm. That Cannes event fascinates me because it was such a dramatic turning point. For my book, I managed to interview ten people who were there in a wide variety of capacities, and there’s a section on it in the opening chapter.

At that point I started clipping material related to the film from trade papers like Variety and pop magazines like Entertainment Weekly. I didn’t have any idea what I might do with them.

Then Fellowship came out and was such a tremendous success. It was like the 1960s craze all over again, but now on a huge international scale. It was amazing to watch something that I had loved suddenly have this international reception.

Still, it didn’t occur to me to write a book. It was really during 2002 when I started realizing that so many aspects of the franchise were cutting-edge and successful. New Line’s official website attracted so much attention, the selling of all three parts of the film to international distributors was unprecedented, and so on. That was when I realized two things. First, one could learn a lot about how franchises work by studying all the main aspects of LOTR–not just the film, but the DVDs, the internet, and so on. (The videogames as well, of course, but the first one hadn’t been released when I was pondering all this.) Second, LOTR was rapidly becoming one of the most important films ever made. Its impact on New Zealand, for one thing, affecting a whole country’s economy and international image. The elaborate DVD supplements, the internet buzz. I decided that someone should try to capture all that before it slipped away and people’s memories faded.

I should stress that writing the book was my own idea entirely. Neither New Line nor the filmmakers knew anything about it until I contacted them. I have no license or any other legal relationship to either group, and it’s certainly not a tie-in book. It was a purely free-lance project, and I wrote it without having a publisher lined up.


Your project has depended on building close relationships with many of the key production people involved in the films and the related products (the game company, for example). Can you share with us some of the process by which you built these relationships? What has been involved in an academic getting inside the production process to this degree?

I knew from the start that I couldn’t write the book I wanted to without interviewing many of those involved. So little of what happened was reported in print or on the internet, and most of its never would be. I also believed that I had to begin the interviewing process while the film was still being made. Once everyone had scattered, it would be impossible to talk to as many of them as I could in Wellington. My ideal would have been to go to Wellington while the main pick-up filming was going on during April to July of 2003.

I started out not knowing any of the people involved directly or indirectly with the films. My assumption was that I would have to get in touch with one of the key people. There were only three of them who seemed powerful enough to make the decision to cooperate with my project: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Barrie Osborne.

In late 2002 I was still wondering if I could manage that. Fortunately I happened to be at a film conference in Adelaide, Australia, and met a film editor named Annabelle Sheehan. She was familiar with my work, and she said she could put me in touch with Barrie. (Shortly after that Annabelle became an executive at a talent agency in Sydney, a company that represents, coincidentally, Cate Blanchett.)

I don’t know exactly what she told him about me, but clearly she vouched for me as a serious, well-established scholar. That probably wouldn’t impress a lot of Hollywood producers, but Barrie is a very smart and well-educated man. He went to Carlton College here in the Midwest, and I think he had some idea of what I was proposing. (I was always afraid that I’d be taken for someone like Peter Biskind, looking to dish the dirt on the production.) Barrie gave Annabelle permission to give me his email address. Once I had sent a description of the project to him, he said he was interested but would have to run the idea past Peter and New Line.

That happened in mid-January of 2003. My hope at that point was to go to Wellington during the time the cast was back for pick-ups and additional shooting, which would mean roughly April to July. Most of the main crew members would be reassembled at that point, so I figured getting a lot of interviews would be relatively easy.

Establishing contact with Barrie turned out to be the perfect first step. I have to admit, however, that I was very naive at the beginning. I figured that Barrie’s interest would be enough to get me access to the filmmakers for interviews. It didn’t occur to me that everyone involved had of course signed confidentiality agreements with New Line, which had to OK that sort of access. I gather those agreements were particularly strict for this film. Barrie said he’d need to clear it with Peter and with them before we could proceed.

I never heard that Peter OKed the project, though I assume he must have or it would never have gone forward.

I won’t go into the lengthy negotiation process that I went through with New Line, but it lasted from February to August, scotching my chances of being in Wellington during pickups. In late August I got the word that New Line was probably going to cooperate. That was enough for me to decide to go to New Zealand if possible, and witness some of the post-production, tour the facilities, interview people, whatever. I contacted Barrie about it, and he said I could come down. I booked my flights, bought a really good digital audio recorder, and by the end of September I was in Wellington.

Those two moments–Barrie’s decisions to cooperate and to let me come down before the film was finished–were the crucial points, and I must give Barrie enormous credit for trusting and supporting me. I doubt that the book would exist if I hadn’t had that support.

I went to Wellington not having any interviews with filmmakers lined up, though people at various government agencies–Tourism New Zealand, Film New Zealand, the New Zealand Film Commission–had agreed to talk with me. Of course Return of the King was still being worked on, but by then that involved mainly the computer animation, the color grading, and the sound mixing. The designers and various other people I wanted to interview had moved on to other projects, but most of them were Kiwis, so I hoped they would be in the area and accessible.

Barrie assigned me a point person, Melissa Booth, the main publicist at that time. She and I sat down on my first day, and she was terrific. She picked up right away on what I needed and made up a list of people and made the first appointments for me. After that I had the contact information and mainly made the appointments myself. Basically, once Barrie had made it known that I was doing the book, virtually everyone involved in the filmmaking whom I wanted to interview cooperated and indeed were very friendly and open about the whole thing. I talked with Ngila Dickson (costume designer), Richard Taylor and two of his designers (Weta Workshop), Matt Aitken (in charge of model scanning at Weta Digital), and others.

One stroke of luck was that I ran into Michael Pellerin, producer/director of the supplements for the extended-edition DVDs. I interviewed him and watched him at work for an afternoon. Although Peter obviously didn’t have time to be interviewed at that point, he did let me watch him supervising some of the final sound mixing on the Shelob sequence.

Despite the fact that I was there at the very end of the filmmaking, everything that was going on was fascinating to witness. They were even still doing some pickups, though not involving the stars. It was mainly orcs being filmed against a blue screen to be jigsawed into special-effects shots. I got a tour of the Stone Street Studios and stayed to watch about half an hour of the filming.

Everyone was trying frantically to finish Return by the deadline, and there was a sense of excitement–and a bit of panic–everywhere. The whole interviewing process went so well that my planned three-week stay was too short, and I added an extra week.

After that first visit, I returned to New Zealand for two more rounds of interviews. The next was in June of 2004, and things were much quieter. King Kong was in the writing and pre-production stage, and there was activity, but nothing like the frantic rush of the first time. Peter was working very hard, of course, but he managed to squeeze in an hour to talk with me. I also got to interview Philippa Boyens, Grant Major, some of the tech people, and so on. A third trip, in November/December 2004 was partly to finish up the round of interviews I had planned and to update with some of the people I had previously talked to.

I did many interviews elsewhere, of course–Peter’s agent in LA, the producer-director of the making-ofs for cable TV, the Danish distributor of LOTR, Ian McKellen in London, etc. Basically the fact that Peter and the other filmmakers were cooperating was enough to convince them to talk with me. One thing that came through time after time was how excited all these people were that they had been involved in this unique enterprise. It was like an era coming to an end, and I think most of them were happy that someone was recording it for posterity.

At first I thought I would be able to interview heads of departments at New Line, but in the summer of 2004 they informed me that they had decided against it. I don’t know why. Maybe they still thought of me as a sort of glorified journalist snooping around for secrets to do a Biskind-style hatchet job on them. I was disappointed about that at first, but now I think it was probably better this way. I got to talk with the filmmakers, but I never had to sign a confidentiality agreement with New Line–or with anyone. My relationship with my interviewees was always on the basis of trust, and all of them had the option of reading the drafts of chapters where I quoted them and requesting that I change passages. That didn’t happen much, but I felt it was only fair to these people to make that offer–plus I hope it made them feel freer to say things without having to be overly cautious about violating their own confidentiality agreements.

I think it was really only after the first trip to New Zealand that I started trying to think of any comparable book that had appeared: a study of an entire film by a film historian, as opposed to a journalist. I couldn’t think of any.

Now that the book is coming out, I can see why. I look back and think that getting the access I needed for my research was so close to impossible that I wonder if another such book can ever be written. The thing depended so much on some incredibly lucky coincidences, on dogged determination, on Kiwi friendliness and hospitality, and certainly on Barrie’s support. That complex set of circumstances is so unlikely to come together again. I’m convinced that if I had tried to undertake a comparable project relating to one of the big franchises that are made in Hollywood or London, it wouldn’t have gotten to square one.

On the other hand, if people in the industry read The Frodo Franchise, maybe some will recognize that it’s really great publicity for them. I would like to think that it would inspire studio officials to give greater access to bona fide scholars. It would be somewhat like the studios’ learning curve on how to deal with fans on the internet, I suppose.

What did you learn through this front-line perspective about how contemporary films are being produced that complimented or expanded what you had come to understand through other methodologies (close reading, studying the trade press and production manuals, etc.)?

The stages in production are so familiar that in a way I didn’t learn an enormous amount about that side of things. Certainly I saw techniques being used that I had only written about. Peter Doyle, who was one of the inventors of the digital color-grading system used on LOTR and other films, sat down with me for 25 minutes and demonstrated how the grading had been achieved on a few shots from the trilogy. It’s a surprisingly beautiful process to watch.

But I learned more about some of the activities around the filmmaking that have never been studied. Certain aspects of the publicity, for example. How do making-of films get onto cable stations? It happens all the time these days, but when I asked, nobody could tell me, and there’s nothing written about it. I was quite curious about that and finally found out through some of the interviews. We all know about press junkets in general, but when did they start? When did they become as big and elaborate as they are now? Again, the history of press junkets hasn’t been written, so I sat down with Roger Ebert, who has been in movie journalism during that entire period, and he gave me enormously helpful information.

So this was the first project I’ve done that depended really heavily upon interviews for material that couldn’t be gotten any other way. It was also the first project where I used the internet. (My previous book was on Ernst Lubitsch’s silent features, and despite the fact that lots of people think everything is now on the internet, it isn’t. I didn’t learn a single thing for that project on the internet.) In part it was a research tool, but the internet’s relationship to LOTR is the topic of two chapters.

This project has involved vastly different sorts of research and topics than I had dealt with before. I think coping with the wide range of topics that the franchise entailed was possible due to that basic historical approach that you and I and all the other film graduate students all learn at the University of Wisconsin: start out by formulating your core topic as a small set of questions. Then you just have to figure out what you need to do to answer them.