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

Yesterday, I began a three part interview with Kristin Thompson, noted film scholar and author of the new book, The Frodo Franchise: Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood.

For those of you who would like to learn more about Thompson and her work, here are some relevent links:

The publisher’s website about the book.

Observations on Film Art, the blog which Thompson runs with David Bordwell.

What can you tell us about how the Lord of the Rings films were conceived?

According to Peter, it happened in the wake of his making The Frighteners. Although that film was not a success–in part due to a bad release date–it had a huge number of CGI shots for its day and allowed Weta Digital to build its computing power up considerably. Peter says that he was looking around for another effects-heavy film to make, and he and Fran came up with LOTR. It’s quite a leap from a relatively modest ghost film to an epic trilogy, but that’s basically what launched the project.

How was it possible for Peter Jackson, a then little known New Zealand filmmaker, to get control over such a large scale media franchise?

I go into the convoluted history of the filmmaking rights for LOTR in the book, and I don’t want to give too much away. But basically Peter had a Miramax connection, because they distributed Heavenly Creatures in the U.S. Saul Zaentz, who owned the LOTR rights at the time Peter got interested, had a Miramax connection because they had rescued his English Patient project when Fox pulled the plug on it. It was far from a speedy process, but Miramax eventually bought the rights for Peter to make LOTR.

Eventually the project went from Miramax to New Line, which had relatively little choice but to take Peter as part of the package, for reasons that I’ll leave for people to read in the book.

What long term impact has Jackson’s success had upon the film industry in New Zealand? What does this suggest about the impact of globalization on media production?

When I made my first research trip to New Zealand in late 2003, the issue of how LOTR was affecting the country’s own small film industry was a somewhat tense one. Some local filmmakers claimed that having a huge production like LOTR and perhaps other epics to follow (at this point the final decision to film The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in New Zealand hadn’t been made) would drive up the costs of labor and supplies. Another fear was that the industry would become too dependent on these big films coming in from outside the country, a flow which could dry up abruptly if the exchange rate changed or sophisticated post-production facilities were built in other small producing countries.

It was also not clear whether Film New Zealand, the agency that works to bring productions in from abroad would be funded adequately. The scheme for tax rebates for foreign productions hadn’t been passed, and so on.

By my next trip, only about seven months later, it was a whole new situation. Film NZ was funded adequately, the Large Budget Screen Production Grant had been approved, and the mood was generally much more upbeat. The large pool of skilled labor left behind by LOTR was also recognized as an enormous asset.

It’s a bit soon to gauge the long-term effects, but New Zealand’s national feature-film production is probably healthier than it has ever been. Many of the Kiwi directors and other personnel who went abroad for work returned during the making of LOTR. Enough large-budget productions have decided to film in New Zealand and use its state-of-the-art post-production facilities that “Wellywood” seems well-established. I think James Cameron’s decision to make much of Avatar in New Zealand was like the final stamp of approval. If one of the top effects-centered directors chooses Weta Digital, surely others will follow.

As to the impact on international media production, The Frodo Franchise ends with a discussion of the growth of these technically sophisticated filmmaking centers in small producing countries. A big complex is being built in South Africa, for example. I’m not sure that the films, commercials, and TV shows that will be made largely abroad will be all that much different from what we’re familiar with. Did being animated in Korea for years affect The Simpsons?

On the other hand, I definitely think one reason why Peter had a relatively high level of control over the making of LOTR is that the production was happening in a country that’s a 12-hour flight from Los Angeles. Some directors may opt to make their films in remote locations for precisely that reason.

Previously Hollywood studios sent filmmakers abroad for principal photography to save money. Now post-production work, even sophisticated special effects, can increasingly be done overseas for the same reason. The result may be that less of the work of actual filmmaking will be done in Hollywood, which, along with New York, will become more a center of film financing and distribution.

We have seen a dramatic increase in the number of fantasy films being produced in the wake of the success of Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter film franchise. Do you think the film industry has taken the right lessons from the success of these two series?

The industry has taken the lesson that fantasy sells–for now, anyway. Genres go in cycles, and sci-fi films seem to be in decline as fantasy films rise. The question is whether Hollywood executives will continue to make fantasies if a few of them fail. Eregon was a potential franchise that fizzled, despite the popularity of the book–but the critical consensus was that it was a pale imitation of LOTR. Will Hollywood blame the genre rather than the film? I suppose a lot is riding–certainly for New Line–on The Golden Compass. I think Phillip Pullman’s trilogy is fantastic, but in a way even more difficult to adapt than LOTR. And even if it’s a hit, there just aren’t that many literary fantasies out there on that level. Still, there are two more Harry Potter films to come, and I just read that the third Chronicles of Narnia film is going into pre-production.

So fantasy might have staying power, as other genres have had. 2001 gave sci-fi films respectability, and Star Wars gave them popularity. Sci-fi films have been a prominent Hollywood product until very recently. The Godfather gave gangster films both respectability and popularity, and gangster films are still with us. Now thatLOTR, and to a lesser extent Harry Potter, have given fantasy respectability and popularity, it may also be a genre that remains important for decades.


We have seen a dramatic increase in the number of fantasy films being produced in the wake of the success of Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter film franchise. Do you think the film industry has taken the right lessons from the success of these two series?

The industry has taken the lesson that fantasy sells–for now, anyway. Genres go in cycles, and sci-fi films seem to be in decline as fantasy films rise. The question is whether Hollywood executives will continue to make fantasies if a few of them fail. Eregon was a potential franchise that fizzled, despite the popularity of the book–but the critical consensus was that it was a pale imitation of LOTR. Will Hollywood blame the genre rather than the film? I suppose a lot is riding–certainly for New Line–on The Golden Compass. I think Phillip Pullman’s trilogy is fantastic, but in a way even more difficult to adapt than LOTR. And even if it’s a hit, there just aren’t that many literary fantasies out there on that level. Still, there are two more Harry Potter films to come, and I just read that the third Chronicles of Narnia film is going into pre-production.

So fantasy might have staying power, as other genres have had. 2001 gave sci-fi films respectability, and Star Wars gave them popularity. Sci-fi films have been a prominent Hollywood product until very recently. The Godfather gave gangster films both respectability and popularity, and gangster films are still with us. Now thatLOTR, and to a lesser extent Harry Potter, have given fantasy respectability and popularity, it may also be a genre that remains important for decades.

One of the accomplishments of LOTR is that it overcame critics perceptions that fantasy films were “overly reliant” on special effects and achieve recognition for its performances and scripts. Do you think critical hostility to special effects has been misplaced? Are digital effects simply one new technique among many by which filmmakers shape our experience of their work?

I think it’s absurd to make sweeping claims about computer effects, whether for fantasy or other types of films. People still care about character, as witnessed by the huge popularity of Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean series or of many of the characters in the Harry Potter films. If critics don’t like a big fantasy film, they often focus the blame on the special effects, even though other techniques and the script may be equally to blame.

It would be interesting to turn the critical eye back on the critics and look at all the clichés they resort to. I’ve become distinctly cynical about popular press and TV coverage of films since researching my chapter on modern publicity methods–press junkets, electronic press kits, and the whole rise of infotainment. Critics devise a shared story that is easy to write. If an animated film flops, it’s “Is there a glut of CGI animated films this season?” Never mind that four of the ten highest grossers of the year turn out to be CGI animated films. “Too much dependence on special effects” seems to be just one of those convenient tropes that critics have in their limited repertoire. It’s a tired argument by now, but it’s easier than actually thinking about a film on a tight deadline.

How do you think the emergence of digital effects is impacting film production today?

Digital technology as such is affecting films in subtle but pervasive ways. Mixing digital soundtracks allows a minute attention to details and the use of dozens, even of hundreds of tracks to create the finished product. The result, in some cases at least, is a new density and complexity of sound. Digital means are used in editing, design, storyboarding, and a whole variety of phases of filmmaking.

In terms of digital special effects, there is currently a sort of race to use the highest number of effects shots and the most complex technology. Large numbers of effects shots are touted in publicity. It has to end somewhere, since, as Variety recently pointed out, effects houses are being stretched and some films risk missing their release dates because their effects are being done up to the last possible minute.

And, while digital technology is a money-saver in some areas, CGI shots and things like color grading on digital intermediates have become some of the highest cost factors in filmmaking, alongside burgeoning stars’ fees. If studios seriously want to cut budgets (which they so far talk about but don’t do), rationing digital effects would be one key way to do it.

Critics have historically been disdainful of sequels or franchises, yet the general perception is that the three films here formed an integrated whole.

That’s partly because LOTR was exceptional. Tolkien conceived his novel as a single book, and it was published in three volumes because the publishers thought it was the only way they could recoup their costs. (The editor thought that the book might well lose money anyway and yet went ahead and published it. Those were the days.) As I’ve mentioned, Peter approached the film in the same way, treating it as one continuous story. He even refused to have summary crawl titles at the beginnings of Films 2 and 3. Now, with DVDs, one could watch the films back to back, skipping the end credits and head logo and title, and they would flow together reasonably well. (The Two Towers would flow on quite nicely from Fellowship‘s ending, though the opening of Return, with its flashback to Gollum’s downfall, would be a little jarring after Towers‘ end.)

That kind of coherence was possible because of Bob Shaye’s decision to make the three parts simultaneously. They were shot out of continuity in one giant period of principal photography. Apart from the fairly evident growth in the number and complexity of the special effects from part to part, there’s not much that would go against that feeling of the films being an integrated whole.

So far no studio has had the nerve to do the same thing. The first Pirates of the Caribbean ended with the filmmakers not knowing what would happen in part 3, for example. The Chronicles of Narnia series, New Line’s His Dark Materials trilogy, and others all wait for the first film to succeed before moving on. Still, presumably films based on existing literature can have a sense of coherence somewhat comparable to LOTR. It will be very interesting to see what happens with The Golden Compass. Can New Line manage to create a unified trilogy, as Pullman’s novels do? From the start they have modeled this new potential franchise on LOTR–except for making the first film separately.

What steps did the producers take to insure the integrity of the series as a whole? How central do you think this more integrated approach is to the public perception of this series?

One thing that I find remarkable about LOTR is how quickly these three long films were released–almost ten hours of effects-heavy film in a two-year period. When you think of the years it took Martin Scorsese to makeGangs of New York, with its many delays, Peter really achieved a feat. When the film was announced by New Line in August of 1998, the press release said, “The company may release the trilogy as a Christmas-summer Christmas event during the 2000-2001 calendar year.” That was obviously a little too ambitious, and once the full scope of the project became apparent, the three-Christmas release was settled. Even that is ridiculously ambitious by the standard of modern Hollywood, and I can’t think of another case where three release dates were announced at once and so early. (Return‘s release date was committed to about four years in advance!) How many directors could make those deadlines and create an epic set of films this polished?

(Of course the extended DVD versions contain a full 120 minutes of additional footage, much of which was shot during principal photography, so the whole thing is even more amazing.)

Again, compare this with the slower release of the Harry Potter films. Those are very ambitious films, but they’re shorter than the installments of LOTR. I can’t think of any series of comparable size that has come out that fast. The second and third Pirates of the Caribbean films were released a year apart, but that’s largely because the producers imitated the LOTR production and shot them more or less at the same time.

So that’s one reason I think LOTR was perceived as an integral film. The release dates were announced long in advance, and the parts came out at almost exactly the same time each year, mid-December. Knowing in advance that all three were coming probably played a big part in making fans not perceiving films two and three as sequels. Also, the extended-version DVDs of the first two films were timed to come out shortly before the next part’s theatrical release, so the rush to watch them presumably made the three films flow together in an atypical way.

The regularity led to a sense of Christmas being LOTR time. During the 2004, 2005, and even the 2006 Christmas season, I read comments in the popular press about what a pity it was that no new LOTR installment was appearing. Earlier this year Entertainment Weekly, which assigns grades to trailers, gave the one for The Golden Compass a B+, remarking, “points off for so shamelessly trading on our Lord of the Rings nostalgia”–more than three years after the trilogy ended!

Another reason would be that in the publicity, Peter and others of the filmmakers stressed that this was one long film, so a lot of people presumably thought of it that way as well.

Thinking about it now, it occurs to me that the first two parts don’t end on the traditional cliffhanger that one associates with serials. Both end with Frodo and Sam trudging along on their trip to Mordor, where we can glimpse Mt. Doom in the distance. Despite what critics might claim about LOTR being a succession of battles and action scenes, it’s the journey of those two Hobbits that gives the narrative its shape. As so often happens in classical Hollywood films, goal orientation is a major unifying factor.

The trailers played up the journey aspect of the plot. The Fellowship one is most concerned with setting up the basic core story element, the destruction of the Ring, and it ends by simply saying, “The legend comes to life.” But the Towers trailer ends, “The journey continues” and near the end of the Return trailer, we hear “The journey ends.”

On the lack of cliffhangers. There’s a promise of considerable action ahead in the first two films’ endings, but Sam and Frodo aren’t in imminent danger in either case. In the novel, Fellowship ends in the same way, with the hobbits in the Emyn Muil making their way toward Mordor. Tolkien’s Towers, though, has one of the killer cliffhangers of all time. After following Frodo and Sam for the second half of the volume as they slowly progress toward Mordor, Tolkien ends with the aftermath of the Shelob episode with one terse, powerful sentence: “Frodo was alive but taken by the enemy.” The filmmakers were no doubt right in moving that episode into the third part, but they lost a great moment.

Contrast that with the Harry Potter series, where there’s a continuing goal across the seven books (though it develops and becomes focused slowly), but they are structured around the cycle of going to Hogwarts at the beginning and returning home at the end. They’re more self-contained than LOTR. Spider-man has continuing elements, but a new villain or villains each time, while LOTR has Sauron from start to finish (and Saruman to link films one and two).

As a production, the film itself has a built-in unity, of course, and I think that shows in the final product. The same crew worked on all three parts, and bringing in Tolkien illustrators Alan Lee and John Howe assured that all the design elements worked together seamlessly. One crucial factor was Howard Shore’s music, which was conceived as a single piece with leitmotifs running through all three films. All in all, I think it would be hard to point to a single factor that would encourage people see these as three self-contained films. Again, that sets LOTR apart from other franchises, where for the most part the individual films are self-contained to a considerable degree. At the end of the X-Men films, for example, we know that tensions between the two mutant groups has the potential to lead to further conflicts and adventures, but we don’t know what those will be.