Wake up and smell the lembas bread, because today marks the return to Middle Earth as the long-awaited The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey comes to theaters in an unexpected amount of formats. While I have not seen the 48 FPS version, I have it on good authority from our own Brian Walton that it is more of a curiosity than anything else. Gollum will look terrifyingly real, but other elements and scenes may have that uncanny valley effect where things get too real and you realize you’re watching a movie. But, I digress. Whether you’re excited to see Bilbo Bueller’s Day Off, impossibly excited to see 9 minutes of Star Trek Into Darkness before seeing 2 hours and 46 minutes of IMAX awesomeness, or you’re just super into dwarfism, The Hobbit is a trek worth making. To give you a look inside the minds of some of the folks behind Middle Earth, I briefly caught up with Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, Richard Armitage, and Sir Ian “Magdalf the Greyneto” McKellen to talk about keeping all the dwarves straight, returning to Tolkien’s universe and how Ian McKellen acts so well.
Peter Jackson (Director) & Philippa Boyens (Screenwriter)
Nerdist: What were the challenges in adapting an epic book like The Hobbit, especially in light of the staggering success of Lord of the Rings?
Peter Jackson: Well, the good thing is that it’s a different story, the origin story, if you want to put it in comic book terms. [laughs] I think the thing we decided is that it’s not Lord of the Rings; it’s got its own charm and a degree of humor and character quirkiness that Lord of the Rings doesn’t. Lord of the Rings is very somber, so we wanted to make a different kind of film really. But, we didn’t want to make it as much of a children’s film, so we used a lot of material from the appendices. Tolkien expanded the world of The Hobbit by some 125 pages in the appendices, which helps bring the film closer in tone to Lord of the Rings, but it retains the quirkiness of the characters.
Philippa Boyens: It’s good that we wrote Lord of the Rings first, I think, because we got used to these large casts. thirteen dwarves, a Hobbit and a wizard, and you have them congenially in the same scene. Giving weight to all of those characters was a bit tricky. But, the director’s not half bad, so that helped. [laughs]
N: Speaking of the thirteen dwarves, from a writing standpoint, how do you make them distinct characters?
PB: One of the problems was that there’s too many characters. What we realized early on was that we had to make it a plus because if you were going to take this journey into the wild to take on, possibly, a live dragon, thirteen is too few. They need an army. They don’t have an army, but they have thirteen dwarves.
PJ: Part of it is that when you’re writing the screenplay, you try to give each dwarf their own character, but once you actually cast them, the actors take control of it to some degree. And we cast a bunch of different people with quite a bit of variety to bring their own sensibilities to the dwarves. But, at the end of the day, it is the story of Bilbo, Gandalf and Thorin – those three characters are your trio at the heart of the story.
Richard Armitage (“Thorin Oakenshield”)
Nerdist: Richard, I’ve heard that you’re something of a method actor. How do you prepare for such an iconic role and, moreover, something so steeped in fantasy like a dwarf?
Richard Armitage: Yeah, good question. [laughs] I kept the books alive. Staying with the character – not necessarily in character – was one of the great challenges. I mean, the dwarf aspect of it was the challenge because you do inhabit that character as a physical presence because of the shape and size of the costumes you’re wearing. As for the mental landscape that he’s going through, I did try to hang on to that all the way through. I was fairly grumpy for two-and-a-half years and had a beard, so, yeah. [laughs]
N: How familiar were you with the source material? Was this something near and dear to you? Did you grow up with it?
RA: Yeah, I did. I grew up with The Hobbit, probably more than Lord of the Rings. I was read The Hobbit at school and then I took the Rings books and read them myself, but they were very much a part of my childhood.
N: Is there something in particular about genre roles that attract you or is it something you decide on a role-by-role basis?
RA: I’m always interested in fantasy; this is the kind of film I’d love to watch. I think that Tolkien was the original creator of fantasy fiction in terms of literature and everyone’s been waiting to see that dragon. It’s been kept under wraps from the cast.
N: Really? Even the cast?
RA: Yeah, so that’s going to be a really great moment when we finally see it in the movie.
Sir Ian McKellen (“Gandalf the Grey”)
Nerdist: So tell me, how did this experience compare to working on Lord of the Rings? What was it like getting back into the robes?
Ian McKellen: Well, we did it in the same place, the same parts of New Zealand. There was a bit less touring around doing location work. It was all put together, so we did two months of intense location work, but this time we were working in larger, more efficient studios than we had for Lord of the Rings, which was all shot in an old paint factory. It wasn’t heated, it wasn’t cooled in the summer, it wasn’t soundproofed – it was nowhere to make a movie really, but now we’ve got the state-of-the-art stuff. There are more people on this film – I don’t know why that is, but there are – and many of them are familiar faces, so it’s like coming back home. The biggest changes have been with the actors because, although there are some characters that are returning, the dwarves, of course, are all new. And young Bilbo, the same. Half of those are Kiwi actors and they’re grounded, they live there, their kids are their, their families, so it feels like making a home movie and I like that.
N: Between characters like Magneto and Gandalf, you’ve become something of a staple in the modern sci-fi/fantasy genre. I have to borrow a quote of yours from Extras and ask, “How do you act so well?” How do prepare for these roles?
IM: [laughs] Well, when it comes to Gandalf, not a lot because he’s sort of inside me somewhere or I’m inside him. Once you put on, early in the morning, the wig and the beard and the mustache and the false nose… [pauses, then in his best Gandalf voice] Bilbo Baggins! [switching back to his speaking voice] You just seem to be off and running. [laughs] It hasn’t been too much of a stretch; it’s more of the same, but I’m glad about that.
N: Do you think that fans of Lord of the Rings might be surprised by the difference in tone in The Hobbit? It’s certainly less apocalyptic in nature.
IM: Well, the stories are very different. In Lord of the Rings, they’re saving the world. If Frodo doesn’t deliver that ring into the mountain where it’ll be burnt and destroyed, the world will be destroyed. The Hobbit is more of an adventure story for kids, really. It’s one that adults hopefully will enjoy, but there’s a lighter tone to it. Peter kept saying, “Come on, let’s make this funny.” How does it all hold up? I don’t know because [at the time of this interview] I haven’t seen it cut together. But, I think Peter’s intention was always, quite rightly, that it should be lighter in tone.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is in theaters nationwide in a variety of frame rates, definitions, and dimensions. To decide which one is best, please consult J.R.R. Tolkien’s The 3Dmarillion. (EDITOR’S NOTE: Rimshot.) How will you be seeing The Hobbit? Quemment below and let us know!