Peter Jackson: Return of the king

By Russell Baillie

With just a few weeks until the second Hobbit movie reaches our screens and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra finalising the score, Peter Jackson tells Russell Baillie the latest journey to Middle-earth will be even better than the first

'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' director, Peter Jackson. Photo / Armando Gallo
'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' director, Peter Jackson. Photo / Armando Gallo

Maybe he's rushed off them. Or he's just been doing too much thinking on them.

Whatever it is, there they are - the famously, conspicuously bare feet of Sir Peter Jackson.

On this Friday afternoon, said feet are poking from a couch which is set up, not at Park Road Post or Stone Street Studios or any of the Wetas out in Miramar, but in the Ilot Theatre within the Wellington Town Hall.

The sofa might be his director's chair today, but here he's taking a back seat. A mug of tea permanently wrapped in one hand, he's here to keep an ear on things and talk to Canvas. Spread out in front of him are the workings of a recording studio control room. Up front is a screen repeatedly showing the opening scenes of The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug, Jackson's part II in his second Tolkien trilogy.

Occasionally, as the film's prologue cuts to the movie's title, the room fills with a great rumbling of sound topped by a minor-key shriek of strings which sound almost Chinese in its foreboding motif.

"That is a little bit of a Smaug theme in the title," murmurs Jackson after I've sunk into the couch alongside him, leaving my own footwear on. He explains composer Howard Shore, who also did The Lord Of The Rings scores, created a theme for Smaug the dragon - seen briefly enacting a scorched Middle-earth policy in the first Hobbit movie - inspired by the prominence of dragons in Chinese and Indonesian culture. Plus a touch of Psycho.

"Smaug is not Jaws or a monster," says Jackson as the music tails off. "Smaug is a psychopath. Smaug is literally a cunning, intelligent psychopath who is laying in wait for these guys. So it's sinister clever kind of music."

If it sounds, well, epic, as it blasts from the speakers to the analytical ears of a team of audio boffins headed by Abbey Road senior engineer Peter Cobbin, who has been on the mixing desk for many past Jackson films, then let's head into the town hall's main auditorium and hear the thunder up close.

There, spread across the floor are the 80-plus members of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Today they are dressed not in concert attire but comfy civvies. A few Hawaiian shirts stand out, but not as much as one string player still in the high-viz vest he rode to work in.

They sit beneath a forest of microphones and under the baton of Conrad Pope, whose podium has a monitor showing the scene that is being played to, complete with time and bar cues. The avuncular American has quite some form as a film composer himself, but he is here as an orchestrator - someone who takes the film score and figures out how the orchestra might play it.

It's a job he's done for a who's who of Hollywood movie maestros. Writing those themes is one thing. Having the attention to detail to take an orchestra through them, bar-by-bar, scene by scene, deciding what's working, making sure there's just enough brass at the point when Bilbo Baggins realises something nasty is about to befall him yet again ... that's Pope's job.

Each six-hour session of two three-hour slots realises about 10 minutes of music.

Then Cobbin and his cohorts must take it and mix it with the rest of the movie sound design and dialogue at Park Road Post.

"When you put something in a film you have to realise it's in that film forever," says Pope.

"It's not just a performance for one time that people will forget. It is something that is going into a soundtrack so that is why we have to do it a very technical way. This orchestra is used to giving concerts and performances on stage - it's like an actor doing a play. Once you get to a movie it's a very technical exercise."

Pope's is a job that means making decisions on the fly and going off manuscript. At one point there's a to-and-fro discussion between him and the control room about the worth of a single harmonic note played by the strings. Out it goes is the decision, and the players lean forward and attack their sheet music with erasers.

Back in the control room, Jackson looks on as the monitor progresses through early scenes in the movie. Some are still basic animatics requiring megabytes of Weta Digital magic before the film's worldwide release on December 13.

With a box-office haul north of US$1 billon ($1.2 billion), the first film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey took almost as much at the international box office as The Return Of The King, the Oscar-laden final and the most successful of the LOTR trilogy.

That was despite An Unexpected Journey's mixed reviews - some of the criticism took aim at how the film looked in its 3D HFR (high frame rate) version - and the complaints of Hobbit purists who thought the movie took lavish liberties with the slim original bedtime tale.

By the looks of it, they ain't seen nothing yet. The latest trailer, for instance, hints at an elf romance between Orlando Bloom's returning Legolas (who doesn't feature in The Hobbit) and Evangeline Lilly's Tauriel (who doesn't feature anywhere in Tolkien at all).

The criticism of the first film hasn't affected Jackson's approach to parts II and III.

"Ah, not really. I don't pay a hell of a lot of attention. Every time you do something people are going to like it, people are going to hate it. You tend to make the movies on the basis you are making them for the people who are going to like them and not worrying too much about people who don't like them.

"We wrote these all at the same time and we shot them all at the same time. So it feels like a certain degree of it already being in place."

There was some pick-up shooting a few months ago at Miramar, he says, "to really nail bits of storytelling".

"But the pattern was set about three years ago when the scripts were written."

In New Zealand, the first film's opening came with its own media-political frenzy which revived the arguments over the Government's dealings with the trilogy's backers, Warner Bros, over labour laws and tax rebates.

Jackson says he didn't let the apparent backlash affect him.

Sir Peter Jackson relaxes with tea and symphony in Wellington’s Ilot Theatre. Photo / Hagen Hopkins
Sir Peter Jackson relaxes with tea and symphony in Wellington’s Ilot Theatre. Photo / Hagen Hopkins

"I can't let it worry me too much because I know making these movies has brought hundreds of millions of dollars into the country that would never have come here if it wasn't for these films. So I can't see how that is a bad thing. I do think that essentially The Hobbit did become an opportunity for people to beat up the Government. It was just a way they could do it and I did feel a bit sad about that because it should be completely separate. All that the Government did was make a business decision.

"It's drama. You know I am not anti media at all. But the media, the news anywhere in the world, is based on drama. Something is good and positive, well, the only way to create a story out of that is to find a negative. You can't just keep writing about the positive all the time. It's not too different from a screenplay - if you are writing in the first act that everything is going well, the turning point at the end of the first act is that something happens and there is tension and despair.

"It is now such a complex society in terms of media. It just comes at us from every direction. You kind of have to push it all away. You make a movie and you really just want to entertain people and hope people will enjoy it. It's all I'm doing it for, really."

So here he is today on the final laps of a trilogy he was never meant to direct, having roped in Guillermo del Toro to helm the movies. Production delays caused by studio politics caused the Mexican director to quit in 2010.

Jackson, feeling he has done his time in Middle-earth, reluctantly took over and shot the films back to back, the project expanding from a two-film Hobbit adaptation to a trilogy with a near LOTR-sized cast and scale.

The Desolation of Smaug - the title is a reference to a singed patch of Middle-earth below the Lonely Mountain - might not be finished, but Jackson promises it is a better movie than the first. And not just because it has a dragon voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. There are less introductions to be made and the adventure is already up to speed.

"Second movies are great because you can drop into them and it doesn't really have a beginning on it, particularly in a traditional way. You can just tear into it."

And though the scale of today's recording session may not suggest it - with the NZSO and Cobbin and co, brought in from the UK - this is all part of speeding up the post-production process.

The first Hobbit's movie score was recorded at Abbey Road with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which also recorded the bulk of Shore's Academy Award-winning LOTR soundtracks.

But hiring the NZSO to play on what will likely also be their biggest-selling album means Jackson can multi-task his way through the movie's post-production without a flight to London in the middle.

As a Beatles fan, he's certainly enjoyed his past visits to the hallowed ground that is London's most famous studio. "Abbey Road was a geek fest," he says about being given his own Fab Four tour by the engineers.

Today, Jackson has already done a day's work. That morning he was on Park Road Post to look at the colour grading of the movie's latest trailer. Then it was a couple of hours at Weta Digital to give notes on the latest computer animated shots. Then it was back to look at the trailer, and into the city for the first of the two three-hour recording sessions, then back out to Weta. Meanwhile, partner Fran Walsh is at Park Road Post as part of another team making sure the movie's recorded dialogue is up to scratch.

But, arguably, it's she who should be here - she's the musical one in the family, says Jackson, and has an Oscar for The Return Of The King song Into The West to prove it.

Jackson chuckles as he remembers his one and only guitar lesson as a kid with a teacher, a supposed family friend of his parents. The tutor abruptly told him he was tone deaf and packed him off home. "I never picked up the guitar again."

Jackson might seem like a benign presence during today's sessions but he's already had his say on Shore's music at the composition stage. "I can talk as a director of the film but musically I don't even know what a bar is. I can't talk about any jargon of music ... the most important conversation I can have with Howard is the emotion of the scene. This is what the audience should be feeling with your music in the scene."

He has had his creative differences with the Canadian composer in the past. They amicably parted ways over the music to King Kong, which also dumped the sessions the NZSO had already recorded with Shore for the 2005 film.

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As the NZSO attack the Smaug theme one more time, it's a reminder that in a movie where so much isn't real, the music remains the genuine article. That even in an age where you can digitally create a life-like dragon, orchestras are still a long way from being replaced by electronics, on movies of this scale at least.

Pope has a theory why.

"It always pays to have great performers. Whenever you are in front of an orchestra you are in front of almost 2000 years of musical experience if you think about it. So you are taking that expressiveness and you are unleashing that. If you have a digital thing it is only one person. That is why it's so remarkable to have that kind of power in this orchestra here."

Says Jackson: "You can say to an orchestra 'this is a love scene, let's just make it very very delicate' and suddenly that feeling and all of that heart that every single member of the orchestra is in control of through their instrument, that just suddenly comes into the score. Which I imagine would be next to impossible with a computer - maybe not in 10 years time but now."

Can Jackson, who turns 52 at the end of the month, see his way forward after finishing the five or so years he's spent on The Hobbit trilogy?

"We have got a few bits and pieces that we are working on, Fran and I. The things that we are most excited about are some New Zealand stories. We just want to step off the Hollywood blockbuster thing for a while and we've had a few New Zealand stories in line for a while that we think would make great films. The Heavenly Creatures mode really.

"But one thing has led to another and we have never had time. We've made a conscious decision that in the limited years we have left to make movies to tell some New Zealand stories."

"I kind of felt I was getting a bit of confidence as a director on this movie which you will see as we go along - we kind of shot them roughly in chronological order and I thought 'Okay, I am starting to get into my groove now' ...

Well , you have had a bit of practice ... .

"Yeah. But every film is a film school. You kind of go in there 'how the hell do I do this, how do I make it good?'

"And I kind of have a confidence now that I maybe didn't have a few years ago. Not that I know how to do it, because you are learning the entire time. But I am kind of excited about telling stories. I kind of decided I would try to make that the experience of this movie, because they were three movies that we didn't intend to direct at the beginning and suddenly we were.

"In some respects in terms of my remaining film-making career this was a five-year chunk that was kind of taken out of it unexpectedly. My future is five years less than I thought it was. I thought if I am going to do that I am actually going to enjoy it. I am going to have fun. Hopefully, that is reflected on the screen, too."

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug is released in New Zealand cinemas on December 13.

- NZ Herald

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