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Fellowship of Fans > Movies  > Chronicling The Hobbit, Part Two: Preproduction
The Hobbit

Chronicling The Hobbit, Part Two: Preproduction

Last time around, I spoke about early development for The Hobbit, and how it clearly underlines a very strong sense of purpose from the part of Jackson and his co-writers, dating back to 1995, to see it made, and even that the germ of some of the creative choices found in the finished piece go back to the 1990s. By the time the project was nearing being made, however, Jackson decided he won’t direct it. Not for a lack of passion for the story, but so as to “not compete with myself.” He elected to produce the films, as he had done on many on his passion-projects like Mortal Engines and the putative Dambusters remake. He would also write the screenplay and choose the director: yes, it was Jackson who picked Del Toro to direct, after having worked with him on a possible Halo adaptation.

On their very first meeting with Del Toro, Jackson, Walsh and Boyens had already spoken about some storytelling specifics, as we shall see. This was followed by subsequent meetings every three weeks. It seems Jackson, Walsh and Boyens arrived at Del Toro’s doorstep with a concept of The Hobbit that already had the structural and tonal bearings of the finished film. Some observers – including Lindsay Ellis in her misguided critique of the films – have ignorantly pointed towards Del Toro’s unmmade version as closer to the quaintness of the book, but all the evidence is that Jackson went to Del Toro specifically to lean into his feeling for the macabre, and that they saw eye-to-eye with regards to the more sepulchral take on the story. Tellingly, Del Toro had commented that he found in The Hobbit a strong theme of “loss of innocence”, equating Bilbo to a World War One veteran; which is exactly the kind of comparison Jackson would make of The Battle of the Five Armies: clearly they arrived at this conclusion together in the writing process.

Beside the basic tone of the adaptation, they had also made some structural decisions. Boyens remembers that in this very first meeting they spoke about Dol Guldur,”knowing we wanted to go there.” So already we have two divergent storylines: the main storyline – which as we’ve seen Jackson already in the 1990s decided should be more Dwarf-centric than it is in the book – and the Gandalf in Dol Guldur storylines. Its safe to assume the Laketown storyline would be fleshed out later, but what about the Elvish storyline of the finished film? Jackson had already expressed interest in having Legolas reprise his role, which would point towards a more fleshed-out Elven storyline forming in his mind, but on top of that, at some point, the lack of female characters came-up. They had considered giving Bard a wife, but Del Toro said she should be a warrior, and Walsh said “she should be an Elf”, and so Tauriel (initially, Itariel) was created.

Another structural decision to be made was the number of the films and how to split them. When the decision was ultimately made to go to a trilogy, Jackson said “a third film was always a point of discussion” and at this stage of the production this seems to refer to the bridge film, which at this stage was put to one side. Its important to stress that this “bridge film” was never going to contain the Dol Guldur material – that was already discussed as part of The Hobbit itself – rather, the bridge film would deal with the intervening years and their events such as the hunt for Gollum. At this point, however, the main topic of discussion was the “knee point” in which film one would end and film two would begin. Del Toro and Jackson had considered putting it at the opening of the hidden door or even Smaug’s defeat, but this resulted in a disproportionally-long first film. Ultimately, it was agreed to split the story at the moment the company meets Bard. The idea of a prologue was also considered: as was the case with The Lord of the Rings, Boyens recalls, Jackson and Del Toro “were going to have one, then we weren’t going to have one” and so forth. Del Toro had wanted to incorporate into the prologue the sequence from the appendices in which Gandalf meets Thorin in Bree, which eventually ended-up in The Desolation of Smaug.

As you can see, Jackson’s involvement is hardly a formality: he and his co-writers were absolutely hands-on with the script. Jackson’s involvement as producer was also far from a formality: as producer he had a say on the casting, which he had used to suggested Martin Freeman for Bilbo and Sylvester McCoy (who read for Bilbo in The Lord of the Rings) for Radagast. Del Toro seemed to have had free reign with the other parts (notwithstanding those parts reprised by their Lord of the Rings actors) and, significantly, with the visuals which were left entirely to him. Del Toro remained credited as a fourth writer on all three films: an illustrative comparison would be Stephen Sinclair’s credit on The Two Towers: Sinclair worked on the entire Lord of the Rings in the initial stage of creating a script from the initial treatment, but he soon dropped out and the filmmakers gave him a credit only in the one film in which they felt enough of his contributions survived to the finished article. So that Del Toro is credited on the entire Hobbit shows that his involvement in the script was significant enough to shine through even after he dropped out.

Del Toro was involved long enough to decide on certain parameters for the visual look of the films: Del Toro’s films are generally letterboxd, but for The Hobbit he conceded to shoot widescreen to fit with The Lord of the Rings. Its unclear if the idea of shooting at a higher frame-rate was hatched during his tenure, but he was going to shoot it digitally with his DP Guillermo Navarro. He had even gotten far enough to design some camera moves: the Hobbiton set was being rebuilt at the time – this time in permanent materials, a joint idea of Jackson’s and landlord Russell Alexander – and Del Toro got the team to add four Hobbit holes to the side of Bag-End for a shot he had in mind.

Del Toro had started to talk casting. First, there was roping-in the veterans reprising their parts: when Serkis was shooting pickups for The Adventures of Tintin, Jackson invited him to lunch with himself and Del Toro to talk about his inevitable reprise of Gollum. Puzzilingly, Del Toro also wanted voiced an interest in having Serkis play the Great Goblin, whose scenes would be intercut with Gollum’s. Also roped-in were Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Sir Christopehr Lee and, in a dinner with Jackson, Sir Ian Holm. For the latter two, Jackson himself made accomodations for their age (Holm admitting to him he had contracted Parkinson’s and was effectivelly retired) to have their scenes shot in the UK. For the other parts, Del Toro wanted Doug Jones as the Elvenking and Ron Perlman as Beorn.

At this point, we get to a more subjective point which is that, I think, Del Toro was the wrong choice – Jackson’s wrong choice – to helm these films. I find his design aesthetic to be completely wrong for Middle Earth: his design don’t have the elegant naturalness of Jackson’s, which I think are the secret to the success of Middle Earth on the screen – the “Braveheart meets Legend” idiom that Jackson put down. The argument I’m making is not a new one: it was perhaps made best by Andy Serkis, who directed second-unit on the film: “I think he’s a brilliant filmmaker. But to redesign it in such a way that made you feel that there was no continuity? The audience would probably have felt cheated.” Quite.

A good example is the designs for the Woodland Realm: the finished film has all the elegance of Lorien, Rivendell or Mithlond transposed to a different Elven culture, but Del Toro had at least considered giving the Elvenking a very oriental aesthetic (of which there may be echoes in the finished film we’ll get to), replete with henna paintings tattoed unto Thranduil’s face! But there are other examples to this: after eschewing such cliches as horned or winged helmets in The Lord of the Rings, Del Toro had wanted to bring that to his Dwarven designs. He had wanted Erebor to have the gear-works that are so typical of his imagery, and a “steampunk” aesthetic that is retain in the Forges in the finished film, but which would have been more ubiquitous across the film.

While Del Toro was working from Jackson’s New Zealand facilities, utilizing Weta Workshop, Weta Digital, Stone Street Studios and intended to go on a lengthy, back-to-back shoot in the country, he had expressed concern over shooting on remote locations: none of his films prior had called for such demands, and again he had never composed for widescreen before. He had wanted to replace the skies with painted ones. Perhaps the most out-of-character design, one that Del Toro admits the design team feeling iffy about, was Smaug. Its telling that his design process was begun first and finished last. Del Toro’s Smaug was described as a “flying ax” and sits squarely outside the sleekness of the Fell Beasts (clearly Jackson’s and Howe’s first crack at the iconography of a dragon).

Ontop of these difficulties, MGM was going through bankruptcy and the films could not go ahead before their financial woes were sorted out: the exact same issue happened to Skyfall around that time. “Each of our proposed starting dates got delayed and delayed”, recalls Jackson. This resulted in a series of delays that left Del Toro stuck in New Zealand for months, with a series of other projects set on hold. He eventually decided to leave the project, with $60 million already spent. Jackson had taken his time, thinking about getting another director on-board, but there was no time for that, and he eventually took the role of director.

Says Jackson:
“After Guillermo left it was another four months, maybe five months before MGM did sort out its financial problems and we actually knew we were making the film. At the point that we got the greenlight and everyone said: “yes, we want to make these films” I suddenly looked up and found myself with very little time to prepare. On The Lord of the Rings I had two and a half years to prepare for three movies, and on The Hobbit I had about five months to prepare”.
This is an inaccurate statement: if we define “preparation” as strictly the time after which a greenlight is given, then Jackson didn’t have two-and-a-half years on The Lord of the Rings, but actually just a few weeks. If we are charitable and define New Line’s press announcement about making the trilogy as a de facto greenlight, its still only 14 months, as compared to 9 months on The Hobbit. So less, but still a considerable amount of time, especially considering they shot less footage. Its worth remembering that directors have complained about inadequate time since the dawn of filmmaking: indeed, Jackson had tried – unsuccesfully – to lobby for a delay in filming The Lord of the Rings.
Jackson’s script was made on the same specs as Del Toro’s, so clearly the way the storyline had been worked-out was not begun again from scratch. So much so, in fact, that the cast were able to do a complete read-through in January 24, 2011. Indeed, Del Toro is credited as co-writer on all three films, which would suggested a significant amount of his contributions endure to the finished film. When Jackson bemoans the lack of ample preproduction time, he’s not complaining about the script (except for a section including the final battle that he thought needed more polish) but about getting his storyboards in order.
Not that the time constraints didn’t affect the script: the beginning of An Unexpected Journey wasn’t written anywhere near as economically as it should, and as more time for rewrites would have allowed for. Certainly, the romance could have used a few more rewrites, and as we shall see in part two, Jackson hadn’t really nailed the final battle on the page: during production, the battle was only roughly sketched right off of the book.
A bigger issue was the art direction. Jackson has a very different design aesthetic, but it would be untrue to say this was a complete overhaul either: Mirkwood is basically the same as Del Toro had concieved of it, and Jackson remembers that Laketown is quite close to what Del Toro would have done. The steampunk aesthetic Del Toro had concieved for Erebor was retained in the forges, and you could say that the Woodland Realm retains a hint of orientalism that was Del Toro’s idea.
Furthermore, as part of the nature of the design process, there was a whole backlot of potential designs that were drawn-up for Del Toro but not used, and Jackson found quite a few of his design ideas from Del Toro’s rejects: The Elven shields and armour were drawn-up for Del Toro, as was the armour of Azog’s army.
Again, this isn’t to make light of the time shortage. One example in which it definitely did manifest itself was the design of Azog: they had the general concept of a muscular albino Orc nailed down, but didn’t agree on a final design until they were well into shooting. They had in fact already shot the Moria Battle with the design that would become reconcieved as Azog’s minion, Yazneg; and with the design that would becom designated as “the Dungeon Keeper” as Bolg. Its unclear, however, that this had any role in making Azog CGI: the final design isn’t one that would have been easy to achieve with prosthetics, and wouldn’t have the facial expressiveness of Azog.
As for actually constructing sets out of the designs, Jackson went around the problem by having the art department work in shifts: there would be a daytime art director and design crew, and a night art director and crew. This allowed set construction to take place across a full 24 hours. Looking back, the set builds for the trilogy are mighty impressive: Hobbiton had been rebuilt (plus the four extra Hobbit holes to the side of Bag-End) from permanent materials, a set of Dale larger than Helm’s Deep was constructed outside town, five huge Laketown sets were constructed. Mirkwood and Rhosgobel were practical sets, as was an outsized Beorn’s House built on location. Smaug’s treasure hoard was a slanted set covered in so much gold that they had to order gold paint from Germany, and the angle meant after every take the stage hands had to put all the gold that tumbled downhill back to the top.
Jackson had also split the shoot into three “blocks”, the time between which he could use “to edit what you’ve done” and “focus on script revisions” but also give the art department and, as we shall see, the previz department a head-start.
A bigger problem was probably the storyboards. When Jackson is talking about “time to prepare” he’s specifically talking about storyboards: design work was being carried-on all the time, regardless of the greenlight, as was script work. It was really only the storyboards that Jackson could only really begin working on a few months prior to the shoot. But then, Jackson was never the kind of filmmaker that plans every shot ahead of time a-la David Lean. Many of the most inspired moments of his The Lord of the Rings trilogy were thought-of on the spot or as the films got reshaped while they were being made. In fact, when we get to the actual shaping of the films, I’ll make a few comparisons to those films to show that, actually, The Hobbit underwent less changes during its making than did The Lord of the Rings, and that especially with The Two Towers, Jackson can be quoted a good dozen times about “making things up as we went along” and yet we don’t lambast that production for haphazardness like we do this one.
So yes, the “winging it” remarks – presented on YouTube without the context of the preceeding and following chapters of the appendices, very much overstate the problem. While a few more months in preproduction might have polished the rough edges (which, I would suggest, is all the movie really needed) it would in all likelihood still have been the same movie, divided up the same way, and with the same additions to the story in the novel. Its very easy to romanticize versions “that could have been”, be it Jackson’s version had he had a few more weeks of preproduction, or the version Guillermo Del Toro was going to make, but ultimately there’s little value in doing so. Personally, what I could see of Del Toro’s version did not bode well. I know Jackson is very keen on things being fated, and I think personally we got the film we were destined to get. Next time, we will look into the actual shooting period, which hopefully will give people a more concrete feeling for both the complications but also the foresight involved in filming these films, which was a gargantuan task as much as any film ever made.
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Historian and perpetual Wagnerian, I had discovered the Lord of the Rings along with Tolkien’s other, multifarious writings after the release of The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001. As an avid filmgoer and writer, I take a particular interest in adaptations of Tolkien’s works – past, present and future, realized or otherwise – and participate with Fellowship’s podcasts in that capacity, researching and discussing the Amazon show.

1 Comment

  • A E Johnson
    July 5, 2023 at 12:22 am

    Really enjoyed Parts 1 2. Looking forward to the next. Thanks.

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