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Ring master

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NEW YORK - Peter Jackson, the New Zealand director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, almost begs to be described as a hobbit. His hair flies out like untrimmed shrubbery. His endomorphic profile suggests a yen for enormous Shire-style feasts. And he goes barefoot despite the frigidity of his Manhattan hotel room when the heating system breaks down.

More important, as his hobbit actors say, he catalyzes fun with every passing second. His avidity for sparking spontaneous humor and emotion in mammoth, outlandish settings gives The Two Towers, which opens Wednesday, an escalating, inexhaustible vitality.

The first two movies in this J.R.R. Tolkien-based trilogy boast emotional power and surprise unequaled in the epic-fantasy genre. That's partly because of Jackson's own hobbitry. He works close to the ground with his actors to conjure an unruly life that's rare in historical films and period spectacles as well as three-hour fables.

But Jackson's hobbit side alone can't account for these movies' exhilarating sweep and momentum. To sustain the illusion of the lost world of Middle-earth and make it both breathtaking and poignant requires generalship, vision and magical skill - the qualities of a master sorcerer. Jackson may look more like Frodo or Bilbo or Sam, but he also has what it takes to be a conjurer like Gandalf. Inside the appetites and whimsy of a hobbit are the soul and craft of a wizard.

Americans divide leaders between "big picture" guys who delegate authority and micro-managers who dig in like terriers to any minute task. But great directors like Jackson blend these contrasting types. Jackson has the ability to see what lies beyond the far horizon while planting his toes firmly in the dirt.

Critics and audiences couldn't have predicted the range and quality of Jackson's achievement from early gore-fests like Bad Taste (1987) and Braindead (1992). But his 1994 artistic breakthrough, Heavenly Creatures, offered an acute analysis of a real-life matricide while transporting viewers into the intricate shared fantasy life of two teen girlfriends increasingly bent on murder. (Kate Winslet made a striking debut as one of the girls.) And Jackson's 1996 The Frighteners, though marred by a misleading "grabber' opening, is a near-perfect genre film, displaying his uncanny knack for mixing pathos, comedy and horror, and for gaining novel performances from established stars such as Michael J. Fox.

Still, in 1997, no one could have anticipated that a filmmaker with Jackson's meager resume would soon be commanding a $310 million budget to mount a three-part series of immense scope and ambition. What stokes Jackson's ebullience, aside from his astonishing youth (he's 41), is his ardent appreciation for his own fantastic luck.

Fleshing out the concept

During a series of press conferences at Manhattan's Regency Hotel, Jackson's fellow artists stressed the director's conceptual brilliance and his willingness to roll in the creative muck with his collaborators.

Take the eerily gifted Howard Shore, who won an Oscar for scoring The Fellowship of the Ring. He was never in danger of over-scoring and drowning the action in music because when Jackson hired him, Shore became, in effect, another writer. Jackson and Shore linked the musical ebb and flow to the operatic storytelling, and Shore's contribution was more than musical: It was literary. After he saw an early cut of the first movie, he decided there wasn't enough of Tolkien's language in the picture. With Jackson's enthusiastic agreement, Shore worked the verbal rhythms and sometimes the actual words of Elves, Dwarves and hobbits into the score.

But audiences won't go out of The Two Towers humming Shore's melodies as much as mimicking Gollum. A deliciously weird and ominous creature, as endearingly ugly as a baby condor yet as quick and clammy as a poison lizard, Gollum - once a hobbit named Smeagol and now a schizoid figure corrupted by the Ring - turns passive-aggressive wheedling into a lethal weapon. He is prone to muttering in a hoarse, fey voice, about his "Precious": the Ring of Power.

Actor Andy Serkis and Richard Taylor, director of the special-effects company WETA, credited Jackson with kick-starting the movie's Gollum: Jackson decided to use computer-graphic imagery (CGI) to forge Gollum's emaciated anatomy and popped eyes, and make sure that Serkis "owned" the part in every other way.

Serkis's agent initially pitched him "three weeks of voice-over work in New Zealand." Though his face and body would never appear on screen, Serkis soon discovered that Jackson wanted him to be a Gollum who would act with Elijah Wood as Frodo and Sean Astin as Sam, albeit in a skin-tight body suit. Jackson filmed the Gollum scenes three times: once with Serkis, once without him, and once with him alone; then computers re-created his movements in wormy Gollum form with persuasive specificity. (Taylor said his company achieved the "translucent skin" that Jackson had envisioned by the "skin of their teeth.")

Serkis fueled his reptilian choreography and wheedling, serrated rasp with a complex, psychologically charged interpretation. His Gollum - already treasured by readers of the book as Tolkien's most accessible and insidious villain - is both a Ring-addict in constant need of a fix and a once-sentient character who experiences pangs of conscience for killing his cousin. (Serkis took his inspiration from a feline: Gollum's guilt makes his throat muscles constrict and his whole body contort like a cat trying to spit out a hairball.)

All about free will

Going into the movie, Jackson had general notions about what he wanted to accomplish. (Apart from minor re-shooting, he filmed all three movies at once, but is finishing their post-production one at a time.) "I'm not the world's expert on trilogies," he told reporters, "but I would think the second chapter is the complicating one. If the first chapter sets your heroes out on a quest, establishes who they are, and why the quest is important, in the middle chapter the forces against them have to apply pressure, have to close in on them. You must get your protagonists to a point of despair. You're setting up the final chapter, which in theory is the triumphant, climactic installment."

Later during an interview, he elaborated freely about his interpretation of Tolkien, rather than the primary challenge of translating the author to the screen. "The Lord of the Rings is about freedom and enslavement," he says. "Frodo is doing what he's doing because he's trying to protect the homeland, trying to keep the Shire from being enslaved. He doesn't really care about Rohan or Gondor or anywhere else, he cares about the Shire. And the Ring is about enslavement. People talk about the Ring as a metaphor for the nuclear bomb, which is not what it's about at all. The Ring represents a loss of free will. It stops you from making decisions for yourself and starts to tell you what to do and enslaves you and traps you."

The movie has another dynamic CGI character in Treebeard, an "Ent" or shepherd of forests who resembles a towering tree trunk topped by one of those fruit-and-vegetable still lives designed to look like a human face. He ultimately wars against the wicked Lord Saruman (Christopher Lee) for uprooting acres of woods while pulling hybrid monster-warriors (known as Uruk-Hai) from the earth. Treebeard simultaneously embodies the strain of pastoral poetry in Tolkien and his horror at gutting unspoiled nature.

"Tolkien's whole environmental thing is not just about the environment and the Green message as it would be today," Jackson says. "It's about the enslavement of the factory. Tolkien hated the factory, because you'd show up at 9 o'clock in the morning, and you couldn't go home. Until the whistle blows at 6 o'clock at night you're enslaved. So it really is about the loss of your ability to function as the person you are. He has his characters fighting against that loss. It's not pro-war, but he certainly sees that some things are worth fighting for, like your freedom. If your freedom ain't worth fighting for, what is?"

Diving into the story

The Two Towers opens without any explanation of the first film's action. Jackson plunges us into Gandalf's battle to the death with the fire-demon Balrog and presents it as one of Frodo's telepathic visions. Throughout, the moviemaker dots the film with moments that are thrilling and contemplative - near-epiphanies in their sudden evocation of second sight and prophecy.

Periodically, the action stops in a good way: to let the movie breathe. The human hero Strider, aka Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), and his Elf lover Arwen (Liv Tyler) muse over the fate of their interspecies romance; the Elven leaders Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) contemplate the fate of Middle-earth.

The result is a film that keeps ardor, mania and wisdom coursing through its fervid action, lifting viewers out of their workaday environment and into a transcendental space. When you watch the Aragorn-Arwen story play out, you experience the full tragic impact of a mortal Man loving an immortal Elf. Only afterward do you analyze how Jackson overcomes their geographic separation and keeps their relationship vivid in The Two Towers.

"We ultimately ended up with a flashback, flash-forward where we see them together in the past, before he set out on his journey, and we see her imagining him in the future, once he's gotten old and died. We ended up liking the way this love story became quite a cosmic one," he explains.

The director doesn't use the word "cosmic" lightly: "The world of these movies doesn't necessarily operate on the same simple level that our conscious world does today. It is a magical world, and communicating that is an important part of creating the feeling of a fantasy film. Whilst a lot of the time we're trying to do the opposite - making the fantasy as real, gritty and down to earth as possible - I think it's crucial to allow that slightly mystic element to exist within the world of the movie."

Capturing the book

If there's a single visual "tic" in the trilogy so far, it's Jackson's incessant use of helicopter shots to take god's-eye views of his heroes as they trek across mountainsides or marshes.

"Tolkien is wonderful in his descriptions of landscape," he says. "There are probably more pages describing the landscape than there is dialogue or description of the characters. Part of what's so wonderful is the language that Tolkien uses for the dew on the heather, the scent of the mosses and flowers and the smell of the wild grass they walk through. I can't employ his descriptive language. But by showing you these vistas with these sweeping shots, I can make landscape part of the movie the way it is part of the book."

He and composer Shore had similar ambitions for the score. "We talked about the particular cultures of Middle-earth and the particular moment we're capturing them in their evolution and their history. And we drew on the ethnicities of our own world. It may sound simplistic, but if we're dealing with a mystic culture like the Elven culture, we might turn to Indian sounds, like sitars. In this movie, with Rohan, a Scandinavian-based culture, we used a particular Norwegian fiddle - it's just a fiddle, but it's made in Norway, and it has a sound different from anyone else's."

Despite the entire company's immersion in the book, Jackson says, "We didn't lecture the cast saying this is what we're doing, this is what Tolkien was trying to do. It was very organic, and everybody had their own point of view. The actors obviously had all the read the book; some of them read it when they were cast; some had read it a long time ago. So they brought to their characters their own interpretation. Some of it was discussed, and a lot of it was private. One of the great things with a cast like we have is that you rely on them to own their characters. It's a wonderful thing for a director. It doesn't negate my responsibility to direct, because I ultimately need to get moments on camera, and if I'm not getting them I have to ask for them. But the better they know their characters the easier my job becomes, because they instinctively go to the right places. I don't have to ask them to run, walk, sit. I'm literally seeing my image of Tolkien's characters coming to life on film. "

Being the characters

Dominic Monaghan, who plays Merry, and Billy Boyd, who plays Pippin, back Jackson up. Currently enjoying a new flush of attention from their increased presence on the extended DVD edition of The Fellowship of the Ring, they owe their casting to their insights as well as their physical rightness.

Monaghan, who hails from Manchester, England, told Jackson he saw Merry "as the bravest hobbit, and the sharpest - his comedy has a spike in the tail." Boyd, a Glasgow native, told Jackson that Pippin "was the most childlike of the hobbits, with an unquenchable hobbit-ness - his ability to find fun wherever it grows is a real hobbit quality." Monaghan thought "it would be great to see Merry go from his safety in the Shire out into the world and then return with a war-torn air. When the action comes full-circle and returns to the Shire, Merry is like a general - he becomes quite learned with the sword and on a horse and tells people what to do."

And Boyd says he thought "Pippin's impulsive, inquisitive nature makes him do things when he can't see the consequences of his actions. Then all of a sudden he feels he's getting his friends killed; he blames himself for Gandalf's death. Pippin always sees the small, small picture. To him, the great world is a horrible place, and the Shire is lovely, so let's go back to the Shire. Merry makes him understand that the horror is going to spread until there won't be a Shire."

Like a Method director without the jargon, Jackson encourages his actor-characters to swear allegiance to their groups. Maybe that's why Monaghan can state, with hilarious certainty, "the hobbits are the best-loved characters: obviously the last ones you want to see in danger." He even voices semi-facetious put-downs of competing species: "On a day when it was mostly Elves, it was slightly an attention-seeking day - all the Elves needed a haircut, or their costumes had to be spotless. When it was a scene with a whole lot of hobbits, you just realized lunch got eaten a lot quicker, and there was a lot of joking going on!"

Rehearsing and acting were as open and collegial on this extravaganza as they would be on the most inspired slice of life from Robert Altman and Mike Leigh. Argument over which lines from the book were necessary and how much screen time the hobbits got with weaponry were as much a part of the process as practicing kayaking or hitting complicated marks. The actors often laid the novel and the screenplay side by side to argue their points. They'd stop at Jackson's house for lunch, dinner and more jawboning about their characters. Two or three days before filming a scene they'd start peppering him with ideas.

The hobbits spend much of The Two Towers on Treebeard's shoulders. So they decided that the Ent would be "a calming father-figure, causing both of us to revert to our hobbity natures," says Monaghan. (In a scene sure to turn up on the extended DVD of The Two Towers, Treebeard recites a piece of doggerel that puts them to sleep. )

"Peter's a very hands-on director," says Boyd, "and he likes to feel what the characters are feeling. After you've done a scene, you realize that he's been feeling it with you the whole way through. A terrible Uruk-Hai will be hovering over you, and you see him doing the monster himself, growling; then you see him being you, too, in a panic."

The director has a way with the crew as well as the actors. Once, at the end of the day, Boyd asked Jackson to do another take. For a laugh, Jackson said, 'This one's for Billy.'" Jackson knew Boyd had a jocular relationship with the crew - and Boyd says, "everyone lightened up a bit."

"Peter's much more of a hobbit than he is any other character or creature," says Boyd. "I love how much fun he gets out of it. He's not making this movie to look back on it and say he did it. He's enjoying the making of it. And it makes everything fresh."

That may not be hobbit loyalty talking. For all his energetic hashing-out of wizardly meanings and strategies, Jackson's most piercing emotions arise when he talks about Frodo and Sam, his hobbit leads, in the final film due out a year from now.

"I guess the third film, The Return of the King, will be more optimistic," Jackson says. "It obviously has resolution and a triumphant Biblical-size climactic action. But it also has incredible sadness. I cry three or four different places when I see the final film. It's my favorite of the three, the most emotional. Frodo and Sam are extraordinary. They're just so brave."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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