It’s late September 2011 — springtime in Wellington, New Zealand. After six months of production on The Hobbit, the cast and crew have naturally settled into some routines. Martin Freeman — who stars as the reluctant hero Bilbo Baggins in this epic two-film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy novel — has whittled down the time it takes to put on his furry, oversize hobbit feet to just five minutes. (”I shave my legs, because if you’ve got hair on your legs it’s agony,” he says.) The 13 actors who play the film’s company of dwarves have grudgingly grown accustomed to waking up at 4 a.m. to start the three-hour process of having their makeup and prosthetics applied. Close friendships have formed, and in the cavernous room where everyone gathers for lunch each day, you’ll see elves sitting with elves, dwarves sitting with dwarves, and Lake-men sitting with Lake-men, like some Middle-earth version of a high school cafeteria. Still, after so many weeks of intensive, nearly round-the-clock work — with 10 months of shooting ahead and more than a year until the first installment, An Unexpected Journey, hits theaters on Dec. 14 — it’s not surprising people sometimes seem a bit punchy. For instance, ask the usually low-key director, Peter Jackson, about the guys walking around the soundstage this afternoon dressed head to toe in pea green, formfitting, bondage-gear-like motion-capture suits, and he gives a boisterous response: ”Those are green gimps!” he jokes. ”This is a whole scene that Tolkien didn’t write, when the green gimps rush out of the forest and attack the dwarves.” He laughs. ”The Attack of the Gimps — it could be a whole other movie, couldn’t it?”
In fact, the guys in the green tights are giant spiders — or rather, they will be once the digital-effects wizards are done with them. Today Jackson is staging one of The Hobbit‘s many complex battle sequences, with a group of elf warriors joining the dwarves to fight off an arachnid attack in Mirkwood Forest. What makes the scene particularly challenging is that the dwarves are supposed to be much shorter than the elves, yet the actors are all roughly the same height. To solve this problem, Jackson has placed the two groups far apart at opposite ends of this massive stage and given each of them painstakingly choreographed fight moves, which he is filming simultaneously with separate synchronized cameras. When the images are combined into a single shot, everyone will appear to be fighting together, with the dwarves coming up only to around the elves’ elbows. That’s the idea, at least, but it’s incredibly tricky to pull off — in 3-D, no less — especially since the actors playing elves and dwarves can’t see one another. ”It’s like you’re playing half a chess game in the Southern Hemisphere and the other half in the Northern Hemisphere, and each player doesn’t know what the other is doing,” Jackson says.
Notwithstanding these kinds of daily on-set brain busters, The Hobbit is actually a relatively simple story. Since its publication in 1937, Tolkien’s book has been one of the main gateway drugs to the world of fantasy nerddom, a tale of loyalty, honor, and courage pitched at a level a child can grasp. Set 60 years before the events of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit recounts the saga of a wizard named Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and a group of 13 dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), who recruit the timid hobbit Bilbo for a quest to reclaim a dragon’s treasure and restore the dwarves’ kingdom. Along the way they get mixed up with, among other things, goblins, orcs, a man who can turn into a giant bear, and a creep named Gollum (Andy Serkis) who is looking for his lost precious(sss) magic ring.
To expand this fairy-tale-like narrative to the point that it can support two large-scale films, Jackson is drawing on a range of Tolkien’s writings. A handful of Rings characters not present in the Hobbit book are being incorporated into the movie — notably Orlando Bloom’s elf Legolas and Cate Blanchett’s ethereal elven ruler Galadriel — and a few new characters, such as the elf warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), are being invented wholesale. ”In the movie, we want these characters to have story lines and a little bit more substance than they do in the book,” Jackson says. ”Almost everything we’re doing is from Tolkien somewhere, whether it’s the book or the subsequent development that wasn’t published in The Hobbit itself.” For example, he says, Legolas is the son of the Elvenking Thranduil (Lee Pace), who is a character in The Hobbit, while Rings characters like Galadriel and Saruman (Christopher Lee) are participants in the White Council that’s glancingly referred to in the book. ”It will all make sense,” Jackson reassures Tolkien purists. Still, even beefed up, The Hobbit is a fundamentally lighter story than the Rings trilogy. ”The characters in The Hobbit are not saving the world,” McKellen says. ”They’re going on a quest, but it’s not: Will Middle-earth survive?”
The fate of the world may not hang in the balance, but for a two-part film with a total budget reportedly in the neighborhood of $500 million, the stakes for The Hobbit are enormous — and no one understood that going in better than Jackson. After raking in nearly $3 billion worldwide at the box office with the Rings trilogy and earning Best Director and Best Picture Oscars for 2003’s The Return of the King, it would have been understandable if Jackson had wanted to just ride shotgun on the trip back to Middle-earth. In fact, that was the plan: Guillermo del Toro was originally slated to direct the film, with Jackson producing and collaborating on the script. After two years of preproduction, though, del Toro dropped out of the project because of the extensive delays brought on partly by the looming bankruptcy of MGM, which held the rights to The Hobbit. (The movie is being distributed by Warner Bros., which has the same parent company as EW.) Del Toro’s departure left Jackson with a tough decision: find another director, make The Hobbit himself, or watch it fall apart. ”I knew whoever was going to make The Hobbit had to have a different take on it than The Lord of the Rings, and I was worried that I wouldn’t,” he says. ”I was concerned I wouldn’t be acting instinctively — I’d simply be reacting to what I did the first time. I was excited about the film Guillermo was going to make, but when that wasn’t happening anymore, I had to think, ‘If I was going to do this, where would I want it to go?”’
As the delays wore on, Jackson kept hammering away at the script with co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, and gradually his hesitation gave way to excitement. The breakthrough, he says, was realizing that perhaps the film’s biggest challenge — getting audiences emotionally invested in not only Bilbo but also the 13 dwarves at the heart of the movie — was also its biggest creative opportunity. ”You only ever see a story through the characters’ eyes — and with Bilbo and our dwarves, we have fresh eyes,” Jackson says. ”We just need an audience to learn reasonably quickly who these characters are so they can relax and enjoy the movie.”
In the case of the dwarves, that’s easier said than done. As Jackson likes to point out, Walt Disney had to worry about only seven dwarves in Snow White. In Tolkien’s book, many of the dwarves are barely fleshed out as characters, and simply sorting out all the tongue-twisting names — Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Dwalin, Balin, Oin, Gloin, Fili, Kili, and so on — can be confusing. For the film, a lot of energy has gone into giving each of the dwarves a distinct and well-defined look and personality. But 13 of anything is a lot to keep straight. ”When people ask me to name all the dwarves,” Graham McTavish, who plays Dwalin, admits a little sheepishly, ”I often forget one.”
To play the dwarves, Jackson cast actors from England, Ireland, Scotland, and New Zealand, many of them relatively unknown. For those who loved the Rings trilogy, though, there was only one person who could wear Gandalf’s cloak and wizard’s cap: McKellen. The actor, 73, didn’t necessarily see it that way, however, and as the project continued its long, herky-jerky slog toward an official green light, he resisted committing to it. ”I just thought, ‘At my age, I should be trying something new,”’ he says. ”I don’t really like to do things again. I felt it a bit with Magneto [in the X-Men films] as well.” As the months ticked by without an announcement about Gandalf, fans began to worry McKellen might not be back. Finally, shortly before the start of production, he signed on. ”I was talking to a friend about whether I should or shouldn’t, and she said, ‘The fans simply won’t understand if you don’t do it, will they?”’ he says. ”That was the clincher. Gandalf belongs to a lot of people — not just me.”
Freeman, who’s become well-known for his slyly understated comic timing on the British version of The Office and the BBC series Sherlock, had his own hesitations. The prospect of disrupting his family life (he has two young children) and relocating to New Zealand for more than a year was hard to wrap his head around. ”To the outside, it sounds like a no-brainer: Of course, you get down on your knees and say yes,” says the actor, who had never actually read any Tolkien before. ”But it is a thinker when you’ve got a family and other commitments and you like doing different jobs. I’m also quite private, and this will obviously take everything to another area.”
Indeed, being cast in The Hobbit instantly puts you under a global spotlight that at times can feel as intense as the Eye of Sauron. For years, fans have been poring over and picking apart every nugget of news on the project, driving the expectations surrounding the film ever higher. ”It’s nice to be cut off from that — otherwise you become self-conscious,” Armitage says. ”I envy that original cast of Lord of the Rings. They didn’t know what they were involved in.”
Just how ramped up expectations are for The Hobbit became apparent in April, when 10 minutes of footage was screened at a convention of theater owners and kicked up a fuss in the blogosphere. While some were wowed by what they saw, others felt that Jackson’s decision to shoot the film at a higher frame rate than in a traditional movie — 48 frames per second, as opposed to the standard 24 — gave the footage an off-putting, hyperreal look. Jackson passionately defends the decision to shoot at the higher frame rate: ”As a film industry, we’re in trouble — we’ve got less people coming to the movies, especially young people. We should be doing everything we can with the technology we’ve got to bring people back. I know there’s been a lot of opinion about it on the Internet, but to me, shooting at a high rate is fantastic. It’s very immersive. You feel like you’re in that story. I have no concern that people will react badly when they actually see it in the context of a full narrative feature film.”
For his part, McKellen has total faith that the finished film — which will be presented to audiences in a variety of formats, 3-D and 2-D, 48 frames as well as 24 — will be a visual feast however it’s seen. ”A lot of young people weren’t even born when we were filming Lord of the Rings and only know the movies from watching them on DVD,” he says. ”They’ll see Middle-earth on the big screen in The Hobbit, and I dare say there will be a lot of minds blown wide apart.”
In a quiet corner of the set, Freeman sits in a makeshift dressing room, trying to keep his mind together as he prepares to shoot a scene in which Bilbo escapes from a giant spider’s cocoon. Ever since he took the role, he has been doing his best to ignore the weight of expectations hanging over The Hobbit. ”It would be very unhelpful for me to feel all that pressure, because I have to come to work to play,” he says. ”You can’t play when you’re terrified of what people in Wisconsin are going to think of this movie that hasn’t even come out yet.”
With that, the word comes that it’s time for Freeman to go back out and play. A crew member appears, bearing two large, rubbery-looking feet in a box. ”Martin,” she says, ”I need to pop your feet on.” Freeman pauses a beat and, with a deadpan expression that perfectly captures the absurdity of a 40-year-old man getting ready to wrestle on a pair of wobbly, fur-covered feet, says, ”There are less bizarre ways to make a living.”
Get to Know the Dwarves
Thorin Oakenshield: Richard Armitage
The dwarves’ leader is fiercely driven to restore the proud legacy of his race, Armitage says. ”He has this vision of what he’s going to do for his people.”
Balin: Ken Stott
A close relative of Thorin, Balin has been through many wars, which may be why he doubts the wisdom of the quest more than other dwarves.
Dwalin: Graham McTavish
Balin’s brother is among the most battle-hardened of the dwarves, McTavish says. ”I’m definitely the less comic, more violent type of dwarf.”
Gloin: Peter Hambleton
Father of Rings’ Gimli, Gloin ”keeps tabs on what the quest is costing us and what we’re getting back,” says John Callen, who plays his brother Oin.
Oin: John Callen
Oin is ”a cross between a chemist, an herbalist, and a do-it-yourself surgeon,” Callen says. ”But if there’s a punch-up, he’s in there.”
Kili: Aidan Turner
As fans have noted, Thorin’s young nephews Fili and Kili are on the hunkier side. ”When someone mentions ‘hot dwarves,’ it’s a bit cringey,” Turner says.
Fili: Dean O’Gorman
Like Kili, Fili requires less makeup than the other dwarves. ”I have to remember not to complain too hard around them,” O’Gorman says.
Dori: Mark Hadlow
Dori, like his brothers Nori and Ori, is ”a bit countrified,” Hadlow says. ”We’re related to Thorin, but we’re from the working-class side.”
Nori: Jed Brophy
Nori is ”a bit dodgy,” Brophy says. ”The other dwarves don’t trust him, because he’s a bit of a thief. He’s always looking for what might be useful.”
Ori: Adam Brown
The younger brother of Dori and Nori is ”a fish out of water,” Brown says. ”He has no idea what going off to war actually means.”
Bofus: James Nesbitt
Bofur provides a good deal of comic relief and heart, says co-producer and co-writer Philippa Boyens. ”We wanted him to be lovable and extremely funny.”
Bombur: Stephen Hunter
Bombur’s girth sets him apart, Hunter says. ”When he steps out, you know it’s Bombur. There’s a lot of physical stuff, which gives me plenty to do.”
Bifur: William Kircher
A cousin of Bofur and Bombur, Bifur has an orc’s ax still stuck in his head from a past battle. ”When I saw that, I thought, ‘Brilliant!”’ Kircher says.