Movie Feature

Peter Jackson: Breathing fire on Middle-earth

By Zaki JufriMovies - 11 December 2013 12:00 AM | Updated 13 December 2013

Peter Jackson: Breathing fire on Middle-earth

Waiting at Stone Street Studios in New Zealand – where the ‘Lord of The Rings’ trilogy and ‘King Kong’ were made, and where Peter Jackson and his army of fantasy-makers have spent the better part of two years working to make the trio of ‘The Hobbit’ films – is akin to waiting to see the Queen, or in this case, for an audience with The King of Middle-earth.

“Peter will see you now,” a voice finally said.

The announcement was sweet music to my ears as I and a band of journalists had spent almost a-day-and-a-half waiting and wandering around the expansive 8-acre complex, bumping into Orcs, interviewing Dwarves and dining with Wizards and Elves in a cafeteria.

It was my own “unexpected journey”, the result of which is a bag of stories and experiences collected from Sir Ian McKellen, Luke Evans, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Sir Richard Taylor, and now, Sir Peter Jackson.

Like ‘The Wizard of Oz’, the elusive Academy Award-winning director was everywhere and nowhere. His presence felt in every corner of the complex:he is behind the camera on one set, supervising a stunt on another, grabbing coffee at the cafe – he is omnipresent.


Peter Jackson and Orlando Bloom (Legolas) on set. Photo: New Line Cinema

Jackson, 53, has no regrets taking on Middle-earth again despite a few hiccups, especially when Mexican director Guillermo del Toro (‘Pacific Rim’) left the project in 2010 due to studio politics.

Jackson said: “Since the day we started shooting it's all been great. It's actually been a huge amount of fun. So the surprise for me has been how much I've enjoyed it… I didn't know how much I'd quite enjoy it till I started.”

It was around this time last year that Jackson released what would be the beginnings of the movie event of the decade: ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’.

Just one film in, ‘The Hobbit’ trilogy is off to a phenomenal start. 

It took home more than US$1 billion (S$1.25 billion) in box-office receipts worldwide, eclipsing ‘The Two Towers’ (2002) and even ‘The Return Of The King’ (2003), the most-awarded finale and the most successful of the ‘Rings’ trilogy.

That was despite the movie’s mixed reviews – some of the criticisms took aim at how the film looked in its 3D HFR (high frame rate) version, and ‘Hobbit’ purists complained that the movie took lavish liberties with the original short bedtime tale. 

The franchise's final movie, ‘The Battle of Five Armies’, opens in cinemas across Singapore 18 December.

It follows the 13 dwarves as they continue their quest across Middle-earth to reclaim the Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor from a terrifying fire-breathing dragon called Smaug.

A life-sized image of Smaug is emblazoned on the side of a Air New Zealand Boeing 737. Photo: Facebook


Interestingly, for a titular character, Smaug – who is voiced and motion-captured by current media darling Benedict Cumberbatch – is one of the last characters of the film to get its final design approved by Jackson, and the director was very coy about it when asked.

"He's a dragon. That's all I'm going to tell you,” he said, sitting in a corner of a production tent.

“You want a really cool dragon and we're doing a really cool dragon. Not going to tell you anything more than that,” he emphasised.

“But I'm not reinventing the wheel and I don't want to do anything too clever – I just want to make an absolutely terrifying-looking dragon,” he added.

However, it is not just its physical aspect. Fans who have read Tolkien’s book are well aware that Smaug is a cunning, intelligent creature.

Jackson would say this about the dragon’s personality during the design: "Smaug has to be perfect for the story that we are telling, and (for) everything that he needs to do in ‘The Hobbit’… (to) be absolutely terrifying, be able to destroy a city, be able to have sly conversations with Bilbo, all of that we're building into the design of the character and the way that he looks.” 

Production designer Dan Hennah agreed that Smaug is perhaps the biggest challenge of the second movie, especially in the creature design and visual effects aspect, since it is “a lead player” in the movie.

Benedict Cumberbatch voice-acted and motion-captured Smaug. Photo: Reuters


Oscar-winning screen-writing duo Fran Walsh and Phillippa Boyens’ favourite character to write in the movie was Smaug, who Walsh described as “a bit like Gollum in that he's an archetypal”.

Boyens called him “a true psychopath”. 

The duo also adjusted the dialogue during readings with Cumberbatch, because "he has done some extraordinary stuff”.

Boyens teased: “We won't tell you what it is, but I've never seen an actor do that before… I didn't think it was something that someone could do.” 

For a sneak peek of the “Cumber-Smaug”, take a gander at the film’s recent trailer where Smaug growled, “I am King Under The Mountain”. 


Much of Lake-town still retains Mexican director Guillermo del Toro's original designs . Photo: New Line Cinema

Unlike the dark and dense ‘Lord of the Rings’ books, ‘The Hobbit’, first published in 1937, is essentially a children’s fantasy book. It is a vivid adventure story featuring a Bilbo Baggins, a quirky little hairy creature. 

Like ‘The Desolation of Smaug’, 'Five Armies' steps into darker, uncharted waters. 

And Jackson promised that the film would be even better than the first, because there are fewer introductions to be made and the adventure is already up to speed. 

Aside from the darker tone, Jackson revealed that there are still traces of Guillermo del Toro’s touch in the sequel. Del Toro was at the helm of the films before production delays caused by studio politics made him quit.

“(Guillermo) designed a very del Toro-looking type of film,” Jackson said, ”which was cool, and that would have been a different movie to this and it would have been really interesting." 

Although Jackson did a complete design overhaul, he admitted that he kept some of the  initial designs, especially of Lake-Town where moviegoers will first meet Bard (Luke Evans). Del Toro is also credited as a screenwriter in all three ‘Hobbit’ films. 

“There's definitely an influence of him through there,” Jackson said. “But I've also pulled back on a lot of it to steer it more to the look that we did on the original ‘Lord of the Rings’ films, too. So, you know, it's a mixture… there are elements of his DNA in there." 

Walsh added: “He (del Toro) wrote the script with us and he was involved in a huge amount of design process, and he cares very much about it, so we got him as our collaborator and partner in this film."

'The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies' opens 18 December 

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The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
  • The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

  • Rated
    PG13 /
    Adventure, Fantasy
  • Language
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