Peter Jackson: "Professor Tolkien sold the rights to both books while he was still alive... presumably he banked the cheque that they gave him."
Unprecedented immersive experience or the world's most expensive home movie? Whether you've been to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey or just read about it, it's hard to avoid the kerfuffle director Peter Jackson's decision to shoot the first installment of his second Middle Earth-centric trilogy at 48 frames per second has caused. This isn't esoteric film geekery — the difference is apparent from the second the film begins, and it may herald a new direction for cinematography.
Or, says Jackson to a throng of journalists assembled around a table at a posh New York hotel, it might not. "It's a choice," he says of his new technique. "It's a tool. There's no reason that everybody has to start shooting movies at 48fps. You don't have to do that. As a filmmaker, I'm always looking for ways to make films more immersive and more immediate. I like to have the audience transported from their seat and absorbed into the action on the screen, if I can — that's my directing style, of moving the camera round and moving wide lenses and things, and I've always been heading in that direction."
Having said that, Jackson is unequivocal about what he sees as the benefits of the new technology he's deploying with The Hobbit: it provides a cinematic experience that can't be replicated at home or anywhere else except in a movie theatre. "This is what's important to me," he argues. "How do we get young kids to come back to the cinema again? We have to keep raising the bar. We can't just say that we got the technology of cinema perfect in 1927, which is when 24fps was set as the standard film speed, and that there's no reason to change it. What's going to happen for the next 50 years, 100 years, 200 years? Things are going to say the same? No. They're not. They're going to move on. The music we listen to today isn't a needle scratching on vinyl any more — it has the clarity and purity of digital. Things move on. Change is always a bit scary, and it does take a while to get used to it.
"48fps does look different," he concedes. "It doesn't look like what we're used to seeing. But 3D and 48fps is a gift for me, because it helps enhance what I'm trying to do. I also think that the 3D is helped a lot by 48fps, because you have less blurring and less strobing, and it sort of makes the 3D... to me it's the other half of the 3D equation, that 3D at 24fps is OK, but lacks something, and I think that extra frame rate helps it solidify. It feels more real to me."
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Apart from the film's technical aspects, perhaps the most debated aspect of The Hobbit is Jackson's decision to expand a 310-page novel into a three-film epic. The first film certainly drags a little — well, OK, a lot. It takes the best part of an hour to get Bilbo out of Bag End, and by then you've already sat through an extended prologue, a decidedly non-canonical appearance from Frodo (designed, presumably, to tie this story more explicitly into The Lord of the Rings) and two interminable songs — songs! — sung by a bunch of pissed-up dwarves. A fast-moving thriller this ain't. Still, Jackson is unrepentant about his decision to flesh out The Hobbit's story.
"The book is written for children," he says, "and there's no real development in it. It's written at a very fast pace. In a movie you want to have conversation, you want to have character development... there's things that we as filmmakers need to develop to tell things in a filmic way, and those things might only be one paragraph in the book. We also had access to other Tolkien material. Tolkien developed a lot more ideas for storylines around the events of The Hobbit, and that material was published as an appendix to The Return of the King. So, for example, in The Hobbit Gandalf disappears for 30 or 40 pages, and there's no explanation of where he's gone. But later on, many years later, Tolkien started to think about what Gandalf was doing during those breaks, and he wrote ideas about that. We had access to all that, so we were able to expand and flesh out [the story] with Tolkien's own material."
And, indeed, it turns out that there's a rather interesting story in what the studio is and isn't allowed to use for source material. Part of the reason for the film's much-delayed genesis is the financial problems suffered by MGM, who were co-financiers on the project and are the company to whom JRR Tolkien sold the rights to his books. "No-one could commit to the movie with MGM in that position," Jackson explains. Warner Bros couldn't make it by themselves — they needed MGM because the rights were shared." (He suggests that this delay also led to the departure of original director Guillermo del Toro: "We got to the point where... we were three months beyond the date where we were supposed to start shooting, and Guillermo had these other projects, and he had to leave. And it was still another six months after that point until we got the green light.")
But anyway, the source material — Jackson's main source for extending The Hobbit was, um, The Hobbit, along with a series of appendices years later written by Tolkien for The Return of the King. "The only material we have the rights to is either The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit," says the director. "The Tolkien estate is very protective of the other material. Since Professor Tolkien died, his son Christopher has published a lot of his letters, work, etc, and none of that material has ever been made available to us. They tell everyone that they'll never sell the film rights to that. If we ever used any of [The Silmarillion or The History of Middle Earth], we'd get sued. The irony is that we can make up whatever we want to make up, but if we use any other source material of Tolkien's, we'd be in trouble."
Is this frustrating? "I don't have to deal with the Tolkien estate," says Jackson, sounding perhaps just the slightest bit relieved. "But look, Professor Tolkien sold the rights to both books while he was still alive, so he was at peace with the idea of films being made. And presumably he banked the cheque that they gave him."
WHAT: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
WHERE & WHEN: Showing now