Making a Blockbuster Fantasy Epic: Behind the Scenes of THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG

By Tom Snyder, Editor



MOVIEGUIDE® recently got the chance to attend a press conference in Beverly Hills with Director Peter Jackson and some of the cast and crew of Part Two of THE HOBBIT trilogy, THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG.

Among the interesting things MOVIEGUIDE(r) discovered were that two of the actors, Benedict Cumberbatch, who voices Smaug, the evil dragon in the story, and Evangeline Lilly, who plays a compassionate female elf archer, are longtime childhood fans of the novel and Christian writer J.R.R. Tolkien, who also wrote THE LORD OF THE RINGS, the unofficial sequel to THE HOBBIT.

In the following interview, Director Peter Jackson discusses some of his thinking behind the new movie and how it fits into the whole story, which, at the end, will include the three movies already made about the “War of the Ring” that occurs in LORD OF THE RINGS, and three movies based on the events that lead up to THE LORD OF THE RINGS, in THE HOBBIT, which Tolkien published about 18 years before.

THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG is a grand, epic adventure with heart and passion.

Question  [To Benedict Cumberbatch]: Can you talk about doing the voice-over? Did you go to New Zealand and did that help you in terms of being with Peter and maybe mingling with the rest of the cast?

Benedict Cumberbatch:  Yes, I did go to New Zealand. It was hugely, hugely helpful. I started off with Peter and Fran (Walsh) and Philippa (Boyens), just the three of them and me, which was a privilege in itself, because of how large everything else is on this film, to have their sole attention. We were in the mo-cap stage so it began as a physicalization, both voice and body work, the whole thing. So that’s how I discovered him.

Via my dad, who read me the book when I was either six or seven – I’ve really got to ring him. I keep saying this. I’ve said this for two days and not found out…. I was younger than eight when I went to school, so it was a bedtime treat at home. That was my first bit of research. Then, I went to the reptile house at the London Zoo and had a look there. It’s so beautifully written, the book, and it’s so well illustrated in countless editions of the book. Then, with Peter’s input and our rehearsals and just playing like a kid really in this incredible freeing volume, as they call the mo-cap stage, meant that we could kind of go anywhere with it. So very, very helpful.

Sadly, I met hardly any of the cast. Rich [Armitage] and I met once. I crossed over with people as they were coming back to do, I think, their third stint. Martin [Freeman], I didn’t spend any sort of live time with Martin, which was sad. … We know each other quite well so we kind of second-guessed in a weird way our performances to some degree, I guess. I didn’t cross over with anyone. I’ve had scenes with people I haven’t even met yet. So that is bizarre.

Question:  If it’s Andy Serkis as Gollum, it’s easier to understand how he would do a motion capture performance for that, but it’s hard to wrap at least my brain around how you do motion capture of this gargantuan creature. How did you even approach that?

Benedict:  Well, it’s obviously more abstract. It’s only going to be a sort of impression of something that’s a serpentine reptile who can breathe fire and fly and because I’m a limited biped mammal – sorry about that – but Peter knew that when I auditioned so we work with my sort of my negatives and try to turn them into positives.

One of the ways I did it was to try to squeeze my legs together just forgetting the fact that they were legs, trying to feel that as an elongated body, crawling on the floor on my elbows and using my hands as claws and sort of over-articulating my neck and shoulder to the delight of any physio who was unlucky enough to try and heal me afterward and yeah, just throwing myself at it with a kind of kid-like imagination and their brilliant expert guidance, and it was a really fun way to work. Andy came down to start on second unit, and I said “God, I wish you’d been there” because he’s the don, he’s the originator and master of that form – art form I should say giving its proper title – and we just sort of laughed afterward. Obviously, you know, he’s only done biped mammals, you know, no one’s really tried a serpent before, so I don’t think he would have been much help at all. (Laughs)

Question:  The special effects were incredible of course. For Peter – I’m just curious as to what were the challenges of filming the film with these special effects and for the actors – what was it like working on a special effects movie where not all the effects were there for you to see?

Peter Jackson:  Well. . . what I tried to do is anytime we were on a green screen stage with a lot of, you know, just bits of set (and) green screen, I would try to bring in the conceptual art (by) Alan Lee or John Howe, or one of the Weta Workshop guys have done. So that we, you know, at least the guys know what is going to be back on the green screen behind them; not all the time, because sometimes I didn’t even know myself when we were shooting it. Some of those things you figure out later. I mean look, its ultimately, I mean, other guys (vision) it but it’s like, it’s the power …the imagination. It’s just. . . it’s a suspension of disbelief really.

You are, just as the audience, we are asking you to believe in a world that elves and dwarves and dragons and orcs exist. When you’re on the stage, you have to also be in that same mind frame. You are in that world, whether it’s green or whatever, if there’s a tennis ball that’s supposed to be Smaug, you’re still, it’s the same thing, really.

Question:  Evangeline, your character is a warrior. Did you do anything like learn to shoot bows and arrows to train? What did you think when you saw yourself on the screen for the first time with this fiery red hair and pointy ears?

Evangeline Lilly:  I went through five different types of training. I did weapons training, stunt training, movement training, dialect training, language training. In the weapons training, there were two different weapons. I had double daggers and a bow and arrow. Believe it or not, I used to teach archery to little kids. I think one of the great gifts of CGI and working in the imagination is that you can imagine that you’re much more talented than you really are. If you can imagine it, it can appear as so with Peter Jackson’s magic CGI brush.

Seeing myself for the first time on screen as an elf, it was a double-edged sword because I’m a real Tolkien geek, and I had dreamed about being an elf since I was a little girl. So there was an incredible amount of satisfaction and dream realization when I first got to see myself as an elf, but I’m also, unfortunately, an actor, which means that I’m very self-critical. It’s very hard for me to ever give anything I do a stamp of approval without having the appendices that says all the things I did wrong, and what didn’t work. Just the ears and the wig and the actual visual was very, very exciting.

Peter Jackson:  I’ve said this to Evangeline, but I’ve spent more time in her company when she’s wearing the wig and the ears, and when I look at her here, I find it a bit strange. Strange weird hair and the like. Honestly, I’m much more used to hearing her voice and looking around and seeing the red wig and the ears. It’s one of the strange things because I never see the actors [in their street clothes]. They walk on set ready to go. They go home at the end of the day, and I’m just not used to any of that stuff. To see them as humans is rather disturbing.

Question:  Mr. Jackson, I want to talk to you about making three movies instead of two. Did that allow you to make the second chapter so action-packed? What character benefited the most from that decision?

Peter Jackson:  It’s an interesting question. I don’t think any character benefited from the decision. We didn’t really change a lot. We made that decision after we had shot most of the film. It was a decision based on what we had shot, and we just thought we’re going to have to somehow cut a lot of this stuff out or we can reshape it. We did some more shooting. We did 10 weeks of shooting this year, as well as pickup shooting for the second and third film. What it does is it allows you to literally let the characters drive the story, because in a novel, the writer of the novel is often the person who narrates the story, who kind of takes you on the journey, and Tolkien’s voice is obviously fantastic at doing that. You feel like he’s right beside you telling you a bedtime story; but, in the movie, you don’t want me onscreen telling you what’s happening. So, the difference in a film is that you have to have the story told through the dialogue of the characters, through their actions.

You just want your narrative of the film to be told through either the dialogue that the characters are saying or the actions that they do. That’s really why we ended up giving it the sort of depth and explore some of the character depth that we had done in LORD OF THE RINGS. I also was acutely aware that there was going to be, ultimately, when there was going to be this cycle of releasing a movie every year as done, knowing that was six films, I expected JOURNEY (the first HOBBIT movie) to be the beginning and RETURN OF THE KING to be the end, and I did want to have a unity. I didn’t want to make THE HOBBIT feel any more simple or any less. I just wanted it to feel like it was the same filmmakers, basically. People always ask about the Evangeline character and why we felt the need to create her. In THE HOBBIT novel, they get captured by the elves, and they escape through the bowels, and there’s a memorable part of the book, but the elf king isn’t even named. It was only later on that Tolkien decided that he should be Thranduil, and he also decided that he had a son when THE LORD OF THE RINGS was written 18 years later. He created the character of the son of the king. So, you have the material there, but you can’t have a scene in a film that’s a memorable scene and not have just one person as the elf. We wanted three Elven characters who were all different. That’s the thing too is to create characters who have conflict with one another, and who have different agendas. I mean Thranduil, Legolas and Tauriel are all on different flight paths, which makes for more interesting for Fran and I to write the narratives through their eyes.

Question:  Richard, can you talk about what you all went through shooting the barrel sequence and was it all worth it now that you’ve seen the finished product?

Richard Armitage:  I think the most dangerous part of filming the barrel sequence was when we were in these little cut-off Flintstones-style barrels which were powered by our feet. It was like dodge-ems, and we were bumping into each other. Yeah, it came together in quite a few different places on the Pelorus River, which was an extremely fast-flowing river with a current. [Laughing] It’s the end of the sequence, and it’s when we were racing each other to get to the waterfront. It was like being at a theme park for two weeks, and they were dumping tons of water on us and trying to get us to go under the water. I think Martin had the most difficult role in that, because he wasn’t in a barrel, and there was an underwater camera, and he would swap out with the stunt guy, and it got quite hair-raising, but I think it was worth it.

Peter Jackson:  We had these big V8 water jet things that we built on a circle – it was like a theme park – about as big as this room. We were worried because we thought, how fast can we actually grind, wind the engine up, because we could sort of wind it up at speed and, you know, we’d better be careful because we don’t know quite [what’s going to happen]. It’s going to be unpredictable – and it was. We had stunt guys doing it, round and round, and testing it and everything else. You know, these are actors, they’re a little bit fragile. [Laughing] By the end of the first day, the guys were just yelling, “Faster! Faster! Get it faster, faster, faster!” We had it on max, we had the thing going on maximum pretty quickly.

I remember when I was 17-19 years old, I remember the EMPIRE STRIKES BACK big cliffhanger. It was like three years before the next one came out. We’re being pretty generous with one year. As a BREAKING BAD fan, I was hanging a long time for that last half season or whatever they call it for BREAKING BAD.

Question:  This is a question for Benedict [Cumberbatch]. You were talking about Martin [Freeman] and since he’s not here, what do you like about him, and what do you remember about the first time you were working with him? In Sherlock, you two are buddies but in this you’re enemies, so please talk about how it was working with him in that way.

Benedict Cumberbatch:  Yeah, it’s a very different dynamic. Very different. One, I’m in the room with him, and I’m not the flying, psychotic napalm machine. I could be dismissive of him as Dr. Watson as my Sherlock, but they’re friends. Very different. What’s to like about Martin Freeman? Oh, it’s too early in the day to do this, is it? It’s tricky. I haven’t got my list for the day ready yet. He’s very smart, and he’s one of the funniest men I’ve ever met. He’s a craftsman, he works incredibly hard and creates authentic characters and moments in drama. He’s an inspiration to work with obviously, and I’ve got nothing but good things to say about Martin.

Peter Jackson:  The one thing about Martin that I think is amazing is he gives you choices. What that means is that every single take he does is different. Is that the same with SHERLOCK as well? [Martin Freeman plays Dr. Watson to Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes in a series on PBS.]

Benedict Cumberbatch:  It is.

Peter Jackson:  He’s [Martin] just exploring. He’s exploring the whole time. He’s not saying, “Okay, I think that one was perfect, I don’t need to go anymore than that.” The next take he’s coming up with a different approach to it, and sometimes a very relatively different approach. Ten years ago, after we wrapped on THE LORD OF THE RINGS shoot with Ian Holm, who obviously plays Bilbo as an older man, and Ian McKellen came up to me and said, “Are you okay with what he does?” I said, “Why?” Ian McKellen is a much more of an actor who has a vision for what the scene needs to be about. He’s moving towards that particular goal, and Ian Holm was exploring and experimenting. I said, “You both have great approaches. You’re the safe and stable one, I know where you’re heading.”

I’m getting a lot of choice with Martin playing the younger Bilbo. Coincidentally, it’s exactly the same style actor as Ian Holm.

Question:  Evangeline, as a huge Tolkien fan, have you found that his work inspires your writing and has your experience working on books informed your acting in any significant way, particularly in this role?

Evangeline Lilly:  I think Tolkien definitely inspires me as a writer, and inspired me towards writing because good story impacts your life. I think somewhere deep down inside one of the great motivations to write is to have an impact, to say something. Then recently I’ve been doing a lot more studying writing. Much like acting, I’m not formally trained, I’m not formally trained in writing, and I think writing is a little bit more of a structured-specific craft. I’ve been doing my homework. I’ve been studying. As I’ve been studying and learning about story structure, learning more about what it takes to develop a story that will have an impact, that will resonate with an audience, the more it starts to impact my choices as an actress. I find myself right now, when I look at different roles and potential things for the future. Where before, I would read a script and instinctively I knew if I wanted to do the job if that story was resonating, and it might feel impactful or say something to the world; now, I am able to make a more cerebral choice. In my mind, I can actually break it down and say what’s missing is X, Y and Z. “If only they had added these six elements, then the script would have come to a place where I would be willing to do it.” I think something we all know by gut instinct because we’ve been telling stories since the beginning of time. We all instinctively know what works and what doesn’t. I’m starting to now intellectually understand that.

Co-Screenwriter Philippa Boyens:  Women are huge fans of these films. It’s wonderful. You know, right from the LORD OF THE RINGS, there was this immediate engagement of women. You know, there’s this notion that it’s a genre for boys, you know, dungeons and dragons or something like that but you know I’m living proof that that’s not true. I’ve always loved these stories. I think they spoke to me. The characters of THE HOBBIT especially speak to me – Frodo and Bilbo of course – and when you meet these young women, you do the red carpet and everything, things like that, and they talk to you, you understand that that passion for the storytelling that they’ve received that is going to create a new generation of young writers – young female writers – and I think we’re starting to see that now coming through. The way that fantasy is being used and one of the things that women, I think especially enjoy or relate to, is that Professor Tolkien attempted to make these stories real. They feel real, like a history. They read like a history: this exists; and, this was true. Pete is, I think, a genius at making these films feel real. Even though you have a giant fire-breathing dragon, he’s a real character – a real being.


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