The fellowship of the ravenous movie press

I went to the "Lord of the Rings" junket and all I got was this lousy Gandalf goblet.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published December 6, 2001 4:27PM (EST)

Liv Tyler is feeling cold, and maybe a little cranky. It's unseasonably, uncannily warm outside, on the first weekend of December in Manhattan, but all she's got on is a white tank top above what looks like velvet pants. After three hours of nonstop interviews with gangs of journalists assembled on the 34th floor of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel for the "Lord of the Rings" press junket, Tyler has swaddled herself in a hideous purple checked blanket whose fluorescent tinge makes her porcelain skin look even paler than it is.

Her co-star, Orlando Bloom, a lithe English youth who's almost as beautiful as Tyler, is by her side. Someone asks about his starring role as a U.S. Army Ranger in Ridley Scott's forthcoming "Black Hawk Down." Did that come to him because he had been cast straight out of acting school in London for a part in Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring"? (Bloom plays Legolas, the Elven warrior who joins the fateful quest to destroy the Dark Lord's Ring of Power.)

Bloom begins to answer the question, but Tyler cuts him off. "He got that because he's talented!" she bursts out. "People don't understand that." She frowns and looks around the room earnestly, as though seeking affirmation and human connection amid this crowd of sycophants. Straightening her remarkable neck out of its fuzzy purple shroud, she suggests, for a split second, the pride and grace of her character in the film -- Arwen Undómiel, supernal evening star of the Elven race. It occurs to me that, like Arwen, Tyler lives in a world where beauty equates to virtue and to righteousness. "People say stuff like that to me all the time," she concludes, setting her face into a teenager's self-mocking pout. "I'm, like, screw you."

Even in retailing this anecdote and trying to invest it with meaning, I am succumbing to the fiction that underlies the movie junket. This is more or less the idea that by spending 20 minutes in a crowded room with a movie star, I have experienced a moment of communion with her and can pass on a tiny shard of her luster to you, like a minor priest in the great church of infotainment.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Junkets these days are no longer the legendary sleaze circuses of the 1970s and '80s, when the studios arranged all-expenses-paid mini-vacations for dozens of hacks to Paris or Aspen or New Orleans, complete with first-class airfare, bottomless bar tabs and, according to rumor, sometimes other delights as well. In 1989, for example, I attended a notorious four-day blowout in Memphis for "Great Balls of Fire!" a disastrous biopic that starred Dennis Quaid as Jerry Lee Lewis. The junket reportedly cost more money than the film actually made in U.S. release, and the resulting publicity helped break the back of struggling Orion Pictures. (Since I live in New York, my graft level from the "Lord of the Rings" junket was pretty modest: an excellent grilled tuna sandwich, a bottle of Evian and two cups of coffee. Of course, there were also the standard grab-bag items: a CD of the score, a tie-in coffee-table book and a truly cheesy Gandalf goblet that lights up in red. No wizard's wand or Elvish Hotties calendar or anything.)

In practical terms, junkets regulate both supply and demand in the marketplace for Hollywood publicity. I and the other junketeers come away with the latitude to report on our "interviews" with Tyler or Ian McKellen or director Peter Jackson, without necessarily mentioning that there were anywhere from six to 12 other people in the room at the time. None of you, in all likelihood, would ever notice or care that a weekly paper in Vancouver and a daily paper in St. Louis and a sci-fi fan site all wound up with the same quotes I did.

Despite the fundamental bogosity of the junket enterprise, it remains the principal mechanism by which interviews with mainstream stars and directors flow out into the moviegoing heartland. Only the most powerful of movie-land reporters, or the most ferociously independent, can avoid it entirely. When the film involved is as massive in scale and cultural impact as this one -- the first installment of Jackson's trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy masterpiece -- the junket itself becomes a kind of news event.

My cynical attitude about the wheels of melting brie in the hospitality suite and the roving bands of interchangeable young female publicists in tight skirts faded somewhere into the middle distance when I saw Jackson's film. It strikes me as that rarest of Hollywood phenomena: a megabudget action-adventure spectacle that is also a labor of love and a visionary cinematic experience.

I shouldn't tread much further on the toes of my colleague Stephanie Zacharek, who along with a lot of other people will review "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" on Dec. 19, when it opens on something like 10,000 screens around the world. I'll add only that, as I see it, the handful of Tolkien purists likely to pillory Jackson for his various departures from the sacred text are missing the point on a world-historical scale. This isn't a doggedly literal adaptation, along the lines of Chris Columbus' competent but spiritless "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." It's an interpretation that seeks to capture Tolkien's magic in a new vessel, an epic with grimy hands and a core of mystery. It's a work of art created on its own terms.

"I take a perverse satisfaction in the fact that 'Lord of the Rings' has broken every rule in the book," says Jackson, a hairy, slightly plump New Zealander who looks like a plausible Tolkien creature himself, somewhere between a hobbit and a dwarf. "I mean, I was a very unlikely choice to make this film. I thought I could do it. I don't know whether anybody else did." This is quite true; until he sealed the improbable deal to film the "Lord of the Rings" franchise, Jackson was known principally for the New Zealand art film "Heavenly Creatures," a critics' fave-rave, and "The Frighteners," a modest 1996 horror-comedy starring Michael J. Fox.

"I mean, $270 million was entrusted to me. You wouldn't do that," he continues. "This enormous project was entrusted to a little New Zealand special-effects house [WETA, headed by Jackson's longtime collaborator Richard Taylor]. You wouldn't do that. The screenplay was entrusted to a writer who had never written one before [playwright Philippa Boyens, who is co-credited with Jackson and his writing partner Fran Walsh]. You wouldn't do that."

Jackson insists he had no lifelong desire to make a "Lord of the Rings" film, although he had long admired the books. Instead, in the mid-'90s he and Walsh were contemplating an original fantasy screenplay. "We kept saying we wanted to do something like 'Lord of the Rings,' something in the 'Lord of the Rings' vein," he adds. "The more we thought about it, the more we thought, well, it was worth making a phone call to find out about the rights."

That phone call launched a five-year journey that rivaled the quest in Tolkien's narrative itself. Jackson and Walsh made a tentative deal with Miramax head Harvey Weinstein, which fell apart after Weinstein decided he wanted to compress Tolkien's entire story into one film. Weinstein gave them a month to make another deal, after which he planned to take back the rights and assign the film to another director. Several other studios said no, and with time running out, Jackson and Walsh pitched their two-film package to New Line Cinema, their last hope. According to Jackson, one New Line executive at the meeting, who was a Tolkien fan, asked him: "Why would you want to make two movies when there are three books?" (You can read the complete tale of the deal-making that eventually produced the film here.)

It took three years for Jackson, Walsh and Boyens (a Tolkien aficionado) to write the screenplay and another year and a half to shoot all three films simultaneously on location in New Zealand, at an approximate cost of $90 million each. On one hand, nothing of this staggering scale and density of detail has ever been done in movie history; on the other, Jackson estimates that the films would have cost twice as much if they had been made in the U.S. or Western Europe.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Through it all, Jackson sought to emphasize to his cast of stars and neophytes, his production team of 2,400 and his virtual city of 26,000 extras that bringing the world's most popular work of literary fantasy to the screen was a serious responsibility. "To be frank, we have made many changes," he says. "The film is extremely different from the book, taken moment by moment and line by line. But we felt we wanted to be as accurate as possible to Tolkien's descriptions of Middle-earth. We wanted to give people the sense that we went on location to Middle-earth. In that sense we took the books as our Bible."

This meant hiring Tolkien illustrators Alan Lee and John Howe to help conceptualize the forest retreat of Rivendell, the black ramparts of Sauron' s Dark Tower, the pitted armor of the Orc armies and even the hairy prosthetic feet sported by the hobbits. And hiring no less than three Tolkien-steeped linguists to teach the author's invented Elvish languages and pseudo-Celtic pronunciation schemes to the actors. (Tyler and Viggo Mortensen, who plays the saga's human hero, Aragorn, perform parts of two scenes in Quenya, the language of the High Elves.) More important, by holding his cast and crew together throughout the epic 18-month shoot, Jackson created an atmosphere that itself simulated hobbit hero Frodo Baggins' heroic quest to destroy the Ring and save the world.

"Out of all the chaos, the desperation, the bad weather, the illness and the injuries," Mortensen says, "unusual things happened and wound up on film, in terms of tone and emotion." Mortensen, a brooding art-Jesus type in a black T-shirt who also writes poetry, paints and takes photographs, is clearly the most articulate of the film's stars. Elijah Wood, the cheerful young man who plays Frodo, would later regale us with a story about Mortensen getting a tooth knocked out in a stunt sword fight, and then insisting it be glued back in place so the shoot could continue.

"If someone like Steven Spielberg had made this film," Mortensen goes on, "it would be less frayed, more comfortable. Nobody could have gotten anything grittier, more emotional or more powerful than Peter did." His character, Aragorn, is afraid, he says -- afraid of the danger of the Ring, of the complex nature of evil, of his own kingly inheritance. "I was in the same boat. I was afraid too. I could use that as an actor."

Someone asks Wood, the former teen star of "The Ice Storm" and "The Faculty," whose rosy-cheeked innocence begins to age noticeably in his role as Frodo, how he approached playing a character on whom the fate of the world rests. "I think the role was my burden," he says. "Just playing Frodo was like my own personal Ring. You know, after all the stress and fatigue, the relationships that we forged became like the reality of the characters in the book. What you see on the screen is real."

On the other hand, Ian McKellen doesn't behave as if he were burdened by anything. His role as the benevolent wizard Gandalf the Grey, alternately commanding and avuncular, is in many respects the human glue that holds Jackson's film together. Movies that assault the box office as this one probably will are not customarily rewarded at Oscar time; this film, and McKellen's performance in particular, may be an exception.

As he casually points out, McKellen has other things on his plate besides the Tolkien trifecta; he is currently appearing on Broadway, opposite Helen Mirren, in Strindberg's "Dance of Death." As he sweeps into the room for his interview session, immaculate and just slightly hip in a blue oxford shirt and a black leather blazer, a civilized hush settles over the journalists, ravening horde though we are. His handler explains that McKellen would prefer us to introduce ourselves before we ask a question; when we do so he responds with a mellifluous "Hello."

Someone tries out an unusually intelligent question about whether the sudden resurgence of the fantasy genre, with its wizardry and witchcraft, represents a growing interest in pagan spiritual traditions. "I certainly hope so," says McKellen, unfazed by this detour into theology. "The great religions have destroyed something essential about humanity, which is the fact that we belong to the earth. I wish I knew more about pagan traditions, because I suspect I would like to sign up."

This gracious veteran of stage and screen, whose roles extend from Prospero to Magneto, is the only interviewee to discuss the obvious fact that "The Lord of the Rings" is expected and indeed counted upon to become a rare commercial phenomenon. "I'm on a stamp," he says with an air of mild wonder. We profess mystification. "Christopher Lee and I are on the 40-cent stamp in New Zealand," he explains. "Not many living people are on stamps. And on Burger King cups."

For a moment I think I can see a flash of wizard in this well-coiffed man in late middle age, just as, at another moment, I thought I could see the Elven princess in a spoiled and isolated young woman. (Seduced by the junket mojo once again, I guess.) At any rate, it seems that McKellen does not intend to let the "Lord of the Rings" phenomenon control him, if he can help it. "My friend Armistead Maupin [author of 'Tales of the City'], who convinced me to come out of the closet regarding my own sexuality, do you know what he said?" Clearly we do not. "He said, 'I cannot believe that an openly gay man is being given away with hamburgers.'" We laugh. He smiles but looks a little sad, as wizards will.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'Hehir

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

J.r.r. Tolkien Movies