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Tolkien Of Affection
Labor-of-Love Adaptation of "Lord of the Rings" Stays True to the Text's Heart
"The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring." Starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Sean Astin and Cate Blanchett. Directed, written and produced by Peter Jackson. A New Line release. Fantasy. Rated PG-13. Opens wide 12/19.
The quest began a millennium ago and whisked the Bearer of the One "Ring" to exotic faraway lands. That is, Elijah Wood was tapped circa mid-1999 to play Frodo Baggins in New Line's epic adaptation of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, filmed on location in New Zealand.
Wood, now 20, was a child actor on the rise around the time his contemporary (and co-star in 1993's "The Good Son"), Macaulay Culkin, was skyrocketing to fame slapping himself silly in endless talk-show reenactments of his Edvard Munchian "Home Alone" aftershave scene. While Culkin's celebrity went the way of his baby teeth, Wood continued to build a reputation as a young star whose wise-beyond-his-years aura negated the need for a gimmick or catchphrase. Wood's footing in Hollywood became less sure as he vacillated between the artistic ("The Ice Storm") and the exploitative ("Deep Impact," "The Faculty"), but the same magic that turned Kiwi country into Middle Earth transformed the actor who not long ago was wrangling with adolescence in the big-screen version of "Flipper" into the shining hero of J.R.R. Tolkien's epic good-versus-evil quest fantasy.
As Frodo, who inherits a ring of great but inherently evil power from his uncle Bilbo, and must return it -- with the help of a fellowship of elves, dwarves, wizards, humans and fellow-hobbits -- to its place of origin in order to destroy it, Wood himself faces the equally daunting challenge of embodying a character whose iconic, archetypal status is rivaled only by that of its source material, the Bible of fantasy literature.
BOXOFFICE: I saw some advance footage [of "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring"] and the scenes in Moria [a dwarf mine overrun by the baneful Orcs] were perfectly realized. Better yet, there was someone beside me who even said the Orcs were actually scarier than they had been in his imagination. Which is some feat, because usually it's a letdown to have something rendered that you've already visualized in your mind.
ELIJAH WOOD: So often when you read a book, it's very much your own interpretation, and everyone has their own interpretation of what "The Lord of the Rings" looks like. So to put that to film and [try to] meet other people's vision is really complicated.
BOXOFFICE: What has the response been so far?
WOOD: Tolkien fans who have seen simply just the trailer are pleased with what they see -- and most of the people who have seen the footage you saw were absolutely blown away. The response has been great from Tolkien fans, just in terms of the look and the feel of it, which they feel represents the books perfectly.
BOXOFFICE: What's your insight into how that was achieved?
WOOD: Ooh, a lot of heart and soul and hard work. This film, this project, was just a culmination of nearly a thousand incredibly passionate people who were either Tolkien fans or became Tolkien fans in the process. Everyone involved was so incredibly passionate to make the Tolkien vision that they had either grown up with or just read come alive on the screen. And we had some of the most amazing artists designing what they felt best represented Middle Earth. We also had an artist who had illustrated [later editions] of "Lord of the Rings," Alan Lee -- he was one of our art designers.
BOXOFFICE: That was very smart. I was about to use the word "synergy," but then I'd have to wash my mouth out with raw lye.
WOOD: [laughs] Yeah. So a lot of people who are familiar with those illustrations will be really familiar with the imagery in the film.
BOXOFFICE: There are a lot of variant accounts as to how you became involved with the project, and most of them involve [Internet movie-news maven] Harry Knowles.
WOOD: I was working in Austin, Texas, on "The Faculty," and that's where Harry lives, and he often visited the set because he was friends with Robert Rodriguez. [Knowles in fact had a cameo in the film as one of the titular alien-possessed teachers. -- Ed.] And one day he came up to me, and he was like, "Dude, they're making 'Lord of the Rings' as a feature. You gotta play Frodo!" And the news was really exciting, but they weren't casting for it at that point. It was just kind of in the news. I first heard about it from him, [but] I actually wasn't approached to audition for it until nearly a year later.
BOXOFFICE: What was the process?
WOOD: My agent called me and said, "Look, they're casting 'Lord of the Rings'; Peter Jackson is gonna direct it, and you should go in and put yourself on tape." [But] the idea of putting myself on tape in a casting office wasn't particularly attractive to me, mainly because I wanted to try to convey my passion for the project and for the role, and going into the casting office against a white background and being put on tape did not seem at all conducive to what I wanted to portray. So I [decided to do] my own tape, which I'd never done before, but I figured that this project deserved my own interpretation and my full attention. So I got a voice coach and worked on my accent for a little while, and then a few friends of mine got together and we went up to the Hollywood Hills after getting some costumes at Western Costume, and we shot the scenes like you would a film, [with] various angles and things. And we went that night to the Miramax offices and borrowed their Avid machine and edited it together, and the next day I brought the video into the casting office and I kind of let it go, just knowing that I'd put my best foot forward in terms of getting the role, and I would see what happened. And it all went from there.
BOXOFFICE: It's interesting because you have, it's been remarked, otherworldly, kind of Elvish features, whereas the Hobbits are a little more stocky and ruddy. So how did that all work out?
WOOD: Well, the thing is that Frodo actually is differentiated from the other Hobbits in a lot of ways. He, like his uncle, Bilbo, is quite interested in the outside world -- the world outside the Shire -- and in Elvin lore and the history of Middle Earth. And he was brought up by his uncle, hearing stories of his adventures and tales of the elves and things. So he's always been fascinated by that. Which is kind of peculiar for a Hobbit, because Hobbits tend to not want to know about what's outside the Shire, because outside is unknown to them, and slightly frightening. So Frodo was always quite different. And, in terms of my own features, I think [they] played into that in a physical kind of way.
BOXOFFICE: What's your take on the character of Frodo and his motivations, his loyalties and his conflicts?
WOOD: Wow! Well, Frodo, in terms of his decision to take the ring and the journey that he ends up taking -- there's a lot that plays into that. Initially, his reason for taking the ring is because [benevolent wizard] Gandalf has explained to him that the ring that Bilbo had had all these years was actually the Ring of Power, the One Ring, and that it was intrinsically evil, and that [the dark lord] Sauron would be willing it back to him and, if he did end up getting it back, Middle Earth would be doomed. So Frodo takes the ring in an effort to get the ring out of the Shire, so that the Shire is not a pinpoint for any of the minions of Sauron. He then realizes that he's still stuck with the ring once he gets to Rivendell [home of the elf lord Elrond], at which point he doesn't want to have anything to do with it, and he simply wants to go home and live the life that he once lived. But it's during his time in Rivendell that he realizes [he must] take the ring, out of a sort of fate. The humans and the elves are all starting to disagree as to what to do with the ring -- they know it can't be destroyed, and there's a quality in humans that, if one takes the ring, they themselves will be destroyed. Frodo realizes that he's the only one who can do this, and he's meant to do this.
BOXOFFICE: And of course he has conflicts as the ring has its sway upon him.
WOOD: Yes, certainly.
BOXOFFICE: That must have been difficult to portray, because this is a pure spirit, yet he's not totally free from corruption.
WOOD: No, absolutely. Though Hobbits can sustain the power of the ring for longer than most species, it does begin to affect them after a certain period of time. Frodo, over the course of the journey, starts out very innocent and unaffected and, throughout the journey, the ring starts to weigh upon his soul. And he becomes a very different person by the end of the story.
BOXOFFICE: It's an interesting opportunity for you to be able to execute that arc all at once [as all three films in the trilogy were shot concurrently].
WOOD: Absolutely. That was brilliant. And what was kind of cool about the entire project was actually the fact that we were able to stretch out the filming over 15 months.
BOXOFFICE: [Sarcastically/sympathetically:] Oh, yeah, that's cool!
WOOD: No, in some ways, I think it is, because we were given a chance to flesh out the story almost in real time. I mean, the journey itself [in the three books] took place over a year, and we had that same amount of time to film the movie and the story. So we had that amount of time to figure our arc out and to actually take our character to different places, as opposed to trying to figure it out in a very short amount of time, which you normally have for a film. So it was a privilege, because we had an extended amount of time to work things out as we went along.
BOXOFFICE: But how did you survive?
WOOD: [laughs] Um, well, it was a brilliant experience. I mean, yeah, it was 15 months, but the thing is, when I arrived in New Zealand, it immediately felt like home to me, and I was immediately comfortable. And within the first couple of weeks, once I'd met everyone and the Hobbits were all hanging out together and working together, "Lord of the Rings" became my life. And it became everyone's life. The kind of camaraderie that everyone felt together working over that period of time was unlike any I'd ever had before. I mean, it was a family.
BOXOFFICE: Did you ever all go into town in your garb and impress the locals?
WOOD: We never did. We weren't allowed, because we were afraid people would be taking pictures. We were trying to be as top secret as possible, although things leaked quite often.
BOXOFFICE: For certain shots, four-foot stand-ins were used wearing masks of the actors. How surreal was that?
WOOD: It was very surreal. I've never worked with a double that was to be smaller than me --
BOXOFFICE: And wearing a mask of your face!
WOOD: That was pretty strange as well.
BOXOFFICE: How accurate was it?
WOOD: It was pretty accurate! It was kind of ghostly. But it was also quite cool as well, because we all got to stand back and watch people of real Hobbit size walk around and, essentially, they were Hobbits. So, for us, it was kind of a joy to watch them go through our scenes in the wider shots, because they were the real Hobbits and, in some ways, I think we were the scale doubles.
BOXOFFICE: But just to see someone looking pretty much like you -- what's in your head?
WOOD: There were a lot of strange, new experiences for all of us in this movie, so it was just one of the many after a while. But it was certainly bizarre, especially to have a picture [taken with me and] my smaller self. I remember one day I noticed this kind of bin, and inside the bin -- I opened it up -- there were all of the Hobbit faces. And we took a picture of it, because it was so bizarre! It looked so eerie! Because nothing was filling the faces. They were just these blank expressions.
BOXOFFICE: Sounds like one of those snuff films. Hannibal discards or something. Did you keep your skin?
WOOD: I didn't, actually. I don't think they had enough for anyone to steal a copy.
BOXOFFICE: Did you get to keep any of your wardrobe?
WOOD: I haven't as of yet. There are a lot of things I still have my eye on. Although I do have the One Ring.
BOXOFFICE: Do you? Where do you keep the One Ring?
WOOD: My One Ring is in the office at the moment.
BOXOFFICE: That's not very Middle Earthian.
WOOD: No, it's not, but I can't wear it, for fear of losing it or someone taking it. The thing is, if I tell everyone I have the One Ring -- which I've already kind of done, foolishly, I think -- then everyone's going to want the One Ring. So it's kept away.
BOXOFFICE: You're just in Frodo's position! Instead of Ringwraiths, there are rabid fans.
WOOD: Exactly! Exactly.
BOXOFFICE: How much of the first film have you seen?
WOOD: Early on, we saw edited scenes put together, and that was an hour or so of footage, and then I've seen this last 25-minute cut.
BOXOFFICE: And what are your impressions?
WOOD: Speechless. We all sat in Cannes and witnessed the screening of the 25-minute cut, and we were absolutely blown away. We literally couldn't articulate what we felt about it after it stopped. We just asked them to play it again, because we were so dumbfounded. It was incredible. One of the cool things about being a part of this movie was that while we were making the film, though we were most of the time dealing with realistic imagery that we could actually interact with, i.e., big sets or people in costume, there are a lot of times where we had to work against a blue screen, or there were CG characters that weren't actually there to interact with us, or the wider shots we did and the landscapes [were] doctored later with added stuff in the background. So seeing the film in its completed form -- there's so much there that's new to all of us. So, when we actually finally see the films, we'll share that state of shock, because it will be so very different from what [we did] on the day, or what we had imagined.
BOXOFFICE: How do you think this movie has affected and will affect your life?
WOOD: I knew before going to New Zealand that I would leave a different person and that it would be life changing in a lot of ways. I don't quite know how, or how to describe how it has changed me, but certainly it has. And, in terms of what the movie will do once it's released, I don't really know. One can only speculate. I've never, ever been a part of anything this massive. At the same time as it's so exciting and possibly really massive on a commercial scale, it's also something we're so proud of, and we poured our hearts and souls into. So it's actually really easy to meet people who are fans, because I'm as excited about it as they are.
BOXOFFICE: I just thought of something -- doesn't Elijah mean "Chosen One"?
WOOD: Isn't it funny you say that! Yeah, it does! Well, it also means "Messenger of God," but I believe it does mean Chosen One.
BOXOFFICE: Is this all pre-ordained then? Did you have an in with the deities?
WOOD: I don't think so, but it all feels like it was meant to be. It's weird. The entire project felt like that for everyone. Everyone who filled the roles that they did completely inhabited them in a way that it was as if they were always meant to be those characters. Everything fell into place in the right way in this film. And we were all incredibly blessed to be able work with each other, and for it to work out and pan out the way that it did. I think we will always be so grateful for the experience. It was certainly one of the most incredible experiences of my life.