The Ringmaster: Peter Jackson Talks the End of His Middle Earth Odyssey

JULIAN BROAD FOR VARIETY

The Dec. 17 debut of “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” marks both an end and a beginning for Peter Jackson.

It represents the culmination of his 16-year, six-film J.R.R. Tolkien marathon — an outsized success in duration, execution, visual-effects wizardry and overall popularity. No director in history has maintained tighter control over the creative direction of a global film franchise, which so far has amassed close to $5 billion in ticket sales alone.

But after bringing his Middle-earth spectacles to the masses, the world’s most famous Kiwi is ready to downsize and return to his low-budget roots: The 53-year-old director-producer-screenwriter is working on adapting several true stories about his native country, with his longtime partner Fran Walsh, that he says will be similar in tone and scope to his 1994 murder tale, “Heavenly Creatures.”

“We really feel a bigger urge now to not continue with another Hollywood blockbuster for a while, but to go back and tell some New Zealand stories,” Jackson told Variety in an interview just hours before the London premiere of his final “Hobbit” installment last week.

He’s also toying with virtual reality, and studying entertainment opportunities in the emerging technology that has primarily been used to help e-tailers provide 3D ad-friendly versions of cars and couches to consumers.

“We’re right on the cusp of a major upheaval of the entertainment world once that technology really kicks in,” he says. Jackson will devote a year or two on the project, but he’s not sure if the best fit will be for films or videogames.

The filmmaker also continues to tinker with the bigscreen experience, such as his embrace of higher frame rates. When the first “Hobbit” film debuted in 2012, some critics said that at 48 frames per second, the images looked like something out of TV soap operas. So Jackson improved the grading and color-timing of the subsequent pictures, and the furor died down.

Both the frame-rate experiment and the polarizing reaction raised larger questions about the future of the film business.

“Films 100 years ago were 16 frames per second, no sound, no color,” Jackson says. “So if you look 100 years ahead, I don’t know what films will be, but I can guarantee they won’t be 24 frames per second and 2D. The audience is falling away, and you have to compete with all the other forms of entertainment. So to get people into the cinema, we need to experiment to survive.”

The studios are interested in whatever road Jackson takes.

“All of us at New Line and Warners would like to continue being in business with Peter — and plan to,” says New Line president Toby Emmerich.

Carolyn Blackwood, senior exec VP of strategy and operations for New Line (and an exec producer of the “Hobbit” movies) adds that Jackson can pretty much write his own ticket. “No question we consider Peter part of our family. But there’s no ‘when is the next one, when is the next one?’ That’s not how he works best.”

Their commitment is understandable. The five Tolkien films accumulated $4.8 billion at the worldwide box office and spawned merchandise, DVDs and ancillary sales ranging from international TV to Legos worth, conservatively, an estimated $500 million, including sale of the first trilogy in 2002 to Turner/TBS/the WB for $150 million for 10 years of showings. The mobile video-game “The Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle-earth” has grossed more than $100 millon since its November 2012 release.

As he prepares to walk the red carpet for the London premiere, Jackson sounds sleep deprived. The filmmaker had been working 36 hours straight to add finishing touches to the film that concludes the “Hobbit” trilogy.

He’s proud of the movie, and notes that it has a different tone than its predecessors. “I wanted to give it the pace of a thriller,” says the filmmaker. “I wanted to make it sharp and fast rather than the epic-quest type pace.”

It also benefits from a higher body count. “I know it’s a primitive thing to say, but you can get so much more emotional power when you have a main cast member with a death scene,” he says.

The sprawling shoot, which encompassed 266 days of principal photography and 10 weeks of pickups, ended on a particularly bittersweet note for Jackson and his collaborators.

”We’ve got a big cast, so these farewells would come upon us fairly regularly,” he says. “The hardest ones were the guys who had been around for so long.”

None was harder than that of Ian McKellen, whose final shooting scene as the wizard Gandalf consisted of a quiet moment where he sits with Martin Freeman’s Bilbo after a massive battle. The emotion of the moment inspired Jackson to cut the dialogue at the last minute so as to let the actors’ reactions speak for themselves.

“Just to say to Ian — you’re never ever going to put this beard on again, you’re never ever going to wear the robes and the hat,” recalls Jackson. “I did find that pretty tough.”

For McKellen, the sense of finality was leavened with deja vu. “It was emotional, but I’ve been saying goodbye to Gandalf since the year 2000, and I keep getting called back,” he jokes.

Aside from being a technological innovator and renowned director, Jackson has another claim to fame: No other filmmaker has single-handedly boosted a country’s economy.

According to the New Zealand tourism board, international arrivals to Wellington jumped 87% in the 12 years since the first “Lord of the Rings”; the Hobbiton movie set, on NZ’s North Island, has attracted 700,000 visitors since opening in 2003, with 250,000 of those in the past year.

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SOURCE: Variety
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