There & Back Again with Philippa Boyens

As far back as 1957, producers have tried to deliver J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to cinema, but while Tolkien himself prevented certain enterprises from eventuating, many others simply failed under the weight and scope of the leviathan works.

It wasn’t until 1966 that audience first caught a visual rendition of Middle Earth, thanks to a twelve-minute animation from Oscar winning producer William Snyder Munro, 1960), based on Tolkien’s Hobbit. Unfortunately, in the decades that followed only a few, unsuccessful attempts from the likes of director John Boorman (Excalibur, 1981) and playwright Peter Shaffer (Amadeus, 1984) were attempted, permeating Tolkien’s literary masterpiece with its own mythological watermark as one of those elusively unfilmable stories.

Then in 2001, New Zealand born director Peter Jackson released The Fellowship of the Ring, a richly detailed epic that blended the grandeur of Tolkien’s written word with a visual spectacle that remains unparalleled in contemporary filmmaking. And in the process elevated Jackson, along with his writing partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens to Hollywood ’s A-List.

Having garnered numerous accolades for their LOTR trilogy (including the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for The Return of the King), 2005’s King Kong and the dark supernatural thriller The Lovely Bones, Jackson, Walsh and Boyens are returning to Middle Earth with an adaption of what promises to be as equally ambitious, if perhaps lighter in tone LOTR prequel novel, The Hobbit.

We knew this was going to be set against the backdrop of the LOTR films to a certain extent.” Reveals writer/producer Philippa Boyens when the obvious comparisons between the Hobbit and Tolkien’s LOTR novels are bought up. “Simply because they’re the films we made first. That was just the reality of it.

“But you’re absolutely right – the tone is quite different, and we didn’t want to lose that either. I think what it comes down to is identifying, tonally, the bits of what you would call the Children’s Tale, and what it is about that which adults love. Because it is funny and endearing and absurd; mostly funny though, I have to say. And hose are the bits you want to protect and keep.”

Having broken the blockbuster genre wide open with their adaptations of Tolkein’s vast literature, along with their reworking of the 1933 classic King Kong, Boyens, Walsh and Jackson have also proven themselves adept at tackling far more intimate stories, as evidenced by the dark suburban 1970’s drama The Lovely Bones, and to a lesser degree with their work as producers across Neil Blomkamp’s surprise sci-fi think-tank District 9. Success which Boyens attributes to a well-worn process the trio have formed in approaching and producing their projects.

“We always start in the same room, generally on the same page.” She explains. “We start by looking at what type of film we’re making – what’s the tone, what’s the heart of the film, where are we aiming for – what does the film deliver to the audience – all of those sorts of questions. We do that all together, and it can take days, and often weeks.”

“I think it’s a very collaborative process, mostly because that’s how Peter works. I’ve always thought he’s very secure in his own talent. He can happily encompass the ideas of other people. He always listens. As a writer, it’s great to work with a director like that. And also, by the way, he’s a pretty damn good writer himself.”

But as the first chapter in the planned The Hobbit trilogy, appropriately titled ‘An Unexpected Journey’ approaches its December 26 release date, its no secret that the production has garnered its fair share of controversy thanks to Jackson’s public feud with the head of New Line Cinema, Robert Shaye which saw the production, originally slated as a two-part project, suffer numerous delays. An unfortunate turn of events that effectively dulled the global enthusiasm when it was announced back in 2007 that Jackson was set to produce with Guillermo Del Toro (Hellboy) directing.

Further adding to the films wavering support from fans was the shock announcement from Del Toro camp that the acclaimed director was unable to remain with the production, effectively discarding three years of work, and which farced Jackson back into the director’s chair in order to deliver the films.

“Peter, from the word go was really keen to not be hands on. And that wasn’t a cynical thing.” Explains Boyens regarding the drama that was unfolding behind-the-scenes. “It was just that he thought maybe it [The Hobbit] would be better to be filmed by someone else.

“But I noticed that sort of changing as we started the writing process – you get into it as a writer, and you find your way back into a story purely on the basis of being a writer. And you do fall in love again.”

But although Jackson’s return was applauded by fans and industry insiders alike, a mammoth effort was undertaken in order for the LOTR director to take the reins, leaving sceptics uncertain of meeting deadlines and release schedules. Then as principle photography approached its conclusion, Jackson and New Line Cinema made the surprising announcement that the two-part opus would be reworked as a trilogy, effectively forcing Boyens, Walsh and Jackson, once again, back into the writers room. This time, not to just rework existing content, but to create a new dynamics, characters and story beats that would encompass a complete trilogy. A situation that left many wondering if the whole enterprise had simply become a money grab for an ailing studio. However, Boyens is quick to defend the decision from creative, and respectful viewpoint stemming from her own Middle Earth legacy, and in deference of Tolkien’s own worldbuilding mythology.

“You know what? It was probably one of the most sensible things we’ve done.” She elaborates without hesitation. “We have done some crazy things but that’s not one of them! I think it was done for the right reasons because it came about really naturally.

“It came about when we all sat down and got to see a cut of the film which happened earlier this year. What we all collectively felt was; Okay we need to make some choices about how much of this tale we tell? Do we go into the bits that are untold? Is it working emotionally? Are these characters drawing you into the storytelling? But also, does it have that slightly epic sense that it’s part of a bigger tale? A lot of the elements we’re talking about are entirely to do with Middle Earth’s greatest story, and specifically how the events in The Hobbit will impact on that.

“So we went to the studio [New Line] and said, ‘What do you think?’ And it was interesting. It was never another money-making exercise for them. They weren’t like ‘Cha-Ching! Another movie!’ They just wanted to know that there was enough story there and that it was the right decision to make – and they came to the same conclusion.

“We kind of knew how we could do it, and it actually felt quite natural. It’s never, not once, felt like a stretch. Yeah, we tweaked a bit and had to shift things. But we wanted a great end to Film Two that pushes you into Film Three – great visuals as well as a great natural climax… but more importantly, we wanted the characters to arrive at a certain place so that you can move the story forward – not a physical location, but an emotional location – and I think we found that.”

    J. Fletcher

    Based in Sydney, Australia. Entertainment Journalist. Critic. Photographer. Coffee Snob. Not necessarily in that order.

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