Secrets Of 'The King'

Peter Jackson's "The Return of the King" begins with a flashback to what seems like the beginning of time--young Deagol is fishing with his creepy brother Smeagol when suddenly a fish on his line pulls him out of the boat and underwater, where he spots a gold ring half-submerged in the riverbed--so let's begin with a flashback of our own. It's autumn of 2001, at WETA Workshop, in Wellington, New Zealand. Jackson is about to release "The Fellowship of the Ring," the first installment of his adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings," and some costumes and props made for the movies are laid out in a massive, high-ceilinged hangar. There's a miniature of the elven retreat of Rivendell, mossy and genteel. The ominous black tower of Orthanc, about a dozen feet high. There's the hobbit blade Sting and, right next to it, two versions of the kingly sword known as Anduril, one shattered, one whole. There are racks of armor, both regal and savage. Everything is so meticulous and ambitious that it's clear the filmmakers are brilliant--or nuts. New Line Studios' Bob Shaye and Michael Lynne have devoted $300 million, and counting, to the trilogy. And they've allowed Jackson--a New Zealander known, if at all, for a handful of tiny zombie films and the brilliant real-life drama "Heavenly Creatures"--to shoot all three movies at once, arguably the biggest gamble in history. Still, there are believers. By the door, somebody has tacked up an advance picture of the ferocious Uruk-hai warrior Lurtz from "Fellowship," along with comments about it from the Web site aint-it-cool-news. "Since nobody has mentioned it, 'Lord of the Rings' will kick 'Star Wars' ' ass," reads one of the postings. "I'm sorry, but someone had to say it."

Today, two years later, Jackson is poised to release "The Return of the King," in which the hobbit Frodo (Elijah Wood) continues his torturous trek to Mount Doom, in hopes of destroying the evil ring, and Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) wages war, in hopes of distracting the enemy from the hobbit's quest, as well as ascending the throne of Gondor and marrying Arwen (Liv Tyler), the elven princess of his dreams. "The Return of the King" is the third and final chapter in what's likely to be a nearly $3 billion franchise that should, according to sources familiar with Jackson's deal, net the director at least $150 million. Judging from a recent NEWSWEEK screening in New Zealand, "The Return of the King" is a sure contender for best picture. More than that, it could be the first franchise ever that didn't, at the end of the day, let audiences down--either because of laziness, pretension, greed or other phantom menaces. This is an especially poignant possibility at a time when we can all still smell the smoke from the wreckage of "The Matrix."

New Line will likely position "The Return of the King," which opens Dec. 17, as a sort of "actors' movie," in an effort to make an end run around the Academy's well-documented antipathy toward fantasy. Whatever works. In truth, "Return of the King" has nothing to apologize for. It's an epic. It tells a passionate, elemental story. It takes the principal filmmaking currency of our times, special effects, and makes them matter. Is it a fantasy? It's a lot of people's fantasy, yes.

Jackson stands in a light rain on a set in Wellington. It's May 2003, and he's directing scattered scenes for "Return of the King." He is bearded, scraggly-haired, Santa-bellied and, ordinarily, a bit shy and internal. He has thick, powerful-looking arms and legs. He wears shorts almost constantly--he was once tossed out of the bar at the Dorchester Hotel, in London, for this very crime--and shoes virtually never. Meanwhile, his principal collaborators, Philippa Boyens and co-writer and producer Fran Walsh, meet in an office on the set and talk about him behind his back. "It was hysterical seeing Pete at the last British premiere," says Boyens. "There were these young girls screaming for Orlando [Bloom] and Elijah--and then they started screaming for Pete, too! Which is pretty hysterical." Walsh looks up; she has two children with Jackson and has been his partner for many years. "Why is that hysterical?" she says, dryly. "Can you elaborate?" Boyens turns to Walsh. "You're right, darling," she says. "He's a total stud."

This week Jackson is shooting footage to insert into the epic battle of Pelennor Fields, among other things. He guides Eowyn (Miranda Otto) and the Witch King (Lawrence Makoare) through some climactic hand-to-hand combat involving swords and a mace, the latter of which will be added digitally ("Whammo," he says. "Yep. Whammo. Whooosh. Bang. Bang. And another one. Whoosh"). Tyler floats around the set dispensing hugs, extras dressed as soldiers take a break from lying dead and one orc, with a typically crazed, mangy rubber head, flirts with a publicist. The next day Jackson gives his 8-year-old son's class a tour. He asks the kids questions and videotapes them as he walks backward through a field of fake dead horses. The children worship the Aragorn character, and they had hoped to meet Mortensen. Later, when Jackson is asked if they got their wish, he nods giddily. "Oh, yep-yep-yep," he says. "Viggo's great with kids. He showed them his sword, and then one of the boys very excitedly pointed to his dagger and said, 'That's the dagger he stabbed Lurtz with in "Fellowship of the Ring"!' So then Viggo whipped out his dagger." Jackson is giggling now. "Afterwards, one of the kids said to his friends, 'Do you think Aragorn would baby-sit children?' "

"Fellowship" and "The Two Towers" made a combined $650 million in the United States alone, but the cast's devotion to the trilogy clearly has more to do with their love for the story in general and Jackson in particular than with money. As it happens, New Line hired most of them for a song--many of the cast, including Bloom, were unknowns at the time--and has asked them to return to New Zealand every year for reshoots, and to commit to never-ending press and premieres. "When they offered me the part, I had to sit down and think about whether I was willing to work on this for a year and a half," says Tyler. "But actually it's been four and a half years." There's no bitterness in her voice, but the truth is that this past year has been a volatile one for relations between the cast and the studio. Some observers predict that, in the grand Hollywood tradition of creative accounting, New Line may try to prove that it did not make a profit on "The Lord of the Rings." news-week has learned that early this year, the studio offered some cast members an initial round of "Two Towers" bonuses. Though the movie had been an even bigger hit than "Fellowship," the bonuses were smaller and left far more cast members out in the cold. The actors wanted assurances that there would be a more equitable offering in the future. When the studio declined to make promises, 18 actors are said to have banded together and composed a letter to Time Warner chairman Richard Parsons pleading their case. You want a fellowship? You got it.

The actors were ultimately convinced that going over New Line's head to Parsons would only initiate mutually assured destruction between the cast and the studio. They did not send the letter. Instead, they made what New Line executive vice president Mark Ordesky diplomatically calls "a vigorous appeal" to the studio's leadership, telling them that it was difficult to imagine spending the final quarter of 2003 attending press junkets and premieres when some of them, particularly those with smaller roles, really did need to get other jobs to make a living. (The actors approached for this article would not confirm any of this; Jackson, who's said to be a merciless negotiator when he believes the occasion warrants it, would say only that whatever did happen happened between the cast and the studio.) New Line agreed to create a new bonus pool. Crunching numbers with one of the actors everyone trusted--without any agents at all, and with a lawyer only to type up the agreement--the studio struck an egalitarian deal for both "The Two Towers" and "The Return of the King," paying cast members above and beyond their profit-participation deals, and even rewarding the many actors with no deal in place at all.

The bonuses restored good will. For the most part. Sources tell NEWSWEEK that the cast is now auditing the studio. And Jackson and Miramax, which launched "The Lord of the Rings" years ago but ultimately couldn't afford to make it, have teamed up for an audit of their own. New Line's Ordesky, an old friend of Jackson's from the days when the director needed a couch to sleep on in L.A., insists that the studio does not consider the audits confrontational. The irony is that, in the midst of all this, Jackson is delighted with New Line's financial commitment to the making of "Return of the King." "On the first two films," he says, "we always had to do a dog-and-pony show in order to get more money to do [special] effects shots. They wouldn't approve the money until we showed them the movie in whatever state it was in, and we had to have big story meetings with them to justify everything. I think that's perfectly fine. That's what you expect to do. But this time around, they're basically saying, 'Listen, whatever you want to do, we're going to support you.' I mean, it's possible that at the moment, I'm experiencing --the greatest freedom I'm ever going to have." As a reporter leaves Wellington in May, he shakes Jackson's hand between takes of a scene, and asks if the studio will let him make "Return of the King" as long as it needs to be. Jackson's eyes get wide, and he grins: "I'll make them let me."

In August 2003, while producer Barrie Osborne supervises special effects, sound mixing and last-minute filming back in Wellington, Jackson flies to London to work on the score with composer Howard Shore. One day, at Abbey Road Studios, they spend a lunch break watching footage and free-associating about musical passages still to be written. Shore has been recording his extraordinary score in Studio One--the Beatles used it for, among other things, the apocalyptic symphony that bisects "A Day in the Life"--and personally conducting the London Philharmonic. (Shore's commitment to the trilogy is such that he's not only writing music for scenes that will surely be cut when "Return of the King" is edited down, but will write new music for entirely different scenes when they're added for the DVD.) At the moment, Jackson, who's unconsciously conducting with one hand, narrates the scenes for Shore, while a microphone records everything for reference.

A brief scene, in which the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) advises Aragorn to ride to battle by a secret route, passes by on the monitor: "It's a bit creepy," Jackson says. "We don't know why it's creepy, but the music tells us it is. Spooky... spooky... spooky... and then the moment just sort of fades away." A scene of swarming orcs attacking a ruined city by boat: "Tension... tension... tension still building. It doesn't really explode until there. It's not fight music anymore. It's defeat music. It shouldn't be heroic. It should be a nightmare. Maybe one way you can build tension is where the boats are splashing into the water. Each splash can build." Soon Jackson's children arrive, and his young son quietly enters the room, sits on the couch, wedges himself into the crook of his father's arm and gazes at the monitor. "Are you tired?" Jackson asks. The boy shakes his head vigorously. Jackson smiles. "Ah, yes, you are. You're tired." He gestures to the monitor. "You're not allowed to tell anything at school. You're going to get a sneak peek."

Speaking of which. "The Return of the King" is the most ambitious installment of the trilogy. While "Fellowship" and "The Two Towers" had bravura action and effects sequences that you'd have thought were impossible to top, Jackson and the folks at WETA Digital continue to astonish. After Smeagol kills his brother for the ring at the bottom of the river--the sequence was originally intended for "The Two Towers"--"Return of the King" cuts to the present to find that Smeagol has undergone the most extreme makeover of all time: he's turned into Gollum. The creature, long ago driven mad by the ring, is guiding Frodo and Sam (Sean Astin) toward Mount Doom so they can toss it into the fires before the evil Sauron--well, not exactly gets his hands on it, because he's only an all-powerful, disembodied eye now, but you get the idea. Gollum longs to kill the hobbits and reclaim his "precious," and the threesome make for a traveling party constantly careering among rage, suspicion, loathing, pity and love. In a sequence long awaited by fans, Gollum lures Frodo into a tunnel inhabited by an enormous spider named Shelob. As it pounds behind Frodo in the darkness, the spider--partly because Jackson himself just hates the damn things--looks almost photo-real and moves with a terrifying stealth.

"The Return of the King" also delivers spectacular battle sequences--which probably goes without saying, given Jackson's lifelong fascination with warfare. (Tell him you've seen an early screening of "Master and Commander," and he'll nod excitedly and ask, "How are the battles?" Tell him you've seen "The Last Samurai," and he'll nod excitedly and ask, "How are the battles?") In "Return of the King," the enormous cast of good guys helps wage what WETA Digital's Jim Rygiel refers to as "World War Zero" against Sauron's orcs and trolls. The Battle of Pelennor Fields outdoes even the Helm's Deep section of "The Two Towers" in scale, and it resonates far more because the characters have become richer and because the story is now filled with stark, Shakespearean familial dramas. Families are always more interesting than Good and Evil.

Yes, there are visually arresting moments: The elephantine creatures called Mumakil charging like tanks. The evil orcs overrunning the bone-white citadel of Minas Tirith. Aragorn and an army of ghosts on the offensive. But this time, there are just as many emotionally arresting moments: Faramir (David Wenham) leading a suicide mission just to prove his worth to his father, Denethor (John Noble), who's deranged with grief after the death of a more beloved son. Eowyn, disguised as a soldier and trying to protect her wounded uncle King Theoden (Bernard Hill) from the monstrous Witch King: "I will kill you if you touch him!"

"The Return of the King" will not get an entirely free ride from critics. In Jackson's movies, as in Tolkien's novels, the love stories tend to be undernourished. And even with three hours and 12 minutes to work with, he has had to make cuts that will initially cause gasping among some fans. Recently, on the Web, a revolt began percolating when Christopher Lee, who plays the turncloak wizard Saruman, went public with his indignation at having been cut from the new movie. (If you live for spoilers, and want to know what else was cut, there's a sidebar with your name on it on page 60.) But by now, heretical as it may sound, many audience members are as hungry for Jackson's vision as they are for Tolkien's. "I was staying with some friends in England, and it was New Year's," says Liv Tyler by e-mail. "My husband, Roy, and I were sleeping, and I woke to the sound of our friends' two little boys. They were going around the bedrooms opening the doors and looking in. When they got to our door, one little boy went to open it and the other said, 'No! Don't open that door. The princess is sleeping in there.' It made my heart leap out of my chest. I think that was the first time I really realized the impact these films had on people."

Asking the cast and crew how it feels now that the journey's over will get you nowhere. Or next to nowhere. The loss hasn't hit many of them yet. Mortensen, for instance, has been in South America doing radio, TV, newspapers, everything. "It's been pretty intensive," he says. "And I know that we have the same ahead of us in New Zealand, the same in L.A., Berlin, Copenhagen, Oslo, London, Japan. I mean, there's a long way to go yet, and it all involves remembering and explaining and offering points of view and all that. So I have no feeling that it's over at all." But Orlando Bloom, who plays the elf Legolas, has no trouble summoning up his last day in costume. "I was definitely welled up, man," he says. "I was choked. I was suddenly reminded of how lucky I was to be a part of this process and how much it changed me--Viggo being a real mentor to me, and Peter being this incredibly amazing, visionary director. They cut together a little gag reel. It was, like, four minutes of all these different Leggy moments from the whole shoot and outtakes and stuff. It was hilarious! It had all this '80s music. You know that song 'Hungry Eyes'? 'One look at you and I touch the sky'? They had this homoerotic thing where they had a shot of Viggo pulling out his sword and looking at me, and me looking at him and drawing my bow. It was brilliant, man."

As for Jackson, he's already hurtling into his next project, "King Kong," which will be set in the '30s; it stars Naomi Watts and begins filming early next year. One afternoon in early November, in Wellington, Jackson sits on a sofa in his office in the mammoth post-production facility he's been building, and shows a visitor early artists' renderings of Skull Island: lush, retro-looking computer paintings of Kong battling prehistoric monsters by a waterfall in an impenetrable jungle. He tried to make "Kong" for Universal years ago--seeing the original as a kid changed his life, if not his very DNA--but the studio got nervous about the impending "Mighty Joe Young," and broke his heart. Recently, though, Universal's new leadership made a "Kong" deal so rich that it rattled Hollywood, offering Jackson, Walsh and Boyens $20 million against 20 percent of the box-office gross to write, direct and produce the movie. A top executive at another studio says of Universal, "They're out of their minds. Everybody else will tell you the same thing." But giving away 20 percent of the box office on a blockbuster is hardly unheard of. "I'm not a wild cowboy, and I haven't lost one second of sleep," says Universal's chairwoman Stacey Snider. "Peter's responsible for the budget, and he and his team are providing almost every service except acting. A lot of the bellyachers [at other studios]--and none of them have spoken to me directly--are right now sitting on movies that are much more dangerous."

What would really be dangerous would be giving "King Kong" to anybody else. Jackson's co-screenwriter and friend Philippa Boyens likes to say that Jackson is consumed with the desire to make jaws drop, to which we'd add only: including his own. On Nov. 5--in the midst of the rush to get "Return of the King" finished--the director, his friends and his family celebrate Guy Fawkes Day by setting off fireworks at his house on Karaka Bay. He has laid in a great stash of explosives for the occasion. It's dark and chilly, and everybody's wearing a coat except him. He scampers around barefoot, in shorts and a short-sleeved shirt, handing out Roman candles and saying, "First you must read the label, where it says, caution: do not hold in your hand. OK, now--hold it in your hand." Every time more fireworks go up, there's a tiny slice of silence and then the sound of Jackson, and only Jackson, shouting, "Woo-hoo-hoo-hoo!" Boyens, who lives next door, looks on fondly. "Pete's a pyromaniac," she says. "A complete nutter." For half an hour, Jackson's fireworks are the only show in sight. Then some family a quarter of a mile down the bay sends up a giant flourish that seems maybe a little bit better. Jackson grimaces playfully at the competition. "Can't have that," he says--and runs back to his stash. They have no idea who they're dealing with.