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Richard Taylor is no mere backroom boy - he’s the driving force behind the physicality of Middle-earth; the Hobbits are central to the story and its spirit; Hugo Weaving is Elrond, the elf lord who wanted the Ring destroyed; Barrie M. Osborne is the midwife producer: making The Lord of the Rings required more reality than fantasy and the making of Middle-Earth artefacts, not mere props, they tell Andrew L. Urban.

Richard Taylor, a tall, instantly recognisable man with a comforting, country-grown New Zealand accent and a disarmingly open manner, is something of a modern-day Leonardo da Vinci – with an army. He and his Weta Workshop partner Tania Rodger (founded 15 years ago in partnership with Peter Jackson) commanded the great New Zealand army of artisans and craftsmen who designed and produced just about every single item you see on screen in The Fellowship of the Ring, from the clothes to the swords, to the prosthetics you don’t even recognise, to the hairy hobbits’ feet.

Taylor’s practicality and creativity extend to his eloquent manner when talking about Weta’s work. "We began 15 years (‘yahrs’) ago to create not just a workshop but an industry…" And sure enough, down the back of Wellington’s unassuming Miramar suburb, Weta and its sister Camperdown Studios stands as a tribute to the can-do inventiveness of a team that swells from a handful to over 2,000 when required.

And when the foam latex (Weta was the world’s largest user during filming) can’t do the trick, Weta Digital can. Almost anything is possible, and Taylor revels in making it so. "It has taken to the end of the 20th century to bring Tolkien’s imagining to the screen," he says, "but it’s not the technology but the artistry that drives technology." See what I mean about him and da Vinci?

"With Gollum [the creature corrupted by the Ring who makes his proper debut in the second film in the trilogy] for example, we wanted to generate a certain level of emotional response. Gollum is an icon of fantasy and so we did extensive preparatory work. We created over 100 sculptures, for example, and wrote brand new computer code [to bring Gollum to life]."

For Taylor, the fantasy had to be driven by the author: "the creation process was grounded in reality but always controlled by the artist, not the computer boffin.

When Elijah Wood confronts Gollum in a hillside fight, Wood has to do it all on his own; Gollum is a computer generated character, and the fisticuffs are imaginary. A chap can look silly doing that. "But that’s easy," says Wood, "compared to having to roll down the hill with him and pretend he is there…I have to leave room under my body for his."

Wood, sporting a thin, "pathetic" beard line at the premiere, is as enthusiastic as a hobbit – not only about the film and its impact, but about working with his fellow fellows in the fellowship. "It’s been a real life adventure. It was different, and special, and a prpfound experience," he says. And he’s no newcomer to the filmmaking experience, having made over 20 feature films before embarking on The Lord of the Rings.

Wood, Billy Boyd (Pippin) and Dominic Monaghan (Merry) are sitting at one end of the table (Sean Astin,who plays Sam, is back in England with a pregnant wife) exuding an air of benign mischief and enjoying each other’s company. That’s something of a miracle, surely, after a year of shooting under difficult circumstances, but they do seem genuinely ‘bonded’ as a team. This was even more accentuated at Cannes this year, where trhey made their first foray into the public relations maelstrom, positively crawling over each other in the joy of being reunited. This time, in Wellington, they are more focused. "We became a very close group," Wood explains.

Arduous and demanding, the enormity of the shoot was offset by their admiration for Peter Jackson: "He’s so collaborative it’s inspirational," Wood maintains.

Hugo Weaving much prefers being on location to a sound stage, "but this was really good," he says with surprise. "They were amazing studio sets – a lot of it you don’t even see in the film, but there was a whole forest in there with waterfalls, all inside the studio. And I had an exquisite sword with an inscription on it…"

Producer Barrie Osborne rang Hugo Weaving one day, "we’d worked together on The Matrix, and asked me if I’d be interested. I said, yes, of course, I’d love to play an elf lord!"

After that, he tried to read the book, The Lord of the Rings, "but was stumped by it. Fantasy is not really my thing, but the sheer strength of this film is that it feels real. Peter Jackson’s done the most wonderful job. He managed to focus on the Ring and the power it has on people."

For preparation, Hugo Weaving spent days talking to the writers "to get a handle on the material. There were endless re-writes and re-writes of re-writes. This was often quite frusttrating. There’s a natural tension for actors preparing for scenes and having to change it at the last minute did become frustrating."

But he was fascinated by Peter Jackson. "He’s highly intelligent, and always thinking. There’s not a lot of eye contact. He thinks back to see forward….and he has a lovely sense of humour, with his dog-eared, shuffly style, But he’s a perfectionist. And he is not manipulative."

When Barrie M. Osborne met Peter Jackson for the first time, Peter was barefoot, wearing shorts. They had breakfast. "I remember his sense of humour," recalls Osborne, a tall man with a short greying beard and a likeable face. His American accent is alien amongst the others on the crew, but he’s quick to point out that his home is in Wellington now. He’s a ‘resident’.

Like so many of the cast, Osborne has fallen in love with New Zealand. He also enjoyed being at some distance from ‘the suits’ in the US, although like Peter Jackson, he is complimentary of New Line’s support and vision. Right down to the fact that New Line "eventually supported" Jackson’s cut of the film. Admittedly, that was after it was cut from four and a half hours to three.

Other than repeat the "announced budget" of US$270 million, Osborne refuses to be drawn on the subject of the film’s budget. He does, however, confirm that most of it was spent in New Zealand, creating enormous benefits, from the direct to the indirect. Even the digital work was mostly done in New Zealand; "of the 500 or more CG shots, we only farmed out about 50 or 60," he says.

With his special interest in the use of music, Osborne was deeply involved in the soundtrack. "When they started using temp music [during assembly and rough cut stages] a lot of it was from Howard Shore scores, so when it came to choosing a composer, he was pretty well it. Howard ended up very close friends with Peter and Fran. Then when we decided that we should have some choral work, Enya’s name came up. And we approached her, but we wanted her on the condition that she doesn’t use any synthesisers nor any multi-layer vocals."

As for the DVD, Osborne promises it will be released just before the second film is released theatrically, and it will have on it the longer cut. And at some point, he admits, the 9-hour version of the trilogy – all three films, end to end - is also a distinct possibility.

Published January 3, 2002

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Hugo Weaving

Australasian Premiere, Wellington, NZ




Barrie M. Osborne

The Hobbits

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