Saturday, November 4All That Matters

Movies don’t need excuses when they don’t turn out the way you wanted: a case study

Whenever a movie doesn’t turn out the way some people think it should, there will be those who will have a quick look through the production history, and look for a grand reason as to why it turned out the way it did. There are a bunch of stock excuses, especially when its a project from a director and/or a series whose previous entries are widely beloved: directorial hubris (“nobody saying no”), some key crew member dropping out between projects, and of course the dreaded studio interference.

Sadly, most of the time these arguments actually don’t hold up well to close scrutiny. And, really, films are such complex creations that they just don’t need a grand reason to turn out good one time, and bad in another time. That’s just the nature of art.

So, I want to take an example that’s close to my heart, and whose production history I know pretty well: Sir Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, and show how all the arguments made by its detractors as to why it is the way it is, just don’t hold water.

Now – I want to stress that I’m not here to tell you how to feel about these movies or any other movies: I just want to show how the usual reasons given for why films such as these are the way they are just don’t hold water. I’m using an example from films whose production history I know well, but similar arguments could apply to a whole host of other movies.

# Rushed preproduction

[*Explored in more detail here*](

The most perninial argument as to why these particular films are the way they are is they had no preproduction time. This idea is actually said by Jackson in an excerpt from the BTS, but this except, as uploaded to YouTube, had been edited out of context, and then spun and made more dramatic. Here are other quotes that the same YouTube video leaves out:

>All of that kind of pressure that I’ve been under for so long. You get to that point where you realise, oh, I kind of know what I need to do now, and pretty much know what I’ve gotta shoot from this point forward. […] Finally, I had my preproduction time that I never had in the beginning, and I had almost a year to have more thinking time to figure out the battle.^(1)

Peter is talking about the battle scenes in the third film here, and this is really the crunch of my argument: **since the most well-planned parts of the trilogy are often the most often-criticised, the “no preproduction” argument just cannot suffice in explaning why these films are the way they are.**

Another oft-criticised setpiece, the Forest River chase, is again one of the most well-planned sequences in all these films. It had been first planned as a white-water rapids chase in *The Fellowship of the Ring* in 1999, then as part of the Del Toro version of The Hobbit, and when Jackson stepped to direct, both WetaFX and the previz department immediately set to work on it. Perhaps the most outrageous beat in the scene, Bombur’s Barrel Bonanza, was in fact suggested by concept artist Alan Lee in a production meeting from 2010.

[Storyboards for the rapids sequence from The Fellowship of the Ring: notice Legolas balancing on the gunwales, exactly like he balances on Dwarf heads in The Desolation of Smaug.](

[Alan Lee describing the barrel being hoisted out of the water and rolling over Orcs down the bank, circa December 2010.](

And, for context, I also want to share another number of quotes:

>Fran described it as furiously laying the tracks in front of the train as it was rumbling up behind you. There was no stopping the train, and the tracks just had to go down.
>The script was literally being rewritten, I’m not exaggerating, every single day and week for the entire fifteen-month shoot.
>It was quite rushed and I do think, given more time, these things would look a lot better. They’re not bad, but they just don’t quite “sit” in the environment as well as what you’d like. It was also shot in a fairly uncoordinated kind of way. We didn’t really have definitive storyboards for it, so a lot of loose kind of action was photographed on location – Deer Park Heights, again, near Queenstown. We figured out in post-production where to put the Wargs and where we didn’t have horses, we put CG horses in, so we kind of created the scene, almost back to front, really. There’s nothing better when you’re shooting this stuff than to have really detailed, preplanned storyboards with a lot of gags thought through and that’s not the way this scene was done, it was done kind of on the fly.
>it was a scene that we always wanted to do but it was never really addressed until the last minute; and it was literally in the last, I’d say the last three months on postproduction, on The Two Towers, that we even started to put our minds to it. And we had to storyboard, do animatics, there were various crude animatics that were very quickly done, and then Weta just had to go for it.
>It would have been preferable to have more time in preproduction to really revise the script two or three more times.^(2)

All these quotes are from The Lord of the Rings. In fact, professor Kristin Thompson shows that Jackson negotiated a delay in shooting FOR THE LORD OF THE RINGS to get more storyboards completed, and was denied.^(3) More than showing you anything about either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, it shows you something about directors: they’ll ALWAYS complain about not having enough time.

# Studio collusion

[*Explored in more detail here*](

The next argument is one that’s dredged out for a lot of movies: studio interference. In this case, its especially preposterous because Jackson, after the success of The Lord of the Rings, was at the height of his powers, especially in coming back to the series. Nevertheless, there are two fields where studio collusion is suggested: one is the romantic triangle, the other is the split to three films.

The former is because of an offhand remark of actress Evangeline Lilly, who said the love triangle was added “for reshoots in 2012.” She’s already mistaken about the dates: the pickup shoot started in 20 May 2013. Principal photography didn’t even wrap until 6 July 2012.

Tauriel, Kili and Legolas (the triangle in question) share four scenes together: one when Tauriel puts Kili in the gaol, one when Tauriel decides to stay behind at Bard’s house and heal Kili, one where Legolas interrupts the two on the Lakeshore, and then one when Kili is dead and Legolas looks over. Three of these scenes were shot in principal photography:

[Script draft from 27 November 2011, describing Kili kissing (!) Tauriel just before Legolas intervenes and \”Stares at KILI.\” The scene, the first Lilly ever shot, was filmed in 5 December 2011, well within principal photography, with the love triangle clearly firmly in place.](

[The goal scene, ending with a pan over to Legolas. The clapperboard show it was shot in 19 March 2012. So still well-within principal photography.](

[The scene at Bard’s House, during which Tauriel decides to stay behind and heal Kili. Again the clapperboard shows it was well within principal photography: 17 April 2012.](

Now, there IS a scene *about* the love triangle that was added in pickups, and its [this scene with Tauriel and Thranduil](

>Legolas said you fought well today. He’s grown very fond of you.
>I assure you my Lord, Legolas thinks of me as no more than a captain in the guard.
>Perhaps he did once. Now I’m not so sure.
>I do not think you would allow your son to pledge himself to a lowly Silvan Elf.
>No, you’re right, I would not. Still, he cares about you. Do not give him hope where there is none.

This is what Lilly is referencing, but as we can plainly see all this scene does is merely spell-out something that was already there. And, again, just as the white-rapid sequence was originally something in The Lord of the Rings, the same is true here. This is an excerpt from Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh’s first story treatment for The Lord of the Rings:

>“ARAGORN and ÉOWYN are asleep in each other’s arms. LOUD KNOCKING awakes them…ARAGORN opens the door, pulling his robes around him. He awkwardly faces ARWEN who flings her arms around his shoulders…ÉOWYN watches from the window…”^(4)

As for the split to three films, that’s an easy answer: it was Jackson’s own idea. Its [attested by Jackson himself:](

>I just shot too much footage. The idea of going from two films to three, which, we just arbitrarily started The Hobbit as two films […] by the time we were done with that and we were shooting the movie and we were well into the shooting, we just suddenly thought: ‘you know what, this doesn’t feel quite right as two movies’. It even structurally didn’t feel quite right, where one finished and the other began. And so we started to – this is Fran, Philippa and myself […] the three of us just privately started to knock the idea around – while we were making the film – started to knock the idea around that maybe we’re dealing with three films here, not two. And it wasn’t until just before the end of the filming that we had Warners come down to New Zealand to visit and we, at that point, had worked out enough of a structure that we could pitch them […] they were shocked.

And in Ian Nathan’s book:

>Two weeks out from Comic-con in July, where Jackson was due to show footage from Bag End and Riddles in the Dark sequence, he had sat down with Walsh and Boyens to ‘talk about the shape of the two films.’ They got on to which additional scenes they might shoot in these very pick-ups, and the list just kept on growing. “What if it was a trilogy?” Jackson had wondered aloud. “It never structuraly had felt quite right as two”, he admitted, and this created a symmetry of two trilogies. […] This was ever a matter of studio pressure. Warner Bros. were as startled as anyone.^(5)

and corroborated by co-writer [Philippa Boyens](

>It was a joint decision between myself, Peter and Fran. We sat down and watched Pete’s first cut of film one, which was earlier this year I think around April or May, and I felt really good about it. But then I thought about it and realised there were certain story threads we would never be able to tell.

And by [star Richard Armitage, who was told about it early](

>People think that when they decided to do three movies we all had to go back and start shooting more stuff. Actually it wasn’t the case, we’d already shot pretty much everything and Peter was editing ‘Part Two’ and said ‘I can’t do this’… ‘I need to ask for another movie because there’s so much stuff we’d have to lose’.

And by [executive producer Alan Horn](

>In late June, Horn and the key New Line executives paid a visit to New Zealand and watched a cut of the first film. Then Jackson and his collaborators pitched the idea of making not two but three Hobbit movies. Horn — by then at Disney — admits that the proposal came as a shock. The question, he says, was “Can each movie be a full meal?” The group agreed that Jackson’s plan worked.

# Directorial hubris

The other argument is the inverse of the previous one: instead of studio interference, its the director who was left to his own devices too much. This argument has been going on since time immemorial: when Doctor Zhivago started getting bad reviews, one journalist suggested the success of Lawrence of Arabia went to David Lean’s head, and that without producer Sam Spiegel to reign him in, he put something like Doctor Zhivago out. Perhaps the example most responsible for perpetuating this way of looking at movies was Heaven’s Gate, where director Michael Cimino used his recent Oscar win to make the film in a painstakingly perfectionist way that bankrupt the studio.

I often find those arguments strenous. I’ve seen them applied to George Lucas (in which case all credit was diverted to producer Gary Kurtz and editor Marcia Griffin), recently to Christopher Nolan when he made Tenet (in which case all the credit was diverted to Nolan’s brother). One reason why I dislike those arguments is that they basically suggest that movies are great IN SPITE of their directors, which is franky preposterous.

But, in this particular case they’re especially stretching credulity: if I’m to believe Jackson didn’t have anybody saying “no” in The Hobbit, than I need to see examples of people saying “no” in The Lord of the Rings. The fact of the matter is no such examples exist: there are plenty of examples – from both trilogies – of people making *suggestions* and Jackson accepting them – for example, the beat of Kili kissing Tauriel was removed at Lilly’s request: she made her case, and Jackson agreed.

But there’s no example of Jackson wanting something one way, and an editor, cameraman, prop-maker or actor going rogue on him and doing it another way. And again this is true of director’s through the years: Lean, Cimino, Lucas, Jackson, Nolan and many others.

# Footnotes

1. Michael Pellerin, “[Many Partings](” and “[The Coulds Burst](”, in Peter Jackson, *The Hobbit: The Motion Picture Trilogy,* Warner Bros: 2015.
2. Anonymous, “[From Script to Screen](” and Peter Jackson *et al*, “[The Two Towers director’s commentary](”, both in Peter Jackson, *The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy,* Warner Bros: 2011.
3. Kristin Thompson, *The Frodo Franchise: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood* (Oakland: University of California Press, 2007), p. 36.
4. Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, *The Lord of the Rings: Story Treatment,* 1997 as quoted in Brian Sibley, *Peter Jackson: A Filmmaker’s Journey* (London: HarperCollins, 2006), p. 710.
5. Ian Nathan, *Anything You Can Imagine: Peter Jackson and the Making of Middle Earth* (London: HarpeCollins, 2017), pp. 913 ff.

# Conclusions

Movies are just too complex an undertaking, as a work of art, for us to expect consistency. Even when its the same creative team and similar source material. There’s just so much going on in a movie production, and so much that can go wrong on a point-by-point basis, that there’s no point looking for grand reasons for why we like X and don’t like Y from the same group of creatives.

And, ultimately, for every *Lawrence of Arabia* there’s a *Ryan’s Daughter*, for every *Schindler’s List* there’s an *Always*, for every *Lord of the Rings* there’s *The Lovely Bones.* Heck, for every Beethoven’s Ninth there’s Wellington’s Victory! It would be very comforting to think that all a director needs is time and good-will to make a great film, and that when they make a less-than-great film there’s some great reason behind it, but sometimes there just isn’t.


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1 Comment

  • Individual_Abies_850

    But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t question/critique practices when information becomes available. Film is art, and all aspects of the art can be subject to criticism.

    Take for example “Solo: A Star Wars Story.” There was a lot of noted behind-the-scenes interference from the writer and studio against the directorial choices of Lord/Miller, to the point where the director team was fired and Ron Howard brought in to replace. That alone changed what the product could have been. And this is coming from someone who enjoyed “Solo.” Are both sides at fault? I’m of the opinion that a director is hired because of their skills to direct and manage the product. Then the writer and studio didn’t like it when the directing team did their jobs. That’s one interpretation of events.

    Or take a look at the alleged practices of Joss Whedon during reshoots of Justice League after Zack Snyder left production due to his daughter’s passing.

    I’m one of those that enjoyed the Hobbit movies, despite the studio interference. Yes, there were choices made by both the studio, and by the director, in an attempt to make a profitable product. There were also executive choices made which hindered decision-making for the director, such as being unable to use any pre-production materials from Guillermo Del Toro’s time as director of the films, and less time for pre-production, when he had years during the production cycle of the LOTR films. Is it Jackson’s job as director to make things work? Yes. Was his time hampered due to decisions made by others, affecting the product as a whole? Also yes. And part of the whole ordeal was to get the movies out before the film rights lapsed back to the Tolkien estate.

    I agree that films are big products with moving parts that numerous people sign off on the decisions made, from the production side and executive side, and it’s more than just “one thing” that can “ruin” a movie for people. But film-making is collaborative to try and make the best version of the product, not what one side only thinks is the “best version.”

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