As “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” – the first installment director Peter Jackson’s long-awaited film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein’s beloved prequel to “The Lord of the Rings” saga – makes its way to Blu-ray, Bilbo Baggins himself – in the form of actor Martin Freeman (“Sherlock”) – looks back at the opening chapter, recalling the journey from green screen sound stages to a full-fledged Shire.
What was the experience of making one of these films with Peter?
I think I probably did myself a favor and tried not to do too much imagining about what it might be. I think whatever you conjure up nothing ever is what you imagine it to be. Whether it’s your trip here or your trip home, nothing is ever how you’re going to imagine it. So I suppose I was expecting the unexpected. The only thing I knew it would be was huge. I knew it would feel big, and I was right there. It did feel big. But outside of that, I had a feeling of what Pete was like as a director, but I didn’t have direct experience of him. I knew a couple of the actors but not well. It was really stepping into a different territory. Very often, you’re at least familiar with a few people from around, but I’ve never been to New Zealand before. So it was really much a fresh slate really. I didn’t know Ian [McKellen]. I didn’t know most of the people on it, by a long shot.
Once you saw Peter in action on set, what did you see in him that was different from other directors?
I suppose the ‘That’s why he’s Peter Jackson’ thing is probably his almost ‘Rain Man’-ish ability to kind of keep stuff in his head that I certainly wouldn’t be able to do. All directors have to be slightly obsessed and obsessive people because it’s a ridiculous notion that you can keep that much information in your head and know what he’s doing and she’s doing and kind of keep tabs on all that, but he’s extraordinary at that.
Also, just from an actor’s perspective – because I’m not doing all the other jobs – the thing between me and him, he’s got real shorthand with acting. He won’t spiel a lot. He won’t go into some big thesis about what this scene is about. He’ll expect you to have done the work. He expects you to know your job better than he knows your job, but so it’s a lot of trust on his side. And his direction, he’s a man of few words in direction, and I don’t mind that sometimes. Sometimes, just ‘Louder, faster,’ is actually quite an instructive direction, if you know what someone means. Like, ‘Yeah. I know what you mean by that.’ You make a quick translation and go to work on that. In truth, the unromantic truth is very often there isn’t a great light bulb moment where you go, ‘That’s why…’ There often isn’t. It’s work, and it feels like very enjoyable work. And I suppose the respect in which he is held on the set, speaks for itself.
Was there a scene that, no matter how you imagined it, once you saw the finished version, you said, ‘That’s so much more than was happening in the heads of us actors.’?
I think so, because as you could imagine with so much green screen stuff, you’re seeing the wall of a sound stage. You’re not seeing mountains, or you’re not seeing this massive valley or whatever. And you’re not seeing real Wogs attack you. You’re pretending and imagining all of that. I was so impressed when I saw the finished product because it was a massive, massive world, chock full of incredible stuff. I knew it would be that, but it was very hard to visualize it specifically at the time. There were plenty of times when we were making the film where I thought, ‘Is this really going to be a film?’ It’s almost so big, it’s inconceivable that this is actually all going to come together because you just get so used to day after day seeing tennis balls and green screens. You think ‘What is this all going to look like?’ You know it’s going to look good, but you’re not quite sure how.
Is there a sequence from the next film, ‘The Desolation of Smaug,’ that you’re particularly excited about?
I think the appearance of the dragon will be exciting. I’ve only seen what they call the previews stuff. It looks amazing. Obviously, Tolkien is quite revered in the world of making these films so everything starts from Tolkien up. But John [Howe] and Alan Lee, the artists are mini magicians. They’re incredible the stuff they come up with as is everybody who makes all this stuff appear. The production design, the digital is mind-blowing.