Peter Jackson wowed the Comic-Con crowd Saturday in Hall H by showing footage from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first of a two-parter on the Bilbo Baggins’ journey that leaves on his finger Sauron’s Ring Of Power, the precursor to Jackson’s billion dollar grossing The Lord of the Rings trilogy for New Line Cinema. Jackson’s appearance created as many questions as it answered. Bloggers are reporting he said that The Hobbit might become a trilogy and they’ve also wondered why Jackson chose not to show the 3D in the 48 frames-per-second format in which he shot both Hobbit films. On the trilogy possibility, I’m told that while Jackson shot plenty of extra footage, he has already stretched a single book into two movies. His DVD editions of The Lord of the Rings were so compellingly loaded with extended cuts of each film—they actually filled in storytelling gaps for hard core fans–that my bet is he indulges those fans that way again, even though no final decision has yet been made. I don’t think anybody but the money guys behind Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 thought it was creatively satisfying to break Stephenie Meyer’s last book into two films and I would be surprised if Jackson went that route unless the movies are just too long to fit in a double feature.
DEADLINE: Guillermo Del Toro told me he didn’t feel badly about stepping away from directing The Hobbit because the film ended up in the right hands, your hands. Everybody felt that way but you it seemed. Why did it take you so long to embrace a return to Middle Earth as director?
JACKSON: It did seem that way, but you’re talking about a series of events that were largely out of everybody’s control at the time. I have a certain belief in fate. Not in a religious way but over my life I find that if you try to assert yourself and influence things too much, it’s not necessarily the best idea. You kind of take your foot off the clutch at some stage and freewheel and let things happen. Guillermo was developing The Hobbit, I was producing it and I had other things that I was developing of my own at that time. And for the 18 months he was on it, we never had a green light. MGM was in all sorts of trouble, and teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. There is a certain disillusionment that happens when you work so long on a project that has no guarantee of happening. Also, Guillermo always has a lot of things he is developing and it was out of our hands. He’d made up his mind, and we fully understood.
When he left, the film still didn’t have a green light, it was still another three or four months before the MGM situation resolved itself. At that point, as the producer on the film, there had been a significant amount of development money spent on the project during those 18 months, with script development, locations and everything else. And I just felt I couldn’t now try to find another director to take over. To protect the studios’ investment, I thought as producer that I had to do the smart thing here and step up. I guess I was superstitious. The reason I never really went there at the beginning was, I was thinking about that superstition of lightning never striking twice, and I thought I’d always be competing against myself. That I’d go to work each day thinking, I’ve got to shoot this scene better than the one I did 10 or 12 years ago. As it was, that never happened and I never had those thoughts. But I feel the same way as Guillermo. I feel that fate dictated that Pacific Rim getting made, and that otherwise would not have gotten made. From everything I’m hearing, that is a kick ass film and I got to make The Hobbit and I thoroughly enjoyed my time on it. Sometimes you’ve just got to let go of the steering wheel and let fate take you where it’s going to take you.
JACKSON: The tone is partially set by the novel, which is very much a children’s novel. That all goes back to JRR Tolkien writing The Hobbit first, for children, and only after did he develop his mythology much more over the 16 or 17 years later when The Lord of the Rings came out, which is way more epic and mythic and serious. What people have to realize is we’ve adapted The Hobbit, plus taken this additional 125 pages of notes, that’s what you’d call them. Because Tolkien himself was planning the rewrite The Hobbit after The Lord of the Rings, to make it speak to the story of The Lord of the Rings much more. In the novel, Gandalf disappears for various patches of time. In 1936, when Tolkien was writing that book, he didn’t have a clue what Gandalf was doing. But later on, when he did The Lord of the Rings and he’d hit on this whole epic story, he was going to go back and revise The Hobbit and he wrote all these notes about how Gandalf disappears and was really investigating the possible return of Sauron, the villain from The Lord of the Rings. Sauron doesn’t appear at all in The Hobbit. Tolkien was retrospectively fitting The Hobbit to embrace that mythology. He never wrote that book, but there are 125 pages of notes published at the back of Return of the King in one of the later editions. It was called The Appendices, and they are essentially his expanded Hobbit notes. So we had the rights to those as well and were allowed to use them.
So we haven’t just adapted The Hobbit; we’ve adapted that book plus great chunks of his appendices and woven it all together. The movie explains where Gandalf goes; the book never does. We’ve explained it using Tolkien’s own notes. That helped inform the tone of the movie, because it allowed us to pull in material he wrote in The Lord of the Rings era and incorporate it with The Hobbit. So we kept the charm and the whimsy of the fairy tale quality through the characters. Through the dwarves and Bilbo, who is more of a humorous character. He doesn’t try to be funny but we find him funny and find his predicament more amusing than that of Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. That was more serious. So the whimsy is there, but tonally I wanted to make it as similar to The Lord of the Rings, because I wanted it to be possible for the people, the crazy people in the world who want to watch these films back to back one day…
JACKSON: [Laughs]. I wanted it to feel for people like you that the films have one organic flow, that there is not film completely different than the next.
DEADLINE: In the spirit of what you just said, The Hobbit was shot in 3D. What about converting The Lord of the Rings into that format, which would unify all five films in the series?
JACKSON: It has been discussed over the years. It’s a money thing and it’s a market thing. Look, everything in Hollywood is driven by the market and by money. If Warner Bros felt they could rerelease these films and cover the cost of conversion then I’m sure they will do it. Everyone got excited after Titanic was converted and released, and then the numbers were not great for Episode One of Star Wars. Really, as an industry, people are still wondering what the economics are for post-converting older movies into 3D. I don’t think the question has really been answered and maybe it won’t be until later when entertainment systems at home become more sophisticated and everyone has 3D. But now, I’m afraid it’s still a question mark.
DEADLINE: People here were surprised that the clips you showed at Comic-Con were not 3D, and were not the 48 frames per second format that you hope to advance with The Hobbit. Have you licked whatever those bugs were when you first showed the footage?
JACKSON: The 48 looks completely fantastic. What my experience has been with 48, and I’ve seen a lot of frames of this over the last year and one-half is, you get used to it. You sit there and think, wow, this doesn’t look like any film I’ve seen before. And then, within 10 minutes, you just forget about it and at the end you think, wow, that was actually really nice. It’s smooth and easy on the eyes, especially in 3D. It’s immersive. It’s like Showscan, the old Doug Trumbull 60 frames per second process. You really feel immersed in it. And yet I don’t think it does 48 any justice just to screen 10 minutes of clips, without a narrative and without allowing people time to get into the story.
After CinemaCon, where we screened a six or seven-minute reel, I went on the internet to see what people thought of the first footage of The Hobbit. And nobody was commenting on the footage, good or bad. Everyone had opinions about the 48 frames. You had the film purists saying, this doesn’t look like cinema, it doesn’t look like film. Well, no, it doesn’t, it’s completely different. Those negative comments were getting picked up and spun around the world by all the bloggers. I didn’t want to risk that at Comic-Con. I wanted people to look at the actors, at the performance, the story, and I didn’t want Comic-Con stories to be all about 48 frames. Especially when it’s only a 12 minute clip reel and it’s in Hall H in a convention center, and not even in a cinema. The 3D looks like crap in that hall, so I wasn’t going to be screening 3D. I just wanted the focus to be the movie.
DEADLINE: But you will release the film in 3D, 48 frames per second, right?
JACKSON: In December, there will be plenty of screens showing in 48 frames. We’re not going to overdo the 48 frames, but it’s very important that it’s used as a test for the industry. We’ll have some premium screens showing 48, but there will be lots showing 24 frames. People who are curious can see it. I just think frame rate is a really important issue for the future of the industry. I think 48 is really spectacular and if it can get kids off their iPads and home entertainment systems and back into the movie theaters, I think it is something everyone has to look at very seriously. And to do it justice, you’ve got to look at it in a feature length film. Not a clip in Hall H.
DEADLINE: I recall James Cameron telling me that The Lord of the Rings showed him things that helped as he was figuring out Avatar. Is it a responsibility for you top guys to continue to move the technological ball forward?
JACKSON: I think it is. High frame rates have been something the industry has always been curious about. But in the days of 35 mm, cameras could shoot high frame rates but every cinema in the world had these mechanical projectors that couldn’t project any higher than 24 frames. It was never feasible to push the frame rates because you literally had no way of projecting them in anything other than a theme park. Now, with the advent of all the digital projectors, they’re all capable of high frame rates. Why, as an industry where we have dwindling audiences especially among the kids, should we be content to sit back and say that we got it right in 1927? And say that that’s what cinema should look like, same as in 1927, and don’t change a thing. No! The kids aren’t going to give a toss about the frame rates. If something feels immersive to them, if it feels more exciting, spectacular, sharper, clearer, that’s what they’re going to like. I don’t think any 17 year old is going to say, I prefer the strobing, the re-panning and the motion blur of 24 frames. Those 17 year olds are just going to sit there, look at the higher frame rate and say, this is cool. This is cool! As an industry, we’ve got to try and get people back in the cinemas. Whether that’s the way to do it, I don’t know. But I’m trying. It’s an experiment, but I personally think it looks fantastic. I think this time next year, there will be a lot of movies shooting in 48, including some big tent poles. If I had a dollar to place a wager, I’d place my dollar there.