SAN DIEGO - Gollum dropped some f-bombs, Elijah Wood made a surprise appearance, and the slightest glimpse of Orlando Bloom dressed as Legolas elicited shrieks of pleasure from the J.R.R. Tolkien fans who packed into Hall H today specifically to catch a glimpse of footage from part one of what may yet grow into a full trilogy of films based on Tolkien's enduring classic, 'The Hobbit."
In short, it was a perfect Comic-Con moment.
Before I recap what happened, let's talk about what didn't. There was no demonstration of the 48 frames-per-second process that will be used for special engagements of "The Hobbit" when it opens this year, and the footage wasn't even shown in 3D. I think it was a poor decision all the way around to avoid revealing the process here, but I think Jackson's stated reasons are right. He knows that almost any conversation about the footage would focus on the technical if he did bring it, and good or bad, that's not really the point of bringing the material to show to the faithful. These are fans, and what they're concerned with is the content of the movie, not the mechanics of how it will be shown to them. Disappointed as I was, and frustrated to still have not seen a demonstration of the process, I do think it probably served them well in the end.
Warner Bros went all out this year, bringing a real sense of showmanship to their presentations. Obviously, one of the most anticipated moments for many people was a detailed look at what Peter Jackson's been up to with "The Hobbit," a two-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved book, and they were rewarded with over twelve minutes of footage. The way the panel opened, though, was immediately immersive. Warner put in two screens flanking the stage, extending out into the audience, and as the lights went down, the song of the dwarves filled Hall H and the various images from the recently released banner filled the screens, surrounding us with characters both familiar and new.
It immediately set a mood, and then, in the center panel, a new "Hobbit" production diary began to play. You'll see it soon, I'm sure. Basically, it covered the last five days of the production, and it was carefully cut because much of the work in those last five days is for material that will appear in the second film, which is still well over a year away.
It is clear that the people working on the films seem to have had another very special experience. Everyone I know who was part of "Lord Of The Rings" seemed genuinely changed by the experience, inspired and proud and exhausted all at once, and it seems like that's happened here as well. I liked seeing Lee Pace taking motion lessons from Terry Notary to learn how to be an Elf. It was great to see Andy Serkis shooting second unit, playing saxophone to entertain the crew. I enjoyed the glimpses we got of Luke Evans as Bard, running around the rooftops of a set, fighting off a dragon that wasn't there. And it was lovely to get a glimpse of Stephen Fry in costume as the Master of Lake Town. These are all things that should get fans excited when they see them.
It looks like the last shot by the second unit for the entire film featured Orlando Bloom as Legolas firing arrows into something off-camera. The entire burning of Lake Town was staged inside an impressive soundstage, and looks great. There was a nice kick to seeing Martin Freeman scrambling around a mountain of coins and treasure, no Smaug in sight at this point in the production.
As they reach day #266, the last day of principal photography, we see Ian McKellen deliver the last line of the shoot as Gandalf, and then the celebration that erupts once Jackson calls a wrap. It felt like a particularly personal production diary to debut at Comic-Con, and while it gave us quite a few good looks at what they're doing, it wasn't even part of the actual footage presentation, just a warm-up.
When Jackson walked out onstage, he was filming the audience for a future production diary that will be all about the Comic-Con experience. As reality folded in on itself, Jackson asked Phillipa Boyens to join him onstage as well.
"So who has been camping out on the street?" he asked, and a good percentage of the audience applauded. "You poor, poor sods," he continued, and they rewarded him with another round of applause.
Jackson explained that the music in the footage would all be temp tracks, since Howard Shore doesn't start recording the "Hobbit" score for about six more week. Many of the FX shots would still be in progress, he added, and he pointed out that not everything we'd see would be from the first film, which seemed to really thrill the audience.
The footage starts quietly, a long shot of the Shire at night. And, in voice-over, Gandalf speaks. "Far to the east, over ranges and rivers, beyond woodlands and wastelands stands a single solitary peak."
As the camera pans over to find Bag End, we move inside and see Gandalf and the dwarves sitting around the table, talking about portents of the reappearance of Smaug, a ferocious dragon. Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) is horrified at the idea of someone taking his ancestral treasure. "Do we sit back while others claim what is rightfully ours?" he asks.
One of the dwarves protests, "The front gate is sealed. There is no way into the mountain."
Gandalf brings out a key that was given to him by Thorin's father for safekeeping. He offers it to them. Bilbo hovers at the edge of everything, listening.
Fili points out, "If there's a key, there must be a door."
The problem, Gandalf replies, is that dwarf doors are invisible when closed, and that's what makes them hard to find. Gandalf looks over at Bilbo, finally involving him in the conversation as more than a spectator. "That's why we need a burglar."
When Bilbo realizes what Gandalf is suggesting, he is outraged. "I'm not a burglar. I've never stolen anything in my life." The dwarves don't want to take him along, and every complaint they have, Bilbo agrees with. As the argument builds in intensity, Gandalf fills the room with his presence, all the shadows drawing in behind him as he seems to swell in size, and he stops the argument.
"He has a great deal more to offer than any of you know... including himself. You must trust me on this."
Finally, they agree. They give Bilbo a contract to sign, and it's a very funny scene as he reads each of the clauses and conditions, paying special attention to the parts that detail all the ways he might be killed. He does the only logical thing when confronted by the notion of his own evisceration. He faints.
The barrage of clips that followed established that there's more whimsy in these films than in "Lord Of The Rings," much of it provided by Radagast, a broadly comic character who we saw cuddling a hedgehog, riding in a sled pulled by bunnies, and hiding a fully-occupied bird's nest under his hat. There were shots of Lake Town that didn't look like a soundstage set at all. There were some lovely elegant shots of Christopher Lee and Cate Blanchett in character. The best way I can describe the different tone of this compared to the "Rings" films is that there's a much more decidedly storybook feel to this stuff.
Radagast follows Bilbo out onto a bridge. "What if it's a trap?" he asks the wizard.
Gandalf tells him, "Turn around and do not come back."
When Radagast takes his advice and leaves, Gandalf continues, much quieter. "It is undoubtedly a trap."
Then there's a crazy sequence when he's in Dol Guldur, Sauron's home in Mirkwood, also known as the "Hill Of Sorcery." This is one of those things that appears to have been added to the film, drawn from another part of the books.
Even better, though, was the long glimpse we got of the scene where Bilbo (Martin Freeman) finally comes face to face with Gollum (Andy Serkis) deep inside the goblin caves. The difference in Gollum is not night and day, but he is much more persuasive overall here. There's a more tangible quality to him, and he is full-blown crazy, slipping back and forth between Smeagol and Gollum, carrying on a conversation as if Bilbo's not even there. "What is it, precious?" "It is a Hobbit. From The Shire." "Is it soft? Is it juicy?"
I love the way they walk the line with Gollum, and it feels like no time has passed between performances. Serkis seems perfectly at home with all the craziest twitches and tics of the character.
Bilbo realizes he's in danger, using Sting to keep Gollum at bay, trying to talk him into helping him find an escape. "I don't know what your game is," he says to Gollum, who lights up at the mention of the word.
"Games? GAMES? We loves games, don't we, precious?"
Gollum asks Bilbo a riddle, and when he answers it correctly, he demands a riddle of his own. Bilbo realizes that he needs to keep the Smeagol personality engaged so that the Gollum personality doesn't eat him, and he agrees to the contest. If he wins, Smeagol helps him escape. If he loses, he becomes a meal.
This is one of my favorite chapters in any book, and I'm excited to see it brought to life by these performers. I'm just as excited to see some of the other match-ups, like in the next scene they showed us, between Galadriel and Gandalf. He's troubled, and she knows it. "Mithrandir," she says, touching his cheek to comfort him, "why the halfling?"
The combination of strength and tenderness that McKellen can summon is a big part of why I love his performance as Gandalf. He tells her, "Saruman thinks that it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay… small acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Because I am afraid, and he gives me courage."
There is implied intimacy between them, but not in a romantic way. She sees her own sorrows in him, and she tells him, in subtitled Elvish, "Do not be afraid, Mithrandir, you are not alone. If you should ever need my help, I will come.""
Towards the end of the footage, we see a quick shot of Bilbo finding the Ring and picking it up, and then we see him with Gandalf, later in the film. "You've changed, Bilbo Baggins," he observes, looking closely at the Hobbit.
"I meant to tell you," Bilbo says, reaching immediately into his pocket. "I found something in the cave."
He stops, though, and Gandalf waits, finally asking him, "What did you find?"
Bilbo wrestles with it silently for a moment, then takes his hand out of his pocket. "My courage."
Gandalf nods. "That's good. You'll need it."
We see the trolls by the campfire, and scenes of Bilbo in danger in the midst of them. We see some quick shots of Evangeline Lily as Tauriel, fighting goblins and kicking ass, Legolas leaping into action beside her.
Great stuff, and it all builds to a shot of Gandalf driving his staff into the ground, causing an explosion of light that gives way to the title, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey."
So many impressive things in such a short period of time that it was a little overwhelming, and then Jackson brought Andy Serkis, Richard Armitage, Martin Freeman, Sir Ian McKellen, and Elijah Wood out to join him onstage, bringing the number of standing ovations for the panel to three.
One thing that made Chris Hardwick seem like such a good moderator for the various panels is that he really is a fan of this stuff, and he's able to articulate the fandom while also keeping the panel focused and funny. He immediately threw the panel over to audience Q&A, knowing how long many of them had been waiting to see the event.
One girl asked Jackson if she'd seen him in make-up in the footage that was shown, and he told her no. "I shoot my cameo tomorrow when I get back to NZ, and I'm not going to tell you where I am. I'm the handsome one. You'll recognize me."
The next girl talked about how she grew up on the books, her father reading them to her and frequently changing the gender of major characters to give her some role models in the series. She asked what role Galadriel will have in the films and what other female characters had been added.
Boyens, who is a major part of the creative team and a strong influence on the final shape of the adaptation, answered the question. "Galadriel is the most powerful being in Middle Earth, and we wanted to tell that story. We talked to Cate about the role, and I had my geek moment when she stepped up and played that. We did feel the weight of it being a boy's own story. We did create a character named Tauriel, who is an Elf, and she's played magnificently by Evangeline Lily. We believe it's completely within the spirit of Tolkien. She wanted that as much as anyone else. I think you guys are going to fall in love with her."
It's Evangeline Lily. That shouldn't be a problem.
Asked about adjusting to the Hobbit feet, Freeman said it was a fairly quick process. "For the first few days, you feel like a fledgling duck finding your flippers, but you forget that. Whenever I was having a hard day, I had a bunch of other people to look at to realize how easy I had it, and those people were far more heroic than I was."
Armitage talked about his own role in the film as Thorin. "We went through an evolution for the look of Thorin and all of the dwarves. Working in a prosthetic like that is one of the biggest challenges. You have to work your face harder to express anything. On day one, I didn't think I would even make it two or three weeks into the journey. By the end, I couldn't imagine working without it. Managing the heat and the smell of sweaty dwarf was its own challenge."
A Brazilian fan asked Jackson about the odds of ever seeing "The Silmarillion" on film, and Jackson explained that the book is still completely owned by the Tolkien estate at this point. "They don't like these movies, so I think the chances are very slim." I didn't realize that was the case, and I'm curious if that means we'll see another adaptation at some point that is the "authorized" one.
Asked if he was intimidated about joining a company made up of so many people who had already been through this experience for "Lord Of The Rings," Freeman said he wasn't. "Once I'd met Peter, Fran and Phil, I felt relaxed with them. They weren't trying to intimidate or impress me. They just wanted me to be in the film and that made me want to be in the film. You can't take intimidation or pressure to work with you. You'd go mad if you carried all that in. It's very remote when you're doing the work, and Wellington is its own little world. It feels like a special little place where your only job is to go along and enjoy it. I had to find my way into it, and between me and Pete, we negotiated, and he usually won. I think I was able to just do my job."
Wood talked about what a strange experience it was for him to see the footage, since he played such a small part this time around. "That footage has these amazingly emotional moments, and that's at the heart of what Peter does and what Fran and Phil do. It's beautiful. I was made to feel emotional watching that footage and seeing everyone here."
A fan from Tijuana thanked McKellen for showing up at the Hall H line at 3:00 in the morning to say hello to fans, making the all-night wait easier, then asked Jackson what the process is to select which scenes will be in the theater and which will be in the extended editions.
Jackson explained, "People think we shoot movies for the extended editions. In theory, you write the script before you shoot, but we do it while we're shooting, and so we'll shoot lots of scenes and lots of footage, and at the very end, you can start to look at the assembly and the rhythm. At the end of the day, you end up with a film that's too long. We try to trim it down to what the studio wants, and we're not great at that. I make very long movies. You try to find the right length. We don't put everything back in on video, but when we have scenes with nice character moments or more story information, it's nice to put those back." He confirmed that there will most likely be extended cuts of these films, but that may change based on what he told our own Katie Hasty about the possibility of a third film.
Serkis talked about how grateful he was for the opportunity to work as a second-unit director on the film this time around. "I was only supposed to come back for two weeks to play Gollum again and then about a month before I was about to come down, I got an e-mail from Fran asking me to come direct the second unit, so would I mind coming down for a year and a half? And once I picked myself up off the floor, I was on that plane immediately."
On some films, second unit is a chore more than anything, but with these movies, the second-unit is a major part of the process. "It was an amazing experience," Serkis continued, "and to be able to play opposite Martin in that scene, which we shot for two full weeks, was an amazing way of working. Then I began the process of jumping into the director's chair and getting used to the 3D camera, 48 fps, cranes, stunt doubles, schedules, technocranes… it was a huge education, and Peter's been such a huge part of my life for the last 12 years. To be entrusted to that position was huge, and thank you from the bottom of my heart."
In case that sounds like the panel was nothing but sappy, Hardwick asked Serkis if he would do the voice, and in his very best Gollum, Serkis replied, "For f**k's sake, do I have to do it?" HUGE response from the crowd, and then Smeagol started to argue with Gollum. "You said you weren't going to whore yourself. You said you weren't going to do it." People were cheering, making it hard to hear Gollum's response. "But you're in front of six thousand five hundred f**king people. You have to do it."
The last question was for Martin Freeman, asking if he had any personal fears he's overcome that he drew on to play the part of Bilbo, and Freeman, who seemed enjoyably prickly during much of the panel, said he wouldn't share such an experience if there were one, then went on to explain. "We all have fear. You hope that your experience is relatable. And I didn't cast myself. They saw something in me that they thought would be helpful for playing Bilbo. Bilbo is the eyes and ears of the audience, and my job is to relay that by being open and having a certain amount of wit and a light touch."
I look forward to seeing not only his work, but everything that Peter Jackson has brought to bear on part one of "The Hobbit" when it arrives in theaters on December 14, 2012.
Everything: Comic-Con 2013
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