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The good turn of the Ring-makers

The generosity of Sir Peter Jackson and Dame Fran Walsh in gifting $1 million towards the building of Wellington Free Ambulance’s new Masterton base – as reported in last Saturday’s Times-Age – has prompted an entirely appropriate outpouring of gratitude from Wairarapa locals, given that this early Christmas present represents over 13 per cent of the $7.5 million that’s required for the project.

The complete absence of trolling comments about the pair – who’ve been regular residents in the region since acquiring a property five kilometres north of Masterton at Matahiwi in 2002 – on the Times-Age’s Facebook post about the donation is quite something to behold in an age when the nattering nabobs of negativism rampage through social media like a ravening horde of orcs, and is a clear testament to the unusually high [and approaching universal] esteem in which they are held in this small shire of ours.

The welcome act of philanthropy has also been a timely reminder of several recent and upcoming anniversaries that memorialise a truly remarkable filmmaking feat by the duo – crafting a trilogy of movies from J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings [LOTR] that were critical, cultural, and commercial triumphs when they were first released, and continue to hold up two decades after the final instalment first hit cinema screens.

Given the passage of time since the global success of the films, which netted over US$3 billion at the global box office and 17 Academy Awards from a total of 30 nominations, it’s all too easy to forget just what a gamble this massive movie project truly was.

But when principal photography for the trilogy finished almost exactly 23 years ago [the three films were shot simultaneously from October 11, 1999, to December 22, 2000, with subsequent ‘pick-up’ shots done over the next three years], the project was regarded as incredibly high risk, not a slam dunk in waiting. Indeed, as noted by Wikipedia, it was one of the most ambitious ever undertaken, with a budget of US$281 million – equivalent to around US$500m today.

And lest we forget, it almost didn’t get off the ground at all – first Jackson and Walsh had to stare down the ridiculous demand by rights holder Harvey Weinstein [of Miramax fame and #MeToo infamy] to turn Tolkien’s 1000-plus page tome into a single movie, and convince him to allow them to get another, more simpatico studio on board instead.

Every aspect of the production is now – appropriately enough – the stuff of moviemaking legend, from the casting process that eventually assembled a pretty much perfect fellowship of actors, to the exquisite handmade costumes, props and models that confer the fantasy with a crucial sense of reality, through to the groundbreaking special effects that were lovingly created in post-production, including the development of motion capture techniques that enabled an amazing fusion of acting and technology.

But what really separated the LOTR trilogy from the pack when it was released [and continues to make it distinctive, especially when compared to today’s lumbering, joylessly effects-driven franchises that are effectively assembled by committee] is the singular shared vision of Jackson, Walsh, and their creative collaborators in creating an epic yet still intensely intimate screen story – one that’s shot through with the sense of empathy and compassion that was on full display last week.

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