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Comic-Con '09: Peter Jackson talks to Capone about DISTRICT 9, THE HOBBIT, and the state of the film industry!!!

Hey folks. Capone in San Diego with another in a long line of Comic-Con '09 panel reports, interviews, and just general groovy news. This year, Comic-Con was a place where I really got my first sense of how THE HOBBIT films are taking shape. Where as many months ago, writers Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, Philippa Boyens, and Fran Walsh were contemplating the first films as essentially being the Tolkien book, and the second film being a bridge movie between THE HOBBIT and THE LORD OF THE RINGS, Jackson told a select group of online journalists a couple nights ago that that clearly wasn't going to be the case. The two films will be the novel stretched out and supplemented by material from appendices, and other background source material written by Tolkien. Jackson said that the screenplay for the first movie is about three weeks from completion and must still go through budgeting and even getting the go ahead from the studio before any casting can be done and announced. This was Jackson's polite way of saying that all casting rumors (other than a small number of returning LORD OF THE RINGS characters) are bullshit. Jackson added that while scheduling, casting, and pre-production on the first HOBBIT film begins, writing on the second film will commence. He also said that writing with Del Toro in the mix hasn't really changed his writing process--sometimes different combinations of the four writers work on certain scenes if someone isn't available, and other times, each person takes a scene to work on and then they reconvene to polish. Jackson specifically mentioned wanting to explore where Gandalf disappears for such a long time in THE HOBBIT, but didn't go into much other detail about other sidestories his team will explore in terms of subplots. He did confirm that the intended release dates of the two films would be December 2011 and December 2012. Although casting decisions are still very much undecided, Jackson did say, "We have talked about casting among ourselves, and obviously we want the original actors to come back when appropriate." Take that for what's it's worth. The subject of casting 13 dwarf characters was met with a great deal of humor from Jackson, who still seemed a little unsure how the team would pull that off and still somehow manage to create unique personalities for each dwarf. Answering the question of why he isn't directing THE HOBBIT films himself, Jackson explained that he felt like he'd be competing with himself with the new films, and instead hired a visionary director to make these stories come to life. Jackson closed out the lengthy discussion with a series of clips, including an impressive four minutes of footage from his new film THE LOVELY BONES (lest you forget, Jackson actually does have a film of his own coming out later this year). Cut like a lengthy trailer, the footage showed both the very real world of the lead young girl character who is killed, and her dream-like limbo state where she lives while she watches those in her life attempt to solve her murder. Stanley Tucci as the girl's killer was especially freaky in the scenes we saw. Jackson said the shorter trailer would premiere for JULIE & JULIA (also starring Tucci, but a much nicer version). The evening got even more enjoyable as Jackson pulled out a series of shorts he'd made over the last couple of years that spotlighted his love of WWI aviation. The first was "Crossing the Line," a red camera test short about the ramping up for a WWI-era battle. Next was a portion of "Over the Front," Cine-a-rama film he made for a museum in Australia, also focusing on the aviation war. "Vintage Aviator" gave us a peak inside the shop where Peter and his crew build old planes at full scale using the original plans. "Wingnut Wings" showed us the shop where the plastic versions of the aforementioned WWI aircrafts are designed and cast, based on the full-size creations. Perhaps the most interesting of the bunch was some 3-D test footage of an aerial battle (using LORD OF THE RINGS aerial backdrops) that Jackson shot to see if he'd like to use the technique for his long-in-the-works DAMBUSTERS, to be directed by Weta's Christian Rivers. Jackson said he still needed to do another draft of the script before serious production can begin. While we're cleaning the closet of all project Jackson has a hand in, he did mention that Steven Spielberg had just finished his first cut of TINTIN. Backing up a bit, Jackson was making his first-ever Comic-Con appearance to support a film he produced, DISTRICT 9, from South African director Neill Blomkamp. I thought I knew from the trailer material what to expect from this film, and I could not have been more wrong. The movie is earth-shatteringly awesome, so much so that I had to seriously reassess my impressions of footage I had seen earlier in the day of James Cameron's AVATAR, which did indeed look beautiful. But DISTRICT 9 will quite simply kick your ass so hard and with such conviction that your lungs will get lodged in our nostrils. From the documentary-like approach that makes up about the first third of the film (that device does not go all the way through the film) to the explosive violence that rips open the film's potential with about as much force as you can imagine, I was hooked into this story of aliens co-existing with humans in Johannesburg and a bureaucrat caught up in circumstances he could never have foreseen. God damn is this movie good! And the film ushers in one of the most promising new directors in recent memory. I'll have my full review on the film later, and interviews with Blomkamp and the film's lead actor Sharlto Copley soon. All of what I'm written so far is prologue to some time I got to spend with Jackson in San Diego the day after I saw DISTRICT 9 and he had the sit down with bloggers soon after. We didn't have a ton of time together and I did want to balance the questions between D-9 and THE HOBBIT, but I think I got a decent amount of information out of him about both works. As a final footnote to this story, I ran into Doug Jones (HELLBOY 1 & 2; PAN'S LABYRINTH; Silver Surfer in the second FANTASTIC FOUR film) later this same evening, and I jokingly asked him if he and Andy Serkis (who did the motion capture work for LORD OF THE RINGS and KING KONG) were preparing to battle over roles in THE HOBBIT. He laughed and said that he couldn't wait to work with Andy, and he hoped their would be a way the two could share a scene or two together. I'm not sure if that counts as a casting confirmation or not for those two. If it does, it might be the most obvious casting news of the year. But I'll take it. Enjoy my chat with Peter Jackson…
Capone: Was it fun to work as an independent again? I've talked to other directors who have directed or produced smaller films between big tent-pole projects just to remind themselves where they came from and to take a break from the pressure that come from $100 million films. Peter Jackson: Yeah, it was, because the pressure was a lot less. You do get a little bit overwhelmed with the responsibility when the budgets are huge, and it does lead you to have as much concern about making sure that you're not alienating too many people and that the film is going to have a broad appeal. With DISTRICT 9--it only cost $30 million; I don't know if $30 million is big or small--but compared to other films, it gives you a degree of freedom. And I kept saying to Neill, "It's never going to get as good as this, so enjoy it." And also the other thing I was trying to encourage him to do was be bold and crazy and just go for it. But he didn't need much encouragement, because he's an absolute sci-fi geek; he's a robot fan too.
Capone: Isn't one of his shorts about a robot secretary? PJ: ROBOT TEMP, yeah. He's really, really obsessed with anything robotic. That's one of his things. Capone: I had no idea that DISTRICT 9 was going to get that hardcore violent--and I was delighted to see that--but it kind of goes against the studio sensibility of what a summer release should be. It's not light and fluffy and PG-13. Were you looking to buck the trend? PJ: It's interesting because the film industry is in a really weird position at the moment. If I think about it too much, I get depressed because I don't think it's in a very good state, and we're all responsible for that; I'm not pointing fingers because it's easy to say "Oh, look at what the studios are doing." But it's the filmmakers as much as anybody; it's the authors of the of the movies, the writers and the directors. We're all got to be doing our part. And I think there's so much nervousness about dropping attendance, or so people say, and plummeting DVD sales that suddenly everyone is working from a defensive position. The creativity that's going into films is almost like playing a defensive game, instead of playing an attacking game.
And I think if anything, DISTRICT 9 has an attack element to it. We're basically saying, "We don't give a stuff about the risk; we don't care about how many people buy the DVDs." We just want to make a cool movie, which is great, and we were able to have that spirit. But I think that's in danger of getting lost, certainly in the larger-budget films. Everyone wants to create these little safe harbors, which are franchises. And you create your franchise, which is going to lead to three or four movies, and it'll all go to the bottom line and that goes to Wall Street. It's all this corporate stuff, and the film industry and the world of finance and Wall Street have all kind of blended in a way that's not good for creativity at the moment. Now, let's hope it's a cycle, because everything in the film industry seems to be a cyclic thing and hopefully we're just going through a bad patch. I think it's up to everybody, the filmmakers and the studios, to get a little bit more courage and fight against it, because I think we've all given into it a bit.
Capone: It's great that Neil doesn't have to deal with that his first time as a feature director. PJ: Well, the one thing that the industry does--that studios do and distributors and theater owners, the business side of the industry--is take note of success. And if DISTRICT 9 is successful--and it doesn't need to be hugely successful; it just needs to return a profit on $30 million--that will be a blip on the radar. Somebody will think, "Well, that movie did it right because it made a profit." It doesn't matter how small the profit is. Hopefully, in a way, that makes somebody a little braver about green-lighting a movie by somebody with Neil's talent. Hopefully, we can contribute in a tiny way to get a little more independence out of the film industry. Capone: I did want to ask you at least one question about THE HOBBIT. What people seemed to think was going to happen was: first film is the book, second film is the bridge. But based on what you said last night, that won't be the case. PJ: It was going to be the case, once. When we first started talking about the project, that was the assumption. I mean, everyone's sort of been watching this process as it was happening live as it was streaming down into your homes [laughs], but when we really looked at what we really had, we decided that we would just do THE HOBBIT. The good thing is, and I'll make sure I answer your next question--no one will throw you out--because I think it's worth explaining this. The good think about THE HOBBIT that is interesting and what we've really got our heads around now is that because Tolkien wrote THE HOBBIT first as a children's book, obviously, and then he went on 20 years later to publish THE LORD OF THE RINGS, and he drastically expanded his vision of Middle Earth by the time RINGS came out. And what is contained in LORD OF THE RINGS is a lot of retrospective information about the time of THE HOBBIT.
So when Gandalf disappears during THE HOBBIT, which is unexplained largely in the book, we learn later about the Necromancer and Sauron returning to Dol Guldur and Mirkwood. And there's all sorts of hints and appendices that have to do with the Necromancer and the trolls and the goblins in the mountains, all this political backstory that Tolkien was throwing in there that he was retrospectively applying to THE HOBBIT, which never made it into THE HOBBIT novel. And so what we got excited about when we really started looking at it was that as filmmakers, we can actually take his later expansion and we can apply it to THE HOBBIT and we can present THE HOBBIT as this view of what he was ultimately thinking about what was happening in that time, which is neither adapting THE HOBBIT in that simple form, nor is it really making stuff up either. It's actually blending together his material to present a kind of view of the world, which is larger than THE HOBBIT itself. And that's why it's going to take us two films to do that.
Capone: When I interviewed Viggo Mortensen last October, he had mentioned a sequence you shot with him and Liv Tyler that was a flashback to them as much younger people, dressed in elvish clothing and in their courting years. Might that be something you'd include in these new films, and are there other scenes like this filmed during LORD OF THE RINGS that you might be able to ues to tell THE HOBBIT story? Obviously, he hadn't heard from you or anybody else at the time… PJ: And he still hasn't [laughs]. There is one sequence. I obviously can't talk about what actors are in or out. We haven't gone to any actors and spoken to them and offered them the roles, with the exception of Ian [McKellen]. Guillermo had lunch with Ian McKellan, and obviously Andy Serkis we've been talking to a lot because of his role in TINTIN, so we've sort of been talking informally with Andy. But certainly the thing I remember reading in your interview with Viggo was that he said he'd hate for somebody else to be cast as Aragorn, and we would never do that to Viggo. If we wanted Aragorn to play a role in these films, it would be Viggo playing it, or we'd just write the character out and make him somebody else. There's no way that we'd ever recast anybody that we'd used in the trilogy. But it's the second movie that we're really looking at in terms of expanding the world a little bit, because of what I was explaining before. It is definitely possible that we may look at incorporating some characters that we see later in LORD OF THE RINGS into some of THE HOBBIT stuff. But who they are yet, we certainly haven't had any discussions with anybody yet. Capone: In my head, I imagine Andy Serkis and Doug Jones fighting over playing some of the same characters. PJ: [laughs] That's right. They can put their mo-cap [motion-capture] suits on and wrestle it out. Capone: Wonderful to meet you. Thank you so much. PJ: I hope we can get you down to New Zealand during some of the shooting. Capone: I'd like that immensely. Just tell me when. Thanks.
-- Capone Follow Me On Twitter

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