IAR Press Conference Coverage: 'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug'

Tuesday, 10 December 2013 10:29 Written by  iamrogue
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IAR Press Conference Coverage: 'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug'

This Friday, Bilbo's unexpected journey grows ever-more perilous, darker, and more adventurous in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

The second installment in Peter Jackson's epic trilogy adapting the first Middle Earth novel by J.R.R Tolkien hits theaters nationwide on December 13th.

A year ago, the first film introduced the younger Bilbo, following him as he set off from the Shire on an adventure, accompanying Thorin Oakenshield's dwarf-party and Gandalf the Grey. 

In The Desolation of Smaug, the group grows closer to the Lonely Mountain, where they attempt to reclaim the underground dwarf kingdom of Erebor from the formidable dragon who slumbers within.  Along the way, they encounter Mirkwood elves, a skin-changer, Lake-Town, and all manner of orcs.  Every threat pales in comparison, however, to the might of Smaug himself.

Along with entertainment journalists from all over the globe, IAR Managing Editor Jami Philbrick was on hand for the film's press conference in Beverly Hills earlier this month.  He had the opportunity to discuss The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug with director Jackson, co-writer Fran Walsh, and stars Richard Armitage (Captain America: The First Avenger), Evangeline Lilly (Lost), Luke Evans (Furious 6), and Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek Into Darkness).

Not present at the press conference was the Hobbit himself, Martin Freeman (Sherlock).  Nonetheless, Jackson praised his star's acting style, which is coincidentally similar to that of Ian Holm, who played Bilbo in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

"He’s just exploring. He’s exploring the whole time. He’s not saying, 'Okay, I think that one was perfect, I don’t need to go anymore than that.' The next take he’s coming up with a different approach to it, and sometimes a very relatively different approach," said the director. "Ten years ago, after we wrapped on The Lord of the Rings shoot with Ian Holm, who obviously plays Biblo as an older man, and Ian McKellen came up to me and said 'Are you okay with what he does?' I said 'Why?' and he said – Ian McKellen is a much more of an actor who has a vision for what the scene needs to be about. He’s moving towards that particular goal and Ian Holm was exploring and experimenting. I said you both have great approaches. You’re the safe and stable one, I know where you’re heading and I’m getting a lot of choice with Martin playing the younger Biblo, coincidentally is exactly the same style actor as Ian Holm."

While The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was by no means a quiet, low-key drama, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug still ratchets up the action considerably.  One of the biggest setpieces in the film finds Bilbo, Thorin, and company – all bobbing about in barrels – dealing with both elves and orcs throughout a breakneck chase down the whitewater rapids of a river. 

"I think the most dangerous part of filming the barrel sequence was when we were in these little cut-off Flintstones-style barrels which were powered by our feet," said Armitage. "It was like dodge-ems and we were bumping into each other. But yeah, it came together in quite a few different places on the Pelorus River, which was an extremely fast-flowing river with a current."

After shooting parts of the sequence on-location, he crew relocated to a Wellington set for two weeks. "It was like being at a theme park for two weeks and they were dumping tons of water on us and trying to get us to go under the water. But I think Martin had the most difficult role in that, because he wasn’t in a barrel and there was an underwater camera and he would swap out with the stunt guy and it got quite hair-raising. But I think it was worth it."

"We had these big V8 water jet things that we built on a circle – it was like a theme park – about as big as this room," explained Jackson. "And we were worried because we thought, how fast can we actually grind, wind the engine up, because we could sort of wind it up at speed and, you know, we’d better be careful, because we don’t know quite, it’s gonna be unpredictable and it was. And we had stunt guys doing it, round and round, and testing it and everything else, but you know, these are actors, they’re a little bit fragile. But by the end of the first day, the guys were just yelling, 'Faster! Faster! Get it faster, faster, faster!' And we had it on max, we had the thing going on maximum pretty quickly."

One of the major new characters introduced in this chapter is Tauriel, an elfin warrior played by Evangeline Lilly, who was struck by our man Philbrick's resemblance to Sabertooth, saying, "Does this guy not look like Wolverine's brother? Not when you smile, you're too friendly. But when you're serious he really looks — there! See? That's it, right there. Right? Yeah! Sorry, it's just been distracting me all afternoon."

Decide for yourself with this look at our Managing Editor occupying a scale-skewing chair from the set of Beorn's home.

Tauriel has stirred up no small amount of controversy among Tolkien fans, since the character was invented by the filmmakers.  Philippa Boyens discussed the thinking behind Tauriel, a rare female character in a tale populated almost exclusively by male figures. "Women are huge fans of these films – it’s wonderful. Right from Lord of the Rings, there was this immediate engagement with women," she said. "You know, there’s this notion it’s a genre for boys, dungeons and dragons or something like that, but I’m living proof that’s not true. I always loved these stories, I think they spoke to me, the characters of The Hobbit especially speak to me, Frodo and Bilbo, of course, and when you meet these young women, you do the red carpet and everything and things like that, you understand that passion from the stories that they receive from that is going to create a new generation of writers, young female writers. And I think we’re starting to see that now coming through in the way that fantasy is being used. And one of the things I think women especially enjoy or relate to is that Professor Tolkien attempted to make these stories real, that they feel real, like a history. They read like a history. The sense that this was true. And Pete is, I think, a genius at sort of making these films feel real even though you have a giant, fire-breathing dragon, that he’s a real character, a real being.

Lilly agreed, saying, "And in his defense, Tolkien was writing in 1937. The world is a different place today, and I keep repeatedly telling people that in this day and age, to put nine hours of cinema entertainment in theaters for young girls to go and watch, and not have one female character for them to watch is subliminally telling them, 'You don’t count. You’re not important, and you’re not pivotal to story.' And I just think they were very brave and very bright in saying, 'We won’t do that to the young female audience who come and watch our film.' And not just the young female audience, but even a woman of my own age, I think it’s time we stop making stories that are only about men – especially only about heroic men. And I love that they made Tauriel a hero."

Playing a hero involved plenty of preparation, as Lilly recalled, "I went through five different types of training. I did weapons training, stunt training, movement training, dialect training, language training. And in the weapons training, there were two different weapons. I had double daggers and a bow and arrow. Believe it or not, I used to teach archery to little kids."

Also wielding a bow is Luke Evans as Bard the Bowman, a human character who becomes even more important in next year's climactic installment. "The longbow is two meters, ten [centimeters] in height. So it’s actually taller than me," he said. "It’s different than [Tauriel's] bow and arrow. But mine was very very big so it was learning to pull the arrow differently than you would with a normal bow and arrow, because it’s a longbow. But, no, I never taught any children, thankfully."

The Lord of the Rings trilogy famously utilized real locations in Jackson's native New Zealand to create the fantasy world of Middle Earth.  This new trilogy also does so, but does increase the amount of settings created digitally.  Still, the director endeavored to anchor the cast, saying, "What I tried to do was any time we were on a green screen stage with a lot of bits of sitting, a lot of green screen, I would try to bring in the conceptual art, the artwork that Alan Lee or John Howe or one of the Weta workshop guys had done, so I was able to at least let the guys know what was going to be back on the green screen behind them. Not all the time because sometimes I didn’t even know myself when we were shooting it. Some of those things you figure out later on. But ultimately it’s the power of the imagination. It’s just suspension of disbelief really. Just as the audience, we’re asking you to believe in a world that elves and dwarves and dragons and orcs exist. When you’re on the stage, you have to also be in that same mind frame. You are in that world, no matter whether it’s green or whatever. If there’s a tennis ball that’s supposed to be Smaug, it’s the same thing really."

The gap between what was physically real and what would eventually be onscreen was represented by Smaug, the massive dragon played by Cumberbatch in a voice and motion-capture performance.  Despite his largely virtual performance, the actor said, "I did go to New Zealand. It was hugely, hugely helpful. I started off with Peter and Fran [Walsh] and Philippa, just the three of them and me, which was a privilege in itself, because of how large everything else is on this film, to have their sole attention. We were in the mo-cap stage so it began as a physicalization, both voice and body work, the whole thing. So that’s how I discovered him. Via my dad, who read me the book when I was either six or seven – I’ve really got to ring him. I keep saying this. I’ve said this for two days and not found out. But I was young. I was younger than eight when I went to school so it was a bedtime treat at home. So that was my first bit of research. Then, I went to the reptile house at the London Zoo and had a look there. It’s so beautifully written, the book, and it’s so well illustrated in countless editions of the book. And then, with Peter’s input and our rehearsals and just playing like a kid really in this incredible freeing volume, as they call the mo-cap stage, meant that we could kind of go anywhere with it. So very, very helpful. Sadly, I met hardly any of the cast."

Bilbo's encounter with Smaug would seem like the climax of any other story, but The Hobbit: There and Back Again will raise the stakes again before wrapping up the tale next year.  The film version of Tolkien's text was originally planned as two films before the filmmakers opted to expand it to three.  "We made that decision after we had shot most of the film," said Jackson. "It was a decision based on what we had shot and we just thought we’re going to have to somehow cut a lot of this stuff out or we can reshape it. And we did some more shooting; we did 10 weeks of shooting this year, as well as pickup shooting for the second and third film. What it does, is it allows you to literally let the characters drive the story, because in a novel, the writer of the novel is often the person who narrates the story, who kind of takes you on the journey and Tolkien’s voice is obviously fantastic at doing that. You feel like he’s right beside you telling you a bedtime story. But in the movie, you don’t want me onscreen telling you what’s happening so the difference in a film is that you have to have the story told through the dialogue of the characters, through their actions.

"I also was acutely aware that there was going to be, ultimately, when there was going to be this cycle of releasing a movie every year as done, knowing that was six films, I expected Journey to be the beginning and Return of the King to be the end, and I did want to have a unity," he concluded.

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