Hollywood careers are like icebergs, and the movies you actually see are just the tip breaking through the surface.
One of the great painful truths of working inside the system is that filmmakers can build entire careers out of developing material and selling work without having anything to show the ticket-buying public. It’s why so many films get announced then never happen. For directors, it’s a numbers game. Staying afloat means developing 10 things and praying to god at least one of them actually gets made.
Even films that eventually get made can go through several incarnations before that happens. In the case of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it’s amazing how many moving parts there were in the process that eventually resulted in Peter Jackson’s three films — which were nearly a two-movie project. I may be one of the few people outside of Jackson’s production company, WingNut Films, to have ever read that version of the project, which have compacted the action told in 558 minutes into two-thirds of that runtime. How Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and Return of the King came to be the films that we know is the movie business in a nutshell.
An adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s books produced by Peter Jackson was such an unlikely prospect in the first place. Jackson began his career as a fiercely independent artist, not by design but by necessity. Growing up in New Zealand, he felt like he was a million miles from Hollywood. When he made his early horror movies, Bad Taste, Dead Alive, and Meet The Feebles, he was launching them like one blood-soaked Hail Mary after another out into the larger world.
2021 marks The Lord of the Rings movies’ 20th anniversary, and we couldn’t imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So each Wednesday throughout the year, we’ll go there and back again, examining how and why the films have endured as modern classics. This is Polygon’s Year of the Ring.
Those films earned Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh enough attention to attract interest from Los Angeles. In the 1990s, they found themselves developing a Nightmare on Elm Street sequel and an adaptation of Paul Chadwick’s cult comic Concrete, neither of which made it in front of the camera. One of the projects that put some money in their pocket started as a pitch for a Tales From The Crypt movie for Robert Zemeckis. As they worked on that script, they got serious about making their own films, their own way.
Heavenly Creatures, Jackson and Walsh’s return to independent films, finally punched through, netting them an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay and launching the careers of Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey. To pull it off, they created their own digital company, WETA, to handle the visual effects, and founded WingNut Films, specifically to develop projects that would provide WETA with enough work to stay open full-time. As part of the distribution deal for Heavenly Creatures in 1994, producer Harvey Weinstein of Miramax made a first-look deal with Jackson and Walsh for their next film. The director later spoke about regretting the deal, which gave them some upfront development money, but obligated the pair to work with Weinstein.
Just as they started pitching projects to Weinstein, Zemeckis finally did something with Jackson’s no-longer-Tales-From-The-Crypt-related script, now called The Frighteners. Without the ghost story, we would not have Lord of the Rings. Not only did Jackson make the film himself in New Zealand at a greatly reduced price, expanding on the digital team he originally put together for Heavenly Creatures, but he brought in Hollywood movie stars that primed the film for the international market. Casting Michael J. Fox in the lead was a coup.
In order to make the film, though, he had to talk Weinstein into allowing him to defer the start of their first-look deal. Weinstein made it clear to Universal Pictures, the studio backing The Frighteners, that he was doing the studio a huge favor. The producer made sure Jackson knew it, too.
Jackson and Walsh started toying with the idea of an original fantasy film while they were in production on The Frighteners, convinced that would be the thing they took to Weinstein. The longer Jackson and Walsh worked to figure out a story, the more they kept coming back to Tolkien and his enormous influence on the entire genre. They felt themselves inadvertently ripping off Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings no matter how hard they tried to avoid the monolithic text. Eventually, Jackson asked Weinstein to figure out who owned the rights to the Middle-Earth books. The producer agreed to hunt it down. In the meantime, he encouraged Jackson to crack the code and actually turn this material into something they would be able to film.
Here’s what no one talks about when they talk about the projects that directors develop that never happen: they take a toll. And not just on the director, but also on all of the artists who work with them. It can be difficult to put one’s heart and soul into something over and over and then not see it happen. The loss breaks people if it happens enough times. Jackson was devoted to keeping WETA open and working, and the Lord of the Rings films were a huge promise to its employees’ financial future. Weinstein kept telling Jackson that they were going to make their Middle-Earth trilogy — the idea being to do The Hobbit first, then adapt The Lord of the Rings as a two-film follow-up — and the filmmaker had to believe him. That created a tremendous amount of pressure. But behind the scenes, Weinstein was struggling to lock the rights down because of the late, great producer, Saul Zaentz.
Like Weinstein, Zaentz was a towering presence in the film community. He only produced 10 movies, but I’d call at least five of those masterpieces. One of those that I would not call a masterpiece is Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated The Lord of the Rings, but because of that project, Zaentz found himself in control of the book rights (though a strange deal involving United Artists gave him only partial ownership over The Hobbit). When Harvey Weinstein came calling, Zaentz wasn’t especially interested in working with him after their recent, bruising experience together on The English Patient, and it took the better part of a year to hammer out the deal. Weinstein felt the same way, and part of what complicated things was his insistence that Zaentz be contractually barred from participating in the actual development process.
Meanwhile, Universal was so pleased with the way The Frighteners was going during production that executives asked Jackson if he wanted to make his dream project: a remake of King Kong. 20th Century Fox also came calling to see if he wanted to get a long-gestating reboot of Planet of the Apes off the ground. The longer Weinstein took to pin down Zaentz, the harder it was for Jackson say no to other offers. He finally reached a breaking point, and told Universal that King Kong would be his next film.
Harvey, predictably, went apeshit. By all accounts, he threw an epic tantrum that ended with Miramax co-producing Kong with Universal, and him somehow owning Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love script, which he had coveted for years. No matter: Universal got what they wanted. The studio locked in Jackson for his follow-up to what was seen as such a surefire hit that The Frighteners was bumped up to a coveted July release date. Harvey got what he wanted, too. Jackson committed to make his Lord of the Rings as two films as soon as he was done, and Harvey ended up owning two more films in the process.
Then, in the summer of 1996, The Frighteners came out.
Universal couldn’t have pulled that Kong plug any faster. Jackson’s entire company was already fully focused on bringing Skull Island’s favorite son and all of his dinosaur buddies to life when The Frighteners flopped with a mere $16 million box office gross in the United States. Universal wasn’t interested in spending another dollar, though, and cut things off abruptly. In doing so, it cornered Jackson — and Harvey was ready and waiting. All of the energy and enthusiasm was immediately funneled into Lord of the Rings out of necessity as much as passion. And while the art departments went to work figuring out how the world would look, Jackson and Walsh finally started the thing they were most afraid of in the entire process: figuring out how to truly adapt the books into films.
The pair settled on a two-film structure before they even had the rights figured out. So when they prepared their first outline for Miramax, they leaned into the leaner structure because that’s what they had agreed to, not because that’s the shape the material naturally suggested. It was as much an economic decision as anything else, since Weinstein was determined to spend $75 million total on the two films.
Working with New Zealand playwright Stephen Sinclair, Jackson, and Walsh created two scripts, The Fellowship of the Ring and War of the Ring. And over the course of three meetings and 18 months, they came to realize that they were never, ever, under any circumstances going to make these films with Harvey F%#king Weinstein.
For Harvey Weinstein and his brother/business partner, Lord of the Rings was all about making Peter Jackson happy, but within limits. They didn’t understand Tolkien, and they didn’t believe in the material. They only saw it as a chance to stay in the Peter Jackson business for a cost. What they never told him as they put him through a year and a half of script development was that they could only make the film for $75 million or less because of the terms of their financing deal with parent company Disney.
When I read Jackson and Walsh’s two scripts, I was writing at the entertainment website Ain’t It Cool. This was in the early days of the “movie internet,” and at that point, conversation about something on our site was considered by studios to be a big deal. They were still trying to figure out what the Internet was at that point, and how to harness all this energy that they saw online. Some filmmakers were savvy about it right away, while others still viewed the entire thing with suspicion. Peter Jackson had already had some contact with Ain’t It Cool at that point and there were many people within WingNut and WETA who were also reaching out. They felt like they were creating something great, and were worried they wouldn’t be able to find a studio willing to step up. So a decision was made to leak the scripts to Ain’t It Cool in a way that everyone could deny later. They didn’t come directly from anyone and no one ever officially asked us to cover them, so if I was ever pressed, I could honestly say that it wasn’t Peter or Fran. What’s clear, though, is that I was given access to them so I could talk about what I thought at the exact moment that New Line was trying to make their decision.
My script review became the second part of a carefully coordinated one-two punch. At that point, Ain’t It Cool was a useful platform for filmmakers who were trying to convince studio heads that there was an audience out there for serious-minded genre fare produced with all of the resources required, and it was not always an easy sell. I was happy to make the case: The scripts were great enough that Jackson deserved the chance to see them through.
What did the two-movie version look like? Most of what you love about the eventual trilogy. Philippa Boyens was listed as a script editor on the document that was codenamed “Jamboree.” (By the time everything moved to New Line Cinema, the studio that eventually made the trilogy, Sinclair was gone and Boyens was a full-fledged co-writer on the films.) These early drafts managed to build in most of the major incidents of the series but without the character texture that makes the trilogy so special. It felt like watching the eventual movies on 1.5x speed playback, everything compressed and accelerated. There were ideas that exited in an early form (Galadriel’s haunting narration from the opening of Fellowship was originally delivered in slightly different form by Frodo, for example), and the original cliffhanger took place on Emyn Muil Bluff after Sam, Frodo, and Gollum had an encounter with the Nazgul.
But the bones for Jackson’s version were already in place, and that two-film version understood that Samwise Gamgee was the hero of the entire story, the main character whose journey ultimately punctuates things. There was more singing in these drafts, road songs that felt directly lifted from Tolkien’s text, but everything was delivered at a clip. There was no time to actually get to enjoy the Shire, no room for Pippin and Merry to emerge as characters, and far less of the texture of Middle-Earth. We met the elves in passing. There was an acknowledgement of Arwen and Aragorn, but no more. The main character who benefited from the expansion to three films was Gollum, who went from plot device to fully realized character. More than anything, the two-film version felt like every choice they made was about trying to turn these into more conventional blockbusters at the expense of the dense history and the poetry that defines Tolkien’s work.
Eventually, the Weinsteins started asking for changes that Jackson and Walsh couldn’t make. The primary breaking point came when they asked Jackson to consolidate everything into one four-hour film instead. When he refused, they put Rings in turnaround, meaning Jackson was free to take the film anywhere else as long as the next studio was willing to pay Miramax everything they’d already spent as well as enough to make Harvey feel good about the time they “wasted.” Turnaround can be an amicable process, but in Harvey’s case, it was punitive. He was angry at Jackson and Walsh for not making him their first priority. He was angry at them for entertaining other offers. In general, Harvey saw himself as their way into Hollywood, and he was offended that they didn’t treat him that way. Miramax made the turnaround package expensive and they made it clear they would still be attached as executive producers, something few other studios would be happy about. When WETA ran their numbers on the two-script version, the bare minimum they could see making it for was $150 million. At the time, when I read it, I wasn’t sure how anyone could make it for any price, much less the kind of money Miramax had in mind.
New Line Cinema’s Bob Shaye and Michael De Luca had the vision to read those same scripts and ask for all of the texture and more. They took a gamble on the world itself, and their attitude from the start was the opposite of his. They recognized that these films were a journey and that the journey needed room to breathe. They were excited by the larger world suggested by the scripts, and when they asked questions, much of what they asked about was material that Jackson and Walsh had to cut to make Weinstein happy. Shaye had enjoyed working with Jackson on the proposed Nightmare on Elm Street movie, and one of the reasons they didn’t make it was because Jackson’s vision was too expensive. This time, that was what they liked about it. They were trying to make the jump to a different level as a studio, and Jackson’s dare came at the exact right time.
Not only did Shaye and De Luca say that they were willing to commit to the entire journey — but they wanted to do it the right way. They immediately committed to three films, asking Jackson and Walsh to not only put back everything they cut but to expand on it, using all of that work they’d done to really bring the world to life. They gave Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens permission to dream even bigger. It’s easy to sit on the sidelines as we did in the early days of Ain’t It Cool, telling studios how to spend their money to placate fans, but for actual executives, entire fortunes hinged on those decisions. New Line was the one studio smart enough to look at all of the digital work that WETA had done up to that point, all of the films Jackson had made and how he made them, and the imagination in those two scripts and add that up to what was eventually one of the biggest film series of all time.
When Jackson eventually got the chance to go back to King Kong, he threw out all of the script drafts he’d originally written, which was more like a big, pulpy Indiana Jones adventure. With Lord of the Rings, his process was more of an evolution. They had the structure in place, but on fast-forward. Working with Boyens, who was a lifelong Tolkien supernerd, they went back to the beginning of the process and looked at every character, every scene. Galadriel’s monologue over the opening sequence that plunged us back into Middle-Earth history is one of the most remarkable world-building scenes in film history, but it wasn’t in those two-movie scripts. More importantly, a third script gave the trio room to show the full arc of Smeagol, evolving from a Hobbit to a monster transformed by the Ring to something more sympathetic. The Ents were another major addition to the expansion, as was much of the role of Saruman. Many supporting characters like Eowyn or Boromir or Faramir and even Aragorn were only fully fleshed out thanks to the move from two to three movies.
When I look back at the two-movie version now, I think the end result would have felt more like the film adaptation of His Dark Materials, breathless and busy at the expense of all those little details that give the audience room to fall in love. Without these scripts, though, and what they learned from trying to condense everything to this degree, it’s unclear whether Jackson and Walsh would have been quite as nimble with the material. Between the two-script version, the theatrical trilogy, and the Extended Editions that were in production all the way through Return of the King’s historic Oscar win, Jackson shaped, reshaped, and re-reshaped this material while always managing to keep his eye on the things that make it resonate so loudly: the richly detailed sense that Middle-Earth is a real place with a real history, one that was worthy of all of the expense and effort of a full trilogy.