Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Andy Serkis

A change of hobbit

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Peter Jackson on the set of The Hobbit

When I’m working through my beloved special features on the Lord of the Rings box set, I sometimes need to remind myself that they aren’t the primary work, and that it’s the films themselves that should matter most. Yet it’s easy to get caught up in the supplemental materials—the richest I’ve seen on any home video release—to the point where you start to neglect the movies they’re supposed to document. And there seems to be something about Tolkien himself, or the world he created, that encourages this kind of attitude. When you look at the endless shelves of notes, discarded drafts, and miscellaneous backstory that Christopher Tolkien has published from his father’s archives, you begin to feel as if the original novels were just one possible manifestation of the author’s underlying decades of thought. That’s true of any work of art, to some extent, but the degree to which Tolkien’s creative process has been documented makes it seem as if the books were created to enable the work behind them, rather than the other way around. (Tolkien, who wrote the trilogy initially as an excuse to develop his Elvish languages, might have agreed.) And the same philosophy seems to have affected the Peter Jackson adaptations, which chronicle the production process so exhaustively that the movies themselves can come off as incidental. And while this might be unfair to The Lord of the Rings, it’s less so with The Hobbit, which still strikes me, to quote Bilbo, as “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”

I still haven’t seen The Battle of the Five Armies, but I may need to check out the special edition, judging from a production featurette that was recently released online. Bryan Bishop of The Verge describes it as “the most honest promotional video of all time,” and in fact, it provides some startling—and discouraging—insights into why The Hobbit turned out to be so underwhelming. Even in the earliest footage released from the shoot, Peter Jackson looked tired and discouraged, and in this glimpse behind the scenes, we start to understand why. According to the featurette, Guillermo Del Toro’s abrupt departure from the production and Jackson’s equally sudden arrival left every creative department scrambling to catch up, and they never managed to get ahead of the game. The Weta design guru Richard Taylor, who is one of my secret heroes, says that they were constantly delivering the props needed for each day’s filming, and he waxes nostalgic about The Lord of the Rings, in which they had over three years to prepare, with entire racks of armor ready months in advance. In the words of production manager Brigitte Yorke: “Peter never got a chance to prep these movies. I can’t say that. But he didn’t!” Jackson came straight from Tintin, got sick for six weeks, and had only two months to restart the process from scratch before shooting commenced. For much of that time, he was operating on three hours of sleep a night, hoping to keep going in any way he could. As Taylor puts it: “You’re laying the tracks directly in front of the train.”

Peter Jackson

By Jackson’s own account, he was able to “wing it” fairly well—telling the crew to take a long lunch while he puzzled out problems alone on the set, even as the scripts continued to be rewritten—until he had to film the titular Battle of Five Armies itself, when his lack of time to think finally caught up with him. Andy Serkis’s second unit was banking entire rolls of generic fight elements when Jackson told them to stop, and production was halted, much to the shock of the crew, until the following year. Jackson says: “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.” And as much as this explains some of the problems that clearly afflicted The Hobbit from the beginning, it’s hard to understand why everyone is being so candid. (In The Verge, Bishop writes: “I’m frankly shocked that any promotional clip would be this straightforward about the problems the film had, but hey—whatever gets people talking about the movie.”) Part of it is probably due to the fact that documenting every stage of the production had turned into a habit itself, and it’s hard to stop that process even when the shoot itself goes sideways. It doesn’t go quite so far as such documentaries as Hearts of Darkness or Burden of Dreams, but as far as bonus features are concerned, the shift in tone captured here seems unique. Not even The Lovely Bones, which produced some of the most painstakingly assembled featurettes imaginable for a fatally flawed film, gives you quite the same sense of a movie spiraling out of control.

Yet there’s another explanation that gets closer to the heart of the matter. The video that we see here feels like the first half of a narrative familiar from all creative stories, cinematic or otherwise: the triumph over impossible odds. Despite formidable setbacks, the artist wins out in the end over all the constraints that time, money, and energy imposed, and the result vindicates the years he devoted to the acquisition of his craft. And for the first Lord of the Rings trilogy—which was beset by its share of production woes—that narrative made sense. (It also absorbs the myth that we find in the stories themselves, in which a ragtag fellowship triumphs over the seemingly invincible forces of Sauron.) If The Battle of the Five Armies had emerged as a masterpiece, the pessimistic tone of this featurette would more than satisfy the narrative function it was meant to fill, as Gandalf’s deep breath before the plunge. Instead, it gives us the first half of the cliché but not the second, and the mediocre quality of the resulting movie makes its candor seem bewildering. But that’s a lesson in itself. On this blog, I’ve often glamorized the role that constraints play in the creative process: “To achieve great things,” Leonard Bernstein is supposed to have said, “two things are needed—a plan, and not quite enough time.” But that’s usually as true of bad works of art as of good. We tend to remember the successes and forget the failures. That can be a hard truth to swallow. And if the example of The Hobbit has any value, it’s to remind us that not every creative road leads out of Mordor.

Triumph of the Apes

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Tim Burton must be feeling pretty useless right now. Between Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies and the surprisingly great Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Burton is seeing some of his most successful films reinvented by writers and directors who evidently see them as something more than excuses for production design. It’s not that I don’t respect Burton—Ed Wood is one of my favorite movies, and Big Fish is up there as well—but the reinvention of these two franchises is one of the few bright spots in the recent history of mainstream movies, which otherwise are trending inexorably toward the rule of special effects over story that Burton, like it or not, helped inaugurate.

Still, special effects aren’t always a bad thing, as Rise of the Planet of the Apes demonstrates. This is an impressive movie on many levels, and I’m looking forward to sifting through the contributions of director Rupert Wyatt and writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, but much of the credit must clearly go to WETA Digital. The apes that they’ve created are so lovingly crafted, so expressive, and so engaging that they elevate the entire movie. And I suspect that the quality of the result—and especially of Andy Serkis’s lead performance as Caesar—freed the filmmakers to rely more and more on the apes themselves, with extended sequences of silent storytelling that wouldn’t work nearly as well without such convincing effects.

And many of these sequences are spellbinding. Wyatt is clearly a Kubrick fan—he’s described his vision for a potential sequel as “Full Metal Jacket with apes“—and his work here recalls the opening scenes of 2001 in the best way possible. It’s all utterly absurd, of course, and while many audiences will be inclined to find messages here about animal testing and medical experimentation, whatever allegorical meanings the movie contains are probably incidental, as they should be. Yet the film also seems genuinely curious about the lives of apes, and the storytelling opportunities that the new technology affords, with the courage to let long sequences play without dialogue, carried only Caesar’s expressive face and eyes. It’s a huge gamble, but it pays off beautifully.

Of course, this more serious, deeply considered story has to coexist with a parallel movie in which the apes escape, run amok, and attack police cars and helicopters. This bigger, louder movie is deeply silly, of course, but impressively executed. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a true rarity: a mainstream summer blockbuster that is more or less exactly what I expected, except much better. Watching the previews, I thought this would be a camp classic, or, at best, a movie in which massive resources and care were lavished on an inherently unworkable story. What I didn’t expect was that all the care and craft would pay off. It’s a genuinely good movie, and one that couldn’t have been made at any other time in cinematic history. Evolution, it seems, can be a good thing.

Written by nevalalee

August 12, 2011 at 10:18 am

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