Many are calling it "Hollywood's biggest gamble" because director Peter Jackson shot three gigantic films at once.
"The Lord of the Rings," the classic fantasy trilogy written by J.R.R. Tolkien, is finally getting a big-budget cinematic treatment. A film based on the first book, "The Fellowship of the Ring," debuts in theaters Dec. 19. If the first movie is a blockbuster, the other two, which are to be released in December 2002 and 2003, should be guaranteed an enthusiastic audience.
A New Zealand native, Mr. Jackson says that this trilogy has taken about eight years to complete - from obtaining the film rights to finishing the third movie.
"It's an obsession in a positive way," he says. "One has to be dedicated to a project to devote that much of your life to it."
There were economic reasons for shooting all three movies in little more than a year in New Zealand: The cast was already assembled and the sets and scenery prepared, reducing the budget. If filmed over a three-year period, the cost could have soared to almost $400 million.
Preparation took about three years, from writing scripts and designing sets to casting the actors and finding the right location. "The amount of [early] planning made it easier than you would imagine," Jackson says. "We were able to get our heads into it."
But the reported $270 million for the three films is still daunting, especially because, as Jackson points out, "fantasy films in Hollywood have seldom been a successful genre."
"I've not allowed the pressure to dictate the choices I made," he says. "Being a director is more than getting a performance from an actor. It's about making decisions. I made my choices in favor of the film I wanted to see on the screen, rather than pressure or the size of the budget."
The director has been hooked on the fantasy genre ever since he saw "King Kong" at age 8. Then later, as a teenager, "I was enthralled by 'The Seven Voyages of Sinbad.' "
As a youngster, he'd go to the cinema and be completely swept away with the adventure. "That doesn't happen now when I go to the movies," he says. "I hope it will reoccur when audiences see 'The Lord of the Rings' - that invisible barrier between the screen and the audience will dissolve, and they'll become a part of the adventure - of the fantasy."
The hardest part to cast, Jackson says, was the young hero - the Hobbit named Frodo Baggins. According to Jackson, "to keep the film to 177 minutes, we decided to make him the central character [because] it would be too time consuming to delve into the backgrounds of all the characters."
Jackson was sure he'd find a young English actor for the role, so he went to London and started the search.
"We were getting worried, until a homemade videotape arrived from an American actor named Elijah Wood," Jackson says. "I must confess, I'd never heard of him. But the casting director said she'd seen him in "The Ice Storm" and "Deep Impact," and [that] he was a wonderful young actor and that I should watch the tape.
"I did and was amazed. He had gotten a cheesy costume together, so he'd resemble a Hobbit, went into a garden or park somewhere in L.A., and had a friend film him actually doing dialogue direct from the book."
Later, in talking with Wood, the young actor says, "I hired a dialogue coach to help me with the English accent, and then got a friend to tape it in a rustic park near our house."
Jackson explains, "The minute I saw those luminous blue eyes and heard his voice, I knew we had our Frodo."
Wood adds that he still had to audition for the role. "I didn't mind being transformed into a Hobbit - wearing a wig or enlarged ears. But the hairy legs and feet were dreadfully uncomfortable. They used doubles in the long shots to make the Hobbits look small in comparison to the normal-size actors."
Producer Barrie Osborne and Jackson knew they wanted Sir Ian McKellen as the 7,000-year-old wizard, Gandalf, who is sent by the Higher Powers to help Middle-earth. "Ian said 'Yes,' " Jackson recalls. "Later, he called again and said 'no' [because] he had previously agreed to do 'X-Men.' We pursued [him], and eventually it worked out."
None of the cast felt isolated, although they were filming for nearly two years - often in remote areas of New Zealand. In fact, McKellen landed via helicopter onto a mountaintop where no human feet had ever walked.
"One thing is certain," says the veteran British actor, "tourism will accelerate in New Zealand. In all the time I was there, I only went to Australia once. New Zealand has everything."
McKellen says he's received hundreds of e-mails on his website.
"I quickly learned that readers of 'The Lord of the Rings' [more than 100 million people have read it] are a most passionate group," he says. "After I was hired as Gandalf, I decided I'd better read the trilogy.
"It's like my dear, dear friend John Gielgud once said when he went to Disneyland: 'It will only take a few hours; I already know what to expect.' [Then] he stayed three days.
"You can't imagine what you'll experience when you see the pages of 'The Lord of the Rings' come to life."