As he preps for his final days as the host of The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert, a lifelong J.R.R. Tolkien nerd, is also bracing for the end of the Hobbit trilogy, with The Battle of the Five Armies. To help ease the pain (for all of us), EW asked if he’d like to be transformed into a few Middle-earth characters. And write this cover story. And interview Peter Jackson. He said yes, yes, and yes. Welcome to geek heaven.
The Hobbit is a loaf of narrative cleanly sliced into thick, satisfying chapters, and right now director Peter Jackson and Stephen Colbert are reaching the ends of their own. On Dec. 18, Colbert will air the final episode of The Colbert Report before moving on to replace David Letterman as the host of the Late Show—put in Tolkienian terms, “Out of the Frying-Pan Into the Fire”—while the very next day, Jackson’s epic Middle-earth saga will come to a close, after 13 years and six movies, with the release of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Colbert has long been a fan of Tolkien’s universe (in the same sense that Gollum is a “fan” of his precious): He speaks Elvish, had a cameo in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, and this summer hosted the Comic-Con panel for the trilogy’s final film. So Entertainment Weekly invited him to write for us about what The Hobbit and Jackson’s films have meant to him, and what it has been like to go all the way there and back again.
“The road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began.”
Well, the road may go ever on and on, but the realm of men has once again failed. Peter Jackson has finally run out of movies to split into three more movies! So farewell we call to hearth and hall.
And with the impending end of the Hobbit trilogy, I have been going through the five stages of nerd-boy grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and begging for more sequels. Do not tell me you can’t squeeze another two movies out of the Tom Bombadil story, mister! Or Elrond’s dad, Eärendil the Mariner…that tarried in Arvernien! Or what about the appendixes?! They’ve got genealogy! Kids love genealogy!!!
Come on! I need these films. Losing myself in a world gripped by crises, at war against dark forces, consumed by greed and power, forcefully trying to subjugate everyone on the planet to their will. Where am I going to find that in real life?
I suppose I must accept that this is really the end. No more heart-stopping battles, no more wizard’s magic, and perhaps saddest of all, no more stirring cameos by Stephen Colbert in my award-eligible “Lake-town Spy” role in The Desolation of Smaug.
To help me say goodbye, I took a walk down memory lane. Just me and a few of my friends got together to play dress-up. Lucky for me, my “friends” are the wardrobe department for The Hobbit. The original costumes and wigs were flown in from New Zealand just for me. They didn’t even fly the costumes out of New Zealand for the actors! They had to wear them there! The pictures on these pages fulfill a lifelong dream…winning cosplay. Boba Fett with boobs? You finished a close second.
Look at the incredible work the makeup and hair artists did. Everything was taken into account. Especially with Gandalf. Let’s just say the carpet matches the beard.
Colbert, as Gandalf, peruses a page-turner.
And my transformation into Bilbo Baggins was completely thrilling and surreal. Especially since the first hobbit thing I did was light up some pipe-weed.
Slipping into Legolas’ skin felt glamorous and immortal. For the sake of authenticity, I wanted to kill an orc, but none of my interns would dress up as an Uruk-hai and let me shoot them in the face. I know someone who’s not getting college credit.
Of course, the dress-up fun had to end eventually. And once they had a locksmith open the room I’d barricaded myself in, I agreed to go quietly.
And as I explained to the police at the precinct, Tolkien’s work has been a lifelong haven for me—truly a light in dark places when all other lights went out. For an awkward teenager, Middle-earth was a world I could escape to. Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth also gave me a world to escape to, but by the time his films came out, I was rich and famous and didn’t really want to escape my life anymore. Still, great movies.
How well I remember their beginning...
“The first thing I did was light up some pipe-weed.”
In 1998, while surfing the nascent information superhighway to, I’m gonna say, alt.tolkien (ask your parents to ask their IT guy), I ran across a story both wonderful and perilous. Director Peter Jackson would be making an adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. In fact, he had already started.
At the time, I knew Mr. Jackson only as the director of the critically acclaimed Heavenly Creatures. And as great as that movie is, I wasn’t sure there was room for hysterical, murderous teenage girls in the trilogy...other than, of course, Éowyn. (Shield maidens be crazy!)
And while I was happy to see someone finally take a live-action stab at the trilogy, I was worried. Because with previous attempts at bringing LOTR to the screen, I had been burned. Take Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 quasi-animated Lord of the Rings, a mishmash of The Fellowship and The Two Towers that never even finished the story. And of the 1980 Rankin/Bass The Return of the King, the less said the better. We hates it, we hates it, we hates it forever!
And I was afraid that Jackson would be just another thief come to take my treasure—my hoard of Middle-earth memories. It was a very possessive, obsessive, dragony feeling.
Or worse, he might not treat them with respect. We fantasy fans, even more than our sci-fi brethren, had long been ghettoized as lovers of childish fairy tales.
But in an early interview Peter Jackson said he was going to treat his sets as if he wasn’t just building them for a movie; he was an archaeologist restoring the actual location of, say, Rivendell, which, lost or ruined, had been a real place thousands of years before our written civilization existed. This is when I knew I could trust him.
And I began to have hope—and not just hope that the movies would be good. I was given hope that finally, people might not roll their eyes when I started talking about Middle-earth, that my head full of facts from Fëanor to Faramir might suddenly have some social value. Someone might actually say, “Hey, Stephen, you know a lot about that Tolkien stuff; could you explain something to me about Middle-earth?” Yes, that I could do.
Colbert, as Legolas, gets gleeful about archery.
And the movies came, and they were more than good. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, they were beauties that pierced like swords or burned like cold iron. It was clear that the filmmakers, like the elves of Lórien, put the thought of all that they loved into all that they made.
But as comes snow after fire, even dragons have their endings. And after 13 years of exploring Middle-earth on the big screen, it’s time to say goodbye.
I will not say, Do not weep, for not all tears are an evil.
So goodbye, Gandalf. Thank you for teaching me that we always have someone who believes in us, even when we don’t quite believe in ourselves. And also if you mess with a balrog, bring a parachute.
Goodbye, Legolas and Gimli. Your loyalty and love for each other taught us all something to strive for with our friends. And your orc-killing contests taught frightened children how to count.
Goodbye, Aragorn and Arwen. You showed that love means being willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for one another. And that elf-on-man action is way hotter than elf-on-dwarf. Give it up, Kili. She’s out of your league.
Goodbye, Gollum. From you we learned...nothing. You are a jerk who bites off people’s fingers. Get some help.
And thank you, Peter Jackson and everyone who gave us these films! Even though there will be no more movies, I still have a magic ring that makes the rest of the world invisible for a few hours. Actually, six of them, and they’re Blu-ray.
Stephen Colbert sits down with director Peter Jackson.Kristopher Long
While the rest of America was either shopping or sleeping in, Stephen Colbert spent his Black Friday morning in his New Jersey home on the phone with one of his cinema idols, Peter Jackson. “I’m in my pajamas,” Colbert proudly stated to the Hobbit director, who was calling from London. “I’m in my post-Thanksgiving torpor, coming down from a stuffing hangover.” But Colbert put on his pointy interviewer’s hat, engaging Jackson in an enchantingly smart 45-minute conversation about movies, magic, and the meaning of Middle-earth. The Lord of the Rings Oscar winner was impressed, but stopped just short of saying yes when Colbert suggested—nay, commanded—what Jackson’s next job should be.
Peter Jackson Stephen, how are you?
Stephen Colbert I’m doing fine. How are you, Peter?
I’m equally fine, thank you.
How do you know that you’re equally fine? I might be finer than you. You have no idea of my level of fineness.
I was trying to tell from the tone of your voice, but you’re playing your cards pretty close to your chest.
I’m calling you from my library with the fire going, doors all closed. I’m feeling very hobbity right now.
And I haven’t got any shoes on, so I’m a bit hobbity myself.
Well, I’ve said it before, but I want to say it again: Thank you, for all the fans out there, for making these movies. How long did you work on these three hobbit films?
About five years, I think.
Who had the better journey, you or Bilbo?
I had a better journey in the sense that there wasn’t anybody trying to kill me. Bilbo is encountering bloody Gollum and goblins and orcs and going down the river in barrels. My journey was pretty much just driving into the studio in the morning. Bilbo’s journey was a hell of a lot more exciting.
The story The Hobbit is told from Bilbo’s point of view. You expanded that story to the elves and men and dwarves and wizards. How hard was it to spotlight all these characters and their narrative needs?
I hadn’t really thought about that, but you’re right. It’s very difficult to tell any story from the point of view of one character, especially when you’re trying to give a sense of the greater geopolitics of the world around Bilbo. We wanted [this trilogy] to feel as if it belongs to the Lord of the Rings style of filmmaking, which is multicharacter. And we wanted to tell the story in a slightly deeper way than what’s possible strictly through Bilbo’s eyes. Having said that, it is ultimately his story. It starts with him and it finishes with him.
Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in Five Armies.Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
When I was down in New Zealand three years ago, you were very kind and took me and my wife and my boys one morning to a storage area where you’ve got some old sets. One of the things that delighted me most was standing in the Grey Havens set from The Return of the King. It’s part of the world that we know exists, but we never get much of a view of it in the books, and even in the movie we only get a glimpse. I got to look at all the detail that you and your creative team put into what the elves’ architecture was like, how large a city it was. It was thrilling.
It’s my favorite, yeah. Ironically, Grey Havens has the least amount of screen time and yet it has a huge amount of detail. It’s wonderful to look at all the staircases and the little balconies and rooms and imagine...
Right, because it’s sort of the high culture of the elves, or at least they’re like Galadriel and Celeborn. What was your inspiration for the White Council in the first hobbit film? There’s not a lot in the book.
Rivendell was a location we’d visited in the Lord of the Rings movies—the Council of Elrond was a big meeting scene from The Fellowship of the Ring—so we didn’t want to return to that same spot. We thought the White Council would have a private room well out of the way of prying ears, so we designed this council chamber almost like a council balcony: very high, higher than any of the other buildings, and well away from any other buildings. We thought the waterfalls would be a good device to deaden the sound to anybody trying to eavesdrop.
How old were you when you first read Tolkien?
I was on a train. I was reading it on a train between Wellington and Auckland to go on a photoengraving apprenticeship, so I would’ve been about 17.
Are we seeing in these movies what you saw in your mind then?
I don’t think so. In some respects I’m still very much the same person as I was when I was 17. I’m the same person as I was when I was 7. So it’s likely that I was imagining some of the similar landscapes. I was traveling the North Island, a daytime train, so I was able to look out the window as I was reading. And the train goes right past Mount Ruapehu, which is where we shot the Mordor scenes. But I wasn’t for a second imagining that Mordor would be there. I was totally unaware then of any artwork that had been done by Alan Lee or John Howe, and they had a huge influence over how the films look. The other big influence is casting. You can imagine how different these films would be if somebody other than Martin Freeman was playing Bilbo Baggins or someone other than Ian McKellen was playing Gandalf.
And you thought baristas had a hard time with your name.
Is the Lonely Mountain an actual mountain in New Zealand?
No, the Lonely Mountain is a combination of designs that Alan and John did. Alan designed one and John designed one, and I kind of took the bits from both that I liked and blended them. It was very difficult, because in some respects it’s a classic, the way that Tolkien drew it, and we wanted it to be his design, ultimately. And you have to hope it doesn’t look too much like the Matterhorn at Disneyland.
I ask because there are so many beautiful mountains in New Zealand, and some of the volcanic ones often sit by themselves.
There are indeed, but they’re not quite as steep or as spectacular and dramatic as the one that Tolkien drew.
About the ring: Gollum, and everybody who has it for a while eventually, calls the ring their “precious.” I’m not going to indict myself here, but for some people the books themselves are their precious: You dare not touch them. Was that less so for The Hobbit than for The Lord of the Rings?
The truthful answer is, Yeah. The Lord of the Rings is so detailed. The blueprint for the story is there, and the narrative structure transferred reasonably well to the big screen. But with The Hobbit... You know, reading The Hobbit, it always feels like I’m eavesdropping on Professor Tolkien telling his kids a nighttime story, where he’s literally making it up as he goes along. It has that slightly rambling structure to it, like his kids want more and more story each night and he has to give it to them and there’s no real end in sight and not necessarily a fully formed plan. That’s one of the delightful things about the book, but when it comes to a movie it’s not that helpful. Films have relatively rigid structures, so we had to massage the story much more than we did with the Lord of the Rings storybooks.
Bilbo says, “Never laugh at a live dragon.” What does that proverb mean to you?
I’ve always interpreted it as “You can have a certain amount of bravado while something is a thought or a concept, but if it’s real, if it’s something there’s no escaping from, then you better be careful.” There are moments in time where you have to think before you speak. I guess that’s what that means to me.
Did the movie itself ever feel like a live dragon to you? Did this work seem like something that might swallow you?
Well, a film is always going to be a live dragon in the sense that ultimately the last laugh is never going to be yours. It’s going to be the audience who decide whether they want to go see it or not. The audience is the live dragon. Don’t underestimate them. You can have a lot of fun making a film, you can clown around, have a lot of laughs, but at the end of the day you’d better be making something that an audience wants to see.
Peter Jackson and Martin Freeman on set.Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
How do you want audiences to watch these movies in the future? Do you think they should see the first three Hobbits and then The Lord of the Rings?
For sure. You know, within 10 to 12 years, maybe sooner, there’s going to be a whole new audience of kids who are either too young now to see The Hobbit or who haven’t been born yet. They’re going to be the first generation to see the six films in order. The intention always was that we were making these Hobbit movies as the first three parts in a six-film series. That dictated the tone, it dictated the style of the storytelling. It was very, very deliberate.
Which characters from the book do you most identify with?
The hobbits. They’re New Zealanders to some degree, because we live in a far-off little country and we have a suspicion of the outside world and we don’t really like to get involved in other people’s troubles. We just sit there minding our own business, hoping at certain times that the world will forget about us. I don’t identify with a particular hobbit more than any other. I mean, I guess Bilbo to some degree because Martin’s sense of humor is a bit similar to mine. I probably identify more with the hobbits than I do with the humans. But, for the life of me, I can never identify with the elves.
Even in New York, hobbits don't need shoes.
Is there a film genre you want nothing to do with? Will we ever see a Peter Jackson rom-com?
Possibly. I don’t know if I’m a very good comedic filmmaker, but I do have a reasonably good sense of humor. The genre that I don’t feel a great affinity for is hardcore science fiction. I enjoy watching it if it’s good, but that’s probably something I’ll never get involved in. I don’t regard The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings as science fiction in the slightest.
I remember reading a lot of fantasy and science fiction growing up. It used to enrage me when people would see me reading The Lord of the Rings and say, “Oh, I love science fiction.”
I know, I know.
They all got lumped together in the same sort of ghetto at the bookstore.
Yes. The thing I like about The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, and the thing that we had in our minds all the way through making those films, is that they were more historical fantasy. It was much more fun for us to approach them as historical truth, from a time that predates the Egyptians and the Greeks, like a Dark Age of our world that we’re bringing back to life. Prior to The Lord of the Rings, fantasy films were almost always an excuse to talk down to the audience. It was almost like the filmmaker was saying, “Well, you and I know that this is complete crap.” That slightly smirky, demeaning attitude annoyed me a lot. So when I finally got to do a fantasy film of my own, I was determined that it was going to feel real, and have a gravity and a weight to it.
That was one of the things I first heard you talk about back in 1998, in one the first interviews you did about Lord of the Rings.
Yeah, the first time I ever talked about it was with Harry Knowles and the readers on Ain’t It Cool News [in August 1998].
You were talking about Helm’s Deep, I think.
Yes, yes, yes.
You said you were going to shoot this like archaeologists who had gone and found the original sites and were restoring them to what Tolkien was writing about. You were going to approach it as if you were finding the actual places. Something like, “We’re not creating a set of Helm’s Deep; we’re restoring the original place.”
[Laughs] Yeah, that’s right, that’s right.
And I went, “Ah, that’s the right man for the job.” Do you feel like what you’ve done with these films has changed, or will change, movies and how they’re made?
That’s a hard question for me to answer. I guess, after The Fellowship of the Ring and the other two films, there were films that came out that had medieval battle scenes or ancient Greek battle scenes in them, and I did recognize the type of camera angles and coverage that I did in those. That was kind of fun.
Midfield clash. I noticed a lot of midfield clash.
Well, I can’t claim ownership of that because the great midfield clash that preceded Fellowship of the Ring was the one in Braveheart. I used to study those battle scenes so closely. But what we had that Braveheart didn’t have that much was the CGI, so what I recognized in other movies [after Fellowship] was the kind of swoopy camera, big ultra-helicopter shots that we started to do in ours. The other influence I hope we’ve had is to treat the fantasy genre with respect, to say this is not just a silly children’s fairy-tale-type thing, but to tell these stories in an honorable way.
As Legolas, Colbert stalks New York City, bow in hand.
Is there another fantasy story that you might want to tell? I’ll give you an example of something that I’d like to see you tell: The Iliad.
The Iliad is the only piece I can think of that has this depth of backstory that The Lord of the Rings does. If you read a wide swath of Greek myths, and then read The Iliad, you go, “Oh, this isn’t just a stand-alone story.” The gods are taking sides for very specific reasons. They’re settling scores from nearly the moment of creation. That’s why it’s the last of the Greek myths, even though it’s more of a legend. Not only that, it has something that you achieved in your movies, which is a combination of huge scale and intimate stories. It starts with Achilles being upset over Briseis being taken from him, which is a very small story, and then you have the great clashes of the battles, and then you come back to other small stories, Achilles grieving over Patroclus. It’s tremendous history, besides just being legend.
So please do it.
I haven’t really thought about it at all. I only ever make films that I want to see. I don’t make movies because somebody wants me to make them. Every film I’ve made, I always have a feeling that if I don’t make this film, no one else will. Certainly that is the type of film that I would love to go see, but right now, I’ll probably just have...a little vacation would be quite nice. You know, just for a week or two.
[Laughs] Well, speaking of vacations, I’ll let you go, but there’s one question I really want to get to. You’ve done so much with CGI. Is there something that you think can’t be represented by it?
I don’t think you can represent a real human being that looks like a human being. You can represent a creature like Gollum who’s humanoid, but I don’t think you can take a genuine human being, whoever they might be, and do a flawless reproduction to the point that an audience could not tell if they’re artificial or not. Now, a lot of people talk about that being the ultimate goal: being able to make more films that star Marilyn Monroe or John Wayne. I just don’t think that’s true. The one overriding thing that cinema’s always going to want to have is you knowing, in your heart of hearts, that you’re looking at stories featuring human beings. Ultimately that’s what films are about: people.
Colbert, as Gandalf, checks his inbox.
So what happens to New Zealand now that you’re no longer making Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films there?
[Laughs] Well, at the moment there’s a lot of people going to New Zealand because of the movies, which is good. The legacy of the films now will be in the tourism, just as people go to Salzburg because The Sound of Music was shot there 50 years ago. I’m sure in 50 years people will probably still be going to New Zealand because of these movies.
Hobbiton is permanent now, right?
It is, yep. I’ll tell you what, if I could live somewhere that wasn’t where I normally live, Hobbiton would be fantastic. Just to able to have a village of hobbit holes, that would be a nice way to live.
Well, I hope to come down and have a cup of tea in Bag End ...
And the Green Dragon Inn serves real ales, special hobbit ale that’s apparently very, very nice.
“But better is Beer if drink we lack, and Water Hot poured down the back.”
We can sit and have a pint.
FX Hair: Christal Schanes/Featherlight Wigs; FX Makeup: Joshua Turi/designstodeceive.com; Wardrobe Stylist: Paul Booth/Weta Films; Prop Stylist: Shawn Patrick Anderson/Bridge Artists; Wardrobe Designers: Bob Buck, Ann Maskrey & Richard Taylor
Colbert's Gandalf has enough energy for three more movies.