Supernal Dreams: Elijah Wood on “The Two Towers”

wood-elijah-as-frodo.jpgOne of the great joys about writing for Cinefantastique, was to find that actors like Elijah Wood and directors like Peter Jackson actually enjoyed talking to you! It was thanks to the very good reputation CFQ enjoyed in the biz. So we never had very much difficulty in convincing most fantasy filmmakers to speak with us (with the major exceptions of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.) It was more a case of convincing the studio publicists, who would rather get exposure in The New York Times than in CFQ.

But a young actor like Elijah Wood, was quite happy to talk in detail about his work on Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers to CFQ, so here is part one of my long interview with the amazing Hobbit at the center of the Lord of the Rings saga, Mr. Frodo Baggins…

LAWRENCE FRENCH: Do you think The Two Towers will be able to sustain the quality of The Fellowship of the Ring?

ELIJAH WOOD: Yes, in fact, I think it will be a better film. It will be more epic and more emotional than The Fellowship of the Ring – which is saying a lot, because the first movie is such a beautiful movie. But the characters really flourish, and the journey really begins in the second film. The set-up is over and the characters must face their fate and move forward on their individual journeys. The beauty of it, is, we don’t have sequels on our hands, but one long movie. It’s really one story we’re telling, so it’s not about topping the first film, it’s about making each film great, because it’s one continuous story. The first one set the bar, so it’s simply about maintaining that quality.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: I understand that you hadn’t actually read any of the books until after you were cast as Frodo?


ELIJAH WOOD: That’s right. I read The Hobbit when I was young, but I hadn’t read The Lord Of The Rings. I had the books, but it was just one of those opuses I sort of neglected to jump into. It was always quite daunting to look at them on the shelf and think, ‘it’s going to take awhile to get through this.’ They’re certainly worthwhile and incredible books. Knowing the books and seeing the film, I think the films are about as close to the books as you could get. Certainly they are in the spirit of the books. Reading the books, though, they are so dense, with so many characters and so many worlds, that it’s very difficult to incorporate all that on the screen. Each film would have to be five or six hours long to capture the entirety of the novels. But I think we did get as close to the spirit of the books as was possible. When you read the books you get a sense of what has been accomplished — especially reading them now — it’s kind of hard to differentiate them from the movie. The visuals and characters are kind of stuck in peoples minds. It’s an interesting thing, to be associated with the novels. I think when people read them, they’ll probably envision our characters, if they’ve seen the movies.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: I think so, because the movie has such letter perfect casting.

ELIJAH WOOD: It’s really strange how well all the actors fit their characters. I think it was fate, because it’s almost too perfect. People who have read the books, and lived with them for years say the characters are exactly like they always imagined them, which is pretty extraordinary. What’s even stranger is there were a few slipup’s in the casting process—one of them being Aragorn. The original actor (Stuart Townsend) didn’t work out, so Viggo Mortensen was hired at the last minute without reading or auditioning for the role. They just called him and asked him to do it, and based on his son’s love of the books, Viggo decided he’d do it. So, suddenly Viggo was in New Zealand, training on horses, training with the swordmaster, and filming with us five days after he arrived in New Zealand. In that regard, I think his transformation into Aragorn was nearly unbelievable, because he wasn’t originally cast, and he’s was so perfect as Aragorn. I can’t imagine anyone else playing the role. There were quite a few fortuitous events like that, that led to what finally appeared on the screen. We had all gone through a two month period of training and rehearsal before we started filming, and by the time Viggo got there, we were already filming, so he didn’t have a lot of time to get his head into the character, which is not an easy thing, because Aragorn is a pretty complex character.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: Frodo is rather complicated, as well, since he has to interact with many different characters throughout the first film, although in The Two Towers, you’re much more isolated.

ELIJAH WOOD: Yes, in The Two Towers the journey does becomes a little more focused, once Frodo decides to break away from the Fellowship and go off on his own with Sam. It’s really about getting through the badlands of Middle-earth, to Mordor, to destroy the ring. The end of the first film, really sets up the journey of the next two films.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: Shooting one film out of continuity can be difficult for an actor, but shooting three films out of sequence must have been a real nightmare.

ELIJAH WOOD: Well, film actors are pretty used to that, but going in and out of continuity on three different films, that’s something quite different! The biggest difference is that the story is so much longer—meaning the characters can change quite drastically over the space of three movies. But we really treated it as one story, that was told in three separate parts. That helped make it easier for us to understand where we supposed to be during any particular point of the shooting schedule. We started by shooting The Fellowship of the Ring for about three months, and when we ran into bad weather, we had to suddenly shoot on a cover set, which meant we had to do a scene from The Return of the King. The scene wasn’t anything we had covered beforehand and it wasn’t a scene I had gotten my head around, in terms of where Frodo was supposed to be, because I thought I still had plenty of time. But suddenly I was faced with doing these unfamiliar scenes and so was Sean Astin. It was at a point in The Return of the King where Frodo is just a shadow of his former self. Things have gotten a lot darker for Frodo and the ring is bearing much more heavily upon him. The ring has almost completely taken him over. Well, anytime we approached material like that, that we hadn’t covered before, we would first sit around and chat about the characters. Where Frodo was at that point in his journey, how to play the changes that have occurred to Frodo, and so-on. We’d just kind of ease ourselves into it. Peter was wonderful about doing that, because he had his head around the entire story. Where all the characters were and what they were feeling at certain points in the story. So whenever there was that kind of unpaved ground, or if there was ever any difficulty in where we were in the story, it just required some thought from all of us and a discussion about where we were meant to be. The funny thing is, after we jumped ahead to the third film for the first time, it became kind of normal. It became a process that we got used too very quickly. And once we covered a certain amount of ground in each film, we were able to figure out where our character was supposed to be. So anytime we’d jump from one film to another, we usually knew where we were meant to be. It certainly was a challenge, but after we experienced it the first time, it was much easier.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: As an example, I imagine you played Frodo slightly differently after Gandalf dies. Losing your good friend might give a certain sadness to Frodo’s character, until later on when he discovers that Gandalf is alive.

ELIJAH WOOD: Actually, Frodo doesn’t realize that Gandalf is alive until the end of the third film. He goes through his journey in The Two Towers with the belief that Gandalf is dead. He has a dream at the beginning of The Two Towers that Gandalf is still alive, but in his mind, it’s just a vision he’s had; he doesn’t really believe it. It was interesting, though, how our experience filming the movie paralleled the journey our character’s make. After we filmed The Fellowship of the Ring for three months, it became kind of mixed. At a certain point we were done with all the Fellowship scenes, so all four of the Hobbits, who had gotten so used to filming scenes together and working together, suddenly weren’t working together anymore. So just as the fellowship breaks up in the film, we actually broke-up in reality, because Merry and Pippin went to film scenes on their own, and Sean and I were on our own. So a lot of what we were filming kind of bled into our daily lives.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: So you and the other three actors playing the Hobbits became very close, both on and off the set.

ELIJAH WOOD: Yes, the relationship of all four Hobbits was very important to the story, and since we were very close, anything that required the four Hobbits was always a bit simpler to do, because of that close friendship. It’s a dynamic that made all those scenes in The Fellowship of the Ring much more realistic and much easier to jump into.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: One of your off-set adventures was when you and your co-stars went to Australia to visit the set of Attack Of The Clones. You’ve been quoted as saying you got a funny vibe on the Star Wars set.

ELIJAH WOOD: It seemed like it, but I don’t know. It could have easily been something we were expecting, or made up in our own heads. I really enjoyed visiting the set and George Lucas was friendly, but maybe the vibe was strange because we were so used to our own film, and suddenly we were interacting with these actors from Star Wars. I think they thought we were quite strange, because we referred to ourselves as Hobbits and Elves, and we were kind of living in Middle-earth. They seemed to be thinking, ‘you guys are weird.’

LAWRENCE FRENCH: But they were actors living on alien planets like Naboo and Coruscant.

ELIJAH WOOD: Yes, exactly, but I don’t think they took it home with them like we did. It was just a different world. Ours was kind of messy and chaotic, centered around this mad journey. For them, it was a big studio set, with digital cameras and sterile blue-screens. It was just the atmosphere, but I’m a big Star Wars fan, and I think Attack Of The Clones had a lot more to it than the first one did, especially for the fans. It was much better than The Phantom Menace. I always wanted to be part of Star Wars, but now I’m glad I’m not, because I like being a spectator and being a fan, so I can just sit back and watch the movies.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: Although you’re a very young actor, you started when you were only 10, so you already had quite a bit of experience. Have you developed any specific acting approach or ‘method’, or do you just, as Spencer Tracy used to say, ‘get in front of the camera, say your lines and try not to bump into the furniture’.

ELIJAH WOOD: I don’t really have any specific approach, but I guess in not having an approach, I have an approach. I believe in completely understanding the character, and understanding the journey the character undergoes, within the context of the story. Then, understanding that, I try to become that – so anything that happens to me during the day, I try to view it from my character’s perspective. I don’t really take the role on board to the extent that I take the character home with me, but in some ways when you’re acting there’s an unconscious thing that happens, where the character is with you at all times. I don’t make any kind of method choices, it’s more about knowing the character, being in the moment, listening to the other actors and making the scene into a real situation. It’s really about truth, reality and believing in the scene. And for this kind of story, which it is a fantasy, that’s very important, because we wanted it to be believed as real, not as a fantasy. So as actors, we approached every scene from a standpoint of reality, which is important in any film, but it’s more important for this, since it’s about the people and not so much about the fantastical things and events that take place in Middle-earth. And in order to make it believable to an audience, you as an actor have to believe in it as well.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: Your reaction to Gandalf’s death had to have been a big emotional scene for you, and the way Peter Jackson edited the sequence makes it even more emotional. After everybody gets out of Moria, you expect to see Frodo’s reaction, but instead, Peter Jackson cuts to everyone in the Fellowship, except for Frodo, until the camera comes up to your face as you turn around and we see how deeply Gandalf’s death has effected you.

ELIJAH WOOD: Peter gave me a interesting piece of direction that day. I already had it my head that I had to be extremely affected by Gandalf’s death, since he was my great friend, and really like a family member to Frodo. Obviously his death was going to have a big affect on Frodo. Well, Peter said to me, ‘I want your reaction, and the look on your face, to scare the audience, because they’ve never seen Frodo like this, or been in this kind of despair.’ I thought that was a really smart piece of direction, because it drove me to make that shot more profound, and more heartbreaking. It was an interesting thing to get my head around, because it was open-ended enough, where I could play with that thought, and make it what I wanted to make it, within the guideline that Peter had given to me. Obviously, I knew I needed to be profoundly affected by the death of Gandalf, and what it does to me. It’s a great shock, as well, because it all happens so quickly and Frodo really can’t linger, he has to move on, so it’s difficult to digest things like that. That whole sequence, after they come out of the cave is really quiet and disturbing. The use of slow-motion helps make it emotionally quite potent. It’s a very intense emotional situation, since they’ve just seen Gandalf die, and Peter brings the scene down to a real quiet level, that makes it more emotional. I was really pleased with the way it turned out. I thought it was beautifully done and quite lyrical. What’s great about this kind of movie, is when we see the completed footage, it’s still new for us, because when we were there on the set, there are so many elements that weren’t there. They’re all added later in post, allowing you to watch the movie with a sense of objectivity, that you often can’t do when your making a smaller movie, where it’s really not as easy to separate yourself from what’s on the screen. There are also scenes I’m not in, like the whole sequence where Gandalf fights Saruman. I wasn’t there, none of us were, so there’s a lot for us to chew on, which makes for an interesting experience. And in The Two Towers, the only material I’m familiar with is my journey with Sam and Gollum. But that’s only one-third of the movie, so there’s a whole massive chuck of the film that I haven’t even followed, because my head was somewhere else. So in some ways, it’s going to be like watching a movie I wasn’t a part of. I think everybody else feels the same way, because there’s so much they don’t know, and they didn’t get their head around, because their journey was taking them in a different direction. Also the entire movie is digitally graded, so the colors are different when we see the finished film.

RELATED ARTICLE: Alan Lee on Designing “Lord of the Rings”

About the Author

Lawrence French

LAWRENCE FRENCH celebrated his 20th anniversary as a contributor to Cinefantastique Magazine with his cover story on the making of THE RETURN OF THE KING. As Cinefantastique’s longtime San Francisco correspondent, he has written numerous stories about Pixar and Lucasfilm, and interviewed such genre stalwarts as Vincent Price, Tim Burton, Ray Harryhausen, John Lasseter, Phil Tippett and Ray Bradbury. He is also the editor of the highly regarded website on Orson Welles, Wellesnet.com. His book as editor of Richard Matheson’s Edgar Allan Poe scripts for THE HOUSE OF USHER and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM was published by Gauntlet Press in 2007, with a second volume on TALES OF TERROR and THE RAVEN due out in the future. For Cinefantastique Online, he currently writes the regular column Supernal Dreams.

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