The Hero And The Dark Lord
Empire Australasia|July 2018

A NEW BOOK BY EMPIRE CONTRIBUTING EDITOR IAN NATHAN TELLS THE UNTOLD STORIES BEHIND THE MAKING OF THE LORD OF THE RINGS. IN THIS EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT, PETER JACKSON RECALLS ONE OF HIS GRIMMEST MOMENTS — TANGLING WITH HARVEY WEINSTEIN

In the summer of 1997, reeling from the box-office failure of his horror-comedy The Frighteners, Peter Jackson was desperate to get his mooted adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings off the ground. Fortunately, a powerful Hollywood force seemed eager to make it as two films. Unfortunately, that person was Harvey Weinstein, the tempestuous and often terrifying head of Miramax — who has since been disgraced over multiple accusations of sexual assault — to whom Jackson was bound by a first-look deal.

Fran remembers this stuff much better than I do,” says Peter Jackson stoically. “It’s like a car crash, I tend to sort of wipe out all the bad memories. Fran hangs on to every detail.”

With their initial treatment completed, Jackson and [producer/co-screenwriter] Fran Walsh flew to New York to begin their script meetings at Miramax, and get their first taste of the Weinstein way. There would be three script meetings in all, principally with the two executives, Cary Granat (inevitably dubbed ‘Cary Grant’), the head of production at Dimension, and Jon Gordon, a Miramax production executive who had survived as Harvey’s assistant, who were managing the project. Harvey and Bob Weinstein were, as Jackson ominously puts it, “floating around”. It had been decreed that this was to be the first Dimension-Miramax co-production and both brothers would make their presence felt.

Meetings at Miramax’s Tribeca office were conducted in a small, unventilated room walled in frosted glass, known among browbeaten indie filmmakers as the “sweatbox”. From the very first it was clear the Weinsteins were going to subject the project to the full glare of their nervous scrutiny. The honeymoon of getting the deal sealed was over; this was now about how their money was going to be spent. Jackson had a genuine feeling that it was only now that the brothers were truly rationalising what was involved.

While Harvey had read the book in college, it became clear many of the executives, including Bob, had not. They were faced with the same frustration that confronted John Boorman and Ralph Bakshi — how could you drill down into the fine print of Tolkien’s world when everything you talked about was met with various degrees of bafflement?

Bob took almost malicious pride in playing the incredulous audience member who had never heard of Mr J.R.R. Whoever. Any script was going to have to pass the Bob test. Indeed, having submitted an early draft, Jackson remembers Bob slamming his hand down on the table in triumph.

“I know what this is!” he declared. “The Fellowship Of The Ring, these nine characters, are all expert saboteurs. They all have their specialties. It’s the fucking Guns Of Navarone!”

“Really? The Lord Of The Rings?” laughs Jackson, recalling his own incredulous reaction — and he couldn’t be a bigger fan of the fucking Guns Of Navarone. “He had figured it all out. He now had a filter by which he could understand this thing.”

Harvey would generally give good notes, nothing too crazy. Bob was big on the fact they had to kill a hobbit. “Pick one,” he kept telling them. All they could do was keep deflecting this stuff: “Well, we will certainly think about that…” It soon became a slog. They were rewriting and rewriting, then flying to New York to play Tolkien tennis with the Weinsteins. Jackson started to suspect that the brothers might be stalling.

The budget, Harvey insisted, was not to exceed $75 million, which based on the $26 million The Frighteners had cost with all its CGI, Jackson naively thought was achievable. Then the whole process was like a whirlpool of elusive possibility in which they were increasingly likely to drown.

Amusingly, if only in hindsight, the Weinsteins revealed a good Harvey-bad Bob routine. Whenever Bob was out of the room, Harvey would tell them to ignore his brother, who was just crazy. Stick with his ideas.

“But you know that is not really the truth,” sighs Jackson. “You’re lulled into thinking Harvey is the one you can talk honestly with. But the real truth is he is really tight with Bob. It’s an illusion.”

On occasion this Abbott and Costello routine would explode into full theatrics. For instance, after another of Bob’s ill-informed ideas, it was Harvey who slammed his meaty fist onto the table before storming out of the sweatbox. They watched his silhouette retreat down the corridor while Bob carried on regardless. Within moments Harvey’s silhouette, as unmistakable as Hitchcock, came back down the corridor clutching an Oscar. The one his half of Miramax had received for The English Patient. He burst back into the room and thrust it in front of Bob.

“I’ve got one these; you haven’t got one of these. So who the hell do you think is the smarter one? Shut up, Bob!”

Looking back with a less jaundiced eye, Jackson likens Harvey’s tricks to Tony Soprano or what it must have been like to work for one of the old, bullying Hollywood moguls, a Louis B. Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn or Harry Cohn, who would rage or weep to get their way. Harvey would no doubt enjoy the comparison. Everything had shifted into a different register, one of emotional extremes utterly alien to a New Zealand temperament. It was all so bipolar: tantrums followed by largesse.

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