I still remember the day I first watched Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring. I did not doubt advance that this film would become something extraordinary. We had already seen the photos, clips and teasers from the production in New Zealand where Middle-Earth was slowly coming to life. My curiosity was stoked, and I went to get this book everyone was talking about, as I wanted to be prepared for the coming trilogy. I wasn’t.
And then, with the first pictures glittering across the screen of the huge Colosseum film theatre in Oslo, I was transported to another world. The film was without equality. How could it be the first of three? Galadriel’s eerie voice, giving us the story of Sauron and the Ring, gave me shivers. And by the time Gandalf and Frodo rolled into The Shire, I was in tears. It was perfect.
It has been 20 years since that day in the darkened movie theatre in Oslo. How did you feel when you first watched The Fellowship of the Ring? Were you lucky enough to watch it at the premiere where you live? Even now, two decades later, after years of passion for film, in large part inspired by Peter Jackson’s trilogy, I still haven’t seen anything better. I still watch them and The Hobbit trilogy in their complete “extended editions” at least once each year. To point out a favorite of the now 20-year-old trilogy would be impossible, so please don’t ask.
A Party of Special Magnificence
This article is the start of a journey of sorts. As I’m writing this, plans are being made for my own journey to Middle-Earth. Or New Zealand, as it is also called in our world. It is here that the films were made, and I have been invited to visit. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the first film in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring. And I want to travel there to take it all in, talk to the people involved and visit the locations, even though there exists no longer journey than the one from Norway to New Zealand (unless I’m going to the Moon, and that is quite a bit further down on the list of my places to visit!).
But the world is changing, and nothing is ever certain. A world-spanning pandemic derailed my initial plans to travel to New Zealand this December. But one day, when our world is a little bit brighter, the path might lead there, and I finally get to go on my journey to Middle-Earth.
One of the people I’m going to meet there is the American producer Mark Ordesky. Mark was New Line Cinema’s Executive Producer on Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy, and he spent five years working in New Zealand. Through the magic of the Palantir, I mean Zoom, I’ve had conversations with Mark Ordesky already. You can read my interview with him later in this series.
We will also meet the wizard of WETA Workshop himself, Sir Richard Taylor (or just Richard, as prefers to be called), who I interviewed about making the films. You can read that too later in the series.
So, bring the pipeweed and decorate the Party Tree. If the personal and emotional nature of these articles might seem a bit much at times, I hope you’ll bear with me. Just talking or writing about these films brings with it a whole range of emotions in me. If my words make you laugh, cringe or even cry, so much the better.
The Legend of the Film Rights
At least by some, it is said that John Ronald Reuel Tolkien ardently opposed translating The Lord of the Rings into film. This is not necessarily accurate. The conservative and deeply religious Oxford professor considered project proposals from several filmmakers. Many tried to adapt the stories of Middle-Earth to screen, but few even got past the script and pre-production phase. And it was said that Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom was “unfilmable.”
Trying to describe the intricacies of the film rights of Tolkien’s novels would take too much space here. For a long time, they had languished untouched in the care of American film producer Saul Zaentz. Although some attempts were made, the complexities surrounding the film rights made making a successful adaptation hard.
You might have seen Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 attempt to adapt The Lord of the Rings onto the screen, this time, as a partially animated and partially completed cartoon. Despite the result being an incoherent and unfinished mess, where every Hobbit looked the same (besides Sam, who looked like a “melted garden gnome” to quote from film journalist and author Ian Nathan’s book Anything You Can Imagine: Peter Jackson and the Making of Middle-Earth), Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings has garnered something of a cult following over the years.
But did you know that The Beatles (yes, as in Lennon, McCartney, Ringo, and Harrison) wanted to make a multi-media extravaganza adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, with themselves in the leading roles? Paul would play Frodo and Ringo would be his companion Sam. In the role of Gandalf, we would be George Harrison, and John Lennon would play the tragic creature Gollum. There would be songs, of course, and psychedelic seances.
How about the British director John Boorman, known from, among others, the fantasy epic Excalibur from 1981? Boorman wanted to fill his version of Middle-Earth with strange songs, even more, psychedelic seances and lots and lots of sex. Maybe it was for the better, then, that this version never got off the pages of a script. A version like that would have deeply upset the conservative and religious JRR Tolkien.
Still, Boorman’s themes and ideas would find their way into the excellent Arthurian epic Excalibur (1981). If you have not seen this, I highly recommend it. It is a great movie; surreal and epic, and quite different than other versions of the Arthurian legend we have seen through the years. Especially Nicol Williamson’s fantastically witty portrayal of the wizard Merlin stands out. It is no coincidence that there is a lot of Gandalf in him.
And recently, a Russian adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, made for TV in 1991, resurfaced on YouTube. I have not watched it myself, and I’m not sure I want to. But from what I’ve heard, it is hysterical.
So, time passed with no good adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s Middle-Earth in sight. The history of the film rights became legend. Legend became myth, and for many years they passed out of all knowledge, kept secret and safe in the vaults of Saul Zaentz.
Until it was picked up by the most unlikely creature imaginable.
A Film Nerd from Wellington
Already as a child, Peter Jackson was obsessed with film. He loved the special effects and the fantastic imagery of artists such as Ray Harryhausen. The Thunderbirds and Monty Python’s Flying Circus were also favorites. After being gifted an 8mm camera from a family friend, young Peter Jackson wasted no time creating his own films. In the garden behind the family house or the cellar, strange worlds, creatures and war zones came to life before the young filmmaker.
Jackson’s first job was as a photoengraver in the local newspaper, which might have further reinforced his passion for film and the technical aspects of filmmaking. But even to this day, Jackson has no formal film education, something I suspect is one of the reasons for his quirky and unique style as a filmmaker. Everything is self-thought, driven by his passion for the weird, wonderful, and absurd. This comes to show in his earlier splatter comedies. Bad Taste (1987) and Braindead (1992) are masterpieces of the splatter genre. And let us not forget the thoroughly disturbing Muppets spoof Meet the Feebles from 1989!
Peter Jackson soon got some early attention for his splatter comedies, not all of it positive. To the conservative New Zealand film industry, he was often described as that young, upstart director who made “those gory splatter films.” But after showing his film Braindead abroad, he soon got a chance to do the more serious Heavenly Creatures. And everything changed. Here was a serious psychological drama about two young girls and their intense friendship, which led to one of the most famous murder cases in New Zealand. The film was a success and was soon followed by the Michael J. Fox-led, ghost-thriller The Frighteners (1996).
The Twisting Paths of Hollywood
With success comes attention and opportunity. The Lord of the Rings wasn’t precisely the first project on Peter Jackson’s wish list. Before taking on the massive production, he had things other than Middle-Earth in mind. Working with Bob and Harvey Weinstein, a remake of the classic King Kong from 1933, which Peter Jackson had been a fan of since childhood, was considered. Also, he and his wife Fran Walsh were in talks about doing a new version or continuation of Planet of the Apes.
But in Hollywood, you’re often only as good as your last film. Jackson wanted to do King Kong, but after The Frighteners flopped, the studio became unsure if Jackson could do the movie. The project was pulled, and since he had already dropped Planet of the Apes (Tim Burton would pick that one up), the remaining option was the “unfilmable” The Lord of the Rings.
The deal with the Weinstein brothers gradually fell apart. Bob and Harvey wanted tolimit Jackson’s journey to Middle-Earth to two films, three if you also count a future adaptation of The Hobbit. I won’t go into too much detail here (we’d be here all night), but in short, the money ran out. To save the money that was left for the project, there were talks about streamlining Tolkien’s trilogy into one film, making shortcuts that would give a fan of Tolkien’s novels nightmares. Jackson and Walsh refused, and the Weinsteins were furious. Threats were made, including one about having Quintin Tarantino direct it. It is not clear if the Weinsteins would follow up on this or if it were just hot air from the notoriously short-tempered Harvey. But imagine it: Tarantino directing The Lord of the Rings.
The Canary in the Coal Mine
Finally, Jackson and Walsh wrestled the rights away from Miramax and the Weinsteins. New Line Cinema stepped in as a new distributor, and it is here in the story we meet the young producer, Tolkien enthusiast and Peter Jackson fan, Mark Ordesky. Mark had grown up with fantasy books, playing Dungeons & Dragons with friends, and had been enamored by Jackson’s quirky cinematic style ever since he saw Bad Taste and Braindead. “I became a Jackson partisan,” says Ordesky, who would suggest Jackson as the directing solution to just about every film project that landed on his desk. And of course, it was a given that Tolkien’s epic trilogy should be three films. Not two. Not one. Three!
Sent by producer and New Line CEO Robert Shaye, Ordesky would be the boots on the ground in Peter Jackson’s vast and risky production. He would be Shaye and New Line’s “canary in the coal mine.” Although looking back, Ordesky jokes that he was really “the canary in the gold mine.”
I would have loved to be a fly on the wall the moment Mark Ordesky realized that he would be the executive producer for his favorite director, making a trilogy of films based on his favorite literary work, in what could arguably be the most ambitious project in film history. How did that feel knowing he would spend the following years of his life in Middle-Earth? What emotions would battle for control at that moment? Joy? Fear? Ambition? Surprise?
As a part of this series, I have spoken with some of the people who were instrumental in the production of Peter Jackson’s trilogy. One of them is the American film and television producer, Mark Ordesky, who spent five years working on Peter Jackson’s trilogy.
In the Zoom conversations I’ve had with Mark earlier in 2021, we talked about everything from Dungeons & Dragons (we both started playing at the age of 13, and none of us ever stopped) to Hollywood politics. If there exists a cliché or archetypical Hollywood executive, Mark is anything but. And after having struggled a bit with my somewhat rusty English pronunciation and the kind of The Lord of the Rings fan’s confidence that comes when talking to one so instrumental in the making of the trilogy, I discovered a friendly, talkative, and deeply knowledgeable 57-year-old film producer (who I could have sworn was at least a decade younger!)
Early Career – From Low Budgets to the Oscars
Mark started his career in the film industry doing low-budget horror- and science fiction sequels for the VHS market. New Line Cinema, filling up the corners of their repertoire, assigned the young producer to make the low-budget Critters 3 and Critters 4 back-to-back. I was myself a fan of the Critters movies growing up, and of course, I had to ask him about it:
–No one, really, at New Line, on the production team, wanted to do those movies. They were going to be very inexpensive, and I think that no one thought they would be particularly sexy. So, they gave them to me. I was the most junior executive on the team. And they gave them to me and said “Listen, we’re going to need two movies, in nine months, and the combined budget of the two movies must be very low. And we need them, like, right now.”
So, I called a friend of mine who was a screenwriter and a novelist. His name is David J. Schow, and I said, “We need two scripts in four weeks.” And he said OK, and he hung up and called me back, and said “I got it. Critters go to the big city, and Critters go to outer space.” And I’m like “This is impossible, we have this very small budget.” He said, “No, they go to the big city, they’ll just be inside of an apartment building, and in outer space, they’ll just be inside of a spaceship.”
So, he wrote these two scripts, and we got a warehouse. It was almost a foreshadowing of The Lord of the Rings. For while we had two directors and two editors, the crew of both films was the same. And obviously two different casts. And we shot the interiors of the apartments and the interiors of the spaceship sort of back-to-back, and we made the two films. And those were the first films that got me from behind my desk and out into the actual making of things.
Mark enjoyed his new role as an on-set producer and moved on to bigger and better things. He became the head of Fine Line Features, which was New Line Cinema’s arthouse department, acquiring or executive producing more serious films like Saving Grace, State and Main and the Oscar winner Shine. Mark was also instrumental in getting Hong Kong actor Jackie Chan a household name in the 90s with Rumble in the Bronx.
A Guiding Hand
Our conversation continues, and I’m starting to realize that we might have more in common than I first realized. We were both enthusiastic Dungeon & Dragons nerds growing up, a hobby that would spark a passion for film, and a career in the film industry.
I often struggle with a less than optimal self-confidence and a sort of imposter syndrome that I suspect has made me avoid taking chances and grasp onto opportunities in the film industry as they appeared in the past. But how was it for Mark Ordesky then, to go from low-budget sequels to one the biggest and most unique productions in film history? Did he feel overwhelmed at some point? Did the imposter syndrome rear its ugly head? The answer would surprise and inspire me.
–Hmm, the way I see it… and I don’t know how spiritual of a person you are…
I quickly answer that I am not at all spiritual nor religious, and as a side note, the same goes for most Norwegians, really. He continues:
–You know I read the books when I was 12-13 years old, and then when I first started out in the film business I found my way to Peter Jackson through his early films. And then I started trying to work with him, unsuccessfully, trying to get his films distributed. And then I got involved with him at New Line.
So, in a weird sort of way, I found that all the threads seemed to be coming together. I’m a big fan of incrementalism. So, when they said that “you’re going to be the production executive for the trilogy”, that was a surprise, as it wasn’t my expectation, because I had only worked on lower-budgeted films.
But because there was so much work to do, and it just had to start. Every month, more and more work was required, of a more complex nature. So, I grew, as the work grew.
The question about spirituality stuck with me after the conversation. I’m not a spiritual person, but I felt bad for brushing aside Mark’s question as I did. I sent him an email a short time after the interview to ask about it. Mark elaborates:
-In the context of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien often evokes providence, as Gandalf speaks of the Ring being found “by the most unlikely person imaginable”.
Gandalf says “Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring and not by its maker.”
When I consider my own role in The Lord of the Rings, I can’t help but see the hand of providence – a parallel to Bilbo. I was meant to read and love Tolkien in the late 70s and then watch and love the early films by Peter Jackson in the mid-to-late 80s.
By 1998, when Peter’s vision of LOTR was in jeopardy, I was at New Line Cinema where I’d been a Jackson partisan for years. New Line was the ideal studio at the ideal moment to bet big on Peter – even one-upping expectations when founder/chairman Robert Shaye recommended making three films instead of two.
Mark’s positivity, idealism and yes, even spirituality inspire. How I would have loved to be there to see this idealism and positivity at work in film production. Imagine how he felt when the cameras first started rolling on Peter Jackson’s epic production.
Dwarf for a Day
We continued the conversation and got to the topic of the five-year production in New Zealand and Mark’s time there. In a production like this, if there even is such a thing anywhere else, there should be plenty of funny or quirky stories to share. I ask Mark if he has anything in mind, but before he can answer, my eagerness to hear more about something the British film journalist Ian Nathan describes in his book, “Anything You Can Imagine: Peter Jackson and the Making of Middle-Earth” takes over. I had to ask about his day as Gimli in Fangorn Forest. And as I do, memories from that day brighten up Mark’s face.
–It’s not only funny, but it speaks to Peter’s sense of humor, and of the role that I was playing. The dynamic that got set up is that all the various requests from the studio ended up sort of getting funneled through me to a very large degree. Which was efficient, because that way there weren’t 10 or 15 different departments trying to all interface with Peter at the same time. Peter had this sort of rule that I would prioritize these things and space them out.
But if I had something timely and I had to come to set, yeah, since I’ve known him for so long and he’s known me, he could see from my face that I was coming to ask him something that would be time-consuming. So, he basically grabbed me and said “Oh, it’s fantastic that you’re here. We need someone to do Gimli’s offlines here in the forest. So, you stand behind this tree…” And I was stuck behind that tree for two- or three hours doing Gimli off lines while Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom and John Rhys Davies’ scale double (Brett Beattie) were trying to do this scene over again, and I was trapped there.
There are hardly any photographs of me on set. I tend to not make myself prominent in these kinds of situations. But the photographer, somehow, and maybe Peter directed him to do this, managed to get a photo of me standing on the set, against the bluescreen, with the fake trees, and the expression on my face tells you that I’m trapped in the forest, unable to ask my question.
The Best of Days
We spend some time on the funny and quirky stories from the production before I asked if he got to keep any of the props after the production. And true enough, both one of the Rings used in the film, and a hand-forged version of Aragorn’s sword, Anduril, were among the gifts given to Mark.
And when I ask Mark about his one fondest memory from the production, it doesn’t take him long pick one from what I am sure would be a long list:
-Probably the fondest moment was relatively early in the process. It was in Cannes, in May, in 2001, when we showed the 26 minutes of footage to the world press, and to all the distributors who had pre-bought the trilogy. It spoke about the boldness of New Line as a company to bring that footage. We didn’t have to do that. We could have just waited until December and release the movie. But we took the footage, which is mostly built, as you know, around the Mines of Moria-sequence predominantly, and by bringing it there, and bringing the whole cast and the world press, we were going to give you a preview, a substantial preview. It was literally like pushing all your chips into the middle of the table for one hand of Blackjack. If that didn’t go well, you would still release the film in December, and if the film had been amazing, maybe the thing in May would have been forgotten.
But it was a very bold move to do. And for me personally, it validated to the world and to our distribution partners around the world that their faith in us had been well placed. And it validated Peter and the team in New Zealand. It was like the screening heard around the world. It was like a movie in the 30s where everyone rushes out of the courtroom to the payphones. It was pandemonium because people saw something so authentic and unlike anything they had expected.
And in that moment, I remember our French distributor Samuel Hadida, who’s sadly passed away, and who’s a big, barrel-chested guy, he literally got me in the lobby of the cinema, and he picked me up. I’m only 5′ 6”, so it was not hard to pick me up. He picked me up and he kissed me on the mouth, like in the classic French style. And he was smiling so big it was like his face would break open. He was so happy!
And I remember I went up to the projection room because I needed just a minute to process this. And I actually wept. Like wept with joy. For when you really take a huge risk, and it works, only then will you allow yourself to realize the magnitude of what was at stake. And that really set the tone for the whole thing.
There were still obviously heaps of work to do and all kinds of obstacles and hardships and problems to solve. And obviously, there was also much glory that followed: the Oscar nominations, the billions of dollars in box-office… But that moment was particularly special.
Even as Mark tells his story, I can almost see how he is transported back 20 years to that theatre in Cannes. Moved, I fumble with my words, trying to remember that we’re speaking English and we’re back in 2021.
There can be no doubt that The Lord of the Rings will be a highlight of Mark Ordesky’s film career. How could one even try to top that production? But it has been 20 years, and I am curious about what Mark’s been up to after The Lord of the Rings. We spend some time talking about the other productions he has been involved in.
A quick look at IMDB.com reveals several titles I am familiar with, including The New World, The Golden Compass and Inkheart, the one with Andy Serkis, Paul Bettany, and that cute, horned ferret. But one title that piques my curiosity is The Quest. I ask Mark about it:
–The Quest ironically directly flowed from The Lord of the Rings. It is a hybrid scripted and non-scripted television show. We basically take eight real people, in this case, kids, 14–16-year-old kids. And we embed them in a fully immersive, 360-degree fantasy environment, built around a besieged castle. And it’s a real castle, not a set. And there are actors, prosthetic creatures, horses… there is a narrative, there is a storyline that weaves in and out of the kids’ experience. And they are prophesied heroes to help save the kingdom.
And part of the way it links to Lord of the Rings is, in the earliest days, after we cast everyone, Orlando Bloom, Elijah Wood, Sean Astin and Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan, a lot of the cast went down early to learn how to ride horses, swordfight and archery, so they would look very proficient when the time came. They went down six weeks or more early. And I remember seeing the footage and thinking just how exciting that was. And my producing partner in my company, Court Five, who also worked with me at New Line at that time, thought: “What if real people could have an experience like that? Like that would just be the best!”
So that was the kernel of the idea, and we made the show with the folks that make The Amazing Race and the folks that make Queer Eye and Legendary on Netflix and HBO Max.
And the key thing about it is we take these kids, and you drop them into this world, and the wonderment manifests. It’s like throwing a surprise party every day. Because things happen in the narrative, scripted things unfold in front of them, or with them. And things happen depending on how they behave, which trigger other things, like in a video game. It’s very ambitious. It is sort of like theatre; you can’t do multiple takes. You can only do it once because the kids are completely real.
When I hear Mark talk about The Quest, I can see his enthusiasm and joy for the project. I’m a role player myself, having played Dungeons & Dragons for decades, and I know several people involved in the LARPing community (Live Action Role Play). A scripted, elaborate LARP? Or something more? I will have to watch this.
Our conversation starts to dwindle down, and I’m almost out of questions. We talk a bit about other projects, about books he would love to put onto the screen, and my own plans for visiting New Zealand. So, we decide to meet up in Middle-Earth.
How about a pint at The Green Dragon in The Shire?