Set Visit: <strong><em>The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey</em></strong> Part II: Bilbo and Gandalf

Set Visit: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Part II: Bilbo and Gandalf

This past summer, we were lucky enough to visit the Wellington, New Zealand set of director Peter Jackson's prequel trilogy to The Lord of the Rings, which kicks off with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on December 14th. And while this particular Middle Earth adventure will feature plenty of new characters that we've yet to be introduced to on the big screen, a lot of old favorites are returning as well.

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In fact, this first adventure is lead by the grand wizard himself Gandalf, and his trusty hobbit sidekick Bilbo, both of whom played key roles in the original series of films, debuting in 2001 with The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. This time around, a much young Bilbo is sought out as a "burglar" to help Gandalf and thirteen Dwarf warriors battle the dragon Smaug and win back Lonely Mountain and a treasure of gold for the disgraced dwarf race, all of whom have been thrust into seclusion.

Ian Holm originated the role of an older Bilbo Baggins, who first appears as a 111 year old Hobbit 60 years out from the adventures we will see take place this Christmas. He served as a supporting character in the first three The Lord of the Rings films, and drove the narrative of the one ring as its former owner. In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Martin Freeman takes over the role, playing Bilbo at 50 years old, comfortably enjoying middle age when Gandalf and the dwarves come calling on him for help.

We joined Martin Freeman on the Wellington set to discuss his take over of this iconic character, and right away he was quick to give us his take on the various degrees of Baggins, and his onscreen continuity with actor Ian Holm. He began by comparing the two versions of Bilbo, and their relationship to the one ring, as it pertains to both the prequel and the original three films.

Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit
"I think [the ring] definitely has an effect on him in [The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey]. Maybe I shouldn't say how much of it is negative or positive, but it's clear that it has a pull on him, that, I guess would be recognizable from The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. But it takes a different turn. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is slightly lighter and it's more of a family affair, so it's not quite as dark. But it doesn't mean the stakes aren't there. It definitely still has to matter that he is in possession of this thing. And I think a lot of the time, even he doesn't realize why he wants to hold onto it so much, but there is an unspoken hold that it has on him, an unconscious hold.

I've watched the films again, obviously, in more detail before I came to this. I looked at Ian Holm's performance more when I needed to -- Again, I don't really know how much I should say, but there were points where it was relevant for me to look very closely at Ian Holm's performance.

I know why I'm cast, do you know what I mean? 'Cause I think we're not that dissimilar, physically, or whatever else. I think if I was, I don't know, Jeff Goldblum or someone, then I might be thinking, "Right, hang on, if he's the older me, I'd better attend more to something else maybe. Well, grow, for a start. But no, 'cause I think I was always trusted with it. All I was told, which I think was flattery, and probably bollocks, was, "You are the only person to play it." So I thought, "Well, if they think that, then I've got to trust that." And there's only so much you can run with someone else's thing. It's very helpful, in the way that it's brilliant as he is always brilliant, and it's a beautiful establisher of that character, and a very loved one, for obvious reasons. But it can also hamper you if you're thinking, "How would Ian Holm have done this?", then I'm fucked. So I've got to let that go. I've always been mindful of it, 'cause I'm familiar with it. But I think the work for that connection was done in the casting of me, rather than what I'm then going to do on top of it."

The actors had already been shooting for a year and a half when we arrived to talk with him. Martin Freeman considered the idea of having to hold onto the arc of Bilbo in terms of the story, and its timeline. That has proved to be difficult during this long process, but the actor thinks he's done quite well with the challanges.

"It's ultimately my responsibility, but then obviously, the greater responsibility, of course, is Peter Jackson's, because he has his eye on the ball -- Well, on various different balls all the time. And also, he's got a picture in his head of how it's going to be edited, and what it's going to look like. And I could be doing a scene where I think its scene ninety-four; it might end up being scene two hundred and thirteen. So with the best will in the world, you have to commit, but also be open. That's the hard thing. Because if you think, "I'm going to do this scene, this scene means this, it's all these characters, and it's this moment...", it might not even be there, clearly, 'cause that's the nature of film-making, or it might be somewhere else. And he's pretty open about that. There's an acknowledgement that the edit will be rather important, shall we say. So it's for me to hold onto that, of course, but I'm not in ultimate charge of it. I can only do what the actor's job is, which is to hold onto that stuff and be diligent about when it is scene ninety-three, where was I in scene ninety-two. Page one, one-oh-one stuff, but over the course of sixteen years filming, it will be, that's harder to maintain than two months."

Was there ever any pressure on Martin, knowing that there was such a fan push to help land him this coveted role?

"There was, but I have enough faith in Peter Jackson to know. He's said to me about other things he's done, where he's taken maybe too much notice of what was going on, on the internet, and it's actually been given a bum steer. I think he's learned from that. We can all look on the internet and go, "He hates me! Oh, but she loves me. Oh, but he hates me...", you know. And that way, madness lies. So I think yeah, it's very nice, it's gratifying that people wanted me to be in it. But they didn't get me the job."

Along with Gandalf, and himself, there are thirteen individual dwarves that are accompanying the actor on this long journey to the big screen. Martin Freeman revealed what it is like working as part of this massive ensemble.

"What's remarkable about us as a group, and I would pay tribute to the group on this, is that there hasn't been any fallings out, there hasn't been any fist fights, and there hasn't even been really, really strong words. And there's a lot of blokes in there. A company of men, with egos, not falling out is kind of cool. I've not known it, I've not known it for this long. I've never done a job for this long. But the fact that we've all kept our heads and tried to act as a group and tried to be sensitive -- I think it would be different if there was four of us. If there was four of you, there's nowhere to hide. You just have to get on with the other three people. But because there's a lot more than that, you can just go there one day, and there, it's a bit more evenly spread out.

So we've really held together as a group very, very well. And like anything else, like any other working relationship, it's about finding your place within it, finding when it's your turn, finding out when it's not your turn. And I'm amazed how well it's happened, I really am. It's one of the things I'm proudest of, actually. And I think it's one of the things we'll all be proudest of in ten years, is that we all maintained quite a good working relationship, and were pretty friendly, really. I think the hard thing is, don't make the drama school mistake of, first two weeks: "You're my best friend, I love you, I love you!" And then Christmas comes: "Ah, bitch." Because if you go in too strong, it will all go to shit. But we're all feeling each other out. Not literally, that would be wrong. But as a group, finding out just where we all slot in. And it's amazing -- I'm not trotting out any party line here, we're all getting on fine, which is about as good as you could hope for after a year and a half. And we're still going out for meals, still going out for drinks, still being round each other's houses without wanting to kill each other, which is no mean feat."

Ian McKellen returns as Gandalf in <strong><em>The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey</em></strong>
Ian McKellen, only the other hand, feels slight different about the whole situation. He is the only actor from the first trilogy returning in a leading role, and his character actually has more to do this time out. We spoke with Ian from the Wellington set, and he was quick to dispute the lovely nature of it all.

"I didn't feel like being back, I wanted to go away. I was very, very unhappy, miserable."

The actor was actually isolated from the others on set for a great deal of the shooting period, because as we all know, a wizard is quite a bit taller than a dwarf. This led to some not so fun moments, which found Ian having to act opposite a ball on a stick against a green screen while the rest of the cast was at the actual location.

"After we had rehearsed the scene I was doing with thirteen dwarves and a Hobbit, because I, a wizard is taller than them, I had to then move out away from them, into my own green screen set, so that my figure could be transposed onto their picture for it to be off by two enslaved cameras working in exactly the same way, at the same point. So the thirteen dwarves are over there, in their set, and I'm over in my set, which is a little green screen cutout to make me look tall. With nobody else, 'cause my camera's enslaved to the other one, there isn't an operator. I can't see the people I'm talking to, so they're represented by pictures on top of poles, which light up when they're talking, and I hear them through a sound piece in my ear.

I think because my reaction was so strong to it, it was very difficult and bewildering, Peter Jackson has managed to cut down the number of times we've done that since. But in the more general sense, it was the sort of feeling we had by the time we were making The Lord of The Rings: The Return of The King, that there had already been two films gone out, which had been much enjoyed. So we felt, which you don't often feel when you're doing a job, this is a job that the audience wants me to do.

But most of the time when you do a job, a play or a film, you're wondering, "Will there be an audience?" We know with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, there's going to be an audience. Millions of people are going to want to see it. So we fear we're not on our own. The audience's expectations are ever-present. So it's a more comfortable job than most. There's not that worry at the back, "Are we all wasting our time?" Which you can feel even when you're doing King Lear. So the difference, I suppose, the main difference between the two films, was the personnel. Everybody beyond the camera was familiar, from the director through to Emma who does my costume and Rick who does my make-up. It was back with old friends. But most of the cast, we hadn't met before here, although I knew some of them from England. And they turned out to be a very friendly bunch."

The actor continued by describing the process of acting against green screen, by himself, which he is clearly not a fan of. Though, he has found a way to work through it.

"When people in the past have asked me about green screen, I said, "Well, it's only scenery", and when you're on stage, you're not really in a castle, you're not really out of doors, you're not really where you say you are. You just say you are, and there you are, and that's the imagination that happens in the theater. That imagination is translated in film by the film magicians and all the technology. So it doesn't worry an actor that when he's meant to be in the middle of nowhere, he's actually in the middle of a studio. You use your imagination. What's complicated is when you're doing that, but all the rest of the cast are not having to do that, because they're in a real place and looking at each other and not having to pretend."

Ian McKellen went onto describe the role that Gandalf will play in this prequel adventure, and how it has a lighter tone than the previous trilogy.

"When Gandalf leaves the dwarves to get on with their job, you get to discover why he is supporting them. And that involves an overview of Middle Earth, which Wizards and High Elves get involved with. So I think that will lead on very well, out of the story of The Lord of the Rings, because when it's quite clear that Middle Earth is at stake... The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is an adventure story for kids, and told in the first person by someone who might read it to you before you go to bed. J.R.R. Tolkien's in the story, "I, I, I"... The Lord of the Rings is about the end of the world. So the tone is clearly very, very different, and that will be reflected. It's reflected in the script, it's reflected in the casting, and it will be reflected, presumably, in the finished film. But alongside that, there's that lighter feel, or a more adventure-story feel. There will be the politics of Middle Earth going on in the background as a support.

I think I'm a bit gruffer than I used to be, and I'm certainly older. Although of course Gandalf ought to be a little bit younger, 'cause these events are happening sixty years before. But when you're sixty-seven thousand years old, I guess it doesn't make much difference. I'm comforting myself. And I obviously look very much the same, because a wig and a familiar hat, and a mustache and beard frame my own features, so there's not a lot of me there. In fact, my face has shrunk in the meantime, but it won't be particularly noticeable because it's covered up with hair. So I hope I'm not alarmed if I ever do sit through the [six] movies.

It is the same Gandalf. However, there were three films, and in two of them, I was Gandalf the White. And I don't make much connection between White and Grey, and I've never really liked the White. I never said I didn't like playing him, but I didn't warm to him. He's a man with a mission, and he's a commander, and he's a man working right at the end of his tether. Gandalf the Grey, I think Peter Jackson agrees, is a much more congenial person, and humane, and full of all sorts of life. And particularly when he's with the Hobbits. There's not a lot of Hobbits in this story, there's one, really. So whenever I'm with him, I think that brings out the side of Gandalf that you're talking about. I don't think he warms to the dwarves as much."

What about Gandalf and Thorin's relationship? Will it be more in-depth than what we read in the book?

"I couldn't tell you that, because once there is a script, although it is very helpful to relate back to the book, I don't start comparing the two. And I couldn't make that judgment, really, I don't think. But it's certainly a constant of the story, and each time he and Thorin talk, it's a development of that relationship. But he's got an ongoing one with Bilbo, of course, but that too has its ups and downs. But perhaps that's a little more light-hearted, yeah. Well, Gandalf loves Hobbits. Peter Jackson did say to me very early on, there was a rambunctious scene in Bag End, and all the dwarves were eating and drinking too much. He thought it would be fun if Gandalf were a bit tipsy. And I was appalled at that and said, "No, Gandalf doesn't get drunk." But now, after a year of it, I see what Peter Jackson was after. I think he wants a lightness, and he's cast some really expert comedians, whose eye will be looking out for what's amusing. And I think Gandalf is a little bit a part of that, but I think the pressure is taken off me once you've got Billy Connolly and Barry Humphries and Stephen Fry, and indeed Martin Freeman, who's an expert comic actor. Let them get on with it I think, really."

Much has been made about the fact that there will be a third film, and that it includes scenes not in the original book. Here's what Ian McKellen had to say about that aspect of this new trilogy.

"Yes, there are scenes which are not in the book, but that doesn't say they're not in Tolkien somewhere, or in the back of J.R.R. Tolkien's mind. And Philippa Boyens, who I talked most to about the script, often refers to details in the book that I had overlooked, or implications that she's developed. But you've only got to look at the width of The Lord of the Ring. Things had to be cut to get it down to the three films. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is that -- Things have got to be expanded. Not got to be, but it's -- You could, I suppose, have made just one film of the story of The Hobbit. I had an idea way back, that -- I still think it would have been a good idea to not make a film of The Hobbit, but to make a TV series of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and do every episode. Do everything that's in the book in full detail, and just tell the story. It might take thirteen-hour episodes, I don't know. I thought that would have been another way of doing it. But I'm not a producer and I'm not a script writer."

Stay tuned as we catch up with director Peter Jackson and Gollum himself, Andy Serkis in part three of our set visit.

To read our first set report from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which finds the Dwarves introducing themselves: /set-visit-the-hobbit-an-unexpected-journey-part-i-getting-to-know-the-dwarves/CLICK HERE

Brian B. at Movieweb
Brian B.