As ‘The Lord of the Rings’ film turns 20, we look back on how Harvey Weinstein almost axed it

By Francesca Johnson

Updated Jan 10, 2022 at 02:38 PM

Reading time: 6 minutes


“One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, one ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.” If the bells of memory are working right in your old noggin, then you know that these are the opening lines of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the first of a three-part monolith that is The Lord of the Rings film series, which also spurred on the release of another epic film box set to binge that started with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. On par with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which was also released in the same year, The Fellowship of the Ring is the movie that made fantasy ‘cool’ again.

Imagining a world without LOTR is almost impossible, The Fellowship of the Ring was a trailblazer and part of the exclusive club of blockbusters recognised at the Oscars. The first film picked up 13 nominations and took home four in 2002. However, recent news shared earlier this week has revealed that Ringers could have been left high and dry—and movie-less—if Harvey Weinstein had his way. Now, I won’t point out the elephant in the room that is Weinstein’s predatory abuse and sexual assault convictions, as Sofia Gallarate already did for Screen Shot back in April 2020. What we’re here to focus on is how the former film producer was just as difficult to battle off as Sauron’s army in The Fellowship of The Ring.

In celebration of its 20 year anniversary, The Independent sat down with the star-studded cast of the movie series and got the real tea from behind the scenes—speaking to everyone from Ian McKellen, Elijah Wood, Orlando Bloom, Viggo Mortensen, John Rhys-Davies and Sean Bean to Billy Boyd, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm, and the ever-so-gorgeous Liv Tyler and Cate Blanchett.

The anniversary piece dabbles in everything from the crew hiking through the evergreen hills of New Zealand to find the perfect spot to shoot according to production designer Grant Major to the great lengths the art department went through to bring director Peter Jackson and the novel series’ writer J.R.R. Tolkein’s lovechild to life. Even the LOTR audition and casting process got spotlighted by the publication as Andy Serkis, who played the gruesome Gollum explained how he prepared for the exigent role. 

“I started building Gollum psychologically, emotionally and physically, going through the book and taking Tolkien’s descriptions. When I was looking for inspiration, my cat came into my kitchen and started coughing up a furball. I watched his whole spine ripple and this sound coming out of him that was like a trapped voice, so I incorporated that into the audition,” Serkis shared with The Independent.

Even Elijah Wood opened up about his own unusual path to becoming the Frodo Baggins we all know and love: “As you can imagine, every single living, breathing actor wanted to audition for it. I didn’t want to do a traditional audition because I find the process very fraught and it makes me nervous. I wanted to make the biggest impression I could, so I dressed up like a Hobbit and got a voice coach to work on the dialect.”

“Then I went out to Griffith Park [in Los Angeles] and shot a tape from multiple different angles and sent that VHS to the casting director,” Wood continued. “Fast forward several months and Peter Jackson phones and asks if I want to be Frodo.”

One of the most interesting tidbits to come out of this candid interview with the film’s cast and crew is the fact that Weinstein allegedly came incredibly close to kicking Jackson—the only man who could manage to pull off this goliath of a movie—entirely off the project. How crazy is that?

The Independent stated that many tried and failed to bring the quest to Mordor to the big screen, including famous filmmaker John Boorman as well as The Beatles. Say what? Due to its insurmountable depth, intricate worldbuilding rivalled by none, and Tolkien’s lofty lore, for a long time, the prospect of it ever seeing the silver screen was more ludicrous than little Frodo venturing out of his shire.

Back then, Jackson was most known for the Oscar-nominated 1994 film Heavenly Creatures. He now has three Oscars to his name, with a total of nine nominations. The film director understood the perils that awaited him in taking on the challenging task of adapting LOTR and the scope of Tolkien’s work, which he would have to make digestible for average moviegoers, but he steeled himself up and took a crack at it anyway. Surely, it couldn’t be that bad, right? Well, we now know that it was indeed messy.

American film critic and YouTuber Lindsay Ellis has comprehensively chronicled the entire explosion and dumpster fire of the LOTR filming process. For those of you who want the short version, it was absolute hell to film. The problem didn’t necessarily lie with the way the first film came about, after finally clawing itself out of the production hole it was stuck in, since Ellis also covered how the stroke of bad luck stained The Hobbit series over a decade after The Fellowship of the Ring’s initial release. What’s interesting is the trouble started before the lights and cameras went up. In fact, the film was initially doomed to fail from its inception as Jackson turned to American entertainment company Miramax, which was co-founded by the Weinstein brothers, to pitch them The Fellowship of the Ring.

While Weinstein’s ego could have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, the film was already teetering on tracks of turmoil. First of all, Jackson endured a lot of developmental drama at Miramax. The nearly two-year production schedule was fraught with ordeals in New Zealand where it was filmed. Though it was as far as you could get from Hollywood, that didn’t seem to matter as bust-ups were plenty both on set and behind the scenes.

In the beginning, the Weinstein brothers were incredibly supportive of Jackson’s vision, but things took a sharp turn after Disney decided to get involved. Disney was Miramax’s corporate owner—meaning they pulled the strings of this puppet show. The House of Mouse refused to greenlight the budget needed for the films, which was by no means a petty change but one that was absolutely necessary. This translated into the Weinsteins giving Jackson and his team an unfathomable task in order to avoid the production company shredding the film to pieces.

On the topic, Jackson’s manager Ken Kamins told The Independent, “Harvey was excited. We found that very encouraging and thought we’d have room to tell the stories, only we weren’t paying attention to the political dynamic between Miramax and Disney. Disney had set a budget cap on Miramax and The Lord of the Rings was well in excess of what they could greenlight on their own. When Disney realised the budget and that we were going to shoot the films back-to-back, […] they made it very clear they were not on board.”

“So then began the very tortured process of Harvey not wanting to admit to the Disney pushback and then at the same time saying to Peter, ‘This is what you have to do’,” he continued. To save their movie, Jackson and his crew had to put up with ridiculous demands made solely to keep Disney happy. Bob Weinstein, Harvey’s brother, reportedly wanted to kill three characters at one point—no harm came to any hobbits though, don’t worry.

It was also said that Weinstein would often direct his anger at Jackson, leading him to threaten the latter to rope in Quentin Tarantino to direct the series if Jackson wasn’t up for the task.

Mark Ordesky, a production manager who worked at New Line Cinema at the time, explained how gruelling this all was, “Eventually, I go to Harvey and say, ‘You have to give us a window to shop it’. A traditional window [to try and sell a property to a different studio] is between six and 12 months. Harvey gave us three weeks. He also wanted a $12 million advance to cover what Miramax had spent and five per cent of the total gross, and to be named as an executive producer. We had three weeks to sell The Lord of the Rings to another studio or the rights were Harvey’s and he’d kick Peter off the project.”

Though Disney controlled the reins mostly, other influences had their sticky fingers in the pie too. In a bid to find the cheapest road to release, the Weinsteins were “pursuing all the major studios and all the indie financiers, including New Line,” noted Ordesky. “So Peter comes in with his presentation, which was a 30-minute video. It answered all the questions a studio would ask: how he was going to use real actors and make them appear three feet tall; how Gollum would manifest; why Peter was the right person to make the films.”

New Line’s founder Robert (also known as Bob) Shaye ignored all the risks and signed off on Jackson, or as Kamins put it to The Independent, “he rolled the dice and he took a shot.” Then, the dreaded three-film trilogy talk started and quickly gained traction. Kamins further revealed that it was actually Shaye’s idea to make it a trilogy instead of the originally planned two films, “Bob goes ‘There’s three books, why are you only making two films?’”

Decisions, decisions and more dreadful decisions put the film in dire distress, but the team managed to come out the other side victorious nonetheless. “[New Line] said yes on Monday and were out of pocket $12 million by Wednesday. Harvey was absolutely stunned. He set us up to fail and expected us to fail. But he got his five per cent,” Kamins concluded.

Oh, and do you want to hear my absolute favourite fact about LOTR? According to Wood, one orc among many was designed to resemble Weinstein as a “sort of fuck you” to the notorious producer, he told the Hollywood podcast Armchair Expert.

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