This Movie Was Hell: 4 Ways ‘Lord Of The Rings’ Was Almost Doomed
Before it was a shockingly expensive TV series from the same company that brought us The Boys, Jack Ryan, and way too many plastic water bottles full of employees' urine, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy was famously adapted for the big screen by director Peter Jackson, resulting in three acclaimed epic films (and at least one airline safety video). But as much as we may love watching these movies, making them wasn't always a walk in the Shire, for reasons such as …
The Entire Project Was Nearly Ruined By Goddamn Harvey Weinstein
Tolkien first sold the movie rights to The Lord of the Rings back in 1969 for just over £100,000, reportedly because he was desperate to pay a tax bill. While this (pretty crappy) deal resulted in a few animated adaptations, it wasn't until the late '90s that director Peter Jackson spearheaded an effort to produce a live-action version, first working with Miramax Films, which was headed by human rectal pimples Bob and Harvey Weinstein.
Using the same artistic acumen that gave us Scary Movie 2, the Weinsteins insisted that Jackson's The Lord of the Rings should cram the entire story into just one movie (and also presumably, turn it into a mediocre rom-com where Gwyneth Paltrow wears a turtleneck and fakes a British accent). Jackson wasn't "comfortable" with that idea, believing that it should be two movies.
The Weinsteins let him shop The Lord of the Rings elsewhere with a major caveat: Jackson had just one week to find a new studio, and the Weinsteins would still receive "5 percent of first dollar gross." If he couldn't find anyone, the project would revert back to Miramax, who would find another director to turn into a single film (presumably co-starring Jay and Silent Bob).
So Jackson took the project over to … a bunch of studios that rejected him. He eventually ended up at New Line Cinema, where executive Bob Shaye thought it sounded like a "good idea." But the Weinsteins' deal for 5% of the gross nearly torpedoed the whole thing, with Shaye remarking: "To hell with that. That is definitely not happening. Not in a million years."
Shaye eventually relented and suggested that they should really make a trilogy. Unfortunately, Jackson vastly underestimated the budget of each film at $60 million a piece. New Line also tried to have Jackson shoot them one at a time, which Jackson refused to do, arguing that for logistical reasons, "all three had to be made at once." All this led to the studio giving Jackson a whopping $300 million to make three movies about a magical piece of men's jewelry.
This would have been a gamble with any director, but all this was especially risky considering that Jackson's most recent effort, The Frighteners, had just flopped at the box office. And before that, he was mostly known for making low-budget horror movies that occasionally featured scenes of gratuitous puppet sex.
When it hit Shaye that they had handed over a small fortune to the guy who made Meet the Feebles and Braindead, he became "panicked." The studio's fears continued into filming. While he was shooting the Battle of Helm's Deep, Jackson even received threatening phone calls from studio reps threatening to sue him for "cost overruns," leading Jackson to reply: "I'm shooting this f**king film, and I'm doing the best job I can." And before one screening of footage from The Fellowship of the Ring, Shaye broke down sobbing in front of Jackson, telling him that New Line and its partners were "relying on the success of this film" and that "if it doesn't work, they're going to go under." Thankfully, Jackson turned in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and not three Gotti movies.
The Original Aragorn Was Fired The Day Before His First Scene
It's hard to imagine The Lord of the Rings series without its iconic cast: Elijah Wood as Frodo, Ian McKellan as Gandalf, and a bunch of giant tree monsters as themselves. But the role of Aragorn was very nearly played by someone else entirely; several actors auditioned for the part, including a then-unknown Vin Diesel, who sent in a "homemade tape" of himself in full costume.
At one point, Jackson and his collaborators met with Patrick Stewart, who they were interested in for the role of Theoden – but things became "slightly awkward" when they realized the Star Trek: The Next Generation actor was actually interested in playing Aragorn – who in fairness to Stewart, is supposed to be 87-years-old. Instead, Jackson cast 27-year-old Irish actor Stuart Townsend as his lead human character, having seen him in the indie comedy Shooting Fish, despite concerns from Jackson's producer and co-writer that he was "too young."
According to Townsend, he was "sacked" just "the day before filming began" after two months of "rehearsing and training" – and was never paid because he was "in breach of contract." As Jackson tells it, Townsend refused to go to training with the other actors, including the "all-important sword training." He also "appeared to be very, very frightened and insecure." Eventually, the decision was made to give him the old "Eric Stoltz-Marty McFly" treatment and recast the role, leaving the rest of the actors "shaken." While Russell Crowe turned the part down, Viggo Mortensen (who is slightly older than Townsend) swooped in to save the day.
There Were A Staggering Amount Of Injuries
Working on The Lord of the Rings was seemingly about as hazardous as burgling Kevin McCallister over the holidays; cast members were constantly hurting themselves in wildly unpleasant ways. Like Sean Astin, who, during a scene in which Samwise Gamgee is chasing Frodo into a river, accidentally stepped on a "shard of glass," leaving his foot "virtually … completely impaled." Luckily, co-star Elijah Wood was there to … ogle his wound as he bled profusely.
Because they were in the middle of nowhere, Astin had to be helicoptered to the hospital (by Jacques Cousteau's former pilot, no less) presumably while cursing J.R.R. Tolkien for not including the sentence "The Hobbits put on a pair of sensible shoes" anywhere in his books. Podiatric wounds weren't limited to the halflings, either; Viggo Mortensen broke two of his toes while kicking an enemy helmet, producing a scream so authentic that the take was used in the final film.
And while Orlando Bloom broke a rib falling off his horse, poor Viggo suffered several yet more ordeals, including getting an Orc sword in the face, which resulted in a broken tooth. Reportedly, Mortensen just picked up the tooth and yelled: "Get me some super glue! We've got to stick this back in and carry on." He also nearly drowned at one point – and speaking of the cold water, during a scene where Gollum is thrashing around in a river, Andy Serkis felt like his heart "stopped" from the cold temperatures, and then nearly tumbled off the edge of a waterfall.
And we'd be remiss if we didn't mention the time Liv Tyler "accidentally stabbed herself" during the "If you want him, come and claim him" scene.
At least no one got blown up though …
The Sequels Were Originally A "Mess" (And Filmed On A Literal Minefield)
Yeah, as bad as some of these incidents sound, thankfully, no one was blown up by a goddamn bomb. But that very easily could have been the case – not because the set was prone to an attack by the crew from the Harry Potter movies, but because they filmed the epic scenes at the Black Gates in a stretch of desert where the "New Zealand army do their live firing exercises" and the air force "drop bombs."
This meant that the area where they were shooting was "littered with unexploded ammo" and "dangerous as all hell." While the army coordinated with the production and "bomb disposal units" were on set, during one take, Mortensen was so deep in character that he rode his horse out of the "safe zone" (where there were "less bombs" than elsewhere). According to Jackson, he was "waiting for the explosion" as it happened.
And while all three movies technically wrapped in December 2000, everybody had to go back for additional photography following the release of The Fellowship of the Ring. Why? According to Mortensen, the "massive reshoots" were needed because the filming of parts two and three was "very sloppy," and the films were "a mess." Orlando Bloom noted that the whole thing "almost felt like a giant student movie." (Although some short student films feel longer, to be honest).
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Thumbnail: New Line Cinema