Fandango was invited to join a select group of press to attend the set of The Hobbit sequel in New Zealand back in 2011. Here are a few things we learned.
1. Screenwriter Fran Walsh said they had to learn the correct pronunciation of Smaug, which is SHMAUG. They described the character as a "psychopath" and "magnificent." Said Walsh, "It's his voice. In the book… they said, 'Be careful of his voice.' But it's Tolkien's magnificent dramatization of that character. He's a bit like Gollum… He's a beautiful character to be given to adapt to a screenplay." Screenwriter Philippa Boyens added, "Dragons are incredibly important to Tolkien and very potent characters. And we had Benedict Cumberbatch, which was a gift." She said that Cumberbatch does "extraordinary stuff" with his voice that she had never seen an actor do.
2. Since Smaug is an animated character, Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins) said that his scenes with the dragon are "all imagination... It's a real mixture of disciplines, a real mixture of stuff that you can see, feel and touch and stuff that you absolutely, absolutely have to pretend, the way you did when you were four." In order to hear Smaug's lines read by Leith, the film's dialect coach, they had an amplified microphone playing in Freeman's ear. "That was all done with her voice," he said, "very, very loud, and me reacting to it."
3. The design of Smaug was immensely important to the project. Richard Taylor, credited with costume design, said, "Smaug has a long, deep mouth, and muzzle construction was important." He added that this is what "the [Jim] Henson Company does so well, where they personify the muzzle of the character so that you can manipulate the lips in a believable way." As to how it compares to other movie dragons, director Peter Jackson said, "I never try to compete with other people. I have no idea. Other people can make up their mind about that. Smaug has to be perfect for the story that we are telling, and everything that he needs to do in The Hobbit, be absolutely terrifying, be able to destroy a city, be able to have sly conversations with Bilbo, all of that we're building into the design of the character and the way that he looks."
4. The Desolation of Smaug features the barrel sequence that most of the dwarves considered the most fun and harrowing of the entire shoot. The set was built on a river in Trentham, New Zealand, and the actors were put into barrels that "you could go over Niagara Falls and still be safe [in]," according to Jed Brophy (Nori). Richard Armitage (Thorin Oakenshield) described the day as being "in an unsinkable barrel getting dumped on with tons of water. It was just relentless, and kind of frustrating, but fun at the same time. And I was like, 'We will never have another day like that on a film set.'' [Author's note: While we were on the set, he was shooting pickups for that scene in front of a green screen, getting spun around and hit with green jousting sticks that would later be animated as tree branches. He spent a good two hours in there.]
5. When asked about the remaining influence of The Hobbit's onetime director Guillermo del Toro, screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens contended that the film still consists of some of his original design work, and he "care[d] very much about it."
6. Stephen Hunter (Bombur) likened the dwarves' time on set and off to "a whole lot of boys living in caravans. It's like being back at school sometimes. Someone told me that men don't grow up, we just get taller and hairier. And I think that's probably what's happened. That's created some good comedy moments between us." Rumor has it that some members of the cast are easier to tease than others, like Mark Hadlow (Dori). Other actors would tease him with statements like, "Is that the way you're going to do it? That's a brave choice," or "I don't care what the director says, I think you're great." They assured us it's all in good fun.
7. To construct the dwarves' intricate and iconic looks, each actor spent about two-and-a-half hours in makeup. Their costumes, wigs and prosthetics weigh them down an extra 37 kilograms (about 81 pounds), according to Graham McTavish (Dwalin). Each prosthetic, now made from high-tech latex, lasts only one day and has to be thrown out. On any given day, with the main actors, stunt doubles, scale doubles and picture doubles, they manufactured at least 36 prosthetics.
8. Terry Notary, movement choreographer, worked with all of the actors to give them a coherent movement style. He described the goblins as "electromagnetic" and said they have a "tortured life where they never get to relax. Elves have this sixth sense, and in order to convey that… they don't get emotionally involved with the surrounding world." He says that orcs are ego driven, so they "push, break through the doors." The orcs are hardest because it's about doing less and "getting out of that typical monster bad guy feel."
9. The magnificent set pieces in the films were conceptualized as paintings done by a self-taught Samoan artist named Gus Hunter who has been working with Jackson for quite some time. Costume designer Richard Taylor says that one of his strengths as an artist, and one of the reasons his paintings are so helpful in animation, is his ability to create theatrical light in his paintings that conveys a strong sense of mood.
10. Ian McKellen (Gandalf) often asked Peter Jackson why the audience never sees "a little bit more of how they actually survive" between scenes. He pushed for a scene of Gandalf getting up in the morning, or storing things in his hat, like an apple or a sandwich. Jackson is well aware of McKellen's wishes but has never included such a scene. And in the first Hobbit film, when the dwarves were making merry towards the beginning, Jackson told McKellen to "make [Gandalf] a little tipsy" because it was in the book that he requests red wine. McKellen had to put his foot down. "Gandalf does not get drunk. I think Gandalf can drink everyone under the table. The mind is always clear, always questing. So you will not see a tipsy Gandalf, although it was requested."
The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug comes to theaters December 13. Will you be there?