Q&A with The Hobbit co-writer Philippa Boyens
Philippa Boyens chats with MSN about the writing process for the films based on Tolkien's work.
Stephen Barker, Rex Features
The 20-floor ride up in swank hotel elevator is a mystery ride, one in which the numbers climb up about a dozen floors, and then the car suddenly decides to sink down another half-dozen or so.
This trip to the co-creator of The Hobbit movies is perhaps dutifully suspenseful. The two of us in the elevator turn to each other bewildered, humoured and maybe a little afraid, wondering if the doors are ever going to open up at Floor 38, or if we’re headed somewhere grim and unintended.
But, softly and eventually, we arrive. And Academy Award-winning co-producer and co-screenwriter Philippa Boyens is seated comfortably after a short break for lunch. She is slumped in a comfortable chair, winding down a cell phone conversation with her family, but waves welcome and invitation nonetheless.
“Sorry about that,” she says after clicking shut the phone. “I was catching up with my little ones. They’re at the zoo. I wish I was there.”
Rather than Central Park, Boyens has to settle for work – and, with a day full of press conferences and individual interviews, these things can be a grind for the actors, directors, writers and producers pinned down – in a lush suite high above the teeming streets of Manhattan. And it is at this brief oasis from the rush of the floors below that give Boyens some breathing space, to talk about her love for Tolkien, about the creative process, and about whether it’s important to put emphasis on anticipating expectations.
Boyens, along with co-writer Fran Walsh and Jackson, reached the summit the last time out, cleaning up at the Academy Awards and winning Best Adapted Screenplay for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Since then, audiences have stayed loyal while critics have turned their typical fickle. There was the adventure that became King Kong, for one, but also the delicate job of assembling script and shooting for the 2009 adaptation of novelist Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, told from the perspective and an abducted and murdered youth (Saoirse Ronan) who is caught between Heaven and Earth in something she calls The In-Between.
And it is there that MSN’s conversation with Philippa Boyens really begins.
MSN: Do audience expectations – particularly with something as hugely popular as The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit – end up exerting influence on how much you might change or what you might include or exclude in writing a screenplay?
Boyens: No. Not if it’s a good idea. Good ideas: How we tend to work is, you tend to hear a good idea. It tends to just come to you, and you pitch it to your collaborators, Fran and Pete. Everyone can usually hear a good idea. It’s the other stuff – it’s the stuff where you’re not sure. That’s part of your responsibility creatively, as an artist, is to make choices. Artists make choices. Actors make choices. Musicians make choices. Writers make choices. You have to make choices about how you’re going to tell a story, about how you’re going to bring something to life, about how you’re going to go – the path you’re going to take. That’s part of your responsibility. Sometimes, people understand that, and sometimes they don’t. You can’t control that. It’s not up to you to control that. Very simply, you have to be true to what you want to see – what you think is going to work. I think sometimes when you get tired and you feel a little like you could be phoning something in, that’s when you have to be careful and you have to stop. The good thing about working with two other people creatively is that there’s always one of us where something will kick and go “This is not working.” I don’t think we can be accused of lazy storytelling, hopefully.
MSN: Even though Tolkien’s work has been massively popular for decades, there are people such as myself who walk into all of these films with no reference points. As writers, did all of you take stock that a lot of people coming to the theatre or watching on home video would be encountering Tolkien for the first time through your films?
Boyens: I think you can’t assume that everybody knows what you’re talking about. You can’t assume that everybody has read The Lord of the Rings. And we didn’t. And, also, it’s got to work as a film, not just an homage to Professor Tolkien – much as I grew up and he had a huge influence on me, because I think he showed me that so-called fantasy is not apart from life. It’s not separate to life. It is part of the fabric of life, actually. All stories are fantasy. I do understand and relate to what you are saying, though. I think that often you can have an assumption or you can go into a movie, and because you’re not part of that particular fan base, you can feel slightly separate to it. But, hopefully we didn’t do that. Hopefully.
MSN: In carrying The Hobbit across three films, was there temptation to put a new stamp on any of the characters or the story?
Boyens: There were different parts of that tale that relate to characters that were very beloved to us, such as Gandalf. Gandalf the Grey, as Ian continually points out – and he is quite right in pointing that out – this is the Gandalf before the fall, before Gandalf the White, and in many ways a much more interesting character. You know, I think if I’d thought of somebody else telling that part of his tale – what happened when he went into that fortress; how he uncovered what he uncovered – it would have been hard to let go of that. I would have been quite happy, however, for other people to write other parts of the story. I would have been really intrigued to see that. But it did take a little while to get back into it. When it was decided that this was going to happen, it was a process of trusting that it was going to be OK. Because I didn’t know whether we would suddenly find it incredibly repetitive, whether it would be hard or difficult, or could you get the enthusiasm back up again? So, you had to trust that you could. And we did.
MSN: Writer-director Guillermo del Toro’s name is also attached to the screenplay. Can you explain more about how the writing relationship played out?
Boyens: It was a privilege, actually. For over a year, we worked with him when he was a director. But also, like Peter, he is a writer as well. We began by approaching the storytelling with him as the director. So, we were writing the story for him. And what was great about working with him, besides the fact that he is one of the funniest guys you will ever meet in your life – so, that was always a good day, to go to work, because you knew Guillermo was going to turn up and make you laugh – was seeing the world through his eyes, because it did freshen it. It did mean seeing things in a different way. He’s phenomenally bright and phenomenally well-read, especially in the genre of fantasy. And I love that about him. I loved the other worlds that he drew on, because Professor Tolkien wasn’t writing in a vacuum. He drew on mythology. He drew on some of the great myths of the world, and Guillermo understood all of them – from a different perspective. So, that was a privilege. However, when Guillermo made that decision that he couldn’t go through the work we did start again, because now we were writing for Peter, and he’s a different film-maker. It’s a different vision, and you’ve got to assume that vision with this storytelling. So, it did change. But, like I said earlier, honestly, genuinely, a privilege. Not a bad companion to start the journey. And one of the bravest film-makers around, too, I think.
MSN: One or two of the actors has remarked on the Catholic nature of some of Tolkien’s writing.
Boyens: I was going to say. Professor Tolkien, although not specifically a Catholic, was very much raised with an understanding of Catholicism, and the High Anglican faith that he belonged to.
MSN: But then Sir Ian McKellen, your Gandalf: While praising Tolkien for being bang-on in so many respects, he also wondered where the women and sex are in his story cycles.
Boyens: Yes. Yes. I think he’s wrong about the women. I think Professor Tolkien wrote very powerfully about women, and I think that was informed by his own spiritual journey. Very much so. I mean, the most powerful being in Middle Earth at this time is Galadriel. Her power is protective, which is a very feminine energy. And I think that is something that informs quite beautifully all of Tolkien’s male characters, as well. I understand what he means about the sexuality, but in terms of that, I don’t know. I mean, those are very powerful characters, and I think that’s all part of the attraction you have to those characters: the great warriors, you know, and the beauty of the Elves and all of that. It’s all in there. But he was operating in a different way, and ultimately, I think, he was a humanist – as all great men of faith are, I think.
MSN: And people will come around on The Lovely Bones over time.
Boyens: Can I tell you? The response from the audiences has been phenomenal, and the letters that we’ve had….
MSN: That’s all that matters.
Boyens: And that’s all that matters. That’s exactly right. You get a letter like that, and you just go: “That’s why you make movies.”