I sensed from the very beginning that The Lord of the Rings had the potential to be something extraordinary. Not merely extraordinary in the way that, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark was extraordinary-as pure, cinematic adventure, a thrill ride of the highest order but as something even more. I'm talking about epic filmmaking not seen since the clays of David Lean or John Ford. I knew that the director, Peter Jackson, was a man of prodigious talent and vision, an artist capable of creating a film that might one day be mentioned in the same breath as Lean's desert classic Lawrence of Arabia. The Lord of the Rings, I thought-I hoped could be like that: Oscar caliber art on par with the best films ever made.
How did I know this? Well, sometimes you just get a gut feeling. It's as simple as that. As a journeyman actor I've survived by seeing an opportunity pop up on the radar screen, guessing kind of intuitively what the odds are of success, and then determining whether I want to be part of that project. Sometimes, for practical, real world reasons, I've made decisions knowing full well what the cycle would be, and that my association with a given film might even have a minor negative impact on my image or marketability. As in any field, you calculate the odds and make a choice, and then you live with it. You can only wait so long for Martin Scorcese to call; sometimes you have to take the best available offer. I've done any number of low budget movies in which my participation was based primarily on the following logic:
All right, it's a week out of my life or six weeks out of my life, the money is pretty good, and I don't have to audition. Let me take a look at the script. Does my character have a banana sticking out of his ass? No? No banana? Well, then, how bad can it be? It's a third tier knockoff of a Die Hard movie, but the morality is reasonably intact; the violence is kind of sophomoric, but not gratuitous, and for the most part everyone keeps their clothes on. Most important of all, is f0anybody in the business ever going to see it? Not likely. Okay ... where do I sign?
Ah, but old movies never really die, do they? Not anymore. Thanks to video and DVD, the Internet, and late night cable television, they live on forever, seeping inevitably into the public consciousness whether they deserve to or not. Case in point: a cold winter day on the south island of New Zealand, back in 1999. One of many days on the set of The Lord of the Kings when things weren't going quite as planned. The kind of day where the scene called for filming six hundred horses on the top of a windswept deer park, so the crew was furiously washing away snow with fire hoses to make it look like it wasn't wintertime resulting, of course, in a veritable sea of mud. In New Zealand we traveled almost everywhere in four wheel drive vehicles, so thick and persistent was the slop. At times it felt like what I have read about soldiers fighting in the trenches in World War I. We couldn't go anywhere without getting muck splattered all over us. On our shoes, our clothes...our capes. (We were hobbits, remember?) No hyperbole or disrespect intended, but there were times when it almost felt as though we were part of a military operation. It was that rugged, that spartan, that precise. Mountainside locations looked almost like battlefields, dotted with tents and armies of workers. The general, of course, was Peter Jackson.
Well, on this one particular morning I saw Peter sitting in his tent with a bemused look on his face. Now, protocol on movie sets often dictates that directors, even those as approachable and thoughtful as Peter, be given space in the morning hours it's a time for preparation, not long conversations. But, as I approached, planning to offer no more than a cheery "Good morning:' Peter began to nod ever so slightly. With his unruly hair, stout frame, and generally disheveled appearance, Peter has often been described as "hobbit like:' and certainly the impish grin coming to his face now supported that notion.
"Sean:' he said dryly. "Guess what I saw last night?"
Ob, boy ...
Icebreaker was the rather benign result of one of those "business" decisions I just mentioned. Some two years earlier I had accepted what most people would consider to be a princely sum of money (sixty thousand dollars) for roughly two weeks of work. I had a good time making Icebreaker, which was filmed at Killington Ski Resort in Vermont. While there, I dined at a couple of nice restaurants, discovered a lovely antique bookshop, and made a few good friends. Peter Beckwith, the producer, and David Giancola, the director, are genuinely nice men who treated me well. One of my costars was die incomparable Bruce Campbell, regarded as perhaps the king of B movie stars. If you've seen The Evil Dead or any of its sequels, you've seen Bruce. You know his work and h1i s ability to bring a certain campy grace to almost any project. I wasn't really familiar with Bruce's work at the time, but most of the people I worked with were, and they said things like, "Oh, man, you have no idea how cool it is to work with this guy." In truth, Bruce was pretty cool. And a total pro, I might add. I had fun working with him.
Everything about my experience in Vermont was pleasant, if ultimately forgettable. But let's be honest here: the movie is a piece of shit.(1) Sorry, Dave. Sorry, Peter. But you know it's a piece of shit, too. By that, I mean, it isn't socially edifying, and it doesn't aspire to be artistic or even particularly clever. It's just mindless, harmless entertainment. (Check out the movie's promotional poster, featuring yours truly with a pair of ski goggles perched on his forehead, a revolver in his hand, and a look on his face that fairly screams, "Mess with me, and I'll kick your ass!") But we all got along well and had a pleasant enough time, and while we were there we took our work as seriously as possible.
For me for all of us, really-it was a smart business decision to do Icebreaker. These guys figured out a formula: how to package and presell the movie, how to raise the money, how to film the thing, and how to have fun doing it. So more power to them. And, frankly, I needed the work and the cash that came with it. Little did I know that two years later I'd be on location in New Zealand, working on one of the most ambitious projects in the history of movies, a $270 million version of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and that I'd be standing face to-face with Peter Jackson, one of the rising stars of the business. Peter, it turns out, is not just a filmmaker, but a fan of films, all films, with a massive private collection that keeps his garage screening room humming day and night, and a penchant for channel surfing in the wee hours that makes it virtually impossible to hide anything from him.
Copyright 2004 by Sean Astin