Blog | 14 October 1999 | Filming Begins

So the journey has begun without me. On Monday 11th October, Elijah Wood et al gathered in Hobbiton — and I hear they are behaving themselves! I have been in Toronto, masquerading as Magneto, the master of magnetism, on the set of Bryan Singer's "X-Men." I have just sent Peter Jackson an e-mail of good luck. I don't expect an immediate reply — directing a film is totally time-consuming.

Meanwhile, Tolkien aficionados are mailing to the "Grey Book." From teenagers and readers old as wizards come the advice, the demands, the warnings - united by the hope that the film's Gandalf will match their own individual interpretations of the Lord of the Rings. I take comfort from the general assurance that they approve of the casting (not just of me but of all the other actors so far announced - thrilling news that Cate Blanchett is joining us.) Yet how can I satisfy everyone's imagined Gandalf? Simply, I can't.

I recognise the responsibility of course. It's not as if LOTR were a play that could be revived over and over, each new cast adding to the discoveries that their predecessors have made. The Jackson trilogy will be unique. It is, after all, unlikely that there will be a re-make any time soon - although there have already been the cartoon "Hobbit" (which I have yet to see) and the BBC's radio LOTR (with Ian Holm as Frodo). But some of my correspondents seem to think that actors are essayists or critics who analyse a character's complexities and then parade them, like sticking on a false beard. It's just not like that.

It bears repeating that, as with Richard III or James Whale or Magneto, I must discover Gandalf somewhere inside myself - and that process depends on absorbing the words of the script and its story, listening to the reactions of the director and responding to the performances of the rest of the cast. So now, still 3 months away from shooting (for me), my Gandalf doesn't exist, not even in my mind. He will only come to life as the camera turns and discoveries are made in the very moment. Even when I am in the thick of it, in costume and make-up and speaking Tolkien's words, I'm not sure I will be able to describe the character to you. Actors don't describe - they inhabit.

So these Grey Book notes may be more about me than about Gandalf and may disappoint the experts who will have to be patient and wait for the finished movies. I'm sorry if 2001 seems a long way off.


I do know a few things of interest however.

I've tried on some preliminary costumes from Ngila Dickson's designs and had my head measured by Peter Owen whose workshops in Bristol UK are in charge of wigs. He came to my home in London just after I was back in August from a visit to Wellington, where the LOTR studios are.

It is fortunate that there are so few illustrations of the novels that have impinged on the readers' eyes. Otherwise we might get trapped into simply copying them. A 2-dimensional, painted Gandalf who looks good on a book-cover might be impossible for a flesh-and-blood actor to reproduce. Rather, Ngila, Peter and I have started as Tolkien does with "a tall pointed blue hat, a long grey cloak and a silver scarf: a long white beard" but how tall is "tall", how long is "long" and how practical in a high New Zealand wind, are "bushy eyebrows that stick out beyond the brim of his hat" ?

Answering these and weightier puzzles is the responsibility of the designers and their craftspeople who have been in training for 2 years at the WETA workshops in Wellington. I have seen the results of their deliberations - and been overwhelmed. Their work on masks, armoury, weapons is almost complete and it is complementary to that of the visual effects experts who will enhance the New Zealand landscapes. They have solved how to make the Hobbits appear to be the right size, in any number of ways, most too complicated for me to understand. They know whether Gollum be an actor or a puppet or a computer effect or all three. They have designed Hobbiton and built it — a year ago so it has weathered — and allowed the vegetation to grow round about.

As a child I was fascinated by books about theatre and cinema magic, so I sympathise with those who want advance information from the LOTR magicians. It will be up to Peter Jackson to decide if and when the secrets are made public. — Ian McKellen, Toronto, 14 October 1999