20 Epic Facts About The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

New Line Productions
New Line Productions

Between on-set injuries, extensive script changes, and one whopper of a casting process, at various points in the life of The Lord of the Rings trilogy it seemed as if director Peter Jackson might have bitten off more than he could chew. The trilogy that changed the face of fantasy films tackled a number of challenges along the way, but it all worked out in the end. In celebration J.R.R. Tolkien's birthday, here are 20 facts about the Oscar-winning trilogy.

1. IT WENT THROUGH A TON OF SCRIPT REVISIONS.

When The Lord of the Rings started out, it was originally going to be two movies. Later, concerned about the ballooning budget, producers tried to persuade Jackson to condense the movie into a single film. At various points in the scripting process, Arwen, not Éowyn, was the one to dress up as a man, ride into the Battle of Pelennor Fields, and kill the Witch-king; and Rohan and Gondor were combined into one kingdom. Miramax also suggested that the one-movie version be presented as a flashback, with an older Frodo “covering [the entire Mines of Moria sequence in Fellowship] by saying something like, ‘So then we went on a dangerous journey through the Mines of Moria and lost Gandalf!,’” recalled Jackson.

2. SEAN CONNERY DIDN'T UNDERSTAND THE SCRIPT.

Sean Connery read for the role of Gandalf but admitted that, “I never understood it. I read the book. I read the script. I saw the movie. I still don’t understand it … I would be interested in doing something that I didn’t fully understand, but not for 18 months.” Connery’s deal, if he had taken the role, would have been for a small fee plus 15 percent of the films’ income. Incidentally, the entire trilogy went on to earn just shy of $3 billion worldwide.

3. ARAGORN WAS AN EXTREMELY DIFFICULT ROLE TO CAST.


New Line Cinema

Nicolas Cage was offered the role of Aragorn, which he turned down due to “family obligations.” Famously, the role then went to up-and-coming Irish actor Stuart Townsend, who you probably don’t remember seeing in the final trilogy: “I was there rehearsing and training for two months, then was fired the day before filming began,” the actor later recalled. In need of an older actor, Jackson went to Viggo Mortensen, who took the role at the urging of his son Henry, who was a fan of the books.

4. RUSSELL CROWE WAS A POTENTIAL BACKUP FOR ARAGORN.

Had Mortensen turned down the role of Aragorn, there were two other actors Jackson had in mind as replacements: Jason Patric and Russell Crowe. “We sent [Crowe] a script and he did read it and was fascinated,” said Jackson. “I remember getting the phone call from his agent and being told that he had just finished another film which involved him having to have a sword and armor—Gladiator! Russell was flattered by the approach, but he had other films he was committed to and it obviously wasn’t going to work out.”

5. VIGGO MORTENSEN TOOK SEVERAL BEATINGS.

A variety of injuries beset the cast during production, but Mortensen had it particularly hard: in The Two Towers, that scream he let out upon kicking a helmet after discovering the burnt corpses of the Orcs who abducted Merry and Pippin might have something to do with the fact that he had just broken two of his toes. “Normally, an actor would yell ‘Ow!’ if they hurt themselves,” noted Jackson. “Viggo turned a broken toe into a performance.” Elijah Wood remembered Mortensen “getting half of his tooth knocked out during a fight sequence, and his insistence on applying superglue to put it back in to keep working.”

6. JAKE GYLLENHAAL AUDITIONED TO PLAY FRODO.

Jake Gyllenhaal had a less-than-successful audition for the role of Frodo. “I remember auditioning for The Lord of the Rings and going in and not being told that I needed a British accent. I really do remember Peter Jackson saying to me, ‘You know that you have to do this in a British accent?’” Gyllenhaal later recalled. “We heard back it was literally one of the worst auditions.”

7. VIN DIESEL, LIAM NEESON, AND UMA THURMAN WERE UP FOR ROLES.

Among other could-have-beens in the casting department: Vin Diesel auditioned for Aragorn; Jackson called his performance “very compelling” but said that it didn’t “feel like Aragorn.” Jackson approached Richard O’Brien, best known as Riff Raff in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (which he also wrote), for the role of Gríma Wormtongue, but his agents turned it down, believing the films would be unsuccessful. Liam Neeson passed on the role of Boromir.

There were also “discussions,” recalls Jackson, about then-married couple Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman playing Faramir and Éowyn; “Ethan was a huge fan of the books and was very keen to be involved. Uma was less sure and rightly so, because we were revising how we saw Éowyn’s character literally as we went. In the end, Ethan let it go—with some reluctance.”

8. IAN HOLM HAD PLAYED FRODO BAGGINS YEARS EARLIER.


New Line Cinema

The Lord of the Rings trilogy marked a return to the Shire for Bilbo actor Ian Holm, who played Frodo in a 1981 radio dramatization of The Lord of the Rings, which was broadcast on BBC Radio 4. His performance in that factored into Jackson’s decision to offer him the Bilbo role.

9. CHRISTOPHER LEE WANTED TO PLAY GANDALF.

The late Christopher Lee was a The Lord of the Rings superfan who actually met J.R.R. Tolkien (“I was very much in awe of him, as you can imagine,” he told Cinefantastique) and wanted to robe up as Gandalf, a role that eventually went to Sir Ian McKellen. (Lee himself admitted that, by the time the movies came around, he was “too old” for the action-heavy role.) Lee even played a wizard in the TV series The New Adventures of Robin Hood specifically “to show anyone who was watching that I could play a wizard and that I would be ideal casting for The Lord of the Rings.” He sent Jackson a picture of himself in wizard duds, though “it was more in the nature of a joke, really. It wasn’t me putting myself forward at all, because I think Peter had already made up his mind” to cast him as the wizard Saruman.

10. THE PRODUCER REALLY WANTED TO KILL A HOBBIT.

Early on in the development process, before it found its eventual home at New Line Cinema, The Lord of the Rings trilogy was being made at Miramax. As Peter Jackson would later recall, Bob Weinstein really, really thought one of the four main Hobbits should die: “‘Well, we can’t have [all of them surviving],’ he said, ‘we’ve got to kill a Hobbit! I don’t care which one; you can pick—I’m not telling you who it should be: you pick out who you want to kill, but we’ve really got to kill one of those Hobbits!’ In situations like that, you just nod and smile and say, ‘Well, that’s something we can consider.’”

11. SEAN BEAN TREKKED UP A MOUNTAIN IN COSTUME.

Sean Bean typically opted against taking a helicopter up to some of The Fellowship of the Ring’s mountain filming locations, instead climbing to sets himself in full Boromir gear. “I used to be a bit terrified of flying,” he said, so “I had to walk the whole way, really. I was two hours behind everybody else on top of this mountain because I just didn’t want to get into any helicopters.”

12. FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS’S BRET MCKENZIE MADE A CAMEO.


New Line Cinema

Flight of the Conchords’s Bret McKenzie makes a brief appearance in The Fellowship of the Ring, playing an unnamed Elf during the Council of Elrond scene. Fan Iris Hadad latched onto the extra, naming him Figwit (short for “Frodo is great… who is that?”) and creating the fansite Figwit Lives in his honor. Peter Jackson, responding to the grassroots support for the character, added him to The Return of the King as “Elf Escort” and even gave him a line, “just [as] fun for the fans.” (In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, McKenzie plays an elf named Lindir. He’s not the same character as Figwit, the actor noted, because the two have “slightly different ears.”)

13. AN ENTIRE ACTION SCENE WAS DESTROYED BY A FLOOD.

The end of The Fellowship of the Ring originally featured a scene where the heroes are ambushed by a band of Orcs as they row through rapids on the Anduin river. “We had all kinds of action planned with boats flipping over … and Legolas’s boat afloat as it bucks and tosses, while the Elf—standing with a foot on each of the gunwales—would be firing arrows at the attackers,” Jackson shared. But Mother Nature had other ideas, and a massive flood—in addition to causing a state of emergency in Queenstown, New Zealand—washed the entire ambush set down the river.

14. BILL THE PONY WAS TWO PEOPLE IN A HORSE COSTUME.

Sam’s pony Bill was, in Fellowship’s Midgewater Marshes scene, actually a “panto pony,” due to the difficulty of working with a live animal in a swamp. Not sure what a “panto pony” is? Well, that’s a fancy way of saying Bill was a pony suit with one person in the front half and one person in the back. It wasn’t exactly easy to work with, either. “We had a terrible struggle to get the pony to walk through the marshes because the performers were completely blind, buried in this costume and up to their waists in a real swamp,” shared Jackson. “Bill would try to walk and then would start to wobble and everyone would have to rush in and catch him before he fell over! There was one hilarious moment where the front legs moved without the back legs and Bill got stretched into a sort of long sausage dog!”

15. SEAN BEAN WAS READING HIS SCRIPT DURING THE COUNCIL OF ELROND SCENE.

Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens were constantly in the process of revising the script, even during production; the actors would frequently get new dialogue to memorize the night before a particular scene was scheduled to shoot. That was the case with Boromir’s famous speech in The Fellowship of the Ring’s Council of Elrond scene. Look closely and you’ll see the actor occasionally lowering his eyes to look at the new script page, which was taped to his knee.

16. WOMEN IN BEARDS WERE USED AS EXTRAS.

A good chunk of the Riders of Rohan in The Two Towers and The Return of the King were actually women outfitted with fake beards. “There are some very good women riders in New Zealand, and it’d be silly not to take advantage of them,” Mortensen said in The Two Towers Extended Edition extras.

17. THE URUK-HAI AT HELM’S DEEP ARE NEW ZEALAND CRICKET FANS.

In the Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers, the chanting of the vicious Uruk-hai army was provided by a stadium full of New Zealand cricket fans. “There’s this Black Speech battle cry the Uruk do,” said executive producer Mark Ordesky. “We wrote it out phonetically on the Diamond Vision screen and Peter [Jackson] directed 25,000 people going ‘Rrwaaa harra farr rrara!”’

18. A SCENE WHERE ARAGORN FIGHTS SAURON IS IN THE RETURN OF THE KING … SORT OF.

Jackson filmed a scene for the end of The Return of the King where Aragorn goes toe-to-toe with the physical version of Sauron, in a sort of updated version of the Sauron-Isildur battle from the prologue of The Fellowship of the Ring. “By the time we had got to post-production,” Jackson remembers, the scene “no longer felt right,” so they cut it. But they did still use the footage: In the final battle, Aragorn can be seen battling a giant cave troll that was digitally superimposed over what was originally meant to be Sauron.

19. ONE OF THE MOST EMOTIONAL SCENES WAS SHOT OVER THE SPAN OF ONE YEAR.

It’s well known that all three Lord of the Rings movies were shot in one long stretch. As with most movies, the shoot wasn’t consecutive, meaning on any given day the schedule included scenes from all over the trilogy. Possibly the most extreme example of this has to do with the scene in The Return of the King where Frodo, urged by Gollum to think Sam has betrayed him, orders his loyal sidekick to go home. First Sam’s part was filmed, then Frodo’s … a year later. “Every time we cut to and fro between Frodo and Sam we are actually jumping back and forth across a year-long gap,” Jackson explained.

20. FRODO ORIGINALLY "STRAIGHT-OUT" MURDERED GOLLUM.

Sean Astin and Elijah Wood in 'The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring' (2001)
New Line Cinema

The final confrontation between Frodo and Gollum in The Return of the King was originally going to end with Frodo pushing Gollum off the ledge into Mount Doom; “straight-out murder,” Jackson admitted, “but at the time we were OK with it because we felt everyone wanted Frodo to kill Gollum. But, of course, it was very un-Tolkien, because it flew in the face of everything that he wanted his heroes to be.” Years later, the scene was re-shot as it ended up in the film.

Additional Sources:
Peter Jackson: A Film-Maker’s Journey, by Brian Sibley
Peter Jackson: From Prince of Splatter to Lord of the Rings, by Ian Pryor

This article originally appeared in 2016.

21 Fun Facts About Elf

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

Everyone knows the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear! But the second best way is to enjoy Elf. Revel in the giddy glow of this modern holiday classic with a slew of secrets from behind the scenes.

1. Jim Carrey was initially eyed to play Buddy the elf.

When David Berenbaum's spec script first emerged in 1993, Carrey was pre-Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and attached to front the Christmas film. However, it took another 10 years to get the project in motion, at which time Saturday Night Live star Will Ferrell was signed to star. Carrey would go on to headline his own Christmas offerings—the live-action How The Grinch Stole Christmas and the CGI animated A Christmas Carol.

2. Will Ferrell worked as a mall Santa.


Warner Bros.

And his A Night at the Roxbury co-star Chris Kattan was his elf. This was back when the pair were pre-Saturday Night Live, and part of the comedy troupe The Groundlings. Ferrell recollected to Spliced Wire, "I have some experience playing Santa Claus … Chris Kattan was my elf at this outdoor mall in Pasadena for five weeks, passing out candy canes. It was hilarious because little kids could care less about the elf. They just come right to Santa Claus. So by the second weekend, Kattan had dropped the whole affectation he was doing and was like (Ferrell makes a face of bitter boredom), 'Santa's over there, kid.'"

3. Director Jon Favreau favored practical effects.

Inspired by the Christmas specials he grew up with, Favreau explained in the film's commentary track that he employed “old techniques” instead of CGI whenever possible. This included stop-motion animation, and using forced perspective to make Buddy look like a giant among his elf peers. For North Pole scenes, two sets were built—one larger scale for the actors playing elves, the other smaller to make Buddy and Santa look big. These elements where then carefully overlaid in camera, using lighting to blend the seams.

4. Snow was often computer-generated.


Warner Home Video

Some effects just couldn't be practical. These included the snowflakes that drift over the opening credits, and many of the snowballs in Buddy's pivotal fight scene. It's probably not much of a shocker that much of these were added in post, considering Buddy's perfect aim. But to further underscore the drama that is a snowball fight in frosty New York, Favreau asked composer John Debney to give this section a Western vibe that would recall The Magnificent Seven.

5. Elf's production design was heavily influenced by Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.

The classic stop-motion Christmas special from 1964 gave a memorable presentation of Santa's winter wonderland to which Favreau wanted to pay tribute. The elves' costumes in Elf were inspired by those worn by Hermey and his peers in the animated film. And Elf's workshops were modeled after the Rankin/Bass designs, as were the stop-motion animals of the area. The production did secure permission for these allusions, and was even granted the privilege of using the company's signature snowman.

6. There's a Christmas Story cameo.

Peter Billingsley, who memorably played the Red Ryder-wanting Ralphie in the 1983 holiday classic, popped in to play Ming the elf. It's an uncredited role, but between the glasses and those bright baby blue eyes, Billingsley stands out as an A Christmas Story Easter egg. This marks just one of many Billingsley and Favreau's collaborations. Billingsley has been a producer on several of Favreau's film and television projects.

7. Jon Favreau played multiple parts in Elf.

Jon Favreau directs Will Ferrell in 'Elf' (2003)
Alan Markfield, New Line Productions

As a writer/director/actor, Favreau has often appeared in his own films. He fronted Made with friend Vince Vaughn, and later found a sweet supporting role for himself in Iron Man. You may have picked him out as the doctor in Elf, but on the DVD commentary, Favreau revealed he also tapped in to his inner narwhal and provided the voices for some of the stop-animation critters who see Buddy off from the North Pole. He also voiced the rabid raccoon Buddy encounters.

8. Baby buddy was fired.

To play the bubbly baby version of the titular elf, Favreau had initially cast twin boys whose blonde curly hair made them great little doubles for the mop-topped Ferrell. However, the production ran into a problem when the boys couldn't perform. Instead of smiling and crawling as needed, they cried relentlessly. To replace them, brunette triplet girls were brought in, who were far perkier and more playful, and thereby ready for their close-ups.

9. Buddy was bullied in an early version.

In first drafts of Berenbaum's Elf script, Buddy's decision to seek out his dad was in part because he was being hassled by the actual elves for being different. Favreau pushed to take out this element. He preferred to keep the North Pole characters warm, even when Buddy bugs them. In the DVD commentary, Favreau offers, “It explained why Buddy was doing all these good things in New York if he grew up in a world where everybody was so sweet even when he’s obviously screwing everything up and doesn’t fit in at all.”

10. Elf hockey hit the cutting room floor.

Poor Buddy accidentally wreaks all kinds of havoc on his elf community because of his ungainly size. One such scene of his well-meaning mayhem featured Buddy playing hockey on a frozen pond. The friendly game becomes unintentionally violent when the too-big Buddy takes to the ice. Though it was shot, it ended up being chopped from the finished film.

11. Elf was shot on location in New York when it counted.

Like many productions, this one took advantage of the financial benefits of filming in Canada, and much of Elf was shot in sound stages in Vancouver. However, when Buddy comes to New York, it was important to Favreau to shoot on location whenever possible. This includes all the Manhattan exteriors, as well as scenes shot at Rockefeller Center, Central Park, and Central Park West, where Buddy's dad lives.

12. Some of Elf’s sets were built in a horror factory.

Okay, technically it was an abandoned mental hospital, where the production team constructed the interior sets for Walter's Central Park West apartment, Gimbels's lavish toy department, and that grim prison cell. The facility is called Riverview Hospital, and it has played host to a long list of film and television productions, including The X-Files, Final Destination 2, Jennifer's Body, and See No Evil 2.

13. Macy's stood in for Gimbels.

The sprawling department store that takes up a whole block in Manhattan was digitally altered to transform into Elf's Gimbels. A bit awkward: Gimbels was once a real department store, and a noted rival of Macy's. Though immortalized here and in the 1947 classic Miracle on 34th Street, the department store closed its doors in 1987, its 100th year of operation.

14. Will Ferrell broke James Caan.


Warner Home Video

The Academy Award-nominated star of The Godfather was hired to play Walter in part because Favreau wanted a stern persona to play against Ferrell's giddy Buddy, and Caan took the comedy of Elf seriously. He knew it was crucial for Walter to be annoyed—never amused—by his supposed son's antics. But when it came to the blood test scene where Buddy bellows when pricked by a needle, Caan cracked. Watch closely and you'll see he turns away from the camera so as not to ruin the take.

15. The studio didn't get a joke from the mailroom sequence.

This was the last set piece shot for Elf, and one that filmmakers were wavering on from its conception late in production. Grizzled Mark Acheson's casting as Buddy's drinking buddy concerned execs because of the line, "I'm 26 years old." The studio noted the actor does not look 26, to which Favreau—who had previously cast Acheson in a small role that had been cut before production—responded that this disconnect was part of the joke.

16. Will Ferrell went method with those jack-in-the-boxes.

In the scene where Buddy suffers as a toy tester, he's subjected to popping open an endless stream of menacing jack-in-the-boxes. The anxiety etched on Ferrell's face in these scenes is real. Rather than standard jack-in-the-boxes that would pop at the song's end, these were remote controlled by Favreau, who purposely manipulated their timing to toy with his star and get authentic reactions.

17. Will Ferrell frolicked all over New York City in character.

The final day of Elf's New York shooting was pared down from a massive crew to just three people: its star, its director, and one cameraman. Together, this trio traveled around the city, looking for mischief for Buddy to get into with random passersby turned background extras. This included him leapfrogging across a pedestrian walk, happily accepting flyers, and getting his shoes shined, all of which made it into the movie's cheerful montage.

18. That epic burp was real, but overdubbed.

Though uncredited, that lengthy belch came not from Ferrell, but from noted voice actor Maurice LaMarche, who might be best known for Brain of Pinky and the Brain. LaMarche shared his secret to such an impressive burp with The A.V. Club, saying, "I’ve always been able to do this weird effect, where I turn my tongue, not inside out, but almost. I create a huge echo chamber with my tongue and my cheeks, and by doing a deep, almost Tuvan rasp in my throat, and bouncing it around off this echo chamber, I create something that sounds very much like a sustained deep burp."

19. Elf made its star stick.

In the movie, Buddy is happy to gobble down an endless supply of sweets, including maple syrup-coated spaghetti and cotton balls made of cotton candy. But this sugary diet played havoc on Ferrell, who told About Entertainment, "That was tough. I ingested a lot of sugar in this movie and I didn't get a lot of sleep. I constantly stayed up. But anything for the movie, I'm there. If it takes eating a lot of maple syrup, then I will—if that's what the job calls for."

20. Will Ferrell refuses to make Elf 2.

Though the comedian reprised the role of Ron Burgundy for Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues and returned as Mugatu in Zoolander 2, he flat out rejected the possibility of bringing back Buddy, even after being offered a reported $29 million. In December of 2013, he told USA TODAY, "I just think it would look slightly pathetic if I tried to squeeze back in the elf tights: Buddy the middle-aged elf."

21. Elf became a hit Broadway musical.

From November 2010 to January 2011, Elf the musical ran on Broadway, boasting songs like "World's Greatest Dad," "Nobody Cares About Santa," and "The Story of Buddy The Elf." This run was a huge success, taking in more than $1.4 million in one week, a record for the Al Hirschfield Theater where it debuted. Plus, The New York Times called it, "A splashy, peppy, sugar-sprinkled holiday entertainment." A revival hit in time for Christmas 2012, and national tours have been recurring.

Can You Guess J.K. Rowling's Fantastic Beast From Its Magical Power?

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER