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Press Conference with Christopher Lee Leo

Christopher Lee
Christopher Lee
Excerpts from a Christopher Lee press conference during the Brussels International Festival of the Fantasy Film in Brussels. March 27, 2002-04-25

You have worked on two trilogies with two different directors, Peter Jackson and George Lucas, could you perhaps compare them a little bit?

Well... they are not two trilogies. One is a trilogy, the Lord of the Rings, the other is one film, which of course is part of six films. Now the Star Wars picture I did was number two, and number three will be made next year I think, and then that will be all, all six. And then eventually they will come out all together. The second one will come out in May and the third will start shooting, well I think next year. Maybe in Australia, I don’t know. Because for this film we worked in Australia, we worked in England.

But as far as the Lord of the Rings is concerned we did everything in New Zealand and we may have to go back, I don’t know. It will not be just me, it’ll be the whole cast. If the director and the editor decide they need something more, could be a few lines, could be a whole scene, we would have to go back. So I’ve been to New Zealand three times and I’ve worked on Star Wars… four times.

You asked me if I could compare, the answer is I can’t.

They are too different?

Well, your different, I’m different… So as people they are different. As directors they have style. Jackson is very hardworking with a great vision. Very strong physically, he had to be: he made three films at the same time, which no director has ever done in history. And he made these films over a period of about fifteen months. And I think he had something like between six and ten units working at the same time. That demands mental stability and terrific physical stamina. He’s a very strong man, physically, very strong. He’s also a New Zealander and every nation is different from another nation, so he’s completely different from other people.

George Lucas is American. He has the American style of making movies. He makes one movie at a time. Not three. And I think the main difference is… of course, they are both brilliant people, absolutely brilliant. Unique in a way… There is no comparison because one is Science Fiction, which, according to what George Lucas told me ehh… Star Wars is older then the Lord of the Rings, long time before and ehh… They have different ways of creating a picture, making a picture, editing a picture obviously like everybody.

George is very quiet. So is Peter. George is very easy and very relaxed. So is Peter but George didn’t have the pressure that Peter Jackson had, as you can imagine. The pressure Peter Jackson had to get the film finished on time. And now he’s working on the second one, and the second one comes out in December and then the third one next year.

You can’t really make a comparison because the stories are different, the people are different, the casts are different, the technicians are different… In Australia they were Australians, in New Zealand they were New Zealanders. They are different people, no question. I think the main difference is that what Peter Jackson did was from books already written by Tolkien, many years ago. I met Tolkien, in Oxford. I said ‘How do you do?’ And we spoke for a few minutes. I think he was a genius, Tolkien, because he invented a new world, well other authors have done that… Gulliver’s Travels, Alice in Wonderland etc. But what Tolkien did was unique. He not only invented a new world and new people, he invented new languages. Which you can actually learn! You can learn them and you can write them, Elvish. You can write it, you can learn it and you can speak it. And we do speak it, in the film. I suppose you’ve all seen the Lord of the Rings so you’ve heard there are people speaking Elvish. There are two Elvish languages, one is called Quenya. Which is based on Finnish. I speak that, briefly, and also the black speech of Mordor which I also speak briefly. And then of course there is Sindarin, which the other Elves speak. So most of the Elvish you hear in the film between Elrond and Arwen and other people is Sindarin, which is based on Welsh. Because Tolkien spoke all these languages.

Now my main point is that what Jackson did, which was brilliant, still came from the books of professor Tolkien and out of the mind of Tolkien. Now George Lucas has never written books about Star Wars who then, like Harry Potter, became films. Everything out of the Star Wars movies came out of the mind of one man, out of his imagination. And when you are shooting a film which has a lot of blue screen, which we had, only two people really knew what was going to be on the screen. One was George Lucas and the other one was the man who did all the special effects. Only two people really knew, and eventually there would be more but at the moment there would be only two people who knew what would be over there, or here, or right behind you. We didn’t know. Which makes it difficult. Working with blue screen is very difficult, you have to have a very strong imagination, well I’ve been an actor for nearly fifty-six years and I have a very strong imagination and I needed it. I needed it very strong.

Christopher Lee
When you met Mr. Jackson in London you auditioned for Gandalf…
No, I didn’t audition for Gandalf.
You read the part of Gandalf? Yes. Then he offered you the part of… No, not right away.

I was doing a television film in Britain called Ghormengast, which was wonderful I thought, and I got a message. I knew of course that the Lord of the Rings was being made, and when I heard that for the first time I thought ‘Ah.. fantastic’ Because when I first read the books when they came out I had this dream that one day they would make these books into a film. And then I thought ‘Oh no, this will never happen. It’s impossible, can’t be done. It’ll cost too much money, it will take too much time’ and so on and so forth. And I had this other dream that if they ever do make these films I want to be in them. Dreams don’t come true very often, but in this case it did.

But, I was making this television film for the BBC, I knew they were going to make the Lord of the Rings, I knew Peter Jackson’s work because I had seen some of it, and then I got this message saying will I go and meet him, in a church, in the back of a church, and would I mind being videotaped reading a scene. And I did. I went like this except I didn’t have a beard. And I went from the studios to this church, which was in Tottenham Court Road, and Peter Jackson was there with his wife Fran and with the two casting people. And he said ‘A lot of people have refused to come here and do this; they won’t be videotaped for a film here. They want an offer then they’ll come and read. So I am very grateful for you coming but may I ask why you came?’ And I said ‘Because I want to be in the film.’ I mean I know the books backwards, I read them every year. And I proved him so, he started asking me questions about the books and I answered all of them. And then he said ‘Would you mind reading this?’ And it was a scene between Gandalf and I think Frodo. It was either Frodo or Bilbo, I can’t remember. So I wondered ‘Will he ask me to play Gandalf? ‘ Which I’ve always dreamed of doing, but I thought ‘No he won’t offer me Gandalf because I’m too old, physically, to do it..’ And… although the fight you saw in the film between me and Ian McKellen, we did a lot of that ourselves, we did… and I still have a lot of bruises and marks.

So I thought he won’t offer me Gandalf but certainly I would read for him and so the man behind the camera read Frodo and I read Gandalf. And then he showed me a bit of pictures and photographs of locations in New Zealand, and he showed me what Gollum would look like, and he showed me what the other characters would look like, some of the sketches, some of the pictures… I thought this is incredible, this is wonderful and it’ll be fantastic if they make it. But he didn’t ask me if I would play Saruman. He never mentioned it. I found out that he always wanted me to play Saruman but he didn’t tell me. So I left, went on with my work, a few days later, well, maybe a week or two I can’t remember, my agent received a message saying they were sending me the script of the first film and they want me to play Saruman, simple as that.

Yes but what happened after that?

What do you mean? After that we did the movies.

No but I mean the process to get into character?

Ohh well that’s not difficult if you are a real actor. Getting into the skin of a character. Now I have read the books so I already knew a great deal about the character. I knew almost everything he ever said and what happened to him. And I knew that he had this enormous power, that he was the most powerful of all the wizards. The wizards are called Istari. And there were in fact five. There was Saruman the White, who as number one came to Middle-earth. There was Gandalf the Grey, Radagast the Brown. You don’t see him, you don’t even see him in the books. Then there were two other. They were called the Blue Wizards, Alatar and Pallando. But they are not in the Lord of the Rings, so really we don’t know what happened to them. Basically there are only two wizards in the Lord of the Rings who really mean anything and the important thing is that Saruman the White, who was the head of the council, the most intelligent one, the most powerful one, he was the most brilliant and he was, at a time, a very decent, kind and understanding man. But at some point, we don’t really know when because Tolkien doesn’t tell us, at some point he changes.

And the Lord of the Rings really is Sauron, I don’t know if you realise that, because Sauron made the One Ring to rule them al. So the Lord of the Rings is Sauron and Saruman, because he has the palantir and can see what’s going on, thinks he can become more powerful then Sauron. That he can be the Lord of the Rings and that is why he says to Gandalf: ‘You must join with me, we must join with Sauron, so that we can take over the world.’ Now what he really means is: ‘So that I can take over the world.’

There are two important things about Saruman the White, two very important things. He is not a human being, nor is Gandalf. They are immortal; they are Maia, which means, well, that they are not human beings. They are sent by the Valar, who are the gods, to Middle-earth hundreds of years ago. And I think the second important thing is the voice of Saruman. Because he has this quality, I tried to put it into the film and at certain times I do succeed, he has this quality in his voice that is hypnotic. He says to people: ‘what is all this trouble? Why are you all here? Why do you believe that I am not a good person?’ And he goes on talking like that, in this strange, strange way. And then somebody laughs, you’ve read the books, and it breaks the spell and he gets very angry, of course, because the true Saruman comes out.

Do you think that your voice is not always hypnotic?

I’ll tell you that when I read what you write.

You’ve mentioned the Voice of Saruman, which is a chapter in The Two Towers, can you tell us a bit more about your part in the second movie?

No. Because I am not allowed to, sorry. We all signed a document, everyone, even my wife signed it. We all signed this confidentiality agreement and we signed one for Star Wars as well. And we would never discuss anything, yes we could say who we played but we would never discuss what happened in the film. Now you know what happened in the first film so that’s not a problem. But I can’t tell you what happens in the second film, for two reasons. First of all I don’t know exactly how they are going to cut it and secondly because I haven’t seen it. And even if I did know I couldn’t tell you.

I’ll give you an example of this. We had the scripts of course. Many people had the scripts, and as far as the Lord of the Rings was concerned our name was across each page, as far as Star Wars was concerned there were little pieces of metal in each page. So if I sold you a page or the script they would always find out that it came from me. And I can tell you that some people tried to do this in Australia, for a lot of money. And one of them is in prison for two years. But I can tell you what the offer was for the script he stole. There was a collector who offered a certain amount of money for the script before the film came out. Do you know how much that was? … 150.000 dollar. That is the effect that these stories have on people.

And while I am on the subject, I was asked yesterday evening what I thought about the Oscar’s. And I said ‘Well, I will tell you.’ And I will tell you now. Basically we were talking about three films. Incidentally I voted for all the people who got the acting awards. I voted for Washington and Berry and for Broadbent and Connolly because I am an actor. And you can always tell if someone is really giving a performance or whether they are looking at a mirror while they are talking. Anyway, we were talking about three films. Gosford Park, very successful, has some very famous people in it. Very distinguished director, made some very fine films. Very good book.

A Beautiful Mind. Moving story, not accurate, not true. A lot of it was changed. And Mr. Nash is still alive, and he was at the Oscar’s, we’ve seen that in various newspapers. But, good book. Directed by an American director who has been in the motion picture business since he was a boy. Everybody knows him, everybody likes him. He is a very good director, Ron Howard, no question. And a very nice person. And I’m very glad, for his sake, that he got Best Director, and he’s a very good director and as I said; everybody knows him. He’s been in the industry for a very long time. And they are American. And I’m a member of the Academy, I vote. But most of them are Americans. Now that’s one point.

The second point is, never in the history of the Oscar’s has the Academy voted for a fantasy film. Never. Because the Lord of the Rings is a fantasy film, and so is Star Wars in a way. They have never given an Oscar to a fantasy film. They are going to have to when the second film comes out, and the third film. They can’t go on saying ‘this is not the best movie’ Because as far as I’m concerned the passion, the vision, the belief, the casting, the collaboration, the mind of the director, every single thing in the Lord of the Rings the Fellowship of the Ring… They were up for 13 Oscar’s! And in my opinion they should have gotten 13 Oscar’s. Because for me that film compared to the other two, which are good, the Lord of the Rings is up there. It is far, far, far better then the other two. I do not mean that the other two are not good films, but I think that the Lord of the Rings the Fellowship of the Ring is so superior in every way. And the books are wonderful. And it got the prize for photography, I’m very pleased. It got the prize for make-up, the make-up was superb. It got the prize for special effects, they were extraordinary… And they were done by New Zealanders! Not by ILM. So they got their four Oscar’s which they thoroughly deserved but I think it should have gotten Best Picture and Best Director.

Not Best Actor, not best actress, not possible. Not even best supporting actor or actress. Not possible. Not yet! If you are going to give an award to an actor or actress or a supporting part you must wait until you have seen everything, so you must wait until December 2003. Then you can give your acting awards. But I still feel very strongly and everybody I’ve met has said the same thing. Some of the directors I’ve met, some of the people I have spoken to. It was such a superior movie it should definitely have gotten the Oscar, and so should the director. But it didn’t, because, well… because they have never given that kind of film an Oscar. Never. Which is I think very sad, and a big mistake.

This film is still being shown all over the world and it came out in December. That’s four months. And they keep on going to see it. Some people have seen it thirty times! And the second film… they already have a trailer for the second film in the first film, so if you are going to see the first film you see the trailer for the second film. So people keep coming back. And it’s very easy to explain: never in the history of motion pictures has anybody ever seen a film like this one. There never has been a film like this one. There have been films about fantasy before, of course. But never like this. Never on this scale. Never with such a cast and such a director and such scenery and make-up and special effects. Never happened. And film number two and three will be just as good and maybe even better, I don’t know.

Christopher Lee
Christopher Lee and Leo
Because the characters are developed more. You see there are characters in film number two which aren’t in number one. I have a character with me called Wormtongue… Grima, who is my right hand. Who goes to the court of Rohan, to Theoden the Kind of Rohan and he weakens the King. This is all in the books. He weakens the King, he says: ‘Don’t fight, join with Saruman…’ and everything and so on. My orders. Now that character is not in the first film. But he is in the second one. And the actor who plays him is one of the best actors on any account. A man called Brad Dourif, a wonderful actor and he gives a marvellous performance. And the other characters, particularly Frodo and Sam get bigger and bigger and bigger with each film. So how can you judge performances in one film when there are three?

As I said, you can’t give best actor, not possible, not yet. It’s not like I will get it but someone will get an Oscar for their acting. And they should. But ehh… I feel very strongly about this film and everybody would say the same thing as I’m saying now, everyone. We feel very strongly about it, we are very proud of it, we are very proud to be in it. And we all think the Oscar’s should definitely have been given to this director and this film, and most people will agree.

Ringer staff member Leo is co-webmaster of TheFellowship.nl, the largest online Dutch community of Tolkien fans online. He can be emailed at leo@thefellowship.nl.

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