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Moviegoers across the country were able to see Tolkien ahead of its release this Friday, along with a Q&A moderated by Lord of the Rings super-fan Stephen Colbert, even if they weren’t at the Montclair Film Festival in New Jersey on Tuesday for the first-ever screening of the movie.
The panel, featuring the Fox Searchlight film’s stars Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins with director Dome Karukoski, was simulcast to select theaters following special screenings. In Montclair, Karukoski revealed what goes into a film like Tolkien, which chronicles the formative years of J.R.R. Tolkien’s life as he forms friendships, goes to war and falls in love.
Karukoski, of course, used every resource available, including filmed interviews between the author and BBC; Tolkien, however, was already in his 60s at that point.
“So the young Tolkien, the young character whose story we’re telling, happened 100 years ago,” Karukoski told The Hollywood Reporter. “I read everything I could find. I listened to every interview. But when you listen, you try to hear through the older gentleman explaining what the young voice is.”
Karukoski also met with numerous Tolkien experts, but because he went to art school, he was able to analyze some of Tolkien’s illustrations, as well.
“Those small things tell and shape who the character is,” he said. “Or, like his letters, what does he not write about? He doesn’t write about his mother … so that shows, again, something about himself.”
Hoult plays Tolkien, and described a similar research process to Karukoski’s: lots of reading “everything I could basically get ahold of.”
“Then I kind of patched it all together,” he told THR. “Because it’s not doing an impression, it’s kind of trying to figure out how that all fits into this story and those relationships.”
Hoult was familiar with Tolkien’s work prior to taking on the role, but making the film changed the way he saw some of the author’s writings. “Reading his work again after understanding his love of language and where his ideas come from, it gave me a whole new perspective in terms of the depth of it and how incredibly immersed he was in these worlds,” said the actor.
The Tolkien family and the Tolkien estate weren’t involved in the creation of the film (the family has actually said they did not approve of or “authorize” the pic), but Karukoski took this as a positive thing.
“I usually don’t work with the estate, because easily you start writing the so-called ‘winners history.’ Even if they don’t try to influence what happens, they become your friends and you start to service them,” the filmmaker told THR. “I have had experiences in my life when I worked with the estate; for instance, I have two scripts that never became films because it was impossible to make the dramatic film work when it was trying to be of too much service to them.”
An aspect that Karukoski did incorporate into the movie was Tolkien’s Catholicism, because he believes it ultimately influenced the author’s work. Karukoski explained that he initially intended to include more scenes with Father Francis (Colm Meaney) and a young Tolkien, but he ultimately cut them — including one where Father Francis administers last rites, intercut with Tolkien greeting death at the end of his life. The scene will be available on the DVD extras, though.
Ultimately, Karukoski knows Tolkien won’t “please everybody,” but at its core, he said the film is less of a biopic about the famed author and more of a drama centered on love and friendship. The movie also isn’t “fictional in the sense of making up events,” according to Karukoski. Instead, he tried to “service the emotional truth of the characters.”
One example he gave is Tolkien’s wedding to his wife, Edith (Collins). “We tried to have it exactly factual, like all the scenes as they exactly were. But it took 20 minutes of screen time and they didn’t feel,” Karukoski said. “I didn’t feel what the characters [felt]. So I rewrote it to six minutes, so it actually flushed out the emotions they felt. [It’s] easier [for the audience] to feel and easier to understand who Tolkien is and who his wife is.”
To determine the latter, Collins said she didn’t have a lot to go off of. “It’s very limited what someone can really do on Edith, or as much as I would have wanted to do,” the actress told THR. “But I did find some information on her that Dome and I had kind of dug deep to find, as well as some images and photos of her alone, but also of her and Tolkien.”
Collins added that she “really responded to the charm and the spark” behind Edith’s eyes. “It kind of helped lead into this cheekiness I felt she had, even as a poised woman of that period,” she said.
During the Q&A, Colbert told Collins he particularly admired the part in the film where she dances under a tree. “I see all the references to the characters that she inspired,” Colbert said.
But for that scene, Collins herself was inspired by the band Florence + the Machine. “I went to Coachella years ago and she was barefoot, with long curly hair, tassels on, wearing lots of colors,” said the actress, describing vocalist Florence Welch as “in with nature” and “ethereal.”
Throughout the panel, Colbert’s passion for everything Tolkien was on full display. He explained that it was this intense fandom that prompted director Peter Jackson to invite him to be in The Hobbit.
“I was officiating a wedding, and a friend of the bride and groom came up to me and said, ‘This is from Peter Jackson,’ and he gave me a tube and I unrolled a scroll from this tube,” Colbert explained. “It was on a piece of stationary that had Tolkien’s illustration for Smaug on the top — like his watercolor for Smaug on the top. And it said, ‘Come on down and bring your family and be in the movie. We’ll have fun.’ And so we flew down a month later.”
To close out the Q&A, Colbert praised Karukoski’s efforts and Tolkien itself. “Thank you for the film you created. It reminds me of the power of story, and how it can give us hope,” the late-night host said before citing one of Tolkien’s quotes from The Return of the King: “I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.”
Continued Colbert, “I cried many times watching this film, and I want to thank you for those tears of pain and of those tears of joy and thank you for what you have given me of his [Tolkien’s] life and for your beautiful performances.”
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