When I left New Line Cinema in 2007 I was disillusioned and angry. It seemed to me that the studio had ignored its reputation for finding talent from within and squandered the momentum created by Lord of the Rings. I spoke my concern aloud and was told everything was fine and the company was doing well. I’d seen many sobering things about the way film studios where run (New Line and elsewhere) and I wanted to share them with others. I considered writing my thoughts down when I left, but decided to wait until I’d gotten some distance.
Then in 2008 the company closed. All of my co-workers lost their jobs. Some are still floundering. My commentary now felt like sour grapes.
And now, five years later, news of the upcoming “Hobbit” films has me living in a Time-machine. The images and stories coming out of Peter-Jackson-Land take me back to the Lord of the Rings years. Those films were a decade ago, but I’m back there the moment I see a trailer or poster for the new series. And the recent announcement of two Hobbit films becoming three has found me telling anecdotes or fielding questions from those around me.
So I’ve decided to record the thoughts and observations I gleaned by working at the film studio during its meteoric rise and whimpering fall. Hopefully it will be entertaining, interesting, and have a sober perspective. Thus, it seems appropriate to start with a favorite memory from Lord of the Rings:
When Return of the King was about to be released, no expense was spared in celebration of the trilogy. Around a dozen premiere screenings where held around the globe with the cast and crew literally going on a world tour. Those of us in Post Production found ourselves assigned to work various screenings. I was assigned the combination trip of London and Paris, and felt blessed to be given those premieres.
The Paris Premiere included an afternoon reception for the cast and filmmakers to meet key investors, dignitaries, and French special guests. I was in my role as tech-geek who slipped into bouncer-as-needed. The event was to be held in a library with underground levels, crazy back rooms, and suspended hallways.
On our way through the city many of us had noticed protestors in various places around Paris. We’d been told these were actors striking on behalf of the French actors union. It was not supposed to concern us.
The reception was underground, in a corner of this huge square structure and a long way from the escalators and exits we could see through the glass walls of the architecture. While our area was access-only there were plenty of people milling around the building. I was there early as they completed the final pieces of setup before the actors and filmmakers arrived en masse. There was small talk and I was able to enjoy myself since my primary role would come at the screening.
Suddenly, a murmur started through the group and the security guys got very nervous. The cast and crew were all corralled and we were told that the protestors from all over the city had collected outside the library and were coming to crash the party. When I looked down the long length of the library’s structure I could see a mob of people rounding the corner and headed our way, signs raised. Some library visitors were trying to talk them into stopping. Others were merely getting out of the way. With only a thin velvet rope between us and the approaching group, we were told we must use an emergency exit.
The response to this news was varied. Those tasked with security treated it as vitally important and matter-of-fact. Some of the actors asked why it was necessary. And a few of the New Line folks went into un-filtered panic.
I fell in with the rear of the line and looked back at the approaching protesters. I remember the signs and the rising chant. If I knew French I’m sure they would have made an even clearer impression. I stepped inside the four-story-tall metal escape staircase. Then the door was closed and locked behind me like some siege moment from Two Towers. Our group was strung out up the stairs in a thin startled line. Many people still had drinks in their hands.
Interestingly, most of the people who were supposed to operate as security were now outside the stairs. While I would have loved to see and hear the conversation they had with protestors, it meant we were now mostly a bunch of Hollywood types standing on a staircase. I had no idea what I could do to help, but I began working my way up to find whoever was in charge of, well… the stairs, I guess.
When I got about half way through our group, Tracy Lorie began to speak. She was the marketing executive in charge of this trip and was the first person to really explain why we’d been shoved and locked into an escape stair.
Upon hearing that we’d been separated from a bunch of fellow actors, some of the cast members suggested we go back down the stairs and find out what they want. Chief among this group was Bernard Hill, who played King Theoden. He reasoned that if they were actors they probably had a legitimate concern and might appreciate a fair conversation with our group. Two things came to my mind in that moment… first that this seemed like a logistical and safety nightmare, and secondly that Bernard Hill also played the Captain in Titanic.
Tracy Lorie did a masterful job of explaining that we were absolutely not going back down the stairs to commune with the protestors. Some of the actors pushed back at this, but Tracy was firm and clear that the situation couldn’t be controlled. I remember some of the marketing girls around me were actually crying in fear at this point. This didn’t seem nearly stressful or dangerous enough to warrant such a response, but I marveled at the huge sweep of emotions this moment was stirring.
The cars that had brought us to the event were being summoned. We waited, with Tracy ducking out of the top of the stairs a few times and returning each time a little more drenched. Yes, it was now raining and the clock was ticking in fear that the protestors might discover our escape route. (A long line of Audi hire-cars is not exactly subtle).
Cars arrived and men with dark suits and umbrellas began to escort stars into vehicles in assembly line fashion. I stayed back, pushing others forward and making myself available to Tracy. The staircase emptied. Little clusters of discarded cups gathered just inside the exit door. With each car that left a new local or two would wonder over, looking for celebrities and hunting for autographs. Eventually all the celebrity folks were gone and it was five of us left for a car that only had four places. We piled in anyway, all wet at this point and relieved that everyone was out.
Driving through Paris in the rain I remember Tracy thanking me for my help. I told her I hadn’t really done anything. She appreciated my ability to stay calm and be available. Since some of the marketing folks had acted like we’d barely avoided a terrorist attack, I suppose it made a bit of sense. Truth was, she was drenched and I was only damp. She was the hero of the day.
The screening went off without any problems. People crammed two theaters and we started them ten minutes apart. We gathered the filmmakers and stars in a private lobby to wait for the films to end. As credits rolled the stars wondered into theater one, getting a few minutes to speak as theater two was still watching the last few moments. Then that mob was let out into the world as the stars entertained theater two.
Overall the Paris Premiere was a success. But I will never forget the dinner where Tracy stood to explain more details about our evacuation from the reception:
“These actors are protesting against their treatment on big budget American movies… and here we are, a big budget American movie.”
To which Peter Jackson replied firmly, “It’s not an American movie, this is a New Zealand movie.”
That pretty much tells you all you need to know about Peter Jackson’s headspace. And again, Tracy Lorie took it all in stride and kept the events on track and the stars happy.
Now someone else is preparing to travel the world and deal with crowds for a new Peter Jackson Middle-Earth Trilogy. It feels like the same thing all over again.
Except it isn’t. New Line is now only a tiny shingle under Warner Brothers. Peter Jackson is now thin. I’m a father. And Tracy Lorie died earlier this year, her life cut short by a brain tumor. May she rest in peace. She was one of the best executives I met during my days at New Line. Lord of the Rings was one of the best experiences. And Paris was a trip I’ll never forget.
Great things amid terrible things. In Life, death, and movies.