If you're going to make a biopic about J.R.R. Tolkien, you better know your stuff. Fortunately, Dome Karukoski was a major fan of Middle-earth and wider fantasy long before he came to direct Tolkien. The Finnish director previously worked on Tom of Finland and the country's smash-hit The Grump, but now sets his sights on the young life of J.R.R., charting his early years up to putting pen to paper on The Hobbit.
Screen Rant sat down with Karukoski recently in London to discuss bringing Tolkien to life.
Before the move to Birmingham, where did you film the countryside stuff?
Because Birmingham doesn’t exist as it did 100 years ago – and there’s a big, unfortunate and tragic reason for that. So we tried to find where we could shoot this. Do we shoot this in old districts in London? Where do we find a place with this infrastructure? We chose North Liverpool and Manchester as our main locations. And then, of course, the Sarehole Mill and Shire part is shot as close as possible – we had to kind of find his shire. We wouldn’t drive to the actual locations, because it’s production-wise impossible. The only location that had to be authentic was, of course, Oxford. Because it’s so instrumental. He didn’t live that long in the countryside. He moved from South Africa, so that’s not so elemental to him – but Oxford is. So it was very vital and important that we do location shoots at Oxford.
One of the things that stood out for me watching the movie was when he goes up and looks over the trench, and there’s the dragon. The effects on that looked incredible, it’s as if there is a real dragon there. How tough was is getting that effect – multiple effects like that – in a film that is essentially a character and dialogue-driven biopic?
That was one of my big worries. Being a Tolkien fan, I wanted to bring these elements in. Again, you know, none of them are finished. What you have to understand, first of all, is [none] of them are coming from the books, because he hasn’t written the books yet. And as he himself said, there’s no one-on-one inspiration. The idea is what helps is that you’re not connected to what it actually is in the books. What you’re connected to is – because I read the books before I saw the Jackson films, before I saw all the fantasy stuff today – I can only go back to my imagination, how I feel that world. And then you go back to how he’s a young man sketching that world; he’s building lines. So the dragon, of course, is Fafnir. It’s the story of Fafnir, it’s not Smaug or Glaurung from the Silmarillion. It’s Fafnir and his mind of a dragon, which is a mythological creature that represents your biggest fear. In this case it’s losing your friends and losing your love, so he’s confronting his biggest fear in that world. You have to go into the emotions, into what the character is feeling, and in that emotion he sees – because he has the mind of a genius – inspiration and elements, sketches of a painting that he later uses. It works, hopefully, because it’s intertwined with the emotion he’s feeling and isn’t just as a fantasy element in an action sequence.
You mentioned something very important about Tolkien and his origin, which is that it’s not allegory even though there are areas that come from his life.
Exactly. What I’ve always said is that it’s his own emotional turmoil. It’s not Mordor in terms of allegory, but he’s emotionally seeing turmoil when confronted with evil.
It’s impossible to look at the Front and not see the Marshes, for example. There are clearly things from his life that influenced him, but that’s not the intention of the text or the story he’s telling. How tough was it for you to make sure you included these elements that referenced the fancy he was going to create without misleading people into thinking, ‘Oh, Lord of the Rings is about World War I?’
I think it’s easier in the film than the trailer. In the trailer, we had a long process getting them so that they would somehow not try to convince people that what we’re showing them is British Mordor. That’s difficult. It’s easier in the film because you’re slowly building the emotional growth of the character, and through that emotional growth of the character, the visions and elements… It’s not just visions, but also what he hears, how the trees talk. It’s not yet Ents, but the trees talk, they have their own sound. So everything there is coming from the personal perspective of a young boy. It’s not important for me to include a specific fantasy element because I’m a Tolkien fan. For me it’s important that I show as a Tolkien fan how a young genius’ mind grows. And all of those elements could be taken almost from any mythology… So the important thing is to show a young boy who is reading all these mythologies and how his mind is growing, and then what you do is actually make it different.
Going a bit broader with Tolkien, early on you have a pronunciation moment. Was that an intentional thing to clear up all the mispronunciations of his name?
That was actually in the script. That specific scene was in the script before I arrived. We rewrote several drafts after I arrived, but that scene was in the script. I just liked the scene. I thought it was funny because I had mispronounced his name also. In Finnish you pronounce it like the wording is, so we pronounce it Tolk-en, but in production we heard so many people pronouncing Tolk-ine. I met so many Tolkien experts who were saying so specifically how long the “e” is. So it became a fun scene to have still, even though we rewrote the script so many ways. I think he experienced that a lot.
You talked about how the script changed. Was the ending, which I thought was such a fitting end to this origin story, always set?
Not in the way that it is in the film. That was one thing was a relief, because one of the things as a filmmaker when you make a biopic is how you narrow the time. With Tom of Finland, which was a really problematic film we worked on for years, what was most difficult was the [time frame]. With this, the time narrowing pretty much had been done. It was quite the same at least in the first script I read. That was a relief, and it was also a surprise because I knew the story of C.S. Lewis and the inklings, but I didn’t know this story. It was a kind of flash of love moment, this story of friendship. That’s cinema, a cinematic and epic story full of emotions. That was kind of in the script always.
From that script idea, you showed him growing from being a kid and you had five child actors growing into the main cast. How did you approach doing that and making sure the transition feels natural?
Nick I cast first, and then Lily next. I started from Nick and Lily, we met Nick first, but we had already auditioned several boys at that time. But once I locked Nick as my Tolkien, and we were able to secure that he could arrive from X-Men earlier and be in the film and rehearse, then we started casting the other boys surrounding Nick. And at the same time, we’re casting young boys – several young boys who look like each other. When we had the pack, we started mannerism rehearsals so that they would walk together. They would move and have certain mannerisms, like what’s their strong hand, how do they sit. And of course it has to change a little bit as you grow older, but you kind of find that way. Nadia Stacey in hair and makeup did a great job of changing them. So it was something that we took care of, so that your emotion doesn’t stop when the transition happens.
Obviously one of the big talking points around this film is the Tolkien estate, and them sort of dismissing the film. Why do you think that is, and do you have any feelings about that?
Actually, they haven’t seen the film. I’ve offered them a chance to watch the film with me, and I hope they take that offer. I would love to meet them, to show them the film, to hear their thoughts and discuss why certain artistic liberties have been taken. I hope, and I feel like when they see the film, they’ll notice that it was done with respect and admiration and love for the character. It doesn’t demonize his character, it’s emotionally very true. And what is great about their announcement is that it wasn’t hostile, it was more like, “We have nothing to do with this.” Which they kind of have to do so they don’t get 150 interview requests. I hope I can sit with them and watch the film. 9 out of 10 films are made without the estate for a reason, because even if it’s the most lovable estate in the world you start servicing them and not [making the film] for you as an artist.
Final question: what’s your favorite Lord of the Rings movie of the Jackson set?
Oh, jeez. Because of Helm’s Deep, the second one.
Next: Read Our Tolkien Review
- Tolkien (2019) release date: May 10, 2019