LOS ANGELES — Peter Jackson's heard the grumbling.
It's been a year since the first part of his film trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit — "An Unexpected Journey" — was released. And it will be another year after this week's "The Desolation of Smaug" hits theaters before the third film — "There and Back Again" — opens.
Fans don't like standing at the edge of the cliffhanger abyss waiting to see what happens. Jackson knows how they feel.
"I remember when I was about 17, 18, 19 years old, 'The Empire Strikes Back' had a big cliffhanger ending and it was like three years before the next one came out. We are being pretty generous at about a year. As a 'Breaking Bad' fan, I was hanging out a long time for that last half season. That was a big gap, too," Jackson says.
Why the gap? Jackson won't release a movie before it's absolutely ready. In the case of his adaptation of "Hobbit," that included adjustments once the plan to make only two movies increased to three.
The decision to expand to a trilogy came after the filming had wrapped for what would have been a two-film version. Jackson looked at the footage and realized he would either have to cut the two movies dramatically or reshape the work into three films. There was little doubt as to which way he would go, and 10 more weeks of filming was ordered to make it a trilogy.
"What it does is allow the characters to drive the story. In a novel, the writer of the novel is often the person who narrates the story and takes you on the journey. Tolkien's great at that, and it feels like he's right next to you telling you a bedtime story," Jackson says. "But in the movie, you don't want me on the screen talking about what's happening. The discipline of a film is you have to have the story told through the dialogue of the characters, through the action inside the characters.
"You want the narrative of the film to be told through either the dialogue your characters are saying or the actions that they do. That's really why we wanted to explore the character depth that we had done on 'Lord of the Rings.' "
It wasn't until near the end of filming that Jackson began to feel he had found the right groove for this tale. He looked at the movies as one large arch, but he tried to give each one its own identity. That was easiest with "The Desolation of Smaug" because he expects anyone who sees the movie will have seen the first. He didn't use a lot of time to explain the story and got right to the action.
The question became where to end the second film. The good thing was that because all three of the movies were shot at once, Jackson didn't have to worry about whether he would get to play out any cliffhanger. That footage had already been shot.
Jackson always looked at "The Hobbit" and "Lord of the Rings" movies as one long series. To make sure there's a constancy from "An Unexpected Journey" to "The Return of the King," the director had to make sure that all the "Hobbit" movies had as much depth, character development and story as "Rings." In the end, all six movies had to feel like the work of the same filmmaker.
There's no question Jackson brings a grand vision to the projects — from the largest vistas to the smallest creatures. So much of the movie exists only in his mind, and the actors must trust that what they are doing will eventually look like a fluid piece of cinema. Jackson tries to help them by showing the conceptual art, but he admits there were times during the filming he wasn't always sure what the backgrounds would look like.
The director was never worried because he demands from his actors the same thing he requires from the audience.
"It's the power of the imagination," he says. "It's the suspension of disbelief."
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.