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The history of pop culture is filled with iconic film trilogies. The original Star Wars trilogy, the Back to the Future trilogy and the Indiana Jones trilogy are all important icons of Hollywood history. These three-act stories captured the hearts and minds of viewers, and paved the way for the trilogy becoming the standard structure for big blockbuster series.
However, perhaps the most impressive and renowned film trilogy of all is Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Released in December of 2001, 2002 and 2003, this epic fantasy story is directly based on the trilogy of novels by author J. R. R. Tolkien. Featuring an all-star cast to portray a uniquely colorful cast of characters, the Lord of the Rings trilogy was renowned for bringing an epic fantasy story to life using practical special effects and emotional performances.
To celebrate this epic and charming series, here are 32 little-known facts about Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy:
#1 Sir Ian McKellen’s performance as the wizard Gandalf was not only masterful, but sometimes even improvisational.
The moment early in The Fellowship of the Ring when Gandalf bumps his head on the ceiling of Bilbo’s home was unscripted, unbeknownst to Peter Jackson. Jackson thought it was an accident and found it to be a great comedic moment to leave in the scene.
#2 Pippin’s Genuine Scream
Sir Ian McKellen isn’t the only actor able to, or forced to, improvise while filming the trilogy. Early in The Fellowship of the Ring, the character Peregrin “Pippin” Took screams in terror when a firework dragon goes off next to him. However, this scream was actually genuine. Billy Boyd, who plays Pippin, had no idea that the firework would actually explode while filming the scene, creating a genuine reaction of shock and fear.
#3 Christopher Lee, who plays the evil wizard Saruman the White in the trilogy, was actually a huge Lord of the Rings fan before appearing in the adaptation.
The late actor apparently read the novels once a year since they were published in 1954. He was also the only member of the cast and crew to have met author J.R.R. Tolkien in person. Tolkien actually gave Lee his blessing to play Gandalf, if there was ever a film adaptation of the trilogy. However, Peter Jackson offered him the role of Saruman instead, which Lee accepted because his age would not allow him to play the more action-heavy role of Gandalf.
#4 Many of the male warriors were women
The Two Towers and The Return of the King feature the Riders of Rohan, a group of warriors who specialize in mounted combat. However, many of these massive bearded men were actually portrayed by women. Many skilled female horseback riders from New Zealand were hired to portray the Riders of Rohan, disguised using fake beards.
#5 New Zealand natives were able to partake in the trilogy in another way, as well.
During the climactic Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers, the terrifying Uruk-hai army lets out a deafening war chant. This chant, spoken in the fantasy Black Speech language, was actually a recording of New Zealand cricket fans. Peter Jackson reportedly wrote the chant phonetically on a large screen, then directed thousands of cricket fans to chant the otherworldly language in unison.
#6 Many scenes in the trilogy were shot on-location, rather than on sets, particularly the scenes of the Fellowship crossing snowy mountains in Fellowship of the Ring.
While most of the cast would fly to these locations via helicopter, actor Sean Bean was afraid of flying and refused to board the helicopter. So, he would hike up the mountain every morning, trudging through snow dressed as his character Boromir, while the rest of the cast watched him from the air.
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#7 Viggo Mortensen, who portrays the heroic swordsman Aragorn, did all of his own stunts throughout the trilogy.
He even used a real sword while filming; rather than an aluminum or rubber stunt sword. By the end of filming he had become a master swordsman, with Olympic fencer and sword trainer Bob Anderson calling Mortensen, “the best swordsman I’ve ever trained.”
#8 It’s hard for audiences to wrap their heads around, but films are almost never shot in chronological order.
Ian McKellen’s experience playing Gandalf is a good example of this. His very first day of filming Lord of the Rings was Gandalf’s first appearance in the trilogy, riding his wagon to Bilbo’s house. The very next day, he was filming Gandalf’s final appearance in the trilogy as he leaves the Grey Havens.
#9 In addition to the dwarf warrior Gimli, actor John Rhys-Davies also voices the ancient forest-dwelling Treebeard in The Two Towers and The Return of the King.
Interestingly, rather than altering his voice digitally, the effect was achieved more naturally. Rhys-Davies simply spoke into a wooden megaphone to produce Treebeards memorably low and booming voice.
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#10 After filming three epic films together, Viggo Mortensen and his horse formed a bond.
So, Mortensen bought the horse after filming concluded so that he could keep it. He also bought the horse ridden by Liv Tyler’s character, Arwen, and then gave it to Tyler’s riding double as a gift.
#11 In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, a small effect can have a huge impact. For the scene where Bilbo Baggins drops The Ring on the floor of his home, the floor was magnetized.
This was to ensure that The Ring would fall straight to the floor and not bounce at all, appearing heavier than its simple appearance would suggest. This small effect demonstrates the heavy burden that The Ring carries, and foreshadows its very sinister nature.
#12 While Peter Jackson’s film adaptation strives to remain faithful to J. R. R. Tolkien’s original books, some changes were necessary.
For example, many events that happen in the novel version of The Two Towers instead occur in the film version of the following book, The Return of the King. This was to ensure that each film ends on a dramatic high-note, or that every character has enough to do in each film. So, Frodo’s encounter with Shelob was pushed to the third film, and the second film’s grand finale is instead the Battle for Helm’s Deep, which actually happens towards the middle of the book.
#13 After the end of shooting, each member of the cast received a unique prop that was specific to their character.
Sean Astin received Samwise Gamgee’s backpack and sword, while Orlando Bloom was given Legolas’ bow. Miranda Otto received the dress and sword used by her character Eowyn, while Liv Tyler received her character Arwen’s “dying dress”.
#14 Boromir’s speech during the Council of Elrond in The Fellowship of the Ring, where he explains that “one does not simply walk into Mordor,” is one of the trilogy’s most iconic moments.
However, actor Sean Bean was actually reading straight from his script when he delivered the speech. Throughout filming, director Peter Jackson and writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens were constantly rewriting the film’s script. Boromir’s speech was rewritten last-minute, forcing Sean Bean to read the new speech rather than memorizing it.
#15 Even behind-the-scenes crew members were given a moment to shine in Lord of the Rings.
In The Fellowship of the Ring, there is a scene where many orcs are shown crafting weapons for war. These orcs are portrayed by members of the WETA Workshop, the hard-working group who made all of the flawless props for the trilogy.
#16 Eight of the actors who portray the nine members of the Fellowship of the Ring all agreed to get matching tattoos to remember the production.
Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Bean, Orlando Bloom, Billy Boyd, and Dominic Monaghan all received a tattoo of the number nine in the series’ Elvish language. The only actor who refused the tattoo was Gimli’s actor, John Rhys-Davies, so his stunt double Brett Beattie got the matching tattoo instead.
#17 The Lord of the Rings films are known to be quite lengthy, and each film has an Extended Edition that makes it even longer.
The Fellowship of the Ring is 178 minutes long, while the Extended Edition is 208 minutes. The Two Towers is 179 minutes, or 226 minutes extended. The Return of the King normal cut is 201 minutes, while the Extended cut is 252 minutes. So, watching all three Extended Editions of the trilogy back-to-back would take almost eleven-and-a-half hours.
However, he also featured in a previous adaptation of Lord of the Rings. Holms voiced Frodo Baggins, his live-action character’s nephew, in a BBC Radio adaptation of Lord of the Rings back in 1981.
#19 Special care was taken to ensure that no horses were harmed during filming.
Rather than using horses during intense battle scenes, horses and their riders were scanned and then digitally placed into battles using CGI. This ensures that nothing could go wrong and injure a horse during a hectic action sequence. Of the nearly three-hundred horses used throughout filming, none were harmed.
#20 The trilogy features a large number of disgusting, monstrous orcs.
While extensive makeup and prosthetics were used to turn human actors into orcs, there was one simple solution used to complete the look. A licorice-based mouthwash was used by all actors playing orcs, in order to turn the inside of their mouths black. This makes the creatures seem even more unsettling, and reflects the fact that orcs have black blood rather than red.
#21 Another simple and practical effect was used for the scene where Frodo is stabbed by the massive spider Shelob.
In this scene, Frodo is stung and begins foaming at the mouth as the poison begins to paralyze him. This effect was achieved by having actor Elijah Wood bite into two Alka-Seltzer tablets kept under his tongue. The tablets immediately began foaming, which Wood then let run out of his mouth.
#22 Unlike almost every other movie trilogy, the Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed non-stop as basically one long movie.
This meant that two scenes from two different films might be shot on the same day. It also meant that all three films were in post-production at the same time, being edited by three different editors simultaneously.
#23 Andy Serkis’ performance as Gollum is not only one of the trilogy’s most iconic features, but it also changed the future of CGI.
Gollum’s status as the first fully realized digital character paved the way for future performances like Planet of the Apes’ Caesar or Guardians of the Galaxy’s Rocket. A new technique, called subsurface scattering, was used to make Gollum seem more real than any prior digital character. The technique allows light to realistically pass through the character’s skin, most noticeably their ears and fingertips.
#24 There were a number of serious injuries suffered by the cast throughout filming, though nothing life-threatening.
When Frodo is stabbed by Shelob’s stinger, actor Elijah Wood was actually stabbed in the back with a prop. The injury forced him to remain in the hospital for a few days to recover. Sean Astin’s foot was also severely cut by a piece of glass in a scene where his character Samwise Gamgee runs into a river. For a scene in The Two Towers where Aragorn is overcome with grief, actor Viggo Mortensen kicked a helmet before wailing. Mortensen actually broke his toe when he kicked the helmet, and his scream was one of genuine physical pain. However, the performance was so powerful and convincing that Peter Jackson actually used it in the film.
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#25 While it may not seem immediately obvious, the four actors who play the Hobbits were required to go through extensive makeup application.
In order to create the Hobbits’ signature large, hairy feet, an hour and a half of makeup was required to apply the prosthetics.
#26 The role of Aragorn went through a number of different actors before finally settling on Viggo Mortensen.
Actor Nicolas Cage was apparently offered the role, but he declined. Vin Diesel also auditioned, but was not chosen. Then actor Stuart Townsend was given the part, but after two months of training he was fired and replaced by Mortensen the day before filming began. Apparently Russell Crowe and Jason Patric were also considered as back-up choices, with Crowe having recently played a similar role in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator.
#27 Since much of the trilogy was filmed in New Zealand, it only makes sense for a New Zealand celebrity to make an appearance.
Bret McKenzie, a member of the musical comedy duo Flight of the Conchords, appears as an elf in both The Fellowship of the Ring and The Return of the King. McKenzie’s character, dubbed Figwit, became a fan-favorite character with his own fansite, Figwit Lives!
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#28 Even the most meticulously laid plans can be thwarted by Mother Nature.
Initially a large action scene was planned for The Fellowship of the Ring, which would involve our heroes being ambushed by orcs as they travel down the Anduin River. However, a massive flood destroyed all of the sets and props that were being prepared for this action sequence, as well as causing a state of alert in New Zealand.
#29 Not every effect in the Lord of the Rings trilogy could be accomplished practically.
So, for huge battle scenes such as Helm’s Deep or the Black Gate, a computer program called MASSIVE was used. This program can create thousands of digital soldiers, who are then programmed to battle each other using artificial intelligence. Lord of the Rings was one of the first series to use the MASSIVE program.
#30 Before Peter Jackson’s adaptation, a big-name group wanted to make a live-action Lord of the Rings film in the 1960s.
Apparently The Beatles tried to have director Stanley Kubrick direct an adaptation, and the four musicians would then appear in starring roles. Paul McCartney would play Frodo Baggins, Ringo Starr would play Samwise Gamgee, George Harrison would play Gandalf, and John Lennon would play Gollum. It was the author J. R. R. Tolkien himself who shut down the film, because he did not like the idea.
#31 The screeching cry of the Nazghul, who hunt the One Ring throughout the trilogy, is an iconic element of the Lord of the Rings.
However, this terrifying sound actually has a very humble origin. Sound technicians created the iconic cry by rubbing two plastic cups together and then distorting the sound that it produced.
#32 The final day of filming on the trilogy took place almost a month after the release of The Return of the King and three weeks after the film won Best Picture at the 2004 Academy Awards.
Peter Jackson decided to film one final shot of skulls lining the walls of the Paths of the Dead, to include in the Extended Edition of The Return of the King. This is likely the only Best Picture Oscar winner to continue filming after it had already won the award.
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