For The Desolation of Smaug, the second part of his Hobbit trilogy, Peter Jackson had the tricky task of bringing the story’s raging, intelligent dragon to life. He tells John Hazelton about how the second film brings certain freedoms.

When the subject of trilogies comes up, Peter Jackson, whose The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is the second part of a three-film version of the JRR Tolkien classic, cannot help chuckling to himself.

“I still can’t quite believe I’m doing it again,” says the genial New Zealander, who a decade ago turned Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings into the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful film trilogy of all time.

Another Jackson-directed trilogy was not, of course, the original plan. It was only in 2010 when Guillermo del Toro passed on making what was planned as a two-part version of The Hobbit that Jackson, already a writer and producer on the project, decided to direct as well.

He also opted to make the project another three-parter, using material from Tolkien’s appendices to The Lord of the Rings to fill out the story of Bilbo Baggins’ early adventures in Middle-earth.

Telling the second part of that story was something Jackson particularly enjoyed because in a trilogy’s second film, he says, “you get a certain amount of freedom. Firstly, you don’t have to set things up. You don’t have that half an hour where you’re just introducing the characters and the premise. Nor do you have the responsibility of ending the story, the climax and pay-off. The sole responsibility of this film is to just plant your foot on the gas and entertain people.”

Second nature

In this particular part two, Jackson and his fellow screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens (both The Lord of the Rings alumnae) and del Toro were trying to add “further complications and dangers” to the tale of a company of dwarves out to reclaim their lost mountain kingdom - and its abundant gold - from the fearsome dragon Smaug.

“Quite a bit of what we’re doing on the second film is ultimately leading into the third film,” Jackson explains. “One way or another, every character was influenced by the fact that should something happen to the dragon that’s not the end of the story - because there’s a lot of gold in that mountain and there’s only 13 dwarves.

“Middle-earth is no different to our world today. You can’t have a mountain full of gold ripe for the taking without a lot of people being interested in that for different reasons. So there’s the beginning of tension.”

As well as offering its makers creative freedom and dramatic scope, the second film also found Jackson hitting his personal stride, which maybe helps explain why The Desolation of Smaug, with its grand-scale adventure, has been lauded by critics who were less admiring of last year’s more playful part one, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (which still pleased audiences enough for a $1bn worldwide gross).

Though principal photography for all three films was completed over a single 266-day shoot that ended in July 2012, the story was filmed more or less chronologically so that the first film could be edited in time for Christmas release.

And by mid-shoot the director and his huge New Zealand-based crew were getting better acquainted with some of the new technology they were using, such as state-of-the-art Red Epic digital cameras shooting in 3D at 48 frames per second (fps) instead of the usual 24 frames.

“By the time we were into this stuff, we were getting a head of steam up and getting a degree of confidence with the equipment we had,” Jackson recalls. “Even as a director, I was beginning to get into my rhythm. I got into the groove and I think you can feel that bit of directing mojo on the screen.”

Not that making The Desolation of Smaug was exactly a walk in the shire.

For one thing, Jackson and co were keenly aware that fans of the Tolkien books would have high expectations for Smaug, who was glimpsed in the first film but is seen in all his raging - and talking - glory during the second film’s climactic sequence. “We knew we had the technology to do a dragon, that was no problem,” Jackson relates. “It was more of a storytelling, character thing - what is the character and how do we make this character memorable?

“Smaug is more intelligent than Bilbo,” Jackson adds, “so unlike Gollum, we wanted to have Smaug one step ahead and have his character and voice be as memorable as what he looks like.”

So while the team at Weta Digital (the New Zealand effects house Jackson co-founded) worked for two-and-a-half years on building the creature’s body, actor Benedict Cumberbatch recorded Smaug’s dialogue on a stage wearing motion capture gear, giving animators a reference for the dragon’s facial expressions. “The nuances in his face, eyes, lips, all of that was motion captured,” Jackson says.

Then there was the two-and-a-half months of pick-up shooting done early in 2013 to get crucial scenes from both the second and third films in the can. “It was a very intense 10 weeks of shooting,” says Jackson, “about the hardest 10 weeks of my life. On a normal movie some days are easier than others, but this was full on. This was key sequences for two movies. I was exhausted by the end of it.”

In post-production on the second film, Jackson worked on eliminating the high-definition video look that some critics of the first film said resulted from shooting the trilogy in 48fps. While the director still asserts that high frame rate is a better way to experience 3D, on this film, he says, “I spent a long time exploring the way in which you could get rid of the HD look. I did a lot of work on the colour grading and I think people will see a noticeable difference.”

Jackson also agreed with distributor Warner Bros to screen the film for critics only at the traditional 24fps. With An Unexpected Journey, Jackson suggests, “A lot of reviewers were reviewing both the frame rate and the movie and it was getting pretty muddled. We just wanted to let reviewers and press look at the movie as the movie.”

Audiences, by contrast, are getting more chances to see The Desolation of Smaug in the new format, with Warner reportedly boosting the number of high frame rate-capable cinemas showing the film by almost 50% in international markets and more than 50% in North America. That, says Jackson, reflects “the message that never really got out [last year] - that among the paying public so many people said they loved it.”

The director insists he is “not an evangelist for one thing or another.” But, he adds, film-makers have a responsibility to help keep audiences coming to cinemas: “I would rather people see this movie on a big screen than on their iPad. As film-makers we’re the ones harnessing the technology, we’re the ones who should be trying to think of how we get people into the cinema for a spectacular immersive experience.”

With the Hobbit trilogy now nearing completion - post-production on third episode The Hobbit: There and Back Again is all that remains to be done - Jackson hopes that in 2014 he will be able to move forward on his next scheduled directing assignment, The Adventures of Tintin: Prisoners of the Sun, the long-in-the-works sequel to Steven Spielberg’s 2011 animated/motion capture adventure.

But he also admits that after two Tolkien trilogies - plus King Kong and The Lovely Bones in the interim - he now has a hankering to do some work on a smaller scale with subjects closer to home.

Heavenly Creatures was the last time I really told a New Zealand story,” says Jackson of his 1994 drama with a pre-stardom Kate Winslet. “So I do have a desire at some point soon - whether it’s next or not I don’t know - to do some smaller films than The Hobbit, to tell some other great stories from my own country.”

And those stories would presumably be told one film at a time, rather than with the epic sweep of the Middle-earth series. Even for Peter Jackson, a trilogy of trilogies might be a bridge too far.