, ,

A dragon named Smaug and the writer who stalked him

by Phin Wong

In a career first, dear readers, I bring you an interview from a toilet.

Oh, hello, I said, rather uncomfortably, to the man emerging from the cubicle.

Oh Hi. replied Benedict Cumberbatch, a little taken aback.

We stood next to each other at the restroom sink of The Beverly Hilton, washing our hands quietly, as if respectfully waiting for Yo Yo Ma to hit the stage with Beethovens Symphony No 9.

Cumberbatch was in Los Angeles to promote The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug, the second film in Peter Jacksons Tolkien trilogy, along with his fellow cast members. We had just been chatting jauntily during a sanctioned interview earlier that morning at the ballroom, but now, as the hum of the hand-dryer from the last person to vacate the mens room died out in the background, there was not so much as a wisp of muzak to fill the silence.

Make conversation, I told myself: Talk to him about his motion-capture performance as the fearsome, fire-breathing dragon. I opened my mouth to speak but thankfully stopped in time before blurting: Good heavens, your Smaug is huge! Context, as always, is everything.

Finally, the Englishman polite to a fault, in a sharp navy suit broke the awkward silence. What I was trying to tell you about Martin, said Cumberbatch, is that he makes me laugh when he gets angry.

Martin Freeman, his co-star in both the Hobbit film and the television series Sherlock, and his penchant for flipping the bird had been the topic of our conversation during our interview.

That must not help the situation, I said, still washing my hands like an OCD Lady Macbeth. One does not want to be just hanging out in the mens room doing nothing.

No, it doesnt, said Cumberbatch, smiling deviously, before disappearing through the door with a friendly wave goodbye.

And that concludes the surreptitious, hard-won bathroom exclusive I call Tinkle Tailor Soldier Spy.

The air was unusually dry that California morning, causing the cast of Smaug to replenish their fluids with an unusually large amount of water. Like Sherlock, I deduced this from the clues in front of me. But mainly from the fact that everyone seemed to need to tinkle whenever I was in the room. Cumberbatch asked for a pee-pee break (Oops, I did not mean for you to hear that, he said, shyly), Evangeline Lilly dashed out of the room once I took my seat, and Luke Evans left to water the petunias when he heard the journalist from Singapore was next. Perhaps our reputation as the venue of the first World Toilet Summit precedes us.

In between draining the dragon, however, I managed to talk to the actors about the challenges of bringing a great dragon to life.

For Cumberbatch, inhabiting the role of a most specially greedy, strong and wicked worm Tolkiens words, not mine required not just voice acting, but an entire motion-capture performance. It is great. You are so free to play and imagine the world, because, obviously, you really have to do that as a mammal playing a reptile, said the 37-year-old actor. It was important for me to physicalise his voice, to inhabit his movements a little bit, so I gave the boys at Weta something to work with, to springboard off. Weta Workshop is the Oscar-winning New Zealand studio responsible for the special effects seen in all the Hobbit and Lord Of The Rings films.

You can see little bits of my movements and little bits of my face as well, because they did a separate motion capture of my face, he said.

Richard Armitage, who plays Thorin, the main dwarf on a mission to reclaim the Dwarven stronghold of Erebor from Smaug, was able to watch Cumberbatch at work. He (created) a complete physical performance to create muscularity in his voice, he said. Theres such intellect in Benedicts voice, which I think is making the dragon something thats beyond everyones imagination.

Freemans Bilbo Baggins, the titular Hobbit in the trilogy, also shares considerable screen time conversing with and scurrying frantically from the digital dragon. We didnt cross over, unfortunately, he said about not actually getting to perform a scene with Cumberbatch. His lines are being read in, and Im looking at tennis balls.

Not that Jackson didnt try to reunite the Sherlock co-stars in New Zealand. We tried, said the director, but the schedules never worked.

The only thing I kinda regretted about the job, continued Cumberbatch, was not being able to be in the same space as him.

But its also great to have a little break from (Martin), teased Jackson.

Oh, yeah. Everyone needs a little break from him, deadpanned Sherlock.

Working with Peter Jackson, on a Tolkien film, in New Zealand after the phenomenal success of the Lord Of The Rings films, which together racked up almost US$3 billion (S$3.75 billion) at the box office was everything an actor could have hoped it would be, said Luke Evans.

It was a real gift to get to do all of those things, said the 34-year-old Welsh actor, who plays Bard The Bowman. It was a wonderful experience.

Yes, on all accounts, working on The Hobbit was heaven. The actors should know, seeing as one of them was very nearly sent there.

Armitage was, in Jacksons words, sucked into a whirlpool while shooting one of the films main action sequences, where the dwarves go tumbling down a roaring river in dinky wooden barrels.

The sequence was completed using footage shot at both a studio where two V8 jet engines powered a raging water channel, and an actual location, the Pelorus River in Malborough a spot Jackson vacationed at with his family when he was a child. Richard would say its fast, but its a slow moving river, said the director.

We were in a river with a current having great fun overtaking each other and seeing who would get to the end first, said Armitage of the shoots pleasant beginnings. But in the same sequence, I was dragged under by that current when I got out of the barrel.

Never get out of a barrel dressed in a very porous, spongy costume in water that will drag you underneath, he said, laughing.

We had to send a couple of stunt guys up to drag him out, said Jackson. Im serious! Dont laugh it wasnt funny. Gosh, it wasnt funny at all. I thought Id have to play Thorin from that point on!

Near-fatal incidents aside, it seems the key to surviving an epic action-adventure film on this scale is Jackson himself. As Evans told TODAY: He trusts us and we trust him.

For Evangeline Lilly, who plays elf warrior Tauriel a completely new addition to the series it was Jacksons sense of humour that did the trick. Peter is one of the funniest people I know. He has zero respect for the craft of acting, she said, laughing. Its wonderful! Theres no pressure!

For me, when people treat acting like a secret art, what it says is what youre about to do is magic. And Im like, I dont know how to do magic! Thats terrifying! But Peter and I would just make fun of each other and just goof around, sometimes right till the point he would say, action. I feel like he was able to bring out some of my best performances, said the former Lost actress. (Lilly, by the way, also suffered an on-set mishap There was one time I got really whacked over the head. Like, hard to the point that I almost passed out I was seeing stars and the little birdies!).

Its feeling comfortable to take risks, said Cumberbatch post-pee-pee-break, a day after our hand-washing encounter of the Jackson Experience.

Youre in the hands of a master somebody who makes it so easy, convivial, familial, humorous and fun. It just facilitates you to not feel like too much of a twit when youre running around, in my case, in a mo-cap (motion-capture) suit, pretending to be a fire-breathing worm. And you feel free to do that with him.

For Jackson, his long, arduous, occasionally treacherous journey through Middle Earth an adventure that began two decades ago, when he and producing partner Fran Walsh were in the infancy stages of getting The Lord Of The Rings off the ground is worth all the Orc-stacles (that would be Orc-related obstacles, thank you) in the world. And its not because of one J R R Tolkien.

Its not particularly Tolkien, I have to say. And what I mean by that is that I grew up loving the escapism and magic of film. I grew up (watching) King Kong, Ray Harryhausen, Jason And the Argonauts I just love escapism, said the 52-year-old director. I just thought, This is what I like. You know, having a miserable time in school, and you go home and you can watch something that sweeps you away to a fantastical place. For me, that was always the attraction of film.

If it is 20 years of Tolkien, its 20 years of doing what I dreamt of doing when I was nine or 10 years old. I mean, how lucky is that? How many people get to do that? Im very, very fortunate.

@: Benedict Cumberbatch, hobbit: the desolation of smaug, ,