Designing and Burning Rohan

 

squire: Of all the sets in The Two Towers, probably the least memorable is the little village in the Westfold of Rohan that is attacked and burned by Saruman’s orcs at the very beginning.

 

It was, of course, a location set. It presented far fewer problems than its big brother Edoras, and so the design team has little to say about it. But one or two interesting points do come up.

Peter Jackson: A very beautiful area called Poolburn was where we placed the Rohan village that gets attacked by the army of orcs. What I wanted was a huge vista like by John Ford, a cowboy-like vista where you have a massive landscape and tiny specks of people running and you see these little dots.

Ed Mulholland, Construction Supervisor: Poolburn itself was a dam that was built by the gold miners. It’s like a place where people go for holidays and apparently for trout fishing.

squire: A. Is Jackson coming from left field when he invokes John Ford? Are there influences or similarities between the look of Ford’s American westerns, and this part of The Lord of the Rings?

Darkstone: "The old masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.” Well, yes, Ford was a notorious liberal, but that didn’t seem to bother his oft collaborator, the conservative John Wayne.  Good films are good films (And bad films are bad films) despite personal politics.  And it’s interesting to note that the best American film ever made was inspired by the greatest American director who ever lived.  As Orson Welles said when he was asked where he learned filmmaking, he replied “From the old masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.”

squire: Are there influences or similarities between the look of Ford’s American westerns, and this part of The Lord of the Rings?

weaver: Westerns, one-sided sets, and safety first...Well..I have always felt this part of the film felt "different" though I don't know if I would have made the connection with a western until you pointed it out here. But the setting does look very "prairie-like" I guess, and a covered wagon would have fit in quite well there.  I commented before about how they had to walk a fine line in scenes that have elements to them that fall into the category of things that have now become film cliches. Westerns certainly fall into the cliche category, so if that's what Jackson was going for it more hurts than helps the scene to me. So in terms of setting and approach, the Rohan village burning plays more into cliche than originality, I guess.

Darkstone: Well John Ford did film the famous Cavalry Trilogy (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande).  Indeed he is said to have invented the “cavalry” film genre, so really who else would you go to for inspiration in portraying Tolkien’s horsemen on film?  Seems a no-brainer to me.

 

squire: B. Did this scene and its set pieces help or hurt the film’s attempt to create a reasonably authentic-looking “Rohan”?

weaver: I guess I never had a sense of Rohan apart from its major centers like the Golden Hall or Helm's Deep.  Similiarly, I don't have a sense of Gondor outside of Minas Tirith. 

Darkstone: Seems to set up the frontiersman lifestyle of the Rohirrim just right to me.

squire: What works?

weaver: What works for me more are the characters we get to see, rather than the settings.  The settings don't stand out to me one way or the other.

Darkstone: Everything.

squire: What doesn’t?

Darkstone: Nothing.

Peter Jackson: There’s a few fishermen’s huts there. They like little hutches, little cottages just on the shores of the lake.

Barrie Osbourne: One of the challenges was figuring out how to disguise those huts. A very convenient way was to make them into Rohan huts.

 

squire: Notice the single-sided sets that cover the existing huts. Like stage scenery, it only works from one point of view. In film, 360-degree sets are more expensive, so there has to be agreement between the director and the Art Department ahead of time as to what the specific shots will be. Some directors can work with this kind of discipline and forethought – others walk onto the set and change their minds, and the Art Department has to scramble at the last second to produce additional scenery and dressing to cover the new shot list. It’s expensive and stressful.
C. Do we ever hear of Jackson acting this way?

Darkstone: Not unless you count the Gollum thing.  Jackson seemed to have prevized a lot with the storyboards.  That's something most successful directors will tell you is the best way to save time and money:  Know what you're going to shoot and how you're going to shoot it before you even get into shooting.  Of course Jackson later did pickups, but even those were planned before execution rather than conceived while standing around on set as the money clock was ticking.

squire: By incorporating the huts into the village set, the film was forced to create the village right by the lake side.
D. Was this a good choice?

Darkstone: I would think so.

squire: Does the village make sense so close to the water?

weaver: The closeness of the Village to the water didn't bug me.  But I live in a place where all the major communities were founded on rivers, so it's a frame of reference that makes sense to me.  The fact that you only saw the village from one viewpoint, however, does contribute to my sense that the Rohan Village scenes are "different".  They feel less developed because we only see "one side" here, compared to other parts of the film where we get all of those different angles and views on a setting.

Darkstone: It wouldn’t make sense otherwise.  Think of all the other places of habitation in Middle-earth built close to the water:  Just from the movies Hobbiton, Rivendell, Lothlorien, Osgiliath, and Harlond.  Even Orthanc.  And similar places in the book like the Mirkwood caverns of the Elf-King, Laketown, Annúminas, Dol Amroth, and Pelargir.  That’s where you build cities: close to a water source.

Dan Hennah: So we built these Rohan thatched and stonework structures.
Barry Osbourne: That got a little more complicated when we decided we were going to burn the village down.

Dan Hennah: Burns are one-offs. You burn it and once the flames really get going it’s going to be thatch on fire and you shoot it for as long as you can because that’s all you’re going to get.

squire: E. Osbourne’s enjoying his irony, but what happened next? Did they burn the fishing huts down too, and reimburse the owners, or what?

Darkstone: Actually as the shot went on and on the extras got over enthusiastic (and a bit bored) and began piling stuff onto the fires.  Mainly one-of-a-kind articles of set dressing.  The art department freaked.

squire: F. What other “one-offs” do you remember seeing in The Lord of the Rings: scenes that seem so complex and difficult that they must have been staged and shot just once?

Darkstone: The burning of the Shire, the helicopter shot of Edoras, Aragorn floating down the Isen, the burning Nazgul at Weathertop, Denethor running while on fire.

FUNNY STORY:  “It was safe the whole time”

Peter Jackson: After they set fire to it, suddenly as the thing was burning the wind shifted and the whole wind swept around towards the camera and the camera crew actually turned around and ran.

Dan Hennah: What had happened was the two guys on the camera had sort of suddenly smelt smoke and smelt their hair suddenly starting to catch on fire and taken off. They ran away.
Barrie Osbourne: In fact the whole village burned down and we had one take. Thank goodness we had multiple cameras out there.
Crew member: The whole set’s burned down. (points) He’s the safety guy.


The Safety Guy

Safety Guy: Yeah, it was safe the whole time. Yup.

squire: G. It’s only sort of a Funny Story, isn’t it?

Ataahua: The funny story is even funnier when you realise the conversation was:

"He's the safety guy."
"Yep, I was safe the whole time."

Love that laconic humour.

I too wondered what happened with the baches* that burned down with the set! They *must* have bought them from the owners. I'd love to see what type of baches are down there now - nicely rebuilt with a deck and wee spa pool attached, mayhap?

*Bach - basic holiday home, originally with no running water or flush toilet facilities. Named after the bachelors that used to live in them. (Now 'baches' are often flash coastal homes - not baches at all in their strictest sense.)"

squire: I missed that! It makes more sense and is funnier, for sure.

All the same, the story makes one glad they didn't try to do the beacons scene "live".

Ataahua: *snort* Looking at how the 'fired' the cottages set, a live firing of the beacons might have endangered low-flying airplanes.

squire: What other risks did the production take?

 weaver: On the Safety issues -- I'm wondering if the films just seem like they had a lot of "dangerous" things happen during production because those are the main stories people tell on commentaries like these -- war stories are always the ones people remember most, aren't they?  Much more fun to talk about than all the things that went right...

Love the Safety Guy! Thanks for including that bit.

 

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