Where’s the Part One?

Thursday, November 15th, 2018

Ralph Bakshi’s animated The Lord of the Rings hit theaters on Nov. 15, 1978, after taking a hard road, a road unforeseen:

“I’m sitting in my office and I read that United Artists was going to make Lord of the Rings as a live-action picture written and directed by John Boorman,” says the now-80-year-old animation director, whose success with adult-oriented cult favorites Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic paved the way for him to make Wizards at the time. “But they were going to condense three books into one picture and add extra characters to make it work. For a Tolkien fan, I thought that was the stupidest thing I’d heard in my fuckin’ life. … You can’t squeeze those three books into one picture unless you’re making a Roger Corman film.”

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The $1.3 million budgeted, politically acute Wizards incorporated a number of Tolkienesque characters in its post-apocalyptic setting, from fairies and elves and dwarves to the title characters themselves. As Bakshi’s animation studio was finishing the film, he learned that Mike Medavoy, who was running United Artists at the time, had put Boorman’s adaptation into turnaround.

“I thought, ‘Wait a minute, why don’t I go make the film?’ recalls Bakshi. “So I call up Mike Medavoy and I go to United Artists, which in those days were on the same lot as MGM. In the main building on one side of the building was MGM — which Dan Melnick ran in those days — and on the other side was Mike Medavoy at UA. I went to see Mike in his office and he says, ‘Look, I’ve got this script and I don’t understand it. I never read the book. We don’t want to make the picture. What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘I want to animate it. Three pictures.’ He said, ‘We don’t want the picture. What we want is our three million dollars back for the screenplay that we paid Boorman. So I’ll give you the rights, and if you can get our money back you can make the picture any way you want.’ True story.”

So Bakshi went straight across the hall to MGM to try to persuade Melnick. Peter Bogdanavich happened to be pitching a project with the studio head behind closed doors, but Bakshi talked his way into the office and dangled the rights to Rings in front of them. Melnick immediately bit. “Bogdanavich had to leave the room, never to speak to me again for the rest of my life,” says Bakshi with a chuckle. “We crossed the hallway to Medavoy’s office and Danny says to Mike, ‘Okay, I want to make the film with Ralph. What do you want?’ And Mike says, ‘Three million dollars for my screenplay back. And Melnick says, ‘You got it.’ They shake hands. Medavoy, whose job was just saved, gets on his feet and shakes my hand, almost crying. I got back his money. He was off the hook.” Bakshi then immediately got on the phone with his lawyer, Bruce Ramer (also Steven Spielberg’s lawyer, who infamously named the shark from Jaws after him), who sealed the deal with MGM that afternoon.

“So I’ve got the rights, I’ve got the film financing from MGM, Medavoy’s off the hook, I’m going to make three pictures, and I’ve also got $200,000 to start the storyboards. It wasn’t a bad day’s work, right?”

As Bakshi’s animation company was winding up Wizards, a whole division was established to develop The Lord of the Rings. Then he read in the trades that Dan Melnick just got fired. “I thought, ‘Shhhhit,’” groans Bakshi. Richard Shepherd was now heading up production at MGM, so the director and his lawyer set up a meeting to confirm that the project was still on track. “He says, ‘I don’t understand the picture. I don’t want to make it,’” recalls Bakshi. “You had two people in Hollywood in those days; people who read books who got the picture, and people who didn’t read books and didn’t get the picture. ‘Is Lord of the Rings about a wedding?’ I said, ‘No, it’s not about a wedding.’ Now I’m angry.”

Bakshi wanted the rights back and Shepherd wanted his money back. But the animation director was headway into pre-production and did not have the funds to simply hand back the $200,000. So he called producer/record exec Saul Zaentz, who “made a fortune” on the Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic soundtracks: “Saul Zaentz had made One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on the Fritz the Cat money he made. Fritz the Cat was done for under a million dollars and made at some point $60 or $70 million, so he was rolling in money. He gets on a plane that afternoon, he makes a deal with my lawyer to finance all three films and pay MGM back their money and have UA distribute the film — that’s Medavoy, who’s more than happy because now he gets his film back without him putting a penny in it. So I’m set.”

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Armed with a script delivered after multiple revisions by Peter S. Beagle and Chris Conkling, Bakshi had his blessing and was ready to go with the first film in the series, budgeted at $8 million. “A fortune for me; I’m rolling in dough,” he says. Given carte blanche and the choice of making a live-action or an animated adaptation of the sprawling story, Bakshi sided with animation: “I owed it to my guys. All the animators were my friends and I didn’t want to let them go. It was a question of getting behind my guys who stood behind me on all my films.”

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“We didn’t have motion control in those days; there were no computers,” he says. “[Rotoscoping] was a tremendous way to get realism in a picture. … When it came to Rings I was really trapped on the deadline. I came up with the technique of instead of tracing the photograph, I would put the actual photograph [in high-contrast] right on the animated cel and paint it. … The short time allowed me to take a chance on some stuff that worked out unbelievably.… If a director has no money, he’s got to find a way to find the style or shooting technique to make the lack of money disappear and at least be emotionally right, which is everything. Without emotion, you don’t have a scene.”

I could have sworn I’d mentioned this anecdote before:

While upwards of 3,000 animators worked diligently on the established footage, Bakshi hammered away at the Orc action scenes and the battle of Helm’s Deep in Spain, battling the elements — and some politics — in the process. The crew shot at The Castle of Belmonte, the same 15th-century stronghold in Castilla-La Mancha that hosted Charlton Heston’s production of El Cid.

“I’m on the wall of the castle, it’s windy, it’s cold, I’m freezing,” says Bakshi of one particular battle sequence that employed nine cameras to run at once. “Coming in from the various towns are hundreds and hundreds of townsfolk, they all line up, they get fed, they’re going to be Orcs with shields, spears, costumes. All morning and in the afternoon we’re dressing, and now we’re running around doing composition. … We’re finally ready to roll, so I said, ‘Roll camera one, roll camera two, roll camera three, roll camera four, roll camera five’ — we only have one take on this so I have all the cameras rolling. By the time I get to camera six, some guy stands up in the middle of the composition, takes off his head and helmet — he’s the communist leader — he said, ’It’s time for lunch!’ Everyone drops their spears and their costumes and they walk off to lunch. But not to miss a shot, I keep the cameras rolling. I knew at the end of Helm’s Deep I’d have to get some shot of Orcs walking away in disgust. So we used a couple shots of people walking away later in the film. And we had to reset and reshoot and we finally got the shot. I’ll never forget it.”

I can’t believe Bakshi made the film without taking advantage of any of this:

As the picture was taking shape, both Led Zeppelin and Mick Jagger circled the project with interest. Zeppelin is well known for their multiple Rings references (to Mordor, Gollum, Ringwraiths and more) in such songs as “Ramble On,” “Misty Mountain Hop” and “The Battle of Evermore.” Bakshi approached the band to use their music as the soundtrack to the film and he says they responded with an enthusiastic “absolutely!” But according to Bakshi, producer Zaentz, which owned Fantasy Records, couldn’t get the music rights, as the top-selling band’s contract prevented them from working for another label. “He passed and he got me Leonard Rosenman [to compose the orchestral soundtrack],” says Bakshi. “He was good. I didn’t mind him. He had a good reputation. But Led Zeppelin would have blown off the roof of the picture. So I lost that one.”

As for Jagger, the Rolling Stones frontman learned of the production and was keen on getting involved. “So I get a call from Mick Jagger — he wanted to come up and see what we were doing on Rings,” recalls Bakshi.“[My studio on Hollywood and Vine] is full of college kids all graduated from art school, a very young group. So I’m walking through the studio with Mick Jagger and the girls start to scream and faint. I had 2,200-3,000 people working on four floors, and the word spread to each floor that Jagger is walking around, and people got from one floor to the other through the staircase, and there was thunder like horsemen coming down, shaking the staircase. My son was there for the summer and he was terrified — he hid in the bathroom. So that was just hysterical. … [Jagger] wanted to do the voice of Frodo. I told him I would have used him easily but I was already recorded and everything. He’d be a pretty good Frodo, I guess. I don’t know.”

The film is flawed, but its fatal flaw isn’t really Bakshi’s fault:

“I wanted three or four more months for editing. I was exhausted. I was tired. I was burnt out from Spain and shooting, and I didn’t want to make the deadline, which was [right before] Christmas,” he remembers. “What you’re looking at is the first rough try on my part. So I had a big fight with [the studio to buy more time]. ‘We can’t. We’ve got the theaters booked, we’ve got the popcorn in the theaters — you know, that bullshit. So that was the first blow. The second blow was when I handed it in a week before release, what we used to call wet prints, to the theater. They showed me the advertising campaign and I said, ‘Where’s the Part One?’ And that’s when I found out.”

A key criticism of Bakshi’s Rings final cut was the fact that the story simply ends after the battle of Helm’s Deep, with a narrative voiceover explaining, “as their gallant battle ended, so too ends the first great tale of The Lord of the Rings.” Fans of the source material felt duped, and even the uninitiated were scratching their collective heads over the ending because they never got to see Frodo throw the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom.

“I had a huge fight with [Zaentz] and I didn’t want to do Part Two,” says Bakshi.“It may sound odd to you today. We came from a different breed in those days. … Life was too short to spend your time with a bunch of people that you didn’t want to be with. In other words, people that would screw you over that way after you made so much money for them. You don’t want to spend another eight years with those guys. … That wasn’t an easy decision to leave, because I loved Tolkien.”

Bakshi can get pretty defensive about The Lord of the Rings. His earlier Wizards isn’t good, but it is oddly compelling. His later Fire and Ice isn’t a good film, either, but it does feature some amazing rotoscoped action sequences atop beautifully lush background paintings.

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