Like everyone else, my jaw dropped when I read the news Sunday that Guillermo del Toro had walked away from Middle Earth.
I had heard chatter in recent weeks that implied that the filmmaker was growing increasingly frustrated with delays in New Zealand — forget the finish line, the filming of “The Hobbit” hadn’t even made it to the starting line yet — but I didn’t see this coming, not after Del Toro put in two years of pre-production work.
I sent Del Toro an e-mail last night with one question: What’s next for you? The short reply came back just a few hours ago: “TBD very soon! –G”
The 45-year-old writer-director-producer is notorious in Hollywood for piling his career plate high. Any time you sit down with him, he talks about more than a dozen different projects as if each was at the very top of his to-do list. Last year, I wrote a cover story in the Los Angeles Times Calendar section about Del Toro’s dizzying ambitions — he wanted to make “Drood,” a new Frankenstein film, an adaptation of “Slaughterhouse-Five,“ and of course, there was his old obsession with putting H.P. Lovecaft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” on the silver screen. A few months after that story ran, Del Toro announced a deal for a new production company called Disney Double Dare You. He also has “The Strain,” his trilogy of novels, now underway.
Clearly, this is a creator who is so restless — and so enthused about his current career access to quality projects — that he wants to cram as much as possible into his calendar. So you can imagine how he simmered as his interpretation of “The Hobbit” remained a prisoner of the pages of his screenplay instead of becoming an epic on its way to the editing room.
The problem has been money, specifically the dire situation at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the storied movie studio that has been pinned down by $3.7 billion in debt and a chaotic reorganization that has seen the balance of power tilt away from management and toward lenders with little or no Hollywood experience. The MGM crisis is the reason that plans for another James Bond film were put on the shelf a few months ago, but many people assumed that “The Hobbit” would be different since MGM wasn’t the sole financing power behind the “The Hobbit.”
That was not the case, as was made clear in Del Toro’s comments during a press conference last week that veered into “Hobbit” territory even though the central topic was ”Splice,” a new film that Del Toro produced: “We have been caught in a very tangled negotiation. Now I have been on the project for nearly two years. We have designed all the creatures, the sets, the wardrobe, animatics and planned action sequences, and we are very, very prepared for when it is finally triggered. We don’t know anything until the MGM situation is resolved.”
Peter Jackson, the executive producer of ”The Hobbit” films, chased those comments and tried to assure fans that the plan to deliver a two-film adaptation of the classic stories was not in jeopardy. It’s interesting to read between the lines and guess whether there was mounting tension between Jackson and Del Toro. Maybe it doesn’t matter after Sunday, when Del Toro dropped the bombshell on the One Ring, the official website for fans of the J.R.R. Tolkien books and their film adaptations.
“In light of ongoing delays in the setting of a start date for filming ‘The Hobbit,’ I am faced with the hardest decision of my life”, says Guillermo. “After nearly two years of living, breathing and designing a world as rich as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, I must, with great regret, take leave from helming these wonderful pictures. I remain grateful to Peter, Fran and Philippa Boyens, New Line and Warner Brothers and to all my crew in New Zealand. I’ve been privileged to work in one of the greatest countries on earth with some of the best people ever in our craft and my life will be forever changed. The blessings have been plenty, but the mounting pressures of conflicting schedules have overwhelmed the time slot originally allocated for the project. Both as a co-writer and as a director, I wish the production nothing but the very best of luck and I will be first in line to see the finished product. I remain an ally to it and its makers, present and future, and fully support a smooth transition to a new director.”
Random thought: I wonder if it’s a coincidence that James McAvoy, considered a likely choice for Bilbo Baggins, just signed on to star in “X-Men: First Class“ — I wouldn’t be surprised if he made that move after a conversation with Del Toro about the trajectory of things down in New Zealand.
Now come all the other questions. Where does Del Toro go next? Will Jackson, the Oscar-winning director of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, step in as director? If not, who else would be willing to accept all of Del Toro’s locked-in pre-production work, MGM’s financial uncertainty and Jackson’s sometimes-intimidating presence to work on films that might never feel like their own? And the big question: Will these movies actually reach theaters in 2012 and 2013 as planned?
– Geoff Boucher
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PHOTO: Top, Guillermo del Toro (AP)
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