Excerpts from the Q&A at the pre-screening of Tolkien

(suomenkielinen versio / Finnish version: täällä/here)

The film Tolkien by Dome Karukoski premiers today, Fri May 3rd 2019, in Finland and in the UK. For screenings in Finland, check the Nordisk Film page!

A Q&A with the director Dome Karukoski, editor Harri Ylönen and first assistant director Antti Lahtinen was held after the pre-screening of the film Tolkien on Wednesday April 17th 2019 at the Bio Rex cinema in Helsinki. Kalle Kinnunen hosted and the audience also got to ask questions.

This article contains SPOILERS!!!


The war scenes as a dream
Dome Karukoski: ”I began to wonder how Tolkien experienced the war. He had trench fever, which can cause hallucinations. Your body is trembling and you are on the verge of death. I approached the war scenes as if they were a dream, they have been written as a dream. That it doesn’t necessarily even have to be true. But it’s Tolkien’s experience of the war.” 

In a hole in the ground
Karukoski reveals that in the film, Tolkien is in the trenches at Somme ”in a hole in the ground”. Karukoski thought about Tolkien’s experiences in the First World War and how he probably had contracted trench fever when he had to sleep in the mud in a trench captured from Germans. In Karukoski’s mind this connected to the moment Tolkien suddenly came up with a hobbit living under the ground and, hence, the first sentence in The Hobbit. Even though Tolkien did not suffer from writer’s block, it did take him some time to find “the right voice”. 

Background research
Karukoski: “Due to contractual reasons, I cannot tell who these Tolkien experts are, but I interviewed a few and they read the script. These people have had access to Tolkien’s letters at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and it’s not everyone who is granted permission (cf. in the film Professor Wright advices Tolkien to say at the library that the professor sent him).

I read all the possible books and watched all the possible interviews. And you notice that experts rebuke other experts. “They wrote such and such and it doesn’t hold true at all.” Everyone has an impression about who a person is. You must find that voice in the midst of it all. My method is to listen as much as possible and in that way understand that there he is. There are small things that will tell you. Such as when looking at Tolkien’s drawings from different times, how he draws when he was young – I went to art school – you see a different temperament. It tells you of the temperament at the time, you see it in his line. In that way you learn to recognise different things about who the character is.

When he is giving interviews to the BBC in the 60s, i.e. when he is older, he is an old man and he is looking back at his life. It is a completely different character than the Tolkien in his twenties. You must find the person in it all.” 

The score
Thomas Newman, a 14-time Academy Award nominee, composed the score for the film. Karukoski did not believe that a star composer like Newman would work for the film, but the director still suggested Newman to the studio. Newman liked the script and Karukoski’s previous films and settled for a lower fee than usual.

Together with Newman, Karukoski strove for a score with a sense of other-worldliness and he relates the idea with the Music of the Ainur in The Silmarillion. In the score, Newman used a lot of instruments that the director had never heard of, but the composer was also introduced to a new instrument through Karukoski. Because Tolkien got to know The Kalevala during his Oxford years, Karukoski introduced Newman to the Finnish kantele harp, which Tolkien probably would have been familiar with through the Finnish epic. Although a couple of Kalevala references were left out during the editing phase, Newman’s score subtly adds the kantele as a new element when the film reaches Tolkien’s time in Oxford.

The Catholic faith
Karukoski: ”We had to leave out two scenes depicting Catholicism and Father Francis. Tolkien himself also wrote that during his studies in Oxford he wasn’t very religious and didn’t go to church. And that his drinking got a bit out of hand. Tolkien used the phrase ”I was a bit merry then”. He was a practising Catholic at a slightly later time and, on the other hand, Catholicism is a part of his childhood which isn’t really shown in the film.

Filming locations
Antti Lahtinen: “The war scenes were filmed on a field in Manchester that was the size of perhaps eight football fields. Trenches and all sorts of other areas had been built for our scenes. Although the area had been reverently constructed using excavators and all, no one had thought of making any sort of plumbing. So when the autumn rain fell, the place turned into a dreadful sea of mud, and there was at least half a metre of mud everywhere.”

Karukoski: “We filmed in Oxford as much as we could. The name “Tolkien” did open doors. Oxford is an expensive place to film in. A location that elsewhere costs 500 € costs at least 5 000 € in Oxford. If you try to bargain with them, they’ll respond that you can go ahead and try to film Oxford somewhere else! This has actually been said to our producers. The producers suggested 2 500 €, but the answer was that if the price wasn’t suitable, we could always shoot, say, in Liverpool. I do understand it; Oxford is an expensive city to maintain. The prices as high but I don’t judge them for it. We wanted to film there and it is expensive.

Birmingham doesn’t exist in the shape it existed a hundred years ago. The German Luftwaffe members made sure of it in the Second World War. There are old buildings in Liverpool and Manchester that serve as milieus from a hundred years ago. And a lot has been constructed [as movie sets] and backgrounds have been built and added using VFX (visual effects).

The Tolkien Estate
Karukoski: We did not work with the Estate for two reasons. One: We did not need the rights [to Tolkien’s work]. Rights are expensive. Two: It is challenging to work with estates. I’ve worked with estates a couple of times, and you start to serve them in a way, you want to be polite to them. That easily destroys your artistic vision, you start destroying your own interpretation of the person as an artist.

But we had the grandson of Michael, Tolkien’s second eldest son, at our shoot as an extra for two weeks. He came to the test shoot excited about the film. He took two weeks off from work and spent it in the mud playing an ordinary soldier.

Sugar cubes
Karukoski: “He and Edith actually did visit the Grand Hotel café and tossed sugar cubes into the hats of rich ladies!”

Have you already seen the film Tolkien? Discuss the film here!