Just 20 minutes after the release of the Amazon trailer for the creative team of the Lord of the Rings series, we had the opportunity at Tolkien Thing to interview Tom Shippey, our Guest of Honour, about the trailer and the project exclusively. He is one of the 20 names presented in the video and had not yet seen the video himself. Together we went through the trailer piece by piece, which was analyzed by Shippey and us.
Tom Shippey laughs loudly at our first question whether some names are still missing and remains silent.
Tom, what do you think about the video?
Hmm, well, it doesn’t really give much away… The map, which can be seen in the video, does not reveal much information, it does not contain place names or anything. The map nevertheless reveals that this is the Second Age, as Númenor is still there. However, this creates a lot of problems, because we don’t know much about the Second Age.
It is difficult because the Second Age kind of “stopped” twice. Once with the Fall of Númenor and then, about 150 years later, with the Last Alliance and the defeat of Sauron. The end of the Second Age on a map looks about the same as the beginning of the Third Age in terms of place names, coastline or border lines. In addition, the difference to the middle of the Second Age is already much greater. Númenor is still listed on the map, the place names are different, we are literally before the transformation of the world by Ilúvatar.
It will be of great importance for the series when exactly the plot takes place, at which point in Middle-earth history something happens. This was one of our difficulties when creating a map for the Second Age, because you have to determine very precisely what date this map should be from. Tolkien wrote some of it down, but as far as the Second Age goes, the information we have is a three-page timeline in the appendices to the Lord of the Rings and the List of Kings of Númenor and a little more material in the Unfinished Tales, but that’s about all.
So does Amazon have a free hand in the interpretation?
Amazon has a relatively free hand when it comes to adding something, since, as I said, very few details are known about this time span. The Tolkien Estate will insist that the main shape of the Second Age is not altered. Sauron invades Eriador, is forced back by a Númenorean expedition, is returns to Númenor. There he corrupts the Númenoreans and seduces them to break the ban of the Valar. All this, the course of history, must remain the same. But you can add new characters and ask a lot of questions, like: What has Sauron done in the meantime? Where was he after Morgoth was defeated? Theoretically, Amazon can answer these questions by inventing the answers, since Tolkien did not describe it. But it must not contradict anything which Tolkien did say. That’s what Amazon has to watch out for. It must be canonical, it is impossible to change the boundaries which Tolkien has created, it is necessary to remain “tolkienian”.
Does the Tokien Estate have a veto on changes?
Yes, the Tolkien Estate keeps a very careful eye on everything and is quite capable of saying no. They retain a veto over everything that concerns Tolkien.
What about the First and Third Ages?
The First and Third Ages are “off-limits”, you can’t have the First Age. Events could be mentioned at the most if they explain the events of the Second Age. But if it is not described or mentioned in the Lord of the Rings or in the appendices, they probably cannot use it. So the question is to what extent they may hint at events that took place, for example, in the First Age, but still continue to affect the Second Age. There are several maps authorized by Tolkien, not just the ones we’re are familiar with, and some of those maps have places on them which are not in the other maps. But if Tolkien authorized them then that’s okay. So it’s it’s a bit of a minefield. You have to tread very carefully but at the same time there is quite a lot of scope for interpretation and free invention.
[The Tolkien Estate holds the rights to events in the First Age. The rights to the events in The Hobbit and in The Lord of the Rings, i.e. in the Third Age, lie with Middle-earth Enterprises and not with Amazon Studios. Whether and to what extent Amazon is conducting or has conducted negotiations with Middle-earth Enterprises is not known.]
Where did they film the scenes with you in the trailer?
In Neuchâtel, in Switzerland. John Howe lives there.
[Tom Shippey told us in another interview that he and John Howe had been invited to a Hotel in Neuchâtel by Amazon Studios for a photo and press conference.]
Do you know any of the names presented in the video?
I know the first two [J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay, the showrunners of the series], but not personally. Brian Miller, who’s supposed to be the overall director, doesn’t show up at all, but maybe something has changed again.
Do you know anything about the start of the production?
No. I know very, very little about the project anyway. As far as I know, they mean to start showing it on TV in 2021, so I don’t think production can start this year, though I don’t know what their timetable is. There is still a lot to do, just think of the costumes, weapons, locations, etc.!
In the last month several rumours circulated about possible shooting locations in Scotland or New Zealand. None of this has yet been confirmed. What do you think about the location debate?
The exact locations are of course uncertain and it could well be several. The shooting itself does not take place chronologically, but is oriented towards the locations. Logically, you try to bundle all the scenes that take place in one location and film them so that you have it done and don’t have to return to that place several times. But this also implies that everything has to be clear at the start of filming, you have to know the end. There’s supposed to be 20 episodes for the first season. So until they’ve decided what the end is going to be, they can’t start filming.
At first, only excerpts of the map were published, then there was nothing about the Amazon series for a long time. Now this video presents the members of the Creative Team. What do you think of the marketing strategy, to publish all information only bit by bit?
All these decisions are made by people who have worked in the public relations business all their (professional) lives and they’re professionals at it and presumably they have calculated what is the best way to arouse and maintain interest.
How would you do it if you were employed in marketing – a question just for fun?
I would perhaps give out more information more quickly. I think they’re keeping everything back in the hope of arousing curiosity. And that’s a good idea. But actually you have to satisfy curiosity to some extent.
Do you already get press enquiries about the series?
No, fortunately not at all. [He laughs.] Maybe that’ll change now, who knows.
We are aware that the security requirements at Amazon Studios are very high and Tom Shippey is not allowed to answer all questions the way he might. He himself repeatedly emphasises that he does not know much and follows new developments with great interest. This shows how careful Amazon is about secrecy.
For us it is now very clear that the title of the series, Lord of the Rings, does not actually mean the title of the book and thus the events of the Third Age, but Sauron as a character, as the lord of the Rings of Power. However, since his development starts in the First Age and he already plays a role there, it remains exciting to what extent Amazon can and will refer to this.
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Cover photo and portrait Tom Shippey: Tobias M. Eckrich