Mechtild (mechtild) wrote,

Sir Ian, Pt. 3 (conclusion)



Part 1 may be found here.
Part 2 may be found here.

Sir Ian made an online journal of his time spent working on LOTR. They are posted on his website. The Grey Book contains entries from 1999 until the opening of FOTR in Dec. 2001. The White Book contains enries written between 2002 and 2003. Below are excerpts from favourite entries.

From the Grey Book:

October 14, 1999:

In this entry Sir Ian talks about his approach to the role of Gandalf.

Some of my correspondents seem to think that actors are essayists or critics who analyse a character's complexities and then parade them, like sticking on a false beard. It's just not like that.

It bears repeating that, as with Richard III or James Whale or Magneto, I must discover Gandalf somewhere inside myself - and that process depends on absorbing the words of the script and its story, listening to the reactions of the director and responding to the performances of the rest of the cast. So now, still 3 months away from shooting (for me), my Gandalf doesn't exist, not even in my mind. He will only come to life as the camera turns and discoveries are made in the very moment. Even when I am in the thick of it, in costume and make-up and speaking Tolkien's words, I'm not sure I will be able to describe the character to you. Actors don't describe - they inhabit.

Note the last sentence: “Actors don’t describe – they inhabit.” I liked that a lot. Thinking more about it, I mentally changed it to. “Poets don’t describe – they inhabit". I was thinking of something jan-u-wine told me about the way she writes.

January 25, 2000:

This entry tells about Sir Ian getting the beard and costuming right for Gandalf. I remember in the DVD extras that for Sir Ian, Gandalf’s externals—his stance, his gait, his voice, what he wore and how he wore it—were key to getting a handle on the role. There is also a peek at PJ’s decision-sharing style (when it suited his goals). I love the last bit about the fireman’s pole.

At the first screen test the beard was too long and cumbersome for Gandalf the man of action - he is forever tramping and riding and on the move. I didn't want a beard which hampered me with a life of its own once the winds blew. Alien visages stared back at me from the mirror - hirsute offbeats like Shylock, Fagin, and Ben Gunn. Even Rasputin for a moment.

For the second test, the beard was care-freely slashed by Peter Owen, who hadn't had much confidence in it nor in the whiskers that hid my cheeks. Once he had trimmed it all back, I saw a glimmer of the old wizard's sternness. I smiled and tried a Gandalf twinkle, the friend of the Hobbits who admires their spirit and sociability.

Peter Jackson suggested a droopier moustache. I suddenly looked like a double for the Beatles' Maharishi. So the eyebrows, over-faithful to Tolkien's description, were plucked thinner and shorter. The old guru was still there but you couldn't put a name to him.

At last Ngila Dickson placed her pointed, blue/grey Wizard's hat on top. Out of the blue, I remembered the silver scarf that he wears in the book. Somehow it had been overlooked or decided against. Until I looked the part I hadn't missed it either. And there's a thing to ponder - what does a man with an umbrella for a hat and a warm cloak need with a scarf? The book starts in autumn. We are filming in summertime. Weather conditions aside, I thought he might have the silver scarf much as he has the pointy hat - to disguise himself. The Gandalf who visits his old friends Bilbo and Frodo has lots of props. Already I have had to cope with his staff, his toffees, his pipe, as well as Clyde - why not a scarf to do some magic with?

Only when Peter Jackson was certain that Fran (co-screenwriter Frances Walsh), Philippa (co-screenwriter Philippa Boyens), Alan Lee, Peter Owen, and I liked what peered back at us through the various applications, did he give his own approval. He's a director who likes to share decision making. It's a large crew and cast but we are all encouraged to contribute.

It's very impressive how New Line supports such an eccentric enterprise. I haven't been here long enough to judge whether Peter is a national hero but he should be up there with Sir Edmund Hillary for his enterprise. Apart from the artistic audacity, he is bringing employment and international attention to his country. He says of his Everest that it's the biggest film ever made technically and logistically. He is not so foolhardy as to think he could ever make these three films by himself. We are all on his team.

They had been filming without me for three months and I felt like the new boy at school as they re-grouped two weeks into the year. Term started with a rough cut of the action so far - those that didn't need major special effects added. A videotape was projected onto the screen of the cinema near the WETA workshops where the dailies are viewed. The soundtrack was uneven. The music was from other movies. And so the audience began by cheering their hard work like a home movie until the story took over and through the silence they watched Boromir die and the hobbits weep as they lose Gandalf to the Balrog. Peter had provided beer and wine but I'm off the alcohol and had two candy floss (cotton candy) and popcorn. Then a party at the house of Barrie Osborne (Producer) and his partner Carol Kim (Production Manager.) At the end of the evening Billy Boyd ("Pippin") persuaded me to follow him down the fireman's pole that falls twenty feet to the hall. And I wasn't even drunk.

March 12, 2000:

This entry is about working with Christopher Lee. I appreciate so much Sir Ian's generosity when speaking about other artists. That generous spirit was evident in things he said about fellow actors in stage plays over the years, and it's evident here. Where he admires, he praises. I hope Lee read this; he’d love it.

Last week, the day after Gandalf packed Frodo and Sam off to Bree, promising to meet them at The Inn of the Prancing Pony, I worked with Christopher Lee for the first time. Gandalf visits his fellow Istar at the Orthanc Tower, where Saruman consults his seeing stone, the palantir. I don't feel face to face with Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, Fu Man Chu all at once because Christopher looks saintly in his robes. And there is work to be done.


Christopher Lee proves that a distinctive voice is an asset in the movies. Stars are not just pretty faces, so to speak, they must sound good too. His 200 (or is it 300?) films have robbed theatre audiences of a resounding Shakespearian. Spread across the black throne under Orthanc's vasty roof, he looked like King Lear in age and authority. He is 78 years old, handsome and powerful. When he speaks, all I see and hear is Saruman, my old associate gone wrong. Except once when he rounded off a speech, at Peter Jackson's suggestion, with a snarl. To be within four feet of a Lee snarl is unsettling. I was glad he wasn't wearing his fangs.

He loves stories about actors and I amused him last week with one he didn't know, which I was told by Brian Bedford:

"Noël Coward reads a poster: Michael Redgrave and Dirk Bogarde in The Sea Shall Not Have Them! 'I don't see why not — everyone else has.' "

I like making Saruman laugh.

August 8, 2000:

In this passage Sir Ian talks about meeting and working with Ian Holm, an actor whose career I’ve followed for ages, and whose performance as Bilbo I love. The graciousness they brought to working with each other in the brief time they were together, and Peter Jackson’s wise solicitousness, shines through this entry. The observations about the “limiting nature” of film acting interested me too.

When the other Sir Ian (Holm that is) arrived from London in March, he was of course jet-lagged but that didn't stop his schedule of costume fittings and make-up tests from taking over straightaway. He was wandering round the workshops in Hobbit feet and a curly wig. I was filming in the Wellington studio next door and took him to the lunch tent. "What's it like here?" he asked me, dolefully. I told him he was in for a treat and within 24 hours he agreed. A month later, he couldn't bear to leave, swearing he would be back in New Zealand before the movie was complete. This was not that he expected the part of Bilbo to be extended. Ian had discovered the South Island.


Peter Jackson was alert to the need to get both Ians onscreen together, rather than using the big or small double too much. By placing Gandalf closer to the camera, Bilbo could be shrunk and the two of us could see each other's eyes. Ian's twinkle and pierce you through — he is so observant and yet he looks at you as the character. And this illusion that Bilbo is present is achieved each time the camera rolls.

Ian never repeats himself on film — in each take he is different and yet always in character. It is a daring approach to film acting, dicing with spontaneity. Most of us, pretty clear what is required, will hope to deliver a good take full of life and believability and if a retake is required for technical reasons ("Nothing to do with the actors — let's go again!), we will try to repeat what felt good about the previous attempt. Ian will have none of this so that what you eventually see of Bilbo was never tried before — it happened for the first time just as you see it. He calls this exploring the character as through a kaleidoscope, giving the final choice from a wide range of takes, to the director and editor.

It makes you think how limiting film can be — no matter how often you see a movie, the performances are fixed, unaltering, whether on the big screen or on the back of a seat in a 747. See the same actor on adjacent nights in the theatre however and assuming he is not aiming to be an automaton, you will discover, as he does, new aspects of the character. Ian Holm brings the advantages of live theatre to the cinema, so that resting in the spool cans is a "complete Bilbo" until Peter Jackson makes his selection. The actor not as marionette but as tool for the director's storytelling.

For Bilbo's last scene, Ian wore a latex mask of wrinkles and scrawn before sailing away to the distant Havens where Tolkien's good people achieve their rest. It was an odd experience because Galadriel was with us but Cate Blanchett was not — more scope for film magic to add the genuine Elf Queen who goes voyaging with Bilbo and Gandalf at the end. Odder still to realise that this final scene, when completed by the technicians, will not be screened for another three years!

I have now been shown the first Bilbo/Gandalf scene at Bag End roughly cut awaiting some revoicing that will remove extraneous noises and the enhanced soundtrack of effects and music perhaps. So here is the first critical review of Lord of the Rings. "Bilbo lives and if the rest of the cast matches Ian Holm's performance, you are in for the treat of a lifetime".

How I would love to be able to see "the complete Bilbo" Sir Ian mentioned above, the kaleidoscope of takes made of Ian Holm's performance. Maybe someday, when they release the fifth or sixth "limited edition".

May 21, 2001:

McKellen talks here about hearing Howard Shore’s scoring for the first time. Elijah Wood and Sean Astin's performances are mentioned, too.

I had half-hoped to be shown the current version of The Fellowship of the Ring but there still isn't anything complete enough to be called a film — rather an over-long string of scenes, without music, special effects or polished editing. But it's been greatly reassuring, before each ADR session, to be able to view the Gandalf scenes and to see how excitingly the story is being told and how movingly the characters relate to each other as their adventures proceed from Hobbiton to Mordor. At the end of this first film Frodo and Sam are separated from the rest and row across the river, destination Mount Doom — on even a scratchy video, Elijah Wood and Sean Astin are heart-breaking and couldn't be better — I thought.

I reckoned without Howard Shore's music, some of which is being recorded by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and a male choir especially assembled for the movie. Last week I dropped in to watch them play and sing. It was the end of a long day for the musicians but their enthusiasm for Howard and the whole project was evident. (…) I sat behind Peter Jackson huddled over a monitor showing the footage of Sam and Frodo in their rowboat. As the majestic Fellowship theme soared over the pictures and a plaintive flute and drums enchanted the ear, I heard and saw the first moment of completed film. Trust me: it is magnificent.

From The White Book:

July 15, 2003:

These entries give a good picture of the challenges of acting against green screen, acting out of the imagination alone. They also tell of some of the actor farewells. The first excerpt tells of Viggo’s, with some nice observations about him aand Bernard Hill. Hobbit actors come in for mention at the end.

There are also empty studios at Stone Street, decorated only with green screens in front of which Gwaihir flies and Gandalf rides Shadowfax – or rather stands crouching over an apple-box pretending to ride. The most reliable way to fit a little re-shooting into a scene long since finished, is to film the actor in close-up and then digitally fill in the appropriate background onto the green behind him. Easier to light just a face not a time-consuming studioful of scenery.

In this way I revisited the Gates of Mordor today , where The Mouth of Sauron once more threw down Frodo’s mithril vest. And Gandalf meets despair. Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli and Pippin were nothing but eyelines marked by a chalk cross behind or alongside the camera, or a yellow tennis ball or a red apple spiked on top of a lighting stand. I wonder if today’s tennis ball was a veteran from the Balrog battle where again an eyeline was needed for a non-existent foe.

Working a minimum 14 hours a day, six days a week ¬ and yet there¹s been time for company fun. The official farewell parties for the actors continue ¬ [with] champagne and beer and a laudatory, funny speech from Peter and a presentation from Barrie Osborne of a producer¹s gift, a prop from the film, a sword, a mask, a memory. Then a four-minute movie is screened on a stretched sheet, half from the movies half from the blooper reel. When we said goodbye to Viggo the other day inside the Golden Hall of Edoras, the stunt crew, veterans with him of every bloody battle, danced the haka, a welcoming, challenging, life-enhancing Maori tradition. And then hobbits singing, more haka, more praise for Viggo and his make-up colleague Jose and his son Henry Mortensen – and for Bernard Hill who having had his own farewell two days before, nipped back for a second helping of adulation! Viggo and Bernard are at heart similar despite their differences of style and looks and nationality etc. Professionally they are both mavericks. Their prime aim is to work well on worthwhile projects. They do not suffer fools, even though they are themselves brilliant fools, clowns. Bernard in particular makes me laugh from the diaphragm, with his stories and his grin. Viggo wears his beauty so carelessly and deflects flattery with a wry head-on-the-side smile of modesty. These two acting kings are both terrific once more in The Return of the King.

On Saturday last, Shamsung and Elwood accompanied by Deep Sea Diver Boyd McIver took over the Good Luck bar off Cuba Mall in downtown rowdy Wellington where they d-jayed the night away. I found bopping to rap and hip-hop a bit tricky. But that’s The Fellowship for you. Or rather, that’s hobbits.

September 16, 2003:

In this entry, the last of my selections, Sir Ian tells more about acting with only imagination, in particular fighting green screen battles. He goes on to tell about his own last day (which turned into a series of “last days”), and how, “at the end the end of all things”, the sweetness of farewell finally was felt.

I was due to complete filming on the Thursday, when the request came that I stay on in Wellington for a few extra rewrites, which then took up Friday and Saturday. So Monday became my final day. A camera crew for the South Bank Show, the veteran arts programme from London Weekend Television, got up early to meet me in the dark at 5.45am as I staggered up the metal steps of the make-up trailer where Rick Findlater was waiting to apply Gandalf’s likeness for the very last time. I am glad that there is now a filmed record of the make-up application, masterly work. It became clear during the day that my new filming needed to extend into Tuesday, so the following day back we all congregated to film the start of the final final day — except that it wasn’t and I didn’t actually finish until the next day. . . Wednesday 2nd July 2003.

(…) I finished mid-afternoon standing in front of a green screen close to the camera, filming a close-up of Gandalf as he battled with unseen (indeed non-existent) forces – orcs probably, although I confess I’m never too sure.

It can be surprisingly tiring in heavy robes twisting and turning even only on the spot, stabbing and slicing the air as a sedentary director watching a TV monitor of the action a few yards away shouts encouragement “More vicious! Behind You! Again – hit him again! It’s an effort! It’s exhausting! One last effort!” Then blessedly after a couple of minutes when my arms feel they are about to drop off, it’s “Excellent Ian! Alright?” as Peter levers himself up from the reinforced armchair (built years back for a visit from Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News) and hurries to shake my hand. “And that is a wrap on Ian McKellen!” There are hugs with Andrew Lesnie and his camera department, some applause from the crew, another hug with Caro, the ever-patient first assistant director who organises everyone on the set. I stumble back to the trailer, not much moved but aware that it really is now all over bar the dubbing which will be done two months on back home in London. The end has been such a long time coming.

On most films the conclusion of an actor’s work is marked with a bunch of flowers or a bottle of fizz but Kiwis have a finer sense of occasion and ceremony and my turn came three hours later in Minas Tirith, as the night fell and a crowd of 150 crew and office people were given beer or champagne as Peter J. addressed us all from the battlements. He spoke of Billy Boyd first, my fellow leaver, the first Hobbit to be cast it turns out and the last to finish. Pippin was given some presents, cracked a gag or two then it was Gandalf’s turn. Peter told the story of how I got my part. (…)

Barrie Osborne, with his widest grin, presented me with Gandalf’s magnificent sword and then, screened on a white sheet, a four minute video presentation of the Grey and the White, high spots from the movies and low spots too, me forgetting my lines, me swearing, me peacocking at Gandalf’s original screen test to see how the costume and make-up would work onscreen. By this time, I felt it. Still there was no need for tears. I would be back for the world premiere on 1 December. I couldn’t say goodbye to everyone; I had a plane to catch. Up before dawn next day I settled into my seat and tried to catch sight of the studios as we took off and then I realised – I’d forgotten to bring Gandalf’s sword with me!

2000 – Sir Ian off-set, with Elijah Wood and Philippa Boyens. He was still smoking at this point, judging from the cigarette between his fingers.


I don’t intend to go into detail about Sir Ian's other films made after 2000; most of them available on DVD. But I’ll list them.

He appeared in X-Men 2 in 2003, Emile in 2004, Sprung in 2005, and Asylum in 2005. In 2006 he was in Neverwas, The Da Vinci Code and X-Men:The Last Stand. He did voice acting for Eighteen in 2004, Flushed Away in 2006, and The Golden Compass in 2007. And he narrated Cirque du Soleil’s Journey of Man in 2000, The Saint of 9-11 in 2006, and Displaced and Stardust in 2007. (His next listed project is, yes, The Hobbit, scheduled for a 2010 release.)

I want to single out for special notice Sir Ian’s work on The Odyssey, an audio book released in 1997. This reading of Homer’s classic [using an excellent translation] won him a U.S. Audie in 1997 for Best Solo Narration. It is the best vocal acting I’ve heard Sir Ian do so far, and the best-read audio book I’ve yet heard. I didn’t think I’d ever hear one better-read than Jim Dale’s Peter Pan, but this is it.


As for his stage work, Sir Ian still managed to fit it in. In the fall of 2001, with FOTR in the can and due to open in December, he starred with Helen Mirren on Broadway in August Strindberg’s Dance of Death. His ex-lover Sean Mathias directed.

Below is an excerpt from just one of the rave reviews, this one from the Oct. 12, 2001 New York Times, by Ben Brantley. I get vicarious thrills reading rave reviews, it's true, but I cite this one at length because I think it touches upon aspects of Sir Ian’s genius not just in this role but in all his roles.

(…) Lumbering across the long stage of the Broadhurst Theater, Mr. McKellen brings something frightening and majestic to the act of putting one wayward foot before the other. As Edgar, the infirm army captain living in spiteful and isolated wedlock in a dank island outpost, Mr. McKellen projects an aggressive arrogance that doesn't so much conquer decay as ignore it. Every willed gesture, no matter how sloppy, becomes a death-defying act.

Watching Mr. McKellen's captain shooting sparks in the dark mouth of mortality is about as thrilling as theater gets. Too long absent from New York's stages, this English actor, much celebrated here for his Tony- winning performance in "Amadeus" 20 years ago, returns to Broadway to serve up an Elysian concoction we get to sample too little these days: a mixture of heroic stage presence, actorly intelligence and rarefied theatrical technique.

Those who know Mr. McKellen only from his recent eccentric film roles (he's the Hobbit-advising wizard in the forthcoming "Lord of the Rings") can't begin to appreciate his reputation as the greatest living actor of the English-speaking stage. Mr. McKellen needs the space, the amplitude that theater allows. Even playing small and inward, as he did in the title role of "Uncle Vanya" a decade ago, he projects big.
Too big, some critics have argued. But in an age dominated by the pocket Adonises of the screen, there's rich satisfaction in seeing a performer who combines intellectual integrity with an emotional reach that hugs the very last rows in the balcony. And when you have an actress of comparable fire power, the throaty siren known as Helen Mirren, playing the captain's adversarial helpmate, Alice . . . well, your only choice is to join the line for tickets.

(…) [T]hey bicker and snipe, momentarily falling into nasty collusion over the failings of their distant neighbors, you know this is their everyday fare. They must long ago have settled into this acrimonious ritual, from which they clearly draw at least minor pleasure. Their defense of their respective (and hefty) egos is what keeps their blood circulating.

"I suppose you're attractive . . . to other people, when it suits you," he says to her, savoring each pause like old brandy. After a minor dispute on how to handle the servant question (a serious one in their case, since no one stays for long), she tells him, "You are a despot with the character of a slave."

How's that for a description for an actor to live up to? Yet Mr. McKellen miraculously does, giving credence to the idea that one may smile and smile, however humbly, and still be a tyrant. He is unfailingly polite, jocular and often soft-spoken. Yet there is a demure threat poised behind every courteous gesture.
Mr. McKellen gives a performance that will become a touchstone for anyone else playing the part. I can't think of a more profound or unsettling study in denial from my theater-going experience. The first thing you have to know about Mr. McKellen's captain is that he is indeed dying; the second thing is that he intends to treat death as he has all things that contradict his wishes and beliefs, by pretending it doesn't exist.

There's fierceness in his decrepitude. If he can't manage the stairs, he'll slide down the banister. Though his head falls regularly to one side and his eyes will sometimes go dead and absent, he insists on ordering chateaubriand for breakfast in a voice that suggests God as a gourmand. There are also the cruel moments of recognition: of fear and acceptance, when he wraps his arms around himself and suddenly looks small and very cold. By the end, these accumulate into something like an epiphany.

Yet these scenes don't erase the memory of the dance of the boyars that the captain performs for Kurt, as Alice plays the piano. It's a furious, flustered performance, both heroic and pathetic, in which the captain seems to kick and punch at every dismal phantom in pursuit of him. These are not rehearsed steps. He's making it up as he goes along, with all the vitality that's left him. He is, to put it simply, staying alive.

How I would love to have seen them strut their stuff in this play! (Helen Mirren, too, is one of my favourite actors.)

2001 – Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren in a scene from Dance of Death.


But it wasn’t all classic dramas. Below are pictures of Sir Ian from 2005 doing English pantomime. In Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp, he played the comic drag role, a tradition in “panto”. It looks like he had a wonderful time.

2004 – Aladdin (a pantomime): Sir Ian made up as Widow Twankey.


2005 – Aladdin: Widow Twankey.


2005 – Aladdin: Widow Twankey gets laced up.


Here’s a photo from the RSC’s 2007-2008 touring production of King Lear. It's from an earlier scene, when the king is still relatively happy and content, and well-groomed. Jan-u-wine and I got to see the play when it was in LA.


Sir Ian was the show's star in every way, with ten times the presence and charisma of anyone else on the stage, and either a far better actor or far better cast in his role. It was a shame, really, that the rest of the production wasn’t up to his level. Having read so much about him for this post, about his working style and what gives him joy in acting, I am certain he would have preferred to be equally matched. Also, I didn't really appreciate Trevor Nunn’s concept for the play. It seemed to be one of those productions of Shakespeare that tries to be different for the sake of being different. Why, I wondered, should a play about an English king and his court be mounted as if it took place in Tsarist Russia? I thought the play's director and designers would have done better to concentrate on the great story right there in text, with its stupendous characters and enthrallingly anguished relationships. It was not a production to love. But Sir Ian’s Lear was. Therefore, I would not have missed it.

To conclude, I have prepared a series of photos of Sir Ian not in character, but as himself. I thought it would be a good way to show how he has ripened over the years. Like the winter apples Pippin ate in Minas Tirith, Sir Ian now is wrinkled, "but still sound and sweet".

I think I've got a crush.

1964 (photo by Crispian Woodgate)












1976 (photo by Nobby Clark)


1979 ~ Sir Ian outside Buckingham Palace, having received his C.B.E., with older sister Jean [Jones] and stepmother Gladys McKellen.


1981 ~ on the South Bank Show.


1985 ~ with Judi Dench.






1997 ~ at the Golden Globes with Rasputin co-stars Greta Sacchi and Alan Rickman.


1998 (photo by Greg Gorman)


2000 ~ working on X-Men (photo by Keith Stern).


2001 ~ at an event with Helen Mirren.


2002 ~ at the National Portrait Gallery, holding Clive Smith’s portrait of him.


2005 ~ at Lincoln Cathedral, with fellow Da Vinci Code cast member Matthew Butler.


2007 ~ in the Bag End guest house, visiting Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh.


~ Mechtild

Part 1 of Sir Ian HERE.
Part 2 of Sir Ian HERE.

Main Table of links to entries HERE.
Tags: ian mckellen, lotr

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