Patrick McKay and JD Payne had been writing screenplays together for two decades when Amazon Studios announced it had acquired the rights to make a television series based on the fantasy world of JRR Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’.
And who wouldn’t want to do that?
“We, along with half the other writers in Hollywood, raised our hands and said we would love the opportunity,” Payne said during a recent video call with McKay and producer Lindsey Weber. “We should be so lucky.”
Both loved Tolkien’s works. McKay’s mother gave him “The Hobbit” when he was in fifth grade. Payne came to Middle-earth through director Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” and devoured the source material.
They therefore had strong ideas from the start of their quest.
“We started thinking, ‘OK, here’s what Amazon bought the rights to,'” Payne says. “There are hundreds, probably thousands, of potential stories in the hardware story. And as we looked around, very quickly we came to the period of the Second Age.
The Second Age of Middle-earth takes place thousands of years before the Third Age known from books and movies. Though not entirely out of this world, Payne notes.
“We felt like it was Tolkien’s great untold epic,” he says. “This era is full of so many incredible stories.
“You have the forge of the Rings of Power. The rise of the Dark Lord Sauron. The last alliance of elves and men.
“Amazon wanted to do something really big, and so we came right up and said we wanted to do a 50-hour mega-epic,” Payne said. “And that, very quickly, I think, caught their attention.
Four years after Amazon hired McKay and Payne to make the series, “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” will premiere on Prime Video Thursday night. As they spoke a few weeks ago, they still seemed unable to believe that dream was coming true.
Although, as McKay notes, no one thought Frodo could complete his quest either.
“Our impression was that we were sort of dark horses and underdogs in a way,” he says. “But sometimes the underdogs have a big story in Tolkien.”
Scrubbing the Second Age
The story told in “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” has been taken from Tolkien’s appendices to “The Lord of the Rings”, from his mytho-stories in “The Silmarillion”, and from clues scattered throughout his most important works. known that refer to earlier times.
“Our adaptation process was to find each of these threads that talk about that era, but also to talk about the history of each of those cultures,” McKay says.
Sometimes that meant they could use a character familiar to most fans. Because elves rarely die, the series features a young Galadriel, a character played by Cate Blanchett in the Peter Jackson films, and here by Morfydd Clark.
There are no Hobbits in the Second Age, though their predecessors, known as the Harfoots, offer the levity and good humor of their hairy-footed descendants.
“Finding these breadcrumbs is the start of a process of thinking about who these people might have been,” McKay says. “What do we know of the Hobbits of the Third Age and of Frodo and Sam? What qualities do we associate with hobbits? Courage and loyalty. Where does this come from?
The characters in the first season are half from the books, half newly imagined, he says.
“Tolkien left us the seeds that are so rich in possibility and imagination,” says McKay. “Just water them a little and a huge tree grows.”
Make Middle Earth
Weber had worked with Payne and McKay at Bad Robot Productions as head of its film department. While she grew up reading Tolkien and kept her collection of his books with each move over the years, she needed a bit of convincing to join them on their journey.
“The short version is that they convinced me to run away and join the community,” she laughs.
“We asked Lindsey and she was like, ‘Oh, no,'” Payne explains. “And then about 24 hours later she’s like, ‘OK, I’m thinking about it. “”
It was, says Weber, too exciting a project to pass up.
“As a fan, I wanted to see it and I started thinking how fun it would be to do this stuff,” she says.
“I believe what you said – having heard what we wanted to do – is that there are hundreds of thousands of decisions that now need to be made, and each one of them must be made correctly” , Payne said.
“The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” is a massive production, one of the most expensive television series ever made.
Its first two episodes set a vast backdrop, mostly filmed in New Zealand and Wales, that includes the cities where humans, elves and dwarves live as well as the natural grandeur of land and sea.
This Middle-earth is diverse. Where “The Lord of the Rings” featured young male Hobbits, the new show spotlights two young female Harfoots. This third age of Middle-earth also includes more humans, elves, and colored dwarves.
McKay says that was largely a function of the expansive canvas — 50 hours over five seasons — that allowed them to delve into the cultures of Tolkien’s universe.
“We never approached casting or writing in an acrobatic way of trying to make a statement,” he says.
“I think the question has always been, ‘What is Middle-earth like? says Weber. “And friendships, romances, those things feel inherently Tolkien.”
As a producer, Weber says the casting kept her up at night.
“Oh my God, how are we going to find all these people across all these worlds?” she said, remembering how she worried during the dark, sleepless hours. “We saw thousands and thousands of people and managed to bring together this group that you will meet in the first season.
“It just seems impossible, all the sorts of miracles it took to complete this production.”
With great power
In July, San Diego Comic-Con served as a release party of sorts for “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.” Payne, McKay and Weber, along with much of the cast, filled Room H for a preview of the series hosted by talk show host Stephen Colbert, a self-proclaimed Tolkien superfan.
“It was really, really fun,” Payne says of finally getting to show off a bit of what’s to come. “Storytelling is something humans have been doing for thousands of years. We’ve worked really hard on the story, but now we can share it around the fire with people, and see what it means to people.
“Especially at this time in our world’s history,” he says. “There are a lot of challenges right now, and a lot of people are hurting for a lot of different reasons.
“And Middle-earth has a unique ability to find people in their pain and bring them a kind of hope and a kind of light that’s really unique in the world of entertainment. It goes almost beyond entertainment and transforms into a true spiritual experience.
It’s a project, say McKay and Payne, for which they feel a great responsibility.
“We see ourselves as Tolkien’s stewards,” Payne says. “Trying to move him from one medium to another is a joyful thing. And to see him start to touch people, and to see those reactions, is immensely rewarding.