A filmmaker's journey: Interview with Kate Madison
“When I was looking for a story to do I found those few paragraphs and the idea of a film about Aragorn’s parents and where he came from seemed a great idea. Aragorn is such an important character in The Lord of the Rings but we know hardly anything about him until he turns up in The Prancing Pony in The Fellowship of the Ring.”
As an actor and filmmaker, Kate Madison is mostly known for directing, producing and acting in her Lord of the Rings prequel, Born of Hope, released on the internet in December 2009. In 2003 Kate set up Actors at Work Productions as a banner for various creative projects linked mostly to Stage and Film work. Kate directed her first narrative film in 2005, a short called “Into the Darkness”. Born of Hope is reviewed in this issue. Kate was interviewed by Colin Duriez for Festival in the Shire Journal.
Kate, I believe Born of Hope has had over a million hits on the internet—what is the secret of its success?
I think it’s partly because this film appeals to both Tolkien fans and film fans and can be watched by everyone, young or old. This isn’t what most people think of when you say you’ve made a low budget fantasy film. I think it intrigues them and then if they are impressed when they see it they spread the word to their friends.
How did you first get interested in Tolkien’s writings?
People might be surprised, considering I’ve made a Lord of the Rings film, to learn that I only got introduced to Tolkien’s work by Peter Jackson’s movies. I then read the trilogy and The Hobbit. I do own some of the other books but have so far not actually read them. Now that Born of Hope is finished I should have more time to take a look at them!
What is the story of how the film came to be? I believe you started out funding it from your savings.
I found out about a Tolkien fan film competition back in 2003 and the idea sparked from there and snowballed. I really wanted to get involved in a film like this and you can’t really wait for opportunities to come to you; sometimes it’s best to make them happen yourself. There was no chance of trying to get any sort of film funding so I started digging into my savings. Well, I could have saved them for a rainy day, but then again, we had plenty of those on the shoot. Once I started to run out of funds we turned to the fans for help, and help they did!
When we met briefly at a Tolkien conference in Toronto way back in 2006 you were showing an impressive trailer of Born of Hope. The film itself seems born of hope also. How did you keep going through the years of gestation which you’ve described as a “journey”?
I think I’m the type of person who needs a ‘project’ to think about. There were certainly ups and downs and I did put the project on the shelf a couple of times in the early years. However, once we started principle photography in 2008 and so many people were involved, it was not just me I had to think about. I was responsible for everyone’s involvement and all the hard work they had all done would be wasted if I quit on them. That helped to keep me going. Life is a journey and this is a part of it, one particular path. The film may be finished and online but the journey continues. Soon there will be a new path for me to take.
What led you to see the possibilities of a few paragraphs from the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings for the story and shape of the film?
When I was looking for a story to do I found those few paragraphs and the idea of a film about Aragorn’s parents and where he came from seemed a great idea. Aragorn is such an important character in The Lord of the Rings but we know hardly anything about him until he turns up in The Prancing Pony in The Fellowship of the Ring. The Dúnedain had captured my interest when I read the books and I know that other fans were disappointed that they were not in the Peter Jackson films. This way we were able to show these people and other characters like the Sons of Elrond that we didn’t see in the films. There was a lot of work to do to flesh out the characters and a compelling story about them but we stayed as true to what Tolkien might have had in mind as we could.
As a zoologist by training, turned professional actor, and model, what led to your huge investment of time and creativity in film-making?
I’ve always been interested in films and the process of making them, especially since DVD extras started showing us all the behind the scenes footage. I’ve always been someone who likes to let life take me in various directions and to enjoy the life experience of it. Of course there was a certain amount of naivety when I started this project. It’s often best not to know exactly how long it will take or all the highs and lows you’ll have. Now I just need to forget everything again ready for the next project.
Your film has very much an international following, with a plethora of subtitled editions available for streaming. What does this say, do you think, about the Tolkien fan community? Why do you think Tolkien has such a global appeal?
I think that people around the globe love a bit of escapism from the real world. I know I do. That’s what movies are for me, and also books like Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The joy of the internet is that you can reach people all over the world and we had people from all over involved in this film. Now we can give something back by adding subtitles to the film so that everyone can enjoy it.
It must have been inspiring to have such a professional cast which was so willing to give freely of their time. Why were they so enthusiastic and committed?
As an actor myself I know how hard it is to get noticed in the crowd and how limited the opportunities are for upcoming actors. Many actors and filmmakers cut their teeth on short films, most of which are unpaid, hoping that there might be something good to add to their showreel which they can then use to try to get a good agent. There are not many historical fantasy films to get involved in so when someone offers the opportunity to dress up in a wig and cloak and run around looking great with a sword, then I think many actors would jump at the chance. Of course, none of us really knew it would be such a long term commitment, but even so, I think everyone is, and should be, proud of their part in it. Hopefully this will help get people work. It certainly is something a bit different for the showreel!
Your film demonstrates that Tolkien’s stories can be retold in this medium without massive budgets and a high element of CGI. As a filmmaker, what is it do you think that is distinctive about what film can add in interpreting Tolkien’s work?
Well, film is a visual medium and brings people and places to life for everyone to see. Peter Jackson had created the world of Middle-earth in his films and we knew that we could not recreate his “New Zealand” version and also didn’t want to. Our film is all about characters that we know little about from Tolkien’s writing. We wanted to tell a very human story. Fantasy doesn’t have to epic visual effects and creatures. It can still be an intimate character-driven story, set in a fantasy setting.
In terms of visualizing Middle-earth and the northern wilderness, and given your budget, how did you go about finding your locations?
I actually scouted for the village location back in 2003 and just struck gold when I found West Stow’s Anglo-Saxon village only thirty minutes from my home. It was such a perfect location and has become a bit of a home-from-home now. Epping Forest also worked brilliantly and is so close to London it was very easy for most people to get to. The forest and many of our locations are almost characters in the film; we show them as they change through the seasons and they look stunning. There was a lot of good luck involved too. Arathorn’s journey into the mountains was actually filmed with just myself on camera and Christopher Dane who plays Arathorn. We drove off to Wales just as the UK was struck by some of the worst snowy weather in 20 years. We drove around Snowdonia while most people huddled around a fire at home. We would literally just pull over and go film when we thought something looked interesting. We got some of the best shots in the film this way.
How would you characterize “fan film” and how does it relate to “fan fiction”?
I’d say something like: a Fan film is a film that uses the foundation of an existing work, a film or book maybe, without specific licence and with no commercial interest. There is a huge variation in quality and story. I suppose fan films are just another way for fans to become part of something they like and enjoy. You could call our script a piece of fan fiction really. We took a few character names and a timeline and expanded it into our own original story.
Why should those who love Tolkien’s work sponsor fan movies such as Born of Hope which by their nature are so expensive to produce and cannot be sold commercially?
I think that is a personal choice. I am extremely grateful to all of our sponsors because without their help Born of Hope would never have been completed. Born of Hope is not your average fan film though and I actually stopped calling it a fan film a long time ago, as we treat it like a pure independent film. Luckily many fan films are actually extremely low budget when you compare them to “real” movies and most people just self fund them. Fans of Tolkien’s work are just so eager to see more stories come to life that I’m sure there will always be those willing to sponsor such projects, if they think they are worthy.
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