An estimated $250 million dollars for the rights. A planned 50 episodes. Close to a century of history. If the burden of shaping Amazon Prime Video's Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power weighed heavy on showrunner J.D. Payne, he referred to it only briefly at the series' premiere in Mumbai last Friday, comparing himself to Frodo tasked with taking the One Ring to Mount Doom. Instead, he spoke effusively of his fandom, of always knowing which quotes from J.R.R Tolkien's books to weave into eulogies and celebratory speeches, and of enjoying himself immensely while creating Middle Earth on location in New Zealand. Payne, previously an uncredited writer on Star Trek Beyond (2016), sat for an interview a day before the event and spoke about landing the job, the most memorable conversation he had with the VFX team, and what he hopes Rings of Power will convey to audiences.
Tell me a little about landing the gig. I read that once Amazon won the rights, they interviewed writers and creators to hear different takes on the franchise. What was your and your writing partner Patrick McKay's pitch?
It was a crazy process. Amazon was hearing literally dozens of different writers' ideas for how to make Middle Earth come to life. They had bought the rights to literally thousands of years of story, and so the field was wide open for anything. Patrick and I very quickly zoomed in on the Second Age, because there are these cosmic stories about the rings of power, the rise of the dark lord Sauron, the fall of Númenor, the last of the lives of elves and men. We felt that for it to really feel like a story set in Middle Earth, it had to have all these elements of elves and dwarves and halflings and humans. Those were all the necessary ingredients to create a really good Middle Earth story.
What are some of the challenges of creating Middle Earth practically? I know your initial idea was to create Khazad-dûm on location in New Zealand. Why didn't that work out?
We had this dream to go into this cave system called the Lost World. But you have to get your crew and your gear down hundreds of feet using rappelling lines, which is very complicated. The dwarves have tons of prosthetics and makeup and so you need to get all of the crew members handling costumes and wigs down there. So eventually, we figured out a way to recreate all those things on set, inspired by what Mother Nature showed us there. With Middle Earth, you're always dealing with challenges because you have creatures of different sizes that are interacting. So to create that effect, there's all these different things you need to do, like having props of multiple sizes, some for actors who are supposed to be eight feet tall and others for actors who are playing dwarves. It's a receptacle of math problems. It's never a simple thing to bring Middle Earth to life.
When it came to creating a fantastical world and all of the creatures who inhabit it, what were some of the most memorable conversations you had with the VFX department?
When you think of Middle Earth, you think about visual effects, you think about all the monsters and the creatures that are there and VFX plays a huge part in that. But I was talking to a person in my VFX team and he said, 'Do you know what the most complicated and difficult scene that you've written this entire year that we have to produce is?' And we thought, 'Oh, is it this big battle? Is it that creature thing?' He said, 'No, it's a scene in which an elf and a dwarf walk down a hall together.' That took several days of shooting and very complicated mathematics to work out — all the eye lines, all the environments they're interacting with, everything has to be stitched together. So there are visual effects in places where you wouldn't normally see visual effects.
Tolkien didn't write specifically about the Second Age and I read that you worked with Tolkien scholars to fill the gaps. What were some insights that you gained from them?
So one of them was Tom Shippey, who's a world-renowned Tolkien expert. He has Tolkien's chair at Oxford. He wrote extensively about what sort of economy Númenor might have. We were like, 'Okay, people have heard of Númenor before, we know that there are these kings and then there's these fishermen. But on a day-to-day basis, what does Númenor look like? How does it feel? How does it work?' So he took some clues that Tolkein provided across texts, but he also said, 'Okay, it's like the kind of society that would have existed in the 15th to 16th Century in Venice.' There was a system of guilds then. So he was able to help us flesh out the nuts and bolts of that society and how it would actually work.
Was there a moment when you felt like you'd really arrived at your vision of Middle Earth?
One moment that I loved was the first time I got to see a dwarf in full costume and makeup. He walked onto the stage and we were doing a camera test to see how he would look. I remember meeting him — the effect was so transporting that I didn't feel like I was looking at an actor. I felt like an actual magical being from Middle Earth had walked through a portal and was just standing here. I was almost like, 'Welcome to our world, we're so grateful to have you as this ambassador.' I just couldn't stop staring at his face. Our costume person had flecked his beard with gold. It was just so magical to be standing there with this magical creature.
You've spoken about the plan to do five seasons of Rings of Power — is there a central idea you hope to convey with season 1?
Season 1 is just to say, 'Welcome back to Middle Earth!' It's pre the emergence of evil in Middle Earth, and it's the opportunity to realise that evil can come from unexpected places and that we have to be careful because sometimes our own desires to fight against something, if we're not fighting in the right way, can be corrupting to ourselves. And so when we're fighting for something that we believe in, we have to make sure that we're fighting in a way that doesn't end up adding to the matter of darkness in the world, which I think is a complex theme.