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JA Bayona on The Rings of Power: ‘We knew the bar is set very high’

J.A. Bayona and Belén Atienza discuss the responsibility of kicking off the high-stakes Amazon series The Rings Of Power

A still from 'The Rings of Power'
A still from 'The Rings of Power'

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Whether or not it’s successful, it’s difficult to see how The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power (on Amazon Prime from 2 September) will not be a television-altering event. The sheer weight of numbers is dizzying: $250 million paid by Amazon to the Tolkien estate for the rights; $1 billion spent on the series. Planning for five seasons right from the start. All this to be compared to one of the most successful and beloved film franchises ever.

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Amazon might be holding its breath but J.A. Bayona doesn’t seem worried. The Spanish director is helming the first two episodes of the series, which looks at the events that led to the forging of the rings at the heart of the Peter Jackson films. Bayona has already delivered the massively successful 2018 franchise entry Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Before that, he made the well-regarded horror film The Orphanage (2007), the disaster drama The Impossible (2012) and the fantasy A Monster Calls (2016). Being the first director on a series means setting the tone and visual aesthetic. Yet Bayona and his producing partner, Belén Atienza, seem more excited than daunted to be fashioning their own castles in J.R.R. Tolkien’s expansive sandbox. Lounge speaks to the two of them on Zoom. Edited excerpts:

The is the first time someone is doing invented storylines with Tolkien’s work. Was this a source of added responsibility?

Bayona: The first time I heard about a TV show based on Lord Of The Rings, I thought it was very smart. If you read the books, they are so detailed. These details get lost in a movie. But when you think of a show, which will extend over five seasons, probably 40 hours, this felt right to be able to portray the rich world that Tolkien created. But I never thought it was going to be me, and suddenly I got a call from my agent and I said, why not.

Belén and I sat down with (showrunners) Patrick (McKay) and J.D. (Payne). They talk about Tolkien’s world with so much passion and wisdom. We then read the script and loved it. Suddenly we find ourselves recreating these worlds we love from the books, and bringing some of them to the screen for the first time.

Atienza: It felt like a responsibility but at the same time it was so exciting. You get so invested in the work and trying to make something special that you forget about it (the pressure). Then when you stop, you think, oh my god, we are doing Lord Of The Rings.

Bayona: I remember, there was so much work in building these worlds—the elves, the harfoots, the dwarves. It took us so much time. I remember very late in the shoot, like maybe the last week,I found myself in front of the Lindon set and I looked at Belén and said, this is fantastic. Not until the very end did we realise, because we were doing so much work. The truth is, we felt protected by the scripts. And of course, you can also go back to the books, which are so detailed and so rich.

Was it a luxury to be able to plan over five seasons?

Atienza: It was interesting. You are right, it’s not the normal way to go in a show. One of the bigger achievements of J.D. and Patrick has been to really have the whole scope of the whole story. That really helps the creative to build. That was an amazing piece of work on their part.

Was there a conscious effort to dissociate from the Jackson films?

Bayona: Yeah, it’s interesting. From the beginning, we knew the bar is set very high. We had to be at least at the same level as the movies. We love the Peter Jackson movies but the more we worked on the show, expanding over five seasons, it was impossible that the show would not find its own identity. And this is the moment that you start to disconnect, because you start thinking about the characters and the storylines that you are working on, and not about the movies.

Was there a moment when you felt you had arrived at your vision of Middle Earth?

Bayona: I think you will see that. I am not going to spoil anything. From the very first time Belén and I met Patrick and J.D., we felt the love and respect towards our work, and that continued throughout the process. Somewhere we found the space to put our own stamp on the show while being respectful to what Patrick and J.D. were doing.

Atienza: We were privileged to witness the very origin of the show. We met them for the first time in LA, in a room that was full of post-its because they were building the structure. I think they brought such originality while being true to the Tolkien spirit, and that, combined with JA, his camera language and his spirit as an author, I think that combination was really exciting.

Some of the characters in the films, like Galadriel, appear as their younger selves here. Did you or the actor keep in mind the existing interpretations or was it a blank slate?

Bayona: We wanted to be very specific and, at the same time, give a lot of freedom to the readers to imagine the characters. Every single reader has an idea of who Galadriel is. That’s the challenge of working in a show like this, working in a delicate zone—to get someone who can embody what Galadriel is for everybody, but at the same time bring her own thing to the character.

It’s an earlier version of these characters. You have the chance of presenting their characters from a point of view no one has seen before, from a perspective that will give you better knowledge of who they are. So you need to balance the familiar and show them something new.

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