Inside the raggedy plastic bag on the table is one of the most closely guarded secrets in Hollywood: the script for all three Lord of the Rings movies. Dialogue coach Andrew Jack shouldn't have brought it along, but he wants to show me how he taught Elvish to some of Hollywood's biggest stars. I'm honoured. Once upon a time even the identity of the actors was shrouded in secrecy, and amongst the million-or-so Lord of the Rings fans around the world, there are those who would fight Sauron to get their paws on the original script.
Scribbled in the margin are notes on pronunciation, additional speeches in Elvish, and details of linguistic mistakes for every take. Jack, uprooted to New Zealand for the shoot, dedicating 16 months to the trilogy, instead of the usual 12 weeks or so per film, and for the actors the language training required an extra six weeks work. Jack and assistant coach Róisín Carty sat with the actors in make up every day, talking them through a series of facial exercises and sounds designed to prepare their muscles for the invented language dialogue. Picture the dressing-room scene: John Rhys-Davies (Gimli) booming orders in Dwarvish, Elijah Wood (Frodo) muttering strange Elvish sounds and the pixie features of Liv Tyier (Arwen) contorted in a facial work-out.
Released in December 2001, The Fellowship of the Ring tells the first third of Frodo Baggins' epic journey through Middle Earth to protect The One Ring of power from the dark lord Sauron. Pursued by undead Ringwraiths, Frodo leaves the cosy world of the Shire for a terrifying world of wizards, Trolls, Balrogs and Dwarves. In the Mines of Moria, Frodo and Aragorn are left stranded over a bottomless abyss when a flight of stone steps collapses beneath them, escaping only to find themselves on a crumbling bridge chased by a fiery harbinger of doom. The action is paced to heart-stopping perfection and the special effects are spectacular as the camera sweeps vertiginously over the labyrinthine tower of Mordor where Orc workers manufacture evil for their dark master.
"It's exciting because there are all these wonderful creatures who have languages of their own," says Jack. "Languages are an important part of the story." There was never any question that Tolkien's languages would appear in the films despite the huge commitment involved. They were 'the foundation' of Tolkien's work and in The Lord of the Rings he tried to recreate a world of myths and culture which he believed England had lost. As thick as the average novella, Tolkien's appendices carefully record the grammatical rules and accents of languages like Sindarin, Rohirric and Black Speech in minute detail. "Tolkien's notes on pronunciation are so extensive it felt like he was actually encouraging us to make the movie!" says Jack. These languages were made to be spoken.
When it came to the Elvish tongues of Sindarin and Quenya, Tolkien created legitimate languages with their own etymologies and structures, so it was possible to include plausible dialogue that did not appear in the book. Jackson enlisted the help of Elvish expert David Salo to find accurate translations. "Often when we were working on set someone would say 'why don't we do this bit in Elvish?' Off went the email to Salo, who'd send back a translated version. The actors would do it on set in Elvish that same afternoon," explains Jack.
The film opens with Cate Blanchett speaking in Elvish. The languorous Sindarin lilt sounds a lot like Welsh. "You have to hold on to each syllable in Sindarin, like you do in Welsh. So if there are two 'm's you hang on to the 'mmm' sound," says Jack. "Elvish is a very poetic language." In The Fellowship of the Ring the biggest chunk of Sindarin is spoken between lovers. When Arwen and Aragorn meet in the rural paradise of Rivendell they speak in dulcet Elvish tones - a conversation unintelligible to the audience (but for the addition of subtitles) and all the more romantic for it.
The poetic nature of Elvish created its own problems, making it difficult for the actors to find the appropriate rhythm of speech. "It's very hard to know how to act something if you don't know exactly what it means, so we had to find out the direct translation, as well as the poetic translation," explains Jack.
But the biggest problem was that the entire crew pronounced many of the names incorrectly and the actors got used to the incorrect pronunciation. "It got so bad they started saying things wrong on set. For example, there are creatures called mumakil and the singular form is mumak, but people were saying 'there's a mumakil over there' and the actors got really confused." With thousands of die-hard fans and countless websites dedicated to The Lord of the Rings and its languages, it was important to get the details right. Because the book is so well known everybody has their own idea of how names and words should be said, and not all of them have taken the trouble to study Tolkien's notes. "Some people were bound to be disappointed with the way things were pronounced in the film, but we were determined that their disappointment would be with Tolkien and not with us," says Jack.
Jack and Carty often worked a six-day week, travelling between locations on their day off. Towards the end of the shoot there were up to six units shooting dialogue simultaneously and the coaches dashed manically from scene to scene to pick up any linguistic mistakes and note down deviations from the original script. Because so much of the trilogy was filmed outside most of the dialogue was revoiced in the studio at the end of the shoot, and Jack's main concern was that the lip movements were correct so there could be continuity at the dubbing stage. The details of every take had to be recorded on the scripts.
It was a mammoth job, but well worth the effort. In the United States the film took £32m in its first weekend and in Britain it had the second most successful opening weekend in cinema history, just behind Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. By far the most popular film over Christmas, it has been nominated for two Golden Globes, and praised almost unanimously by the critics.
With such enormous success, Jack can't help feeling some ghostly intervention has been going on. "Some very spooky things happened," he says. On one occasion Orlando Bloom fluffed his line, only to discover later on that there was a mistake in the script and he had inadvertently used the correct word. "You have to wonder where Orlando got the right word from," says Jack. The whole 'Hand of Tolkien' theory sounds somewhat unlikely. Tolkien famously hated Hollywood. When he received a film proposal in 1958 he condemned the script for deviating from the original book and only sold the film rights to pay off a bad debt. But Jack is convinced. "I like to think that Tolkien is looking down at us from above approvingly. In fact, I'm certain of it.