Peter Jackson Was Fighting His Own Battle During The Lord Of The Rings' Helm's Deep Scene

Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy had a combined budget of under $300 million, with "The Fellowship of the Ring" alone budgeted at $93 million or about a quarter of the cost of the most expensive film ever made (officially, that is), "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides." That Jackson's "Rings" movies are still far better-looking than so many tentpoles made today — 20-year-old CGI and all — is a testament to what the director and his team were able to achieve with their fantasy epic.

Hindsight is always 20/20, though, so it's easy to forget what a huge risk New Line Cinema founder Robert Shaye was taking when he agreed to bankroll all three "Rings" films. Jackson brought his J.R.R. Tolkien adaptation to the studio in the late 1990s, a time when franchise movies didn't rule the box office the way they do now, and genre films weren't a sure thing unless they had an A-list star or director (and even then, not always). The "Rings" trilogy had neither of those things. At that stage in his career, the biggest movie Jackson has tackled was "The Frighteners," a horror-comedy with a budget close to $30 million.

In an interview with Deadline to mark "Fellowship" turning 20 in 2021, Shaye admitted this didn't really sink in for him until he went to New Zealand with some international buyers to watch a sample reel Jackson had assembled mid-production. Upon seeing posters on the walls of Jackson's screening room for his early splatter comedies, "It suddenly struck me that this guy is making $50,000, $60,000 and $75,000 movies, cheap exploitation films, and we're giving him $300 million dollars," said Shaye. "This is really bloody crazy. I've almost never felt so panicked as I did at that moment."

The real bad guys

While Robert Shaye began to relax upon seeing what Peter Jackson and his crew were actually doing with New Line's $300 million, that was far from the end of tensions on "The Lord of the Rings." As shooting continued, the project began to go over its initial budget, much to the concern of the movies' producers. Jackson, speaking to Deadline, said it was "understandable" Shaye and his fellow executives would want to try and rein in his spending. "They aren't the bad guys in this story; we are really the bad guys for going over budget," he added.

Jackson continued, stating that things began to stabilize when producer Barrie Osborne came in after a few months of filming, at which point the entire trilogy was "re-budgeted and realistic." At the time, though, he confessed, "We all felt a bit under siege." Things eventually came to a head while Jackson was shooting the immensely-complicated Helm's Deep battle from "The Two Towers," during a period in which New Line "were at their most angry with us in terms of the budget," the director recalled. Specifically, Jackson found himself at odds with the late Michael Lynne, New Line's then-president and chief operating officer.

So it begins

Much like the Battle of Helm's Deep starts when one of King Théoden's men accidentally fires an arrow at and kills one of the thousands of Uruk-hai not-so-politely knocking at the door to their fortress, one of the few days Peter Jackson told Deadline he really "snapped" at New Line's executives began simply enough. To hear him tell it, the director was working on a scene for the battle when Barrie Osborne came bearing what Gríma Wormtongue would call "ill news from an ill guest." As with Gandalf the White when Wormtongue says this to him in "The Two Towers," Jackson wasn't having it:

"I am on the parapet, probably with Viggo [Mortensen], and I see Barrie. It took him about 30 minutes to huff and puff his way to get on the top, and so I kept on shooting. Barrie arrives and says, 'I have the studio, I've got to connect you with Michael Lynne of New Line.' I ask why. He says, 'Oh, he's going to threaten to sue you and sell the house from under you to cover the cost overruns.' Barrie was just the messenger, but it was one of the only points where I really snapped. I said, 'Just tell Michael Lynne that I'm shooting this f****** film and I'm doing the best job I can, and I'm not going to interrupt my day with a phone call like that.' Barrie picked up the cellphone and made his way back down to the car and drove off."

Things went smoother after that, culminating with the massive success of Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy upon its release. Still, this anecdote is a good reminder: Sometimes the battles waged behind-the-scenes on big-budget productions are just as intense as the ones on-screen.