Here is the article from the Guardian but if you want to see the original please follow the link. Born of Hope – and a lot of Charity by Tom Lamont, The Guardian – 7 March 2010
On the eastern flank of Epping Forest, a short walk in from the town of Debden, there is a huge tree, lying on its side, upended by a storm. It was in this clearing that independent film-maker Kate Madison, along with dozens of game volunteers, filmed Born of Hope, a homemade prequel to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy that has caused a great stir since its release in December. A production pulled together over four years with a budget of a mere £25,000 – about a tenth of one per cent of the cost of Jackson’s epic – it has impressed critics and recorded close to a million views on video streaming sites. The upended tree seems a fitting place for it all to have begun.
Born of Hope tells the story of Arathorn, the father of Viggo Mortensen’s character in the Hollywood films. There’s the odd crude moment (a lady, just about visible in the background of a love scene, walking her dog through the trees); and this time Middle Earth is represented by oft-drizzly Essex, not the luscious Ruapehu district of New Zealand. But Madison’s film makes an entirely plausible, if unofficial, addition to the franchise. There are epic battle sequences, pitting man and elf against orc and troll; there are stirring original orchestral scores; there are special effects; horses; severed heads; even a thrilling glimpse of the Tower of Mordor, where Jackson’s trilogy has its climactic scenes.
Fan films have been cobbled together in Jackson’s wake ever since the release of Fellowship of the Rings in 2001, but never have they been so credible, or boasted such a running time (70-plus minutes), or looked so good. “Every shot of this film was made with love,” wrote a reviewer in the national press, awarding the film four stars, “and it shows.”
“We stopped calling this a fan film a long time ago,” says Madison, 31, who had previously directed fantasy shorts – one about the horsemen of the apocalypse meeting in a pub, another that spoofily spliced the concepts of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Highlander – but never anything this long or ambitious. “Guys running around in their back garden with a cloak over their shoulders, that’s the popular image of fan films. We were aiming for a higher quality.”
The fight sequences, practised for hours among caravans and chickens in a camping site’s car park, are a particular thrill: professional, convincing, replete with Jackson-esque moments of imaginative baddie slaying, and “Rewind that!” bits of weapon-play. At one point a giant troll, fully computer animated and blended in with real footage, lays waste to several members of the cast, before being brought down under a hail of arrows. How was this all possible on a budget of £25,000?
“It was slightly under that in the end,” says Madison. There was creative borrowing (a baby was begged from a family out for a walk, to be plopped into shooting when a bundle of rags wasn’t quite doing the trick). And there was a bit of corporate aid (Tesco donated a £10 food voucher; a local caterer sent a hamper full of chutneys and gherkins). But mostly, the lack of funds was made up by volunteers, corralled in to give up hundreds of hours of their time.
Actors worked for nothing, often doubling up as weapon-makers, prop-builders, caterers, or, as in the case of the film’s leading man, Christopher Dane, as editor and occasional scriptwriter. “I wrote my own death scene,” says the 44-year-old, who turned down paid theatre roles to continue working on the film during its long production. What was the motivation? “Show-reels, filming experience… Some people had seen test footage and liked it. Others just love Lord of the Rings and would do anything to be a part of it,” says Dane. “In my case it was a chance to wield a big sword.”
As well as directing, Madison acted in the film (as a bewigged, sword-wielding ranger) and wrote the bulk of the script, in collaboration with a writer in Michigan. “We’ve never been in the same room,” says Madison. “It was all done over email and Skype.” Such contributions from abroad proved key to the film’s completion. Struggling to balance the varied tasks of kitchen-table auteurship – directing and casting and location-scouting, but also staying up late to stir Lyle’s Golden Syrup and mouthwash into fake blood, or building a medieval cart with pieces bought on eBay – Madison used the internet to “crowd source” assistance.
Her film boasts a global crew, most of whom have never set foot in Epping Forest. Costume designs were sent from the Netherlands. A box of decorative chainmail came from a well-wisher in New Zealand. Arrows were crafted in the US and sent by post, and concept art was emailed from Poland. The hero’s sword was designed in Ontario while severed fingers were made by a prosthetic artist in London. “Four guys climbed in to a car in Germany,” says Madison, “and drove all the way to Suffolk to appear as extras.”
The budget was similarly fattened, after a distress call for funds was sent out two years ago. “There had been a little donation button on our website since it first started in 2006. Every six months we might get a tenner if we were lucky. But it wasn’t enough.” By November 2008, the film only half finished, Madison had plunged £8,000 of her savings into the production. The cast had gathered in a reconstructed Anglo-Saxon village in West Stow, Suffolk, to shoot a key scene, camping out to reduce costs. Morale was low: it was so cold water bottles froze solid during the night, and half the fight team had had to pull out to take paid work. “You can only ask so much good will, and I realised then we needed to at least pay for people’s accommodation. There was no money. It was a dark moment.”
Madison sat down with Dane and other members of the crew and hit upon an idea. Somebody mentioned a viral video, the “Don’t Vote” campaign that was garnering attention in the run up to the American election. “Celebrities appeared telling you not to vote for various silly reasons,” recalls Madison. “And then it flips. ‘Don’t vote, unless you care about healthcare…'”. The cast, fully costumed, filmed their own Tolkienian version, called it “Don’t Give”, and circulated the video online.
It got the ball rolling. Money started coming in from as far afield as Belgium and Brazil, then Sweden, Spain, Austria, Australia… A student in Hungary offered £2.50 with an apology it wasn’t more. A pair of Canadians used PayPal to send £500 each. “We raised about £17,000 from sponsors. They’re all listed in the credits as hobbits and elves.” The burst of finances meant that filming could be completed – new scenes added in the snowy Welsh hills – and funds channelled into a gruelling six months of post production.
At this point, the breadth of global collaboration, if anything, widened. Sections of film were sent out to volunteer composers for scoring; video effects were added to the same scene by hands as far as 5,000 miles apart. In one of the film’s best moments, the villain’s lair, a stark tower surrounded by lightning, looms over an otherwise peaceful forest of trees. It is a triumph of online collaboration: the tower was painted in America, a flock of birds animated in London, footage of the trees sent from Germany, and lightning added by an effects wizard in Greece. Everyone worked for nothing. “I hope I get to actually meet these people,” says Madison. “That would be cool.”
At the last tot-up, the film had passed the 975,000-viewers mark, a combined figure from three video-streaming sites (see it at www.born ofhope.com). The fast climb to a million has been stalled only by a copyright-infringement claim that has caused Born of Hope‘s temporary removal from YouTube. The claim was made by a Japanese computer-games company (“A mistake we’re pretty sure,” says Madison); the contrasting reaction from New Line Cinema, which owns the film rights to Tolkien’s novels, has been surprising benevolence. As long as you don’t start flogging T-shirts or DVDs, the studio told Madison, we’ll let it go.
There has been no response from Jackson himself. “And no offer,” says Madison, “to direct The Hobbit,” the next official film in the series for which production is imminent. But that box of decorative chainmail, the one that arrived from New Zealand, turned out to be from a designer at Jackson’s effects house Weta Workshops; he had seen early internet footage of the film and was moved to send some discontinued Rings props. “A touch of glamour,” says Madison. “We used it to dress our chief orc.”
Having produced the most ambitious fan film to date by deploying this crafty method of open-source filmmaking, Madison plans to raise the stakes again with her next production. “A fantasy epic. Completely our own material so that we can make some money and actually pay people. Definitely a bigger budget.”
The plan is to raise half a million – “I’m curious to see if it’s possible with crowd-funding” – but if that doesn’t come off, you suspect she might have a few obstacle-upending schemes in mind. And there’s always her arrow fashioner in America, and the costume designer in Holland. Plus a gang of game German blokes with use of their own car.