The dramatic biopic Tolkien hits cinemas on May 10th, and we were fortunate enough to speak with several people who worked on the film, including director Dome Karukoski. Karukoski is known for many of his Finnish films and his previous biopic, Tom of Finland. We spoke with Dome in London about diving in his second biopic and the world of J.R.R. Tolkien, the challenges he faced, and more. Read the full interview below.
Let’s start at the beginning, how did you first come to be attached to Tolkien?
DOME KARUKOSKI: I didn’t really think I was going to be taking on another biopic. That’s the problem with biopics! They’re rigid. There’s an ending and things you have to hit along the way because those are things which actually happened. After Tom of Finland I told myself, “No more biopics!” Then I read the script and I love Tolkien’s work so very much, so I suddenly found myself doing a biopic again.
I’d heard you were a big Lord of the Rings fan. Tell us about that.
KARUKOSKI: Yes, yes. When I was little, growing up, I didn’t have a father and I loved books so much, so the books became my friends. The characters were my family. I read The Hobbit and I loved Gandalf. Then I read The Silmarillion, The Lord of the Rings and went on to Tolkien’s other works – Leaf By Niggle and so on and so forth. Lord of the Rings gave me my first crush. My first crush was on an elf lady. Arwen, Luthien, so beautiful. I loved them. After that I went onto D&D – Dungeons & Dragons – and roleplaying and living as much as I could in that fantasy world. I was a wizard. I was always playing a wizard. It was then I had a real family – a fellowship – the same way J.R.R. Tolkien finds it in our movie. That feeling was something I really wanted to emulate. I wanted to capture Tolkien’s fellowship in – well, Tolkien – and how important each of those boys were to him in the early part of his life. Because I did not want to just explore his time creating The Lord of the Rings. That’s the problem with biopics, you know? You always get stuck showing the thing right before the person creates the work of art you love them for. We do that a little bit with some of the imagery at the Somme, but not too much.
You mentioned Luthien, how important was including the scene of Edith Pratt dancing for you? Since we know she’s the direct inspiration for Luthien. The moment where Beren comes upon her dancing in the forest has never been shown on screen and you got a chance to homage it in Tolkien.
KARUKOSKI: Oh, very important! I told you about my elf lady crush, right? This was another chance for us to get away from the problem with biopics. We got to show something which has never been seen and I felt very proud of how beautifully it turned out. I think I told Lily [Collins] to dance the way an elf princess would – free, and whimsical, and beautiful. The scene turned out very nice.
Speaking of Lily, what was the casting process like? How did you settle on her and Nicholas Hoult to play the Tolkiens?
KARUKOSKI: We actually cast Nick first. Yes, after I read the script he came to mind immediately and I really wanted him. Luckily, Fox suggested him and I was so happy. We had to do a little bit of scheduling to get him away from X-Men to come shoot with us. It worked out, though. So much of the movie depends on who you have playing Tolkien. We were lucky to have Nick. After that we got Lily. She’s such a wonderful actress and they were great when they read together. Then we moved onto casting the TCBS and that was so many chemistry reads. I wanted the fellowship quality with these three characters, so I had to see them all together. I was also casting the older generation of the TCBS at the same time as the younger generation, so the actors had to, yes, look alike, but they also had to be able to take on each other’s mannerisms so they felt like the same person growing up.
Were there any scenes or sequences that were particularly difficult to shoot? Maybe some of the scene set during The Somme?
KARUKOSKI: No, not The Somme. Actually, there’s a scene which takes place behind an opera and that was quite difficult. We shot it at night and it was really very cold. So, it’s cold, there are set ups, the actors have to speak lines, and act, and act like they’re not cold, and hit all the emotions going on in that scene.
Since you are such a Tolkien fan, do you consider yourself to be a specific member of his world?
KARUKOSKI: (laughs) I always thought I was a Numenorian or one of the Dunedain – one of Aragorn’s people – but my assistant laughed when I told her that. She says, “No! You are absolutely a hobbit!” and as a director I’m always eating really quick – eating first breakfast, then going to crafty for second breakfast – so, I have accepted that I am a hobbit.
To close out, is there a specific scene or moment you want audiences to look out for when they see Tolkien?
KARUKOSKI: The opera scene which we spoke about earlier. Everything in Tolkien is about homage – including that scene. The man himself was about homage. He loved King Arthur and he loved Beowulf. You can see them across his stores. The movie does the same thing. During the opera scene where he is dressed up as a knight – did you know Tolkien would dress up as a knight and scare the students at Oxford? We wanted to include that, but had to cut it. I hope people can see the homages we included in this film.
Tolkien opens in theaters on May 10th.