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Dome Karukoski • Director of Tolkien

“Tolkien was his own antagonist”

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- Cineuropa talked to Finnish director Dome Karukoski about Tolkien, his English-language debut, starring Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins

Dome Karukoski  • Director of Tolkien
Director Dome Karukoski on set with Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins (© David Appleby)

In Tolkien, alongside his long-time editor Harri Ylönen and writers David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford, Finnish helmer Dome Karukoski takes on the story of the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings – or, rather, the time before he actually became one. Produced by Fox Searchlight Pictures and Chernin Entertainment, the film starring Nicholas Hoult is set to premiere on 3 May in the UK, the USA, Ireland and Finland. 

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Cineuropa: Tolkien was inspired by mythology and legends, but you suggest that his works bear traces of his private life, too. How personal did you want to get with this story?
Dome Karukoski: 
The personal aspect is that I, too, grew up without a father. Then, of course, I am a fan, and I read The Lord of the Rings when I was 12, followed by The Hobbit and The Silmarillion when I was old enough to enjoy them. His world was a fable, inspired by the Finnish [work of epic poetry] Kalevala, or Norse and Icelandic mythology. These were his greatest influences, but he either shared or endured all of these emotions. He saw how war transforms people and how innocence turns into turmoil, just like in the case of Frodo or Bilbo, as he would often say he was a bit of a Hobbit himself. There are so many issues here that I experienced or could have experienced as a young man. It didn’t feel like I was directing from an outside perspective at all. 

It’s mentioned how much he “stole” from the Finnish language. But originally you wanted to reference Kalevala even more explicitly.
It was too specific, and also, it was just a little too much. The worst biopics always have these scenes that aren’t moving the story forward – they are just telling you something you can find on Wikipedia. People force them into the script, convinced that if you don’t, you will disappoint the fans. But it’s a two-hour-long story! If you talk about inspirations and influences, it’s part of the journey. But it shouldn’t take over, because then it wouldn’t be a story about this man; it would be a story about his books.

The problem with biopics showing someone turning into the person we know is that when they come up with certain ideas, it feels too on the nose.
We don’t show any direct inspirations, but rather the emotional core of how an inspiration grows. When you watch these biopics, it’s rare for them to be intellectually intertwined with the character’s experience. It’s more like: “Oh, he heard this beat, and then he created this song.” We tried to be subtler because it’s not like he sees the tower in Birmingham and then creates The Two Towers; it’s more about how he views the world. What I always loved about Tolkien is that there is something poetic about his stories. They are about human nature and how we work as a society. So everything we show comes from a deeper level. 

Is that why instead of something instantly recognisable, you show sketches slowly forming in his mind?
At that moment, he is just a young man building his world. His life is actually very cinematic. You have a boy becoming an orphan and, later, one of the most famous writers in the world. You have a love story that feels like it was written for a movie. Of course, he is not your typical tortured artist, so conflicts don’t come from drugs, fame or an abusive parent. That was a bit of a problem because who is the antagonist in Tolkien’s life? The easy solution is to have someone who doesn’t believe in you, but that’s the mother of all clichés. Tolkien never had that – he was his own antagonist.

There are letters he wrote to his wife, Edith, showing a strong bond and a stable marriage. And yet your film is more about friendship than love. 
What made him grow into the Tolkien we know was friendship. If you look at his mythologies, this element is usually much stronger than any love story, and even the one about Arwen and Aragorn is more present in Peter Jackson’s films than the actual books. His experience with the TCBS [Tea Club and Barrovian Society, a club founded by Tolkien and his friends at King Edward’s School], and then of going to war… To me, it felt like a bigger story.

Whether interacting with friends or with Edith, played by Lily Collins, I have never seen Nicholas Hoult so tender before. What made you think of him?
When I started developing the film, he was already on the top of my list. But I didn’t want to show him the script just yet. My father, who was an actor, told me the story of his audition for Costa-Gavras. After drinking coffee and talking about politics, rather than the film, he was told: “You are a wonderful human being, but you are not right for the role.” [laughs] We didn’t talk about the film either, and Nic said it was the weirdest meeting he had ever had. There is a lot of warmth and playfulness in him that doesn’t come across in his films. It was something I saw in Tolkien as well.

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