Tolkien Heir Makes Filmmaking Debut

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Filmmaker Nicholas Tolkien. (Karen Pelland/Here & Now)
Filmmaker Nicholas Tolkien. (Karen Pelland/Here & Now)

When J.R.R. Tolkien's "Fellowship of the Ring" hit theaters in 2001, his great-grandson, Nicholas, was just 11-years-old. And he imagined the film would earn him some serious street cred.

Not so much.

"People started teasing me at school about it," Nicholas said. "They used to call me 'hobbit.'"

Despite the schoolyard jibes, Nicolas was enthralled by the film, and it inspired him to make films himself.

This weekend, Nicholas Tolkien's second film, "Masquerade," debuts at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

But not everyone in the Tolkien clan is a fan of the Middle Earth films.

Family Discord

J.R.R. Tolkien sold the rights to his wildly popular "Lord of the Rings" trilogy for just $24,000 shortly before his death in 1973. The films, directed by Peter Jackson, raked in nearly $3-billion at the box office.

Nicholas says his family was split over whether the films should ever have been made. His father supported the idea, but his grandfather, Christopher, was adamantly against the adaptations. A family feud resulted, and sadly, says Nicholas, he hasn't spoken to his grandfather in over a decade.

"It’s strange to have somebody who was in your life for the first nine or 10 years just disappear over something that we could have all been proud of," Nicholas said.

The Early Years

Nicholas started writing screenplays at 13, and after graduating high school in England at 16, he chose not to follow the Tolkien tradition of attending Oxford University.

“I moved out to Los Angeles by myself at 17 on this unbelievably misguided adventure into Hollywood," Nicholas said.

He spent the first two months going to meetings with Hollywood movers and shakers, only to be turned down. Although Nicholas acknowledged his name was responsible for getting the meetings scheduled, he also knew he had to deliver as an artist.

"It might get me in the door," he admits. "But it’s not going to get me what I really want, which is to be a filmmaker."

New Beginnings

So Nicholas took his bruised ego 90 miles up the California coast to Santa Barbara and decided to begin again.

"I thought I’ve got to try and create something outside of Hollywood because I have the money to do it, and I have the scripts to do it, and it’s just a question of finding the right people," he said.

Once he settled in the decidedly un-Hollywood postcard city, humbly known as “the American Riviera," Nicholas did find some local actors and crew. And he went to work on his first film, “Anacapa," which was never released.

Charlie Sheen As Inspiration

For his second and current film, "Masquerade," Nicholas learned that “less is more." Nicholas decided to embrace the French New Wave style of filmmaking with minimal budgets and improvised scenes.

The end result is a mockumentary about a former child star inspired by Charlie's Sheen's antics. "Masquerade" culminates in the protagonist – now grown up and obsessed with the celebrity he once had – being fired from his own reality show and replaced by another actor.

"Masquerade" cost only $15,000 make. As opposed to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which cost $285 million.

Nicholas Tolkien admits he's no Peter Jackson. He hasn’t been to film school, is entirely self-taught, and firmly believes that any aspiring filmmaker with a strong story and characters can and should learn on the job.

"The best way to do it is to take a little bit of money and to just go out and tell the story you want to tell despite not having everything you feel you need to make movies," he said.

Despite his distaste for the cut-throat film industry in Los Angeles, Nicholas Tolkien may one day find himself back there, with doors opening instead of shutting – and maybe even with a Lord of the Rings-esque budget.

But for now, at 21, Hollywood can wait.


This segment aired on February 2, 2012.


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