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Diary of three days in New York with 'The Hobbit' and 'Flashdance'

Written by Sharon Eberson on .

Hobbit4Facing 10 hours or so of tapes to transcribe, I thought I better write down what I remember of a very busy three days in New York for a screening of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" and the interviews that followed, with a lot of theater thrown in the mix, including a day with some of the creative forces behind "Flashdance," the musical making its world premiere in Pittsburgh Jan. 1. Some quick thoughts ... 

Tuesday, Dec. 4:

11 a.m.-1:30 p.m.: After driving from Pittsburgh to friends' house in New Jersey the night before, take train from Princeton Junction, N.J., to Penn Station in Midtown Manhattan with longtime friend Debbie W. Try to check into Broadway Hotel at Times Square early, but room not ready and elevator not working (this turns out to be only time we have any reason to be worried about very reasonable hotel in perfect location). Leave bags and walk to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel to check in for "The Hobbit" press screening that evening and the beginning of a busy three days. Get a kick out of guy studiously building what seemed like an IKEA-complicated cardboard representation of Bag End -- as in "In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit ..."

2:30 p.m.: Meet with Austin Pendleton, director and Lebedev in off-Broadway production of "Ivanov," starring Ethan Hawke (who Debbie points out is from her N.J. neighborhood) and Joely Richardson. He's also director of "The Speed Queen" and Thursday was in Pittsburgh for the play at Off the Wall theater in Carnegie. We meet in a rehearsal space empty except for one cushioned chair in the far corner as you enter, a wooden square next to it and some folding chairs. Mr. Pendleton insists I take the cushioned chair, pulls up a folding chair directly in front of me and we talk theater for a half-hour. Delightful. When I tell him I had seen him during the 1978 season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (I remember him as Marc Antony in a "Julius Caesar" company with Richard Dreyfuss, Rene Auberjonois, George Rose and Carole Shelley). "It was a season of turmoil," he says. "But what a company!" I say. He agrees.

5:30 p.m.: Back to the Waldorf to take shuttle bus to Regal E-Walk theater on 42nd Street for what we think will be a 6:30 screening of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." The "we" is Debbie; I'm allowed a guest, and Debbie introduced me to Tolkien back in our Brooklyn days, and it feels so right to be seeing this with her. As we are handed 3D glasses, a studio rep comes running toward us and says, "Do you want to go to a screening that's about to begin? There will be talent doing a Q&A later." We sprint across the movie house to another theater and ... more about the movie on Dec. 14.

McKellenAround 9:15 p.m.: After the movie, in walk Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins), Richard Armitage (Thorin Oakenshield), Sir Ian McKellen (Gandalf) and Andy Serkis (Gollum and second-unit director). Love Martin Freeman from "Love, Actually" and BBC "The Office" and "Sherlock"; love Richard Armitage from BBC "Robin Hood" and "MI-5." They all seem relaxed, considering they were about to face two days of grilling from the media. I am tickled when Freeman says he got some of Bilbo's movements from channeling a meerkat and then moves his head in a way that is instantly meerkat and Hobbit. Armitage reveals that he put on a production of "The Hobbit" as a schoolboy. More from the Q&A in the next couple of days ...

10:30 p.m.: Dinner at Junior's, Times Square. We wait for about 15 minutes to be seated; it's more crowded when we leave. 

Wednesday, Dec. 5:

9:30 a.m.: Press check in at Waldorf.

10 a.m.: Waiting in a room with a few dozen members of print and online media for Aliquippa's Joe Letteri, senior supervisor of special effects for WETA, Peter Jackson and Phillipa Boyens. They take their places in front of boards covered in "Hobbit" movie scenes and are questioned from the start about dividing the slimmest book in Tolkien's Middle Earth series into three films and about shooting it in 48 frames per second rather than the usual 24, plus 3D, which creates a heightened clarity that has some folks in a tizzy. Jackson say he has been "fascinated" by the reaction both positive and negative, including reports of nausea from some audience members in New Zealand. I find that shocking as someone who suffers from motion sickness and takes Dramamine to see some movies but had no such problem at all watching "The Hobbit." It can be also be seen in Real 3D or IMAX 3D, so I don't know what all the fuss is about. Peter Jackson trying new technology? That should come as a shock to no one.

To create three films from one book, the "Hobbit" team, which at one time included Guillermo del Toro as director, looked to appendices by Tolkien and took some scenes whole, gave back stories to the Dwarves and explained some of Gandalf's curious disappearances.

One reason to spend more time with the Dwarves is having Armitage as the leader of the band. He's a hunky 6 feet 4 and 40; not the old warrior of the book. He was the youngest actor to audition for Thorin, and Boyens is among those obviously smitten. Jackson says his casting serves the story, to have a younger man seeking to restore a lost kingdom. It's important casting for the film, which is ... no, sorry. More on the 14th.

11:00 a.m.: Changing of the guard: Next in the room are Elijah Wood (Frodo), Armitage, Freeman, McKellen and Serkis. I tweeted this as soon as I was able, but the moment I will long recall is being yelled at by Sir Ian McKellen. I was asking newbies Freeman and Armitage about their roles as leaders in the franchise ... "This is not a franchise," Sir Ian roared. "These are films! This is not 'X-Men'!" Laughter ensued, including his, although my friends now like to note that I've been cursed by the wizard Gandalf. I am charmed, though, to learn that Sir Ian baby-sat for co-star Freeman's kids. Imagine, a bed-time story read to your children by the great stage actor! Freeman is blown away at the recollection, even more so when Sir Ian says he had learned a thing or two about acting from Freeman.

2:20 p.m.: Meet with Joe Letteri, four-time Oscar winner, after talking to him by phone for years. The way it works, the one-on-ones are in sitting rooms on the floor above where the press conferences are held. The interviewees might sit in a small room for hours at a time while members of the press march in and out -- I find out later that Armitage hadn't known that Joe was in the room right next door to his. Each time I talk to Joe, I ask him how many people at WETA Digital work for him. He can say "a thousand people" calmer than any person I know.

3:10 p.m.: Enter a smaller sitting room where Richard Armitage is sitting on a couch behind a coffee table. He stands and reaches across to shake hands. Thorin? Really? I ask if there was ever a "who me?" moment about taking on the role. "More like 'why me?' " he says. He's a "Hobbit" fan from childhood, and he knows he's not the obvious choice, though he figures his acting life until now has prepared him for all he has to do in Middle Earth - he includes the circus (in Budapest) and the Royal Shakespeare Company as preparation, while I'm thinking his music studies have come in handy, too. I ask if he, too, is offended by the word "franchise" and he uses his cell phone to look the definition and try to absolve me from the blame bestowed by Sir Ian. First definition is "liberty," which we agree is promising. Second is "commercial enterprise." Well, there you go. "I can see where that would bother him ... but not to worry," he assures me. When I tell him I have motion sickness but no ill effects from seeing the film, he says, "Will you write that? Please write that. People were saying they were getting sick after the premiere in New Zealand." "Absolutely," I say.

When I tell him I have just talked to Joe in the next room, he says he has to pop in and say how sorry he is over the loss of Eileen Moran, a native New Yorker and longtime WETA visual effects producer who died just recently. I wish I had known beforehand to offer my condolences.

4:15 p.m.: My "Hobbit" journey in New York ends.

5:30 p.m.: Dinner at a favorite NY spot, Cafe Un Deux Trois, which is all dressed up for the holidays and looks great.

7 p.m.: Finally get to see "Peter and the Starcatcher." Sad to have missed Christian Borle, but it is a singular delight and so creative. It's closing in January, but I hope it tours.

Thursday, Dec. 6  (Day of "Flashdance"):

9 a.m.: Arrive in West 20s to visit studio of Peter Nigrini, "Flashdance" projection designer, whose Broadway work includes "The Best Man," "Fela!," "9 to5" and "Say Goodnight Gra­cie." We talk about Pittsburgh, his preference for projections over LED screens and how he and scenic designer Klara Zieglerova have created the world of "Flashdance," which has its world premiere in Heinz Hall on Jan. 1. He shows me computer images of his process, which we will share in the PG soon.

11 a.m.: Back uptown to watch rehearsals of two numbers. Director Sergio Trujillo takes a moment to say hi but he's busy. Both numbers I see are to new music -- not from the 1983 movie -- one features Kelly Felthous as Gloria; the other, star couple Matthew Hydzik and Emily Padgett. During Gloria's dance-club number, the director shows me computer print-outs of what the chairs and laddered tower represent in the number. I feel like a voyeur sitting there watching all these talented people get ready for a journey that will take them to New Year's Eve in Pittsburgh and a New Year's Day debut.

------  I have a few hours to myself and no hotel room before taking the train back to NJ, so I park myself at a Starbucks and answer, save or delete hundreds of e-mails. I see that "Catch Me If You Can" has been cancelled at Heinz Hall. Shame. I would have liked to see it. It burned out fast on Broadway but earned Norbert Leo Butz a Tony. Next stop, Macy's, then continue Downtown to costume designer Paul Tazewell's studio in the West 20s, near 10th Avenue.

4 p.m.: Meet Paul Tazewell, a former associate professor of costume design in Carnegie Mellon University's School of Drama and Tony nominee for "Memphis," "Guys and Dolls," "In the Heights" and "The Color Purple." His perfectly fitted sports jacked has a subtle knit from elbow to cuff, like leg warmers! How appropriate. He shows some sketches, one that explains Gloria's dance-club number that I've just seen with DJ Martin, who escorts throughout my "Flashdance" journey and who is owed a cup of coffee when he and the whole "Flashdance" gang come to Pittsburgh.

With visions of "The Hobbit" and "Flashdance" dancing in my head, still miles to go, transcribe and write. So, as they say in "Peter and the Starcatcher," TTFN.

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