It was, as they say, a night to remember. Following The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King, Peter Jackson's team swept the Academy Awards, taking home every single one of the 11 Oscars they were nominated for and equally the all-time record of Ben Hur and Titanic. As part of our Oscar preparations, here we bring you the magazine's recent oral history of that night, the first time an entire nation has received all of Oscar's love.
This article first appeared in issue 270 of Empire magazine. Subscribe to Empire today.
Peter Jackson: When the nominations were announced, I was in the hotel room with Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh. We watched it on television. When Best Adapted Screenplay came up there was such a shout — half the hotel corridor must have woken up.
Sir Ian McKellen: I was nominated for the first film (for Best Supporting Actor), and I remember I didn’t win! But by that time, The Fellowship Of The Ring had been very successful — the Oscars were not needed to publicise the film. The first time, I had my boyfriend of the time with me and we held hands. We were on the front row, and there must have been a gay television editor as apparently there were constant shots of us. This didn’t shock anyone in the world, but was thought of as important in the gay community.
Jackson: A few things went against the actors getting nominations (for the third film): one of the main things was the ensemble nature of the movies. It is such a big cast and they are so good together that no single performance rises above the others. Either for Actor or Supporting Actor. So maybe that influenced things. And because they are hobbits, or in Ian’s case, a wizard, just makes it that little bit harder to take seriously.
Television commentator (from the red carpet in 2004): Peter Jackson has opted for comfort again, wearing Versace.
Jackson: Why would you want to put clothes on me? They did quite well: at least, I wasn’t wearing a bow tie!
Jackson: We always knew Return Of The King was the strongest film. It has those powerful emotional scenes.
Dominic Monaghan: We were all buzzing off the fact that we were sat really close to Prince. He was in the row ahead of us. And Angelina Jolie walked past me and I said to Sean (Astin), “Oh my God, she’s beautiful...” And Sean went, “Go talk to her...” I was like, “No! What, are you, insane?”
Elijah Wood: I met Audrey Tautou that night. We carried on a conversation. She didn’t understand a word of it!
Jackson: There were moments of absolute joy when the crew were winning, it was amazing. But it’s excruciating because Best Director and Best Film are the last awards. It takes a hell of a long time to get to those.
Monaghan: People called it boring. Fuck that, we won 14 Oscars! Alright, 11. But I won a few more: Best Suit, Best Haircut, that was me. I remember being on the red carpet and some fan lady giving us a bunch of multi-coloured feather boas. And we all put them on. Someone’s in a yellow one, someone’s in a pink one…
Billy Boyd: One thing I remember, and I hope Sean doesn’t mind me saying this... It was the night we had sex... No, no. Sean has the most connection to Hollywood and he has a different take on things. And Sean’s face, when we went up on that stage was the most real... Such a mix of emotions to be on the Oscar stage. It was amazing to watch. He was so proud, yet freaked out by it.
Peter Jackson leaves the stage with Tom CruiseSean Astin: I can’t remember all the details, but ideas and emotions. It felt like immortality, like no matter what happens with the rest of my life, this moment has validated something that I’ve felt my whole life I needed to accomplish or be part of. When Spielberg came and talked to us, oh my God! He said, “You guys have done what America has wanted for years — fantasy has been recognized in this critical way.”
Andy Serkis: That was a pretty extraordinary night. I was with [my wife] Lorraine, I remember a haka being performed at the Four Seasons Hotel and it was really emotional.
Orlando Bloom: Tragically, I was not there. I was in Morocco making Kingdom Of Heaven, and I remember watching the ceremony from Ouarzazate. It was a crazy time difference. I remember staying up until the wee small hours to watch the events unfold, and there was a lot of frantic texting and messaging and rejoicing. At least I watched it live, so I was with them on some sort of spiritual level.
Bernard Hill: I thought it was ridiculous that Return Of The King won everything and the rest got nothing. It’s nonsense that it won for the whole trilogy. The first film is the first film! They hadn’t seen the other two! I wasn’t at the Oscars. Only certain people were allowed to go. Viggo went, I think. I sat at home and watched it. Or was I in LA? I was there sometime beforehand. I was there for something in a marquee. The Empire Awards were good though!
Viggo Mortensen: I watched the entire Oscar ceremony with friends and family. This was the first time I’d watched the ceremony since the early days of my career as an actor. I had long before become disenchanted with what I felt was the pointlessly competitive nature of prize awarding, the glaring omissions of creatively significant work. Although I still feel that the award ceremony is in some ways little more than a popularity contest geared to help a select group of star actors and directors — as well as television and movie executives — make a lot of money, I was quite moved to see so much praise and goodwill for The Return Of The King.
Jackson: There is a weird feeling just as they open the envelope that you hope your name isn’t going to be read out. Then when it is, it’s like one of those weird sound-effects moments when all of a sudden all of the sound seems to be a million miles away. You can’t think of anything but hoping you are not going to trip over.
Wood: It was particularly wonderful to see Peter Jackson up there for Best Director. That was the one we felt was the most profound and we wanted most to win. It’s him, it’s his vision, it took thousands of artists and passion and love to make it come together, but it was his vision we were all following.
Steven Spielberg: I knew of Peter, certainly. My earliest protégé, Robert Zemeckis, produced The Frighteners but I never had the chance to meet Peter until the Kodak Theatre where I reached out and handed him the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Mortensen: The clean sweep seemed to recognise the entirety of the journey that so many millions had shared with us. As much as I do not like other artists to lose or be made to feel that they are losers, I was glad that our team had won all of those trophies that night.
Denise Robert (on stage after receiving the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for producing The Barbarian Invasions): We’re so thankful that The Lord Of The Rings did not qualify in this category.
Serkis: It had been such a phenomenon that it kind of felt it would be unjust if it hadn’t gone our way, because of the sheer size and beauty of the entire thing.
Richard Taylor: It was fantastic to be invited to their show. Back home, all of Weta were down at the pub going barmy. ‘Well-oiled’
Weta team member (at the Chicago Sports Café, Wellington, Oscar morning, 2004): There is justice in the world!
Billy Crystal (Oscar host, during the ceremony): It’s now official. There is no-one left to thank in New Zealand.
Jackson: I can’t believe how the night went; it was embarrassing... A clean sweep.
Jackson (recalling walking off the stage with Best Picture presenter Steven Spielberg): He said to me, “Listen, I’ve done this; my advice is to soak it in, you’ll forget too easily.” I now know what he means, because it has all become a blur.
Spielberg: We went backstage for Peter to do the press room and I spent a long time talking to Fran (Walsh), getting to know her.
McKellen: It was a wonderful time afterwards. We went to TheOneRing.net party just by the Kodak, and the celebratory atmosphere was sensational. Then we went around other parties, and had quite a lot to drink. But it was a very, very big thing for the New Zealand film industry. Winning as many Oscars as Hollywood itself!
John Rhys-Davies: I was not at the Oscar ceremony, and I was somewhat miffed about it, because I am actually a member of the Academy. But there is such a demand for these things that you have to go on the ballot... And I didn’t get on the ballot. I was in LA, and we did go to the parties though. Oscar time is something that every actor should experience at least once or twice. There was a great welcoming of The Lord Of The Rings tribe at the parties afterwards. Nothing succeeds like success!
Sean Bean: I was in LA on Oscar night, and I went to various parties, but I didn’t go to the ceremony. I didn’t want to get stuck in that place for hours on end — you can’t move or go out for a cigarette! But it was thrilling to be in the vicinity. I can’t remember who I was with. I think it was either Elijah or Orlando... Orlando was in Morocco? Oh, it wasn’t him, then. Shit, I don’t know who I was with! We went to a Tatler event, and then various others. There are so many — it’s a bit of a blur really.
Jackson: So much has been said of it being a fantasy film and how there’s this stigma, but really every single film made is a fantasy film by their nature. Films aren’t real life, but the fact we had goblins and trolls and wizards made it a bit harder for people to take seriously. I appreciate that the Academy saw through that because the themes of J. R. R. Tolkien are all about courage and friendship and forgiveness — themes that go straight to the heart.
Spielberg: I’ve seen the whole of The Lord Of The Rings trilogy from beginning to end at least three times — which is a lot for me. I don’t know what he’s doing with The Hobbit but Peter has sent me some iPhone clips and what I have seen thus far is nothing short of spectacular.
McKellen: What is it that made The Lord Of The Rings so momentous? What made it so popular worldwide? Was it the unique scale of the almost impossible task, around 25,000 people: experts in front of the camera and behind it? Traditional storytelling mixed with brand-new technology? Was it the beauty of New Zealand’s countryside? Or was it simply the story itself? The journey, good people travelling, young and old in a fellowship of friends? For me the answer is quite simple: J. R. R. Tolkien, as we have to call him these days, imagined Middle-earth in those books. Peter Jackson made you believe in Middle-earth by actually taking you there.
Jackson: It seems like people quite enjoyed what we did.