A Conversation with Mark Ordesky
As a part of this series, I have spoken with some of the people who were instrumental to the production of Peter Jackson’s trilogy. One of them is the American film and television producer, Mark Ordesky, who spent five years working on Peter Jackson’s trilogy.
In the Zoom conversations I’ve had with Mark earlier in 2021, we talked about everything from Dungeons & Dragons (we both started playing at the age of 13, and none of us ever stopped) to Hollywood politics. If there exists a cliché or archetypical Hollywood executive, Mark is anything but. And after having struggled a bit with my somewhat rusty English pronunciation and the kind of The Lord of the Rings fan’s confidence that comes when talking to one so instrumental in the making of the trilogy, I discovery a friendly, talkative, and deeply knowledgeable 57-year-old film producer (who I could have sworn was at least a decade younger!)
Early Career – From Low Budgets to the Oscars
Mark started his career in the film industry doing low-budget horror- and science fiction sequels for the VHS market. New Line Cinema, filling up the corners of their repertoire, assigned the young producer to make the low-budget Critters 3 and Critters 4 back-to-back. I was myself a fan of the Critters movies growing up, and of course, I had to ask him about it:
–No one, really, at New Line, on the production team, wanted to do those movies. They were going to be very inexpensive, and I think that no one thought they would be particularly sexy. So, they gave them to me. I was the most junior executive on the team. And they gave them to me and said “Listen, we’re going to need two movies, in nine months, and the combined budget of the two movies must be very low. And we need them, like, right now.”
So, I called a friend of mine who was a screenwriter and a novelist. His name is David J. Schow, and I said, “We need two scripts in four weeks.” And he said OK, and he hung up and called me back, and said “I got it. Critters go to the big city, and Critters go to outer space.” And I’m like “This is impossible, we have this very small budget.” He said, “No, they go to the big city, they’ll just be inside of an apartment building, and in outer space, they’ll just be inside of a spaceship.”
So, he wrote these two scripts, and we got a warehouse. It was almost a foreshadowing of The Lord of the Rings. For while we had two directors and two editors, the crew of both films was the same. And obviously two different casts. And we shot the interiors of the apartments and the interiors of the spaceship sort of back-to-back, and we made the two films. And those were the first films that got me from behind my desk and out into the actual making of things.
Mark enjoyed his new role as an on-set producer and moved on to bigger and better things. He became the head of Fine Line Features, which was New Line Cinema’s arthouse department, acquiring or executive producing more serious films like Saving Grace, State and Main and the Oscar winner Shine. Mark was also instrumental in getting Hong Kong actor Jackie Chan a household name in the 90s with Rumble in the Bronx.
A Guiding Hand
Our conversation continues, and I’m starting to realize that we might have more in common than I first realized. We were both enthusiastic Dungeon & Dragons nerds growing up, a hobby that would spark a passion for film, and a career in the film industry.
I often struggle with a less than optimal self-confidence and a sort of imposter syndrome that I suspect has made me avoid taking chances and grasp onto opportunities in the film industry as they appeared in the past. But how was it for Mark Ordesky then, to go from low-budget sequels to one the biggest and most unique productions in film history? Did he feel overwhelmed at some point? Did the imposter syndrome rear its ugly head? The answer would surprise and inspire me.
–Hmm, the way I see it… and I don’t know how spiritual of a person you are…
I quickly answer that I am not at all spiritual nor religious, and as a side note, the same goes for most Norwegians, really. He continues:
–You know I read the books when I was 12-13 years old, and then when I first started out in the film business I found my way to Peter Jackson through his early films. And then I started trying to work with him, unsuccessfully, trying to get his films distributed. And then I got involved with him at New Line.
So, in a weird sort of way, I found that all the threads seemed to be coming together. I’m a big fan of incrementalism. So, when they said that “you’re going to be the production executive for the trilogy”, that was a surprise, as it wasn’t my expectation, because I had only worked on lower-budgeted films.
But because there was so much work to do, and it just had to start. Every month, more and more work was required, of a more complex nature. So, I grew, as the work grew.
The question about spirituality stuck with me after the conversation. I’m not a spiritual person, but I felt bad for brushing aside Mark’s question as I did. I sent him an email a short time after the interview to ask about it. Mark elaborates:
-In the context of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien often evokes providence, as Gandalf speaks of the Ring being found “by the most unlikely person imaginable”.
Gandalf says “Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring and not by its maker.”
When I consider my own role in The Lord of the Rings, I can’t help but see the hand of providence – a parallel to Bilbo. I was meant to read and love Tolkien in the late 70s and then watch and love the early films by Peter Jackson in the mid-to-late 80s.
By 1998, when Peter’s vision of LOTR was in jeopardy, I was at New Line Cinema where I’d been a Jackson partisan for years. New Line was the ideal studio at the ideal moment to bet big on Peter – even one-upping expectations when founder/chairman Robert Shaye recommended making three films instead of two.
Mark’s positivity, idealism and yes, even spirituality inspires. How I would have loved to be there to see this idealism and positivity at work in film production. Imagine how he felt when the cameras first started rolling on Peter Jackson’s epic production.
Dwarf for a Day
We continued the conversation and got to the topic about the five-year production in New Zealand and Mark’s time there. In a production like this, if there even is such a thing anywhere else, there should be plenty of funny or quirky stories to share. I ask Mark if he has anything in mind, but before he can answer, my eagerness to hear more about something the British film journalist Ian Nathan describes in his book, “Anything You Can Imagine: Peter Jackson and the Making of Middle-Earth” takes over. I had to ask about his day as Gimli in Fangorn Forest. And as I do, memories from that day brighten up Mark’s face.
–It’s not only funny, but it speaks to Peter’s sense of humor, and of the role that I was playing. The dynamic that got set up is that all the various requests from the studio ended up sort of getting funneled through me to a very large degree. Which was efficient, because that way there weren’t 10 or 15 different departments trying to all interface with Peter at the same time. Peter had this sort of rule that I would prioritize these things and space them out.
But if I had something timely and I had to come to set, yeah, since I’ve known him for so long and he’s known me, he could see from my face that I was coming to ask him something that would be time-consuming. So, he basically grabbed me and said “Oh, it’s fantastic that you’re here. We need someone to do Gimli’s offlines here in the forest. So, you stand behind this tree…” And I was stuck behind that tree for two- or three hours doing Gimli off lines while Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom and John Rhys Davies’ scale double (Brett Beattie) were trying to do this scene over again, and I was trapped there.
There are hardly any photographs of me on set. I tend to not make myself prominent in these kinds of situations. But the photographer, somehow, and maybe Peter directed him to do this, managed to get a photo of me standing on the set, against the bluescreen, with the fake trees, and the expression on my face tells you that I’m trapped in the forest, unable to ask my question.
Mark Ordesky, lost in Fangorn Forest
The Best of Days
We spend some time on the funny and quirky stories from the production before I asked if he got to keep any of the props after the production. And true enough, both one of the Rings used in the film, and a hand-forged version of Aragorn’s sword, Anduril, were among the gifts given to Mark.
And when I ask Mark about his one fondest memory from the production, it doesn’t take him long pick one from what I am sure would be a long list:
-Probably the fondest moment was relatively early in the process. It was in Cannes, in May, in 2001, when we showed the 26 minutes of footage to the world press, and to all the distributors who had pre-bought the trilogy. It spoke about the boldness of New Line as a company to bring that footage. We didn’t have to do that. We could have just waited until December and release the movie. But we took the footage, which is mostly built, as you know, around the Mines of Moria-sequence predominantly, and by bringing it there, and bringing the whole cast and the world press, we were going to give you a preview, a substantial preview. It was literally like pushing all your chips into the middle of the table for one hand of Blackjack. If that didn’t go well, you would still release the film in December, and if the film had been amazing, maybe the thing in May would have been forgotten.
But it was a very bold move to do. And for me personally, it validated to the world and to our distribution partners around the world that their faith in us had been well placed. And it validated Peter and the team in New Zealand. It was like the screening heard around the world. It was like a movie in the 30s where everyone rushes out of the courtroom to the payphones. It was pandemonium because people saw something so authentic and unlike anything they had expected.
And in that moment, I remember our French distributor Samuel Hadida, who’s sadly passed away, and who’s a big, barrel-chested guy, he literally got me in the lobby of the cinema, and he picked me up. I’m only 5′ 6”, so it was not hard to pick me up. He picked me up and he kissed me on the mouth, like in the classic French style. And he was smiling so big it was like his face would break open. He was so happy!
And I remember I went up to the projection room because I needed just a minute to process this. And I actually wept. Like wept with joy. For when you really take a huge risk, and it works, only then will you allow yourself to realize the magnitude of what was at stake. And that really set the tone for the whole thing.
There were still obviously heaps of work to do and all kinds of obstacles and hardships and problems to solve. And obviously, there was also much glory that followed: the Oscar nominations, the billions of dollars in box-office… But that moment was particularly special.
Even as Mark tells his story, I can almost see how he is transported back 20 years to that theatre in Cannes. Moved, I fumble with my words, trying to remember that we’re speaking English and we’re back in 2021.
There can be no doubt that The Lord of the Rings will be a highlight of Mark Ordesky’s film career. How could one even try to top that production? But it has been 20 years, and I am curious about what Mark’s been up to after The Lord of the Rings. We spend some time talking about the other productions he has been involved in.
A quick look at IMDB.com reveals several titles I am familiar with, including The New World, The Golden Compass and Inkheart, the one with Andy Serkis, Paul Bettany, and that cute, horned ferret. But one title that piques my curiosity is The Quest. I ask Mark about it:
–The Quest ironically directly flowed from The Lord of the Rings. It is a hybrid scripted and non-scripted television show. We basically take eight real people, in this case, kids, 14–16-year-old kids. And we embed them in a fully immersive, 360-degree fantasy environment, built around a besieged castle. And it’s a real castle, not a set. And there are actors, prosthetic creatures, horses… there is a narrative, there is a storyline that weaves in and out of the kids’ experience. And they are prophesied heroes to help save the kingdom.
And part of the way it links to Lord of the Rings is, in the earliest days, after we cast everyone, Orlando Bloom, Elijah Wood, Sean Astin and Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan, a lot of the cast went down early to learn how to ride horses, swordfight and archery, so they would look very proficient when the time came. They went down six weeks or more early. And I remember seeing the footage and thinking just how exciting that was. And my producing partner in my company, Court Five, who also worked with me at New Line at that time, thought: “What if real people could have an experience like that? Like that would just be the best!”
So that was the kernel of the idea, and we made the show with the folks that make The Amazing Race and the folks that make Queer Eye and Legendary on Netflix and HBO Max.
And the key thing about it is we take these kids, and you drop them into this world, and the wonderment manifests. It’s like throwing a surprise party every day. Because things happen in the narrative, scripted things unfold in front of them, or with them. And things happen depending on how they behave, which trigger other things, like in a video game. It’s very ambitious. It is sort of like theatre; you can’t do multiple takes. You can only do it once because the kids are completely real.
When I hear Mark talk about The Quest, I can see his enthusiasm and joy for the project. I’m a role player myself, having played Dungeons & Dragons for decades, and I know several people involved in the LARPing community (Live Action Role Play). A scripted, elaborate LARP? Or something more? I will have to watch this.
Our conversation starts to dwindle down, and I’m almost out of questions. We talk a bit about other projects, about books he would love to put onto the screen, and my own plans for visiting New Zealand. So, we decide to meet up in Middle-Earth. How about a pint at The Green Dragon in The Shire?
Maybe one day, when the world is brighter and the borders are open again.
If you haven’t already, check out Part 1 of Journey to Middle-Earth.
Next time, we’ll meet the Wizard of WETA Workshop himself, Sir Richard Taylor.
Eirik Bull is a Norwegian film journalist and critic specializing in science fiction, fantasy and fandom. A self-described film nerd and “gonzo light”, Eirik got his start writing reviews on Letterboxd and later for Norway’s leading film and cinema website, Cinema Norway. He enjoys science fiction, fantasy and the occasional 80s cult classic, and his love for Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings knows very few bounds.
Eirik holds degrees in film production, marketing, and brand management. He is a member of The International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) and was part of the FIPRESCI jury at the 55th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in 2021.
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