You’re surrounded by concept art laying out major set pieces for The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power season two.
2, The Rings of Power has been blessed with strong critical acclaim (84 percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes) and dragged by online fan bashing (its audience score is 39 percent — which includes an unknown degree of “review bombing” at the hands of internet trolls).
But given this is Lord of the Rings, the bar is insanely high.
And nobody knows the stakes better than Payne and McKay.
Tolkien passion project and have now found themselves, as McKay puts it, “on the fault line of the culture war,” with everybody from armies of anonymous Tolkien fans to the two richest men in the world weighing in.
“Some of what’s been hardest to hear is the cynical point of view that this is a cash grab,” McKay says.
The call from the lawyers came in to Amazon on a Friday in 2017: The Tolkien estate was going to entertain proposals for a Lord of the Rings show.
Going after The Lord of the Rings was a no-brainer, and an internal “fellowship” was assembled to figure out how to beat other prospective bidders.
Sources say HBO pitched the estate on retelling Middle-earth’s “Third Age” — essentially remaking Peter Jackson’s beloved Lord of the Rings trilogy, which grossed $3 billion and won 17 Oscars.
“It was our collective passion and fidelity to Tolkien that really won the day,” says Amazon Studios TV co-head Vernon Sanders.
When Payne, 42, and McKay, 41, heard from their reps that Rings was coming to TV, McKay says “a shiver ran through us.” The duo first met in junior high in Northern Virginia and became friends when they joined the same debate team in high school.
“We had reached a point — we’d been writing movies for 10 years that should have gotten made,” McKay says.
Early in their careers, their agents asked the longtime Tolkien fans what was their dream project, and they ambitiously replied, “The Lord of the Rings.” So, “obviously we were going to throw everything we have at this,” McKay says.
Payne and McKay suspected Tolkien’s far lesser-known Second Age was the key: It’s a centuries-long pre-history to the Lord of the Rings trilogy that still included some immortal characters (such as the fair elves Galadriel and Elrond and the sinister Dark Lord Sauron), along with those soul-corrupting rings.
Working together on an apartment floor, they concocted a one-sentence pitch: Chronicle the first five minutes of Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring — the Galadriel-narrated prologue that told the story of the rings of power — during the course of five seasons.
McKay has an extraordinary level of energy and passion, and when he’s in full pitch, he’s as persuasive as a Middle-earth-obsessed Saul Goodman — you find yourself nodding in agreement, suddenly wanting to buy property in Mirkwood.
The bespectacled Payne comes across as sweet and more reserved, and his love for Tolkien is profound — he has an almost spiritual respect for the material and goes straight to wondering WWTD to address any creative challenge faced by the show.
In their Amazon pitch, Payne emphasized their show would be “Braveheart, not Narnia — you want it real and lived in.” When they got a call to return, McKay says they were told: “You need to go pitch the whole show — this is your shot.
And then … well … “We did seven more pitches,” McKay says.
What followed felt to Payne and McKay like “a six-month presidential campaign” trying to sway various executives and stakeholders.
At one point, they met with the estate and Payne greeted Simon Tolkien in Elvish.
In another meeting, McKay drew a map of Tolkien’s world, circled a small portion and told executives, “This is everything you’ve seen in The Lord of the Rings movies” and then started describing other places on the map.
Executives interviewed dozens of writers, producers and directors, including the Russo brothers, who an insider says pitched the Third Age “as an Aragorn story.” One strong rival was Oscar nominee Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything), who had a Shakespearean take.
“The people we were up against have résumés that on paper would be more suited to the gig,” McKay says.
At one point, Payne and McKay asked mentor and former boss J.J.
“We feel like that moved the needle,” says McKay.
Amazon’s programming team — with Amazon Studios chief Jennifer Salke now shepherding Rings — kept coming back to the same conclusion: The guys with perhaps the least experience were also the best choice.
McKay says dryly, “I imagine it was very scary for them.”.
The first season of Rings was an incredibly long shoot, complicated by COVID delays, extending over 18 months.
For season two, Amazon moved the production to the U.K., where the company is establishing a hub.
Asked what they’ve learned since that first season that they’re now applying to the second, McKay is candid.
McKay says the aim of season two — which quietly started filming Oct.
“Some people had nice things to say about the pilot and second episode, or they didn’t have nice things to say, but I hope they stay for more episodes,” McKay says.
“One of the big things we learned was even when it’s a small scene, it always has to tie back into the larger stakes,” Payne says.
“There are things that didn’t work as well in season one that might have worked in a smaller show,” McKay agrees.
“When we talk about the measure of success, what matters to us is if it’s entertaining enough that people are digging into it and debating it,” says McKay.
“Some things get an immense amount of critical acclaim and win tons of awards and are forgotten the next year,” Payne says.
The mogul publicly quipped that Payne and McKay ignored some of his ideas, but the writers never received notes that they were told came directly from the big boss.
Still, “it was always communicated to the team that this show was of the utmost importance to him,” one insider says.
While Amazon could easily survive if Rings were to somehow collapse like the tower of Barad-dûr, industry insiders say its studio arguably couldn’t.
They saw Tolkien fans slamming The Rings of Power online before a frame had been released.
Amazon claims there’s been a coordinated effort to attack the show for daring to diversify Tolkien with strong female characters and people of color.
Or take this fan’s complaint: A Tolkien adaptation is a “New Age politically correct girl-power garbage version of fantasy” that’s “raping the text.” That sounds like what’s populating Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb right now, but it was actually quoted in Wired magazine in 2001 for a story about Tolkien fandom’s reaction to Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring
“The spirit of Tolkien is about disparate peoples who don’t trust one another and look different from one another finding common ground in friendship and accomplishing big things,” he says
“It was never about the critics, it’s all about consumers,” the insider says
Amazon would certainly not confirm that depiction, but Salke says they’re happy with the show’s opening and points to the fact that U.S
For Payne and McKay, Dragon is a wearisome topic
“It dominates the narrative about how it’s received,” McKay says
Leaving her coffee behind (no Starbucks cups on fantasy TV show sets, please), she stands for a camera test as Payne and McKay suggest changes
Payne and McKay tour various departments and I tag along while remaining under close supervision (Nobody goes off trail! And nobody walks alone!)
The most difficult visual effects scene in Payne and McKay’s original season one scripts, Smith says, was a dwarf and elf walking down a hallway (the scene’s setting was switched to a mine-shaft elevator, yet was still a pain to figure out)
The Second Age’s version of Sauron is not a flaming eye on a tower like in Rings movies but appearing in his “fair form” as a deceptive character
“It would be very tempting to make the first season of this show The Sauron Show, very villain-centric,” McKay says
“It’s another Tolkien thing where when a shadow spreads — which is part of what is happening in our show — it affects everyone’s relationships,” Payne says
Still, McKay notes they expect to work on season 2 for “another couple years.” The first season famously racked up a bill for $700 million (including the rights), and the additional seasons are expected to cost considerably less
“That’s the secret sauce of Tolkien right there,” Payne explains, leaning forward
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