Peter Jackson wrote:The Wonderful Sir Ian Holm
I’m feeling very sad at the passing of Sir Ian Holm.
Ian was such a delightful, generous man. Quiet, but cheeky, with a lovely twinkle in his eye.
Back in early 2000, before we started shooting our Bilbo scenes for The Fellowship of the Ring, I was nervous about working with such an esteemed actor, but he immediately put me at ease. Standing in Bag End on the first day, before cameras started rolling, he took me to one side and said that he would be trying different things in every take, but I shouldn’t be alarmed. If, after five or six takes, he hadn’t given me what I needed, then by all means I should give him specific direction.
And that’s exactly what we did. But incredibly his varied line reads and performances were all quite wonderful. He rarely needed direction. He gave us an amazing range of choices to select from in the cutting room.
We settled into a very enjoyable four weeks, as we shot the first 30 minutes of Fellowship.
One day we had Bilbo delivering an account of his early adventures to an audience of spellbound three and four year olds, who are sitting cross legged at his feet in the party field. We started by filming Ian’s performance telling the story - but we also needed angles on the children reacting to various dramatic moments. But young kids get bored very quickly, and Ian and I quickly realised that they couldn’t hear the same story over and over again, as we captured the various angles we needed.
I suggested that to keep the kids’ attention, he should make the story a little different in each take … adding extras bits, making stuff up … so long as he gave us the essence of what was in the script. I told him not to worry and that I’d figure it out in the cutting room.
However, we also needed the kids to stay in place while we quickly moved the cameras around, from one angle to another. On a film set, “quickly” means 15 - 20 minutes. So, while this was happening, and no cameras were rolling, I whispered to Ian that he was going to have to keep them entertained. I helpfully suggested that he could, “tell them other stories between shots”. And that’s exactly what he did. After a couple of hours, we shot everything we needed.
As the kids were ushered off set, and the crew moved onto the next sequence, Ian said that he’d never worked so hard in his life!
Over a decade later, we hoped that Ian would play Bilbo again for the opening scenes of The Hobbit. Fran and I had dinner with Ian and his wife Sophie in London, and he told us that he was very sorry, but he couldn’t do it. Adding to our shock, he confided that he’d been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and could no longer remember lines. He had difficulty walking, and certainly couldn’t travel to New Zealand. Always a private man, he told us that he’d basically retired, but wasn’t announcing it.
This was a blow because we had worked out a nice way to hand the role over from Ian as Old Bilbo, to Martin Freeman as Young Bilbo. I described this to him, and he liked it. I also told him how my mother and an uncle had both endured Parkinson’s for years, and I was very familiar with the effects of the disease.
At this point, our dinner - which we thought would be about us describing the new scenes we’d like him to do, and Ian thought would be about him explaining why he couldn’t do it - suddenly turned into a think tank, with Ian, Sophie, Fran and I trying to figure out a process that would allow Ian to play Bilbo one last time.
We’re shooting the movies in New Zealand - but what say we came to London and shoot his scenes close to home?
By the end of the dinner he nodded slowly, and said, “Yes, I think I could do that”. But I knew he was only doing it as a favour to me, and I held his hands and thanked him with tears in my eyes.
We started shooting in New Zealand with Martin Freeman, as our Young Bilbo. Martin hugely admired Ian Holm but had never met him. However, Martin very generously agreed to wear prosthetic make-up to play Sir Ian Holm playing Old Bilbo, for some NZ based wide shots that we needed, and he captured his mannerisms very well.
A couple of months later we returned to London, taking our Bag End set with us, and filmed Ian’s shots with a tiny crew as we promised. Ian’s lovely wife Sophie was at his side every day, helping both him and us.
Over the course of four days we filmed everything we needed. Elijah Wood and Ian had become friends back on Lord of the Rings, and Elijah was on set in London every day, giving Ian additional support.
In the finished movie, I hope that audiences just see Ian Holm reprising Bilbo. But what I experienced on set was a wonderful actor delivering his last performance. It was incredibly brave of him to do that, and very emotional for those who witnessed it.
We will always be enormously grateful to Ian for doing that. During our time together, Fran and I became so fond of him, and we enjoyed his company very much.
To celebrate the completion of filming, Ian and Sophie invited Fran and I to dinner at their house. That was a lovely night, full of humour and fun. Ian and I realised we both had a strong mutual interest in Napoleon and chatted about him for hours.
A year later, when the first Hobbit movie premiered in London, a slightly star-struck Martin Freeman finally got to meet Ian Holm.
Watching Ian Holm perform taught me so much - as Ian was being his usual quiet self, that just somehow happened. It was a privilege to work with him, and a blessing to know him.
I’ve always loved Ian’s performance in the final scenes of Return of the King.
“I think I’m quite ready for another adventure.”
Farewell, dear Bilbo. Safe travels, darling Ian.