Peter Jackson on stopping The Hobbit shoot to allow Martin Freeman to film Sherlock

"I was having sleepless nights. I lay awake one night with my iPad. I’d just downloaded Sherlock... ‘God, he would make the perfect Bilbo. What the hell is going on? How did we end up where we are?"

For the Hampshire-born actor who plays The Hobbit, the journey to landing the role in this epic adaptation was just as unexpected. As the red carpets unfurl for the first part of the trilogy, Martin Freeman and filmmaker Peter Jackson have been reflecting on the various dark dead-ends they wandered into before reaching their goal.

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Ahead of the London premiere, Jackson recounted the problems. “Back when we were originally thinking about The Hobbit Martin was the first person who came to mind and the only person we ever wanted for the role. I imagine we probably spent about 18 months [in development] before we started shooting and during that period it was hard for the film to get a green light because MGM – one of the co-rights holders – was having financial issues and the studio was being sold and it wasn’t possible to proceed with the movie until that situation was resolved, and so we were kind of in a waiting pattern to some degree. Then during that period of time Sherlock arrived.”

Sherlock was a major stumbling block. Freeman was already contractually obliged to play Watson in the BBC’s second series and Auntie wasn’t budging. “I was in a state of panic, I think,” said Jackson. “We couldn’t think of anyone else. To me that piece of casting is absolutely perfect and [without that] you’re really jeopardising the films and jeopardising the investment in the films and audiences’ enjoyment. I was having sleepless nights. I lay awake one night with my iPad. I’d just downloaded Sherlock. I was watching the second episode. It was about four o’clock in the morning and I was sitting there watching Martin, thinking, ‘God, he would make the perfect Bilbo. What the hell is going on? How did we end up where we are? It’s a disaster!’”

But it was then that Jackson, like one of Tolkien’s heroes, was struck with inspiration and decided to go up against the might of the studio giant. “I got up in the morning and made some phone calls and basically, the idea that I had – which is pretty audacious really, in the way the film industry works – was to shoot as much as we could of the Hobbit, then to stop filming and let Martin go back to the UK to do the Sherlock shoot, then come back and continue on again. I had to ask the studio.”

Surely, this was the cue for some serious wrangling with the mighty Warner Bros, but Jackson isn’t dwelling on that. “It was the best phone call that I ever made quite honestly.”

Freeman still boggles at the thought that he was the cause of so much fuss. “I was amazed and delighted when that phone call came. I was rehearsing a play in London at the time and, mentally, I had already sort of said goodbye to The Hobbit. I’d had to pass. And, well, boring. Really dull. Boring to not do it.”

This seems like typical British understatement given the enormous worldwide impact of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, but Freeman admits brooding, just a little. “I remember very clearly I was actually going to see Benedict Cumberbatch in a play at the National Theatre and I had this very long and involved conversation with Michael, my agent, and I remember saying, ‘We’re gonna have to let this go, aren’t we?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I think we are. Sorry.’ And I was like, ‘Ah. Okay.’ I’ve never been one to dwell on things. Onwards and upwards and all that, but I’d rather not have had to do that. However long it was later I was rehearsing a play myself and I got a call from Michael again saying, ‘It’s back on.’ I said, ‘What do you mean!?’ and he said, ‘Well, Peter has rearranged it.’ I was amazed… I was extremely surprised and took it as a huge compliment, and still do.”

Without a doubt, The Hobbit is a game-changing role in Freeman’s career. He carries a very big film with ease, but it was no picnic in The Shire as he had to flit between hemispheres to complete both projects. “I handled it just by the glee of being able to do it really. I felt very, very lucky that I spent the last couple of years doing two jobs that I really adore – two very different parts, two very different universes and in two very different parts of the world. But I didn’t really get a chance to unwind, I have to say. I spent 2011 being quite knackered because I was in New Zealand from January to May then, literally, straight off into Sherlock then straight back into this.

Was there ever a moment when Freeman thought he might have bitten off more than he could chew? “Yeah, it was very, very tiring, but like with all things, when you’re tired for the best reason – because of doing something you love – you get through it. Like, poor me. Woe is me, I got to do Sherlock and The Hobbit! It made it easier the fact that I didn’t think I was going to be able to do The Hobbit, so the fact that I could do both was fantastic.”

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After many years in development hell, Jackson, too, never lost heart. “I knew there would be a Hobbit one day. It was just a question of how long it would take… I’m just glad it happened when it did, and with us still involved.”