Inside Rings of Power, Amazon’s Lord of the Rings Prequel

Tears are streaming down Ismael Cruz Córdova’s chiseled cheekbones. One way or the other, hardly anybody notices. I’m at San Diego Comedian-Con, midway by way of 96 hours spent shadowing the forged and creators of The Rings of Energy, Amazon’s extremely anticipated Lord of the Rings prequel sequence. Tomorrow, franchise superfan Stephen Colbert will debut a trailer for the sequence to six,500 screaming attendees, many sporting pointy wizard hats. However tonight, at a personal dinner, journalists are getting an early preview of the video in a golden fake forest constructed by Amazon for the event.

After a day spent among the many conference crowd in 80-degree warmth, sweaty, sneaker-clad members of the press mingle with actors wearing cocktail apparel: Córdova has chosen a pointy go well with with a black leather-based harness pulled tight throughout his chest. A 16-person choir and 25-piece orchestra—fronted by a violinist decked out in Center-earth regalia—carry out music from the sequence.

{Photograph} by Bryan Huynh for TIME

With ethereal options and excellent posture, Córdova is a perfect selection for a warrior elf named Arondir. The 35-year-old actor had warned me the day earlier than that he teared up a number of instances on the present’s New Zealand set and would seemingly achieve this once more at Comedian-Con. And although he’s heard the rating earlier than, the swelling strings add explicit drama to the event, a lifetime within the making for Córdova, the primary particular person of shade to painting one in all J.R.R. Tolkien’s elves onscreen. Although the stakes really feel significantly excessive for the actor, he’s removed from alone in his elation and anxiousness. Almost each particular person I encounter, from the forged to the showrunners to the manager producer, appears to teeter on the verge of some cathartic break.

After 5 years of growth, The Rings of Energy will lastly premiere Sept. 2 on Amazon Prime Video. With a record-setting price ticket of $1 billion, it is going to be the most costly present ever made. No different sequence within the historical past of tv has been this sprawling, this cinematic, this large—or launched with such secrecy below such exterior stress. “The jewels of the crown are the large tentpole reveals that invite in the entire household,” says Jennifer Salke, head of Amazon Studios. “And that is the crown jewel.”

A billion {dollars} might sound like a rounding error for a large firm like Amazon, whose web gross sales hit $469.8 billion in 2021. However the success of The Rings of Energy can even point out whether or not the streaming bubble is about to burst. Streamers, significantly people who don’t run adverts, should develop their subscriptions to thrive, in order that they’ve stocked their libraries with new spin-offs, sequels, and prequels to acquainted franchises. (See: Disney+’s Star Wars and Marvel reveals, HBO’s Sport of Thrones and DC sequence, and Paramount+’s Star Trek universe.) Lord of the Rings is arguably the final piece of extremely useful mental property that had not but been snatched up: Publishers usually tout it because the fourth best-selling guide in historical past, behind solely the Bible, Mao’s Little Pink Ebook, and the Koran. Jeff Bezos, a Tolkien aficionado, led the cost at Amazon to amass the rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings for $250 million in 2017.

Morfydd Clark

Bryan Huynh for TIME

However previous curiosity doesn’t assure successful. The Rings of Energy arrives simply as business chief Netflix reviews its first slowdown in subscriber progress up to now decade, sending a wave of panic by way of Hollywood. What’s extra, in an period when hyperactive superhero tales that undercut emotional beats with jokes have grow to be the leisure business’s most worthwhile guess, Amazon is playing with billion-dollar IP by making a giant, old style present that wears its coronary heart on its sleeve—and trusting an unknown screenwriting duo to run it. Based mostly on the 2 episodes I’ve seen, Rings delivers a sweeping saga. However it faces stiff competitors: HBO scheduled the premiere of its Sport of Thrones prequel, Home of the Dragon, for Aug. 21, simply 12 days earlier than The Rings of Energy.

Hollywood is all in regards to the backside line, however everybody concerned insists that is, not less than partly, a labor of affection. Whether or not the viewers is moved to tears, as Córdova was, may simply decide if The Rings of Energy could make historical past with extra than simply its large funds.

Each fellowship wants an unlikely chief—or, on this case, two. Sitting in a resort suite so huge, it features a ping-pong desk, showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay barely discover the noisy throng of Princess Leias and Spider-Males clamoring to get their palms on shiny inexperienced She-Hulk-themed cocktails on the streets of San Diego under. They’re too engrossed in a dialogue about poetic meter in Tolkien: for the present, they wrote completely different rhythmic constructions for every of the completely different peoples of Center-earth.

Each males, 41, are tall, blond-ish, and a bit gangly. They first met on the controversy crew and drama membership at a Northern Virginia highschool. “We rode the identical bus and obtained beat up by the identical bullies,” says Payne. After three years in Hollywood, they began working for Unhealthy Robotic, J.J. Abrams’ manufacturing firm. The duo punched up scripts and labored over a number of tasks, together with a script a few silent robotic they describe as a cross between Citizen Kane and Iron Big, and a fourth Star Trek movie; none of these films noticed the sunshine of day.

The Lord of the Rings has lengthy been their ur-text. The bespectacled, affable Payne despatched out his son’s beginning announcement in each English and Elvish. Greater than as soon as he pauses midconversation to drag out his cellphone and skim a related Tolkien quote out loud. McKay, his frenetic, barely sarcastic counterpart, usually jumps in to riff on Tolkien’s knowledge. Spend a couple of minutes listening to them journey over each other as they geek out over Tolkien, and it turns into clear how they received this explicit job regardless of their scant résumés.

Revealed in three volumes from 1954 to 1955 by British scholar and World Warfare I veteran J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings revolutionized the high-fantasy style. A hobbit named Frodo, an unassuming creature with furry ft, is aided by a fellowship of a wizard, two males, an elf, a dwarf, and three different hobbits as he makes an attempt to hold a magical and corrupting ring created by the villainous Sauron to a volcano so it may be destroyed.

The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King established enduring themes—environmentalism, the facility of friendship within the face of evil, and the way even the smallest particular person can change the world—which have discovered their manner into megahits like Sport of Thrones, Harry Potter, and Stranger Issues. Within the early 2000s, Peter Jackson tailored the books right into a close to excellent movie trilogy, the final installment of which nonetheless shares the file for many Oscars received in a single night time. Jackson later break up Tolkien’s The Hobbit into one more three-part movie sequence. Collectively, the six films grossed almost $6 billion worldwide.

Anybody making an attempt to tackle Tolkien would inevitably reside in Jackson’s shadow. However that didn’t deter Hollywood: Dozens of writers pitched Amazon on sequence concepts in 2018. Many conceived origin tales for Tolkien’s best-known characters—like ranger turned king Aragorn and the wizard Gandalf—a preferred gadget employed not too long ago by reveals like Netflix’s Ratched and Disney+’s Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Learn Extra: An Extraordinarily Detailed Breakdown of the Rings of Energy Trailer

Payne and McKay had a special take: they advised the corporate it was sitting on a gold mine and didn’t even understand it. The intensive appendices that seem on the finish of The Return of the King function a prequel of kinds, outlining the rise of Sauron and creation of the titular rings. Because the showrunners put it, Tolkien had left the celebrities. They simply wanted to make constellations. “We beat out folks they’d have felt extra snug giving it to as a result of this was the present,” says McKay.

The duo sketched out a brand new sequence that turns the five-minute prologue of Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring movie into 5 seasons of tv set within the Second Age, over 3,000 years earlier than the occasions of The Lord of the Rings. The evil lord Morgoth has been defeated. Center-earth is flourishing, however the flaxen-haired elf Galadriel is satisfied that Morgoth’s lacking servant Sauron is amassing energy. Audiences will discover the dwarf mines of Khazad-dûm and the seaside kingdom of Númenor; they’ll encounter harfoots, the nomadic ancestors of hobbits, in addition to Isildur, the person who will ultimately take the one ring from Sauron however fail to destroy it; and so they’ll meet a mysterious stranger—possibly a sure acquainted wizard?—who falls from the sky within the first episode.

When McKay and Payne scored the Rings of Energy job, their outdated boss J.J. Abrams provided recommendation: “Belief your instincts,” he wrote in an e-mail. “However say, ‘I don’t know’ rather a lot.” In order that they crammed their fellowship with individuals who did know how you can inform an epic story, starting with fellow Unhealthy Robotic alum Lindsey Weber, 42, who has dealt with Star Trek and Cloverfield productions, as their govt producer. They used the sensible and digital visual-effects corporations co-founded by Jackson, Weta Workshop and Weta FX, and consulted with the Tolkien property, significantly his grandson Simon Tolkien. J.A. Bayona, who helmed Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, directed the primary two episodes, and Bryan Cogman, who labored on Sport of Thrones, got here on as a consulting producer to supply his expertise with episodic tv.

Within the writers’ room, Payne and McKay started day by day with a Tolkien quote and—in a uncommon transfer by Hollywood’s requirements—ended by telling every author what a superb job they did, in accordance with their employees. They’re a mixture of Tolkien obsessives and newbies, whom the creators challenged to search out actual emotional stakes in a story that would simply fall again on glib references to fan-favorite characters. So anticipate twists on what you assume you already know about Lord of the Rings: the identification of Sauron, for example, will not be who you anticipate. “Amazon is taking a humongous swing betting on us, who may not, from the surface, appear like the most secure guess,” says McKay. “That’s good, I feel. Storytelling is just too secure as of late.”

When McKay and Payne began growing the present in 2018, they declared the up to date TV panorama “peak bleak.” Succession had simply debuted, and its characters have been reveling to find new methods to torture each other. Sport of Thrones drew in viewers with its weekly twists, normally within the type of mass homicide, beheading, or rape. “It’s like, how do you prime essentially the most debased factor you are able to do?” says McKay. “Generally that’s actually good in sure reveals, nevertheless it’s additionally relentless.”

Thrones aired pre-pandemic and pre-insurrection. Bighearted comedies Ted Lasso and Solely Murders within the Constructing have grow to be shock hits within the intervening years for a motive. Within the face of Home of the Dragon’s shiny cynicism and Marvel’s winking nihilism, there’s a radical sincerity and ethical readability to The Lord of the Rings that will resonate with at this time’s beleaguered viewers—if Amazon can handle to attract audiences’ consideration in a crowded panorama.

Learn Extra: Sport of Thrones: How They Make the World’s Most Standard Present

Within the years since Amazon received the bidding struggle for the rights to Tolkien’s key works, Disney, Apple, NBC, Paramount, and HBO have all launched streaming companies. And regardless that round 168 million People have a Prime membership, in accordance with analysts, the streamer isn’t talked about in the identical breath as Netflix or Disney+. New seasons of Amazon’s Emmy-laden ’50s-set comedy The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and the bloody superhero parody The Boys constantly rank within the High 10 of Nielsen’s most-streamed reveals, however neither boasts the generation-spanning viewers the streamer needs with Rings.

To compete for eyeballs and Emmys, Amazon spent about $468 million filming the primary eight-episode season. (Whereas Amazon wouldn’t verify the quantity, the New Zealand authorities shared paperwork with TIME that confirmed the studio’s expenditures.) By comparability, HBO’s Sport of Thrones price a reported $90 million in its remaining season, and the newest season of Netflix’s Stranger Issues $270 million. Amazon has since invested hefty advertising prices, together with a Tremendous Bowl slot that price an estimated $13 million, in accordance with advertising specialists. (It set a file for the most-watched Tremendous Bowl trailer on-line inside 24 hours.) With manufacturing of the second season starting in October, Amazon will race previous the $1 billion mark.

Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) and Halbrand (Charlie Vickers) grapple with a faux storm whereas filming in a large water tank

Ben Rothstein—Prime Video

For the second quarter of 2022, Amazon reported a $2 billion loss, however its inventory nonetheless shot up: the corporate had cited income positive aspects particularly in promoting and model partnerships for The Rings of Energy and Thursday Evening Soccer, which Amazon Prime will stream completely this fall. (The Rings of Energy, Salke hastens to say, is not going to air adverts.) It’s unclear if these aspect offers will offset the present’s large price. The present stage of streaming spending throughout the business isn’t sustainable: Netflix and Warner Bros. Discovery each not too long ago introduced cuts.

Fortunately for Amazon, streaming is only a small a part of its enterprise. Over time, Amazon has devoured up the likes of Audible for $300 million, Zappos for $1.2 billion, and, not too long ago, Roomba vacuum firm iRobot for $1.7 billion. Amazon’s actual goal is to drive extra prospects to pay for an annual Prime membership. Streaming analyst Dan Rayburn argues that folks seeking to minimize down on streaming payments usually tend to dump Netflix than Prime as a result of they want their Prime account to order rest room paper. “Clients are always subscribing when there’s a present they wish to watch after which unsubscribing after they end,” he says. In 2021, Bezos introduced that greater than 175 million of Prime’s roughly 200 million members had streamed reveals and flicks on the platform that 12 months, in contrast with, in 2022, Netflix’s 220.7 million, Disney+’s 152.1 million, and HBO Max and Discovery+’s mixed 92.1 million subscribers. And in contrast to any of these corporations, Amazon may, in accordance with Rayburn, promote merchandise for its hit sequence by way of its platforms. (Click on to order elf ears!)

Stephen Colbert with showrunners JD Payne, Patrick McKay and govt producer Lindsey Weber onstage on the “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Energy” panel throughout 2022 Comedian-Con Worldwide: San Diego on July 22, 2022

Kevin Winter—Getty Photos

However Amazon has run into some bother convincing die-hard Tolkien followers that The Rings of Energy will reside as much as their lofty expectations. The morning earlier than I used to be serenaded by Amazon’s choir, I eavesdropped on anxious Lord of the Rings followers at Comedian-Con. Amazon had launched little footage, and these Tolkien podcasters and bloggers fearful the corporate may break their favourite story for the sake of a money seize. A fan-led panel featured a slide depicting grasping villain Gollum sitting atop the Amazon emblem counting cash.

Bezos needs to dissuade followers from pondering the studio’s motives are purely financial. “Center-earth is such a beloved world, and telling the story of the forging of the Rings of Energy is a privilege and a duty. I hope we do Tolkien’s work justice,” he wrote in an e-mail completely to TIME. “It goes past making a commercially profitable present. Everybody engaged on the present learn these tales as youngsters and our hearts are in it.”

Partly, Amazon doesn’t wish to spoil the story: The Rings of Energy was shrouded in unprecedented ranges of secrecy. When forged members signed on, they hadn’t seen a script. A lot of them weren’t even advised which character they have been auditioning for. Manufacturing advised Córdova he was auditioning to painting an “Aragorn-type man.” “They flew me out to New Zealand, and the night time earlier than my remaining learn, they advised me, ‘Really, you’re enjoying an elf,’” he says. “It began to make sense as a result of I used to be like, ‘Why does this man love bushes a lot?’”

However an info vacuum breeds nervousness. Some fan considerations are affordable, like the truth that the present should compress 1000’s of years of Center-earth historical past in order that mortal human characters can have full story arcs alongside the immortal ones, like Galadriel. (“You’ll be able to’t have half your forged die each two episodes,” McKay says.) Others, who got here to the story by the use of the films, deal with any deviation—like that includes elves with quick hair when Jackson’s sported flowing locks—as sacrilege. Just a few weeks after Comedian-Con, Jackson would inform the Hollywood Reporter that Amazon Studios promised to ship him scripts and by no means did. Amazon responded that it needed to preserve the present thematically (and legally) distinct from the movies.

Morfydd Clark as “Galadriel”, Charlie Vickers as “Halbrand”

Matt Grace—Prime Video

Then there are the real-life trolls who take challenge with the truth that Córdova, a Black Puerto Rican man, is enjoying an elf, and that younger Galadriel doesn’t seem “female” as a result of she wears armor. Payne has a Tolkien quote on the prepared about trolls, “creatures of lifeless and lumpish nature that had no extra language than beasts.” Weber is extra direct. “We’re all up for criticism,” she says. “We’re not up for racism.”

Galadriel actor Morfydd Clark, who broke out in 2019 with His Darkish Supplies and the indie movie Saint Maud, casts a skeptical eye on complaints about her character. The Galadriel we meet in Jackson’s movies, performed by Cate Blanchett, is a serene elder stateswoman nearing retirement, however Clark’s model is younger and cussed. Clark, 32, who speaks with a Welsh lilt and bears a placing resemblance to Blanchett, needs to discover how Galadriel evolves as she ages—and heart that journey in what’s been a male-dominated story. “I didn’t learn the books and assume, ‘I want there have been extra feminine characters,’ as a result of I simply took it as provided that that was the best way issues have been,” she says. “I’m standing on the shoulders of girls who spilt metaphorical blood to get thus far. I hope younger folks, ought to they watch this, will assume, ‘That is simply the best way issues are.’”

Córdova all the time knew one thing was lacking from the Jackson movies he adored. He grew up in a small mountain city in Puerto Rico and harbored a childhood dream of enjoying an elf. “I didn’t see myself represented. And after I stated, ‘I wish to be an elf,’ folks stated, ‘Elves don’t appear like you,’” he says. “After I heard in regards to the character on the present it felt like a mission.”

Córdova was initially rejected for the position. A number of instances. However the actor, who has appeared on reveals like Ray Donovan and The Undoing, auditioned time and again over seven months. When he lastly obtained the decision that he’d landed the position—information dispatched to him in secret code, in fact—he screamed for pleasure within the streets of New York Metropolis.

Nazanin Boniadi as “Bronwyn”, Ismael Cruz Córdova as “Arondir”

Ben Rothstein—Prime Video

Most of the actors suffered by way of an extended audition course of. Charlie Vickers, 29, performs a brand new human character named Halbrand and estimates he auditioned eight instances in six months. Cynthia Addai-Robinson, 37, was ultimately forged as Queen Regent Míriel of Númenor after attempting out for 2 separate roles. As soon as they signed their contracts, the actors swore to the studio they wouldn’t inform anybody what they have been filming. “Plenty of folks guessed,” Clark says. “As a result of once you’re transferring to New Zealand, and your cellphone dial is immediately completely different …”

Simply 25 days into taking pictures, the pandemic compelled manufacturing to close down. New Zealand closed its borders, and the forged and crew discovered themselves marooned. “It had a giant human price,” says Weber. “They might not go house or have members of the family are available in. They have been within the place of getting to decide on between work and family members which was exhausting on a human stage as the entire world was going by way of this nice trauma.” Relations gave beginning, died, and celebrated birthdays distant.

Learn Extra: The Lord of the Rings Films Are Now Vacation Films. Right here’s Why

Markella Kavenagh, who performs the harfoot character Nori, turned 21 along with her new mates. “We needed to grow to be one another’s mates, household, and colleagues,” says the now-22-year-old. “We didn’t know after we have been going to have the ability to see folks from house.” A 12 months later, that bond manifests in little, tender moments. Throughout a photograph shoot in Los Angeles, I watched Vickers assist Córdova put his earring in. “I really feel like we’re a touring theater troupe,” noticed Clark. Now, a 12 months after getting back from New Zealand, they’re headed off to England to movie the second season, which shall be helmed by an all-female directing lineup.

Whereas taking pictures that first season, McKay, a number of actors together with Córdova, and a small crew boarded a helicopter and ascended to the very prime of Mount Kidd, on the southern finish of New Zealand. As they rose above the cloud line, the world under disappeared from view. It was solely sky and snow-covered caps so far as the attention may see.

For Córdova, it was the fruits of a lifetime of fandom and years’ price of labor—to win the half, to meet a childhood fantasy of enjoying an elf, to embody for a brand new technology a lot of what had formed him rising up in his personal faraway mountain city. As he ready for the emotional scene, every little thing fell away: the billion-dollar funding; the large corporations vying for dominance within the streaming wars; the trolls who would inevitably attempt to undercut the present. All that was left behind was his face, stained with—you guessed it—contemporary tears: “Center-earth is actual.”

With reporting by Leslie Dickstein, Mariah Espada, and Simmone Shah


Styled by Marc Eram; Clark: Hair by Clay Hawkins, make-up by Rob Rumsey; Addai-Robinson: Hair by Sami Knight, make-up by Kai Pritchard; Kavenagh: Hair by Derek Yuen, make-up by Adam Brechaud; Córdova: Grooming by Mira Chai Hyde; Vickers: Grooming by Barbara Guillaume; On-set manufacturing by Circadian Photos

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at


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