The works of JRR Tolkein have long been adored by fantasy fans all over the world, but when Peter Jackson released his trilogy of films based on The Lord Of The Rings, he opened them up to a whole new audience. In that audience was fledgling director Kate Madison, who would go on to develop her own contribution to the cinematic legacy - Born Of Hope, a prequel telling the story of the Dunadan, filmed on a shoestring budget but set to make a big impression.
Though she had never heard of The Lord Of The Rings before she saw Jackson's films, Kate had always been a fan of fantasy. She was a zoology student but couldn't see herself making a career in that area. "I'm not academic enough for PhDs and things," she says. "But I'm always been involved with amateur dramatics and loved that sort of thing. I was interested in filmmaking but it had always been on the back burner, and there came a point when I realised I had to take that leap. I decided to try and pursue a career in acting and make some films."
Kate began by joining the Cambridge Filmmakers' Network where she met other people in the same position. Having volunteered to do behind the scenes stuff as well as acting, she got her big break when a director whose project was all ready to go suddenly had to leave for Tampa. Rather than taking his project with him he let her take the helm. "It was very nerve-racking," she admits. "I was really in at the deep end. But it turned out to be a really good decision because it was like a crash course in filmmaking and I learned a lot. It was called Into The Darkness and it was also fantasy, which was great for me. Through it I met Christopher Dane, who stars in Born Of Hope, and Ollie Goodchild, who also appears in it."
So how did Born Of Hope itself develop? It started with a competition and the decision to make a fan film - a film which couldn't be distributed for profit but which could, Kate thought, be made to professional standards. At the time she considered a lot of the lesser-known Tolkein stories associated with his most famous work, but it was when she was reading through the appendices that she came across a couple of paragraphs about Aragorn's parents. "I thought it would be something different - I liked the fact it hadn't been done before," she explains. "Plus, when I read the books, I was really interested in the Dunadan, and we don't get to see much about them in the other films. It seemed strange not to know more about Aragorn so I thought that story would be a nice thing to show."
Telling this story also gave Kate the chance to develop some strong female roles, the sort of thing that, as an actress, she's always looking for. "We might not see loads of them but I think Tolkein's work hints at the presence of some strong female characters. There's Eowyn, of course, and I think we see something of her reflected in the character of Elgarain. That part began as a cameo but when our American writer got involved he developed it into a really interesting subplot. We felt we were taking a bit of a risk with her but obviously we hope it'll pay off. I think there are lots of fantasy fans who are girls and lots of them like films with a bit more action. In fact, over half our fight team were girls - a lot of the people dressed up as orcs." Since the orcs do a good job of looking big and burly and mean, this isn't something the casual viewer would guess.
The expansion of the role of Elgarain created difficulties for Kate, however, as she'd already arranged to play the character (a warrior woman carrying a torch for the hero) herself. There's a big difference between playing a small role and being so heavily involved as an actress when one is also directing, especially for someone with limited experience. Once again, she was in at the deep end. "The hardest time was actually the first shoot, in July last year," she says. "We had lots and lots of extras and lots of short shots and montage scenes, so it was really hard to keep leaping in and out of playing my own character and organising about 70 people. But I had other people to be my eyes when I was in front of the camera. It was a big learning experience and with practice it soon got easier."
What makes the organisation of the film all the more remarkable is that everybody involved was a volunteer. "Without a huge budget we just couldn't afford to pay everybody, so we had to schedule things around the actors' other commitments all the time. Several of them were in the theatre and were basically only free on Sundays. But we pulled through and it was only very rarely that we had to resort to using doubles."
In fact, they pulled through so impressively that the film found influential fans very early on in its development. "We went to RingCon in Germany in 2007, a big Lord Of The Rings convention which we've been to three times now, and at that time all we had were some test shots but we screened them and I did a talk about the project. That was where I met Daniel Falconer from WETA [the company that handled special effects for the Peter Jackson films]. He was really interested, inspired by the ambitiousness of what we were trying to do, so he said he'd keep in touch by email and then he said he'd show our work to Richard Taylor, the head of WETA. He wasn't just saying that, he really did it, and Richard said he thought the trailer was amazing stuff. I was thrilled. I think we've been very, very lucky. We're now waiting to see what he thinks of the whole film."
A successful project like this can make a lot of difference to the profiles of its cast and crew. Is Kate hoping it can help her to go on to bigger things with her chosen career?
"I think it's hard to know that will happen," she says. "It was never our intention to make it for that reason. My intention was just to make a film that was my own style. I'm not really interested in working on kitchen sink dramas and films set on council estates. I like escapism. I like fantasy, pirate films, westerns, action adventure and comedies. But this has gone so far now that it would seem silly not to try and roll with it. It would be lovely to get to do more stuff."
And what are her ambitions for the film itself?
"We just want it to be seen!" she says. "We're aiming to do more publicity for it in the new year. We weren't 100% confident that it would go online when we planned so we didn't do a big launch and it's a bit of a slow-burner. But it would be lovely to take it to more conventions. I think it needs to be seen on a big screen really, to be properly appreciated. We'll just see where that goes and try to ride the wave into the next project."
You can see Born Of Hope for free at www.bornofhope.com