Amid the elves, dwarfs, wizards, trolls, and orcs that Sir Peter Jackson has spent most of the past two decades with, it's the hobbits who have always been like a favourite child for the Academy Award-winning director.
"I always liked the hobbits because you can identify with them - and I particularly can. I'm a homebody, I like to put my feet up and I like the comforts of home. I'm not much of an adventurer, so I've always related to the hobbits and the story of Bilbo Baggins is the ultimate hobbit story."
Now, 17 years after approaching Miramax to bring one of his favourite J R R Tolkien tales to the big screen, Jackson is putting the final touches on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first of a three-part film adaptation. Set before The Lord of the Rings, it follows Bilbo Baggins as he sets out with 13 dwarfs to reclaim the lost dwarf kingdom of Erebor.
Jackson says every night of the 266-day shoot he has anxiously dreamed about "a film set where everything's going wrong".
But despite the early setbacks - funding problems, stomach surgery, a game of musical director's chairs - Jackson believes fate helped get the epic project off the ground.
"I remember in 1995 I made the first call to [Miramax's] Harvey Weinstein and said we were interested in doing The Hobbit. The idea was, if it was successful, we would do Lord of the Rings. But Harvey said the rights were in a very complicated state - however, LOTR was potentially available. It's strange how that call 17 years ago was the beginning of this whole process.
"It was fate that we did LOTR first because it has made for a better Hobbit," adds writer- producer Philippa Boyens. "It would've been a very different film if we'd gone the other way around. Maybe fate was also waiting for Martin [Freeman] to play Bilbo at exactly the right time and age."
Casting Bilbo was one of the most crucial steps in getting the film rolling and Jackson - who initially handed the director's hat to Guillermo del Toro, then stepped back in after the Mexican film-maker pulled out - says Freeman was always at the top of his wish-list. But with the British actor committed to his television show Sherlock Holmes, Jackson was 'devastated' when told he was unavailable.
"I had this cathartic moment, lying in bed at 5am watching the second episode of the first Sherlock series on my iPad and I was watching Martin thinking, 'This is absolutely crazy. This is the guy who should be playing the role.'"
He immediately called Freeman's agent offering to schedule a three-month break in The Hobbit's shoot to allow him to return to England for Sherlock.
"They just really wanted me to be in the film - and that really made me want to be in the film!" says Freeman, 40.
He joins a fellowship of LOTR alumni, including Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom and Elijah Wood, who was flattered to be written into the script despite Frodo not existing in the book. Sir Ian McKellen also reprises Gandalf, a role he was reluctant to revisit.
"There was a part of me that didn't want to go back and do it again. As an actor, I thought that's a character I discovered and perhaps there's not too much more to it. But I'm terribly, terribly glad I did come back - if only to stop Dumbledore taking over!"
Andy Serkis also returns for a lengthy scene as CGI creature Gollum, a character he says has never left him.
"These characters - Gollum and Gandalf - have been sucked up into public consciousness and I'm confronted daily with people who want to talk about Gollum. What was bizarre was getting back into it and engaging with him physically. For the first day I felt like I was doing an impersonation of 1000-million other people's impersonations of what I did originally. It was a weird sensation!"
While Serkis has only one scene in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, he takes on a bigger role behind the camera as second unit director of the film, which will premiere in Wellington on November 28 ahead of the December 14 release.
Boyens, Jackson and wife Fran Walsh (also producer/writer on the films) watched the LOTR trilogy for the first time in preparation for the shoot.
"Fran and I had not been able to watch," says Boyens. "If they came on TV I'd go, 'Turn it off!' because it's one of those things where you're too close to it. I lived it.
"It was the first time I'd seen it as a whole and I just felt this good, strong sense of, 'OK, that worked - we can do this'.
"And it was surprisingly easy to fall back into that world. I remember sitting with Fran and saying, 'I can't believe I'm typing the words Wizard and Hobbit again'. But it felt so right."
The adaptation was planned as two films, but Jackson recently announced he is splitting the second movie - The Hobbit: There and Back Again - into two parts, making it a trilogy (see sidebar).
Unlike the book, the movies won't be skewed towards a younger audience. Instead, Jackson says, he has blended the 'charm and humour' of The Hobbit, with the darker tone found in Return of the King's 125-page appendices (which are essentially Tolkien's expanded notes from The Hobbit), so that all the films have a consistent tone.
What will differ in The Hobbit is the technology, with a new 48-frames-per-second format used, to enhance the 3-D experience. A preview of the footage recently attracted criticism, but Jackson firmly defends the advancement and says it's one that needs to be viewed in its full glory.
"You don't know whether you like it until you sit down and watch a two-hour film. That's how it should be judged - not in a convention hall.
"Forty-eight frames is a terrific advancement in giving people an experience in the cinema that's immersive, feels real and is something they can't get off their iPads or TVs at home. We're living in an age where kids are not going to the movies like we did. It's important as film-makers that we use technology to get people back into cinemas."
Come December, the 50-year- old Kiwi will be able to take credit for getting millions of moviegoers back into the cinema to follow Bilbo Baggins. Asked if he fears the oncoming end of his film- making journey through Middle- earth, Jackson's more excited about hearing what fans think of the movies.
"It's never over because the day we finish the movie, within a day or two it's premiering - because we work until the last second - and then suddenly it exists in a whole different form.
"People still write to us about LOTR. So for us it's ongoing and that's part of the joy; realising you're creating something that's entertaining people and hopefully will entertain them for years to come... long after we're all gone."
The world premiere of The Hobbit will be held in Wellington on November 28.
- Sunday Star Times