Around the time Mark Ordesky discovered J.R.R. Tolkien's epic fantasy trilogy "The Lord of the Rings," he was engaged in his own epic struggle: trying not to flunk out of Temple Emanuel's Hebrew school. "I was spectacularly unsuccessful at it," confides the affable, boyish executive producer of director Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," now leading the Oscar pack with 13 nominations. "I've a terrible facility with languages."
So 38-year-old Ordesky, then around 12, dropped out and didn't become a bar mitzvah until he was 18. It's the only time he's been late for anything in his life.
Before he was 30, the USC journalism grad was head of acquisitions for New Line Cinema. By 34, he'd been named president of the studio's indie arm, Fine Line Features. Ignoring the critics who called him "a boy in a man's job" Ordesky purchased films that brought Fine Line its first best picture Oscar nomination (for the Holocaust-tinged "Shine") and ushered action superstar Jackie Chan into the New Line family. After making a shidduch between his old pal Jackson and New Line, he was instrumental in shaping the movie that brought the studio its first best picture nod and a current worldwide gross of more than $727 million.
"It was a gargantuan risk," he says of the studio's decision to gamble $270 million on a project never before attempted in film history: making three films at once on a 274-day shooting schedule. "Without question, my job was at stake."
So, apparently, was the studio: "A lot of naysayers thought we'd lost our minds," Ordesky admits. "So I decided to read 'Final Cut,' the story of the making of 'Heaven's Gate,' which was the unmaking of United Artists. I read it because a lot of people were saying behind my back that I, personally, Mark Ordesky, was leading New Line to its Waterloo."
Jackson saw the executive's role differently. "Mark knew Tolkien's books, and he knew what the franchise could become," the director told The Journal. "I don't think New Line would have picked up the project if he hadn't been so enthusiastic. His contribution to these films has been huge, in everything from casting to post-production."
Ordesky's enthusiasm dates back to his childhood years as a self-professed "Dungeons & Dragons and fantasy-literature geek." He noted the Holocaust parallels upon his first reading of Tolkien's trilogy, which was partially written during the Hitler years: "The humans of Tolkien's Middle Earth are besieged by ferocious enemies who hate them for no other reason than they are human," he says. "They have these ambivalent allies, the elves, and the dwarves are isolationists living in the mountains. Growing up Jewish, I could relate to that."
Cut to the late 1980s, when Ordesky, then working acquisitions, met Jackson, a fellow "Rings" enthusiast. The executive had been trying to convince his bosses to purchase the director's early films, "Bad Taste" and "Meet the Feebles" (which Ordesky describes as "unbelievably clever and absolutely disgusting"); his bosses said, "no way." Undaunted, Ordesky secured Jackson a New Line "Nightmare on Elm Street" screenwriting gig and let him sleep on his couch when the New Zealander's paltry Los Angeles per diem ran out.
As Jackson put it, "We played Risk, we watched bad horror films, and we became friends."
A decade later, the filmmaker called on his old friend when his beloved "Rings" project went into turnaround at Miramax, which had ordered him to compress the trilogy into two films. After other studios spurned the project, it was Ordesky who ushered Jackson and his collaborator, wife Fran Walsh, into a meeting with then New Line chairman and CEO Robert Shaye in 1998. In a legendary moment, Shaye asked the director why he wanted to turn a trilogy into two films rather than three. "[We felt] just sheer joy ... that our project was going to survive," Jackson says. "It wasn't until later that the realization of what we'd actually gotten ourselves into sunk in."
As the director began shooting in more than 100 locations with 2,400 crew members in New Zealand, it was Ordesky who served as his trouble-shooter, advocate and sounding board.
"While it was inherently funny to see people walking around the set wearing false noses and incredibly long beards, there were also some dark moments," says Ordesky, who toured the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles with Jackson during a "Rings" screening there last week. "At times I remember thinking, 'If this doesn't work out, I might not survive this business.'"
Instead, "Rings" garnered a stellar $74 million during its December 2001 five-day opening and cleaned up when the Oscar nominations were announced. During a recent Journal interview at the Newsroom cafe, the exec suddenly rolls up his right shirt sleeve to reveal an unusual memento of the film: a tattoo of the number 10 in Tolkien's invented language of Elvish. The tattoo came about after the actors who played the nine members of the Fellowship got inked with the number nine as a souvenir of the shoot. When the actors suggested that Ordesky was like the 10th member of the Fellowship, they arranged for him to get his own tattoo. "It's a memento of movies that I desperately wanted to see made," Ordesky says. "I'm thrilled I was able to play a role in bringing them to the screen."
The Academy Awards ceremony airs March 24.