Showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay and executive producer Lindsey Weber open up to ET about the Prime Video series.
After much anticipation, Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power finally debuted on Prime Video with the first two episodes of season 1. The prequel series -- adapted from the many stories of J.R.R. Tolkien by showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay and executive producer Lindsey Weber -- takes the franchise back in time thousands of years as it explores the Second Age of Middle-earth for the first time onscreen.
Already renewed for season 2, the showrunners have revealed early on that this series will unfold over five seasons as it tells the story of the formation of the rings of power and subsequent re-emergence of evil amid a time of relative peace and prosperity among the many characters -- dwarfs, elves, harfoots and humans -- that populate the sprawling continent.
With the series now streaming, McKay, Payne and Weber open up to ET about the pacing of season 1, specific milestones they wanted to reach in the first eight episodes, reinventing familiar characters and what questions fans should be asking themselves as they’re watching.
ET: Given that the series is mapped out for five seasons, how would you describe the pacing of season 1 in particular? What can we expect in terms of how the story unfolds in the first eight episodes?
Lindsey Weber: You know, I think pilots in television always have a lot of work to do in that you have to introduce the characters again, or in this case, for the first time sometimes, and you wanna get a sense of the world. So, you know, the pilot is its own meal, I think.
And with the goal of just feeling like you're in Middle-earth again, us inviting you back to Middle-earth, I will say as the person who was in charge of having to realize it all, it is also somewhat relentless in pace, in action as you get going. The second episode, which hopefully people will watch with the first, gives you a taste of some of the action and excitement that will come across all the other episodes.
This is my first time producing a television show. I’ve exclusively produced features in the past. And one of the things that people often do in TV is maybe make a big pilot or a big first block, and then it settles into a TV show. And then maybe, if you get extra ambitious, you have a big finale. And some part of my brain might have appreciated that approach to this series, but it was not one that these fine gentlemen [showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay] took as they were adapting the works of Professor Tolkien.
So, it really never takes its foot off the gas. Every episode just keeps hitting. The first episode reintroduces you to Middle-earth. The second episode had to be amazing because we had to go to Khazad-dûm for the first time in the Second Age and realize what all of that was. And we’re in a storm at sea. The third episode we had to go to Númenórean. So that had to be amazing.
J.D. Payne: We’re introducing the world of the orcs.
LW: The fourth episode…
JDP: Opens with the destruction of an entire kingdom.
LW: Yes. It never ends. And, of course, by the end of the season, which I’m not gonna give any hint about, things are really rather exciting and surprising. And so, it kept building.
While I’m sure you can’t get too specific in the answer, but when thinking about season 1 and where we are going at this point in the larger journey, were there any milestones that you wanted to reach in these first eight episodes, just in terms of reference points to the books or where you wanted certain characters to be?
JDP: You know, I think a big one, just in terms of the show’s ambition, is introducing the world of Númenórean. That’s a thing that the fans have been thinking about, reading about for a long time and have really high expectations for ‘cause it’s the greatest kingdom that Tolkien ever created.
So, we knew that we wanted to get to Númenórean at a certain point in season 1, and worked really hard to design something that would be worthy of that place in that history. It’s Tolkien’s Atlantis, you know. So, we had a long back and forth with our production designers, figuring out exactly what the right tone is, what the right place is.
And then I think another one is the reintroduction of evil to Middle-earth. It’s really tantalizing that in the writings of Tolkien between the First Age and the Second Age, Sauron kind of disappears. There’s multiple, hundreds of years where there’s really no accounting for where he was or what he was doing. So, the idea that evil might reemerge at some point, in a way that is hopefully surprising and mysterious and unexpected, I think that was something that we were also really interested in exploring as well.
And then just introducing you to each of these great peoples and cultures, you know, the kingdom of the elves in Lindon; the halflings, a branch of sorts of Hobbits called Harfoots that people have never been known to see before; and the dwarfs in Khazad-dûm when Khazad-dûm was at its height. That was one of the things I think we were really excited about doing is that by the Third Age, Khazad-dûm is Moria, which is kind of a tomb. And this week, you see the dwarfs when they’re really at their height and the party’s in full swing.
So, really, a lot of the first season is about introducing you to these people but also these relationships. I think another ambition was to take characters that you think you know, the people who are really familiar with from the books or prior adaptations, like Elrond or Galadriel, and meet thousands of years earlier in their development and kind of like reinvent these characters and ask, like, “What would Galadriel have been like years before she was the wise ethereal Lady of Lothlórien or before Elrond was the somewhat jaded elder statesman?” Let’s meet Galadriel when she’s young and a warrior, and let’s meet Elrond when he’s a young sort of charismatic statesman in the courts of Elvin power. So, you know, really reinventing some of these things and bringing people to Middle-earth at a time that’s a lot different than they might expect.
Going off the idea of the reinvention, there are lots of characters new to the franchise itself, but in terms of the existing ones, like Galadriel and Elrond and a few others, how much creative license did you guys allow yourselves to take? And when you did, particularly in the two-part premiere for instance, why was it important to make that choice?
Patrick McKay: We really approached this entire job as one of excavation. We were archeologists more than creators and the joy of it and the challenge of it and the opportunity of it is going deeper and deeper into Tolkien’s writings of these worlds. Like, “What does he tell us about these characters?”
And, you know, Galadriel appears in Fellowship of the Ring. There’s this great section, “The Mirror of Galadriel,” and she has this long conversation with Frodo. He offers her the ring and she refuses it – but is tempted. And we really found in that section, in particular, an incredibly interesting clue as to the journey she might have been on to attain that level of wisdom and self-knowledge that she could say no, but it was a real temptation.
And in saying no, well, what is that test? Why is it so important to her? And she says, “I have greatly desired this,” which means she’s been tempted by the ring before. And she talks about Sauron and knowing his mind. And we found tantalizing clues of who she might have been multiple thousands of years earlier. And from there, sprang this whole arc. In the pilot, she’s really struggling, not just with a belief that evil is out in the world, but a feeling that there’s darkness in her that she’s struggling with. And that struck us as hopefully a really dramatic place to start with her.
But that kind of excavation of taking these seeds and then watering them into trees was something that we did across these worlds, across the characters. The Hobbits in our show are Harfoots because they’re thousands of years before they were called Hobbits. And there’s this wonderful section of the book, “Concerning Hobbits,” where Tolkien talks about their wandering days, and from a few sentences sprang this whole culture and an entire storyline about all of these people. It was really fun and a relief, in a way, to be able to trust in Tolkien’s ideas and his themes and the mythology he’s woven as opposed to having to create a whole cloth.
JDP: It was also really fun to be able to invent this in a way where if you knew nothing about those books or nothing about any other adaptations, you could come to this completely fresh and be introduced to this world. We were very fortunate to work on the series with Tolkien experts, who we were excavating and adding in things where there were opportunities for discovery. We were able to do it with the confidence of having the Tolkien estate as part of our group and then also Tolkien experts from the world over.
In the first two episodes, we are introduced to a lot of characters, but we’re also introduced to a lot of mysteries, like Halbrand and the Giant and where they both come from and who they truly are. So, I am curious, will we be getting answers to some of those things that we set up in these first few episodes, and what kind of questions should the viewers be asking?
PM: Some mysteries may be answered, some answers may provoke new mysteries. In terms of what people should be asking themselves, anything is fair game. The three of us and also many, many other incredibly talented humans worked really hard for several years to hopefully create a series that would be different for every viewer and would be packed with mysteries and then things you’re anticipating. These first couple episodes are, I think, quite grand in scale and, hopefully, feel like there’s a breadth to them of not just worlds and stories and mysteries, but emotional terrain. But, ultimately, we’re lighting a fuse and that fuse is burning down and hopefully there’s not just one, but several big booms coming later in the season for you.
The first two episodes of The Rings of Power are now streaming on Prime Video, with new episodes debuting weekly on Fridays.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
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