‘Hobbit’: William Kircher speaks Dwarvish, talks Bifur’s injury
It’s easy to pick out Bifur from the 13 dwarfs in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” He’s the one with the giant ax in his head.
The detail was a controversial filmmaking decision, eliciting a petition to director Peter Jackson from fans who complained that Bifur had no such injury in J.R.R. Tolkien’s book “The Hobbit,” on which the film trilogy is based. But for Bifur actor William Kircher, the ax provided a boon of material for developing his character.
“In medieval times, people would get wounds like that, and they had to leave it because taking it out was more dangerous,” Kircher said. “Straightaway I went and started researching what that kind of injury can do to you. It’s kind of like getting a stroke, so it can affect their speech and the way they think, and they zone out, so I thought, I’ll really go for it.”
Go for it he did. Bifur is both a “maniac fighter” and an “incredibly gentle” toymaker, Kircher said. He’s the oddball cousin, not of the noble dwarf line of Durin. And as a result of the ax injury, Bifur is mentally challenged and speaks only in his ancient dwarvish tongue — Khuzdul.
The language was developed by David Salo, a Wisconsin-based linguist who worked on the Elvish language for “The Lord of the Rings” movie trilogy. But unlike Elvish, there was relatively little Dwarvish in Tolkien’s writing to work from. Salo found inspiration for spoken Khuzdul in Semitic languages. Kircher had to learn to speak the language while shooting the film.
“I’ve still got quite a lot tucked away,” he said. “A good one is ‘khuzd belkul.’ You say it ‘koozd bell-cool,’ and it means ‘mighty dwarf.’”
The ax also gave Bifur a back story, Kircher said, and a personal journey to coincide with the dwarfs’ quest to reclaim their kingdom from the dragon Smaug.
“It’s an old Orc ax, which means I’ve been in battle. Orcs have killed members of my family, and I’m trying to find the Orc that did it to me so that I can give it back,” he said, laughing. “But as the journey goes on, Bifur actually becomes more lucid. He becomes a bit more focused, and the journey is a bit healing for him, actually.”
Kircher was one of three dwarf actors who lent their talents to additional characters using the same performance-capture technology Andy Serkis used for his character Gollum. Kircher played Tom, one of the three giant trolls who try to cook the dwarfs for dinner.
“Bifur was an absolutely amazing experience of two years of playing that character, but the troll, even though it was only just a few days, was an amazing opportunity to get to do something completely and utterly different,” Kircher said. “It was such an extreme character. I tied weights on my one arm and one leg to give kind of a loping movement. It was such a joy to do that, because it was completely different vocally, and very physical. We worked closely with Peter on developing the scene and putting a whole lot of little gags and comedy moments.”
It’s the first time Kircher, whose previous credits include New Zealand film and television productions, has worked with Jackson, though they’ve known each other for years through the Wellington theater scene, he said. Kircher acted in a stage adaptation of Jackson’s zombie film”Braindead” — called “Dead Alive” in the U.S. — and his daughter Isabelle Rose Kircher worked with Jackson doing previsual filming for “The Lovely Bones.”
“The thing about working with Peter Jackson is that at the end of the day, he is a passionate artist,” Kircher said. “The reason he’s one of the most famous directors in the world is because he is an absolute perfectionist about creating his vision of these films. … His heart is in the absolute truest place it can be. He’s not out there to cut corners, and he’s not out there to try and be better than anything other than himself, and if he’s going to do ‘The Hobbit,’ he’s going to do it his way, and he’s going to do it the right way.”
The right way included months of training for Kircher and the other dwarf actors before filming even began. Sometimes, the actors would train in the forest surrounding their building, tromping through the trees and pretending to light fires.
“What was hilarious is when we’d be spotted by members of the public who’d say, ‘What are these 15 grown men doing, running through the trees?’” Kircher reminisced with a laugh. “I was surprised the police weren’t called.”
Out of all the dwarf actors, Kircher worked most closely with James Nesbitt and Stephen Hunter, who play Bifur’s cousins Bofur and Bombur.
“We would be looking to help each during little bits and pieces whenever we were out filming,” he said. “My challenge as Bifur especially was always to be looking for moments that we could add into the story that we could communicate with each other. We’re always, always adding little bits and pieces to help with the layering, to give it more richness and depth. You’re actually thinking on your feet all the time … especially when there’s 13 of you on the screen. It’s a different kind of challenge, because you might be off to the side doing something, but you’ve still got to do something interesting.”
It’s these little moments, he said, that make him glad the original two-film plan for “The Hobbit” was scrapped in favor of a trilogy.
“There’s such a feast of material,” he said. “With all the filming that we did in nearly two years, it would have been an absolute shame to have to throw it all out for the sake of only two movies. It’s like a three-course dinner, if you like. You don’t want to have to cut out dessert or the entree. You’ve got to have the full feast. … I think it’s going to blow people away.”