03 August 2008

Fifty Yards from Middle Earth

A flashback to 2000, and the filming of The Lord of the Rings in Wellington ...

I first beheld Arwen Undómiel at the test cricket. It wasn't quite the depths of Mordor, but the weather in March 2000 would have done justice to the dead marshes at Sauron's gates. A thin cold air was blowing across the Basin Reserve, the main cricket ground in Wellington, New Zealand, the city where Peter Jackson was busy filming the three books that make up The Lord of the Rings.

It was New Zealand versus Australia in the test, and New Zealand was in trouble. I took my seat at the northern end, well rugged up and prepared for disappointment, and settled back to watch the play. After a few minutes, I noticed a steady stream of young girls making their way to a cloaked figure seated a few rows below me and asking her for autographs. "Do you know who that is?" I asked the man sitting nearest to me. "We've been wondering the same thing ourselves," he replied. "We think it might be Anna Paquin."

But I wasn't convinced. Anna Paquin, Wellington-born star of The Piano, X-Men etc., was living in the US if my mental showbiz map was up to date. "I think it might be Liv Tyler," I whispered back. For once, I was right. Accompanied by her British boyfriend, and Bernard Hill who plays Theoden, the woman who would give up her immortality to marry Aragorn was spending an afternoon at the cricket.

She picked a good day for it, too, despite the weather: after the usual clatter of New Zealand wickets, Chris Cairns, he of the flowing locks and mighty thews, smote the Australian bowling hither and yon on his way to a rapid century. It made no difference to the result, but even in bitter defeat the memories were glorious.

By the time I left the ground, Arwen Evenstar and her party had already departed, leaving behind only empty chip pottles, Coke cans, and blessed memories of Elvenhome.

I live five minutes' walk from the Basin Reserve, so I probably have more opportunities to watch cricket than Liv Tyler does. More to the point, it's a 50-yard walk from our house in Ellice St to the Wellington Town Belt, where several scenes in The Lord of the Rings were filmed.

The Town Belt is a narrow but quite convincing strip of forest clinging to either side of the long ridge that slopes down from Mt Victoria to the north, and runs all the way to the southern coast at Island Bay. Some of the forest is regenerating New Zealand bush, some is introduced pine forest planted in the mid-20th century. It is gloomy beneath the pines, and when the wind blows the treetops whisper together of ancient wrongs. Something has made tracks, but they start and stop unexpectedly, and it takes a steady head and a stout heart to follow their many twists and turns without becoming hopelessly lost.

Even better, there's a quarry above the top of Ellice St. Not a Blake's 7-style gravel pit, but a real hard rock quarry, abandoned about the same time the trees were planted, with towering walls clad here in twisted bramble, there in flowering creeper, and trees overhanging the top and sides. What with the forest, the quarry, and some judicious post-production, you could film a movie up there, and Peter Jackson was faced with filming three movies back to back.

Jackson, the Wellington film director who first came to fame with the low budget (NZ $30,000) splatter-comedy film Bad Taste, was the director chosen by New Line Cinema to take on the daunting task of directing a film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. Unlike Ralph Bakshi's disappointing 1978 version, which used rotoscoping over live actors to produce a crude form of animation, the Peter Jackson production combines live action with the state-of-the-art effects developed over the years by Jackson and his cohorts at Weta Workshop.

And, with the whole of the country to choose from, filming started in the forest near our quarry and ended a year later, in December 2000, in the quarry itself. In between, sets were built and filming done all over New Zealand — inland Canterbury for Edoras, the rolling hills of the Waikato for Hobbiton, the North Island volcanic plateau for Mordor, another quarry in Lower Hutt for Helm's Deep.

In contrast to the saturation coverage given to the announcement of the project and the arrival of its stars in Wellington, the actual filming was characterised by a secrecy bordering on paranoia. My son Gareth and I realised that filming had started when we went for a walk to the top of the ridge above the quarry and discovered that tracks normally reserved for walkers had been scoured by ATVs (all-terrain vehicles — take a motorbike and give it four wheels, and you've got the general idea). Three portaloos had been installed next to Alexandra Road, which runs along the ridgeline through the Town Belt. The game was afoot.

The Evening Post newspaper gave us the official word that filming had started a few days later, but by then we'd also seen the horse-droppings, and were not surprised to learn that a small party of hobbits had been fleeing Black Riders through the twisted foliage, take after take after take. Peter Jackson likes to get things right.

In the next twelve months, Lord of the Rings was everywhere. Stars buying houses for the duration of the shoot pushed up house prices in the eastern suburbs to ridiculous levels. Sir Ian McKellen, who plays Gandalf, was a judge for Mr Gay Wellington. A couple of the hobbits were refused entry to a nightclub because they were underage. The original Aragorn was sacked and a replacement, the multi-talented Mr Viggo Mortensen, was announced. The Evening Post was banned from the film's set for being too curious and began to collaborate with various unofficial LoTR websites to ferret out unauthorised information.

For a couple of days in mid-shoot, the floor of the Ellice St. quarry was dotted with dead branches and clumps of tussock grass, and used for some second-unit shots. If you watch The Fellowship of the Ring, you'll get a glimpse of the Black Riders crossing the Ellice St quarry floor as they advance on Weathertop.

Just before filming was scheduled to finish we got a notice in our mailbox to say that Jackson's Three Foot Six Limited film company would be filming in the quarry for three days in late December 2000, and that our cooperation as affected residents would be appreciated. Based on others' experiences, I didn't think this would lead to great viewing opportunities. Gareth was attending morning kindergarten, and on the Monday, apart from asking a truck to move so I could get the car out, filming had little impact on us. On the Tuesday, when we got home from the kindy, Gareth said he wanted to go and look at the movie being made. "I'm sure they won't let us see anything," I said, but we walked to the top of the street anyway.

To be met by a guard. I was all ready to turn away when he said "Would you and the little boy like to see the filming?" We said we would, and he led us up to the quarry floor. A trench had been cut in it, and the riders of Rohan were riding their horses down the trench, around a tent, and then back up onto the quarry floor. They did it once. They did it again. We watched them do it several times, then we went home, happy and surprised.

On Wednesday, the last scheduled day of filming, it rained all day. Thursday dawned fine, and Gareth and I decided that we'd walk home together from his kindy — a half-hour walk up the far side of the ridge and down the Mt Victoria side, past the quarry, to our house. Quite a walk for a four-year-old, but he has strong legs.

Walking over to the kindy to get him, I saw activity at the quarry, but assumed it was preparations to dismantle the set. Forty-five minutes later, however, as Gareth and I descended homewards past the quarry, it was plain that filming was continuing. Still, we needed to get home, and I didn't intend to take the long way round. I said as much to the first security guard we saw, and he assured me we wouldn't have to. "Just walk quietly, please." So we did, and stopped when the action started, and saw a bearded gentleman — I won't be sure who till I see The Return of the King — stare straight at us and say "Six thousand spears — it's not enough." "It'll do fine," I wanted to tell him, but I kept my mouth shut.

That was almost it. They did pack up the next day, and dismantled the artificial forest they'd made under the quarry walls, and eventually filled in the trench and reseeded the grass so that the quarry floor could resume its former role as a dog exercise area and occasional venue for family cricket games. Filming was over, and the stars went home. Neither my wife Kay nor I were invited to the premiere of The Fellowship of the Ring, but we've each seen it twice. Gareth's a bit young to see it on the big screen. He'll have to wait till the video comes out.

Gareth and I still walk in the Town Belt. The droppings has been trampled underfoot by now, and the paths have mostly resumed their former shape, but there are still one or two places where the scouring of the land is obvious. One day, I expect, we'll see a glint of gold. Bending down, we'll find a little ring, the least of rings, lying forsaken by the path. We'll drive out to Seatoun and drop it off at Peter Jackson's studios, if the guard will let us through the gate.

An earlier version of this article was printed as "'Twas in the Depths of Mordor" in the fanzine Head, edited by Christina Lake and Douglas Bell. In its present form, it first appeared on the (now defunct) Silveroak Books website.


Aaron Stewart said...

Tim there are some fine turns of phrase in here - and it sucked me right in until I'd read the last word!

Most enjoyable.

Kay said...

What an adventure for you and your son - I bet the movie wouldn't come close to topping it.

Tim Jones said...

Thanks, Aaron and Kay! I have family visiting from the USA at present, and taking them round the tracks of Mt Victoria - as well as re-posting the article - has triggered a lot of memories of Wellington's LOTR era.