Secrecy has surrounded the filming of Lord of the Rings, but last weekend director Peter Jackson eased security to allow journalists a look around one of his Middle-earth sets near Wellington.
Glimpse of another world
by Diana McCurdy
Scoring a visitor’s pass to the Lord of the Rings film set in Dry Creek Quarry, Wellington, is like winning a golden ticket to visit Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
The set crouches in the hills just above Avalon. Gothic-looking towers and stone walls jut out above the treeline. From the roadside, it appears to be a gateway into another world.
A slight breeze curls over the towers and plays on the faces of curious onlookers. It seems to whisper an invitation, hinting at mystical encounters and unworldly experiences. This is a place where orcs might lurk. Or elves might dance.
There’s been so much speculation, so much secrecy, and so much controversy about Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic tale, that the set has been imbued with almost magical qualities.
Even the external scaffolding, and the dozens of cars parked below the set, cannot detract from its air of mystery.
Once inside the gates, the atmosphere is surreal.
Famous and familiar faces wander casually around a medieval-looking courtyard. Elijah Wood (Deep Impact) stands alongside Sir Ian McKellen (Gods and Monsters and much more), Viggo Mortensen (A Perfect Murder, Psycho), and John Rhys-Davies (Indiana Jones films).
These are the people that hold Tolkien’s epic tale in their hands. Arguably, they know his characters better than anyone else. For the last year, they have been living and breathing Tolkien’s Middle Earth as no others have done before them.
For Elijah Wood, the length of time needed to film a movie trilogy has been a Godsend, allowing him to reach an intimate understanding of his character Frodo Baggins. “That’s taken some time. It’s taken a year, I think, for all of us. That’s the great thing about being able to make the film like this … we’ve all been able to live in our characters for such a long time. So I’ve been able to see my character through all his changes and all the growth.”
The experience has been a watershed in his career, he says. “To be part of something that’s just so beautiful and so epic – to recreate Tolkien’s vision in the film and to recreate it with everyone who’s involved and just sharing our love of the project.”
Since shooting began on October 11 last year, the movie trilogy has been the subject of much speculation, and its secrets have been jealously guarded. Those who have breached the movies’ enigma by publishing unofficial photos have been chastised.
The Evening Post newspaper was barred from entering the set during its much-vaunted first press conference and photo shoot last weekend. This prompted public howls of protest from the paper, including accusations that the movie moguls were manipulating New Zealand’s pliant media.
Even those journalists allowed into the set were subject to strong restrictions. Photographs were only allowed in one courtyard, and from one angle. Requests to explore more of the set were met with a stern “no” from the stony-faced security guards.
However, director Peter Jackson says there is nothing sinister about the secrecy. He says the media shindig was intended as “something special” for the New Zealand media. “There has been a bit of a media blackout to allow us to get the shooting done.”
The inevitable consequence of the year-long blackout has been wild speculation about what changes the movies’ producers may make to the Lord of the Rings.
For the last year, Internet chatrooms have been buzzing with the latest gossip and scandals about the film.
Most of the speculation focuses on what changes have or haven’t been made to Tolkien’s original tale. One website’s chatroom has drawn 21,324 responses in a discussion on film production, and 5482 comments on casting.
Jackson says fans should not get too hot under the collar about whether the film will compromise Tolkien’s work. He says Tolkien has a “fairly clear voice” throughout the movies.
“We’ve been writing it for two or three years and we still are writing it … we’ve tried to improve it right the way through the shoot.
“Way back at the beginning we thought `Okay there’s quite a bit of this that we’re going to have to alter or change or do things to so we can turn the book into a film’, but the more we got into it and the more we started to know the books in great detail, we just got further and further back to the books again.”
Some aspects of the Lord of the Rings have proved challenging to recreate. In particular, Jackson says he wants the piteously evil character of Gollum to be more than just a lifeless computer animation. “What we’re trying to do with Gollum is to take every nuance of what Andy (Serkis) does. We’re going to wire him up. He’s going to have electrodes all over his body and will be performing on the stage and every physical thing that he does will be relayed to a computer model, including his face, so hopefully Andy’s performance will actually come true and break through the barrier which I don’t think has ever really been done before.”
While computer animation will play a big part in the final product which reaches the big screen, the actors say they have already experienced Tolkien’s world.
Ian McKellen (Gandalf): “One of the thrills of working on a movie is you can walk around a set like this one, or the one we built of Edoras. We were there. We were in Hobbiton, it was there. It’s gone now. You’ll never see it except on the big screen.”
Ultimately, Jackson accepts that the films cannot possibly please everyone. In the end, it must come down to personal interpretation.
In that respect, he considers himself one of the most fortunate Tolkien fans in the world.
“I’m the lucky guy, I’m the guy who gets his fantasy acted on screen.”