By Robert K. Elder
Chicago Tribune staff reporter
Frodo Baggins wanted to destroy a ring, and it took him three books to do it. Director Peter Jackson just wanted to film the trilogy of books about Frodo’s quest, and it took him five years. Here, Jackson and key staff members talk about how they turned the director’s native New Zealand into Tolkien’s Middle-earth for a trio of films, the first of which, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, opens Dec. 19.
1. Mordor, land of the evil Sauron (filmed at Tongariro National Park)
Peter Jackson, director: “The landscape of Mordor is described by Tolkien as having no grass, no vegetation. No living thing grows there, so it’s essentially rock or sand. And that was quite difficult to find in New Zealand because it’s such a green country.
“There are two or three volcanoes [in Tongariro National Park], one of which, Mt. Ruapehu, is still a fairly active volcano. It’s relatively safe, you just don’t want to be there when the thing blows its top. During the summer months, it’s also a ski resort. We used that to our advantage because we also filmed battle scenes there, and we had to take several hundred extras up to film the battle scenes. And so, we were able to use all the infrastructure, roads and lifts.”
Barrie M. Osborne, producer: “We filmed in two places: the Whakapapa ski area and a volcanic plain along the Desert Road, which is a Department of Defense [training ground]. It was very interesting because it’s a bombing range, so the army briefed us all. We had to drive in and walk on only certain lanes.”
Robin Murphy, supervising location manager: “One of the more interesting facts about the area was the sacredness of the mountain peaks to the local Maori. In pre-European times, and more recently, some tribes were forbidden to look at the mountain peaks, because they were considered tapu [sacred]. Peter Jackson agreed to respect their wishes to avoid filming the peaks or representing them in their natural form.”
2. Hobbiton, a Hobbit village in the Shire (filmed in Matamata)
Jackson: “New Zealand has a big variety of landscape, everything from volcanoes to desert areas to spectacular waterfalls. The one type of scenery we don’t have a lot of is the rolling English countryside.
“The area around Matamata is exactly that. We found a sheep farm, and realized it was a good place to shoot. We had two conceptual artists, Alan Lee and John Howe … they basically sketched the farmer’s land, adding Hobbit holes, chimneys and roads.
“The farmer was very gracious in letting us use his land for about a year and a half. We had to create the Hobbit holes, put hedges in and plant vegetation in the garden — so we did that a year ahead of time. We literally left it for a year. By the time we came round to shooting it, it had grown to look real. It didn’t look like a film set anymore.”
3. Rivendell, an Elf haven (Kaitoke Regional Park)
Jackson: “I’ve always been keen to avoid anything that looked too artificial or fake, so I didn’t want to do it in a studio. I wanted to find a beautiful secluded valley that we could build these buildings in and shoot some scenes.
“I actually remember Kaitoke from my childhood, when my parents took me out for a picnic. When we were thinking of places, I’d never been there since, but I had this childhood memory of this place.
“It’s obviously difficult when you are picking a place because of its natural beauty and you want to build a set there. The last thing you want to do is destroy it. Because [conceptual designer] Alan Lee has such a wonderful design sense of what the Rivendell village should be like, he was able to incorporate trees into the buildings, so we were able to build around the trees.”
Osborne: “It was quite a beautiful thing. In fact, one makeup artist had her wedding on that set after we were finished.”
4. Helm’s Deep, a fortified refuge (filmed outside Wellington)
Jackson: “Wellington is the capitol of New Zealand; it’s also where our studio is based, so we shot all of our studio interiors there as well.
“We needed to build a huge castle called Helm’s Deep. Helm’s Deep is described by Tolkien as being in the mouth of a rocky valley. In the movie, the refugees are taking cover there as the place is attacked by thousands and thousands [of Sauron’s soldiers, which are called] orcs.
“We needed this particular physical location, and about 10 or 15 miles north on the side of the main road, there’s this huge quarry. It was perfect. We took over the quarry…and built our castle, and did all of our battle scenes.
“The only downside of it was that it was so close to the main road anyone was able to stop and take pictures of the sets.”
5. Minas Tirith, a city in a tower (also filmed outside Wellington)
Jackson: “After we had finished with the Helm’s Deep sequences, which take place in film two, we need scenes in a city called Minas Tirith, which features in the third movie. So we pulled Helm’s Deep down and we redressed the quarry again. It was the biggest set we’d ever built.”
Murphy: “Because of its close proximity to the surrounding residential areas and the length of time we occupied the site [18 months], I would have expected some complaints from locals. [But] I only dealt with three enquiries. One was curious about the filming and was wondering about a guided tour, the other two had lights shining into their lounges and were almost apologetic about asking us to adjust our lighting, but they were having difficulty sleeping!”
6. Pelennor Fields, site of a major battle (filmed in Twizel)
Jackson: “It was another example of Tolkien describing a particular type of geography and us trying to find it. Twizel was used for the Pelennor Fields, where a huge battle takes place in the third film. [We needed] prairie lands. Twizel was the place we found.”
Osborne: “That was one of our bigger action pieces. We had, at times, over 800 extras. During the month we were filming there, we used over 3,300 pounds of potatoes. For breakfast in Twizel, they would go through 1,440 eggs and 400 loaves of bread. And for lunch, they ate 350 pounds of meat.”
7. Caradhras, a peak in the Misty Mountains (Remarkables Mountain Range)
Jackson: “We needed to get the cast to the top of a very spectacular group of mountains so that we could film them trudging in the snow, and there’s a little bit of dialogue that takes place there. So the easiest thing for us to do there was put them all into choppers, and take a skeleton crew up.
“They sort of dumped us all on the side of this hill. They flew away and parked nearby just in case the weather got bad. The weather is very unpredictable and there is an element of danger, of course, leaving 30 or 40 people on the side of a hill in the middle of [New Zealand’s] Alps.”
8. Lorien, forest home of the Elves (filmed in Paradise)
Jackson: “We wanted a very fairy-tale forest. We wanted a forest with lots of moss, ancient old logs covered in moss and a leafy forest floor — something right out of Tolkien. The only trouble we had with Paradise was there had been huge flooding. The roads were all washed away about three or four days before we got there. So the local city council built temporary bridges for us, they did temporary repairs to the road. But we had this very tortuous drive there and back every day, where we had to drive very slowly over these quite narrow, precarious roads on the sides of cliffs that had been half washed away by this storm.”
9. Rohan, land of the Riders of the Mark (filmed in Methven)
Jackson: “Edoras is the name of the place in Tolkien’s book, it’s the [capital] city of Rohan. Tolkien describes it as being a Viking village on a solitary hill, surrounded by snow-capped mountains. It’s very Scandinavian in its design and its feel. [A road was built, and] once the road was there, our art department went up and built on this hill. At times, there were 120-mile-an-hour winds on this place and they had to build these huge buildings with strong foundations.”
Grant Major, production designer: “We were building it through winter. It was so cold, in fact, the diesel [fuel] froze in the trucks one day. Our water lines froze regularly. It was very risky for the production to be filming there, but just what we achieved in terms of screen value was more than worth it.”