The never-ending adventures of a travel writer in Vietnam, Cambodia, New Zealand and throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Kiwis and the Film Community are the Heart of New Zealand’s Middle Earth

Pukeko Pictures' Martin Baynton, Weta's Richard Taylor and The Hobbit's Evangeline Lilly at a fundraiser for The Neonatal Trust.

The second installment in Peter Jackson’s new trilogy, “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” will grace theatres worldwide in December. New Zealand’s epic landscapes have become synonymous with Middle Earth, as both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogies were filmed exclusively on location there. New Zealand’s people however, lend both the talent and heart to the local film industry and national tourism. They are a big part of what keeps me visiting New Zealand year after year.

Stephen Hunter (Bombur) and James Nesbitt (Bofur)
After landing in Auckland I travel southeast to the Hobbiton Movie Set, nestled in the quaint farming town of Matamata ,at the north of New Zealand’s North Island. The original Hobbiton, home town of Frodo, Bilbo and the rest of the hobbits, was first seen in “The Fellowship of the Ring,” but was torn down after filming for the first trilogy ended. The new Hobbiton was re-built for filming of The Hobbit; but this time constructed with sturdier materials to be retained as a permanent tourist attraction.

I stroll through the lane past Gandalf’s Cutting, where the old wizard rode into the village past round, brightly-colour hobbit doors and rustic gardens. Across the quiet lake sits the cozy Green Dragon tavern, now open for human-sized customers to sit and enjoy a pint.

One of the other guests on my tour proudly tells me how a family member was an extra there on set. She too had been an extra herself, but for The Lord of the Rings. It seemed everyone in New Zealand had a family member or friend involved in some way.

The Hobbiton Movie Set in Matamata

I turn the corner and walk past the home of Samwise Gamgee and then up the hill to Bag End. I stand on the porch, where Martin Freeman and Sir Ian McKellen filmed their scenes as Gandalf and Bilbo Baggins, looking across the hobbit homes and on to the green rolling hills beyond.

Just over the hill are several Hobbit holes designed by Guillermo Del Toro. Their diamond-shaped windows and stylized look departed from Peter Jackson’s vision and were kept off-screen in the new trilogy.

The "Dead Marshes" from Return of the King, near Queenstown
New film location tours are opening all the time. Not far from the famous glow-worm caves of Waitomo to the west is a new tour called “Hairy Feet,” which explores the Mangaotaki Rocks in Piopio. A number of scenes from the first half of the first Hobbit film were shot around the limestone cliffs, including the destroyed farmhouse, the troll’s cave, the orc and warg attack and the arrival of the wizard Radagast and his rustabel rabbits.

Incidentally, I’m told that those rabbits were originally intended to have more screen time, complete with a bit of "boxing" between the rabbits and dwarves (which sounds rather like an old Warner Brothers cartoon), along with a number of talking animals peppered throughout the films (which if I remember correctly, talking birds, spiders and other critters was an idea that is faithful to the books). These were likely among Del Toro’s various ideas that Peter Jackson discarded when he took over the director’s chair for the trilogy.

Mount Victoria Park in Wellington, where the hobbits tumble down the hill and then are nearly captured by a Nazgul.

A great deal of filming took place further south around the capital, Wellington. On a tour with Jack Machiela of Wellington Rover Tours we visit the sites where Frodo tells Merry, Pippin and Sam to “Get off the road!” as they flee from the Nazgul (Mt. Victoria). We also explore the River Anduin (The Hutt River); Sauruman’s Gardens of Isengard (Harcourt Park); and Rivendell, the home of Elrond and his elves (Kaitoke Regional Park).

Aidan Turner (Kili)

Jack is one of three founders of “Welly-moot,” a local chapter of the UK Tolkien Society, and a living encyclopedia on things of Middle Earth. He was an extra in King Kong. His wife however, was an extra appearing in The Hobbit. Welly-moot meetings are held in The Embassy Cinema, host to world premiers of The Hobbit and Return of the King.

Peter Jackson’s movie empire is based in the Wellington suburb of Miramar. Large film sets are constructed at Stone Street Studios. In 2012, The Hobbit’s Laketown could be seen here from the streets and hillsides around. Further down the road is Park Road Post Production, where the editing, sound design, mixing and otherwise putting-it-all-together happens.

Andy Serkis (Gollum)

Just around the corner is Weta Workshop, where the physical effects, props and models are made, and Weta Digital—where all the magical computer effects are done. The Workshop and Digital are not open to the public. However the Weta Cave and “Window into the Workshop” are.

The Weta Cave
The Cave has an amazing shop selling prop reproductions, art books, licensed collectables and other items made by the same artists who worked on the films. There is also a mini museum of actual film props used in the movies and an exclusive documentary screening. “Window into the Workshop” is an additional tour that allows visitors to see a broad selection of original film props and Weta studio artists at work.

On our tour we meet a man who was an extra on set at Laketown. While he couldn’t tell us anything about his role or the movie itself, he gushed about what a wonderful experience it was and how well Peter Jackson treated all the cast, crew and even the animals on set. He also said he’d never been fed so well in all his life.

Cate Blanchett (Galadriel)

While there’s no arguing that New Zealand’s natural scenery is a highlight of every visit and inseparable from the movies filmed there, it’s the gracious and welcoming spirit of the local people—and those involved in the movie business—that really seal the deal.

Gollum at the Wellington Airport
Throughout my time in Wellington I meet members of the cast and crew of The Hobbit, including actors, digital and traditional artists, craftspeople and management who all make me feel at home. I am warmly greeted one morning by Weta’s Richard Taylor and actress Evangeline Lilly (Tauriel the elf) at Lyall Beach, where they helping raise support for the Neonatal Trust. Another day I run into local New Zealand actor Jed Brophy (Nori the Dwarf), who pauses for a friendly chat. Even producers Peter Jackson and Philippa Boyens go out of their way to be exceptionally hospitable.

Peter Jackson is known for being particularly generous with fans. At the Red Carpet party for the premier of The Hobbit last year, he and other cast members made a surprise appearance, and though swarmed by hundreds of fans, Jackson stayed to greet each one, pose for photos and sign autographs. Throughout production of his films he makes special efforts to show fan appreciation.

Evangeline Lilly (Tauriel)

While Wellington has been nicknamed “Wellywood,” what truly sets it apart from Hollywood is its family-friendly environment, the down-to-earth openness and approachability of its filmmaking community, and the warm hospitality of New Zealanders in general. The people I meet on my many travels in New Zealand are who ultimately bring life to Middle Earth.

Peter Jackson, Elijah Wood (Frodo) and Jed Brophy (Nori)
Warner Brothers is premiering The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug first in Los Angeles on December 2. Wellington, the heart of Middle Earth, will premier the film just after midnight on December 12 (although a charity gala, open to the public, will screen the film in Wellington on the 9th as well). Local preparations are already being made and Wellington Airport has announced that it will reveal a new giant sculpture from The Hobbit soon. I’ll be attending a number of big events with members of the cast and crew in New Zealand. Follow me on Twitter for all of Wellington’s Hobbit festivities in December at @fisheggtree.

All photos copyright Adam Bray and may not be reprinted without permission.