Shooting Tolkien’s ‘Rings’ trilogy here was a capital idea for ‘Wellywood’ and its burgeoning film (and fan) industry
WELLINGTON, New Zealand - Under smoky-blue cloud cover, they raise their ladders, and thrust their siege towers toward Helm’s Deep. From all sides, like a stream of mercury, hordes of orcs pour through the crumbled curtain wall.
In my elaborate reverie of battlefield glory, I vault up the stairs, light-footed, graceful, deadly, ready to face my foes. Of course, I can’t stop them alone. I have an army of heroes on my side. I can’t stop the theme music trumpeting and drumming in my head, either. What fantasy freak can, especially in New Zealand, land of so many memorable film locations?
Blockbusters like “The Lord of the Rings,’’ “The Last Samurai,’’ “The Chronicles of Narnia,’’ and, most recently, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,’’ have put New Zealand on the movie map. Shoots happen all over the country, but much of the activity is based in and around Wellington, the San Francisco-like capital city situated at the southwest tip of North Island. In the city limits and within an hour’s drive, film geeks will find plenty of stops to satisfy their cinematic cravings.
The site of the epic castle siege featured in “The Two Towers’’ (and my swordplay make-believe) is a quarry in the Hutt River valley, north of Wellington. Here, a full-scale plywood and foam fortress and walled city took three months to build.
“Locals watched the battles from the other side on the hilltops, like spectators watching a real battle,’’ said Rendall Jack, guide for Wellington Rover Tours, one of several companies offering “Lord of the Rings’’ movie location excursions. “The extras needed to be available for 18 months.’’ (“Towers’’ was the second of the three “Rings’’ movies.)
Today, nothing but piles of gravel and cement-making equipment remain. But onto this landscape one can project dreams of derring-do: Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli taking on the evil minions of Mordor - or the fantasy of your choice.
Bordered on the east by emerald waters, and steep, green hillsides on the other three compass points, Wellington, with a population of about 380,000, has long been a jewel in the rough. Much of the city has a small-town feel, but it’s also a mecca for the arts, with a lively cafe and night life scene. Some claim it has as many restaurants per capita as New York. Packed with satay stands, French bistros, and pubs hosting trivia nights, pedestrian areas like Cuba Street and Courtenay Place draw the hungry and thirsty. The waterfront has been revitalized by Te Papa, the hulking national museum, home to exhibits on science, art, Maori culture, and natural history.
Wellington will never rival glitzy Los Angeles. But its once near-invisible filmmaking industry was transformed when director Peter Jackson undertook the $280 million “Rings’’ production with a shooting schedule - all three films were shot simultaneously - among the most massive ever attempted. This funky, windswept city is now called “Wellywood.’’ The tourist landscape has changed, too: From 2002 to 2006, “Rings’’-driven visitor figures rose from 1.7 million to 2.4 million. While the wave has crested, the trilogy has made New Zealand into a destination.
I had come to Wellington to scratch my “Lord of the Rings’’ itch. Fresh on the heels of news that Jackson’s film company would make the “Rings’’ prequel, “The Hobbit’’ (to be directed by Guillermo del Toro of “Pan’s Labyrinth’’ and “Hellboy’’ fame), my timing proved ideal. Movie-inspired tourist madness will probably return within the year, once shooting begins. Yet, even in this lull, I quickly found someone connected to the film industry as I stood in the Air New Zealand check-in line.
“There’s one degree of separation between anyone in New Zealand and people who have worked on a Peter Jackson film,’’ Paul Donovan said. Donovan’s best friend is a cousin of Fran Walsh, Jackson’s wife and collaborator. Donovan himself wore a mask as an extra in an early Jackson film called “Meet the Feebles.’’ Donovan’s partner, Kelly Bargh, knew folks who built miniatures at Weta Workshop, Wellington’s Academy Award-winning special effects company.
As we shared a taxi from Wellington International Airport into town, Bargh told me about her friend who had been a “stunt hobbit’’ for a canoe-paddling scene on the Hutt River, not far from the city and near the Helm’s Deep location. Donovan’s “one degree of separation’’ claim seemed plausible: In a nation of 4 million, 22,000 people had been employed by the “Rings’’ production.
As we kept blabbing in our blissful fandom bubble, they offered to meet me for dinner and a drink later in the week. Yes, Kiwi hospitality is legendary. They even insisted on paying for the taxi. True hobbit hospitality - and it was good to know someone in Middle-earth (“Rings’’ and “Hobbit’’ author J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional world).
Unless you feel like braving left-side driving, the best way to see movie sites here is to book a full-day tour with Wellington Rover, whose small vans take fans to a plethora of sites. Half the day is spent north of the city: the Hutt River (River Anduin, Helms’s Deep locations), Harcourt Park (Gardens of Isengard), and Kaitoke Regional Park (Rivendell). Off the two-lane Highway 2, New Zealand’s humble version of an interstate, Kaitoke’s more than 7,000 acres in the foothills of the Tararua Ranges is remote. Like at the quarry, expect no movie set. The faux-Elvish structures (supposedly built by the elves in “The Lord of the Rings’’) once stood amid the rata, rimu, and beech trees but have long since been dismantled.
“So, who wants to be an elf?’’ Rendall Jack abruptly asked my group of Americans, Aussies, Finns, Brits, and Swedes. He produced latex pointy ears and an Elvish sword and asked us to pose with the props as he took photos. Like a good fanboy, I obliged.
Then, onto Miramar, the rocky peninsula east of the city, home to Wellington’s modest studios and special effects houses. But here, and at the soundstages at Stone Street Studio, there’s little to do but gawk from the outside. The closest one gets to spotting a celebrity is lunch at Eva Dixon’s Cafe, where workers from Weta Workshop and Weta Digital often hang out. Souvenir hunters should hit the newly-opened Weta Cave, a fandom shop filled with collectible figurines, Elvish cloaks and, yes, reproduction swords like the one Aragorn wielded - none of it cheap.
On our way to Mount Victoria, we passed the boat used in Jackson’s remake of “King Kong,’’ still moored to a dock and rusting. Shockingly tranquil for a city park, Mount Victoria’s “greenbelt’’ was used by Jackson to film the famous “get off the road’’ sequence involving the hobbits and the evil Black Riders. If you must know - and I did - the scene was filmed on the first day of shooting, Oct. 11, 1999.
Yes, I felt like a true fan freak. Movie tourism can feel extreme, but Jack reminded me why he leads tours. “It’s about making sure people have a good time,’’ he said.
And when I spoke with Howard and Georgette Sugars, a British couple who had traveled to New Zealand because of the movies, I felt a little less obsessed. Howard had seen the movies a dozen times, and played the “Rings’’ video games. When he bought a DVD boxed set, he picked the one packaged with a statue of Gollum, the evil creature in the trilogy.
“I haven’t taken it out of the box yet,’’ he told me. “It’ll be worth a lot someday.’’ As for Georgette’s interest level, I couldn’t be sure. But she seemed pleased to be in Middle-earth with her husband. After all, this was their honeymoon.
As we headed back to the van at the end of the day, a young Australian woman said, “I had a fantastic day.’’ She let out a sigh. “How can you go back to reality? I like to dream.’’
I agreed. But New Zealand was no fantasy. That fanboy drumbeat thudding in my heart felt real to me.
Ethan Gilsdorf, author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms,’’ due out in September, can be reached at email@example.com.