Blog | 15 July 2003 | Shooting Pickups

The Stone Street Studios where so much of Middle-earth was built during the major filming in 1999-2000 are currently unrecognisable. The old paint factory buildings are still there, housing the offices and draughty sound stages; but these are now hidden behind other temporary buildings that cover every spare, square foot of what used to be the car-park. Changing clothes, reading the paper or typing an E-Post in my little caravan I am hidden from the prying eye of a camera lens behind a fence of woven thatch but I can spy the white tree of Edoras and the arches above the steps leading to Denethor's lair at Minas Tirith.

Next to this there is more of the City of the Kings, a steep slope that curves from street-level round to the battlements above, from which Gandalf inspects the enemy forces as they gather for what Peter Jackson tells me would be "the biggest cinema battle ever" - whether in length or numbers of participants, we shall see. Probably both! This higgledy-piggledy Middle-earth theme park also accommodates a corner of the Green Dragon hostelry and a sand-bagged stretch of mucky water like a moat surrounding Isengard, awaiting the return of Christopher Lee to complete his work as Saruman later this month. This morning I saw a WETA stage-hand carrying a massive manicured set of spider claws which he was lugging toward Shelob's Lair, where Frodo, Sam and Gollum are still trudging their way toward Mount Doom.

These enticing appetisers of the final film are built to withstand Wellington's famous winds, the wintry southerlies that race up from the Antarctic, but they are not designed for the permanent outdoors. Once filming is finally through at the end of July, these mighty sets of plaster, plywood and polystyrene will be destroyed, although details like doors, windows, carvings, statuary and other architectural samples will be stored for future display. I was sorry to have missed the acclaimed Lord of the Rings exhibit which Te Papa, New Zealand's national museum, mounted in Wellington this year. It is now on the road to other galleries worldwide.

There are also empty studios at Stone Street, decorated only with green screens in front of which Gwahir flies and Gandalf rides Shadowfax - or rather stands crouching over an apple-box pretending to ride. The most reliable way to fit a little re-shooting into a scene long since finished, is to film the actor in close-up and then digitally fill in the appropriate background onto the green behind him. Easier to light just a face not a time-consuming studioful of scenery.

In this way I revisited the Gates of Mordor today , where The Mouth of Sauron once more threw down Frodo's mithral vest. And Gandalf meets despair. Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli and Pippin were nothing but eyelines marked by a chalk cross behind or alongside the camera, or a yellow tennis ball or a red apple spiked on top of a lighting stand. I wonder if today's tennis ball was a veteran from the Balrog battle where again an eyeline was need for a non-existent foe.

Before shooting a pick-up, there is a chance to review a roughly-cut version of the scene into which the pick-up will be seamlessly dropped. This is done via the Jackson hand-sized video machine. After shooting, our efforts can be checked on the larger video playback, which I don't do much anymore. Sometimes it's useful to check a detail or judge the acting but in this movie nothing is left to chance and I am happy to trust Peter's eagle eyes. He is still averaging ten takes of each set up. He reminds us after each take what he wants of the characters and generally what he wants is information. There is a lot of plot in this third film, many threads to be gathered together. If the plot is not told through the characters, their actions and their words, an audience will not be moved. Return of the King will be part-weepy. Although everything is likely to be dubbed, Peter is only happy when he believes what he sees and understands what he hears. And then he will take one extra take. I wonder how often that is the take he uses in the finished film. The working rhythm is steady and unvaried, never hurried. There is always a sense that we will wait until everyone in every department of cast and crew is working harmoniously and at their peak. He is generous with his praise when he's happy. Achievement energises him. He is tired to look at, yet evidently indefatigable and as caring as ever for the task in hand - to deliver the best film of the three, the one that will guarantee a classic status for the trilogy. Much of this final activity has been observed by journalists - the actors were expected to talk to a dozen of them from print media around the world plus a camera crew from Primetime Live who are making a documentary to be broadcast in USA about the time the final film emerges. Being interviewed takes time and care if it is to be worthwhile. But risking too big a distraction from the more important matter of acting we all were interviewed, at greatest length for New Line's electronic press kit, which will be distributed piecemeal to the hungry television and radio programmes wanting words direct from Middle-earth as it were. That took a couple of hours on my free day.

Working a minimum 14 hours a day, six days a week ­ and yet therešs been time for company fun. The official farewell parties for the actors continue ­ champagne and beer and a laudatory, funny speech from Peter and a presentation from Barrie Osborne of a produceršs gift, a prop from the film, a sword, a mask, a memory. Then a four-minute movie is screened on a stretched sheet, half from the movies half from the blooper reel. When we said goodbye to Viggo the other day inside the Golden Hall of Edoras, the stunt crew, veterans with him of every bloody battle, danced the haka, a welcoming, challenging, life-enhancing Maori tradition. And then hobbits singing, more haka, more praise for Viggo and his make-up colleague Jose and his son Henry Mortensen - and for Bernard Hill who having had his own farewell two days before, nipped back for a second helping of adulation! Viggo and Bernard are at heart similar despite their differences of style and looks and nationality etc. Professionally they are both mavericks. Their prime aim is to work well on worthwhile projects. They do not suffer fools, even though they are themselves brilliant fools, clowns. Bernard in particular makes me laugh from the diaphragm, with his stories and his grin. Viggo wears his beauty so carelessly and deflects flattery with a wry head-on-the-side smile of modesty. These two acting kings are both terrific once more in The Return of the King.

On Saturday last, Shamsung and Elwood accompanied by Deep Sea Diver Boyd McIver took over the Good Luck bar off Cuba Mall in downtown rowdy Wellington where they d-jayed the night away. I found bopping to rap and hip-hop a bit tricky. But that's The Fellowship for you. Or rather, that's hobbits. — Ian McKellen, June 2003

DVD Release date 26 August 2003

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The White Book: Ian McKellen's Blog 2002-2003

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