Blog | 16 September 2003 | Final Filming Days
I was due to complete filming on the Thursday, when the request came that I stay on in Wellington for a few extra rewrites, which then took up Friday and Saturday. So Monday became my final day. A camera crew for the South Bank Show, the veteran arts programme from London Weekend Television, got up early to meet me in the dark at 5.45am as I staggered up the metal steps of the make-up trailer where Rick Findlater was waiting to apply Gandalf’s likeness for the very last time. I am glad that there is now a filmed record of the make-up application, masterly work. It became clear during the day that my new filming needed to extend into Tuesday, so the following day back we all congregated to film the start of the final final day — except that it wasn’t and I didn’t actually finish until the next day. . . Wednesday 2nd July 2003.
It was a warm day for winter, one of those blue-sky days that punctuate the rolling storms that drench New Zealand from south to north this time of year, when the wind tugs at wigs and the dining-tent at the studio strains at its guy ropes, trying to fly away and join the jets at the next-door airport. I finished mid-afternoon standing in front of a green screen close to the camera, filming a close-up of Gandalf as he battled with unseen (indeed non-existent) forces – orcs probably, although I confess I’m never too sure.
It can be surprisingly tiring in heavy robes twisting and turning even only on the spot, stabbing and slicing the air as a sedentary director watching a TV monitor of the action a few yards away shouts encouragement “More vicious! Behind You! Again – hit him again! It’s an effort! It’s exhausting! One last effort!” Then blessedly after a couple of minutes when my arms feel they are about to drop off, it’s “Excellent Ian! Alright?” as Peter levers himself up from the reinforced armchair (built years back for a visit from Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News) and hurries to shake my hand. “And that is a wrap on Ian McKellen!” There are hugs with Andrew Lesnie and his camera department, some applause from the crew, another hug with Caro, the ever-patient first assistant director who organises everyone on the set. I stumble back to the trailer, not much moved but aware that it really is now all over bar the dubbing which will be done two months on back home in London. The end has been such a long time coming.
On most films the conclusion of an actor’s work is marked with a bunch of flowers or a bottle of fizz but Kiwis have a finer sense of occasion and ceremony and my turn came three hours later in Minas Tirith, as the night fell and a crowd of 150 crew and office people were given beer or champagne as Peter J. addressed us all from the battlements. He spoke of Billy Boyd first, my fellow leaver, the first Hobbit to be cast it turns out and the last to finish. Pippin was given some presents, cracked a gag or two then it was Gandalf’s turn.
Peter told the story of how I got my part. How we had met at my home in London, how Fran Walsh and he and I had immediately liked each other. How a few weeks later, having been offered and accepted Gandalf, I had to call him up and withdraw because the dates of the first X-Men movie had slipped back to conflict with the start date of Lord of the Rings. How, that same night, I had been dining at Sheekey’s fish restaurant at a table next to Bob Shaye, the founder of New Line Cinema who were financing the trilogy. How Bob refused my no for an answer. High-powered discussions between NLC and Fox, between producers and directors (including a last minute promise from X-Men director Bryan Singer, too contentious to be put in writing, that he would have finished with me by the end of the year, so I could start the millennium in New Zealand), and it all worked out.
Barrie Osborne, with his widest grin, presented me with Gandalf’s magnificent sword and then, screened on a white sheet, a four minute video presentation of the Grey and the White, high spots from the movies and low spots too, me forgetting my lines, me swearing, me peacocking at Gandalf’s original screen test to see how the costume and make-up would work onscreen. By this time, I felt it. Still there was no need for tears. I would be back for the world premiere on 1 December. I couldn’t say goodbye to everyone; I had a plane to catch. Up before dawn next day I settled into my seat and tried to catch sight of the studios as we took off and then I realised – I’d forgotten to bring Gandalf’s sword with me! — Ian McKellen, July 2003
Photos by Keith Stern except where otherwise noted.