Blog | 12 March 2000 | Bag End; Studios; Dialect

It is some weeks since I flew south to Wellington and left Hobbiton forever. Once the opening scenes of The Lord of the Rings had been completed, outdoors in the rolling pasture of New Zealand's North Island, there was speculation as to the future of the film village. The farmer who owns the site apparently wanted to retain the film's landscaping and hobbit holes once they were vacated by the production. Perhaps he was planning a supplementary income from tourists who would be visiting the geysers and hot water activity in nearby Rotorua.

In January, as I clip-clopped along in Gandalf's cart, or bumped up and down the gravel tracks in an open jeep from base camp to location, I could anticipate the thrill that Tolkien's fans would enjoy, peeping through Hobbit windows or maybe spying the distant silhouette of a wizard's hat, as they were driven slowly by in a open tramcar perhaps. There will, it turns out, be no such Hobbiton Theme Park, at least not one which features our film sets. I gather that these have been destroyed as part of the filmed action. Perhaps their charred remains will be rediscovered by bemused archaeologists sometime in the next century.

I am a sucker for movie theme parks. Last year I spent a night at Disneyland Paris where, as on previous trips to Universal Studios Los Angeles, I was struck by an irony. Their rides try and create the experience of somehow partaking in famous films. Some use actual film for their effects, of which the 3D Honey I Shrunk the Kids in Paris is the latest riotous example. But most of the time the older rides just sit the audience down for a journey past a variety of dramatic scenery, working models, and visual deceptions. So when you "fly" at Anaheim over London in Peter Pan's chariot or in Burbank across the moon in ET's bicycle, you are closer to theatre than to cinema. Again, in the stage shows, parades, and fireworks displays, the subject matter may be cinematic but the experience is of the theatre. Mickey and Minnie et al are live performers, not 2D animation or actors' shadows on a screen. Disneyland and Universal thrive because their customers enjoy live theatre just as much as going to the movies. Long live theme parks!

Way back, there was a scheme in London to turn the disused Battersea power station into a theme park. There in 1995, we filmed the climactic battle scenes for our Richard III movie. I should love to go on a "Tricky Dicky Ride."

Back to Hobbiton, which has not yet totally disappeared. Its interiors are all sturdily in place at the Wellington studios of Three Foot Six Ltd, which anyone could work out is the Lord of the Rings film company. Confusingly there are two Bag Ends. And here's why. (If you don't like reading about how screen magic is achieved, join me again two paragraphs down.)

Hobbits must appear smaller than the other characters in the film. When I, as Gandalf, meet Bilbo or Frodo at home, I bump my head on the rafters. (Tolkien didn't think to mention it!) So there is a small Bag End set with small props to match. As Ian Holm and Elijah Wood would be too big within it, they have "scale doubles" who are of a matching size with the scenery and its miniature furniture. In the small set Bilbo and Frodo are played by Kiran Shah (Legend) who is in hobbit proportion to my Gandalf.

And of course there has to be a big Bag End, where the scale is human-sized and all the objects of the small set are duplicated but bigger. There the "hero actors" can play the hobbits but the camera expects a gigantic Gandalf and gets him in Paul Webster (a 7'4" Wellingtonian) who substitutes for me. It is not easy acting, as you try to feed off your colleagues' reactions during a scene; but we manage. By starting with the close-up shots (where the hero actor being filmed can see the expressions of another just behind the lens) we can remember the detail of that experience when confronted by the scale double's face, which is sometimes masked, as the camera films a two-shot at longer range. Normally this master shot would precede the close-ups in a film's schedule.

These technicalities need not be an audience's concern but I appreciate any fascination with them. One of my most treasured paperbacks as a kid was a photographed tour of a film studio and as a schoolboy actor I was intrigued by the line or the moment which separates the reality of the wings from the dramatised reality onstage. It is one of the few binds about being a professional actor, forever wondering "how did they do that?" It doesn't spoil the show but can be distracting from more important matters like the dialogue and the story.

The Bag End designs could not be bettered. Their colours are warm with lots of wood and signs of industry, writing and cooking and overeating. Simply, they are hobbity and to me very familiar. They are in accord with my own untidiness and need to be comfy. The kitchen table where Frodo pours the tea is akin to the family kitchen of my childhood. Yet it is all with a difference because Bag End feels like a hole in the ground. Why are subterranean books popular with children? Besides The Hobbit there are The Wind in the Willows, Knock Three Times! and, of course, Alice.

Through the circular latticed windows there is a backcloth of the Shire and entwined in the structure are the polished roots from the tree above, on which Gandalf parks his cloak and pointed hat. His staff is always at the ready leaning by the fireplace in the sitting room.

A fireplace means a fire and the fire in this case must look real enough to test any ring that might be thrust into it. Real fires produce heat. So here we all are — twenty or more dotty enthusiasts crouching on the smaller set in which only Kiran is laughing. We are blasted by the heat of the fire and of the lights, which Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (Babe) and his head gaffer Brian Bamsgrove keep out of my eyes but not away from the few areas of skin that are exposed beneath Gandalf's cloakings and beardings. It feels like madness but it is all part of filming. The second the camera rolls, I forget the discomfort, just as on stage ailing actors are temporarily cured by the intensity of "Doctor Theatre."

Alan Lee, the films' Conceptual Artist, is more usually a book illustrator. His style is romantic and rich with detail. His pencil impressions of Bag End and all the other varied locations were realised as three-dimensional models under the expertise of Dan Hennah, the Supervising Art Director. Once costed and approved by the director, the full-scale (and hobbit-scale) sets were built within the old warehouses that now house the production company. Under corrugated iron roofs there are offices, amenities, dining shed, trailers for actors, makeup, wardrobe as well three studios. We are settled amongst the flat suburb of Miramar behind the low ridge of hills that stretches into Wellington's harbour. Real life is just through the gate. And my rented house is only five minutes away in Seatoun, where Peter Jackson lives permanently with his family on the coast road directly below me.

The good news is that air conditioning piping has rapidly been installed. I hope, come winter, this can double as a heating system.

The studios are neighbours with Wellington's airport and they are not soundproofed. Ideally, filming wouldn't be interrupted by each aircraft as it takes off, but I've known worse. James Whale's garden when Gods and Monsters filmed near Pasadena, California, was almost impossibly noisy. Under the blinding sun, he had to seduce his visitor to the accompaniment of whining helicopters, suburban propellers and international jets.

Last week, the day after Gandalf packed Frodo and Sam off to Bree, promising to meet them at The Inn of the Prancing Pony, I worked with Christopher Lee for the first time. Gandalf visits his fellow Istar at the Orthanc Tower, where Saruman consults his seeing stone, the palantir. I don't feel face to face with Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, Fu Man Chu all at once because Christopher looks saintly in his robes. And there is work to be done.

For instance, I have to learn a new pronunciation. All this time we have being saying "palanTIR" instead of the Old English stress on the first syllable. Just as the word was about to be committed to the soundtrack, a correction came from Andrew Jack, the Dialect Coach; he taught me a Norfolk accent for Restoration, and for LOTR he supervises accents, languages and all things vocal. Palantir, being strictly of elvish origin should follow Tolkien's rule that the syllable before a double consonant should be stressed - "paLANTir" making a sound which is close to "lantern."

Christopher Lee proves that a distinctive voice is an asset in the movies. Stars are not just pretty faces, so to speak, they must sound good too. His 200 (or is it 300?) films have robbed theatre audiences of a resounding Shakespearian. Spread across the black throne under Orthanc's vasty roof, he looked like King Lear in age and authority. He is 78 years old, handsome and powerful. When he speaks, all I see and hear is Saruman, my old associate gone wrong. Except once when he rounded off a speech, at Peter Jackson's suggestion, with a snarl. To be within four feet of a Lee snarl is unsettling. I was glad he wasn't wearing his fangs.

He loves stories about actors and I amused him last week with one he didn't know, which I was told by Brian Bedford: 
"Noël Coward reads a poster: Michael Redgrave and Dirk Bogarde in The Sea Shall Not Have Them! 'I don't see why not — everyone else has.' " 
I like making Saruman laugh.

Richard III (Ian McKellen) in final battle

Knock Three Times by Marion St. John Webb

Gandalf in Bilbo's Home by Alan Lee

After the final take on Gods and Monsters

Robert Downey Jr. (Merivel) and Ian McKellen (Will Gates) in Restoration

Christopher Lee as the Vampire

The Sea Shall Not Have Them

Reporting from Auckland Harbour, Ian McKellen, February 2000