Blog | 8 August 2000 | Ian Holm; South Island; Mordor

When the other Sir Ian (Holm that is) arrived from London in March, he was of course jet-lagged but that didn't stop his schedule of costume fittings and make-up tests from taking over straightaway. He was wandering round the workshops in Hobbit feet and a curly wig. I was filming in the Wellington studio next door and took him to the lunch tent. "What's it like here?" he asked me, dolefully. I told him he was in for a treat and within 24 hours he agreed. A month later, he couldn't bear to leave, swearing he would be back in New Zealand before the movie was complete. This was not that he expected the part of Bilbo to be extended. Ian had discovered the South Island.

New Zealand would amaze and enrapture anyone who responds to the wild landscapes of Middle-earth. Although I am a chronic townee, I have always been smitten by mountains and water, particularly in the Lake District of my native northern England. Very little of the Lake District has been untouched by man — walls, fences, plantations, holiday cottages and working farmsteads are everywhere in sight, even from the tops, and they define its character. In New Zealand there really is a natural untouched wilderness and it is overwhelmingly spectacular and moving.

Until the last millennium there were no animals other than birds here, some of which felt so safe that they forgot to fly, like the nocturnal kiwi and the extinct moa, 12 feet tall. The Maori and the Europeans invaded and brought rats, dogs, sheep of course and predatory possums, stoats and rabbits who all upset the great aviary. The early Maori ate all the moas and sometimes, I'm told, each other. The Scots, Irish and English immigrants cut down all the heftier native trees for construction and let their sheep graze through the unique bush. The ecology was not everywhere despoiled and in the South Island's fjordland and primeval rainforest there is an Eden never-cultivated nor, until recently, charted even.

There are just enough decent roads and some of them daringly access the rivers and peaks. There are four-day tramps over the tops which are so popular you have to get a permit. I'm thinking about doing one when the spring comes. The other Ian has the same idea.

The North Island, where the population is concentrated in Wellington and Auckland, is more of a playground with beaches, hot springs and fishing. It is generally warmer and the cell-phones work. Yet each time I spy the interisland ferry chugging past my Wellington window for the two-hour sail south across the Cook Straits which separate the islands, I envy its passengers.

Bilbo's scenes were all shot in the studio and I shared three of them. Gandalf knocked on the round door of Bag End last January - Peter Jackson answered offscreen for Bilbo "Go away!" and then Kiran Shah (shot from the back but in a mask of Ian Holm) let me in. Cut to two months later as Ian Holm shuts his front door behind me in the interior of the hobbit hole in the studio.

Peter Jackson was alert to the need to get both Ians onscreen together, rather than using the big or small double too much. By placing Gandalf closer to the camera, Bilbo could be shrunk and the two of us could see each other's eyes. Ian's twinkle and pierce you through — he is so observant and yet he looks at you as the character. And this illusion that Bilbo is present is achieved each time the camera rolls.

Ian never repeats himself on film — in each take he is different and yet always in character. It is a daring approach to film acting, dicing with spontaneity. Most of us, pretty clear what is required, will hope to deliver a good take full of life and believability and if a retake is required for technical reasons ("Nothing to do with the actors — let's go again!), we will try to repeat what felt good about the previous attempt. Ian will have none of this so that what you eventually see of Bilbo was never tried before — it happened for the first time just as you see it. He calls this exploring the character as through a kaleidoscope, giving the final choice from a wide range of takes, to the director and editor.

It makes you think how limiting film can be — no matter how often you see a movie, the performances are fixed, unaltering whether on the big screen or on the back of a seat in a 747. See the same actor on adjacent nights in the theatre however and assuming he is not aiming to be an automaton, you will discover, as he does, new aspects of the character. Ian Holm brings the advantages of live theatre to the cinema, so that resting in the spool cans is a "complete Bilbo" until Peter Jackson makes his selection. The actor not as marionette but as tool for the director's storytelling.

For Bilbo's last scene, Ian wore a latex mask of wrinkles and scrawn before sailing away to the distant Havens where Tolkien's good people achieve their rest. It was an odd experience because Galadriel was with us but Cate Blanchett was not — more scope for film magic to add the genuine Elf Queen who goes voyaging with Bilbo and Gandalf at the end. Odder still to realise that this final scene, when completed by the technicians, will not be screened for another three years!

I have now been shown the first Bilbo/Gandalf scene at Bag End roughly cut awaiting some revoicing that will remove extraneous noises and the enhanced soundtrack of effects and music perhaps. So here is the first critical review of Lord of the Rings. "Bilbo lives and if the rest of the cast matches Ian Holm's performance, you are in for the treat of a lifetime".

When Ian flew away, so did the rest of us - he to Los Angeles for the opening of Joe Gould's Secret and the film units to Ohakune "Where Adventures Begin". This promise looked a little audacious next to the giant plaster carrot denoting the town's principal export. Part of the year, the non-farming locals service the visitors who lodge there to be close to the skiing slopes of Mount Ruapehu, the live volcano which shut down business in 1996 splurging molten rock over the snowfields. This spectacular fireworks display is still recalled on picture postcards and in the photo albums which Dale lent me from behind her receptionist's desk at the Powderhorn Lodge. We arrived out of season when the apr├Ęs ski bars were boarded up and the hostelries grateful to be unwontedly full of non-holidaymakers, who were out at work all day and too tired to stay up late in the short evenings. Indeed, after seeing the previous day's rushes in a small conference room next to the restaurant with log fire and candles and full of take-out pizza and diet soda, I was each night happy that my bedroom was only eight doors down the corridor.

One Sunday I got time to scramble up the lower slopes of the mountain whose upper reaches are sacred to the Maori. Climbing the tops is discouraged although I was sorry to miss the organised tramp around the volcano's rim. Most days we were filming on the flat lava fields that skirt Ruapehu and are sacred only to the New Zealand Army who test artillery there out of harm's way.

On our first day we were gathered into a large tent to be lectured by a senior officer whose joviality couldn't disguise his deadly message — that to wander beyond the perimeter of the film unit was to risk losing a limb or a life. The barren landscape was pitted with unexploded shells, although we were re-assured that our bit of the ground had been scoured and made safe. Nevertheless arriving on site in the early morning dark, guided by the southern cross in the black sky, it was unnerving. The track from the main road toward the mountain was newly beaten, rocky and indistinct. 10 miles an hour was the maximum speed and after 30 minutes of wondering if the next bump might be fatal, it was a relief to see the distant welcoming glow of the unit where the generators illuminated familiar faces and paraphernalia.

The dawns were spectacular, as dawn always is. Half way through make-up we would step out of the trailer to watch the mountain turn pink then golden a mile or so away. I was always so smitten that I forgot to take a snap. [Webmaster's note: I got one, see below!] Nor will you see Ruapehu in the movie. Filming it is also discouraged and anyway we were shooting the latter moments of the Fellowship's journey when depleted and exhausted they prepare to meet the forces of evil in person. The towers of the Mordor bastion will be added digitally, a model expanded to stretch behind the army entreating Sauron's appearance.

Members of the Fellowship et al were supported by a stunt team of horsemen and opposed by the masked forces of the Kiwi military, earning an extra bit of cash as a horrible-looking army. It must have made a welcome change from testing bombs.


In response to a reporter's query:

Q: Was that Gandalf impaled on the wheel? Is it his death or is he being tortured in some way?

A: No, it's not me, although I was filming on the same location yesterday. Nor, as some have speculated, is it Christopher Lee. He is currently in Australia preparing to film the new Star Wars movie.

Photo by Ian McKellen

Ian McKellen, Queenstown, South Island, April 2000, Photo by Keith Stern

Milford Sound, South Island NZ, Photo by Ian McKellen

The Road to Glenorchy, April 2000, Photo by Keith Stern

The Interisland Ferry

Photo by Ian McKellen

Photo by Ian McKellen

Welcome to Ohakune

Fat Pigeon Cafe

Utopia Coffee House

On the slopes of Ruapehu, May 2000, Photo by Keith Stern

The Road to Mordor

The Warning

Mt Ruapehu, Photo by Keith Stern