The ancient Maori name for New Zealand is Aoetearoa, 'The Land of the Long White Cloud' and, flying low out of Auckland airport in the North Island last week, I could see why. An hour of murk south to Wellington and bumping through the depression, rain splattering the windows, we safely landed on the sodden runway. Northern hemisphere readers should remember it's winter here. Matt Cutfield, my driver, was there waiting, as he has been so often on this job - because I was back in Middle-earth, to complete work on The Two Towers movie. Gandalf was home again for a couple of weeks.
Home with friends from the cast - only Orlando Bloom, filming 'Ned Kelly' in Australia, was too busy to return, but the rest of us have made it back. Elijah Wood and Liv Tyler look ever so slightly older than 18 months ago and John Rhys-Davies has been losing weight, but make-up and padding will disguise these developments. Little else has changed as the local crews return to work, but there is a new shared confidence that with one success out in the world, another one can't be far behind. Peter Jackson may be exhausted but is still smiling, even relaxed. He tells me 'It feels like we are making a home movie rather than a blockbuster,' a point I made when we were filming 18 months ago.
The Oscar winners are back - Peter Owen overseeing make-up and Richard Taylor still busy at WETA workshops overseeing those collectible mementoes (www.sideshowweta.com). Howard Shore has also been here, scoring the extra footage which has been added to 'The Fellowship of the Ring' for the extended DVD version, which I shall see before I leave. Andrew Lesnie is back too, still mourning his gaffer Brian Bamsgrove. We all have a commemorative t-shirt for Brian holding a scaly catch: 'Woman want me. Fish fear me'. Ngila Dickson has escaped from pre-production on 'The Last Samurai' which Tom Cruise will soon film in New Zealand, Japan and California - and her wardrobe team are the same as ever.
So why exactly am I here? Well, no one should think there is a problem with the second movie but there is so much yet to be done. All those blue and green screens have to be replaced by scenery and background action. The special effects - don't ask me how! - are being created. The music will be recorded in London in August.
Andy Serkis has been here for weeks helping to perfect the digitalised Gollum for whom he provides the action, facial expressions and of course the voice. Over lunch he explained how this is done - I encouraged him to write a book as it seems that transferring his performance into a computer and then out again onto film is pioneering stuff and his participation should confound anyone who thinks that actors will soon be unnecessary in digitalised film-making. Gollum will astonish, delight and move you - Cave Troll fans ain't seen nothing yet!
Once a rough assembly had been made, it was decided to adjust the story-telling of 'The Two Towers' marginally as far as Gandalf the White is concerned. So I have re-shot 3 brief scenes with Theoden, Aragorn and Shadowfax in the Golden Hall of Edoras and its stables, as well as (with Legolas and Gimli doubles in the Forest of Fangorn, which grew overnight in the airless studio in Wellington that once housed Bag End. It gives me a childish thrill to clamber over real rotting roots and moss and earth surrounded by polystyrene Ent-ish trunks and overhanging branches knowing that 12 hours previously the space was nothing but an old paint factory floor. Easy to sense that Treebeard is nigh.
Although no-one can see a full version, to get me in the mood and crucially remind me of what Gandalf the White looks and sounds like, Peter showed me all his scenes in The Two Towers. (Incidentally the notion that that title should be changed in respect for New York's sensibilities has rightly been resisted. Further, the North American premiere will be in Manhattan, with the European opening in Paris.)
So I have seen the Balrog again onscreen - wowee fans! - marvelled at the first heart-stopping entrance of the super-equine Shadowfax (Blanco the trusty white stallion) and some of the Helm's Deep battling as Gandalf commits himself samurai-like to the fray. When Bernard Hill and Brad Dourif introduce the central saga of Theoden and Wormtongue with total confidence they match the magnificence of the Edoras sets below the snowy alps of the South Island. It is all looking up to, even beyond, the standards of the first movie.
The rain has continued but who cares? Last Friday in a corner of the dining tent for 400, the string quartet who dropped by a few times during principal photography, was back with selections from the score to cheer us up during lunch. And there have been other supportive distractions. Two Sundays ago, the crew regrouped for free under Sean Astin's direction to shoot a short film The Long and short of it, playing on the Tolkien theme of disparate heights. Another home movie from the Jackson family. Ian McKellen, June 2002