Blog | 25 June 2003 | End in Sight

Although principal photography finished on the Lord of the Rings trilogy in late December 2000, each year since most of the main cast have been returned to Middle-earth to shoot extra scenes for each film in turn. So here, in June 2003 and less than six months to its world premiere in Wellington on 1 December, The Return of the King is back in production at the Stone Street Studios of The Three Foot Six company just by Wellington's international airport, whose jet engines interrupt our progress as per usual.

Of course, work on the film has never stopped — just ask Andy Serkis, who provides voice and movement for Gollum — and the miniatures crews are still photographing the models of Minas Tirith, for those Gwahir-swooping shots which catch the breath on the big screen. Peter Jackson has been editing our work of three years back and realising that the story needs the occasional reemphasis so that the audience may feel more what is at stake as the Ringbearer gets ever nearer to Mount Doom. Will he, won't he make it? And will Frodo throw the Ring? What's Gollum up to? Meanwhile, will Minas Tirith and the troops from Gondor be able to withstand Sauron's armies of Orcs? Whence Saruman? Whither Aragorn? What's become of Merry and Pippin? Is Samwise Gamgee as faithful as ever? As for Gandalf, his parental concern for Frodo reminds us that The White hasn't erased the humanity of The Grey and the Walsh/Boyens additions are as much concerned with that sort of emotional clarity as with plot details.

On June 7 at 10.30pm, I closed in Dance of Death with a short curtain speech of thanks to the full audience, who represented all the previous ones who had ignored The War and Governmental Advice that London was a Prime Terrorist Target, and came out, despite the new Congestion Charge and the old faltering Underground transport, to the rather seedy West End, for a night out with Strindberg. I wasn't allowed to forget Tolkien as the film's fans waited each night at the Lyric Theatre's stage door in Great Windmill Street, mingling with X-Men supporters and with some of those who had seen the play. But no sooner was I flying to Los Angeles (en route for Sydney and Wellington) than the play began to fade and the movie took over, for the last time.

The atmosphere on set seemed a bit giddy as I came to check with the wardrobe department that my waistline hadn't widened too much since I stopped my lifelong affair with tobacco a year back. Gandalf the White's pants (unseen under his outer padded garments) were let out by a couple of inches and I promised myself a dietary regime was due. Everyone was talking about Bernard Hill's final day of shooting, where a special reel of his high moments in the film (bloopers and all) had gone down very well. Each of the actors get a turn - yesterday Miranda Otto left with her own film, her sword and other gifts plus a welcoming haka, the Maori ritual reenacted by the shirtless stunt department. Last night it was also performed before the All Blacks/England rugby match which I watched in an open-air bar. Tourists note: even in high winter there are sunny and warm days in the Land of the Long White Cloud.

The studios are surrounded by enticing bits of Middle-earth. Today I was in the interior of Theoden's Golden Hall (long since demolished from its site near Medven on the South Island) which stands alongside the base of Saruman's tower at Isengard and the Paths of the Dead, where Aragorn ends his part this week. The overall feeling is that the end is in sight, even for the technicians who may not hand over the completed film (effects, music et al) until September or October. A last flurry of media film crews and other official visitors contributes to the busy atmosphere this week. On Fridays, as ever, a string quartet in the dining tent calms the lunch hour nerves.

My work revolves around a few new lines that will be cut within scenes otherwise completed over two years ago, some of which I have no recollection of having read, let alone learnt and filmed! It's little wonder that the director has had the same problem, solved by replaying shot footage on a palm-sized video recorder (labelled "My Precious Clam-shell") and consulting the shooting notes of Victoria Sullivan, in charge of script continuity. Hundreds of Polaroids have accurately recorded details of the costumes, make-up and settings for every scene - and then it floods back. But Peter's first contribution to bringing us back to Middle-earth is always to remind the actors of the story. In his family-sized cinema in the Jackson home I was shown a so-called "fine cut" or "text cut", which roughly tells the story and has no special effects cut into the actors' scenes. It was fun to admire Andy Serkis himself cavorting as Gollum before his motion had been captured in a computer and turned into MTV's fave actorless role of last year.

(I hope WETA Workshop's Smeagol/Gollum/Serkis acceptance speech makes it onto the final trilogy DVD.) Seeing this three hour version, without Howard Shore's music or Jackson's editing, let alone the visual and sounds effects, I could easily tell why everyone here is agreed that this last film will be the best of the three. Some situations are effortlessly tear-provoking and the physical excitement and pageantry eclipse even the Helm's Deep fighting of the Two Towers. Elijah Wood's performance deepens and ripens, but all the hobbits have their acting chances and run with them. As we watched, Phillipa Boyens explained where my new material would be seamlessly added. It would take about ten full days over the rest of the month.

Today's work began well (despite the wake-up call at 5.15am) with Gandalf and Shadowfax arriving at Isengard early on in The Return of the King. Only today there was no Shadowfax, just me crouching slightly so I could mimic in my close shot, the shifting movement on top a horse. There was no Tower to look up at. So I crouched in front of a green screen as an erstwhile stranger (the New Zealand actor Bruce Phillips) read out the words of the other characters who will eventually surround and face me when the scene is stitched together in the editing suite. The sun was out, the wind was up and we made good speed till the green screen (trying perhaps to emulate a kite) slid gracefully to the ground. We abandoned that scene and went to a Rohan party with Pippin and Merry doing a jig on a table-top. Only there was no table and no hobbit dancing - that had been filmed in my absence last week - though oddly there was an ample crowd of hirsute soldiers to mill about behind us, as Viggo and I did our last scene together, worrying as usual back at base camp whilst Frodo and Sam climbed up Mount Doom and Sauron set his eye on Minas Tirith.

Half way through the afternoon, jetlag turned off my brain a little so that the new dialogue stuck in my throat and I stumbled through half-a-dozen takes. Eventually I isolated the offending phrase and repeated it on camera until Peter felt he could select an appropriate reading for the finished film. That ordeal of incompetence over, it was back with Bruce Phillips (this time doubling for Theoden at Edoras) and I sailed through a page of new dialogue without faltering. Confidence restored. — Ian McKellen, June 2003

Gandalf the White at Minas Tirith looking toward Mordor
Peter Jackson (left) suggests to Sean Astin (Sam) how he might confront Shelob
Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) at Edoras
Signing autographs at the Lyric stage door
Gandalf the White disrobing, fresh from battle
Ian McKellen, Jose Perez, Victoria Sullivan, Viggo Mortensen: A Summer day, 2000, South Island, Photo by Ian McKellen
Wwith Karl Urban
Gandalf the White riding Shadowfax with a wooden board that marks his correct position