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THERE AND BACK AGAIN: A Geek's Adventure in Middle Earth! Chapter One!

As I walk off my airplane… legs a bit weak, having remained basically motionless for the past 13 hours as my body was miraculously transported from cement terror of Los Angeles across the Pacific Ocean to find its way to Wellington… amongst the lush vegetation and the beautiful wind swept bay… But like I said, I was walking off my airplane… when in the distance I see a hazy image… I had yet to wipe my sleepy filled eyes… I hear my name being enthusiastically screamed out. Gosh this computer bag is heavy… OH… THAT’S… It is.. Elijah!

It seems like an eternity since I last saw Elijah. Over a year and a half… outside of Antone’s… the night of the EDTV premiere party. His hair is longish and jet black and he is banked on either side by a pair of lovely ladies. Interesting.

Elijah and I instantly begin catching up… Since last seeing this guy, he’s left a Hobbit hole, come in possession of a powerful ring, set off on an adventure through dangers untold… and his FEET! My have they grown!

With me, he asks about my sister and father. I tell him about Rodriguez and SPY KIDS… the Austin Studio that is being built… Soon he’s sick… wanting to head back to Austin for some barbarque and movies in my backyard… Me, well I ask question after question about LORD OF THE RINGS…

First off, when asked even the simplest of questions about the film, his entire body posture changes… his eyes widen, and his hands come into play… as if to help paint the grandeur of his experience. He has a bit of that zealot look on his face. Talking with him about the film, I don’t learn much else besides his unrelenting enthusiasm. On FACULTY he was excited, but this is something else all together. He’s in love with the film, the production and the folks he’s met here. For Elijah, this is first film basically completely on his own… Pre-LOTR, his mother and sister were on set with him almost completely. He had a set-teacher to make sure he did his homework… So here, here he can concentrate on the film and enjoying New Zealand. Elijah seems to be the same chap I knew way back when.

Upon leaving them, I take up my residence… hang me clothes, attempt to fix up my computer for an internet connection… and… shower… Christ, a shower after a 22 hour day of travel is the greatest thing in the world… It’s just the warm flow of water pouring over ya. I really can’t recommend always taking a warm shower after a flight. Does wonders. That and walking on balled up feet on cushy carpet.

Next, I hop in a van headed for THE SET. You’ve seen images from the set on various Lord of the Rings websites… it is the Minas Tirith set… that alabaster stone wedding cake of a fortress. On that New Zealand Interview Program with Peter Jackson that you saw… You may remember the carvings in the background… never quite in focus… perilously and tantalizingly fuzzy. Well, this is where I was headed. I’ve watched that footage perhaps a good 2 dozen times…

Well, as we reached the area of the road that leads up to the quarry where the set is built, the lady driving tells me… Look you can see the top dome from here… I started feeling giddy. This was THE SET!

As we turned and begin driving up the quarry road… the scent of horse manure creeped its way to my nostrils… hahaha, when I see RETURN OF THE KINGS in 2003, I will remember… horse manure… That’s a sort of real life detail that you just can not appreciate in the non-John Waters scratch and sniff world of cinema.

I begin seeing details… This set is ENORMOUS. The largest set to date that I have paid visit to, was the Hughes Brothers’ FROM HELL White Chapel set. That was a painful recreation of a real world place and time. This set felt the same way. Again, there were the stone streets, the buildings reaching up into the sky… all carved out of a seeming alabaster stone.. knock knock (Hollow)… the façade of entertainment… I love it.

There is this GIGANTIC 30 or 40 ft tall door, seemingly covered with well petinaed bronze carvings and figures… that bronze greenish-turquoise hue… IMMENSE in scale. Off to the side, is the destroyed door for after the battling ram crashes through. Apparently that is soon to be filmed… which means… oh goody goody, I’ll be here. YIPEE!

The chest pieces of armor all have that glorious tree design that they should have… and not in a cheesy sort of manner, but in a functional, realistic manner. The armor is not polished silver, but rather tarnished as if it had seen quite a bit of battle and weather. Splattered here and there is the black blood of orcs (I suppose) perhaps Uruk Hai. The rangers are also walking about, horses are everywhere… strange saddles… functional and real, but like nothing I’ve seen in recorded times, but I believe these could’ve existed.

We pop out of the van within sight of two great wind machines… the smell of horse hits me like a memory of my high school years cleaning my mother’s stables. AAAaaaah, fond memories. Hehehe. I hear the lady with me say, "There’s Peter."

ALRIGHT, Derek! I’m gonna meet Derek! Peter is dressed in a pair of shorts, that Day 133, LORD OF THE RINGS vest that you have seen in the Real Video footage from ONE TV in NZ. I begin heading straight for him… He owes me about 8 sets of 20 questions… hehehe…

As I begin to get into obvious sight, Philippa Boyens leaps out of her chair besides Peter to give me a hug. Phil (as she likes to go by) and I met at this year’s writer’s conference in Austin, Texas.. and well, as anyone who can communicate more than 3 words that has met her can tell you…. Well, she’s the real brains behind all of this. (ok, now don’t publish those photos of me Phil! You Promised!)

Peter stands up and I shake his hands and do the typical… "Glad to finally meet ya stuff."

As I look behind him, I can see an entire bank of monitors. I’ve been on a lot of sets in my time, but I’ve never quite seen a set-up like this. 6 Monitors… above each monitor is a little sliver of a slate with the squiggly marker writing identifying the monitor as to which set of cameras with which unit they are. There was the BLUE SCREEN monitor, the 2nd Unit A & B cameras… and 1st Unit A & B cameras. When I arrived, on the Blue Screen monitor was an animatic of Gandalf riding astride a giant eagle…. A rough animatic, I guess they are shooting or trying to figure out, what elements to fill in there… but I’m geeking pretty hard. Peter sees my eyes on the monitor and smiles… "Would you like a lil tour?" Phil answers, "Yes, I’m sure he would," with a giggle and a devil smile.

I muster a, "Uhuh!" Everyone is real impressed.

I’m walking through the courtyard on the other side of the grand gates of Minas Tirith… in the center of the courtyard is a grand bronze-like statue of one of the great kings of Gondor… directly behind it and against this fantastic rocky façade are three men carved… I do not know them, but their design is unmistakably Alan Lee. In fact, that is what this set is, an Alan Lee painting. We begin walking up this cobblestone hill, with more carvings and detail than I’m sure is necessary, but while walking through… I find myself tripping out severely. I mean, crikey… this is Minas Tirith. Halfway up this hill, I see… GANDALF. Ian McKellen is right … no, actually Ian was nowhere in site, this was GANDALF THE WHITE. His staff is soooo cool looking, I hope they market this thing as a high priced collector’s item! It is very cool… pure white, with this seemingly art nouveau stylized pine cone-ish formation at its top. As Gandalf reached out to greet me, I felt like such a kid… screw Santa Claus… this is the white bearded man I wanted to meet this December.

I watched in anticipation of what great wisdom he would spout forth, "Feeling jetlagged?" SHINING PENNY… this is obviously now Ian McKellen. I shake his hand and look closely at him… God, make-up is amazing. It is obviously Ian, but his nose is different… and then there is all this hair. At no point can I see where make up begins and ends, though I know where it must begin and end. We were just set to begin talking, when he’s called back into action. We dodge out of the way, and continue our journey to another set of monitors… Up here we can see everything that is going on with 2nd Unit production. They are filming the scene where Gandalf sends Pippen to light the beacons atop Minas Tirith. This is handled in multiple takes through the use of little people, really huge people, 2 different scale sets… and the main actors as well. This is where I get my first look at a Hobbit! Billy Boyd is in full Hobbit mode. He has Hobbit Hair, which is basically hair like mine, you’ve seen it in trailers already. He has the ears… which are a uniquely Hobbit formation… and those blessed feet. I am overly distracted by Billy Boyd’s feet. They are just… too real. They wiggle and react to the ground like real feet… they are furry atop, but not to a point of say ridiculous Robin Williams hair growth… More like Sean Connery ZARDOZ hair formations. I asked Billy about the feet… how do they feel, what is the sensation like… He explains to me that they are very much a strange feeling. Apparently when they were in the snow, earlier in the shoot… His feet felt like they were going to fall off from frostbite. However, normally it is just a spongy squishy feeling. He wears the same pair all day, and only in days of immense amounts of running, has he had to go through two pair of feet. In the distance, I can see past the shooting set to where part of the old HELM’S DEEP set still stands. This is where I begin thinking about not ever wanting to return to my smug Hobbit hole back in Austin.

Philippa asks me if I want lunch, and given that I hadn’t eaten in over 22 hours… it was time for this camel to refill his hump.

I had some sort of strange New Zealand grown Sweet Potato, which looked more squashy than potato-y. Some ham, salad and water. Soon we’re talking about filming… how it is going really well… The unit production manager pops over and I’m told that he’s insane for doing the amount of work he has done on this film. BTW… everyone seems to be astounded that the film is coming to an end of principal photography. The Script Supervisor has had to coordinate 3 films shooting at once in a non-linear fashion. With more elements in each than in any regular films. When you really begin thinking about this shoot… it is wacky weird and daunting.

Soon, Phil is called away, and I get up for an Apple Turnover, when I discover that Ian is eating behind me with one of his doubles and a pair of friends. We talk American Politics, the absurdity of my 24 Hour Film Festival and why a pair of his friends were in attendance. But the entire time, I’m studying his robe, the hair, the make up. Ian is Gandalf. I can’t believe I ever even contemplated the thought of Sean Connery. After a delightful talk about Al Jolson and WONDER BAR, and the hilarity of the Presidential situation in America. I decided to rejoin the set.

As I walk alone up the set, I watch the various folks walking the horses about… The extras playing rugby in costume… very very very weird!

When I hit the set I see a new scene is being readied! This is the scene where Faramir tells Gandalf the battalions of orcs are on their way. And when Faramir looks eyes with Pippen, Gandalf realizes this isn’t the first Halfling he’s seen… and finds out that Frodo and Sam are still alive and still working on their mission.

As they shot the various scale elements (because of Pippen) to make the scene come together, I realized that I wouldn’t be seeing this footage come to a screen before me till 2003… Christmas. Here I am watching Ian deliver his lines perfectly… Watching David Wenham with that tired look of absolution upon his brow as he reveals his news. The look of joy and hope upon Billy Boyd’s Peregrin Took exclaim, "Frodo and Sam!? You’ve seen them?!?! They’re Alive?!?!?" or something to that degree… Well, I just had the moment where I caught up. Where I was suddenly completely alive and happy. My god, I’ve read this scene… seen it animated… and here it is, that’s Ian McKellen as Gandalf… and this place, this place is Minas Tirith… and that’s a freakin Hobbit… and that’s Faramir… who has one fucked up Pops and an arrow riddled brother. And those gates right there… There’s gonna be like a bazillion Orcs and Ohliphants and wolf riding goblins and all sorts of screwed up things… And the Return of the King will happen here! And the army of the dead! And and and, the eagles will land over there, and oh man. Nazgul death and everything… This is where I am. I had to leave before getting to emotional. In all, I spent about 7 hours on set today… I’ll be back tomorrow, and I’ll check out some of the night shoot as well…. Me wants to see Orcs kicking ass with fire and such! Right now, shooting is commencing 24 hours a day, 6 days a week till they are done on the 22nd.

The end is in sight, and you’ll read it here.

This ends the first report from Middle Earth… this is Harry signing off from the other side of the world. Cheers mate!

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