QUICKBEAM'S OUT ON A LIMB:
Where the Stars are Strange: Part II
Gandalf Tea Wednesday.
* * *
Sir Ian McKellen, dressed in what looked like 20 pounds of white fabric, was in-between takes. Since he was not needed on the set until later, there was enough time for all of us to relax over tea and fresh apples. My sense was that he was comfortable, if a little tired. Apparently the work schedule they had him on was intense. As this was the last four weeks of principal photography, the general intensity was bound to increase.
One thing is sure, you can always count on Sir Ians warmth and good company. Thats just his way. Even strangers meeting him for the first time perceive he is a down-to-earth fellow. He wanted me to feel better by showing me around the sets, checking out some fun things behind-the-scenes. What better distraction could I hope for?
Middle-earth was all around me, begging to be explored.
And theres so much to describe! Too bad my camera was left at the security gate, so you will have to do with my descriptive prose. A sad place to be, granted, but I will do my best.
* * *
In a few moments, Gandalf led us through a grid of trailers and on towards the soundstages. To our right was the Production Office, filled with busy people and mountains of paperwork. The wise wizard moved cautiously about, looking for a door with lights on the outside. Specifically, he wanted to make sure the lights were OFF so we could enter without disturbing the current shoot.
Soon I was inside a private chamber within Meduseld, the Golden Hall, home of King Théoden. Lights and equipment surrounded the small set. The room was just like a cozy log cabin with carved horses on all the horizontal beams. It was decorated with lovely tapestries, each with an equine motif. Brad Dourif stood there, though I did not recognize him at first. Here was Gríma Wormtongue, adorned in rich ebony robes; a slender figure with slicked wet hair and an evil look. I have never seen an actor with such a serpentine, wicked air about him! I was instantly intimidated.
Some of the crew greeted Ian as we got closer, but we stayed out of the way to watch from the shadows. They were ready to roll film.
A woman dressed in gauzy white flitted from the doorway to hit her mark close to the camera. Who was this lovely creature who knelt by the bedside? I was so taken with her willowy beauty and gentle voice that I did not place her. After several takes, wherein I could hardly make out what was being said, I pieced it together: this was Miranda Otto as Éowyn!
With long tresses and makeup, she looked nothing like her small publicity photo I had seen a year ago. Regardless, she was dynamite! Her movements and manner were amazing to watch. This was Éowyn, in the flesh, her shining eyes filled with sadness.
This scene was certainly apocryphal, as I dont recall it in the books. It seemed to be about Wormtongues behind-the-throne scheming. He spoke to Éowyn from the doorway, leering at a safe distance. Alas, I could not hear any of the dialogue! Yet, I was so fascinated that I stood rooted to the spot, unaware that Ian was beckoning us to leave the set in search of other wonders.
Down another hall I found myself in the Silent Street.... the Rath Dínen.... and within was a larger tomb where lay the Stewards of Minas Tirith. Fittingly, the space was quiet and grey. Only the work lights glowed softly overhead.
With a glint in his eye, Ian said, "This is the leftover set where we filmed the Pyre of Denethor last week. I came crashing down that ramp on Shadowfax. Quite a dramatic entrance!"
I admired the plywood walls, convincingly painted like ancient marble. Along the perimeter loomed a dozen bas relief figures "carved" into the wall. Nearly two meters tall, these specter-like forms were draped with robes covering all the features of the face. Each figure held a down-pointed sword. VERY chilling indeed!
Lo and behold! Each tomb had a name and date below its mysterious Grim Reaper figure. I walked around the room, reading each one. They were accurate! These werent just made up names like Underdog or Henry Kissinger. I recognized them from Appendix A: Annals of the Kings and Rulers.
Mardil 2080 Belecthor I 2655 Ecthelion I 2698
Brilliant! How totally brilliant to apply this much effort to something that will hardly register on the screen. When you sit in the theatre watching The Return of the King you probably wont even notice them. So why put them there?
Think about it: somebody at WETA spent a lot of time going through the Appendices and assigning very clever artisans to create gorgeous, creepy sculptures with accurate nameplates. The object was for the actors to be surrounded by "history" and, for obvious reasons, to help center their performances. Fidelity of this grade is significant, I feel, and I would see plenty more of it during the rest of my visit.
The room took on a new aura. I had a sense of true place. A raised platform stood center where the pyre had burned. It was charred and black. Although the props, fuel, and actors were gone the horror still weighed oppressively in the air. Denethors raging madness. The bloodshed. The screaming.
I had to get out.
* * *
Gandalf, amused by my ardent enthusiasm for the tour, took us down to the make-up rooms for the Rohan extras. Not a soul was about, so we got a good look at many racks of costumes.
What great fabric! All earthy browns and rich greens; lovingly made and very medieval. I was dying to get into one of those robes. If only I could wear such regal clothing and walk around the background of a "crowd scene." Can you imagine being immortalized in film forever.... in the LOTR films no less? Ah, twould be bliss....
Then we were in the Golden Hall itself.
I could not see for the bright lights blasting in my eyes. We were on the wrong side of the prop walls and had to maneuver around great stands of reflective material and rows of cables. I nearly tripped on one of these and stumbled on top of Peter Jackson himself.
He sat in a classic directors chair watching a configuration of monitors. I was an explosion of nerves the minute I saw him. No time to compose myself there was Ian already introducing me. "Peter, this is a friend of mine; you know him as Quickbeam from TheOneRing." Peter smiled with recognition, got up from his seat and shook my hand. In all my years of living, I never dreamed this could happen!!
OMIGOD OMIGOD OMIGOD Im shaking hands with Peter Jackson!
He had the finest Kiwi accent I ever heard. "Yes, of course, Ive been to your site."
"You have? Really?" I asked disbelieving.
"Sure." He smiled again.
Like I said, I was nervous as hell but had no reason to be. He seemed just like a normal guy. Laid back, casual, loosened-up. This aint the Pope, I thought. Its Peter Jackson. Hes just a cool guy. Okay, I can do this.
And here is where the stupid Yank in me came roaring out. The lamer-than-lame joke I used for an opener was: "You know, I wanted to get a better sense of your work style, to see what its like on one of your sets, so I rented a copy of Meet the Feebles, and I expected things would be much worse."
Dear God, strike me mute and spare the world my idiocy.
Strangely enough, Peter Jackson actually laughed. He laughed. He did, I swear. "Did you like it?" he grinned.
Ooooh, hes a sharp one. "I totally love that movie!" I replied. "My favorite sick-out twisted comedy ever. Im surprised you got away with it."
He continued with ease. "So what do you think of all this?" He gestured at the impressive Golden Hall. Seeing it now full on, I felt a warm wave of love washing over me. The words amazing detail cannot do justice. The vaulted ceiling was crossed with thick pine beams, each bolstered with a horses head at the column joints. Wrought-iron torchiers stood alongside trunk-like columns (intricate Celtic-knot designs covering all). And were they beautiful! A giant woven tapestry adorned the far wall, like a museum piece from a Scottish castle. Some of the prop walls swiveled open to reveal huge lights positioned before Théodens throne. This striking wooden chair, high-backed and richly stained, was now the focus of the camera.
Was I in another world? How could all these things from my imagination be real?? Look at the white horse on the tapestry! Is that Eorl the Young? I took a moment to breathe and said to Peter, "Its just fantastic. In my own minds eye I had never thought of anything so detailed and wonderful." I sincerely meant it.
PJ was actually beaming. He was quietly proud and confident. "Yes, it is nice, isnt it?"
"Ill let you go back to work, I know youre busy.... but I want to say its all wonderful and Im thrilled to meet you."
The director was then pulled away by harried Production Assistants and other crew, all vying for his attention. I thought, I dont envy him a bit.
Ian was on call now, as they were ready to shoot the healing of Théoden. Miranda Otto and Brad Dourif appeared. Bustle and activity everywhere. I looked for a hiding spot next to the make-up crew, so I could sit and observe.
There was Bernard Hill. He was not wearing the heavy aging makeup today, rather he looked fully robust and sharp-eyed. I went over and we spoke. This guy is a real barrel of monkeys! Talk about a blast of energy. Boisterous and congenial, he said, "Did you know that all the movies Ive starred in have ended up being the highest-grossing, most successful films of all time? Including this one."
All of them? At once? Well sure, Bernard, thats true for Titanic but I know you cant possibly include Drowning by Numbers (much as I like Greenaway films, they really dont fall under the same dollar sign). Well, heck, he was just kidding. But there was a double-layer to his joke: he meant it as a promise, sort of. Im sure hell be vindicated when the entire trilogy of films are released.
A Call Sheet from the actual scene
Work began in earnest on the scene. Cameras were rolling. ACTION!
Gandalf the White spoke in a commanding tone to the King of Rohan, "Arise, Théoden and be healed. Too long have you sat in shadows...." Éowyn ran up to support him, tears of joy flowing. Théoden had the most stunned look on his face. Wow!
Then they shot scenes of Wormtongue being cast down on the floor, squirming with anger. The camera rolled toward him for a close-up. I could see in the monitors a huge dangle of snot dripping from his flaring nostrils. Wow!
The Prop Assistant stood adjacent to me holding a wizards staff of white ash. It was Gandalfs version of Sarumans staff. It had an oval stone set in a four-pronged tip, like the top terrace of Orthanc Ive seen in one too many Alan Lee paintings. Once more, with feeling Wow!
"Can I hold it?" I asked.
"Oh, I dont think that would be a good idea," he apologized.
"I promise not to run off with it."
Too late. He was called over to the actors to get ready for the next shot. I was crestfallen. Damn! That was a missed opportunity!
* * *
Lunchtime already. I could have lingered all day in the shadows of the Golden Hall, but when your stomach calls....
The main dining hall was a cavernous soundstage with rows of tables unending. I got a crash course in Kiwi "fine dining," and was all the happier for it. Everything on the menu was rich in sauces, creams, and dairy. By weeks end I would be fattened up by the best yogurt, cheese, and ice cream found in the world (well, honestly, I have a lean frame and a high-octane metabolism, so I can eat anything). New Zealanders are so proud of their dairy industry you wont find a single imported cheese in any store.
Wisconsin cheddar? Not here, mate!
While I ate, the room filled with Rohan extras and a gaggle of armored soldiers. My friend the wizard came over with a plate of grilled veggies and breads. Sir Ian, as you may know, follows a vegetarian diet. He is truly one of the Wise. What you might not know is that he has an incurable sweet tooth.
Orlando Bloom came by and set next to us. Here at last was Legolas. A smoother fellow you could not ask for. Maybe in years to come the fame will go to his head (God forbid) but I tell you he was the most soft-spoken and likable of them all. Very cool guy. I showed him a new softcover copy of LOTR that had a little gold emblem on the front: An epic motion picture trilogy Coming soon from New Line Cinema.
"Can you believe their marketing it like that already?" Orlando said.
I answered, "Thats nothing.... just wait until we get closer to the films release. The merchandise will be like Star Wars.... insane."
And thus the spell of camaraderie came over me. I felt I was at home here, sharing the table with old buddies. PJ, Éowyn, and Wormtongue came in. I tried not to stare at him. I admit Ive been fascinated by his character work for my entire acting career. Ive seen him in every single thing.
It is by will alone I set my mind in motion!
I wanted badly to go up, friendly like, and say, "Mr. Dourif, sir, you are the greatest Mentat of all time! Whats it like working with Lynch?" Just because he was one of the only other Americans in the hall, I felt I could bond with him. But he looked like he was still in character: he was positively seething in anger. Maybe my eyes fooled me but I was just scared to death to approach. Seriously, he was THAT dangerous looking. I realized then what a genius piece of casting this was. Search forever and youll not find a better Gríma than Brad Dourif.
A few handsome Maori fellows came in, sitting with the young soldiers. Loud laughter came from their table. Gandalf leaned in and said, "You see that big lad over there? He played Sauron in the battle scenes. Youll have to go meet him." I blinked. Sauron? The Dark Lord of Mordor sitting one table away from me?? Now this I gotta see!
I asked Ian if he wanted some ice cream and éclairs, and stood up to go; but it was only a ruse to walk over and better acquaint myself with the greatest evil in all of Literature. In minutes I had myself another fateful introduction.
His name is Sala Baker. Although very young hes still a very LARGE guy. Think football linebacker and overgrown rock star bodyguard all rolled into one. He walks into a room and theres an instant hush. Intimidating until you get to know him, Sala is truly gentle and friendly as a bunny rabbit. (Hes probably going to punch me when he reads this, but what the heck....). I knew I had an instant friend.
I got some of his story: he was originally a stunt person for battle scenes who ended up moving around the production, doing some assistant work; and of course he became friends with everyone. One morning PJ, Fran Walsh, and the ladies from Casting were having a big meeting, unable to decide who was going to play Sauron. Then somebody said, "Hey, get Sala! Hes perfect for it!" Boom. Unanimous agreement from everyone in the room. Bang. Sala earns the title of: "A Very Special Stunty."
He wanted us to join a group from WETA, the cast, and some 2nd Unit folks later that night for Karaoke. Ian declined but I jumped on the chance. "Ill be there with bells on," I said.
* * *
The weather changed that afternoon when I went looking for Nazgûl on top of Mount Victoria.
The day turned blustery as I marched my way uphill. Low clouds raced across the sky at tremendous velocity. The cheerless sun showed itself intermittently and the cold wind gusted sharply. I still felt like I was in San Francisco (all hills you know) and I was now caught in one of those unfortunate "Bay Area Micro-climates."
The verdant slopes of Mt. Vic are heavily wooded in spots and there are many places to hike. Its an island of green in the middle of Wellington, dissecting the city. The wind became my companion, blowing me uphill.
The pines were roaring on the height,
The winds were moaning in the night.
Several paths opened up but I did not stall. A warm spot of sun teased across the tall pines and was gone. I perceived small spirits were watching me. Maybe just one. What was that familiar sound? Meowing? Am I hearing things again....?
Down the slopes of Mt. Victoria
Then a huge vista opened up on my left. I could see far across the smooth curve of the city skyline. On my right the Harbor yawned open and the gorgeous hills of New Zealand went on beyond sight. I never wanted to go back to Los Angeles. It was so peaceful here.
Plunging back into the trees I soon found the fateful spot. It was instinctual. Like a frightened Frodo, I knew the danger was near. I just knew it. The sniffing Ringwraith would round the corner any second and I had to get off the path to hide. But I stood alert, watching the movement of every leaf.
The Black Rider is just around the bend....
Prickling sensations on my neck. I was there in the Shire, standing in the Green Hill Country, and it was an East Farthing sky above me! This is what it felt like to have my imaginings become real. I wanted to stay forever.
Still no Nazgûl appeared.
At the top of Mt. Vic you will find a fantastic view. Sort of like the Seat of Seeing atop Amon Hen. All the lands about open up like a book. Simply getting there is the adventure of a lifetime, I can attest. You will also find at the summit a distinctive memorial for Sir Edmund Hillary, who had many adventures of his own.
The view from Amon Hen
A lonely tree standing in the wind
* * *
That night I found myself at the Steam Boat Karaoke Bar. Once upstairs, I thought I was in the wrong place. It was a complete dive. Yuck.
All doubt fled when I saw some happy folks from the 2nd Unit looking through the songbook, trying to choose their next number. And then the Dark Lord came up and shook my hand. "What are you having?" he offered.
I begged off. "No thanks, Sala, I really dont drink much."
"Dude, come on!" he insisted. "Dont wuss out on me, you big Yank. Whatre you having?" I couldnt say no to him and neither could you. When Sauron wants to buy you a drink, you better not piss him off.
"Ill have a screwdriver, thanks." Simplest thing I could think of. But we ended up with a bartender who never heard of a screwdriver! He didnt understand English at all and went to look it up in his Bartenders Guide. I said, "Forget it. Ill have the house wine," which came out of a cardboard box. How thrilling.
When the Lord of the Nazgûl came into the room, the energy picked up. He was a tall fellow; a devilish Yul Brynner look-alike named Shane Rangi. Thats right, folks, I spent my evening with the most horrific, nefarious beings in all of Middle-earth. Sauron and the Witch-king. Truly, all the WETA people were fresh-faced youths; and drinks poured freely. I met photographers, armor wranglers, make-up artists. How extraordinary!
Miranda Otto arrived on the arm of David Wenham. Faramir and Éowyn together at last! Was this an off-camera romance? I was a little too fuzzy to hold up a conversation with them, so I stayed in my seat.
Until youve partied with Kiwis you just havent partied. These total strangers melted the barriers of indifference and welcomed me as a friend. Not once was I uncomfortable. We drank. We sang horribly off-key. We laughed. When the Maori lads got up and did a fantastic rendition of Boyz-II-Men, it was pure Philly harmony. What voices!
I kept saying, "No, I dont want another one, really...." but my glass was always full. Every time I opened my mouth someone nearby would go, "OH! So youre from America?! Enjoying yourself so far? Have another wine!"
The Spy Reporter in me kicked in.... I wanted the inside dirt, the real story behind-the-scenes, and this was the perfect opportunity to ask. "Whats it like working on LOTR? Is this lengthy project driving you crazy?" I half-expected horror stories. But the answer was unanimous from every person I asked: "Oh, Its brilliant." "We love it." "Wish it would never end." "Best two years of my life." "Incredible."
No kidding! What a difference from back home. On a Hollywood set you hear mostly bitching and complaining. I kid you not, there is always a cloud of "This sucks, can we just get through this and go home?" Diva actresses and their demands. Lofty directors who scream at everyone. Every set. Every time.
But what I heard now was the sweetest surprise of all: These people are really into it! They all respect PJ, they love the work, and they go at it with true passion. I knew then that PJ was way ahead of the game, having these kinds of people backing him up on such a project. Filming down here, far away from La-La Land, was the smartest move.
When I was quite drunk I got up and sang Do You Really Want to Hurt Me? which is just about in my range. Solid applause. Sitting back down a striking red-head with fantastic eyes grabbed me and said, "That was brilliant! Full-on, mate!" or something close to that. This keen young woman was Sukhita, who did armor and miniatures.... she and I would become quite close. I think I had something of a crush on her. Later on we sang Norwegian Wood as a duet.
Now thats what I call comedy.
Before drunken oblivion took me away for good, I made arrangements to visit WETA Camperdown Studios. Thats where they make all the armor, monsters, Ents, and prosthetic hobbit feet. Millions of production secrets where there! I couldnt get in unless I was escorted but now I found myself surrounded by new admirers who all worked there! You might say I sang my way into the Workshop.
Later I shared a taxi with the lovely Miranda Otto. We talked a bit about Éowyn and how the character is so admired by Tolkien fans everywhere. Im sure shes got a handle on the part but perhaps she is only just learning what the fanatical fans are like out there. She dropped off at another dance club and I headed straight to the hostel. I was so completely wasted (the term Shane used was pissed) I was actually happy to get back to that cramped little bunk bed.
Lor bless me, Master Frodo, Ill never drink that much again!
* * *
You will get no details about my hangover Ill just show you a picture from when I woke up. Can you say road-kill?
One too many Ent-draughts
It was a crisp Sunday morning, 3 December 2000. I was honored to have breakfast with Shane and his striking girlfriend, Carleen; sweetest young couple that ever lived. They encouraged me to try a traditional Maori dish called Hangi (which is cooked in the earth over hot stones) but sadly for me the chef had just run out.
Three is Company
Upstairs I found my first greenstone in a small shoppe. The mineral is sometimes referred to as "New Zealand jade" but the Maori call it Pounamu and everybody wears one (or a kindred bone carving). The pendant that is made out of greenstone or bone is called Taonga, which means Treasure. Now this is an essential bit of Maori culture.... so I picked one carefully. There was one: triangular, flat, it felt good in my hands. The shape signified protection.
But you can never buy one for yourself! It absolutely must be given to you. I put my money in Shanes hands; he made the purchase the man behind the counter was of deep Maori ancestry and he blessed it with a special chant, Karakia then Carleen lovingly placed it around my neck, giving me a kiss.
No turning back now. I was officially a Kiwi.
* * *
Up the road on Kio Bay there was a party being held for Sir Ian. Some pretty big people were in attendance: Members of Parliament, Peter Jackson himself and some higher-ups from LOTR, and several luminaries from New Zealands gay and lesbian community (writers, dancers, politicians). Judging by the crowd, the party was a success: a thank you for Sir Ians contributions to the community during his time in NZ, and also a fond adieu.
A wizard shares his wisdom with Quickbeam
I made my way through the crowd and met the hosts: one very accomplished choreographer named Michael Parmenter and the piercingly intelligent Michael Moore. The kitchen overflowed with food; and all the fattening dairy as you can imagine. Boy, do these people know how to eat! Good cheer flourished and I enjoyed conversation of the highest order.
Gazing across Kio Bay
PJ came into the garden with Fran Walsh at his side. She had the kindest demeanor, like some kind of angelic being; and I felt rather like Sam meeting Galadriel for the first time. Sorry to sound all Southern California but she had a vibrant energy. I dithered and ended up babbling some asinine question.
"I have to ask, Peter, what is it youll miss the most when this project is over? What will you do when all is done and you wake up in the morning and say, I dont have LOTR to work on today?" I could have kicked myself. Right in the rump.
PJ didnt mind. He said, "Oh, the people, certainly. I will miss them the most. Weve all gotten so close, it will be very hard to not have them near when all is finished." Fran nodded in agreement.
Now that was an honest answer.... After meeting so many of these wonderful people, I knew he meant it. They were like a huge extended family, all of them in love with The Lord of the Rings. All of them unified by their director. I bet there will never be a film shoot quite like this one in the history of cinema.
There was Alan Lee, standing by himself! We struck up a great talk. He was a keen fellow, on the quiet side but a very sharp listener. I kept gushing, telling him how much Tolkien fans all over admired his paintings. He shared how he had created those amazing tapestries inside the Golden Hall (Insiders secret they were only painted to LOOK like tapestries). So much of the architecture, props, and physical elements are his. I say they should give a special Oscar just to Alan Lee and John Howe for their staggering efforts.
PJ raises his glass in toast....
....and gives Sir Ian a brightly wrapped mathom!
Sir Ian was in a jovial mood. He was presented with a special award from the Prime Minister and many other gifts. PJ gave him a specially framed portrait of Ian himself, in Gandalf costume, but with his pointy wizards hat all backwards. It was crooked forward on his head, and the title proclaimed BENT in large letters. Hee-hee!
Many new friends offered their homes when they learned I was staying at Downtown Backpackers. Offers came from all sides: "We cant have that. You can stay in my apartment," and "Ive got plenty of room at my home." Well, how do you like that? Was an American tourist ever treated so kindly in France?? No!
Ill say it again, the very word hospitality is defined by New Zealanders. They are the stuff of legend: warmth, kindness, and love. David Eyre, one of the top brass at Te Papa National Museum, offered his apartment in Rongotai, which was a short walk down from Studios K and L. Thanking everyone profusely, I accepted Davids offer.
Now I would be only a few blocks away from Fangorn Forest!
As the sun lowered in the sky, I stepped outside to collect my thoughts. It was a lot to take in. All these great actors, these remarkable people! Pinch me, somebody.
I saw PJ standing further off, Fran close to his side. Watching them together at the garden wall, something clicked. There was an unspoken quality in their relationship that eluded me before. She was his love, his support, his inspiration he was Beren, and she was forever his Lúthien.
To be continued....
Much too hasty,
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BE HERE TOMORROW FOR: A complete tour of WETA, hand-made armor, racks of Orc limbs, a purple Shelob, the terrifying Grond, and of course Merry & Pippin riding atop a massive Treebeard animatronic puppet!