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Where the Stars are Strange: Part V
‘I have crossed many mountains and many rivers, and trodden many plains, even into the far countries.... where the stars are strange.’

* * *

Okay, okay, I promised not to but I really must mention the pain. Talk about feeling bruised. I’ve had muscle cramps from working out, from hiking up mountain trails, typical things like that – but never from wearing armor all day. It was a novel sensation, to say the least. I spent much of the next day hunched over, with varying degrees of bodily soreness, begging for Tylenol.

My host said, "What’s that? Never heard of it."

"Well, it’s a brand of pain reliever. Do they have acetaminophen here?" I asked.

"Ah," said David, "what you want is paracetemol." Now that rang a bell! I remembered Meet the Feebles and all the jokes and references to paracetemol.... I never got it until then. Ha. Funny. It’s just the English/Kiwi version of what Americans call acetaminophen.

Here’s another peculiar thing about New Zealand – you’d think that the sinks and toilets would all drain out counterclockwise, but I found no evidence of it. David had this funny pneumatic toilet that just went WHOOSH! and the water was gone. I kept rinsing out his kitchen sink, hoping for a miracle, but it just drained away straight down. Rather anticlimactic.

And the green lime-flavored milk! Stay away from it. I beg you, stay far away.

* * *

I would focus on Windy Wellington that day; thinking it would do to let Middle-earth be on its own for awhile. Certainly I should step back a bit, get some perspective. It had been a non-stop whirlwind since I arrived. Dynamic people, thrilling artistry, good spirits and intense emotions. All in only been five days. Indeed it was time to take a breather.

Whenever you get down there, I recommend a good brunch at the Purple Onion restaurant. Very yummy pancakes. But when the waiter asks how you like your eggs don’t tell him "scrambled hard" because he will laugh and walk away shaking his head. Must be some kind of down under lingo I missed. :-)

The fascinating Te Papa Museum
The fascinating Te Papa Museum

With the guidance of my friend, I toured the Te Papa National Museum and was soon steeped in NZ history. This place is a fantastic combination of old and new. There were hundreds of displays and installations covering everything Kiwi. Here the historical, biological, geographical, and cultural identities of an entire nation were brought under one roof.

The carved Waharoa, or ‘Gateway’ to a fortified village
The carved Waharoa, or ‘Gateway’ to a fortified village
An incredible Taonga, or ‘Meeting House’
An incredible Taonga, or ‘Meeting House’
 A gorgeous sculpture on the roof
A gorgeous sculpture on the roof

It was totally engaged in learning more about the Maori – to me the most impressive and distinct of all South Pacific cultures. Looking back in time, there was a unique synthesis of their ancient tribes with the influx of colonists from England, borne by the great Treaty of Waitangi. It is still a controversial document. Both sides continue to debate the rights and effects of it.

The Treaty of Waitangi
The Treaty of Waitangi

* * *

On 7 December 2000, it was time to go back to Middle-earth. I wanted to go straightaway, alone, without anyone to keep an eye on me. Like a ferry across the Brandywine, I would again cross a magical threshold and be surrounded by brilliance. Since I was already on that side of Rongotai it was just a hop, skip, and a jump! Easier than going through that moth-eaten wardrobe to ‘the other place.’

Beautiful view of  Lyall Bay
Beautiful view of Lyall Bay

A pleasant stroll indeed. David’s home was on Lyall Bay, fronting the Pacific. There, an inviting stretch of beach curved away, the cobalt water disappearing beyond the horizon. I simply walked along the beach and then turned inland, going half a mile up the high hill. Reaching the crest I could see for miles; and below me I spotted several horses and a familiar large warehouse. A-ha! There they are.

Studios K and L – the same set where three days earlier Treebeard marched in fury on Isengard – was now occupied with other hobbits.

Sean Astin was busy shooting a unique effects shot. He was surrounded by bluescreen, of course, and was reaching up towards a camera high above him. He looked sweaty, dirty, and intense; and they had the wind machine going again. Though stationary, he moved as if climbing up and up, reaching towards the camera desperately. Was he falling? Or climbing? I had no idea what visuals they would place behind him..... even knowing the books as I do this particular scene was a mystery. Too bad I didn’t see them filming actual dialogue.

Now Samwise is my absolute favorite character (he is the true center of the story, you know) and it was very gratifying to meet Sean. He was very straightforward, very cool, and had a great handshake. Real as real can be, he is, and make no mistake! Those ninnyhammers back in Hollywood don’t have a lick of sense compared to him – pardon me for speaking outright, sir.

Unfortunately, we chatted only briefly before he was pulled back to work. Drat! I could have talked with him all day. He’s an excellent director in his own right, and it would have been great to get his angle on this whole big project. He did mention that Elijah Wood was nearby, just finishing some additional scenes for Frodo.

I looked everywhere for him. The Ringbearer. The young hobbit lad who brought down the darkest Shadow. But alas, he was gone. My timing is usually good but evidently not great.

But I was in for another treat: Philippa Boyens was running about, carefully working over her script and adding direction to Sean’s work. One of PJ’s close collaborators, Philippa is a charming, delightful lady with real zest. Is it not great that she’s a rabid Tolkien fan who also happens to be one of the screenwriters?

Looking at the busy 2nd Unit crew, the make-up team, the laptops, and what with all the cell phones going off, one got the sense of real momentum. In three weeks, the biggest motion picture project in history would call it a wrap.

* * *

I went next door to meet Shadowfax.

Now this was a horse! He was standing by a group of gentle brown mares, all gathered around the large trucks that brought them. A powerful, gorgeous white stallion, he sniffed and snorted as I stroked his mane. I tend to get a little nervous around horses, but he was so utterly beautiful I had to say hello. One look in his eye and I could tell he was enjoying the attention.

Inside, the terrific Fangorn set I had wandered through before was now being lit up and filled with mist. Many of the Fellowship (sans Frodo & Sam) were starting to gather in the green room. A rather dull room with a table of food and many comfortable seats, it would soon be a hive of activity. All I had to do was sit and wait for them to come in.

Dominic Monoghan and Billy Boyd soon arrived. I said hello, only the briefest of introductions, and watched as the fruit started to fly. In perfect Merry-fashion, Dominic found a bunch of grapes in the fruit-bowl and threw them across, one by one, to Billy, who tried in vain to catch them in his mouth. I had to duck several times to avoid the purple missiles. To be fair to Pippin, he managed to catch some. These two fellows were simply perfect hobbits.... everything about their energy was hobbit-like. Well done.

John Rhys-Davies stormed into the room. Well, not really, but there’s hardly a better word for how John Rhys-Davies would walk into any room. He was a tower of energy, with basso profundo voice, and heavy Gimli armor. And is he ever tall! Goliath, I tell you, and one of the greatest achievements of this movie will be how they effectively bring him down to dwarf size. John has a voice that could shake a mountain, too. What fun watching him tease and pester the young women fixing his make-up! What a hoot.

Viggo Mortensen sat outside the door, very quiet, very to himself. At our first greeting he was kind and soft-spoken.... but I got the sense no chit-chat would be tolerated. As Aragorn, he will certainly elevate the role with his hardened good looks and his sharp-as-steel green eyes. I liked his intensity. It will resonate in his performance.

Orlando Bloom was there, being carefully fitted with a delicious Elven bow. The make-up folks were also trying to get his blond hairpiece under control. We then wandered outside with two extra chairs and talked about the phenomenon that had developed online and how the movie business was changing. Tolkien fans worldwide had turned the Internet into a hotbed of rumor, textual debate, and busy chat rooms. I explained some of my own contributions to this environment, modest as they are, and made predictions on what was to come. "Big," I said, "only to become further reaching than the studios could guess." Viggo came out and joined our conversation, and Bernard Hill, too, listened with great interest.

Legolas, Aragorn, and Théoden.... I had never had an audience quite like this.

Sir Ian drove up, fresh from "central wig headquarters," and went straight over to greet his beloved Shadowfax. We went back into the green room and found a leather couch on which to lounge. We ducked a few grapes and a large peach during the conversation but managed to stay on track.

Did I mention how much I was enjoying this? If all movies were this much fun there probably wouldn’t be any more Unions.

For the actors, "killing time" like this was typical. The crew had equipment and physical effects to prepare on the set, the horses, lights and safety rigging. Hundreds of factors to arrange before the actual click and whir of the camera. Of course it took forever.

Yet there was another crew in the green room taking advantage of all this waiting. A "documentary crew" shot footage for a special behind-the-scenes feature, probably for the DVD editions of the films. I tried hard to stay out of the way.

And then Karl Urban came into the room, princely, tall, and virile. Let me say it plainly: a better-looking man than Karl does not walk and breathe in New Zealand. This Éomer will probably be the breakout heartthrob of these movies. His future career has the trajectory that only Brad Pitt could have. Guys will want to be like him, girls will daydream about him. Watch, you’ll see.

It got kind of sticky when talk turned to politics. Someone spoke of the current American Presidential election. Rather, the non-election, since nothing was decided at that point. Votes from Florida were still in dispute, V.P. Al Gore was behind by a miniscule number of ballots, and there was worsening controversy over recounts and litigation. It was confusing, and certainly no one felt good about the way it was being handled. Then John and Sir Ian got into a spirited disagreement about the American political process.

I was pinned to my seat. Both of these actors, tremendously smart and articulate, were going headfirst into debate. A juicy one at that. What made it funnier was that both were in costume, getting ready to go out on the set. Imagine the sonorous stage voices of both Gimli and Gandalf, with some heat, going around the subject Presidents, Congress, and political mischief. The 2nd Unit Assistants tried to gently separate them but no luck. In a slow march towards Fangorn Forest, wizard and dwarf continued to bandy right up to their marks. How surreal.

* * *

The scenes from ‘Flotsam and Jetsam’ were filmed that day, with the hobbits meeting the entire group just coming back from Helm’s Deep. The Fangorn set was now also used as the newly-grown forest around Isengard – after the Ents had taken over.

I watched them ride in from the rear of the set: Théoden, Éomer, Aragorn, all atop their beautiful horses, followed by Gimli with Legolas, and Gandalf leading in front. Shadowfax seemed proud and spirited in the way he carried his rider. It was simply fascinating. They were a regal troupe, come right out of my imagination and into the tangible world.

Merry stood up from the great crumbling wall on which he sat, smoking his pipe. "Welcome to Isengard!" I surmised this was the outer Ring of Isengard, rock-strewn and blackened. It was broken and quite ruined, with scraggly overgrowth across the stones. Seems the Ents had done a fine job.

Some of the perspective shots here were unique for Gimli. A remarkably tall man in exacting Legolas costume (the body-double) stood on a box next to John as the camera moved in close. With only the Elf’s arm visible in the frame, Gimli could stand next to him, helmeted head coming even with the elbow. It really worked. Gimli was now dwarf-height, just by fooling the eye’s reference point with Legolas’ arm. Clever.

I was very happy to see the wonderful Fran Walsh again. She is so very sweet! What kindness in her voice! I had to say hello one last time before I left. She made quite an impression on me.

The shoot continued throughout the day – redoing all the entrances and exits of the horses – and more than a few reshoots of dialogue. You know the drill. Filmmaking demands more of its participants than you think.

* * *

However, the difference here was love. I had figured it out. The great dynamism among all the people on Lord of the Rings came from their love of the work. At the risk of sounding reductive, they were truly in love with the experience, and it carried them through. How rare to see such unity of purpose.

I felt it too. I admit I was on a "Middle-earth high." I was in love with these people, their surfeit of warmth, the way they held close together. I was drawn into their world now and it was hard, profoundly hard, for me to turn and leave.

But leave I did.

Something must be said here about Peter Jackson. He has shown the stuff of genius here. Against the worst odds he brought all these teams together, put his heart on the pages of a script, convinced the Money to put their hat in, and behold! Everyone lined up to champion his vision. They believe in him. They believe he is a sublime creative force.

And after a week of observing, listening, and even participating, I was convinced. These films are fueled with passion and executed with great care. The incredible efforts of everyone involved are a blessing to us, the audience, the fans.

This is my acknowledgment to them.

* * *

That night, seeking the comfort of the moon, we took a walk along the inviting beach mentioned earlier. It was chilly enough to wear a coat; and the night wind flowed across the dark water of Lyall Bay. It was my last night in New Zealand and I wanted to smell the clean air once more before I left.

Down at the water’s edge, I looked up at the sky and stared. Like a glittering blanket across the great indigo vault, stars shone brightly everywhere. Awe came over me. There were stars I had never seen before. Stars and shapes I did not recognize.

There was Orion, the mighty Hunter, but I was dumfounded when I saw him.... he had been turned upside down. I could not grasp it. What mind could take this all in? Was this really the far side of the world?

There was another shape in the heavens. This one had to be pointed out to me, for I could not have known it. I beheld the Southern Cross, floating in the dark like a gilded kite, a signpost on the way to Antarctica.

I felt very small then. Very small against the vast universe.

* * *

The morning of 8 December 2000, I was ready to fly out but not at all willing. While putting my luggage in the car I met a new friend. I think maybe it was a sign. He was a sturdy black tom-cat, very affectionate, and he seemed to be talking to me.

What he wanted to say was important, evidently. I went over to where he sat, comfortable on his garden wall as if it were his own private parapet. He could safely watch the whole neighborhood from here. He purred and I petted. There was a communication going on but you couldn’t hear it with your ears.

Black Cat

He was going to take care of Icarus. He would be a new companion to him, sharing a world of new adventures. I am in danger of sounding maudlin but I don’t care. I understood what was going on.

The little spirit that had followed me all these days was staying. He would not come home with me. This was our final good-bye.

As I went back to the car, I knew he was gone. There was peace now. All had indeed turned out well.

Much too hasty,


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Past Limbs
An Open Letter to the Screen Actors Guild
Review: The Return of the King
Kingly Proof
For the Love of Arwen
The Atlantis Connection
Noble Is As Noble Does
Send in the Penguins
War! What is it Good For?
In Defense of Philippa Boyens
Movie Review - The Two Towers
The Final Word
Very, Very, Very Impatient
Book Review: The Annotated Hobbit
Finding a Hobbit’s Voice
Conversation with a Newbie
Inside Information
The Silver Lining
Movie Review - Fellowship of the Ring
Where the Stars are Strange: Part V
Where the Stars are Strange: Part IV
Where the Stars are Strange: Part III
Where the Stars are Strange: Part II
Where the Stars are Strange: Part I
The Spectacular Cannes Footage
Comic-Con International 2001
An Open Letter to Jeffrey Wells
The Shadow of Racism
All About Sam
The Game’s the Thing!
Who’s Spiking Who?
The 2000 Vote: Gandalf or Saruman?
Tolkien’s Greatest Hits
Return to The Furthest Reaches
The Furthest Reaches
True Fans, Truly Obsessed
"Yes, Elanor, there really is a Gandalf"
…And In the Closet Bind Them
Welcome to Merchandising Hell
In Defense of Escapism
Out on a Limb Home


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