Wellington – Film Locations
Our first day in New Zealand we had a slow morning before our LOTR tour that afternoon. We always used spare time to find a local cafe, because one of our greatest discoveries was the coffee. Yes. The Coffee! Being products of the quick-coffee culture of America, we had no idea what we were missing out on. In Australia & New Zealand (as well as Italy and other European countries) being a barista is not a part-time gig as you pursue some other line of work like acting, surfing, or college. It is a passion and a calling. A two-week training period in the USA could be a two year training period there. Needless to say, the difference in the flavor and preparation is delectably tangible. The coffee is “made with love” as my wife likes to put it….
We were so spoiled with the creamy delights of NZ that we are now scouring the LA area for similar passionate coffee houses. It isn’t just the look of the coffee, it is how the coffee bean is prepared, the machines are serviced, the brew is mixed and how delicately the foam is added. We were asked a couple of times how we thought the coffee compared to the US and they knew our response was going to be no comparison. And it was. Even in talking with New Zealander’s who had come to the US, they mentioned they couldn’t find a good mocha anywhere. Now, we understand why!
So, after our great morning coffee we were ready to head out to see where Peter Jackson magically brought Tolkien’s mind to life.
Our Tour Guide was a delightful local actor, Todd Rippon. He had some great insights into the LOTR and Hobbit behind-the-scenes as he was an actor in Return of the King. He gave some great insights into the production woes of LOTR and even the details of the 3-year production delays for Hobbit. Even had some inside track info on why Stuart Townsend got replaced by Viggo Mortensen. Needless to say, Todd was a great guide with intriguing insights.
Check out Todd’s great role in Return of the King here:
Our Tour Guide – at seconds :25 and :48 being killed by Legolas…
Todd’s a great guy with a passion for film and acting, so drop him a line if you need a New Zealander for your film! http://www.toddrippon.com
The first spot Todd took us to was where Frodo and other Hobbits first encounter the Ringwraith. It is in a public park on the mountainside just a few miles from Stone Street Studios. The park is Mt. Victoria.
The trees in this park are native and unique to New Zealand. In other parts of the world where they grow, they are not able to keep their branches intact due to the wind and weather. But here on Mt. Victoria, they are able to grow and create these spindly finger-like branches. A perfect location for a scary movie or a scary scene in a movie. This is where Peter Jackson’s attention to detail for the LOTR fans began to really shine for me. His location scouting.
The location where some people on our tour are posing below is where the Hobbit’s crouched under the tree hiding from the Ringwraith. The large tree stump and root under which they hid was fake and placed there for the filming. But the hollow in which they hid is still carved out of the ground and can still be used for a great photo op:
The clip from the movie here:
The path above the hiding spot is also where Frodo stands under the towering arms of the tree as he hears the Horse approaching was specifically chosen for its ominous and foreboding tone. Always a storyteller, Jackson picks a shot that visually tells the story. The first spot that Frodo is in real danger, even his surroundings are used to show the danger.
What I began to realize is that Jackson showed his daring in the details of the locations. Coming from the no-to-low budget world of filmmaking, it is impressive how Jackson would choose a location for only a few shots and angles. Then he would move on to another location, miles and miles away, for the reverse shot. Quite impressive dedication to get the exact look he wanted! But that attention to detail is what makes the films so rich in texture and tone.
The next location we traveled to was Isengard.
What is impressive about the Isengard location is how truly small a space it was. In a park just on the outskirts of Wellington, you would have no clue that Saruman’s tower was just ‘around the corner.’ For if his tower wasn’t placed there digitally, you would see a children’s park just behind it. Where a wonderful kid’s zip line was built. No insurance company would allow this on a playground in the USA, but since all parks are gov’t owned, run, and with no liability in NZ, it’s a ‘play at your own risk’ type of country. So we did…
So, if you visit “Isengard” you have to ride the kid’s zip line.
The actual location of Isengard’s front lawn is the nice greens of Harcourt Park. I think it’s hole 9 of a frisbee golf course also. In the reverse direction is a quaint little nook of trees that was used for the garden where Saruman and Gandolf walked and talked. Again, very impressive use of very public locations with digital mattes added in later.
The forest that is torn down in Two Towers around Isengard was also staged here. In the greenery of the park, they built one fake tree. Just one tree and tore it down over and over again. Different angles. Branches turned different ways. Different lighting setups. But all only one tree. Quite amazing how that one tree was able to pull at the heart strings of all the Ent-friendly and eco-friendly viewers!
We stopped along the highway at the location where the fellowship is drifting along in canoes. Two interesting facts about the filming. One is that since only one side of the river looks like a cliff, they had to pull the canoes up stream for the reverse shots on Boromir. Also, since the canoes were built more for looks and not function, divers had to hold the bottom of the boats and walk them in a straight line down the river. The actors couldn’t keep them steady in the shot I’m sure!
The last location was again several miles away. Rivendell.
Now most of Rivendell was done on the studio stage or with effects in post. But Frodo’s room at the end and the bridge with the waterfall was done in a national park some miles East of Wellington.
The other great thing about the tour with Todd and Wellington Rover Tours is that they provided props for your photos. Elf ears, Elven bow and cloak and Sting – Frodo’s sword. Needless to say, it was a fun spot for photos.
Since the set for Frodo’s room is no longer there, it’s a bit difficult to imagine. But the spot was chosen for the lush forest around and the native New Zealand trees in the background. They actually had to clear out several of the trees and plant them a hundred yards away in a ‘nursery’ that the production watched over. Then when the set was removed, they placed all the trees back where they were. Now that is commitment to a location and environment!
The bridge where Arwen gives Aragorn her evenstar necklace is also in this location. They also removed trees to build the bridge. What is also interesting is there is no stream here at all. Jackson built the stream and waterfall in the background. They had to bring in water from elsewhere to create this waterfall, which was no easy or inexpensive task. As you can see in the clip, you see the waterfall in the back for probably about one second of film time (around 1:24 mark)
(clip from LOTR)
Our guide, Todd, was a wonderful host and while in Rivendell pulled out a picnic from the van and gave us all tea, coffee, muffins and cookies.
A light rain fell on us the entire time we were in Rivendell, but I don’t think any of us cared in the least. I think it just added to the magic of ending the day in Rivendell, with family, new LOTR friends, and memories of a lifetime.
A definite must-do when visiting Wellington. Ask for Todd as your guide!
As a filmmaker, what surprised me most about seeing these locations is how every shot was selected for an ideal location. As an independent filmmaker, it usually comes down to finding one location that will allow you film there and making it work for every shot. Peter Jackson is the opposite with LOTR and Hobbit. He finds his ideal sequence of shots and finds all the locations to make the shots. This shows me just how dedicated Jackson was to making the world as ideal and real and ‘other worldly’ as he possibly could. He created an entire miniature waterfall, that took several tons of water for one second of screen time in the film! Of course, he never could have done this in the USA with the studio a few blocks away. But being at a distance of a 14-hour plane ride certainly gave him some ‘privacy’ to make his epic a local, indie film. Done the way he wanted it done.
Certainly LOTR is an exception and not the rule, but I am challenged to think about finding locations that enhance my story, characters, and world. Even if a little snippet of that world is in 5 different locations, many miles apart! I hope you will not let limitations keep you back from finding several locations and piecing them together to make the story you truly want to make. I will show even more in a future post of how widespread his locations continue to be!
Be inspired and Be bold.
NEXT BLOG: Step into the beautiful Embassy Theater. The Wellington theater for the World Premiers of “Return of the King” and “Hobbit” films.