Recently I had the chance to go to Wellington for a weekend.
I didnt have time for the kind of dedicated lurking that might
have netted me a glimpse of a famous face, but I wanted to see how the
city that I used to know is turning into Wellywood.
Generally people avoid certain things when building a town. Things
like faultlines, cliffs, and geothermal areas. Wellington, currently
the nerve centre of film-making in New Zealand, has the first two
features in abundance. The city looks a bit like San Francisco, only
scrunched up more tightly onto steeper hills. Plaques set into the
footpath in the central business district mark where the shoreline
used to be before the last big quake. A few more good
ones like that, and theyll have all the flat land they need.
Wellington is green and ungardened few people like to mow and
trim on an 80-degree slope, so whatever happens to take root can grow
as it likes and it is divided by steep ribs of green
belt parks on the hilltops. Filming started on Monday in one such
park on Mount Victoria, a stones throw from the downtown cinemas
that will one day screen The Lord of the Rings (The premiere,
we hope, but what chance is there of that?)
Numerous tracks wind through the macrocarpa pines that cover
Mount Vic. and I wondered if Id be able to find the LOTR film
site, given that they werent still filming there. In the event,
a blind person could have found the it. I followed the strong scent of
crushed onionweed and wandering-jew to find an orc-trail of mashed vegetation
leading to a trampled area further down the slope. There were fragments of
Keep Out tape and another smell, this time fresh pine from
where branches had been removed for the filming.
This was the setting for the first days filming, covering the scene when
the hobbits, still in the Shire, hide from the single Black Rider.
Dappled sunlight on soft pine-needle mulch and gold-flowering broom, scruffy
macrocarpas .Itll be interesting to see how the film crew work their
magic on that spot, which looked about the same as anywhere on Mt. Vic.
Theyd brought in a more aesthetic log from the South Island for the hobbits
to hide behind, but that was gone when I was there.
I chatted to an old bloke that came walking along the track as he did every
day of his life. He confirmed that this was the film location. Hed never
read the book, but he reckoned hed see the movie, seeing as how it was
filmed where hed grown up.
I headed off to look at some other places that were becoming part of that
other place, Wellywood, the secret town growing inside Wellington.
A Wellington roadmap resembles a plate of 2-minute noodles dropped from
a height. Still, I found Camperdown Studios and Weta Digital easily enough,
but decided against brightening up the security guards day by trying
to get in. I liked the way the place just sat innocently in the middle of
typical Wellington suburbia, so I got a shot of that. All very unpretentious,
just a cluster of grey and yellow roofs among the houses.
Next stop, Seatoun and Karaka Bay, where actors live and hang out, I believe.
A fun ride over rollercoaster streets possibly the car didnt feel
that way about it down to Karaka Bay and the Chocolate Fish Café.
The place was packed, and everyone there looked bright, talented
or good-looking enough to be in the film industry. Or maybe they were just average
Nobody there I recognised, and no American accents even. Sean Connerys
cut-out was gone, and he wasnt there either. I wasnt the only one
looking for him.
Karaka Bay is mostly full of little wooden lacework houses like this cute thing:
I had a look at the house New Line bought for its executives to stay in, which
sits in the middle of Karaka Bay. It looked like it was beamed down from Planet
Ostentatious, but then you see a lot of that in Auckland too.
The road winds along the bays from Karaka to Seatoun and I followed it as
far as Fort Dorset. Everyones seen the pictures from inside the Bree set
by now. By day, there is serious security round the gates, and no sign of
anything magically cinematic at all. There is a big field, some huts in the
distance, and some scrubby low hills behind them. The hills are easily climbed
and from them one looks down to the back of the Bree set. Its so tiny,
and seeing it sitting in a sunny field, its hard to imagine its transformation
into a town beleagured by shadows.
I read some outrage on the Net from people who didnt think the Bree set
was authentically medieval enough. The architecture was wrong, they thought.
I dont get it. In what historically authentic town would you find Elves
and Hobbits and magic? Where did Tolkien say he invented Middle-earth as a
historical-re-enactment drama? He probably forgot more about historical
artefacts than most people will ever know. If hed wanted to copy history,
he could no doubt have done it in excruciating detail.
There is a difference between being inspired by something and
slavishly copying it. Personally Im hoping that Peter Jacksons movie
will have the liveliness and self-confidence to be Tolkien-inspired, in the same
way as Tolkien was inspired by countless sources which he transformed to serve his
The next day I took the Rimutaka hill road to the Wairarapa, to see why PJ was
rumoured to be scouting locations west of Masterton. The Rimutaka road swoops and
switchbacks up and out of Wellington over hills covered in dark bush stippled with
golden gorse. The views are dazzling. Its a thrilling road to drive. As a
passenger, (and worse, one who had spent most of the night testing whether the
statement "unlimited free champagne" was literally true or merely a
figure of speech) it was a sickening ride. Why would anyone want to film in the
Wairarapa, I wondered. I had memories of it looking like a flat billiard-green plain
with a dandruff of sheep.
I remembered wrong, and Spring made it even more gorgeous.
West of Masterton are the Tararuas. We explored the country that could be
reached easily by car. It offered a lot of variety in a small space, from rolling
farmland on the borders of the range, to steep hills of pine further in. There
was dense bush in the valleys and the shingly flats of the Teherinikau River. I
could imagine any number of scenes being filmed around there.
If filming The Lord of the Rings here does nothing else, it will make us
look at the ordinary landscapes on our doorsteps in a different way. Theres
not one place I looked at that I hadnt lived near, walked in, or driven by,
and yet until now Id never considered what a small hop for the imagination
Middle-earth was from where wed been living for years.