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Waltzing Around Wellington NZ Exclusives

NZ Exclusive Listing
 NZ Exclusive home
 The Jafas Have Landed
 Tehanu's Second Trip to Hobbiton
 Tehanu Goes to the Auditions!
 Non-Industrial Light and Magic
 Hobbiton in Spring
 WETA Closeup for Technophiles
 Waltzing Around Wellington
 Tehanu’s set visit: Hobbiton
 The Y2000 Mordor Walk
 Last Alliance Set Report
 Looking for Weathertop
 Shadowfax and Other Famous Horses
 One Year of Filming
 Kiwis in Middle-earth
  more coming soon

Recently I had the chance to go to Wellington for a weekend. I didn’t 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 they’ll have all the flat land they need.

Mt. Victoria Pathways

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 stone’s 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?)

Mt. Victoria Pathways

Numerous tracks wind through the macrocarpa pines that cover Mount Vic. and I wondered if I’d be able to find the LOTR film site, given that they weren’t 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 day’s filming, covering the scene when the hobbits, still in the Shire, hide from the single Black Rider.

Mt. Victoria Filming Locations 1

Dappled sunlight on soft pine-needle mulch and gold-flowering broom, scruffy macrocarpas….It’ll be interesting to see how the film crew work their magic on that spot, which looked about the same as anywhere on Mt. Vic. They’d brought in a more aesthetic log from the South Island for the hobbits to hide behind, but that was gone when I was there.

Mt. Victoria Filming Locations 2

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. He’d never read the book, but he reckoned he’d see the movie, seeing as how it was filmed where he’d 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.

Mt. Victoria Filming Locations 3

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 guard’s 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 didn’t feel that way about it – down to Karaka Bay and the Chocolate Fish Café.

Campertown Karaka Bay View along Karaka Bay

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 Wellingtonians.

Chocolate Fish Café

Nobody there I recognised, and no American accents even. Sean Connery’s cut-out was gone, and he wasn’t there either. I wasn’t 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.

Karaka Bay House New Line House

The road winds along the bays from Karaka to Seatoun and I followed it as far as Fort Dorset. Everyone’s 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. It’s so tiny, and seeing it sitting in a sunny field, it’s hard to imagine its transformation into a town beleagured by shadows.

Fort Dorset/Bree

I read some outrage on the Net from people who didn’t think the Bree set was authentically medieval enough. The architecture was wrong, they thought.

I don’t 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 he’d 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 I’m hoping that Peter Jackson’s 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 art.

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. It’s 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.

The Tararuas A location?

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.

Tararuas Tararuas Tauherenikau River

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. There’s not one place I looked at that I hadn’t lived near, walked in, or driven by, and yet until now I’d never considered what a small hop for the imagination Middle-earth was from where we’d been living for years.

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