Speaker by Various Artists

Letter from Wellywood

by Gemma Gracewood

This week, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (or LOTR:ROTK as fans refer to it) opens to the public worldwide, but here in Wellington we've been catching tantalising glimpses of it for quite a while. A few weekends ago, for example, I stepped out my front door and strolled the fifty metres to my local café, Deluxe, which is nestled in the armpit of the beautiful, newly-refurbished Embassy picture theatre. The tail of a giant Fell Beast blocked my path, so I moved gingerly around it, ordered a coffee, and sat in the sun with the newspaper, under the beady eye of the Nazgul.

Weta workshop head Richard Taylor was scuttling around with a clipboard, making sure the beast came together just right. They already had the main part of its body secured atop the Embassy, Nazgul on board. Just the tail to go, being hoisted up by crane. I telephoned New York and Auckland to alert Busytot’s parents and uncles about this exciting event, which they could see live. (And as a special treat for Busytot, I got someone to take my photo standing next to his favourite hulking creature of fantasy... that would be the giant yellow crane, of course).

Yep, just another Sunday in central Wellington.

Actually, we’re not that blasé about The Lord of the Rings here. It has been – and until the extended DVD version of Return of the King is complete, will continue to be – a constant fizzing energy in this town. And so accessible. Sure, the sets were closely guarded lest photographs get out of ooh, let’s see, perhaps a white wizard impaled on a giant, spiked wheel. But in the last country in the world to be discovered and settled by humankind, the impressive sight of Helm’s Deep and Minis Tirith set pieces tucked into the Hayman’s Hill quarry at the side of the Hutt Road was a thrill for Wellington’s commuting public for months. As were other sites and sights up and down the country.

When I arrived in Wellington from Auckland in November 1999 -- a month after principal filming began -- locals were still getting used to having stars in our midst. Compared to the wonderfully eccentric, over-the-top displays of fandom over the past few weeks, it was so quiet back then. So quiet, in fact, that in my second week in Wellington, I sat knee-to-knee with Sir Ian McKellen at a wee bar called Motel for a full hour before noticing it was his knee. Nowadays, Motel is three times its original size with a restaurant called Chow attached, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy is the largest thing made in one go in the movie world, ever.

Side-stepping the Fell Beast’s tail marked the third year in a row I had stumbled across the Weta crew erecting a beast atop the Embassy. The first year was the best. I was driving to pick up a friend from Roseneath, late at night. As I came around the corner onto Oriental Parade, a cavalcade of vehicles with lights flashing drove slowly past. In the middle of the convoy was a flat-bed truck, and strapped to that, on his back, a giant cave troll. Arm raised seemingly in defiance, ropes all over him, he looked like a beast that had finally been caught after years of terrorising a small village, and the triumphant villagers were parading him through the town.

And the villagers are triumphant. I’d say that over the last few years, almost every Wellingtonian has had a Lord of the Rings moment. If not several. Here's a sampling of mine:

  • Visiting friends in deepest Seatoun – practically the staff quarters for LOTR – whilst they were elbow-deep in script detail, except that rather than coming away with juicy on-set gossip, it felt like I was delivering news of the outside world to the monastery.
  • Watching a Bledisloe Cup final with Bruce “Gamling” Hopkins at the Southern Cross Tavern, after he’d spent the day on horseback with Sir Ian and Co. (Australia won.)
  • Dining beneath a black and white Viggo Mortensen photograph, which my upstairs neighbour babysat for several months.
  • Sitting at Wellington airport with Associate Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister Judith Tizard and Richard Taylor, listening to them discuss a germ of an idea, which later grew into a fully-realised outfit: the feather and paua-trimmed stole made of Weta's feather-light chainmail that the Prime Minister would wear to the premiere.
  • Having a ticket to the Australasian premiere of The Fellowship of the Ring handed to me an hour before curtain-up.
  • Taking my Mum to the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra performance of Howard Shore’s The Lord of the Rings Symphony: Six Movements for Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Howard Shore.

That last one was a corker. Outside, the Michael Fowler Centre was swamped with fans seeking glimpses of VIP guests. Inside, the Michael Fowler Centre was similarly swamped with fans, many in costume. An Elfin couple glided past, closely followed by a scarily realistic Ringwraith.

I’ve been to great NZSO gigs, I’ve seen standing ovations, but usually for conductor and orchestra, not for the front row of the Circle. Yet when Peter Jackson arrived, we stood as one. "This is Peter Jackson, the Noo Zealand director, that’s him in the suit jacket and t-shirt right there in the front row," is how one camcorder commentary next to me went. I thought they’d never settle, but when Howard’s hand went up a reverent hush ensued and we settled in to a fine distillation of the music across all three films.

A highlight of the evening was Janet Roddick -- known and loved for the quirky brilliance of the Six Volts -- singing a couple of songs, including the Annie Lennox credit-roller Into the West (which, incidentally, Janet recorded the original demo of). Rumour has it that Janet was phoned on the Thursday and brought into rehearsals only on the Friday beforehand, making her Saturday appearance in front of a home crowd all the sweeter.

Finally, the premiere. I stepped out early on Monday morning to find my neighbourhood transformed. Deluxe was doing a roaring trade in muffins for the 14 year olds hanging out in their sleeping bags on the footpath right next to where Dominic and Orlando and Billy and Elijah and Liv and Viggo would walk that afternoon. A random survey concluded that they weren’t all from overseas. In fact, most were down from Auckland. On Lambton Quay, more visitors from elsewhere: a couple of Ents (yes, giant walking trees, although suspiciously human-sized) engaged in some leisurely window-shopping. At Parliament, fans awaiting the parade basked in the sun on the freshly-clipped lawn beneath the statue of Richard Seddon.

Ah, the sun. Much has been said of Wellington's weather on Monday 1st December. The Friday beforehand was a stinker, and the day afterward a dull grey. On the day it was absolutely perfect. You really can't beat Wellington on a good day, in part because it's just so gorgeous here, and in part because it's a town occasionally vulnerable to being entirely cut off from the outside world. It's not unusual to have one's South Island holiday extended by a day or so waiting for Cook Strait to calm so that the ferries can cross. And taking two or three goes at landing at Wellington Airport in a decent storm or fog is customary -- but our pilots are very, very good at it. So you can see why we were delighted with our weather.

As for the premiere itself, you can read about it and see photographs here, here and here, among other places. Thanks to my most excellent boss, I dressed up, walked the red carpet, saw the film, drank the champagne. I shook an All Black's hand, while another one stepped on the back of my dress. I enjoyed international guests enjoying local sounds such as Fat Freddy's Drop, Anika Moa and The Black Seeds (featuring Bret MacKenzie of Figwit fame). I didn't sit knee-to-knee with Sir Ian, but then I'd done that already. And although I don't want to spill any details, I can tell you that the film is satisfyingly great.


And, now that the glittering LOTR:ROTK premiere has come and gone, the city has that happy, buzzy, slightly dazed morning-after feeling. On that note, one last vignette...

The Sunday before the premiere, I popped into Fidel's Cafe, where I discovered that the fans had done their research. You need to know that normally, Fidel's is a quiet hangover-nursing lounge for long, leisurely weekend brunches. A live DJ lays down chilled-out funk, while you spend an hour over your "Fidel's Feast" - featuring the beloved homemade hash browns. On the walls are various Cuba-flavoured paintings, a photo of Fidel's soccer team, and one particularly brilliant piece of pop-culture art: a blown-up photo of Rachel Hunter and Robbie Williams relaxing on loungers by a hotel pool. (Williams is naked, Hunter wrapped in a towel, and a dog sleeps nearby. The caption reads: "The poor pooch was exhausted just watching the frisky pair.").

But this particular morning, Fidel's was packed to the rafters with fans, autograph-hunters and a gathering of The One Ring Net friends. Whether they’d just heard it through the grapevine, or found this article singling out Fidel’s as a favourite brunch spot for Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd, the place was overrun.

As I waited to place my order behind three teenagers, the coffee-boy noticed their t-shirts, emblazoned with images of Orlando Bloom.

"You should have been here an hour ago," he said.
"What? Why?!"
"Because that guy was here. And a couple of the other guys."
"What? Where???!!"
"Out the back."
"Where... exactly?"
"Uhm, the round, red table in the corner."
(Screams. Breathlessness. A mad scramble up the corridor to the back dining area...)
"Oh my gosh I hope they haven’t cleared the table yet!"

Ah, the poignant afterglow, the thrill of proximity, the scramble for souvenirs. It will last a while, I suspect: you could say that Wellington hasn't cleared its tables just yet. In fact, Fidel's might want to reserve that back table for the impending gorilla in our midst...

Gemma Gracewood is Busytot’s Auntie, and when she's not "seeping onna sofa" in New York, London, and Singapore, she lives in Wellington. Gemma has worked in radio, TV, theatre, print journalism and PR. She currently works for the government.