by John Forde
E! Online has been granted exclusive behind-the-scenes access to the making of Peter Jackson's three-film epic in New Zealand. Each month, until the first film is released in December 2001, our "On Location" column will provide new insight about a different aspect of the production--direct from Down Under.
This month: Our trusty Wellington-based correspondent goes tramping through thick forests, down muddy paths and alongside goblin armies to spend a day with the hobbits--and the stars--on New Zealand's wild South Island.
7:30 a.m., December 11: After a bumpy flight over spectacular snow-topped mountains, miles of pine forest and raging rivers, I arrive at Queenstown's matchbox-size airport and begin the 90-minute drive to The Lord of the Rings set, a place called Paradise, located in the depths of a national park. It's perfect Tolkien country: wild, beautiful, inaccessible. Recent flooding has washed away sections of the road. Thankfully, we're riding in a four-wheel-drive--with big mudguards.
8:10 a.m.: We stop at a forest embankment, where a lone security officer with shorts--it's the height of summer in the Southern Hemisphere--and a laptop guards a set. It's a stairway leading up to ramparts and an enormous winged monster made of polystyrene but painted to look like old, moss-colored stone. Yesterday, Jackson filmed part of the Amon Hen battle here, with 100 Urak-hai warriors and the heroes. As temperatures soared, stunt actors playing the Urak-hai had cool air pumped into their costumes between takes. Interestingly, most of the Urak-hai stunt actors are women, who have more tolerance for the hot, heavy armor and prosthetics. Girl power!!
8:35 a.m.: We drive through the village of Glengoblinhy, into base camp (where the actors' and crews' trailers are located), then farther into the hills. I briefly meet director Jackson, who sits brooding in a large easy chair under a canopy on set 1A while the crew prepares needed equipment.
8:37 a.m.: The trees are so thick they provide cover from the morning rain. In a clearing, the crew is working on a dolly shot of the Fellowship running through the forest of Lothlorien, pursued by goblins. No dialogue, lots of extras and buckets of mud. Two giant painted polystyrene tree trunks border the set--later, the Fellowship will "climb" the trees (with help from WETA Workshops' special effects). Because Tolkien's Lothlorien forest features gold foliage, set decorators have scattered thousands of gold-painted leaves on the ground. Since this is a national park with strict rules, the crew must remove every leaf when shooting concludes. Somebody's got a lot of raking to do.
9:23 a.m.: Specially made goblin armor is dragged onto set. The bows, arrows trimmed with black feathers, halberds and corrugated shields have been molded in plastic, then individually painted. A staffer adjusts a prosthetic goblin mask with a pair of pliers, then tries it on for comfort. With no ears, black hollows for eyes and clammy, ashen skin, the mask looks realistic but frighteningly otherworldly.
10:30 a.m.: The little people ("LP") arrive. In nondialogue scenes with the Fellowship, they play the hobbits, who must look smaller than the humans or elves. Each LP wears a small-scale hobbit costume, a prosthetic mask of the character's face and, of course, hairy, prosthetic hobbit feet. Most of the LP are professional actors from India. With the hobbit masks, they look identical to their full-size counterparts, only much smaller.
10:45 a.m.: Orlando Bloom, the young British actor playing Legolas the dwarf, arrives and takes a few photographs of the cast's named chairs. Standing about five-eleven, he's the perfect elf: tall, thin and sporting the best pair of legs since Robin Hood: Men in Tights. Makeup lightens his complexion and heightens his (already impressive) cheekbones. A long, blond, plaited wig and blue contact lenses complete the look. He wears a forest-green jerkin, metal bands on his forearms and knee-high leather boots. Slightly less pretty but no less impressive, Gimli the dwarf's LP double arrives. With a long red beard and long red hair tied in a ponytail, he's wearing short-sleeve chain mail covered with armor, a sword at his left side and hobnailed boots.
11:07 a.m.: Hearts flutter when Sean Bean (Boromir) and Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn) arrive. Most of Aragorn's outfit is concealed beneath an enormous, mud-splattered coat. The jeweled Sword of Elendil hangs from Mortensen's belt. With his rugged, unshaven features and long, greasy hair, he looks every inch the nomadic hero. Bean wears a red tunic with gold stenciling on the sleeves, chain mail, leather gloves and knee-high leather boots (obviously the new look in Middle Earth this summer) under a full-length leather coat.
11:15 a.m.: Makeup people expertly splatter the cast with more mud, while Jackson tries out the shot. Instead of using body doubles, he runs through the forest himself, then watches the result on large monitors. The sight of Jackson, running wildly through a golden forest in shorts and a ski jacket, is memorable. While he starts to take the actors through their cues, I head down to where the goblin army is being prepared.
11:30 a.m.: A large crew of technicians and costumers are dressing the goblins. They wear gray, prosthetic skin, which wrinkles like an elephant's skin. Over this, they wear chain mail and black armor covered with sharp ridges like a beetle's exoskeleton. Their knee-high boots expose prosthetic goblin feet, with long-clawed, blue-tinged toes. Over the prosthetic masks, they wear two-piece, black, lobster-clawlike helmets, with long, black, straggly hair hanging at the hemets' backs. Part dung beetle, part medieval knight, the goblins look terrifying.
11:49 a.m.: The goblins run through their cues. They are to chase the Fellowship through the forest while making sounds like wild dogs and waddling like crabs.
12:07 p.m.: The actors take their places deep in the forest, while crew members converse with Jackson via walkie-talkies. Technicians operate enormous smoke-and-wind machines, which blow mist and leaves through the set. With "Action!" the Fellowship runs through the clearing, with the goblins in fast pursuit.
12:14 p.m.: Jackson and crew watch the footage on color monitors. It's crucial that Bean and Mortensen run so that they partially obscure the LPs' masked faces from the camera. Jackson and the actors discuss movements, and everyone prepares for a second shoot.
12:33 p.m.: The choreography is better, but Jackson says the scene lacks urgency or a sense of panic. He advises the Fellowship to go slowly and the goblins to trail them at a distance. He wants the goblins to be more "feral." They are told to waddle more and keep up the rabid chicken noises.
1:15 p.m.: It's well past the scheduled lunch break, but the scene still needs work. Since it would be too time consuming to reprepare the scene later, cast and crew continue on in the steadily increasing rain. Most of the goblins are out of breath from running in heavy costumes. It's not easy being a bad guy.
1:40 p.m.: With five takes under their belt, the cast and crew break for lunch.
2 p.m.: I'm lunching with 50 Urak-hai warriors in full armor. They wear rubber muscle shirts to enhance their imposing physiques, and they have black rings painted around their eyes. I guard my piece of pie defensively. The Urak-hai have been filming in 1B this morning. Elves waft ethereally around the dessert table. I meet Elijah Wood (Frodo) and Sean Astin (Sam), already made up for the afternoon's work, complete with pointy ears and hairy feet.
2:40 p.m.: We head out to 1B to watch some of the Urak-hai battle. We pass through parts of the Amon Hen set: crumbling walls, staircases and remnants of great pillars that look as if they've been in this forest for centuries. We walk through a quiet clearing with a crumbling statue--constructed, of course--where Boromir's death was filmed a few days ago.
2:50 p.m.: Heavy rain delays shooting, and Urak-hai actors are sprawled under umbrellas and tarps, trying to keep dry. They look like soldiers in a World War I trench. We decide to head back to the 1A set, and we walk along a muddy forest path in the rain. My tennis shoes are history.
3:01 p.m.: Back at 1A, they're shooting a still of the Fellowship running through the forest, pursued by goblins. Astin, Wood and this morning's cast are joined by Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd. They seem relaxed and joke around--amazing, considering they were up at 4:30 this morning for makeup. Mortensen is listening to a Pakistani song on his portable CD player--he plays it to one of the LP, who starts singing and dancing around the set.
3:20 p.m.: Jackson brings the actors onto the set and explains the scene. The Fellowship are surprised by elfin arrows, which fly past them to attack the goblins behind. Mortensen stands in close up to the camera, so as to seem bigger, while Bloom stands on a box with his bow aimed at the goblins. Bean's seven-foot-tall stunt double stands in for Boromir. Of course, there are no arrows--they'll be digitally added later by computer--so the actors must mime the arrows flying past. Jackson, a hands-on director, demonstrates the movements he wants. Wood asks if the arrows will mess up his hair. They rehearse, then go for the first take. The crew blows leaves onto the scene with the wind machine. "And...Action!"
3:33 p.m.: The first shoot goes well. Assistants cover the actors with umbrellas and splatter them with more mud. Jackson wants Mortensen to act more surprised, as if an arrow has just gone right past his nose. The actors talk and joke among themselves, except for Mortensen, who broods mysteriously off to one side. The second take begins. Umbrellas disappear, the wind machine starts up, Wood jogs up and down on the spot to appear out of breath, and Legolas raises his bow and arrow. "And... Action!"
4:20 p.m.: Five takes down, and Jackson seems happy. There are photos of the cast for continuity purposes (to ensure the actors look the same for the next sequenced scene), and everyone takes a break. There's still another nondialogue scene to film, but it's been a long day, and since I'm not getting paid as much as Liv Tyler, I decide to take my mud-caked sneakers and head back to Queenstown. Tomorrow, cast and crew begin a monthlong holiday break.