20 years on, a transformed New Zealand looks back at ‘Lord of the Rings’

WELLINGTON, NZ (AP) — On the September day in 1998, when filmmaker Peter Jackson’s helicopter landed on a sprawling family farm about 100 miles south of Auckland, New Zealand was mostly known for its sheep, wine, and rugby team.

Though New Zealand had produced crossover successes such as Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures” and Jane Campion’s Oscar-winning “The Piano,” it was nearly as far from Hollywood studios’ thinking as it was from Hollywood itself.

But things were about to change.

The lush farmland where Jackson’s crew landed would soon become the setting for “The Lord of the Rings,” one of the most ambitious, influential, and profitable film franchises ever created. In the two decades since the release of “The Return of the King,” the Oscar-winning final installment of Jackson’s trilogy, New Zealand has emerged as a major player in the global motion picture industry.

“It absolutely put us on the map,” said Jasmine Millet, Tataki Auckland Unlimited’s head of creative industries and an advocate for the region’s filmmaking industry. “People began thinking about New Zealand, wanting to visit New Zealand in numbers that they would not have done otherwise.”

“The industry was already growing. That entire filmmaking process, as well as the language of cinematic storytelling, was ready and ripe. “What Peter and his team did was simply take it to the next level.”

The three films, based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel “The Lord of the Rings,” received 30 Academy Award nominations and 17 wins, and grossed nearly $3 billion worldwide. It also helped to pioneer new technologies in special effects and software systems, as well as advance the use of motion capture to animate digital characters.

The films were so popular that a decade later, a second Oscar-nominated trilogy, “The Hobbit,” inspired its own tourism industry. The farmland transformed by Jackson’s crew into Hobbiton, the fictional Middle-earth village where the films are set, attracts up to 650,000 visitors per year, making it one of the top attractions in a country that relied on tourism for about 20% of its export earnings prior to the pandemic.

Prior to COVID-19, nearly one in every five visitors said the Lord of the Rings films influenced their decision to visit New Zealand.

“The trilogy is just a big advertisement for New Zealand,” said Shayne Forrest, the 12-acre Hobbiton movie set’s general manager for tourism. “The filmmakers who made these films, Peter Jackson and his entire team, are all New Zealanders.” So it was really important to show New Zealand as a creative hub capable of punching well above its weight in the international arena.”

Their success reversed a trend in which successful filmmakers such as Campion and Lee Tamahori (“Once Were Warriors”) left New Zealand to work in the United States, Italy, and the United Kingdom. Only five New Zealand-made films were released in theaters in 1998, the year Jackson began scouting locations for his Tolkien films. In less than a decade, the country was producing twice as many films per year; major productions that followed “The Lord of the Rings” included “King Kong,” “Mission Impossible — Fallout,” Disney’s live-action “Mulan,” James Cameron’s two “Avatar” films, and the first two installments of “The Chronicles of Narnia.”

The film industry in New Zealand now generates about $2.08 billion in GDP per year.

Millet believes the shift from “swords and sandals” TV shows like “Xena: Warrior Princess” and “Hercules: the Legendary Journeys” to more substantial storytelling began with “The Piano,” which won three Academy Awards and was the highest-grossing New Zealand film of all time when it was released in 1993.

“It made us wonder, ‘What are our stories?'” “How do we work as filmmakers, what’s our unique take on this craft?” she asked of Campion’s film, which was mostly shot in and around Auckland. “So, when Peter was presented with the opportunity to work on ‘The Lord of the Rings’ films, he knew that there was this whole pool of talent that was already here and that had this way of working that was really a group of friends, in many ways, who wanted to bring their best in a super-creative way, workshopping ideas.”

“It was the preparation that gave him the confidence to say, ‘I can make this incredible trilogy at home,'” says the author. I don’t think I need to go anywhere else.’ Even though it blew everyone away, it was kind of like, ‘Yeah, we know how to do this,’ from a New Zealand perspective. ‘It’s in our blood.'”

It helped Jackson that Richard Taylor had become one of his friends. Taylor claims that the two met in Wellington when Jackson was still living at home with his parents and working on his first film, the 1987 science-fiction comedy horror film “Bad Taste.”

“He saw our work on television and, through a mutual friend, we were introduced to him,” said Taylor, who later worked on Jackson’s second film, the low-budget 1989 black comedy “Meet the Feebles.” Taylor and Rodger won a New Zealand film award for their work, and after carefully wrapping the prize in napkins for the trip back to Wellington, Taylor turned to Rodger and said, “We better treasure this moment, because it won’t get any better than this.”

Of course, this did not exactly happen. Following collaboration on Jackson’s next three films, “The Lord of the Rings” series earned Taylor’s Weta Workshop — founded alongside Rodger and Jackson and named after a species of giant flightless cricket endemic to New Zealand — its first of five Academy Awards. The nameplates on the statuettes, which are displayed in a floor-to-ceiling display case off the workshop’s main lobby alongside miniature collectibles created by Wt Workshop for films and other projects, have all been removed.

“They claim that I won them, but I didn’t. “I collected them for a group of people back home,” said Taylor, who, like Jackson, was knighted in 2010 for his contributions to New Zealand film.

Taylor and his 36-person staff were working out of a building shared with an ice cream manufacturer when Jackson gave him the option of creative departments for “The Lord of the Rings.” Taylor was in charge of the design and creation of armor, weapons, miniatures, special makeup effects, and prosthetics, and despite the fact that the average age of the Weta Workshop staff was only 22 when they started, and only one-eighth of the crew had ever worked on a film or TV show before, the studio built over 48,000 separate items for the trilogy.

“You teeter toward the edge of the cliff and you can either leap off with faith [and] hope the wind catches under your wings, or step back from the edge of the cliff,” Taylor went on to say. “So yeah, it’s where ‘LOTR’ all started for us, when Peter gave us that magical phone call.”

Weta Workshop now employs around 400 people and operates out of several buildings on Wellington’s Miramar peninsula, producing everything from movie props to museum exhibits, consumer products, video gaming, sculptures, and collectibles. Taylor, who founded the Wt Workshop with Rodger in a back room of the Wellington flat they shared, attributes the workshop’s growth in both size and prestige to the same innovation and can-do spirit that fueled the rise of New Zealand’s film industry.

“Certainly, Peter could have picked up and just headed off overseas and made films on the global circuit,” said David Wilks, general manager of the Wt Workshop. “But this is where they wanted to establish roots and build a foundation.” One of the things we’re proud of is that we’ve now created a sustainable creative career for a large number of artisans.”

“New Zealand had a film industry that had been around a long time,” Wilks said. “But ‘Lord of the Rings’ supercharged what we could do on the world stage.”

Taylor insists that the film was made by the country, not the other way around.

“There’s no doubt that an adaptation of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ could have been made in any country with any film company and any populace.” “It wouldn’t have been ‘Lord of the Rings,'” he explained.

“The benefits once you actually come to New Zealand are huge, the exchange rate being one of them,” he said. “The crew from New Zealand still gets together for the love of making movies.” They don’t get together because it’s good business to work on a movie. There is a fundamental difference there.

“That is something that resonates with international film directors and producers.” That can-do Kiwi attitude. There is no such thing as ‘that’s impossible.’ You simply do not have that.”

Nature, on the other hand, may have given New Zealand’s filmmakers their most valuable asset.

“The geographical advantage of New Zealand is that you can be in Wellington with all of the infrastructure required to make a major feature film [and] in one and a half hours’ flight, you can reach anywhere in the world… visually.” “The only thing New Zealand doesn’t do well is sand-swept deserts,” Taylor explained.

“We’re on a journey through Middle-earth, from pastoral Hobbiton to apocalyptic Mordor.” This necessitates the ability to traverse a wide range of environments. That is something New Zealand could provide.”

The day Jackson’s team circled the Alexander family’s 1,250-acre sheep and beef farm at the base of New Zealand’s North Island’s Kaimai Range, they were looking for unspoiled pastures, green rolling hills, gnarled trees, and wet, foggy weather to represent the fictional Shire of Tolkien’s novels. What they discovered was a location so remote and pristine that the New Zealand army was called in to build roads for the filmmaker’s equipment to get in and out. The soldiers were then cast in battle scenes in the films.

Fans began making pilgrimages to the tiny town of Matamata, a two-hour drive from Auckland, to pad around the farm, despite the fact that the sets built for the original trilogy were demolished when filming was completed. When Jackson returned ten years later and asked the Alexanders for permission to film “The Hobbit” on their property, he added a condition: the structures built for the project had to be permanent this time. As a result, the filmmakers left 44 hobbit holes, the Green Dragon Inn, and dozens of other props behind, transforming the farm into a proper tourist trap.

The Hobbit films also contributed to Weta Workshop becoming a tourist destination. Taylor would step out of his office to answer questions from visitors when he noticed tour buses making regular trips to the workshop’s campus years ago. Someone on his team quickly suggested that allowing visitors in would be a better way to get the Weta Workshop story out. The workshop now receives over 165,000 visitors per year to its Wellington facilities and tens of thousands more to Wt Workshop Unleashed, an immersive look at the special-effects process in Auckland.

Kate Malone, 42, grew up in Ohio but fell in love with the natural beauty of rural New Zealand after seeing the first trilogy, making a pilgrimage there a dozen years ago to see it for herself.

“I knew I wanted to work in tourism with ‘Lord of the Rings,'” she told me.

But the country needed social workers, not tour guides, so she trained as a social worker to get a visa, then lived in Auckland and Wellington before applying for permanent residency. Malone auditioned for and was cast as a hobbit extra in the second trilogy after Jackson placed an ad in the newspaper looking for people shorter than 5-foot-3. She’s spent the majority of her time since then in Hobbiton, where she gives several two-hour tours each day.

Twenty years after the epic’s conclusion, international interest in Jackson’s trilogy — including Malone’s — continues. Even if you don’t arrive in Hobbiton fresh from an in-flight binge.

“We get people from all over the world,” she told me. “Some of them are really big fans and some of them have never seen the movies.”

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply