The Lord of the Rings films, as millions of fans around the world know, are all about saving the world from an evil power, bound to a magic ring.
There are good guys — hobbits, elves, wizards, dwarves, kings, who are trying to destroy the ring; and bad guys — orcs, ringwraiths and sorcerers who are trying to possess it.
Director Peter Jackson, who is credited with one of the biggest, most ambitious productions in film history, orchestrated the principal photography for all three movies over an 18-month period, beginning in October 1999.
It was a first in filmmaking history. The first two installments — The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers — came out in 2001 and 2002.
But this summer, the cast and crew came back to New Zealand to touch up some scenes and add a few new ones for the final film — The Return of the King, which comes out Dec. 17.
Primetime spent a week and a half on the set during its final days, including a whole day with Jackson and star Viggo Mortensen, who plays the reluctant king Aragorn.
Against the Elements
The work day began long before dawn.
"I always feel tired but never to the point of falling over. You just keep going," Jackson told Primetime one morning. He had a 10-minute commute to the set of Middle Earth, which was previously an old paint factory in a suburb of the capital, Wellington.
Across town, Mortensen was running errands, picking up flowers for his trailer before going to the set for makeup.
It was a little after 7 a.m. when Jackson arrived to eat breakfast with his production team — something he did almost every day.
By 8 a.m., Jackson was blocking out the first scene of the day: Ian McKellen — Gandalf the wizard — standing in ruins. The wide shots had been filmed three years earlier, but Jackson wanted new close-ups.
An hour and a half later, Jackson was at his monitor, trying to get the shot. But the powerful New Zealand winds were wreaking havoc with McKellen's hair and beard.
"The second you get a bit of wind, and guess what — we're in one of the windiest places in the world," said Jackson.
If wasn't one thing, it was another. The drone of jets rang out over the scene. The Wellington airport was just over the hill, and the sound of jet engines certainly didn't belong in Middle Earth.
Jackson wasn't able to finish the scene. The wind won.
Long Moments in the Golden Hall
After lunch, Jackson shot a scene on a beautifully decorated set they call the Golden Hall.
The scene, between Gandalf and Aragorn, would last less than a minute in the final film — but consumed more than six hours on set.
In the middle of the elaborate set — part of a multimillion-dollar production — Jackson worked to get the emotion he wanted. In his vision of the scene, Gandalf and Aragorn each fear they are doomed, but they try to keep the other from losing hope.
"It's a really subtle sort of feeling that I want to try to convey," he said. "These guys are trying to convince themselves that all is well. But neither of them really believe all is well."
They went through more than 10 takes before they got it. Still, as hard as the actors worked, Jackson had them all beat.
When the shooting ended, Jackson still had hours of editing ahead of him. Up since before dawn, he would now edit late into the night.
Jackson looked up at the dark sky lit by its big New Zealand moon. "This is where we started out this morning, wasn't it?" he said.
Orcs on Air Guitar, Aragorn in a Bath Robe