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
On another day, Jackson worked on the close-ups of the battle of Pelennor Fields, the epic war scene of the trilogy.
It was a little before noon, and he had been up for more than six hours already.
There was a careful choreography of warriors cloaked in good and evil, but strangely, there was no clang of steel — the sound effects were to be added later.
Still, it was gritty, physical, labor. Mortensen, as Aragorn, bounded into the breach more than a dozen times.
But there were also moments of complete boredom only an orc might fully appreciate.
In the films, orcs are ferocious, ugly creatures spawned by the evil wizards to battle on their behalf. But on the set, in between takes, the orcs horsed around, played practical jokes on one another, and ate candy. One even played the air guitar while singing the Muppets' "Rainbow Connection."
After the carnage on set, the orcs and the other extras settled down — still in costume — to eat a lunch of barbecued chicken, Caesar salad, and an assortment of pastries. One moment, the orcs were trying to kill their human foes, the next they were playing cards with them.
"We kill them on set, then we play cards in the mess," joked an orc. A human retorted, "Orcs cheat."
Mortensen, still in full costume, wanted to duck out for a noon-time errand.
But there was a strict rule against going "off-campus" in costume. To keep the myth of Middle Earth alive, kings and hobbits were not to be seen in the real world. So the reluctant king reluctantly wrapped himself up in a bathrobe before going out.
Meanwhile, Jackson hadn't stopped for lunch. He was scouting a location a few miles from the studio for a scene between Frodo, Sam and Gollum in the third movie — but the scene never made it into the final cut.
A Learning Experience
The last days of shooting on the set were bittersweet, since a real fellowship developed among the actors as it had on screen.
Elijah Wood, playing the gentle hobbit Frodo, the ring-bearer, was only 17 when shooting began. "This became our lives," he told Primetime.
On one hobbits' night out, full of British accents and New Zealand beer, it was obvious these friendships would last long after shooting ended.
"It's defined my social group. It's created a new social group for me," said Dominic Monaghan, who plays the hobbit Merry.
McKellen said of the experience: "It's about doing something that really matters, which is doing your best against the most amazing odds."
Liv Tyler, the immortal elf princess Arwen, learned a new language for the role — and now speaks Elvish.
Orlando Bloom, another elf, with a bow and arrow that never miss and long blond tresses never out of place, said: "I couldn't really get into the costume and have the blond wig on and not, sort of, stand to attention!"
And Mortensen, who got the part of Aragorn when another actor was fired after only one day of shooting, pulled off a role that may define his career.
The movie strikes such a deep chord in the public because the heroes in it are not your typical Hollywood hero, he said.
"Everybody has their flawed moments, and everybody at some point needs the support of the others," he said. "Just like life, where there isn't always an easy answer … but you have to continue."