WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Lunchtime on the set of “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” is a sight to behold. Brutish Orcs stand politely in line, eyeing the artichoke salad. An angelic elf stuffs a piece of fruit into his backpack. A Gondorian warrior takes out his reading glasses and peruses the newspaper.
Welcome to Wellington, where the men are men and sometimes the women are, too.
You know all those fierce warriors in the “Rings” trilogy? Quite a few of 26,000 extras are women with beards glued to their faces.
“You can’t tell, can you?” puckishly asked director Peter Jackson. “They were good. Actually, everyone that had anything to do with this film was. I was really lucky to have such a great team of people to collaborate with. Everyone pulled their own weight, which is a really important thing when you’re together for this long.”
“The Return of the King” is the finale of Jackson’s epic trilogy. “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” ended with Hobbits Frodo and Sam setting out to destroy the divisive ring.
“A day may come when the courage of men fails,” Aragorn tells his followers before a pivotal battle. “But it is not this day. This day, we fight.”
And fight they do. There is less one-on-one combat, but the battles are nonetheless grandiose, bloody and thrilling. There also is the resolution of the issue who wins Aragorn’s heart, the elf princess Arwen (Liv Tyler), or King Theoden’s niece Eowyn (Miranda Otto).
Principal filming for the trilogy began in fall 1999 and ended 14 months later. As he did last year around the same time, Jackson reunited the actors in New Zealand for a month this summer (which was that hemisphere’s winter) to reshoot some pivotal scenes.
A native Kiwi, Jackson used outdoor locations throughout New Zealand to supplement the action shot at Wellington’s Three Foot Six Studios, a former paint factory that he had converted into a studio.
Juggling the actors’ schedules wasn’t as easy this time around, though. Orlando Bloom, who plays Legolas, was already booked for other films and could shoot only in April. Christopher Lee (Saruman the White) had a smidgen of time available in July.
But on this day in June, Viggo Mortensen, who plays Aragorn, and Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey were still around to re-shoot some of their scenes. While a female production assistant pranced atop a table — subbing in for Hobbits Merry and Pippin — Mortensen and McKellen watched with bemused looks on their faces as they discussed the fate of Frodo and the ring.
After a particularly animated take, McKellen gave the thumbs-up signal to Jackson, while Mortensen helped himself to a treat from the snack table.
It’s fitting that Mortensen’s 15-year-old son, Henry, has a small role as an Orc in “The Return of the King.” At 11, Henry, a huge Tolkien fan,
encouraged Mortensen to sign on for the film.
“He played a young warrior last year in [‘Two Towers’] and had a great time being on the set,” Mortensen said. “He likes acting, and he’s good with weapons, so it really worked out well. It was really nice having him here. [The cast and crew] are close-knit, but having your son and best friend with you makes it feel like home.
“It’s funny, because when the role was offered to me, I had never read the books and wasn’t really familiar with any of Tolkien’s work. Since then, I’ve become a fan of his writing and have read other things about him. All that really helped me understand Aragorn and why he was the way he was.”
Walking around the miniature unit, you can’t help feeling like a giant among the scaled-down pieces. On screen, Minas Tirith appears to sprawl over acres of land. In reality, the polystyrene city takes up about three yards, or about 1/72 of what it’s supposed to represent. The craggy mountains that Frodo and Sam climb appear perilous on camera. Here, they’re made of flexible foam and can be bent like Gumby.
Elijah Wood and Sean Astin are lying on one of these foam mountains. They are in full costume, minus their Hobbit feet.
“They won’t be seen in these shots so we’re not going to worry about them,” says Astin, who portrays Frodo’s faithful servant and friend Sam. “We’re just pretending it’s a day at the beach.”
The irony isn’t lost on him that his breath is visible in the cold air. Wood is so quiet and motionless, it appears he really is asleep. Later, he’ll say he was listening to music.
Wood was 18 when he was hired to play Frodo. Now 22, he has moved out of his mother’s house in Los Angeles for an apartment in New York City. He has the curse and blessing of having starred in one of the most successful movie franchises ever. He is instantly recognizable and realizes that he might be typecast forever as a Hobbit.
“Who knows what will happen for any of us in the future,” Wood said. “I just know this movie was a gift in so many ways, and that’s what I’ll take away with me. I’m guessing that my journey has barely begun.”
Think you know your Lord of the Rings factoids…think again.
First day of principal shooting: Oct. 11, 1999.
Last day of principal shooting: Dec. 22, 2000.
Number of days spent filming pickup shot this year: 50.
Number of dialect coaches hired for the actors: 2.
Products stylists used to keep the elves’ hair so shiny and flaxen: Frizz Ease and Bryl Cream.
The man who could’ve been king: Stuart Townsend, who was replaced by Viggo Mortensen.
Number of extras: 26,000.
Number of horses: 380.
Number of horses that didn’t get make the cut: 750.
Why PETA should love them: In many of the battle scenes, filmmakers used fake horses filled with foam.
Number of prop skulls: 1,000.
Number of links knitted for the chain armor: Twelve million.
Number of artisans who handknitted the armor: Two.
Number of feet created for the hobbits: Almost 2,000.
Number of noses created for Gandalf: 150.
Worldwide gross for “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”: 860 million dollars.
Worldwide gross for “The Lord of the Rings: Two Towers”: 950 million dollars.