New Zealand was a strange place to live when The Lord of the Rings was being filmed

The Lord of the Rings movies shaped our national identity, a fact that we're still awkwardly reckoning with.
Greenpeace activists erect a John Howard puppet on Gollum
Greenpeace activists erect a John Howard puppet on Gollum / Anthony Phelps/GettyImages

In searching for an image to illustrate this article, the above popped up on Getty, prompting a long-forgotten memory. So, the story is that a giant Gollum was erected on top of the Embassy Theatre, the historic theatre where the premieres of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies were held. I'd pass it every day to and from work. One day, an Uncle Sam hat appeared on Gollum's head, and as I remember, the hat was there for a couple of days before its purpose became apparent.

When the motorcade of former Australian Prime Minister John Howard passed by the Embassy, an effigy of him was hung from strings attached to Gollum's fingers by Greenpeace protesters. I guess they were saying that Howard was a puppet of Uncle Sam. But those few days before the Howard effigy appeared were mystifying. A star-spangled top hat on top of a giant fibreglass monster looming over one of the city's most recognizable landmarks with absolutely no explanation is the perfect illustration of what it was like living in New Zealand during the filming of The Lord of the Rings.

And I didn't just live in New Zealand during this time; I lived in Wellington, Peter Jackson's hometown, and the home of Weta Workshop, the special effects studio so instrumental to the trilogy's success. The homes where the LOTR stars stayed during filming were about a 10-minute drive from where I lived.

That may not sound like much of a brag if you live in New York or LA, but as a teen who'd spent their entire life on the world's tuchus, the closest I'd ever come to meeting a celebrity was when I was 6 and I ran after a stranger believing him to be the third Doctor Who, Jon Pertwee. But then The Lord of the Rings came to town, and Sean Astin came through my till at the checkout where I worked, and the homeless gentleman who washed his feet in the fountain outside the library was Viggo Mortensen. Unlike Doctor Who, I recognized neither until after the fact. These sorts of things didn't happen in New Zealand.

It was a strange time. It wasn't like a little piece of Hollywood had come for a visit. It was more like a piece of Hollywood had broken off the California Coast, travelled 7,000 miles in steerage on an 18th-century sailing ship, and arrived in the colonies after six months of subsisting on cabin bread and bilge water, with its social graces decimated and its mental health precarious. The version of Hollywood we saw was the deeply weird version that was willing to play a game of chicken over a billion-dollar movie trilogy, and the version of ourselves that we showed Hollywood was the deeply weird version that got its tongue stuck to a frozen prop sword while filming the battle of Helm's Deep.

(Yes, that happened. I have heard the story first-hand from the unfortunate owner of the tongue. A bored extra got his tongue stuck to his sword. With cameras waiting for no man, and the first aid tent some distance away, they simply ripped the sword off. He made it into the finished product, real blood dripping from his mouth. With Wellington's tiny population, everyone knows someone who was onscreen, and crazy behind the scenes stories are a form of social currency.)

The Hobbit film series was filmed here as well, roughly a decade later, and just as it failed to recreate the magic of the original trilogy, The Hobbit didn't inspire the same sort of manic energy throughout the nation, despite the New Zealand government sacrificing labour protections in the film industry in an attempt to bring the crazy back.

LOTR put New Zealand on the map, literally. LOTR was New Zealand's first brush with international attention, and you only get one first time. First times are often deeply weird, awkward, and not much fun for anyone involved, and you come away a little jaded, but more worldly and more comfortable in your adult skin. You're better for having come through the experience. Part of you would rather forget it ever happened, but there's also a certain fondness for a past that's gone forever.

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