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I live less than 1 minutes walk from Harcourt Park in Upper Hutt (20 miles north of Wellington). The park is wooded, surrounded by steep bush-clad hillside, is alongside the Hutt River, and sits astride a major earthquake fault line that has produced a series of clearly visible steps.
On Wednesday 27 October a crew arrived and assembled the set. My wife spotted them while taking her daily walk.
I just couldn’t believe that they were shooting part of one of the greatest film events in history (hopefully), based on my favourite book, right at the end of the street were I live – especially considering we live in a far off corner of the world, and definitely not Hollywood.
They wasted no time. That evening they rehearsed and shot the scene where the Orcs and Wargs have the Hobbits tree bound and proceed to burn down / pull down the tree in which they are trapped.
In reality, no-one was in the tree, and it was not set alight (special effects to be added later, I guess). There were 9 braziers of blazing wood spread out amongst the trees in the background, and a smoke generator with fan blowing down a long plastic tube that had small holes at metre intervals to vent the streams of smoke.
It rained intermittently all evening but no-one seemed in the least bit concerned. The Orcs wore large green hooded capes during the rehearsals and removed these for the takes. The furry Wargs just got wet.
I arrived at the set just after 9 pm and nothing much happened (visibly at least) for the first hour. Then the producer and the director (neither of whom was Peter Jackson, so I imagine they must have ‘duty producers’ etc for certain scenes) addressed the extras using a loudhailer and explained that they would be pulling down the tree using the eight or nine vine-like ropes that were attached to it.
For the rehearsals they were only to pretend to pull and not touch the ropes. For the first takes they were to pull at half strength. Then for the final take they would pull at full strength until the tree came down.
The director reminded the Orcs that they were all to move exactly as they had been taught at the Orc School they had attended !!! (Could you imagine advertising for an Orc Tutor – “must have demonstrable experience in teaching actors how to behave like Orcs”)
He said each rope was to have a stuntman at the front with 2 extras behind. Half of the ropes were pulled by Orcs, the other half by Wargs. A group of Orcs with flaming torches moved menacingly across the set during the rope pulling, whilst some Wargs ran in an excited frenzy across the foreground.
After the briefing I decided I would dash home to put on some waterproofs and grab a cup of coffee, returning in time for the shoot. I determined I was going to see this quite significant tree come down, no matter what.
Just before midnight they had completed the four or five preliminary takes and were ready to pull down the tree. The take started, the action built to a crescendo, and then … CUT ! One of the ropes broke!
The engineers came in to inspect the damage and within minutes the director called a lunch break and everyone went off to the Motor Camp adjacent to the park to eat. I went home to do the same and change into more dry clothes.
I was back on site within half an hour but it was still quiet. The engineers were putting the finishing touches to the rope repair, spraying it with a can of paint, then testing it.
I overheard 2 security guards talking – one was explaining that there was no more food because they had used up all the account. Overbudget already! 😉
Everyone returned to the set, and they did another take for good measure before preparing again to pull down the tree. Finally, at 2 am the tree crashed to the ground with a brittle cracking noise that was much lighter sounding than I had expected.
After the director called “cut” a cheer went up (I believe in my excitement, I may have started it!). There were only 5 or 6 spectators left at this time, including my son and me, but most of the crew joined in the cheer.
Before going home to bed, I chatted with one of the security people. I asked where they obtained such a magnificent tree to pull down. He said it was an old tree that had been cut into sections and transported to Harcourt Park. It was then bolted back together and a hinge fitted to the bottom to allow it to be pulled over. The leaves were plastic and were wired onto the tree. There was a second tree in the background and I think he said they were going to repeat the whole process with that and use the best shots for the film.
They were filming again the following evening (Thursday) – the large bright lights shining through into our back garden. They had moved the perimeter fence farther out so there was less for spectators to see. The tree had been resurrected, but was only half the height – the top half of the branches having been removed. I didn’t stay as it was still raining (we’ve had more rain this week than the last 2 months combined, I’m sure). On Friday they packed up and moved out.
There were none of the lead actors there as far as I could tell. The costumes and masks for the Orcs and Wargs were very authentic – the Wargs really were quite wolf-like creatures and were well cast. They certainly conformed to my personal image of the characters.
After seeing this scene shot, I have every confidence that the film will be in the true Tolkien spirit and will certainly meet at least my high expectations.
Thanks to Gordon!! Great work!!Posted in Old Spy Reports on October 29, 1999 by Dwane Dipply