Last week Tehanu had the privilege of spending an hour with Greg Lane, LOTR stuntman, and hearing some stories about the four years he spent working on the trilogy. Perhaps his most unforgettable role was as the “berserker orc” who sprints towards the wall of Helm’s Deep like a combination All Black and Olympic torchbearer, diving to detonate Saruman’s secret mine and blowing up the wall. But, Lane appeared in many memorable scenes.
Last week I had the privilege of spending an hour with Greg Lane, LOTR stuntman, and hearing some stories about the four years he spent working on the trilogy.
Perhaps his most unforgettable role was as the “berserker orc” who sprints towards the wall of Helm’s Deep like a combination All Black and Olympic torchbearer, diving to detonate Saruman’s secret mine and blowing up the wall. But Lane appeared in many more memorable scenes – flying across the chamber of Orthanc as Saruman’s double during the ‘Wizard-Fu’ fight, and as Isildur’s double, floating down the Anduin with a back full of arrows.
Lane played sixteen different orcs, fourteen of whom appear as characters in the LOTR card game; he also played most of the major races of Middle-earth and was a versatile stunt double to many lead actors – becoming a friend of Peter Jackson in the process.
Trained as a carpenter, Lane got his entry into the world of film making through his involvement in Zen Do Kai, where he was a second level black belt and a teacher. Word of auditions for the trilogy came up some time before October 1999. Lane decided to audition, along with other members of his Zen Do Kai club.
The audition involved jumping two storeys onto crash mats, working with blades, reaction shots to being struck, and fighting in pairs so they could strut their stuff doing a death scene. One of the crucial skills the casting team looked for was the ability to finish a choreographed action on a mark – which the martial arts guys were very practiced at – and the ability to ‘sell shots’ where they had to act convincingly as though they had taken a blow or strike from a weapon. This needed an awareness of the camera angle at all times.
Out of 60 applicants that included actors and gymnasts, six made it through – all from Lane’s club. At the time there was some resentment from other stuntmen who’d been around longer, Lane says. “We were the new boys on the block”, he says. But the casting team wanted six-footers and Lane is six-three.
Three weeks later Lane got the call: “Come to Queenstown!” He had to quit his job – luckily, his work boss was not only his Zen Do Kai trainer, but had taken Lane to the audition!
Lane’s arrival in Queenstown coincided with the floods that destroyed so many sets. The stunt crew was trapped in Frankton, just outside of Queenstown, and ended up helping Search and Rescue and the police to get people out of the houses.
For Lane’s first day on set, he worked with Viggo Mortensen and Lawrence Makaore on Amon Hen. “We were constantly thrown in the deep end!”
Lane must have excelled, because was frequently called in at short notice to stand in for somebody else. As a result, he has a lot of famous shots to his credit. He was Saruman’s stunt double for the infamous “Wizard on a Spikey Wheel” shot, snapped by a passing newspaper cameraman during an unguarded moment, which set the Net gossip sphere alight with speculation for months. “The wheel actually rotated me down into the water, so I had to have an oxygen canister strapped to my leg so could breathe. My prosthetic eyebrows weren’t fluffy enough for some of the extreme close-ups , and so they snipped a bit off Saruman’s beard and used that.” The close-ups were unfortunately never used.
The star of countless Dracula movies, Christopher Lee had done plenty of dangerous stunts in his time but by the time LOTR was filmed, his action days were over. Lee appreciated the work Lane did doubling him during the wizard-fu scene in Orthanc. Lee and Lane would sit together between takes. “He was a good sport,” Lane says. “He had so many stories about the movies he’d done. He’d seen it all.” Lane’s work involved being catapaulted repeatedly through the double doors of Saruman’s chamber. He broke an ankle and a wrist doing that.
Lane’s most memorable role was as the torchbearer who sprints to the culvert below the wall of Helm’s Deep and lights the explosive charges. It took 16 hours to get into the makeup and prosthetics and costume for it. Lane would start “in the chair” at 2pm and make it onto the set around 2am. Half the time he wouldn’t be used beyond perhaps lying around being a dead orc. On the night they filmed “the shot”, they found the torch was too heavy to carry. It also had a live flare which kept burning the orcs around him. Running over the shifting, rocky ground, Lane kept spiking his fellow stuntmen with the end of the torch. He had to run and fake three arrow hits while keeping his footing on the slippery ground, before diving and thrusting the torch in such a way that his actions were visible to the camera. “You are an unstoppable tank” he was told. “Ignore the rocks and stuff on the ground. Just go for it!”
Lane did three or four live takes, and then he did it again in the studio wearing a motion capture suit so they could put in the explosion and the arrow shots digitally.
Lane was also an Uruk-hai in the infamous “Arwen at Helm’s Deep” scenes that also never made it into the movies, much to the relief of outraged fans who heard rumours of it on the Net. Liv Tyler was very uncomfortable with action scenes. “I had to grab her by the neck but I’d keep hitting her on the cheek. She would flinch back because we were so ugly.”
Some of Greg’s stunt friends from his Zen Do Kai club are still doing stunts, working all over the world. “But it wears you out. You’d never heal, and I was on painkillers most of the time during filming. But they had a fantastic medical team who took good care of you.”
They needed it, in the extreme conditions Lane sometimes worked in. As Isildur, he had to float down a river in Arrowtown in winter, with arrows in his back, for long takes. The water was so cold it had ice floating in it.
Lane played countless action scenes, and it was not unusual to have PJ act out exactly how he wanted the scene played. Lane remembers him showing how he wanted Lane to attack Boromir – running out of the trees and down a bank, waving a big axe. PJ started showing him, but slipped and slid down the bank on his backside. “I want you to do it like that, only without the falling on your backside part of it.”
PJ was really friendly, says Lane. “He brought the best out in you. He was your Dad…he was kind of a father figure.”
Lane was instrumental in bringing about changes to the stunt work scene in New Zealand, and was involved in setting up the New Zealand Stunt Guild. “Before LOTR, it was very unorganised. Wellington and Auckland didn’t cooperate at all. There was no structure for seniority. Whether you’d been doing it for a year or ten years, there was no set pay. No protection on set, guys were getting hurt, broken arms and legs etc. Some of the younger guys stepped in and said, ‘ Look, you can’t keep breaking your balls like this’ and formed the Guild. Now you get paid per stunt, and there’s more protection.”
Initially the LOTR production team didn’t always understand how to get the best out of their stunt team. At the start of filming, costumes were “one size fits all”, Lane says. There was a certain amount of resistance from the props department to changing them to make them more workable. But by the end of filming, if costumes didn’t work, they were changed right away. “It took a while to get to that point, but in the end Weta really got in with it.”
After LOTR, Lane worked on a few more films including King Kong and Without a Paddle. After a few thoroughly enjoyable years he left the business because as he puts it, “It uses you up.”
“It was cool but once you were on set, you had to kiss goodbye to your family for all those days and weeks and months. I had four young sons and I lost all that time with them.” As compensation though, the boys did get to spend time on the sets, playing with props swords and even sitting next to PJ as Lane prepared for takes in the studio.
Currently, Lane is setting up a business growing and supplying organic vegetable plants and produce. He has sourced many unusual heirloom varieties in unusual colours. He particularly likes growing purple varieties.