MATAMATA – A secret start has been made on the mega-budget film Lord of the Rings in the central Waikato.

The New Zealand Herald has discovered that soldiers, earth-movers and builders have been working for two weeks amid the rolling hills and trees of a private farm between Matamata and Karapiro.

All involved have been sworn to secrecy about the $260 million trilogy, and movie staff yesterday pleaded that the site be kept secret.

A spokeswoman for the film firm Three Foot Six, Sian Clement, said she was worried that movie zealots would flock to the farm if they found out about the work. “You just have to look on the Internet to see the fanatic interest.”

The start of a movie set can now be seen from nearby hills. Tracks, graders, heavy machinery, Army vehicles and tents stretch up to 1km into farm paddocks.

The farm’s owner, Ian Alexander, said he had been involved since October. “They just arrived out of the blue,” he said. “There’s been a bit of activity, a bit of action, but they’ve only just started doing things for real.” Mr Alexander said the set was being built on a few hectares in the corner of one of his three blocks, but he refused to give more detail. “It’s all being kept very quiet,” he said. “I’m just a common old cocky with a few bloody sheep running around.”
The movie trilogy is based on a series of fantasy books by JRR Tolkien. They will be shot by Wellington film-maker Peter Jackson with 15,000 actors, and a bigger budget than any other movie project in the Southern Hemisphere.

It is understood that the set will include a mock-up of the village Hobbiton, central to the story. Sets will also be built at other sites. A worker for Okoroire Excavators said he visited the farm more than a week ago, but had been asked to say nothing about it. “I’m not even sure who we’re working for,” he said. Army and Defence Ministry staff were more secretive than a bevy of bashful hobbits. They passed all calls to a press officer, Wing Commander John Seward, who did not return the calls. The Minister of Defence, Max Bradford, earlier said that soldiers would work for two or three days as extras, and would be paid normal movie rates by producers. Fourteen soldiers staying at the Okoroire Hot Springs Hotel have been visiting the movie set for more than a week, and are expected to stay up to three weeks longer. A staff member at the hotel said: “It’s very hush-hush. I don’t know what the hell they’re doing, and as long as they pay their bills I don’t care.”