The debate about the treatment of extras and horses in “The Lord of the Rings” has continued since NZ’s “The Press” quoted Hollywood-based NZ actor and producer Anna Wilding. I rather lambasted her for her comments on how New Line were treating extras unfairly. I should have paused to reflect that the news media injects as much contention into a topic as possible. What came across in the Press article as arrogance on Ms. Wilding’s part were not necessarily a truthful reflection of her tone and intentions. Certainly her friends and family have sprung to her defence and I’m apologetic about my attack on her. They say she’s been very supportive of the LOTR project live on air.

It was rather hard to know how to take her comments that reported that extras were being underpaid and treated like slaves etc. Her comments came hard on the heels of a comment by a stuntman/techie in the Xena/Hercules scene that the Hollywood types call the NZers “Mexicans with cellphones,” which seems to insult both groups. Is it the recklessness they’re talking about? The lack of sophistication? Or are they alluding to the fact that they can employ people here at sweatshop prices? Certainly the recent “Listener” article on the finanical basis for filming LOTR in NZ addresses some of those concerns, and suggests what we might have to do about it. We’ll be posting the whole article next week.

A number of emails have come in to me about the whole topic. Some were from people in the film industry elsewhere in the States: “We get that so much with crews that come to North Carolina that I’ve taken to wearing a button on set that says, “We don’t care how they do it in Los Angeles.” Fortunately, by the time the crews leave, they (usually) see that us hicks know a little more than they thought we did :-)”

Being involved in Tolkien fandom I’m aware of how much people want to be involved in these films; here’s another comment from the same correspondent that sums up the common theme:

“If I could afford it, I would be on a plane and haunting the film sites, begging to be an extra for free. (And I work in the film business, so I have no starry eyed notions about their being any glamour in being an extra. I know it’s hard, thankless work. But just to say I was part of LOTR would make it worth it.)”

And certainly, the extras here are being paid less than standard rates. But few if any of them expect to make their living from extra work and their finances hardly depend on a healthy job scene for film extas. Horsemaster Steve Old’s comment that people would pay to have that experience rings true; NZ is full of people who actually spend money getting cold, tired, bruised and exhausted doing their favourite sports and activities. I’m one of them, so I know how little discomfort count when a person is doing something they really enjoy. For most of the LOTR extras, that’s the experience they’ll have.
However Anna Wilding’s supporters point out two issues which are harder to deal with. Firstly, (and this is a persistent rumour I’ve had from sources close to the film industry) there are cases where Kiwis are being paid $100 when the person from overseas doing the same job is paid $2000, and these are people whose livelihoods are in the industry. Well, I can see that with our dollar being worth 39c in the US at the moment, it would be difficult to persuade anyone to come here and work unless that was the case; an NZ wagepacket is close to useless to somebody whose life is based elsewhere, so I can see where the argument comes in for both sides. But it must seem incredibly unfair at times for the local workers.

The other issue is the horses. Much though we humans may enjoy a week of adventure and risk on a film set, the horses don’t get to choose, nor do they understand the big picture. It’s not that horses don’t take risks, but they base their choices about what constitutes a worthwhile adventure (like bolting or escaping or fighting other horses) on completely different criteria. People have reported injuries and horses getting frightened. It’s almost inevitable with so many horses in one place. I’ve known horses to freak out uncontrollably at their first Pony Club meet with all the excitement, so it’s dishonest to pretend that a cavalry charge for horses wearing unfamiliar medieval gear can be made perfectly safe. How could it be? The riders might have accepted that injuries were a possible or probable risk, but the horses couldn’t be consulted! I’m not sure it’s crueller or riskier than polo or racing or steeplechasing or hunting.

My apologies to people whose feelings were hurt by my remarks. I doubt that this debate is going to reach much agreement between the extras who are having the time of their lives and the less lucky ones who aren’t. Eventually even they’ll probably dine out on their “I was an extra at Edoras” stories for the rest of their lives. But for the horses, who know how much horses remember about anything?