Smokering went to Waikato University for a lecture by LOTR Te Papa Exhibit maker Steve la Hood. Here is her report:

Steve la Hood is a third-generation New Zealander, also Lebanese. He worked ten years with TVNZ, before becoming a freelance producer and documentary maker. He’s also an Executive Member of the Screen Director’s Guild. Among his other accomplishments are the Jade Boulder Trail: Exhibition Concept, Content and Design for Te Papa, and another te papa exhibit ‘Stories of the Sea’ themed attraction.

Steve—sorry, Mr la Hood—began by telling us that some of us probably thought the whole LOTR Te Papa thing was just big moneymaking venture… that LOTR was such a success you couldn’t go wrong, etc. He then asked us how many of us had read LOTR—seen LOTR—been to the exhibish. About seventy per cent of us had read and seen it, and only slightly less for the exhibition! He then showed us a short film promoting the exhibition, with quotes from Richard Taylor, and shots of the armour, props etc. with Steve narrating. The exhibit is 670 square metres and is going to Sydney, Britain and Singapore, among other places, on a tour. (Lucky thing).

Much of the content of the exhibish is about imaginary cultures. Steve asked us to imagine several real cultures now…. A vast, bureaucratic American government who all have ‘email addresses with capital letters’. An English family trust—the Tolkien Estate, all upset about how popular the film is. New Zealand museum-frequenters who think the very idea of a LOTR exhibit is crass. A frenzied tribal horde desperate to prove they can do it—the film professionals of NZ. This tribe is led by chieftains, named Richard Taylor, Grant Major, Ngila Dickson etc. These chieftains are ruled by Peter Jackson. Barrie Osborne is the visiting potentate who is really calling all the shots. Or so Steve described them!

When Steve first mentioned the idea of a LOTR exhibit, back in the early days, Fran Walsh just burst out laughing. Later Ngila showed him the costumes, and he was impressed with the quality after spending 30 years on film sets. So he sent Richard and PJ a 12-page begging letter, asking if he could make a museum exhibit. Richard developed the idea, as he does, until it was basically a LOTR theme park with all the film tricks! Then a Lady Someone approached Steve separately with the same idea—a LOTR exhibit—and Steve decided very tactfully to agree.

Then followed a six-month email-phone relationship which resulted in Te Papa being interested in the exhibit. They decided to focus on the answers to the question, “Why could JRRT’s story seem so familiar to first-time readers?”

They came up with four answers:

-The characters

-The story

-The themes

-The world of LOTR

Then Steve talked a bit about how Tolkien’s world was based partly on Norse and Celtic myth; ancient Irish legends, various pictures of one-eyed gods, powerful rings, swords re-forged for kings, beasties with split personalities, and so on. Steve obviously didn’t believe Tolkien’s protestations about how LOTR is not an allegory—he mocked the ides that orcs were not Nazis, the Ring not a nuclear weapon, etc., etc. I noticed a few people gritting their teeth here! Anyway, the exhibition decided to follow three major strands—Tolkien and his influences, the story of LOTR, and the filmmaker’s vision. This original exhibit would have been 1200 metres squared, and much more geeky than the one they ended up with! Plans included a walk-through ‘ghost-train’ Moria, complete with orcs and a ‘real’ Balrog; a recreation of Tolkien’s study; a 3-D interactive map of Middle-Earth; a ride-on fell beast; and a room in Lorien with dialogue by Cate Blanchett projected onto glass so she seemed real—I’m a bit hazy on how that one worked, but you get the idea—and the visitors could look into the Mirror and see images with themselves somehow added to the picture! VERY cool. There would have been 3 identical exhibits—one in Te Papa and two in Asia.

Sadly, it was not to be. In January 2000 a delegation flew to LA to show the New Line people what they wanted. They loved it, agreed and began work on a contract, when the Tolkien Estate stepped in. Now, as we all know the Tolkien Estate was a bit iffy about the whole LOTR films idea to begin with, and since for various legal reasons they couldn’t get at the film, they decided to have a bash at the exhib. (According to Steve, this is not, me!). So, ALL the references to the Professor had to go. The entire exhibit would have to be reconstructed without the T-word. Of course, this removed a lot of the depth and intellectual-ness they could have had in the exhibit, but Steve said they weren’t too disappointed because, after all, with Viggo and Liv around a dusty old dead professor could get in the way a bit anyway. (Cue small noises from the back of Smokering’s throat).

Then they (‘they’ being Story Inc.) got together with the filmmakers. Mark Ordesky subbed for the very busy PJ (wonder what he could have been doing to while away the time?)—then, as lawyers do, the lawyers joined in and slowed the whole thing down to a crawl. Then there was another fall-through due to some major sponsor, an automobile company, being sold…

Months later, Te Papa came back with the idea of a much smaller exhibit that could be moved to museums around the world. One or two immersives, a few interactives, lots of props—you know. One of the key elements, however, was a display of the costumes on silicon masks of the actors. Sadly this couldn’t be done, so they moved on to Concept 4.

This concept was a more traditional museumy display with items in glass cases and so on. They came up with the lighting ideas and so on, and walked New Line through it. Once again everything was hunky-dory, but the exhibit now had to open months early, so it could coincide with the release of TTT (as opposed to February 2003, the date for which they’d hoped). It took lots of help, but they did manage, and the final exhibit opened 4 months later for the night of the TTT premier.

Steve then went on to tell us nothing I didn’t know about how great Tolkien’s imaginary cultures are, and how well PJ achieved them on film. The inscription on Arwen’s sword (which I can’t remember—check the Fan Club Mag) is an example of this—it was written for Idril, Arwen’s ancestor, but the word in Elvish for ‘noble lady’ was ‘arwen’, and it was thus both a pun and foreshadowing. Of course, most people wouldn’t pick this up (really, really long shot of sword with subtitles? Glamorous), and it was a created backstory—not from the books. As far as Tolkien tells us, Idril could have used teaspoons as defensive weapons. So, this is just one indication of PJ’s grandeur, vision, talent, creativity, et cetera, et cetera, hand me an apple…

Anyway. Then things got a bit more interesting. Steve described Richard taylor as a ‘religious visionary’! Richard took Steve on a tour of the workshops and showed him stuff like Theoden’s armour (engraved with the king’s seal even on the INSIDE), and Sauron’s (acid etching all over it)…

Steve says PJ’s single vision being realized is not due to force, but in keeping craftsmen from other films, and by letting the collective imagination FIND the vision. I thought this was pretty hot stuff. Anyway.

When the Story Inc guys came to collect the props for the exhibit, their premise was to treat each prop as a precious artifact. They were to imagine these things had been dug up 100 feet under the streets of Hamilton, and they were the only ones of their kind, and they only had one shot at preserving them. Laudable, but when they turned up to Weta clad in white coats and gloves, Barrie Osborne roared with laughter! The ‘artifacts’ they were carefully labeling for replacement cost, uniqueness, fragility and so on and tenderly swathing in cotton wool, had a week before been thrown round fields, dragged in the dirt, lost in rivers, sweated in and breathed on!

Another principle of the exhibition was that there was to be no self-promotion in the video clips. The people were THERE, they didn’t need to drag them in; and they were going to see ROTK anyway; plus, they’d heard it all before. (As one of the people who did go to the exhibit, I appreciated this! Although people would say ‘We made six thousand of this..’ or whatever, they refrained from adding the usual ‘which goes to show what grandeur and scope we are achieving here in terms of scale, operators are standing by, Burger King is on the right’ which makes news clips about LOTR so annoying). There was ambient sound, dim light, and an eerie, shrine-like quality pervading the room.

On April 21, after a many-times-extended four-month run, the exhibit closed. After ROTK comes out the exhibit will be brought up to date for the third film. The final exhibit they ended up with was Plan H—about one-eighth the size of the original plan. Steve readily admitted that given the chance, he would do it over again differently. But, he added, he was ‘pretty happy’ with the result!

After that there were some questions, during which we all gossiped about the Tolkien family and failed to say anything illuminating at all. So we went home! Thanks very much, you’ve been a wonderful audience.

* Smokering bows and exits humbly backwards, knocking a pot plant onto the floor to expose the half-buried chicken legs Maisie just couldn’t face after that big lot of soup *