Shane Hegarty writes:

Shane Hegarty writes:

The final eposide of ‘The Lord Of The Rings’ trilogy is coming to a screen near you. Shane Hegarty on the epic work, from conception to creation.

In Wellington on Monday, the première of The Return of the King, the final instalment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, was a quiet affair. Just the cast and crew, 100,000 fans, a 470 metre-long red carpet, an Air New Zealand jumbo jet flying low over Wellington harbour, its fuselage painted with movie scenes and daubed with its current slogan “Airline to Middle-earth”, and a tickertape parade for director and local hero Peter Jackson.

Ladies, the Prime Minister Helen Clark was wearing a specially designed Tolkien-style chain-mail jacket.

After seven years and a total spend of more than the GNP of Sierra Leone, it was probably not the time to get stingy. The big-screen treatment of Frodo Baggins’s adventures in Middle-earth has inspired awe and just as much admiration for how it got there. They are movies great in both scale and soul, but they are also movies of statistics. Twenty thousand extras were used. One in every 160 New Zealanders was involved in the production. 1,600 pairs of prosthetic feet and ears (individually shaped and sized) were made, as were 48,000 swords, scabbards, axes and shields, 300 wigs, and 900 suits of armour. Even breakfast was epic. The crew consumed 1,460 eggs every morning of the shoot.

It has taken seven years from conception to conclusion. Filming of all three movies took place back-to-back over 274 days between 1999-2000. In total they cost $330 million to make, not counting the $210 million spent persuading you to go and see them. The first two chapters – Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers – have already made $1.8 billion at the box office and ultimately, the franchise is expected to make $3 billion. The movies were nominated for 19 Oscars and won six. There is a woman in Thailand who claims to have seen Fellowship of the Ring 250 times already.

And they nearly never got made. The original studio, Miramax, was unable to guarantee Jackson his required budget and wanted the 1,000-page novel to be squeezed into a single two-hour movie. With Jackson aghast, Miramax allowed him four weeks to find another studio before they would take it back. Six studios did not even return his calls and when Jackson brought a 35-minute presentation made with $50,000 of his own cash to the offices of modest Time Warner subsidiary New Line Cinema, it was with the hope of spreading the three-part book over two films. New Line not only asked him to make three movies, it also allowed him to make them in one go in his home country of New Zealand.

The early days went badly. Irish actor Stuart Townsend was removed from the role of Aragorn a few days after filming began in October 1999, because of “creative differences”. The following month, sets were washed away by flood waters. New Line began to get a little nervous. During filming, it sacked 20 per cent of its staff and there was widespread belief that failure of the film would end the company. Concern grew that Jackson had made nothing but low-budget horror movies and one indie hit, Heavenly Creatures. The future of the company was in the hands of a Tolkien fanatic with no experience of making blockbusters.

Costs spiralled. Much of it went into creating landscapes of Middle-earth through WETA Digital, a New Zealand company Jackson co-owns. The effects were a mix of computer ingenuity and human graft. They created a camera that forced perspective, so that Ian McKellen’s giant Gandalf towered over Ian Holm’s four-foot tall Bilbo Baggins. More than 250,000 silk leaves were applied by hand to just one tree. There are 220,000 computerised soldiers in the final battle scenes, each of them programmed to independently interact with their surroundings. As the technology evolved and became cheaper, so the battles became more ambitious.

The Return of the King has as many effects shots as the first two movies put together.

The success of the first two movies allowed New Line to give Jackson carte blanche to do what he needed with the special effects for the third.

All the while, secrecy was paramount. Mark Ordesky was the New Line executive charged with bringing footage from New Zealand to Los Angeles. On more than a dozen 14-hour plane flights, Ordesky would slide himself into an aisle seat, put the video tape into a backpack, strap the pack to his chest, drape an airline blanket over his torso, tuck the ends under his thighs for good measure, and strap the seat belt tight across his lap.

The paranoia proved justified. In May, 2000, Wellington police launched a sting operation after someone tried to sell footage of the then unreleased first film over the Internet. Police offered €96,000 for the footage before arresting three men, including a member of the film crew. Later that year, a former security guard admitted stealing €114,000 of costumes and props.

Meanwhile, the scenery was keen on the limelight. The movies, as the New Zealand Tourist Board is most eager to point out, were made in their beautiful country, and they would like you to come visit. Nobody’s quite sure what effect it has had on the local economy. They have been expecting a surge in tourism since the first day of filming but are still bracing themselves for impact. Visitor numbers were up 9 per cent for September, making it the busiest September ever. But Australia’s visitor numbers were up twice that amount. It will gall New Zealanders all the more to know that the Melbourne Age was this week running the story: “Rings Film to Boost Aussie Tourism.”

There is no Oscar for Best Mountain. When the first movie was released there was dismay at how the leading American newspapers did not mention the location in their reviews. Feeling that they let the opportunity slip by twice already, the New Zealand government has been keen to capitalise on the final instalment before it is too late. Some $4 million has been spent on a promotional campaign. The elf queen adorns New Zealand stamps. They have minted a set of coins, all legal tender and “featuring a range of popular characters and stunning scenes from the three movies”. A “Minister for Lord of the Rings” has been appointed to oversee the promotion of the country.

Meanwhile, there has been growing debate over the true cost of the project.

New Line’s arrangement with the New Zealand government allowed the studio to set up a tax-sheltered local company to make the films and then buy the finished product from that company. It is estimated to have cost the local taxpayers €115 million, which is about what the country earned from wine exports last year. Current Finance Minister, Michael Cullen, recently pointed out that it would have been cheaper to buy every New Zealander a ticket to each film in the trilogy.

A leaked government report earlier this year admitted that it is “unclear whether any substantive profits will be returned to New Zealand”. An expensive report on the effect the films have had on the native film industry was dismissed as vague and inconclusive. By way of bait to Hollywood, a large budget grant scheme has been set up, which will reimburse one-eighth of the money production companies’ spend there. Local film-makers have complained that it will be of little benefit to them, while cynics point out that only Tom Cruise’s next movie, The Last Samurai, has been filmed in New Zealand since.

Even Jackson’s WETA faces an uncertain future, with as many as half of its 408 workers facing the door. The special effects for his next movie, King Kong, will be made there in 2005, but until then the company acknowledges that it will find it hard to keep everybody busy.

Any gripes, though, were drowned out by the scream of the jumbo over Wellington on Monday and will soon be lost under the crescendo of ringing tills. There will most likely be more Oscars in February. Jackson will ultimately pocket $150 million for giving up seven years of his life to the movies. There is talk of adaptingTolkien’s prequel, The Hobbit.

Meanwhile, The Lord of the Rings can expect an epic shelf life. The extra footage on the DVDs guarantees huge sales. There are porn versions and someone is threatening to do Lord of the Rings: The Stage Musical.

The merchandising possibilities seem interminable. A wizard’s pipe, yours for only €59.99. A “very collectible” paperweight, a snip at €50. A Lord of the Rings pinball machine of your very own for just €4,000.

Millions may have been spent on the movies, but this is no time to start wasting it.

In next Thursday’s Ticket, Hugh Linehan reports from Berlin on the European première of The Return of the King, and talks to the cast and crew.