Leo here: you can check out some of Bruce’s pictures of these events and Operation Read in our scrapbook!
February 26th 2004 was my day of departure. For the second year in a row I was going to make my way ( thanks to Air NZ ) from the shire that is NZ, to the heart of blockbusterville, the one and only Los Angeles. As with my first trip to the home of the freeway a year before, the purpose was to attend a number of functions ( sometimes called “piss ups” here in NZ ), celebrating the latest, and in this case the last, instalment of Lord Of The Rings trilogy, as it contended for Oscar glory.
Having experienced tinseltown in all its glory as a member of the LOTR family the previous year, I decided I wanted to explore the potential to create a little publicity for myself. Self promotion is an essential item in the survival kit of any LA bound filmy.
I had ( once again through my on going relationship with Air NZ ), visited a small coastal school near the city of Gisborne in NZ a few days after the world premier of The Return Of The King in December 2003. The success of this visit came to mind as I trawled for options to create a point of difference for myself in LA. I figured I could create a win win win scenario and get along to visit a school. In this scenario, I win by getting to create some publicity as an actor visiting a school, I would actually win twice as I love the spirit of the children anyway. The kids win as the majority of them seem to really get a buzz out of meeting actors from LOTR, and the media would hopefully win by scoring a nice little feel good story ( thats actually a win win win win, with me double dipping )
After a number of fruitless enquiries, Claire McKay ( PR for Air NZ ) and Darryl Dunne ( NZ Consul General in LA ) informed me of a reading programme that Darryl had taken an active role in from prior to the films being released.
It transpired that when it was made public LOTR was being filmed, a local south central LA woman, one Winnie Jackson, decided this was the vehicle to begin her war on illiteracy in a part of town that has the lowest literacy scores for the whole of the USA. It just so happens that another statistic this part of town reigns supreme with, is that it has the highest youth homicide rates in the WORLD!
Despite being told on numerous occasions that LOTR was not the book to introduce kids to reading, Winnies vision and battle plans continued to form.
Every child who committed to reading ” The Fellowship of the Ring “, then writing an essay summarising what they got from the book in terms of issues raised and how they found it as a story, as well as writing a brief essay about themselves, would be given tickets to attend a special preview screening of the movie, care of New Line Cinema.
As well a free ticket to the movie the books were supplied free of charge.
With ” The Fellowship”, Winnies baby, now named Operation Read, saw 1000 kids take up the challenge.
By the time the preview screening took place for ” The Two Towers ” there were 4,000 kids who had stepped up.
What happened in December 2003 with “The Return Of The King” was beyond Winnies wildest dreams. Winnies baby was now a monster. The response was such that the preview screenings had to take place over 3 days, as 12,000 kids were bussed into Hollywood to witness Gamling and the rest of the team bring peace to Middle Earth. ( Which one was Gamling? I hear you say! just look to the right, or left of Theoden, he is the one who is there sometimes )
When I entered the picture, informing Winnie via a fax that I was interested in visiting a couple of schools, it was akin to throwing myself into the path of a human tornado. When you get swept up by this lady, its no longer your choice when you touch the ground.
With about 2 days to my departure on the 26th, I suddenly found myself scheduled to visit not one but three schools in south central LA. Now I was fully engaged and the producer in me started to tick over. I was going to be sleeping on the couch at Sala Bakers apartment, and Lawrence Makaoare was crashing there also, so why not get them on board? Without hesitation, both were more than happy to take part. Air NZ came on board supplying 3-400 beautiful posters that we could sign and give to the kids, as well as a model plane bearing the LOTR/Middle Earth decals, for each school. I managed to get the local NZ television crews who were to be present in LA for the oscar season interested in covering the visits and the schools themselves drummed up interest from NBC as well numerous print media journalists in LA.
It was all shaping up very nicely.
During my time in Wellington leading up to the world premier for ROTK, I had the pleasure, each day, of meeting up with Royd Tolkien, great grandson to the man himself. This guy is a real cool dude and it just so happened he was also travelling to LA to party ( call it PR it sounds more noble ). I began to imagine the buzz it would be for these kids to meet this guy, descended from the loins of the genius himself, and so 48hrs out from hitting LA I emailed Royd to see if he would be up to hanging with the Kiwi contingent as we visited some schools. This would entail Royd giving up a full day, being picked up at 8am about 14 hrs after he had arrived in LA from the UK.
Literally 2 hours before I left my home to go to Auckland airport I checked my emails and there was a reply from Royd informing me he would love to take part!!!. It was all meant to be, them there stars were aligning.
At 9am on the 27th Feb Sala, Lawrence and myself watched as our limo, an LA Probation Department van pulled up to the kerb
( wrong side of the road I might add, mind you the steering wheel was on the wrong side of the van also! ) Inside were the wide awake and smiling faces of Royd and his mate Martin, as well as our host/chauffeur for the day, the incredible deputy Gregory James. This guy is as possessed in his quest to shine light into the lives of the youth of LA as Winnie is in her quest to get their eyes onto the pages of books.
We were now all aboard and bound for the city of Cerritos in south central LA.
First up was Tetzlaff Middle School where Principal Colin Sprigg has been a champion of the reading programme from its inception.
Next we rolled into Dr Laura Rogers Artesia High school, then we finished the day on Don Hastings turf at Los Alisos Middle School.
Eight hours, 300-400 signed posters and many questions later we rolled back onto the freeways and headed for home.
What an experience, each of us felt both tired and inspired.
These kids were such a pleasure to have shared time with, their enthusiasm for the books and films was boundless, we could have spent a full day at each school, but we had parties to attend!!!
One lasting impression was had at Los Alisos school, where, as we sat signing books and posters, the chorus of calls for hugs from” Mr Tolkien” began. A number of girls stood just out of sight from us and would call longingly from a distance ” Mr Tolkien, can I have a hug?” I tell you the guy is the next Orlando Bloom.
During our time with Deputy Gregory James he had talked about some other kids who took up the challenge laid down by Winnie. These were teenagers incarcerated, many by Californias incredibly harsh and draconian “3 strikes and youre out” policy. Gregory had expressed his desire that one day we may be able to visit one of the “lock downs” to support the incredible effort these kids had to put in to read books in an environment where doing so not only meant they were ridiculed by some put them at risk of physical violence from others.
This image stuck with me and so on my return to LA after attending the London Film & Comic Con, I contacted Gregory and so began the next part of my journey into Winnies dream.
Friday 19th of March was the day that Gregory, once again at the helm on the wrong side of the van and road, pulled up to the kerb and we hit more of the freeways, this time bound for the confines of Camp Holton, a county probation lock down facility.
upon arrival the first thing to catch my eyes was the sign stating ” Watch for Snakes.” Beauty! I come from NZ, a mossie bite is about as bad as nature gets ( apart from the odd shark attack!). Successfully negotiating the snakes, we were now standing at the front gates to a “lockdown”. It looked like they meant for you to stay once inside!
As soon as the gates slam behind you, you know this is for real. However the other overriding reaction is that the kids who come here have a life line. This camp is situated in a valley tucked away from the outer lying edges of the city. When you enter the valley there is no city, sight or sound, its incredible. Many of the young men in here had never known silence, literally, let alone seen woodpeckers or the other myriad of birds that were perched chatting and calling, in the trees spread throughout the compound. One young guy was mowing the lawns others were running errands for the office staff, while the rest of the camp were in school.
This really was time out from the rigours of survival on the streets amidst some of the most brutal urban violence in the world.
Gregory took me for a round of introductions, meeting the wonderful superintendent Leon Bass as well as many of the dedicated staff who invest their time and love trying to guide these young lives onto other paths.
It was such a powerful experience already.
Once the OK was given, 130 kids ranging in ages from 13-17, came jogging in single file from all directions. Classrooms were emptied, kitchens abandoned (the kids work in all facets of camp life) and lawnmowers parked as they assembled to sit in formation on the concrete basketball courts. This happened like a military exercise, commands were barked, orders obeyed and questions answered, all at full throated voice and drilled physical response.
During our visits to the schools, Gregory James had acted as our chauffeur and guide, here in Camp Holton I got to witness the fuel that fires Deputy Gregory James. As it happens Gregory had been to the Camp for his one visit of the year a couple of days before. He runs a programme called The Honour Ensemble. Gregory literally transforms the lives of kids such as these. He does this by introducing the concepts of discipline, respect and expression through a style of interaction that seems unique to him. He is a former promising Hollywood High actor who decided to use his talent and unconditional love for his fellow beings to work miracles in young peoples lives.
Having had the kids who took part in Operation Read stand to be acknowledged, Gregory spoke of their courage and honoured these guys while informing the others that they also had what it takes to free themselves from their current journeys. As he spoke I found myself instinctively walking to each of the kids standing, shaking their hands and embracing them.
Once I was introduced I stood at the front of the seated sea of boyish faces and began to introduce myself and my background. After only a minute or so I had to apologise as I stopped talking, tears beginning to well and spill down my face. My guts were a knotted mess of emotion, sitting before me were kids who may well have been my children, kids who had a Mum and a Dad somewhere, maybe brothers and sisters, grandparents. Apparently in many cases Dad has never been present, Mum is struggling to pay the bills and acceptance by peers etc is often conditional ( with us or against us stuff).
Once I got it together, I carried on with my talk, hopefully speaking in a manner that indicated my respect for the guys who took part in this amazing reading programme and also offering my heartfelt thanks to all of them for allowing me to be there.
Gregory then informed them that he was going to follow up on a promise he had given to everyone during his previous session with them. Each of the kids was to be given a copy of the book, ROTK.
It had been arranged that I would sign copies of the books for the guys who partook in Operation Read, however having had the experience of being in their company I knew I had to sign a copy for every kid at Camp Holton. Maybe some of them wouldnt give a toss about having the book let alone having me personalise each copy to them, but again it was an impulse that I knew I had to pursue.
A couple of hours later, having had the chance to talk to a couple of the guys and sign about 150 of the books ( some of the staff were keen for a copy as well!), Gregory and I hit the road back to bedlam, well Hollywood anyways. It was kind of weird, feeling grateful and almost guilty, driving back to LA and my version of freedom, knowing Camp Holton was going into the evening phase of its routine, with 130 young men putting their heads onto pillows as the sound of doors locking bade them to sleep.
It later turned out that about 4-5 of the guys who stood up had in fact not taken part in Operation Read, they just wanted to be part of the moment. Gregory had to stop one of the staff from asking these kids to sit down. His reasoning being that it was better for them to decieve for a good cause than be busted once again. He also told me on the drive home that these guys had now put their own respect at stake and reading the book was their road to redemption. We had a real good laugh about this naïve kiwi being conned by these young street smart kids.
I came away from that experience knowing that I wanted to see a documentary made about this incredible programme Operation Read and the inspiring people behind the scenes.
( sorry Ill speed this up, Im raving here but I find it hard to retell this experience without tracing every step)
On the 23rd of March, having been introduced to award winning doco maker Kyra Thompson by Kathy Eldon ( yet another inspiring new friend in LA ), I was headed back to Camp Holton. This time it was with Gregory, Kyra, AP Murray ( with digital video camera in tow), Amy Eldon ( award winning doco maker) and my mate Sala.
We had a court order allowing us to film inside the facility, for the purpose of creating a short promo to use in applying for funding to make the documentary of Operation Read.
The visit was amazing, again it filled me with such powerful emotions and determination to get this feel good story out there.
My last session with Winnie was on Friday march 26th at a luncheon held at the world class Cerritos library. ( if you ever have the chance, check it out, thats an order!)
The luncheon was Winnies chance to honour all who had helped in her journey to open new worlds of opportunity and vision for kids many of whom would not normally consider a book as part of their minds diet.
Citations were awarded, food was eaten and glowing speeches given. I had the chance to express my gratitude to Winnie and Gregory, as well as Ken Kondo and the LA Probation department, and the schools who allowed me to share in this joyous series of events.
We had immediate expressions of interest with regard seeking funding to make this doco a reality and will continue to pursue these and look for further avenues also. Our team is getting close to being in place and in fact I have had a wonderful offer of support from the incredible Josie, one of Peter Jacksons staunchest allies throughout the epic production of LOTR.
It is meant to be and it will be.
Bring on the DVDs, the extended DVDs, reruns, conventions, docos. Its all good!
Much love to you all if you managed to read this whole bloody rave, well done you are now part of Operation Read.
See you at a screening near you.