Many fans dreamed of being an extra in the ‘Hobbit’ films, but not many fans can say their wish came true due to the support of the worldwide Tolkien community. Here is the story of two fans, Chris and Melissa Kern, and their unexpected journey to Middle-earth.
Chris Kern: Melissa read the Lord of the Rings books from a very young age, and was a huge fan of the three Peter Jackson movies. After putting together a Frodo costume in 2003, she met up with other Ringer fans at Dragon*Con in Atlanta. By 2004, she became a co-leader of the fan group “Arms Of Middle Earth” (AoME), worked as a volunteer on DragonCon’s Tolkien Track, and made it to Los Angeles for TOR.n’s “The Return of the One Party”.
In 2007, she started having trouble using her hands and keeping her balance. Later that year, she was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), which is more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. There is no cure for ALS, and estimated lifespan from diagnosis is 3-5 years. She was only 35, and we had a son in elementary school, so there was a lot of life that she would miss out on, and not much we could do about it. Peter Jackson had just announced that he would be making ‘The Hobbit’, but it was still years off, and Melissa was sad that she might not be around by the time it was released.
There wasn’t much that we could do about the disease, but I figured there was a chance I could do something about her missing out on ‘The Hobbit’. If she wasn’t around to see it in the theaters, what if she could be part of it? So I registered a website for Project “Fiver” (which was Melissa’s nickname on the internet), and started a petition to get her cast as an extra in the film. I sent it around to AOME and our friends, and kept it secret for a few weeks, planning to reveal it to her at her birthday party. In March of 2008, Project Fiver went public with 844 signatures. Melissa was moved to tears, as were many of us. From there, her friends and I posted it all over the internet, and it took on a life of its own.
On how ‘Project Fiver’ got the attention of Peter Jackson…
It’s difficult to say exactly what path it took to get to him. With all the social circles that Melissa was known in, and with the simple goal of the Project, the petition went viral in a matter of weeks. I posted it on internet message boards, emailed everyone in Melissa’s incredibly huge rolodex of contacts, even sent letters to cast members from the LotR films. I didn’t have the contacts to get the petition in front of him, but I knew that by the “Six Degrees” rule, someone we know, knows someone else, and so on, and eventually we would get it to the right person in New Zealand.
In a few months, we had over 4200 signatures on the petition. As incredible as this result was, things took an even more unexpected turn: A representative from Peter Jackson’s production company emailed us:
“We’ve been sent a great many letters and are touched by Chris’ initiative, and for the support you’ve received from Ringers around the globe. Peter and Fran have asked that I touch base with you for an update on where things are with THE HOBBIT.”
They… wanted to call and update US… on production details of the film. It was one of those letters that change your life. After working out the time zone conversion to New Zealand time, Production Assistant Matt Dravitzki called us an gave us the scenario: Peter wanted to bring Melissa over to be a part of the film. When they start filming on the “Hobbiton” set, she would be a costumed extra, just as we wanted for her. In May of 2008, just three months after we started Project Fiver, we had succeeded in the impossible.
On their journey to Middle-earth…
It was years until filming even started. When we accomplished Project Fiver’s goal, Melissa was still walking around, still mostly the same old Mel. But by the time they were ready to bring her over to New Zealand, in October of 2011, her disease had progressed to the point where she couldn’t walk or stand, speak or work a computer anymore. She needed a large electric wheelchair to get around, and communicated with me only by eye movements. There was a lot to work out in the travel arrangements. But both sides in this were very committed, and we found a way to make it happen.
When our plane landed in New Zealand, we arrived the day after their national team, The All Blacks, had won the Rugby World Cup, so the entire country was out celebrating. The Production team took care of all of our needs while we were there. They hired us a Handicapped Access van and a wonderfully chatty driver named Frank that took us everywhere on the North Island. While waiting to go on the Hobbiton set, we saw many of the sights, including the world’s only Wheelchair-Accessible cavern, a fishing trip on a volcanic crater lake, and a helicopter tour through the mountains to see many of the shooting locations from the Lord of the Rings films.
On becoming a Hobbit…
It was quite an experience! We finally met Matt Dravitzki, the Production Assistant that we had been talking with for years, and he led us into a tent city in the middle of the Matamata sheep farm that serves as the Hobbiton Set. We had costumers that got us into appropriately hobbit-y clothes, put wigs and prosthetic ears on us (the ones we used were the model made for Sean Astin in the previous films), And makeup folks took a shot at covering up the sunburn we’d already received – we were only out for a couple hours, and forgot about the country being a little closer to the equator than we were used to. After an hour, we were ready for the finishing touch: A pair of Hobbit Legs.
Melissa’s legs would be under a blanket, to hide her wheelchair, but my legs would be seen, so I needed a pair. In the first films, the foot prosthetics were like fleshy slippers, but the new versions were like a knee-high foam latex boot. After covering my legs with talcum powder, three assistants helped pull them on, and it felt like pulling on the coldest, thickest rubber glove in the world. It was an incredible feat of engineering though, because there was a semi-rigid foot pad built into it, so you could walk over rocks comfortably.
After getting into costume, they brought us out to the set of the Green Dragon, which had a market set up in front of it. I pulled Melissa up to a table in the back of the scene, and we sat down with four other Hobbit patrons. Our job was to grin and talk silently with the others, while Bilbo made his way around the market. When Melissa saw Martin Freeman as Bilbo, her eyes lit up with excitement. In between takes, he even came over to talk to us, and I relayed Melissa’s message that she loved him in Sherlock and the original UK ‘Office’, and then extolled the virtues of Dragon*Con, suggesting he visit there.
Lunch was called a couple hours later, but before we left, Peter Jackson himself came over to talk to us. He shook our hands and smiled a welcome. We thanked him for everything — for making us Hobbits, for flying us halfway around the world, for giving Melissa hope… everything. And in response, Peter just shrugged and said it was no problem, as if he’d done something as small as giving up his seat on a train.
As we left, Matt reminded us that we couldn’t tell people about our little adventure until after the first movie premiered (which was 14 months away). We had to sign a contract saying as much, as did Frank, our driver. It was this little catch -and not all the difficulties of getting a woman in a wheelchair to a sheepfarm halfway around the world- that ended up being the hardest part of the trip.
For weeks before we left for New Zealand, we had tried to think of a way to show our gratitude to Peter and came up short. What can you give a man who can do so much, someone who can change a person’s life as he did ours? But Melissa had thought of something: she took pictures at ‘The Return of the One Party’ back in 2004, when Peter and the LotR cast came into the party, holding their Oscars. She had worked her way up to the front of the stage, and she captured some great, candid moments of well-earned celebration. By coincidence, she also captured the moment when ‘Return of the King’ was being added to the display of all the Best Picture Oscar winners in the lobby of the Kodak Theater.
As I handed these pictures to Peter, I could tell that it struck a chord with him. It wasn’t anywhere near an even trade for giving Melissa something incredible to look forward to, something to continue living for, but we just might have given Peter Jackson something that he didn’t expect. And how many people can claim that?
The scene Mel and Chris filmed did not, unfortunately, make it into the theatrical version of ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’, but here’s hoping for the Extended Edition!
And on December 13, 2012, Mel and Chris were able to join other Tolkien fans at the Atlanta Line Party to watch the midnight screening.
*Photos courtesy of Chris Kern