Peter Jackson, Elijah Wood, and Orlando Bloom remember the beginnings of the epic franchise
What do you think about when you think about The Lord of the Rings?
A few guesses: Gandalf staring down a fiery Balrog and proclaiming, “You shall not pass!” Legolas firing arrows as he surfs on his shield down the trunk of an Oliphaunt. Sam carrying Frodo to the top of Mount Doom, though he himself barely has the energy to stand. (Sam, if you really think about it, is the coolest character in the movies.) Aragorn being crowned king, then turning to Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, who have lowered their heads reverently, and telling them, “My friends, you bow to no one.” (Aragorn, if you really think about it, is the coolest character in the movies.)
Those are all great scenes, moments of self-sacrifice and unexpected heroism, which are the twin strands of the trilogy's DNA. But when the people who actually made The Lord of the Rings think about The Lord of the Rings — and we asked a dozen of them, as they hugged and caught up for the first time in years at photo shoots in Los Angeles, London, and Sydney — they don't think about any of those scenes. They remember New Zealand, and the most exhausting, exhilarating years of their lives.
To be specific:
They remember shooting the very first scene in 1999, which found the four hobbits tumbling down a hill. “We were excited, and there was that kind of buzz in the air, like 'F---, it actually all starts now,”' says Elijah Wood (Frodo). To which Dominic Monaghan (Merry) adds: “We were all in costume and running around the set, and Pete [Jackson] came up and was like, 'Okay, all right, here we go!' And he had a clapperboard that said, like, Slate one, take one.”
They remember surfing; getting tattoos; watching Jackson, on Guy Fawkes Day, run around with fireworks like a giddy kid; going to barbecues at Billy Boyd's (Pippin) house; hanging around in the demented social club that was the makeup trailer; and having the occasional romance in the seaside city of Wellington (“I do remember some local ladies, yes,” says Boyd).
They remember Wood's obsession with music. “Elijah loved to DJ at a certain club,” says Sean Astin (Sam). “He'd get so fired up about it, and we'd get excited for him and go there — and it's the same people you just spent 14 hours with and yet here you are, by choice, having your Guinness with them.”
They remember the strange and wondrous ways of Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn), who had an obsession of his own: going fishing in the middle of the night. “He'd come stalking out of the woods,” says Astin, conjuring a vision of Mortensen with a full beard, tangled hair, and filthy, rumpled clothes. “And you'd think, 'My God, there's a yeti! No, it's Viggo — and he's carrying bounty!”'
Jackson remembers shooting on the side of a volcano in a nature preserve where they had to lay down carpet to protect a rare moss: “A carpeted volcano,” says the director. “I mean, that was bizarre.” Orlando Bloom (Legolas) remembers getting a mohawk just because Liv Tyler (Arwen) told him to: “She goes, 'Orly, you should have a mohawk. You'd look really cute.' It was Liv Tyler telling me to get a mohawk! I was like, 'I'll have a mohawk, please!”'
And absolutely everyone remembers being bone-tired. Says Boyd, “When people were doing 16-hour days, seven days a week for months on end, they'd be exhausted, but they'd always be saying 'This is Lord of the Rings!' And that was the battle cry of Richard Taylor and his team at Weta [Workshop] when people were falling asleep at their desks: 'This is Lord of the Rings!”'
What LOTR did for epic moviemaking is well-known by now — as are the billions of dollars it made (2.9) and the Oscars it harvested (17). It was a trilogy about an impossible quest: A noble little hobbit must sneak into enemy territory and destroy an all-powerful ring, even as all the armies of evil mobilize against him. And filming the saga was itself an impossible quest: A filmmaker virtually no one had ever heard of had to film three movies simultaneously, satisfy the not-exactly-nonjudgmental fans of J.R.R. Tolkien, redeem fantasy as a genre, and push special F/X to the point where a CGI creature named Gollum seemed repulsive and heartbreaking at the same time. Frodo nailed his quest, and you don't need to be told how the cast and crew did with theirs.
One more thing that the makers of Lord of the Rings think about when they think about Lord of the Rings? The disorienting moment when it was over, and all that was left was one last promotional tour, for The Return of the King. “We kicked off the last tour in Wellington, and all Wellington came out to say goodbye,” says Bernard Hill (Théoden). “We had a motorcade, and we were all sitting in open-top Mustangs. It was just phenomenal. And afterwards we were all on stage, looking around at these people, doing speeches and stuff, and Elijah said, 'It's really weird, innit? Because we're gonna leave here tomorrow — and we've got no reason to come back anymore.' And it really upset him.”
Much of the cast has found reason to come back, though. Wood visited New Zealand earlier this year and — seeing Jackson readying to shoot The Hobbit (see below) — felt a pang so profound it was “f---ing crazy.” Says Astin, “Nothing will ever be like Lord of the Rings — in terms of my life, and the way it struck such a chord across such a massive, diverse range in our society. I don't know that anything could do that again. And I'm okay with that.” As long as we've got the movies to watch, and rewatch, so are we. — With additional reporting by John Young and Matt Mueller