Wellington Is Middle-earth

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND—The first to pad up the red carpet were a dozen hobbits, their thick, curly, old-person’s wigs looking more than a little warm in the late afternoon sun. A clutch of velvety elves followed, along with several fierce, evil warriors, a brigade of righteous men in chain mail, and a blithe clique of immortals—some elders from Rivendell and the Fords of Isen, no doubt. Next came a man who is mortal—but only just—to the tens of thousands who jammed the sidewalks, balconies, and rooftops surrounding the red carpet where it lay across Courtenay Place here in Wellington, New Zealand, last night: the local splatter-movie buff turned Oscar contender Peter Jackson.

Fresh off the back of a red convertible, which had carried him through the kind of ticker-tape parade you’d expect more for a victorious sports team than a movie’s cast and crew, the mop-topped, friendly bear of a director waved to friends, stood for pictures (amazingly, he wore shoes—sneakers, but still), signed a few autographs, and then made for the recently refurbished Embassy Theatre. The Embassy’s one of those marvelous Art Deco cinemas from the 1920s, and easily one of Wellington’s best buildings. For weeks it has had a countdown posted out front for the evening’s main event, the world premiere of TheLord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

Is it possible to exaggerate the excitement this show has generated here? Not easily. The Kiwis are over the moon about it. After all, all three movies Jackson made from J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic were not only shot in this remote corner of the world, but animated, dubbed, and edited here, too.

For the premiere, every downtown block of the modest capital has been turned out like a mall at Christmas, but with Lord of the Rings regalia instead of tinsel, bells, and holly. Each celebrity’s airport arrival made front page news (five days in a row), and a handful of the film’s stars can be seen on lamppost banners displaying new Lord of the Rings postage stamps. There’s one each of Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), Frodo and Sam Gamgee (Sean Astin), Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen), Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Gollum (half-computer animation, half-Andy Serkis), and even Legolas (Orlando Bloom). Asked what he thought of having his face on a stamp at so young an age, Bloom replied: “It is a bit strange. But what’s even weirder is that my mom flew here on a plane with my face painted on the side of it!” Air New Zealand, lately the official “Airline to Middle-earth,” commissioned Lord of the Rings illustrations for three of its aircraft, one of which, a new Boeing 747, flew over the parade just shy of Wellington’s shining harbor and Lego-land skyline.

For each of the last four nights, too, there have been invitation-only events pegged to the film’s release. These included a concert by the Wellington Symphony Orchestra (playing Howard Shore’s musical score for the film), a state dinner at the Te Papa National Museum (where Prime Minister Helen Clark extolled the talents of the New Zealand companies Jackson relied on), and poetry readings and wine-and-cheese receptions by and for the smoldering, soft-spoken Viggo Mortensen. When not saving the world of men, Aragorn, it turns out, has been taking pictures, and two shows of his photos are currently hanging in Wellington. One of these is in the former National Art Gallery and has been published as a book, Mo Te Upoko-O-Te-Ika/For Wellington. His images suggest a frustrated painter: They feature swirls of long exposure light, bold colors, and tend toward the abstract.

By day, there’s also been a consuming series of food and wine showcases, press conferences, and one-on-one interviews with local dignitaries arranged for the foreign press. I’ve been deeply embedded in this process.

I’ve been flown by helicopter for lunch at the Wharekauhau Country Estate, an upscale resort on a working sheep and cattle farm. I’ve sampled some of the world’s best Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. And I’ve met with Parliament. “For New Zealand, Lord of the Rings has been a rebranding event,” the prime minister told me. “We’re not Sleepy Hollow anymore. We’re creative, resourceful, and high-tech.” (For the record, her favorite character is Frodo, although she likes Aragorn, too.)

The food, wine, and company have all been superb, and if there are people in the world who make faster, more reliable friends than Kiwis, I haven’t met them. Still, there’ve been moments when it was hard not to think New Zealand was trying a bit too hard. The government has spent NZ$8 million—about 5 million U.S. dollars—on its Return of the King-based rebranding efforts, and while there’s no doubt they’ll see a return on their investment, at times the “world premiere frenzy,” as the local paper had it, seemed to owe less to a new New Zealand than to Wellington being, well, a bit sleepy.

Home to just 400,000, it’s tucked in at the bottom of New Zealand’s North Island, a collection of high rises at the foot of green mountains, most with homes running up their flanks. It’s a highly livable city—more so even than Auckland, where nearly a third of the nation resides. (New Zealand has the approximate land mass of California, but 30 million fewer people).

Wellington’s especially livable if you have a fair amount of Gore-Tex in your closet. You can be hiking, mountain biking, sailing, or windsurfing 15 to 20 minutes after deciding that’s what you’d like to do. The Gore-Tex can come in handy walking downtown, too, for “Windy Wellington” sees its share of sideways rain and three-seasons-in-one-day beach days. (Because the windiest season coincides with beginning of summer, it’s not uncommon to see a Wellingtonian sunbathing in a bikini and wool ski cap.)

If it’s possible to get cynical about Wellington’s Lord of the Rings marketing push, it’s also hard to stay cynical, because you cannot move in this town without meeting another Wellingtonian who worked on the trilogy or knows someone who did. And this is no Los Angelino “I know someone who knows someone who …” kind of thing. It’s a blacksmith who made armor or door-handles or beer mugs. Or a local sheep farmer who perfected a certain merino wool for elf cloaks. Or a Kiwi hacker who developed software to turn a few menacing orcs into thousands of menacing orcs. Or a woman who used to have a side business in face creams—until, that is, Liv Tyler tried them and loved them. And on and on.

Knock around Wellington, in fact, and you start to think of the entire city as one giant workshop for Peter Jackson. And because Jackson’s from here, he ran this workshop in an egalitarian and inclusive way—a workshop where everyone pitched in on everything and had a stake in it being good.

Were there creative differences, intrigues, and kafuffles? Yes, of course. (One of my favorites is the story of the cash-strapped army, navy, and air force guys only getting $20 a day as extras.) But if there’s any secret at all to why Wellington closed its schools early and hit the streets for a movie last night, it’s not because they’ve fallen for the hype or lack for anything better to do. It’s more that the premiere of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King was less a gala than a citywide wrap party for seven years’ work.