One Sunday afternoon in September 1998, a New Line Cinema film executive knocked on the door of a farmhouse in Matamata, 175 kilometers from Auckland.
The owner, Ian Alexander Sr., got up from his chair in front of the TV reluctantly and answered the door. The gentleman from Hollywood told him he wanted to discuss the possibility of using the Alexander family’s cattle and sheep farm for a movie.
Mr. Alexander replied, “Can you come back later, mate? I’m too busy watching rugby.”
Henry Horne, sales manager of Hobbiton Movie Set, is laughing when he tells us this story. “That was a great way to start a relationship, eh?”
Well, it was. Everyone knows better than to get between a Kiwi and a rugby match (as it happens, it was Waikato vs. Auckland for the national championship). Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit director Peter Jackson — born in New Zealand capital Wellington — certainly knew this as he scouted locations for JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
Until he signed a confidentiality clause, Alexander didn’t know what movie they were going to shoot on his farm — or that the filmmakers had a NZ$350 million budget and it would be one of the biggest movies in Hollywood history. He had no idea who Tolkien was — much less Peter Jackson.
And so the books loved by generations of readers became film legend, shot entirely in New Zealand’s North and South Islands, from up in Waikato and down to Queenstown. And at one time there were nine units filming simultaneously in the rugged landscapes, on this farm and in sound studios in Wellington.
Here in Matamata, one of the richest agricultural and pastoral regions of the country, lies the heart of Middle Earth: the Shire, home of the Hobbits.
“For the time will soon come when Hobbits will shape the fortunes of all,” says Galadriel in The Fellowship of the Ring. This has certainly been the case for the 250-acre farm of the Alexander family.
While Peter Jackson and his cinematographers may have fallen in love with the idyllic, rolling terrain of the farm, Hollywood still came with its idiosyncrasies. Even though the farm had 12,000 sheep, not a single one was used. Instead, they brought their own sheep and 34 other species of animals.
“Not one of ours was apparently good enough for the camera, they just didn’t have the right look,” says Henry.
The terrain, however, was perfect for the Shire and the Hobbit Holes or underground homes found on hillsides. At Hobbiton Movie Set, which was rebuilt in 2009 for the filming of The Hobbit trilogy, Hobbit architecture (round doors and windows with grass roofs) makes use of eye trickery.
The houses are scaled differently, from 35 to 100 percent, depending on how small they wanted the Hobbits to appear or how big they wanted the wizard Gandalf to tower over them.
Even if you are not a hardcore Tolkien fan and the first time you heard of the Hobbits was through the movies, there is a moment of amazement when you see a Hobbit house for the first time — or a few of the 40-plus houses sitting side by side as you are standing on top of a hill and looking down on the winding dirtroads. (Would you believe that 40 percent of those who visit Hobbiton haven’t read any of the books or seen the movies?) You feel like you are part of the movies which, more than a decade ago, had the most anticipated premieres around the world.
Indeed, you are in a movie set, a living one that is maintained all year round — the grass is real, it grows, it needs to be cut and in certain foot paths need to be replaced every two to four weeks especially during high tourist season (New Zealand’s summer months, December to April); the houses or at least their facades are real (they are empty and shallow inside, all interior shots were filmed in Wellington) and need repainting once in a while.
But there is a moment when for me reality becomes literally small. We are walking on a narrow path and Henry tells us this is where Gandalf rides in with his cart and sets off the first of his fireworks for the children when he arrives at the Shire.
It certainly looked bigger in the movie.
Before that scene, Frodo Baggins had been reading under a tree when he hears the wizard singing in the distance, “Down from the door where it began, now far ahead the road has gone…”
Frodo runs through the Shire and comes to a stop on top of a hill and after chiding Gandalf that he’s late, he jumps into the wizard’s arms and says, “It’s wonderful to see you, Gandalf!”