When Your Quiet Town Becomes The Set Of 'Lord Of The Rings'
Even casual fans know that the Lord Of The Rings franchise was filmed in New Zealand. In fact, that's probably the only thing the average American knows about New Zealand. Boy, I bet the people who live there are just delighted! They're probably even happier that the Hobbiton set, plunked in the middle of the countryside, became a permanent tourist trap.
Or maybe not. We talked with Myer, a resident outside of Matamata, who told us what it's like when your tiny town gets taken over by a multi-billion-dollar Hollywood franchise. Spoiler: He thinks it sucks.
It's Like A Top-Secret Government Installation Is Being Built Next Door
"It was farms and sheep and cows," says Myer. "Where the set is now, 20 years ago it was a giant sheep pasture ... when this was announced, that some big movie was going to be here, we were all pretty excited. We just thought that after it was all over, we'd get it back the way it was."
Yeah, it's easy to underestimate what exactly goes into filming an epic worldwide phenomenon for hundreds of millions of obsessive fans. The sheer scale of what was coming quickly started to sink in. "Some days we saw entire convoys go up. They had to widen the roads ... have you seen Stranger Things, where this giant military company is on the outskirts of town, where everything is done in secrecy, and those that work there don't communicate with anyone locally? That's what happened. It's like a part of the countryside was now quarantined."
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But it wasn't some unspeakable horror that was making them so guarded; it was the fear of 1999-era film set leaks, most likely coming from a .net site that was found through Ask Jeeves. "They didn't put a wall around it, but they had security and these huge squares with netting up in places where you could see the town they were making. We would go up there, and this Aussie guard would tell everyone to not stay and to keep going."
It's impossible to overstate how much of a culture shock this was for people like Myer. "This was out of the blue for us. This was before September 11, and you could literally wander onto military camps here, and at the time you might get a polite 'Please get off' after a few hours. Not so there. New Zealand military secrets? Meh. The news of what Gandalf's costume would be? STATE SECRET!"
If you think Myer is playing up these comparisons for comedy purposes, the stories he tells say otherwise. "Me and a few friends went onto the farm for fun, and we immediately had Range Rovers coming for us ... we were questioned by their security, asked if we had cameras, and then they called the local police to take us. Which they did, saying that next time they wanted jail time ... They told us, 'If you sneak in there again, I don't know if we can guarantee you coming out like this again. They're very serious.'"
Meanwhile, the owner of the Alexander farm where the set was built -- who had no idea what The Lord Of The Rings was -- would get calls from Peter Jackson telling him his sheep were getting into the shot.
The Production Made Constant "Requests" ... And Didn't Like Being Turned Down
While there were some cool parts, obviously, like Myer meeting Sean "I was Rudy!" Astin, and local families seeing their land or horses in the final film. But the demands a production that size make on a tiny community are hardly minor. "We're far enough away from Hobbiton that they don't close places down and make people not drive, which did happen to houses and farms closer to Hobbiton." (Other productions do this too.) But, he says, "We're close enough that it's still within striking distance."
It turns out that making Hollywood magic comes with a lot of logistical problems, most of which are the kind of boring thing you never really think about. Like parking. "My family was personally asked to make our driveway, which is bigger than usual, to be used as a bus area to park and turn around. This was for one of the first movies. And they were polite about it then."
Polite, yes. But also persistent. Remember, there were five more films coming. "By the time The Hobbit started filming, they asked us again, and my mum and dad said no again. This time they didn't take it in stride. There were both film and tourism people from the government asking us next. They offered us compensation, but my parents didn't want their driveway to become a bus exchange." Myer says that at one point they just waited for his parents to leave and tried to sell him on the idea when he was alone, even offering him a spot as an extra in exchange (he didn't take it).
"One of our neighbors was a farmer ... when The Hobbit filmed here, they asked if he could not use his chimney certain days, because they didn't want smoke in the shot. He needed to smoke meat for part of his business and he refused ... he got his way, and I think in retaliation, he made the smoke much more pronounced."
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Over Time, All Of The Rules Were Changed In Hollywood's Favor
Look, we know it's common for film or TV shoots to upset the locals, like the owner of the Walter White house in Albuquerque having to beg fans to stay away and for the love of god stop throwing pizza on his roof. But Hobbiton is on a whole other level; there probably is no equivalent. While plenty of places capitalize on their movie fame, New Zealand has made it part of their GDP; 20 percent of the country's tourist economy is based on Lord Of The Rings, with millions coming into the local area alone.
So maybe it's no surprise that new laws were rapidly being put into place to ensure filming would go smoothly (most notably, labor laws were changed prior to the Hobbit trilogy). Suddenly, everything was geared around paving the way for Hobbiton. "Someone wanted to make a new barn for their sheep, but it was denied for no reason. We later learned it was within sight lines of the farm where they were shooting. A strip of government-owned land used as a way to get cattle to a lake for water was suddenly closed during most daylight hours -- again, because of filming."
As with the guy's chimney earlier, anything that could show up in a shot could result in the studio having to pay to have it CGI'd out later. And who wants that? "When my dad was building a maypole, because he's weird, he was asked by someone from Waikato about how high it would be. It's a maypole. They don't get very high. But they asked him ... there was only one reason, and that's if it could be seen from certain places."
Myer says roads were closed, wool trucks were forced to take different, longer routes -- all little bits of, in his words, "mental anguish" caused by the shoot. But anyone waiting for things to get back to normal would soon find that was never going to happen ...
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Then Come The (Very Aggressive) Tourists
It started slowly. "We might have somebody coming in the yard every now and then," says Myer about the early days. "But as long as they didn't disrupt anything, we'd allow it. In 2002, maybe 2003, they started coming in droves. Ever since then, it's been pretty awful."
How awful? "Some French family offered my mum a lot of money to use her car for a day. They walked from town to our house (they had apparently asked their neighbors), and offered money for her car on the spot. They were upset when they were told no. They were begging her, 'Please. The tour company can't drive us today. Please let us use your car!' It was unbelievable."
Wait, they go right to the front door?
"They'll come right to your door sometimes like we're a fucking museum. There's not a lot of houses, and ours is close to the road compared to everyone else down the road to Hobbiton ... at best they want directions. At worst it's like the French family thinking they could rent a car, or others asking for a ride there. You know, 'We didn't know how long a hike it was there. Please drive us.' No! And they get mad if you don't, as if they're the worst tour guide ever instead of you know, average citizens."
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It's as if they think the random people living in their normal human homes have been planted there by the tourism board to add atmosphere. When people find out they're not there to serve them, they don't take it well. "One American couple kicked a plant off our doorstep in retaliation, and others spat when we closed the door. And a Chinese couple we refused to allow to come in to use the bathroom told our neighbors that we forcefully kicked them out. Sometimes they aren't that polite, and hop the fence to have a picture in the field."
Myer says it wasn't just annoying at that point; it'd become dangerous. "They'll cross roads to see certain sites, so every so often you'll see someone in costume run across the road in front of moving traffic. Some stand in the middle of a street or climb trees on other people's property to get a shot of Hobbiton. Some have set up tents on the side of the road in the past because they want to be there first thing in the morning ... This was scary, but my dad was driving down around Hobbiton when a tent, with the door out to the road, zipped open with this person coming out. He tripped and fell into the road. My dad had to swerve around him at the last second. He called the police and proceeded to argue with these tourists for a while until the police came and told them to pack it up."
Ultimately, The Money Wins
The counterargument to all of this doesn't need to even be made. An ocean of Hollywood and tourism dollars won that debate before it began. Before production on The Hobbit, local authorities had to pay and lower numerous standards to ensure it could be filmed in New Zealand -- the studio had threatened to pull out otherwise.
Myer's story is but one example of what it's like to be a common person when the currents of capitalist incentives flow against you (thousands of other New Zealanders took to the streets to keep the filming in the country). So on one hand, you have all of that -- the jobs, the tax revenue, the publicity -- and on the other hand you have folks like Myer. "I was yelled at by people dressed as Gandalf."
But that's how change happens; you rarely get a vote. People with money make decisions, and the rest are swayed by the promise of jobs. "We were a peaceful farm community," says Myer. "Now we're a tourist site, whether we wanted it or not."
Evan V. Symon is an interviewer, journalist and interview finder guy at Cracked. Have an awesome job/experience for a Personal Experience? Hit us up here today!
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