Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Our Tour of Weta Workshop

Two words: confidentiality agreement.

(Special thanks to Jonathan King and Richard Taylor.)

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The Teahouse at the End of the World

We're home again and back to our bunny. We came back through Los Angeles and visited Santa Monica and West Hollywood during our layover. I don't recommend getting lost in Beverly Hills and trying to find parking while in the throes of jetlag.

Going back in time to Wellington . . . Our days had developed a comfortable pattern of sleeping in, exploring the local sights for several hours (including the fantastic national museum Te Papa), and then retiring to the youth hostel for a late-afternoon Lazy Tea. On Saturday, our main event was lunch with director Jonathan King at the Chocolate Fish Cafe. Jonathan was gracious and funny and most of all incredibly tolerant of my introduction, in which I reported that my own film production experience was restricted to a movie I had shot in my bedroom. Jonathan had recently returned from a whirlwind tour of film festivals around the world to promote his horror-comedy Black Sheep, which opens in the U.S. on June 22.

Jonathan didn't go into all the nuts and bolts of getting his film made (we talked about that later), but the subtext of the hard work, building of relationships, acquiring of financing, and most of all the enormous persistence required, was quite inspiring. His belief in his project was tangible. I found in him a kindred spirit.

Weta Workshop had done the special effects for Jonathan's film, and he offered that we might be able to get a tour of the facility. This was a good-enough reason to linger around Wellington for a few extra days. We decided that we'd visit the nearby Wairarapa area.

Diane drove our little Kia up over the mountains north of Wellington, and soon we were back in the rolling hills of sheep country. For most of the day a dark shelf of clouds, penetrated by the occasional godray, hung overhead. We stopped at Lake Ferry, a small settlement between Lake Onoke and Palliser Bay. The contrasts between rocks and tide and shore, dark grey pebbles with flecks of jade, were remarkable. I could have lingered all day, but the Paths of the Dead were calling.

After winding around a curvy little road on the very edge of the North Island, we arrived at the park of the Putangirua Pinnacles. Unlike some of the other filming sites for The Lord of the Rings, the Pinnacles were impressive just as they were. Unfortunately, we couldn't explore them at any length, since the trail was a two-hour walk and we had no wish to journey through sheep country in the dark.

Back in the car, we passed a string of teenage boys straining to pedal their bikes against the fearsome New Zealand wind (truly strong enough, as an old friend once recounted, to blow the earrings out of one's ears.) The boys seemed to be issuing from (or were perhaps passing through) a small bedraggled hillside community that had a peculiar African shantytown feel to it. With no docks, the town's boats were held on shore by a haphazard collection of old tractors and bulldozers. One building in particular stood out, a square orange box in the center of town.
We soon saw signs for a teahouse and shouted with joy when it turned out to be the orange house. Pop hits from the Fifties crackled out of a boom box on the counter as we leafed through outdated women's magazines, some of which, curiously, were not about celebrities but instead the extraordinary circumstances and hardships overcome by ordinary Kiwi folk. I ordered a "fresh fish sandwhich" and ended up getting the New Zealand staple "Fush and Chups" -- perfect.

Godrays danced on the water as we sipped our tea at world's end. True, the dirt road snaked around the southeast coast of the North Island, but its line on the map was dotted, and you felt that you had reached the end of something.

The world had gotten smaller for us in New Zealand. One connection had led to another, we made friends we felt we'd known forever, until it seemed that nearly everyone was in some way tied to the larger purposes behind our trip. Diane, now studying yoga under Jenifer, lives on a boat in Nelson with her husand and his family, including sister Taya, who had painted the SS Venture from King Kong, which was now harbored along the Miramar Peninsula. Diane herself worked at Sublime Coffee, run by the son of Weta art directors Dan and Chris Hennah. And it was through fellow screenwriter Brett that we had met Jonathan.

We finished our late-afternoon Lazy Tea, gazed out at the pink sunset over the water, and then got in the car for our trip back to Wellington under darkening skies.

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Finding Middle-earth

It's next time already, or finally. Greetings from Auckland. Our trip is nearly over, our friend and travel sherpa Diane has headed home to Nelson, and we are whiling away the hours until we see Pirates.

We've spent the past few days traveling from Wellington, where we ended up spending a good deal more time than anticipated. Maybe that's not exactly true, because we didn't have much of an agenda to begin with. At any rate, the North Island has proved exceptionally beautiful in its own right, and if it's not quite as majestic as the South Island is rumored to be (we didn't go south of Nelson), it's still a lovely place to drive through. In fact, the center of the North Island, through which Route 1 runs, is essentially empty. Which means that for several hours, until Lake Taupo, you are acccompanied by little more than wide, wide views of a couple volcanic mountains, amazing cloud formations, and grassy hills and plains. I've never been to the American Midwest or Southwest, but I imagined that the feeling might be much the same, and it occurred to me that having sufficient water, gasoline, and food, as well as a good cellphone connection, is a good idea. Fortunately, I had no need to worry over such things as (a) I wasn't driving and (b) I was engrossed by Brian Sibley's new biography of Peter Jackson.

Which brings me to the promise of my last entry. The day after we arrived in Wellington, we decided to take a Lord of the Rings tour around the area. Jenifer had been acting like there was no need for such silliness, but as our trip wore on she was better able to admit to her own geekiness, owning up to her own passionate following of the films' production and releases. Indeed, she's often joked about whether our relationship would survive in a post-LOTR world, since we'd been together for under two years when word of the movies was first released in August 1998. But we've done quite alright, thank you very much, and now we had a chance to visit some of the locations we'd seen in the films and in all those many hours of DVD special features.

Our friendly tour guide, Jack, picked us up from the Wellington hostel a little before nine (this is Wednesday a week ago now), and soon we were off, with six others (from Malaysia, Canada, Michigan, and the UK) in our van, named "Gollum." Jack was knowledgeable, passionate, and not a little opinionated, especially when it came to the debacle over Peter Jackson's involvement (or not) in The Hobbit. We climbed up Mount Victoria and found the wooded spot that served as a Shortcut to Mushrooms in Fellowship. What struck me immediately was how ordinary the site was, a simple dirt path through a public park. Again and again, whether in the locations for Rivendell, Helm's Deep, or Isengard, we saw how small and mundane locations were able to convincingly portray key spots in Middle-earth. Each place had been restored to its pre-filming locations, and Jack relayed how in many cases trees were either created by Weta Workshop or digitally relocated in order to serve a given scene. If you've watched the DVD extras, you know that the films contain many special effects shots, but I had no idea to what extent nearly every single frame was altered. Pretty cool stuff for a fan, but also instructive in the tools available to filmmakers.

The tour included a stop for tea at the Chocolate Fish cafe on Scorching Bay, where we would return three more times during our stay in Wellington. The cafe is named for its fish-shaped chocolate-covered pink marshmellows and was a popular hangout for the LOTR stars who lived nearby. After tea we drove through Miramar and saw the various Weta buildings, as well as Park Road Post, the post-production facility of WingNut Films. Mostly warehouses and "car parks," but nevertheless exciting to witness. We could only guess that projects like James Cameron's Avatar were being worked on behind the walls and closed doors.

That's it for now. I'll wrap up my New Zealand adventures when I return home. Look for pics in a few days!

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Monday, May 21, 2007

The Green Hills of Cape Farewell

Since I last wrote Jenifer and I have traded Nelson on the South Island for Wellington on the North, where we've stayed for the past week now. I'll regale you with accounts of our city exploits soon enough, but first I want to catch up on our last few days in the South Island.

Jenifer had a day off from teaching, so our friends Diane and Taya decided to take us to one of their favorite places. We set out at mid-morning for what was supposed to be a three-hour drive through the mountains, but we were escorting a pack of British kids Taya had picked up somewhere. The Brits all being 19 or thereabouts loitered and lingered and generally held up the works until, after several false starts, we were finally on the road, a caravan of two campervans and Diane's old Honda Civic. We drove through the lush wine country and then up through the mountains, pausing briefly for a picture of the view at Takaka Hill, which served as the outskirts of Hobbiton in The Fellowship of the Ring.

On the other side of the twisty, turning mountain roads we passed pasture after pasture of grazing sheep and cattle, until at last we reached our destination, Cape Farewell. The parking lot was situated by a large farm which, while green and expansive, gave no hint of the majesty to come. We mounted the round slope by the parking lot and took the narrow path along a winding ridge. At once we found ourselves hiking through an abundance of tumbling hills and strange trees--clusters of murky woods and also the occasional lonesome sapling--a technicolor golf course as designed by Dr. Seuss. We passed over hill and under hill, through sudden thickets of trees, following our grey and sandy trail, until between two faraway slopes a glistening wedge of water appeared, and we caught our first glimpse of the Tasman Sea.

We climbed the thick, sandy trail between two grassy knolls, and then suddenly the landscape opened up before us, and we were walking on the moon. The shore was a wide, grey plain reaching out nearly a mile to the sea, where two immense rocks guarded the flat coastline. This was Wharariki Beach and one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.

The Brits played "football" while Jenifer and Taya crossed the tide to one of the rocks, where a group of young seals was playing. The seals were curious and young enough not to be territorial, but nonetheless gave a good-natured chase and sent the explorers scurrying back through the rising water. Jenifer and Diane then created and walked a meditation mandala in the sand. I took pictures here and there, but it was enough to simply stand before the great rocks and take in sights and sounds and smells. The landscape, like much of New Zealand, was both familiar and otherwordly. It was good to feel so far away from everything.

The next day was taken up by planning and farewells, and then the day after that we left Nelson. We took the bus through logging and wine country to Picton, where we took the Interislander ferry to Wellington. The ship was huge, but both Jenifer and I managed to develop slight cases of seasickness. Several hours later, though, we were enjoying the elevated energy of Wellington. That night we saw Spider-Man 3, which was okay, but the real star was the venue, the Embassy Theatre. This was the site of the world premiere of The Return of the King and understandably so. It's a grand old place, richly appointed and as grand in scope as an opera house. As we sat through the closing credits, we discovered that we were sitting in Merry and Pippin's seats! Brass nameplates for Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd were fastened to the arms of our chairs. In a sudden burst of geekery, I dashed down the row and found Elijah Wood's seat. We later learned that Orlando Bloom's nameplate is stolen and replaced every three weeks or so. Neither Jenifer nor I had traveled to New Zealand to obsess over a certain trilogy of movies, but, being here, it's been hard not to get just a little excited. But more on that next time.

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Friday, May 11, 2007

On the Trail

Still in Nelson as Jenifer wraps up her teaching responsibilities today, and I have a bit more of New Zealand under my belt. On Thursday we hiked the park at the so-called Centre of New Zealand, wending our way up the switchback and then around Walter's Bluff. On one side, the bulk of Nelson's housing and commercial districts, as well as the marina; on the other side, a confluence of valleys and ridges sheltering a handful of farms. This land of geographical contrasts and strange, quick, and striking weather again confounded easy description. It feels reassuringly familiar -- the park reminding me of the woods of Connecticut -- but then the palm trees and unusual rock formations quickly remind you that you are indeed in a strange land. Of course, experiencing both the familiar and unexpected could be a result of stepping into May and autumn at the same time.

Yesterday's big event was riding horses at Stonehurst Farm. Except for a pony ride at the Hamilton Park Festival at the end of my street years ago, I'd never ridden a horse before. I was a bit nervous initially, but Rodney took care of me, and for the last hour I felt in complete harmony with the rhythm of his gait, the winding trail, the rain pelting our western-style dusters. The scenery was again stupendous, with rivers of jade, grassy mountain passes, and the silent witnesses of curious sheep and mountain goats. As we headed back to the farm, we could see the blue sky chasing the storm clouds above us, and soon the white New Zealand sun burst through the darkness and cleared away the rain. We actually rode through the wide arch of a double rainbow. We couldn't have asked for a more perfect ending.

After the ride we got to meet Percy, one of the equine stars of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. He played Snowmane, the horse of King Theoden, and also Arod, the horse of Legolas. He was a gracious star, and if the experience of bearing Orlando Bloom affected him at all, he hid it well.

That evening we dined at the cozy Turkish Delight and had the good fortune of running into our new friend Kate, an Australian and brand-new Nelsonite. So far good luck and wondrous connections have been the emerging themes of our stay in Nelson. Indeed, the son of the restaurant's owner, a Turkish immigrant, could be mistaken for Jenifer's brother, his blonde hair a lingering testament to the Varangians' presence in Constantinople a thousand years ago. One wonders if all roads lead to Nelson.

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Hey, Mates!

Greetings from tomorrow and New Zealand. Here's the first of several planned entries from Kiwi Land. This week I'm in Nelson (as in the English admiral) as Jenifer completes her final week of teaching at Hot Yoga of New Zealand, and then we head to Wellington and the unknown. After three decent nights of sleep, I'm finally feeling human after having survived the Barthesian stresses of flight and waiting and not-doing. I left Philadelphia at 8 am last Friday, arrived in San Francisco six hours later, wandered the airport for 10 hours until my 13-hour flight to Auckland, waited another four hours, slept through most of the 75-minute flight to Nelson, and then arrived at an airport about the size of a pregnant Wawa, greeted by Jenifer and her Australian friend Kate. Somewhere in there I read The Children of Húrin and the screenplays for Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Dances With Wolves, but mostly I sat and walked and waited and otherwise inhabited a no-man's land of time and contemplation. It was not altogether unpleasant. I wonder what space travel would feel like.

I haven't seen much of the country yet, but what I have seen is beautiful. Coming into Nelson by puddlejumper, you're struck by the purple clouds, the jade water, the merging of mountain and mist. Within minutes of landing I was standing on green sand and surveying the bowl of mountain that surrounds the the town. The streets and architecture feel like a somehow familiar mixture of Los Angeles, Seattle, and the suburbs of Hamburg, Germany: narrow, hilly streets; cute square houses nestled in the green trees everywhere.

Nelson is a smallish artists' community and surprisingly international; it's a place people choose to live. Jenifer commented a few weeks back that one of her classes featured more "foreigners" than New Zealanders. A number of our new friends hail from the U.S., and two of them, Tom and Heather, took us sailing yesterday. I practiced my casting but didn't catch anything. Tom, an organic farm magnate and bookseller, fared better, as did Kiwis Simon and Julia. Nonetheless, I was granted a fillet of Kahawai prepared by Grant, our Kiwi captain; I cooked it up last night and have never enjoyed fresher fish.

Jenifer and I were blessed to sail with such great company, and to taste a future we hadn't contemplated until now. I've never been one for stuff, but I wouldn't mind sailing a yacht now and again and chartering it in between. Tom and I discussed management, and I was particularly struck by his approach to gaining the allegiance of his employees: "Don't assume that everyone is intelligent. But allow them to succeed and to do so with dignity."

Today is pretty much an "off" day for me as Jenifer has a full load of classes. I hope to have a report of Golden Bay after the weekend--and then we're off to Wellington.

A parting note: these NZ posts will be updated with photos when I return to the States.

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