Max Bonem - "Food, travel and everything between"
In 1998, a young location scout arrived at the Alexander family’s front door. Their farmhouse is located on over 100 acres of rolling hills and sheep pasture in Matamata, New Zealand. He knocked and, lucky for him, the rugby match that Mr. Alexander was watching intently had reached its halftime break. The property owner answered the door and told the strange visitor that he was welcome to wander the farm as he pleased, but that he would be doing so alone because the farmer had his beloved game to finish watching. The young scout walked about, making sure to close off gates as he went to prevent any of the sheep from escaping, and then he left.
Six weeks later, a not especially well-known film director phoned the farmer and asked whether he could come by to visit the farm with some representatives from New Line Cinema. The farmer told him he was busy, but that he would try to clear an hour to have a chat with them. Soon thereafter, Peter Jackson arrived at the farm and, after the requisite tea and biscuits, asked the farmer if he’d like to help Jackson make the Lord of the Rings come to life by using the farmer’s property as the location for The Shire. The farmer scoured, raised an eyebrow, and replied with, “Lord of the what!?”
There is almost no fantasy series, whether it be in book, TV, or film form, that doesn’t pay homage to J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpieces, The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. They are some of the greatest literary works of all time and incredible examples of what humanity is truly capable of in its finest moments. Many of us have done the unthinkable and watched the entire LOTR trilogy in one sitting. I remember doing it once in college and it took so long that we ordered pizza twice (these were the extended additions, each of which was accompanied by at least two hours of bonus features). College was great. Then in the past few years, we returned to Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth with The Hobbit trilogy. Say what you will about the latter series, they’re still fun and magical as hell.
Of course, when Jackson got the band back together for the Hobbit trilogy, he knew he’d have to resurrect his beloved Shire and, once again, he came calling to the Alexander family. Now after the LOTR trilogy, Jackson’s crew took down Hobbiton as it originally stood, the entirety of which was built out of plastic and styrofoam. When Jackson returned, the farmer and his family welcomed him and the construction crew with open arms once again. This time though, they had one condition: rebuild Hobbiton out of materials that will last so that people can come to see the world you’ve created. Jackson, who now owns a 49% share of Hobbiton, happily obliged.
The first thing you notice is how not out of place The Shire looks set amongst the vast valley that it resides in. There are sheep for as far as the eye can see, none of which appeared in the film because Jackson thought they looked too modern (instead black hoofed and faced sheep were brought up from other farms near Wellington). When you take that first corner though and you spot the old oak tree on top of Bag End, suddenly you’re no longer in New Zealand, you’ve officially landed in Middle Earth.
It’s all there: the spots where Gandalf pulled up on his cart and was greeted by Frodo gleefully, where Bilbo announced that he was going on ad adventure, and where Sam was found rustling in the bushes before being roped into a quest he would never soon forget. There’s a pub, where ale and cider and stout flow freely. There’s a working garden in the middle of the property where you can almost see Merry and Pippin rooting around for snacks. There are mountains in the distance that you can imagine being beyond the gates of Mordor. Visiting Hobbiton makes it very clear that New Zealand was the only option for Middle Earth, the only reality for Jackson’s vision, and the only land suitable to make Tolkien’s fantasy come to life.
The cast and crew of Lord of the Rings spent almost two years of their lives just filming the movies. That doesn’t account for the writing process, location scouting (of which there are more than 150 spots on New Zealand’s two islands), casting, post-production, prop creation, and editing. Making these films was almost as epic of a quest as the storyline itself. However, when you’re dealing with a writer’s masterwork, a series that took more than 15 years just to write, no details can be spared.
Additionally though, there’s a sense of humor about the place, about the whole concept of the tour in general that’s apparent from the moment you arrive. The guides are self-proclaimed hobbits in their own right. They tell you stories about the cast and what they got up to for 18 months during filming. For instance, Viggo Mortensen was so dedicated to nailing his role as Aragorn that he would take his sword with him wherever he went in order to get used to the weight it carried. This became problematic, however, when he ventured to a local pub and had the police called on him for possession of a deadly weapon. The entire cast and crew were sworn to secrecy during filming and each signed non-disclosure agreements so Mortensen couldn’t reveal why he was carrying a broadsword into a bar, but luckily, Peter Jackson was able to bail him out.
Before we headed back into town, we made one last stop at the gift shop because everyone was in need of Gandalf pipes and Hobbit-brew, of course. As I walked around the shop, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of rings for sale. One of the shop’s employees approached me and asked if I was looking for something in particular and I asked where their selection of rings were. Her reply, which she delivered completely deadpan and with a straight face, will stay with me forever, “Oh, you mean the ring? Well, of course we don’t have any for sale, it was destroyed in Mt. Doom.”
What a magical world this is.
You can read more of Max's stories at https://maxbonem.contently.com/