Earlier this month, on the 20th anniversary of his arrival in New Zealand to begin working on The Lord of the Rings, Sir Ian McKellen shared a link to the diaries he’d kept during production. After blowing off the web 1.0 dust, the entries are a charming look into how movies get made, as well as a fascinating peek behind the curtain of Peter Jackson’s hit trilogy (which is still very, very good).
Below, we’ve compiled some of the highlights, ranging from funny stories from the set to broader philosophical musings.
In one of the earliest entries, McKellen compares early iterations of Gandalf’s beard to none other than Rasputin’s. He also describes being burdened with props — a staff, toffees, a pipe — before writing about his experience at the beginning of the shoot.
They had been filming without me for three months and I felt like the new boy at school as they re-grouped two weeks into the year. Term started with a rough cut of the action so far - those that didn’t need major special effects added. A videotape was projected onto the screen of the cinema near the WETA workshops where the dailies are viewed. The soundtrack was uneven. The music was from other movies. And so the audience began by cheering their hard work like a home movie until the story took over and through the silence they watched Boromir die and the hobbits weep as they lose Gandalf to the Balrog. Peter had provided beer and wine but I’m off the alcohol and had two candy floss (cotton candy) and popcorn. Then a party at the house of Barrie Osborne (Producer) and his partner Carol Kim (Production Manager.) At the end of the evening Billy Boyd (“Pippin”) persuaded me to follow him down the fireman’s pole that falls twenty feet to the hall. And I wasn’t even drunk.
McKellen also reveals himself to be a theme park enthusiast — who knew?
I am a sucker for movie theme parks. Last year I spent a night at Disneyland Paris where, as on previous trips to Universal Studios Los Angeles, I was struck by an irony. Their rides try and create the experience of somehow partaking in famous films. Some use actual film for their effects, of which the 3D Honey I Shrunk the Kids in Paris is the latest riotous example. But most of the time the older rides just sit the audience down for a journey past a variety of dramatic scenery, working models, and visual deceptions. So when you “fly” at Anaheim over London in Peter Pan’s chariot or in Burbank across the moon in ET’s bicycle, you are closer to theatre than to cinema. Again, in the stage shows, parades, and fireworks displays, the subject matter may be cinematic but the experience is of the theatre. Mickey and Minnie et al are live performers, not 2D animation or actors’ shadows on a screen. Disneyland and Universal thrive because their customers enjoy live theatre just as much as going to the movies. Long live theme parks!
Way back, there was a scheme in London to turn the disused Battersea power station into a theme park. There in 1995, we filmed the climactic battle scenes for our Richard III movie. I should love to go on a “Tricky Dicky Ride.”
In the same entry, he tells a very sweet story about working with the late Sir Christopher Lee, and making him laugh.
Last week, the day after Gandalf packed Frodo and Sam off to Bree, promising to meet them at The Inn of the Prancing Pony, I worked with Christopher Lee for the first time. Gandalf visits his fellow Istar at the Orthanc Tower, where Saruman consults his seeing stone, the palantir. I don’t feel face to face with Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, Fu Man Chu all at once because Christopher looks saintly in his robes. And there is work to be done.
Christopher Lee proves that a distinctive voice is an asset in the movies. Stars are not just pretty faces, so to speak, they must sound good too. His 200 (or is it 300?) films have robbed theatre audiences of a resounding Shakespearian. Spread across the black throne under Orthanc’s vasty roof, he looked like King Lear in age and authority. He is 78 years old, handsome and powerful. When he speaks, all I see and hear is Saruman, my old associate gone wrong. Except once when he rounded off a speech, at Peter Jackson’s suggestion, with a snarl. To be within four feet of a Lee snarl is unsettling. I was glad he wasn’t wearing his fangs.
He loves stories about actors and I amused him last week with one he didn’t know, which I was told by Brian Bedford:
“Noël Coward reads a poster: Michael Redgrave and Dirk Bogarde in The Sea Shall Not Have Them! ‘I don’t see why not — everyone else has.’”
I like making Saruman laugh.
One of McKellen’s other stories about making friends on set features a (jet-lagged) grumpy Sir Ian Holm. More importantly, however, the entry also features what McKellen calls “the first critical review of Lord of the Rings.”
When the other Sir Ian (Holm that is) arrived from London in March, he was of course jet-lagged but that didn’t stop his schedule of costume fittings and make-up tests from taking over straightaway. He was wandering round the workshops in Hobbit feet and a curly wig. I was filming in the Wellington studio next door and took him to the lunch tent. “What’s it like here?” he asked me, dolefully. I told him he was in for a treat and within 24 hours he agreed. A month later, he couldn’t bear to leave, swearing he would be back in New Zealand before the movie was complete. This was not that he expected the part of Bilbo to be extended. Ian had discovered the South Island.
I have now been shown the first Bilbo/Gandalf scene at Bag End roughly cut awaiting some revoicing that will remove extraneous noises and the enhanced soundtrack of effects and music perhaps. So here is the first critical review of Lord of the Rings. “Bilbo lives and if the rest of the cast matches Ian Holm’s performance, you are in for the treat of a lifetime”.
That said, McKellen’s favorite co-stars aren’t all human. He goes on at some length about the horses on the production, going so far as to say that he thinks they would have done just fine in the mines of Moria.
Not all of Tolkien’s creatures are as outlandish as Gollum or Treebeard or the cave troll. Horses are dear to his heart - even the Ringwraith steeds, which may be evil-looking, snorting like devils, their hooves cloven with nails but, like all nags, are only obeying orders. They have been pressed into service and are furious. I’m glad I didn’t have to work with them.
More my style is the chestnut Rastus who plays Bill the pony and is adorable. The compliant, ever-licking Rastus is 11 years old, an American quarter horse crossed with Shetland. Led by Samwise (Sean Astin) he reliably carried the Fellowship’s baggage and endured the uncomfortable snowstorm of polystyrene and rice flakes when Saruman’s agents attacked the nine of us in the Wellington studio en route for Moria. He was less fazed by the tempest than the rest of the cast, even though he didn’t have blinkers on. He didn’t complain of dust in the eyes or polysterene balls in every bodily crevice. Between takes, as I called for bottled water and a make-up check, Rastus calmly helped himself to the layer of salt which added glitter to the surface of the snow. I wish he had made it into the mines of Moria. He would not have been daunted by all those steps and passageways nor by the rowdy goblins. Indeed I would have trusted him with the ring itself.
Though not as amusing as some of the other entries, McKellen also gets into the ins and outs of completing a film, including the fact that changes are de rigueur. In less business-based news, he also writes about souvenirs from the set.
At the beginning of this month I was back in New Zealand for six days completing my contribution to The Fellowship of the Ring. Shock? Horror? Some observers earlier in the year over-reacted to the Grey Book’s news that Peter Jackson was making minimal adjustments to the beginning of that film. They assumed that something had gone badly wrong — in part, perhaps, a cynical reaction to the unanimous approval of the “Cannes footage” where journalists and distributors raved over 20 minutes of completed film.
For a film director to adjust things between the completion of principal photography and the movie’s release is, of course, commonplace, akin to a chef’s last-minute seasoning or an author’s spellcheck.
Whilst Saruman and I were facing off once more, I asked Dan Hennah (art director) if I could one day take home a couple of the fake-metal lizards which served as door handles in Orthanc. He smiled quizzically as he often does and as I left for Wellington Airport last week, Peter and Fran presented me with a hefty wooden box containing the lizards, which are now settled in at their new home in London. Among a few further precious mementoes are an Alan Lee original pencil drawing of Gandalf (another gift from the Jacksons) plus I confess hanging in my study the large keys to Bag End’s round front door which, if anyone asks, I shall swear were given me by Bilbo Baggins before he left Hobbiton forever.
I also have a sizeable collection of prototypes for merchandising curiosities, which have been sent on approval. My favourite, although I don’t eat meat, is Burger King’s goblet with a convincing likeness of Gandalf in cameo relief on its bowl. Perhaps this should only be available for consumers of veggieburgers!
In his first entry following the release of The Fellowship of the Ring, McKellen writes a little about the press tour, specifically about being upstaged by Lee and sent into hysterics by Holm.
Chris was unfailingly gallant and magnificently fluent in not only half a dozen European languages (well, Mrs Lee is Danish and he is half-Italian) but also a smattering of small talk from the other four continents. Agog the two Ians were introduced to Afrikaans, Zulu, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Swahili and more. I couldn’t manage anything more foreign than “Bon Jour” and “Ciao”. We were amused to be so eruditely upstaged.
Perhaps to prove that he too was capable of more than the routine answers with which we responded to the repetitious questions, toward the end of the afternoon, without warning Ian Holm launched into a reply which he’d never given before and as I listened, the ludicrous side of the day impinged on my funny bone. It was like hearing a colleague on stage deliberately diverting from the text he has repeated night after night during a long run. And so I started to laugh. First I just smiled and then giggled to myself, just in control, biting my lip so as not to be noticed — after all how to explain that the sun had finally started to turn my brain? Then exhaustion released my self-control and I began to laugh. And laugh out loud. Ian continued talking. So I laughed some more, carefree and enjoying it now. I stood up and rocked on my feet roaring by this time, until all I could was to run away, laughing across the lawn in search of a drink. Chris told me later that he feared for my sanity. He was right to.
In the lead-up to The Two Towers’ release, McKellen writes about a surprise at the screening held for the cast, as well as providing a quick look at the crew’s priorities.
Arriving early for the screening - well wouldn’t you? - I helped pop some corn and arrange a display of candy-bars in the drafty lobby guarded over by a full-size Gandalf cut-out and, for me much more alarming, by two Saruman figures. What chance would a grey wizard have against two whites?
A tentative schedule for the release is being organised. The European premiere will be in Paris and Dan Hennah has already scouted out the terrain for the post-show party.
Finally, there are McKellen’s recollections of his last day of shooting as Gandalf, battling who-knows-what and receiving Gandalf’s sword as his parting gift.
I finished mid-afternoon standing in front of a green screen close to the camera, filming a close-up of Gandalf as he battled with unseen (indeed non-existent) forces - orcs probably, although I confess I’m never too sure.
Barrie Osborne, with his widest grin, presented me with Gandalf’s magnificent sword and then, screened on a white sheet, a four minute video presentation of the Grey and the White, high spots from the movies and low spots too, me forgetting my lines, me swearing, me peacocking at Gandalf’s original screen test to see how the costume and make-up would work onscreen. By this time, I felt it. Still there was no need for tears. I would be back for the world premiere on 1 December. I couldn’t say goodbye to everyone; I had a plane to catch. Up before dawn next day I settled into my seat and tried to catch sight of the studios as we took off and then I realised - I’d forgotten to bring Gandalf’s sword with me!
In his final Lord of the Rings journal entry, McKellen leaves us with a touching thought on “the real Gandalf,” and his significance to us all.
When I’m asked to sign Gandalf as well as my own name by importunate autograph hunters, I explain that Gandalf doesn’t give autographs and I remember how Alistair Sim always refused, often really upsetting the juvenile with her album. If anyone persists I also explain that Gandalf isn’t here with us. Last week I went on to say that Gandalf doesn’t exist! Although of course he does.
I like him for his sense of humour and sense of occasion. I like his independence and need for company. Kids, some as young as five, look wonderingly up as their grandparents introduce us, searching for Gandalf in my face. I hope they feel as I did aged three sitting on Father Christmas’s knee in the grotto of our local store in Wigan. I could see it was a cotton-wool beard and it didn’t fit. This wasn’t the real Santa Claus. He was elsewhere preparing my stocking. The real Gandalf is elsewhere and I bet those kids know it because they trust him and love him like their grandad.
If you’re in need of a Lord of the Rings fix, The Two Towers and Return of the King are currently available to stream on Netflix.