QUICKBEAM'S OUT ON A LIMB:
Where the Stars are Strange: Part IV
I am afraid I am only in everybodys way, he stammered; but I should like to do anything I could, you know.
* * *
When I woke up on the morning of 5 December 2000, I really felt I had never gone to sleep. That awful creepy feeling in my bones told me that four hours was NOT enough, and I would regret it big time.
But there was David, tapping around the room, speaking to me with obvious concern in his voice because of the time.
Oh man, I really didnt have enough time to get out the door! What if I miss the train? What if I never get to see Gondor? What if I get blacklisted by all those nice people in Casting who were so kind to me? Worry turned into haste.... and you all must know by now that Im the "hasty" one. I ran through a cold shower, ate cereal so fast I didnt taste it, and we sped through the pre-dawn mist to the grand Railway Station. Thank heaven for my host, David, driving like a maniac. Because I barely made it to Platform 9.
Nonstop service from Lossarnach to the Pelennor
No, I did not say Platform 9 3/4 it was just Platform 9.
I must have been confused about that train business. I was really looking for a bus! There it was, a charter bus on the furthest right, and a throng of young men in their twenties stood around, bristling in the cold. It was the kind of cold where your breath crystallizes and falls to the ground with a soft, tinkly sound. I was not sure how to deal with this cold, since Im from L.A. and anything below 70 degrees F causes me to complain.
Soon the bus pushed off and we left the city limits of Wellington, headed north up into the wilds of the Upper Hutt. A slow daybreak colored the edges of the clouds. My mind was filled with expectant visions of the real Minas Tirith set. Yesterday, I had already seen the most magnificent scale model over at WETA; and I wondered how the details of that glorious piece would translate to the full-size City.
When we got to the edge of the Dry Creek Quarry (try saying that five times fast), we stayed across the road from it, headed for the large "armor tents" which were filled with plate and chain armor, helmets, makeup chairs, and of course the necessary craft services! Inside, everyone was divided up into three categories.... one group for Hero Armor, and two others for "further back" soldiers who would be a certain distance from the camera. The latter of the "further backs" actually wore cloth shirts with metallic fibers sewn in the arms instead of actual chain mail.
I was not certain which group was going where, so I just gave them my name and got in line. After awhile I realized I would end up in the back of the scene.
The WETA armor wranglers were in force this morning, busy as ants on a hill. Their task was to keep the group organized and get them fully armored up in a very short time. There was Sukhita, my wonderful singing partner, busily distributing helmets and breastplates. She greeted me warmly and I watched with amazement as the assembly line rolled on.
My outfit consisted of warm black leggings, a long-sleeve dark overshirt, shiny gauntlets for legs and forearms over that, topped off with the aforementioned breastplate mail. This felt so strange. The armor of a Gondorian soldier seemed very bulky and heavy but it was just plastic! It sure looked like real metal. The color was like the dark lead of a pencil, the shape of the plate clean and austere.
The helmet had extensions of black curly hair attached to the underside, giving the impression that every single soldier in Gondor had black hair. This of course was a stylistic choice by Peter Jackson and the artisans to help create a different "cultural look" for Gondor. All the Rohan extras would have blond hair, light eyes and the Gondor boys would have black hair, dark eyes. Other standards were set in place for other races, inspired by Tolkiens descriptions in the text. The Casting people followed these criteria in all their casting efforts.
Funny, I actually have bright blue eyes. Humph.
When all was tightened and snug around my torso (with the help of at least two people) I hit the make-up chair. I sat there frightened of the powder-puff soon to come. The young women worked on Minas Tirith civilians and the soldiers in quick succession. They quickly sponged dark powder on all our faces, making us look rugged and unshaven. I didnt need much because I was wearing my own beard at the time.
Soon my transformation was complete. There I stood, gazing at dozens of soldiers milling about, and I felt new courage flowing through my soul. If youve never worn the armor of Gondor, I highly recommend it.
* * *
A chilly morning sun peeked over the edge of the mountains as we headed back up into the Quarry proper. It was a wee bit scary to be here but it was exciting too.
There it was, Minas Tirith, standing stark and mighty against the mountainside. The walls were alabaster white. Towers and parapets circled around the structure, and I could see small people walking great colored banners up to the uttermost spire. Several unique walls and tower pieces zoomed up above our heads. How awesome! It actually was a giant, life-size version of the scale model!
Of course, these New Zealand hills were quite different from the White Mountains, as they were covered with lush tropical flora. Still, and perhaps to WETAs benefit, the sky was clear and blue as tiffany glass. If they wanted to digitally add a backdrop beyond this external set, I imagine it would be easy.
We marched in file towards a huge holding area outside the first circle of the City. Here the weapons were distributed, according to each soldiers placement in the crowd scene. Some received tall pikes, some had rubber swords (of course they looked like hard, cold steel) and all of us had a glorious shield strapped to our backs. Now the front design on the shield displayed a large white tree with a stylized root system. I absolutely LOVED this design, as it clearly was drawn from the symbol of Elendil (only without the stars above it).
In the new sun, a strong breeze blowing down the ridge, the City called to us. And on we marched.
We entered a small archway and was inside the first circle. What a fantastic place! What an amazing construct! What can I say at this point without sounding redundant? The main walking areas were all made of flat cut stone that matched the masonry of the walls. Fountains and small sitting gardens were tucked along the sides, usually adjacent to lovely arched doorways. People were busy setting props and materials around these, dressing them up as markets and shops. Statues hanging plants smooth stone benches buttressed windows there was so much! Camera equipment was strewn everywhere and by all appearances the technicians were gearing up for a busy day.
My first impression: This is all kind of Ancient Romanesque. But it was not really. Some of the archways and statuary had the flavor of Rome, but many other architectural elements were clearly English. An interesting mix.
Up to the wall we went; and a little too fast! I wanted to run off and explore.... there must have been hundreds of rooms, miles of cobbled pathways to investigate. But no! We had to go straight up to the wall to man our posts. We were to look out over the wall, watching events unfold on the Pelennor Fields below.
A huge crane truck was parked right underneath us. Dangling from it was the biggest piece of blue fabric anyone could imagine. I would spend the rest of the day staring at it. Indeed, I thought maybe today I would fight or learn some unique marching choreography. But mostly it was just "Stand and look at the bluescreen." Im not complaining, honestly, for in the end there were real acting skills involved, as you will see.
The 2nd Unit assistants got everything organized. Sukhita and several others from WETA came along and brushed up the armor with this funny metallic powder. The tip of every spear and the edge of every breastplate was inspected and re-colored. I knew she had artistic talent but in a pinch, this young woman proved to be ingenious. She could spot a rough edge a mile off.... and quick as lightning she was there with her brushes and colors. I met another friendly brunette named Laurelle who said, "Arent you the one who sang at Karaoke?" which made about the umpteenth time I was tagged.
Remind me never to go out drinking with Kiwis again.
* * *
The rest of the day went something like this:
1) Stand at attention
2) Hold your pike close to your side
3) Look fearful and concerned!
The camera was mounted on a different crane; and passed slowly in front of us, getting a smooth pan across our faces. It would go from the east end to the west, then back again. We were given instruction, you could even say direction, by the 2nd Unit Director, David Norris. We had to imagine we were watching battle and carnage right below the outer walls, right under our noses. This was Gondors darkest hour and it was the "anxiety in our eyes" they wanted to capture.
When the heat became quite noticeable ZOOM! the assistants were milling about with umbrellas and little cups of Gatorade for all of us. Everyone was to hide from the sun, as much as possible, in-between takes. Quite funny to see all these serious Gondorian soldiers propping themselves up against the wall with big red umbrellas waving over their heads.
This was wonderful. They were so attentive and careful with the extras. Looking back on my past Hollywood experiences, I cant find another instance like this. Dozens of takes were completed throughout the morning, and as soon as the megaphone yelled "CUT!" the drinks and umbrellas came flying right back for our relief. They even brought us wee cups of sunscreen to dabble on our exposed necks and faces. I felt almost pampered.
* * *
Then it was time for lunch. I had no interest in eating, not even if my stomach was screaming at me. I was determined to go off and explore! How could I honestly say I had been to Minas Tirith if at the end of the day I had stood on a parapet with my back to it?! Absurd.
Walking back out through the armor depository, Sukhita helped remove the shield and sword straps, and she suggested I go look around the left side. There I would find something very special.
I took off my helmet (delighted again at the beautiful wings traced along the sides) and I took her advice. I took that short walk around the outside wall. It was the most life-shattering walk I would ever take.
There stood the Main Gate of Minas Tirith.
I was a tiny figure standing mute before its glorious might. It was the most resplendent, awesomely crafted thing I had ever seen. Nay, I could never have dreamed up this. Standing almost 20 meters high (four stories), it was built into a solid wall of bleached white stone. The front of the Gate held carvings and bas relief sculptures of beautifully dressed, terribly handsome Kings of the past. These were surely figures of Númenor. Two of the figures were proportionally large, other smaller ones were inset on the sides. Different hues of grey and white helped contrast the Kingly figures against the heavily drawn designs on the gate itself.
It made me feel, in an instant, that I had transported completely into a powerful, real history that dwarfed my comprehension.
My senses locked out all sound, as if volume dial in my mind had been suddenly shut off. This was a moment that pulled me outside of my self. I felt incredibly moved at the glory and ancientry this Gate represented. I knew the history behind this Gate, the many thousands of years of turmoil and strife that was behind this noble structure. I knew what was behind it, and I knew the horror that would soon bring it down. I could feel the weight of it. I was overwhelmed.
What happened to my heart? Why am I crying?
Then out of the corner of my eye I noticed someone transparent, a vague figure, standing close. He was a slight, older gentleman, dressed in simple, academic attire and a tweed coat. He seemed very kind as he smiled at me. He chewed a small pipe in his mouth. I recognized this spirit immediately. In his arms he held a little orange cat, who purred softly. A feeling of comfort flowed over me.
He looked at me and then looked back up at the Gate, and smiled broadly, seeming to say, "They really got it right, didnt they?"
I said nothing. I could only stare up at it, the tears for some reason would not stop coming.
Later, sitting in the lunch tent, I would try to explain to Sukhita and Laurelle the feelings that ran through me. I failed completely. They looked at me with a strange mix of curiosity and concern, but in all my years this was the first time I truly lost my speech.
* * *
Back up on the wall, I was determined to shake hands with the David Norris. He was very engaging and friendly, like all Kiwis seem to be, and lucky for me I found him in a welcoming mood. I told him I had come all the way from California to visit the set, on behalf of the fans. He said, "Well, lets get you into some Hero Armor and place you in front of the camera."
What a delightful and altogether fateful surprise.
In a flash I was hustled down to the changing area, and a very young lad named Micah gave up his Hero Armor in exchange for mine.... he didnt care. Seriously, he had been doing this for weeks, and with a surprising absence of ego he decided he would like to take a break. And he was exactly my size too.
Now of course theres NO WAY this would ever happen in L.A.
The moment of a lifetime had come. I was wearing real metal chain, a real metal Hero Sword, and was standing with the camera about two feet from my face. In fact, we shot additional scenes were we watched Faramir departing from the City to defend Osgiliath. The Director barked many times at us through the megaphone: "You are horrified, you are sad! The Prince of the City who is dearest to you is leaving! You are worried he will never come back! What is that fearful Shadow rising up to meet him? Thats it! Look frightened for him!" And so on.
The last big chunk of work that day was the most fun.
We ran around trying to get away from the little orange ball. Really this was an orange ball stuck on top of the camera (to orient our "sight-lines" to the correct spot). We were supposed to visualize the Witch-king, who was clearly on his winged steed, swooping down to terrify us all. When the camera rolled, we got into formation then turned and looked up then scattered in fright. From one end of the plaza to the other, we did it again, and again, and again.
I could write a unique chapter about my sore back. I could sing you a song about the prickly heat in that heavy chain mail. I could dictate an epic saga about the muscle cramps in my whole body. But I wont.
It was [here comes the BIG CLICHÉ everyone] the thrill of a lifetime. The little 12-year old in me who had always loved this story loved it, felt it, memorized it, emulated it, had finally stepped inside it. I was a part of the legend.
If the scene doesnt end up on the cutting room floor, I will be doubly lucky. If so, come 2003 when you go to see The Return of the King, you will see me standing on the battlements next to Beregond.
I will be the only Gondorian soldier with bright blue eyes.
To be concluded....
Much too hasty,
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BE HERE TOMORROW FOR: A visit with Shadowfax, green room capers with the entire Fellowship, Flotsam and Jetsam, a bluescreen Samwise, and a last farewell to Middle-earth!