Blog | 23 January 2001 | Edoras and Erewhon

Edoras is the mountain fortress which guards the Golden Hall, where Theoden reigns. It features heavily in the second film of the trilogy, so it was decided to build Edoras amongst real mountains and away from blue screens, miniatures and trick photography. A real-looking fortress in a real wilderness of Rohan.

Peter Jackson's team found the perfect location in the wide gravelly valley that leads down from the alpine range west of Canterbury Plain, right in the centre of the South Island of New Zealand. Basically you go to the skiing resort of Methven and ask for Clearwater Lake. 40 minutes later as the road declines to dirt-track, ask again — everyone locally knows Erewhon. They also know it is nearly "nowhere" backwards. They know that because of Samuel Butler, the bisexual Victorian English author who came here to double his capital by sheep-farming on the station he called Mesopotamia (Greek for "between two rivers"). The now-adjacent farm is called Erewhon after the title and setting of Butler's satirical novel about a utopia (Greek for "no place").

This literary bywater is, for geologists, trampers and filmmakers, a majestic place. The river is lazy, having with its glacier worn out the valley eons back. More dominant are the jagged mountains that ring the plain 360 degrees: Peter Jackson needed snow on the peaks and the early spring didn't disappoint. He wanted his camera, whichever way it might point when filming in Edoras, to see the distant challenge of rock and ice. On a mighty outcrop that the glacier must have missed, there was for three weeks only the just-built cluster of outhouses and princely dwellings contained within a wooden pallisade whose main gate looked out on the royal graveyard, where the Evermind grew. When I first saw it, I gasped that Edoras was reborn and that it had only taken five months to put it up. This was very quick, considering a road to the outcrop had first to be driven through the tussocks and to bridge the river until it could wind, as it were, round the back.

In the film you will only see Edoras from the east: from the west you would see the service road and its carpark with the generators, shelters and vehicles that hauled us all up to the temporary settlement — one day there were 200 cast, crew, extras and animals. Some of us ate in the Golden Hall, whose interior was filmed in December at the Wellington studios. The camera at Edoras was only interested in appearances, the facades, not what lay beyond the doors. The actors' greenroom was next to the Golden Hall and Peter Jackson and his team watched the video of the proceedings in what appeared to be the stables, but wasn't.

Acting in such circumstances is what all of us, filmmakers and audiences, love so much about film: the sense of actually being there. Bernard Hill as Theoden might not yet quite know what the Golden Hall will be like, where he will be brought to his senses by a stern Gandalf. But when Theoden chased Wormtongue off the premises, down the stairs with that waterfall which Tolkien describes so precisely; when his subjects parted to see the traitor stagger into exile with the mountains snowy beyond; when he later prayed at his son's tomb and the wind blew hard in his face — all this authenticity will provide so much information about Theoden (and the rest of us: Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Merry and Pippin) that acting was not much required, at least for the long shots. When the camera came close (and Bernard had some complicated emotions to live through) I'm sure he found it easier, breathing that hardy air, feeling the rock of ages under his feet. Certainly he acted with his usual intense naturalism. But neither he nor I could resist twirling our robes a little as they brushed the grass or the carved steps! After all in those long shots, miles from anywhere, a mad utopia of a location, that really is Theoden you will see in 2002. I know because I saw him there.

ThatI don't know about the riggers who must have been fed up with Edoras. They had worked through the winter with a long ride back to their homestays, New Zealand's acclaimed guesthouses, where you are in danger of being treated like one of the family. Some of us lodged in Methven at the Brinley Resort Village, which looked a bit like the last resort of a desperate accommodation manager. It had two rows of apartments which faced inwards instead of toward the magnificent alps 30 miles away. Their roofs sloped steeply against the snow but otherwise the architecture was thin on style; you will remember them from the Truman Show. It had, though, a restaurant with a log fire and meaty menu. And the manager very cheerfully found me some feather pillows and turned on the heating in time for my return as if I were an hotel guest, rather than a short stay in the self-service flats.

ThatMy immediate neighbours were Matt Cutfield (my ever-cheerful, ever-ready driver) and Victoria Sullivan (Script Supervisor) who swapped me some cheese and a drink for my home-made soup. She was surrounded by hours of homework. She liaises between the camera team and the editor, transferring all possible information along with the cans of film to which it refers. Victoria says the computer has transformed her job, which must mean that in the not-so-old days, when script supervisors, always female, were known as "continuity girls", there was no time for sleep or for fun. I'd always imagined continuity girls must be up for anything. In reality, sans laptop, they worked all through the night, neither slept nor played.

That sort of devotion, which Victoria still embodies, is not unusual in the film industry. But that she can keep her concentration and abandon all other interests for a sustained year now is a marvel. Once she took a sunny Sunday off and she and I sat in the back of Viggo Mortensen's car — don't ask me ever the make of a car — and laughed at the stories from the driver and his makeup specialist Jose beside him. It was a glorious day driving to Arthur's Pass, a journey I'd made earlier this year. 150 years ago Samuel Butler also approached the then unexplored pass from the west and wondered whether he shouldn't find a companion if he were to press on. So he rode away from the chance to have New Zealand's most spectacular route called Butler's Pass.

There are lesser sites named after him, and there is Erewhon. It is well worth finding for yourself. Our Edoras is already dismantled. But you will imagine your own.

Ian McKellen, New Zealand, 2000

Samuel Butler

Butler's homestead at Mesopotamia, New Zealand, 1861

Orlando Bloom (Legolas), Ian McKellen (Gandalf), and Bernard Hill (Theoden) on the prowl in Wellington, 2000

Matt Cutfield on duty outside Gandalf's dressing room trailer

Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey, Photo by Pierre Vinet/New Line Cinema