The Lord of the Rings fan sites have been chatting about the characters' onscreen appearances for months. There has been less speculation about the look of the places they travel to, perhaps because, with Alan Lee as artistic advisor, it's assumed that Rivendell, Edoras and Minas Tirith will reflect his haunting watercolours in the Harper Collins' illustrated editions.
When I first walked into Rivendell, I gasped. It was like being inside a huge, three-dimensional Lee painting; the sort of thrill that movie theme parks aim for. The largest of the Wellington studios had grown an autumnal forest glade of large fibreglass trunks and tangled canvas roots; a Japanese-style bridge spanned the electrified waterfall splashing into a pool. On the steel catwalk that supports the lights, an effects person was ready with a bag of leaves to trickle down during shooting.
The Elves' headquarters grew out of the vegetation, slim wooden pillars supporting walkways above open spaces and shaded arcades. The rooms had no outer walls so it wasn't easy to sense where the buildings gave way to the gardens. One upper-level gallery had four original Alan Lee landscapes that he had painted especially for his favourite set: and I wondered whose walls they would end up on.
When Gandalf dined with Elrond, Hugo Weaving and I used custom-made elongated silver cutlery and sat on Rennie Mackintosh inspired chairs. Nothing seemed out of place: simply the place was Rivendell. Yet not quite 10 miles away we had worked on an elven extension to this interior marvel, just off the main road leading north from Wellington. In the forested valley of a park, two months back, there was a Rivendell extension with its main gates and wide shallow stairs fashioned a l'Art Nouveau, airy and sylvan.
These were the settings for many jolly chats with Hugo Weaving, the Australian stage actor who provoked international admiration in drag in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. As Elrond, he was again in a gown. Our main scene together was the Council of Elrond, where it is decided that Frodo will carry the ring on its epic journey. We sat on faux-stone armchairs in a circle that surrounded the One Ring on its plinth. Hugo was supported by two willowy young men from the Unit Office, and augmenting the cast of speakers were four dwarves, two old humans and more elves.
In the book, Gandalf talks for pages about his confrontation with Saruman, but in the film, where this episode is seen as it happens, he is mostly silent at the Council. The scene took three days to shoot and I shall always be grateful for Hugo's company, ever-cheerful and funny. I was sad when he left us for his next job onstage in The White Devil.