Monday, November 17, 2008

Meeting a two time Academy Award winner in NZ

20th November 2008:

The last couple of times I was in NZ I went to the Queenstown area and found that no matter how long you stay there, you will always have exciting adventure activities to do. Christchurch, on the other hand, is a little bit different. The only activity which really appealed to me was hiking on the Franz Josef Glacier: the six hour bus ride there, however, was a bit of a turnoff... Similarly, the museums and art galleries in the town center didn't inspire must enthusiasm. Thus, there was only one other activity left to do: the local Lord of the Rings tour.

It turns out that sections of the second Lord of the Rings movie were shot in the area and while the sets are long gone, the scenery remains as dramatic as ever. The helpful hostel staff recommended a local operator, Hassle Free Tours for the day tour and so early this morning I joined seven other people in the back of a big 4 wheel drive car on the way to the location where Edoras was set. For any movie buffs reading this, Edoras was where Gandalf cured the king and assembled the riders of Rohan.

I have found that the tour guides on these trips often make or break the day and today was a sterling example of this. We were guided by a chap called "Hammond" who, it turned out, actually worked in the movie industry as a "sound mixer guy" (he probably has a real title, but that's what we knew him as for the day). Hammond has been working on movies for over 30 years, for example working with Michael J Fox on The Frighteners a couple of years back. More recently though, he worked on... The Lord of the Rings itself. What a find Hammond turned out to be.

The 4 wheel drive Toyota we were being driven in had been modified to have in-car DVD players. As Hammond drove, he mixed commentary from himself with scenes from the three movies. He also had CD sound tracks with music from the movies playing in the background: I wouldn't be the worlds greatest Lord of the Rings fan, but after listening to the music while watching the landscape pass by, I was quickly sucked into the atmosphere.

As Hammond talked, he revealed insights into his role with the movies. I initially figured he was just one of probably a million engineers who worked on the set, but as he told us more and more of his stories it turned out he played a more central role than that. He worked primarily as a "Production Engineer" which meant that he worked on the sets day to day (as opposed to the Post Production guys who tend to work in the studios afterwards polishing up the sound). Being on set all the time, he worked closely with Peter Jackson (the director) and all of the cast. All of the actors were great to work with, though the actor he talked about most was Sir Ian McKellan (Gandalf). The first time Hammond met Ian, it sounded like Ian was having a hard day as it was the first day which Ian wore Gandalf's beard: when Hammond attempted to gently lift the beard to fit a radio microphone behind the beard he was told forcibly "DON'T TOUCH THE BEARD"! Thankfully, Ian got more used to the fit and Hammond said that while usually he views performances of actors from purely a sound-technicians point of view, Ian's performances were spell-binding and really drew him into scenes.

Other little anecdotes provided by Hammond included how the casting people couldn't find enough male riders for the 200 riders of Rohan, so they hired female riders and had them wear beards(!) Apparently lunch time on set was surreal, and Hammond found himself talking with pretty blonde girls with full shaggy beards!
Also, Orlando Bloom (Legolas) originally had a similar amount of fan mail as the rest of the actors, but by the time they were putting together the third movie, he had more fan mail than all of the other actors combined(!) Interestingly, Orlando appealed more to younger girls whereas Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn) appealed to more mature ladies.

I'm not too sure how long Hammond had been talking for when he suddenly announced "...and there it is!". Sure enough, in the valley below we saw the location where it was filmed. Its quite unmissable: its a mini-mountain set in a gigantic valley, surrounded by towering snow capped mega-mountains. The guide brought us through a padlocked gate and we were soon hanging on for dear life as we four-wheeled over hills and through fast running streams towards the movie set location.

I found it, to be honest, somewhat disappointing when you finally arrive. The set took eight months to build, but there is nothing left of it now to see: it had to be dismantled for safety reasons. Also, I think another disappointment-factor was the weather: it was a dull, overcast day which wasn't ideal. Finally, if I had been a big fan of the movies I would probably have been like "oh wow!", but as it was it appeared to me as being a nice hill in a pretty valley. I had the same reaction to the Milford Sound fjord last year: everybody raves about the scenery there but for me it was "meh". I suspect I have "pretty scenery saturation syndrome" (if such a thing exists).

Once we arrived at the mini-mountain, we walked to the top in 10-15 minutes and marveled at the surrounding countryside. Hammond's knowledge of the movie production was most useful here as he pointed out where various locations in the movie were located in real-life (e.g. "Do you see that small pile of stones there? That's where the bell tower was located. Right now, we are standing in the great hall which ran from here to there" etc.). The place was smaller in real life than I expected: you could walk from one side of the mountain top to the other within 30 seconds: how did they fit a city up here in the movie? That's the magic of cinema I guess(!)
It was also quite windy: the surrounding mountains act like a wind-tunnel so there is nearly always a strong alpine-breeze blowing off the snowy mountains. On some of the filming days, the winds hit 180Kmh and if you look at the movie, apparently you can see the actors hair blowing around a lot up there. We were frozen after 30 minutes: I can't imagine what it would be like to work there for 2 weeks non-stop...

Hammond brought authentic swords and battle axes (which are REALLY heavy, it turns out) and after messing around with them up there for a while it was time to head back before exposure became a problem. We then stopped at a nearby chalet for a spot of lunch which was topped off by some surprise bottles of Brut Champagne.

It was on the return route where Hammond opened up more about how pivotal a role he played with the movies. It seems that after the first movie was released, the cast found out that the movie had been nominated for an Academy Award for "Sound Mixing". Who did they send over to represent the Sound Production crew? Hammond. He, along with his wife were flown first class to LA and put up in the Four Seasons hotel in Bellair. The award for that category went to another movie, but Hammond still got to live the high life and rub shoulders with famous Hollywood actors.

Then the second Lord of the Rings movie was nominated, and Hammond went over again. He walked the red carpet again, tried the avoid the paparazzi, sat in the auditorium again and went to the lavish after show parties. Sadly no award that year either :(

By the time third movie was nominated he was well used to the process. Again the movie was nominated for an award for "Sound Mixing" and so went to the award ceremony. This time though... they WON! My tour guide Hammond was up on stage at the Academy Awards! He was given his Oscar, along with three other Lord of the Rings sound engineers, by John Travolta and gave an acceptance speech to the world. Journalists interviewed him and then he met famous actors at the post awards party. After the main post-awards party, they went back to Peter Jackson's hotel room to party the night away.
On the return to NZ, Hammond was saying that he couldn't put the trophy in his main baggage (what if the bag got lost: eek!) and so had it well wrapped up in his carry on bag. On the way into NZ, all bags get scanned and I guess the outline of the trophy popped up on the security guards monitor as straight away the guard jumped up and asked politely, "might I see the contents of your bag, sir?". Soon, all of the other guards had abandoned their posts to get a look at the trophy for themselves. Shortly afterwards, Hammond found himself meeting the heads of the NZ government and did tours showing the trophy to the Kiwis.

I figured that would be it. He got an Oscar trophy: an achievement of a lifetime. I was wrong. The next project Hammond worked on was "King Kong". Once again, the movie was nominated for an Academy Award for "Sound Mixing" and once again he went to LA with his wife and once again sat in the Auditorium. There was another big movie winning a lot of Sound Mixing awards that year so the crew didn't expect anything. They hadn't even prepared a speech. And the Oscar went to... Hammond, along with three other crew members(!) This time they were handed their trophies by none other than Jessica Alba. He, along with the other members of the cast who were there, went to the Vanity Fair post awards party and found themselves letting "The Rock" touch the trophy and discussing movies with Ben Stiller. Even back at the hotel afterwards, they ran into Morgan Freeman in the lift who also offered his congratulations.

So, there you go: I went on what I thought would be an uneventful tour and ended up being guided around by a two-times Academy Awards winner.
If you are thinking of doing this tour yourself and want to meet Hammond, do keep in mind that he doesn't do the tour giving role every day: its a once every two weeks type of role for him. Also, he only does it when not working on a movie project so you may need a bit of luck to run into him.

Hours after the tour finished I will admit to thinking to myself, "Really?!, did he really win those Oscars?!". So I popped onto the 'Net and looked up the list of Academy Award winners for The Lord of the Rings. And there he was: 'Hammond Peek'. His page on The Internet Movie Database even has a picture of him (to the right of the group of four in the picture) with his Oscar. Compare it to a candid I took of him describing the scene to us on the set location: its the same guy! As they say in Ozy-land, '(Good) on ya Hammond!'