A visitation of hobbits

Sir Peter Jackson. Photo by NZPA.
Sir Peter Jackson. Photo by NZPA.
The news yesterday that Sir Peter Jackson and his wife Fran Walsh have secured the future of Wellington's innovative Bats theatre - which has over the years nurtured a small pantheon of original home-grown talent - by buying the central-city building housing it, coincides with his working sojourn to this part of the world.

"Wellywood" might like to claim him as its own, but Sir Peter is an all-New Zealand exemplar whose activities are the subject of intense speculation and interest wherever he goes.

The visitation of this visionary film-maker and his 450 cast and crew to Strath Taieri, Queenstown, Te Anau and surrounds has been no exception. So it was serendipitous that the Otago Daily Times was able to speak to the director this week as he took a break from painstakingly piecing together a small part of the filmic puzzle that is his current project: the two Hobbit movies currently in production and which, at an estimated $US250 million apiece, comprise one of the most expensive movie projects ever.

The Hobbit movies have had a long and troubled gestation: over legal rights to the material; studio finances; the original director Guillermo del Toro pulling out of the project; concerns over possible industrial action; personal illness, not to mention any of the other hundreds of obstacles to be overcome in the routine mounting of creative projects of such scale. But the films are now well in train and, whatever the outcome, Sir Peter is to be congratulated for his persistence and stamina.

The omens for success must be considered good. The two movies are prequels to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which proved huge hits at the box office - and provided the country with international exposure of the kind invaluable to inward tourism and "brand New Zealand".

JRR Tolkien aficionados, a good number of whom might be expected to have an emotional attachment to The Hobbit exceeding that of the later Rings trilogy, may even anticipate these films more keenly than their predecessors.

And with many of the Rings cast members returning to New Zealand to reprise roles or create others, and with additional high-profile actors, along with many of the highly skilled technical crew who helped make such a success of the earlier films, there is little reason to believe the trajectory of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and The Hobbit: There and Back Again will be any less spectacular than those of the earlier trilogy.

Still, as the veteran screenwriter William Goldman once wrote on the matter of predicting box office or critical success in the movie business - "nobody knows anything". What is more certain is the legacy of such ventures in this country.

Sir Peter and his collaborators at Weta Workshops and Weta Digital have created world-leading digital movie production facilities in Wellington, and his combination of pragmatic entrepreneurship and can-do enterprise is an example to be emulated across a range of industries, particularly those enmeshed in the high-tech, knowledge-based sector. Not least is the example of how clusters of small specialist high-skills enterprises can develop around a central hub and in turn attract international and onshore business.

While Sir Peter and his team's presence in this neck of the woods is cause to reflect on the film-maker's wider contributions, it is also a reminder of the very features that have brought him to these parts: the landscapes - around Paradise, and Arcadia Station, names which in themselves resonate with magical connotation, and elsewhere - which in some shape or form will be seen as backdrops on screens across the world when the films are released in December 2012 and December 2013 respectively.

As Sir Ian McKellan - who reprises the role of Gandalf the Grey in the films - put it to Sir Peter himself: "When I'm here I don't think that I'm going to work: I think I'm on vacation every single day." That sort of sentiment is a reminder, if we needed one, of the great physical beauty of parts of Otago; and of the pleasure and pride in sharing that with the world. For his part in it all, we owe Sir Peter a vote of thanks.



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