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A series of irreverent tales from my experience as a Tolkien-nerd working as an extra on the first series of Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power television show.

It’s 2.45am, and my alarm is going off. I would say I’ve been rudely awakened, but alas that is not the case. I’ve been lying awake for the last half an hour. The problem with having to wake up at stupid o’clock is that I always end up waking repeatedly in the preceding hours, terrified that I failed to set the alarm correctly and have thus overslept. Despite the fact that this hasn’t happened to me for decades, I still live in perpetual fear of it. My call time – the time I need to be on set – is 5.30am, and the film studios are in Kumeū, a small township of a few thousand people to the north-west of Auckland at the end of State Highway 16.

Kumeu, where the magic happens.

It’s not yet been swallowed up by the sprawling urban monster that is Auckland, but it’s only a matter of time. For now, it’s still just about holding its own, home to a few thousand people and nearly as many wineries. The township itself is rather innocuous, but the countryside it’s nestles in is entirely beautiful, which is par for the course in New Zealand, although you wouldn’t know it at 5.30am. I don’t mean to go all Bill Bryson here, but I just looked up Kumeū on Wikipedia and I note that it was settled by immigrants after the First World War from the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, many of whom were traditional winegrowing families; and the name itself means “pull breast”, referring to a woman warrior who pulled at her breast when calling her soldiers to avenge an insult. Don’t worry, there’s not going to be a test on this stuff later.

Kumeū is 168km from my house, or just over 100 miles in old money, so I need to allow a good two hours for the drive. The only good thing about the early call time is that it means I’m not going to get stuck in traffic. Once I’ve got past Hamilton it’s freeway all the way, and my only concerns are police speed checks and accidents. New Zealand seems to have an inordinately high rate of traffic accidents, and I once spent five hours getting to Auckland as I dealt with the delays cause by not one, not two, but three accidents on route. Naturally I leave a little late because I’m paralysed with fear that I’ve forgotten something important and have to keep checking and re-checking my bag. What do I need anyway? I have absolutely no idea.

I feel terribly guilty as I start up the car just after 3.30am, as the area in which I live is so quiet between about 7pm and 5am that you could hear a pin drop. Luckily the last person to drive the car was the wife, who it transpires had been listening to industrial metal-heads Ministry at full blast on her last trip, and as soon as I turn the key Al Jourgenson’s dulcet tones scream out at me at as I desperately fumble with the stereo to try and turn the volume down as quickly as possible. This sort of thing has happened far too many times to be a coincidence – the wife claims it’s an accident but I rather suspect it’s a premeditated trap.

I tend to listen to podcasts rather than music if I’m driving solo for any sort of distance these days, and fittingly enough I’m currently working my way through well over two hundred episodes of The Prancing Pony Podcast, which is two blokes – Alan and Shawn – of roughly my own vintage taking a slow (is there any other way?), compelling and often amusing stroll through the works of Tolkien. Had they been in New Zealand I’m pretty sure they’d have also been prime candidates to join up with the guards. Alan and Shawn become regular companions for me on my trips to and from set over the next few months, making the drive something to look forward to, rather than dread.

Alan & Shawn from The Prancing Pony Podcast – both would have walked straight into the city guard unit and fitted in seamlessly. The dude in the background is absolutely not guard material. Sorry mate.

One of the problems with driving somewhere new in the middle of the night is of course trying to find the damn place. I have directions written down that I can’t read because it’s dark, and outside of Auckland there are about six streetlamps in the whole country. Sure, I could use Google Maps, but a) I can’t read my phone with the glasses on that I wear to drive and b) Google Maps annoys the hell out of me. I grew up using paper maps for directions and by God I’m not going to change now dagnabbit. Despite my Luddite ways, I eventually find myself in the vicinity of the studio on time.

This is when I discover that I’m actually just at the car park on time. What my inexperience has led me to underestimate is the time it takes to get from the car park to the studio. Oops. I think most of the tiny section of the populace who are up and about on the road at 5.30am are up and about because they’re working on this project for Amazon, so there’s a fair old queue to get into the car park, which is only exacerbated by the need for everyone to sign in on an iPad with security and complete all the Covid-related questions. While the rest of the world has been plunged into disarray by Covid, New Zealand’s novel approach of closing the borders and treating the deadly pandemic like it’s a, er, deadly pandemic has meant that the country has been largely spared. A handful of cases in the early days led to the government putting the whole country into a strict six-week lockdown, and for the last year New Zealand has been pretty much Covid-free.

The show had to abandon filming for large parts of 2020, and to get permission to restart they had to ensure strict Covid protocols were in place. What this means in practical terms is signing your agreement that you don’t have any Covid symptoms, you’ve not been in touch with anyone who has them and hell, you know the drill, right? Once cleared and issued with a wristband and a medical mask you can park your car and join the queue for the one of the shuttle buses.

The shuttle bus experience is when my eyes are really opened to the degree of secrecy surrounding this project. The distance from the car park to base camp of the production itself is no more than five hundred metres along a road that heads out toward the wild west coast and the Waitakere rain forests – after the studios there is a small cattery and then fields, trees and more fields – but the windows of the shuttle buses are blacked out with gaffer tape and black paper. Because of this I can’t see a thing and it’s hard to get my bearings. It’s also still dark anyway, but if it wasn’t dark and the windows weren’t blacked out, what I could see would be a huge wall of shipping containers stacked three tiers high along the side of the road, behind a fence and the tree line. No casual observer is going to see anything going on behind this wall.

Fun fact: 41% of Amazon’s budget was spent on security containers to stop people having a sticky beak at what was going on at the studio.

I’m not entirely sure where I am in relation to the car park once the bus pulls to halt and I jump out. It’s dark and to one side there are the sinister shapes of the edge of a forest, the other a collection of some large marquee tents and the gentle hum of people being busy. These tents are absolutely fucking enormous. I follow everyone else to the doors. The tents have actual doors. Like, real doors, that are noticeably better than those on my house. The word tent seems to rather undersell the whole setup to be honest.

I’m pretty nervous at this point. I’m not really a nervous person any more, five hundred-plus gigs singing in bands really helps you get a grip on that sort of thing, but this is the nervousness born of being slightly out of my comfort zone and not knowing what to expect. I sign in with a remarkably bright and cheerful woman at a desk and I’m asked to handover my mobile, which is placed into a cupboard with about a million other mobiles.

“Follow me please Phil, we’ll get you dressed”

I’ll finally get to see – and wear – my costume. AWESOME.

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