DIARY OF A CITY GUARD – PART 1
The text message came through from my agent one morning in March:
“Would you be interested in working on the Amazon series based on Lord of the Rings? They are looking at using you for a role for scenes in April with a fitting tomorrow – so ideally looking for people who are flexible and interested in this series.”
Would I be interested? Hell yeah! I am quite literally more interested in doing this than pretty much anything else in the whole world right now.
A little background perhaps… I’d arrived in New Zealand a few months previously after living twenty years in Australia, although I lived my first quarter century in England. My wife is a Kiwi, but it’s taken many years for me to finally reap the full benefits of this, something I’ve been desperately hoping to do since falling in love with the place when I first came here in 1999. And I’m a big fan of Tolkien’s work, and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies. Knowing that Amazon were filming their much-hyped and exceedingly expensive Lords of the Rings television show at the time I arrived, I was cautiously hopeful of becoming involved in some small way.
But back to the tale. My agent has no idea what the role is, but it should be a couple of days work, maybe a little more. I’ll find out all the details at the costume fitting in Auckland tomorrow. Oh, and I need to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) – a contractual document that basically forbids me from even thinking about considering the notion of perhaps talking about the project to anyone, even my cat.
I can barely contain my excitement at this point. I mean, I hoped it would happen, but I didn’t know if it would, and I certainly didn’t expect it to happen a week or so after signing to the casting agency.
I drove up to Auckland the next day. The costume fitting was in a busy suburb about 1okms to the west of the city centre, and pretty much the furthest point in Auckland from my home in Waikato. I allowed myself two hours to drive there, which was basically two hours of sweaty palms, wondering nervously about what a costume fitting entailed and what the protocol was for holding in a growing middle age beer-gut.
It’s not like I’d never been filmed before – I’d spent the last thirty years of my life playing in bands, and as a result I’d performed hundreds of gigs, and recorded a bunch of concerts, video clips and interviews. I had no nerves about being in front of a camera, but I’d only once appeared on camera in a non-musical capacity, when I made a brief appearance in a mate’s indie movie – playing a tramp who gets beaten up by the police. There was no costume fitting for that role. My mate had said just to bring a bunch of scruffy dirty old clothes along to get changed into and try and look as much like a filthy down-on-his-luck homeless person as you can. I rocked up straight from work on location by the beach in St Kilda, Melbourne, with my bag of shitty old clothes, found my mate and asked him if there was a good spot nearby to get changed. “Don’t worry about it dude, you look perfect just like that”. Great! Wait… what are you saying?! You’re telling me I look like a tramp in my work clothing? Thanks man. I mean I know I look a little unkempt, but this seems a harsh judgement.
I arrived at the destination on time, and spent ten minutes walking up and down a street on an industrial estate looking for an apparently non-existent street number – or at least something that approximated what I presumed the premises for the costume department of the world’s most expensive television series would look like. Nothing seemed to fit the bill, and I ended up wandering into a dismal-looking gravel car park, complete with a portacabin, at the end of the street. There were no signs to be seen, but everywhere else on the street did have a sign, all of which made it clear that none of them were the place I was looking for. So the car park was my only option. I wandered over to the portacabin and met a guy who explained that I was at the right place – but this was indeed just a car park, and a shuttle bus would be there shortly to take me to the studios. Hooray!
The shuttle duly arrived, a shabby old Toyota Hiace minibus, and a friendly middle-aged Kiwi lady told me to hop in. Another guy arrived – much like me he was also middle-aged, bearded and showing evidence of enjoying a drink or three on a pretty regular basis. We set off and the driver started chatting away to me in the instantly-warm-and-friendly-easy-going manner that nearly all Kiwis have. She’d obviously been taking people to costume fittings all day, and asked me what role I was being fitted for.
“I’ve absolutely no idea”
“Well all the roles they’re fitting today seem to be for the Seer City set, so you’ll be there. Probably a wizard, or a sea guard”
“Er… ok, cool”.
This is my first – but certainly not my last – encounter with the production’s policy of calling everything by a fake name. Misdirection is king here. As I was to discover, they’re understandably big on secrecy and don’t want any details leaking, so fake names for characters and locations make complete sense. But at this stage I had no inkling of this, and as the driver chatted away I sat there entirely distracted by the name Seer City.
I should clarify my earlier remark about being a big fan of Tolkien, as it probably undersells it. I’m a huuuuge fan. I’ve been regularly reading Tolkien for the last four decades, as well as the work of Tolkien scholars such as Tom Shippey, Corey Olsen, Verlyn Flieger and more. I know my lore, so I can’t help but evaluate everything I see and hear through a critical eye. I’m desperately hoping that Amazon will be treating the source material with due reverence, and I’m a little nervous about what creative liberties they might take. So my reaction to hearing “Seer City” is very much oh c’mon, really? Reeeeally? And it is going to be a city full of wizards? This is not a good start. Surely this can’t be right. What’s happening at Seer City? Are they perhaps at war with the people at Orc Castle, or Dwarf Mountain? This seems a bit on the nose.
The shuttle pulls up a few minutes down the road at a location that looks a bit more like a film studio. I’m checked in through security and given one of those little fluorescent paper wrist bands you get on admittance to a music festival, and which are mysteriously impossible to tear off despite the fact that they’re made of really thin paper. The security guard waves me roughly in the direction of a bunch of portacabins and I saunter over towards them, pretending to look like I know where I’m going. There’s nobody to be seen, but by process of elimination I eventually find the costume department, and there’s the guy who shared the shuttle bus with me. He seems to be making a point of avoiding any eye-contact, but any tension is broken by a woman who greets me, checks my name off her list and tells me to hang five.
Ten minutes later and a very camp and wonderfully extravagantly dressed dude in his fifties welcomes me in in a very jovial manner – and all of a sudden I’m in a different world entirely. The room is full of, well, costumes really. Who’d have thought? Wigs, shoes, helmets, racks of clothing, boxes of stuff stacked up everywhere. More interestingly, the walls are covered in pictures of people in an assortment of outfits. I’m trying to listen to what this guy – Freddie – is saying to me, but I’m ridiculously distracted by my surroundings. And then he’s gone. I’m on my own. I start to take in the pictures properly – there are prints on the wall of all manner of characters, including a bunch of head shots of people with pointy ears. Okay, this is pretty exciting now. I’m beginning to consider pulling out my phone and going camera-crazy, but think better of it. I don’t want to blow this. There is a certain thrill to knowing that the Tolkien fan community have been starved of any pretty much information regarding this show for a few years now, but I’m now getting a peek. Me! More than a peek too. Nobody knows anything about it at all really, other than some vague mentions of the Second Age. I’m going to learn all manner of information about this show. But I shall keep it secret. Keep it safe. The phone stays in my pocket. That NDA looked pretty serious.
My eyes are drawn to a board covered in images of a lot of people in disappointingly drab costumes. Not a lot to get excited about here. Please let me get a better costume than this guy here, barefoot and wearing what appears to be an old sack with a bit of rope around it. Please please please. The pictures are accompanied by a label: “Amdelyn Docks”. Some proper information, yes! Amdelyn though…? It feels vaguely familiar, yet entirely foreign. Is that a Tolkien place name? I’m racking my brains, but I can’t place it. It is, of course, another fake name, but I still haven’t been advised of Fake Name Protocol, so I’m just mildly disappointed that I can’t work out more. Still, at least it’s better than Seer City.
I’m snapped out of sleuth mode by a lady called Penny who beckons me into a curtained changing room. The first thing to do is partially undress. Then I’m measured. I try and look like I’m not even mildly bothered by the tape measure as it wraps around my ever-increasing midriff, holding it as tense as I can to at least stop anything from wobbling. Man, how did I let it come to this? I’m forty-eight years old at this point, and up until a few years ago I was able to eat and drink as much as I wished without becoming anything other than very slim and toned. And then everything changed. I stopped smoking weed every day, stopped playing regular gigs, played much less football, and became firmly middle-aged. Within a year I’d put on twenty kilos. It happened so quickly. I had gone to seed. I genuinely thought I’d be skinny forever. On top of this, a year or so prior I had fractured my foot, resulting in a complete lack of pretty much any exercise for the following six months. I was fighting back a bit now, but I had also discovered what so many people before had also realised… it’s incredibly easy to put on weight in middle age, but exponentially more difficult to lose it. Oh well. Bit late to worry about it now. At least the costume lady refrains from remarking on the timber I’m carrying.
Maybe I can distract her from my bulk with some questions.
“So what actually am I? What’s the costume for?”
“Oh didn’t they tell you? You’re a city guard.”
My first thought is of Nobby Nobbs, and my second is of Fred Colon. If you know, you know. If you don’t, then I feel a little sorry for you, but I’ll explain. In the mighty Sir Terry Pratchett’s series of Discworld novels (which I must insist would clearly be the best tales ever written if it wasn’t for some chap called Tolkien), one of the key locations is the city of Ankh Morpork. The city has a sort of dysfunctional proto-Police force called the City Watch, a disparate group of misfits of whom the aforementioned Nobby and Fred are part of – the comically lazy, stupid and incompetent part. A City Watch of the same nature in Tolkien’s world seems rather unlikely, but it’s the first thing I think of, and I can never quite shake it. Also, I rather like the idea.
I’m given some clothes to change into. None of the items resemble an old sack, so that’s a good start. There’s a pair of light brown cotton trousers with an elastic waist band that don’t seem to be able to make up their mind whether they’re leggings or pantaloons. Over this goes a blue garment which can only be described as a tight-fitting long-sleeved dress, that comes down just past my knees. When I say it “can only be described”, I actually mean “can only be described by me” – I’m sure there’s a proper name for it, but I don’t know it and even the internet is stubbornly refusing to enlighten me as to what that may be. Anyway whatever it is, it is of a thick cotton material, zipped up at the back and dead comfy. And frankly it looks pretty cool, which is not something I would have expected to say about me in a dress.
Oh wait – there’s more. A brown suede leather tunic goes over the dress. It’s shorter than the dress, reaching halfway down my thighs, with short sleeves, but the main thing you notice is the weight. This thing is heavy. The skirted part below the waist, to give it what is almost certainly entirely the wrong name, is decorated with about fifty round patterned brass studs. (Side note: at this point I am considering trying to find a costume specialist on Twitter who can help me assign proper names to things, but every time I open the app I get distracted by something else and to be honest I’m hoping that I can wing it.)
This seems to be it for now, and more measurements are taken. Penny also starts holding a few odd-looking bits of cardboard up against and around me, which she tells me are to represent the armour that will go over the clothing I’m already wearing. It’s sounding like this is going to be a rather complicated costume, and a pretty damn good one too. The dress and the tunic I’m wearing are noticeably high-quality garments – they didn’t pick this stuff up in K-Mart, you know?
I’m excited to find out what else is going to be added to complete my ensemble, but for now I’ll have to wait. The rest of the outfit is still under construction, so a second fitting at a later date will be arranged to finish off my look. I’m given a little whiteboard to hold up, with my name scrawled on it, and photos are taken at an assortment of angles that have since become second nature to me but that right now I’m making a complete mess of. And then I’m done. Feeling mildly disappointed that my little dress-up session is over, and still none the wiser as to how I’ll look when it’s all finished, I change back into my boring but definitely much lighter shorts and t-shirt and am instructed to go and wait outside for a call from the make-up people…