Remembering Rings Part 1

White socks. That is how my adventure in New Zealand began, with white socks.

Landing in New Zealand after what felt like a week-long flight, I was greeted at the airport by Chris Ward and Peter Mills, two of the people already working on Fellowship and two of the people I would grow closest to over the coming year. They kindly offered to take me around Wellington the next day and give me a little tour of my new home. During that outing, they also casually mentioned that nobody in Zealand wore white socks. I was wearing white socks. So the next day, while out on our ‘Welly Tour,’ we stopped at the NZ equivalent of a Canadian Tire, and under direct pressure from the locals, I purchased some black socks. It’s been 20 years since that fateful day; I have never worn white socks.

It’s strange now to try and draw out those memories from what was most certainly one of the pivotal moments of my career and life. Sadder still that so many memories have fallen by the roadside, between the couch cushions of what little gray matter I have left, never to be discovered again. It may be hard to believe, but in the 20 years since we worked on them, I had never actually gone back and watched the films. My wife had also never seen them. So, with the release of the 4k UltraHD DolbyVision Atmos Remix BluRay (phew) being released, we watched. All 12 or so hours.

And boy, did the memories come flooding back. Things I hadn’t thought about in as many years bubbled to the surface. And it may be fun to write down a few things from that journey before those memories disappear forever. So many people hold such a special place in their hearts for ‘The Lord of the Rings’ Trilogy; of all the projects I’ve had the pleasure to participate in, no other film elicits the ‘eyes widening’ response quite like Rings.

I was a massive admirer of the books. That may be an understatement. I had read them as a teenager, and although it was really the only fantasy I’d ever read, or have since, I devoured it, staying up late into the nights of my cold Minneapolis bedroom to work through the nearly thousand-page tome. I remember holding my breath as the Hobbits and Gandalf attempted to sneak through Mordor. I can still visualize Lorien, Rivendell, Hobbiton, and Moria, not as Peter Jackson envisioned them, but as I did. I still prefer my mind’s-eye versions, to be honest. I had already created those movies in my mind as a 15-year-old boy. Yet I never could have dreamt then that I would work in film, let alone on those films.

Years later, through a set of luck and determination not worth taking up space here, I found myself working at Skywalker Sound. I had only been there about a year and a half and had four credits to my name: one as a 1st assistant, one as an FX Editor, and two as an assistant sound designer. Around that time, I remember vividly seeing the first teaser for the trilogy. I can still call up the goosebumps that swarmed me when Peter looked into the camera and said, “This is the time,” while the 4:3 aspect ratio widened to lovely scope.

At this point in my life, I began to experience my first genuine case of what in Gaelic is called ‘Hiraeth’: “The nostalgic longing and melancholic homesickness for something that probably cannot be attained or achieved.” At that moment, the idea of working on this film was so far beyond all comprehension that it sent me into a deep depression. There had been almost nothing in my life up to that point that I had wanted so badly.

When I started in this business, there were four dream projects I had set in my mind that I wanted to work on. And in a strange twist of fate, I worked on all of them somehow. I worked on my favorite book of all time, The Little Prince, in what would become the best project of my life and the work I’m most proud of. I got to work on a Henson project, and not only that, one that was nearest to my heart, the new series of The Dark Crystal. And I got to work on a Star Wars movie, having the honor to Supervise, Design, and Mix ‘Solo,’ a rare and humbling treat to get to step into Ben Burtt’s world. All of those projects deserve blog posts. But at the top of my list was Lord of the Rings. So it felt ferociously cruel that I wouldn’t have that chance.

And then, I don’t recall how many weeks later, Chris Boyes casually walked into my room and asked me if I would go to New Zealand with him and be his assistant sound designer on this project called ‘Fellowship of the Ring.’ And we’ll skip over the physical, emotional, and mental consequences of that conversation because a few weeks later, he came into my room again to tell me that he had decided to pass on supervising and designing the film and that my job offer had evaporated. Luck and fate can be so fickle, so cruel.

Jump forward a month or two. In the end, I was invited by the new supervisor to go to New Zealand, and this time as an FX Editor. I would be one of four working on the film, the other three being Kiwis, the affectionate name for denizens of That Land of the Long White Cloud, Aotearoa, New Zealand.

Arriving in Wellington, I had no idea what was to come. I was floating through space on a combination of excitement, self-doubt, and general apprehension. I have long overcome my ‘imposter’ syndrome, but with so few credits under my belt at that time, I was riddled with anxiety. Couple that with the fact that I had stored my belongings, intending to be in NZ for three years, knowing no one in a city I knew nothing of. And add to that the terrifying realization that I would have to learn to drive on the wrong side of the road. I was a mess.

Yet right away, the sock critique aside, I was met with what I can only call now unconditional kindness. When Chris and Peter took time from their day to arrive at the airport just long enough to say hi, introduce themselves, and reassure me that they’d help me find my way, I knew everything would be all right. 

The next day, the small crew settled into Mike Hopkins’s office to watch ‘The Tax Cut’.  The first cut of Fellowship, as many first cuts I’ve learned, of course, by now tend to be, was bloated, choppy, awkward, and messy. It felt like a disaster. I couldn’t see through it. Of course, in fairness to the film, that first cut was done for tax purposes, the NZ government required a ‘cut’ of the movie. It was a perfunctory cut meant only to appease the Tax Gods that there was a movie.

But I was still scared. And the truth is, even as we saw the film come together (which of course it did), even as we all began to feel pride and hope in the project we had spent an entire year building, even then, we didn’t have the feeling that this would become the monster ‘event’ that it did. Fantasy was still a niche market in 2001; it was by no means a guarantee, and honestly, I never thought the film would do very well. So let that be a lesson to anyone who ever listened to me, since I also thought Avatar would be a bomb.

It’s well known now that Rings was a project made many times, with epic reshoots, rewrites, and herculean recuts. Seven shooting units existed for the main shoot, which meant that Peter could be present physically at only one at a time. This set of massive films took months and years to grow into. The first cut of the Arwen / Ring Wraith horse chase was nearing 15 minutes in length or more. It would eventually be cut down to around two in the final release version.

And over the next year, the film found its footing. Scenes were cut and recut, visual effects started to populate the turnovers, new scenes appeared, and scenes fell away. ADR lines began to replace the often terrible generator-riddled production dialog. As always happens, that first perfunctory edit became a movie.

And what of our part, the small group of us gathered in this make-shift building, tasked with bringing this world to life? It’s funny how I have so few memories of the work, to be honest. That is as it should be.

I can tell you at length about Brent Burge running through the halls of our ramshackle building screaming TOTORO, which turned out to be my introduction to the wonderful world of Miyazaki. I can tell you all about the famed ‘Pickup Girls’ Virus, about extended lunches at the now-closed Chocolate Fish and the Chocolate Frog. The late nights at Chow, the Joy Luck, the Matterhorn. Of my frequent dinners at a small Malaysian cafe with Post-Production Supervisor Jonas Thaler, who would become a dear friend, and with whom I would become addicted to Roti and curry sauce and where the owner would continually try to marry either of us off to her daughter.

The Legendary Chocolate Fish

Trying to do your weekly shopping in a country with stores open for about 3 hours on Saturday, never on Sundays, is frustrating. I remember that. If you’d like me to recount my weekly ritual walk, taking the cable car to the top of the botanical gardens, slowly meandering down the hill, through the settler’s cemetery, along Lamdon Quay, stopping at Abracababra for my plate of macaroni and cheese, no problem at all.

I remember my first hamburger at Burger King, which I wanted to eat because I had heard that NZ Beef tasted different since it had to be grass-fed by law. And I remember the look of someone wanting to kill someone when the poor girl at the checkout counter asked me basically whether I wanted that ‘for here or to go’ as we would say in Minnesota. I can still see the look on her face as I kept asking her to repeat herself, not because of her thick accent, but because she was using the phrase ‘have here, or take away,’ which my simple brain couldn’t register for the first ten times she said it. Wherever you are, kind Burger King girl, my humblest apologies.

The Wellington Cable Car

I remember my home, the one Elijah Wood lived in during filming. By some strange luck, the housing allowances for ‘important people’ like Actors were the same for ‘sound people.’ And so when the supervising sound editor decided to vacate the beach house in Breaker Bay, it was offered to me. I remember sitting up in the artist’s loft, staring out at the Wellington harbor, watching the ferry ships attempt to better the Cook Straight’s tremendous current, the vessel lifting out of the water to break free. (If you don’t believe me, look here; this is precisely from the vantage point of my home by the sea about a year later than when I was there).

Home Sweet Home

I remember turning 30 in a foreign country, with a big party thrown on the beach. And I remember being in a foreign land on Sept 11, 2001. I remember waking up in the middle of the night and hearing the words, ‘United Airlines has just confirmed that it has lost communication with a second plane’ or something along those lines. And I remember the constant flow of people everywhere in public who would walk up to you after hearing your American accent and say, “I’m so sorry.”

And before we dive into the work, which is probably what you reading this are interested in, I have to remember the friendships and the family. Because that’s what that first small crew became in so many ways: a family. There was Chris Ward, one of the kindest and most caring people I’ve ever met. Craig Tomlinson with the driest sense of humor of anyone I know. Brent Burge is the brilliant effects editor and a grown-up five-year-old (in all the best ways!). Peter Mills, with whom I could quote every line of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and probably still could. Jonas Thaler, the Post-Production Supervisor, decided to buy a massive and ancient Mercedes sedan in a country with roads barely big enough for a Yugo and with whom every evening out that included driving was a terrifying adventure. And many others, Martin Kwok, Katie Wood, John McKay, Chris Winter….so many.

And lastly, David Farmer, who, as it turned out, lived only 10 minutes or so from me back in Northern California, and whom I had briefly met at the ranch but whom I only really knew once we both ended up in NZ. He had been hired as Sound Designer, and even though he wasn’t living down in NZ full time, he was there a lot, and between him and Jonas, much of my free time was spent. Dave stayed in the same house as I did for a while, and we spent most evenings exploring the city and eating late-night dinners. In the mornings, we would routinely stop at Eva Dicksons, a small cafe where I would get my Scrambled Eggs on Toast, and he would get his Mythical ‘Flat White,’ a coffee drink that apparently cannot successfully be made outside of New Zealand. Dave would become one of my best friends in life, and rarely a day or two has gone by in the 20 years since we have been out of contact. None of this I knew then, of course. I went to NZ for a job, and it’s time to turn to the job itself in the next part, whenever I find the time to write it…

In Part 2!

But first, one final picture: the typical Kiwi Parking Job.



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