The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King World Premiere - 15 years on

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Renovation of the Embassy Theatre in preparation for The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King World Premiere.

Six weeks after this was taken, the film had its world premiere in this theatre.

Has it really been fifteen years?

As I mentioned this time last year (and the year before!), not long after I moved to Wellington in the late nineties, Peter Jackson started filming the Lord Of The Rings right where I was living at the time. By the end of principal photography, I had been an Elf, an Orc, a Gondorian and a Rohan - most of them dead, some of them killed by the person I'd been playing the day before - on sets all over the Wellington region.

By the time the films came out, I was also a photographer - and by the premiere of the third film, there were a few more of us there…

The previous premieres had been big events, by Wellington standards; but this would be something else entirely. The city re-branded as ‘Middle Earth’; there were giant monsters mounted on the outside of the airport, the civic centre, and both places where the film would be shown; and the main cinema, the Embassy Theatre, underwent a major renovation to accommodate some 800 VIP guests - and, happily, remains a delightful place to watch a film to this day.

I was once again deep in the media pit, and (as had served me well the previous two years) I got there early - like, 6h early - to make sure I was at or near the front of the queue when it came to picking a spot along the fence line.

Many publications had more than one photographer there, and could cover numerous angles that way; I had to choose between a view of the stage (which was also looking straight into the setting sun) and a straight line towards the Embassy. Having spent the previous three months documenting the renovations, I chose the latter - there was no way I was going to miss out on seeing it!

When I look back at the images now, the thing I remember most is what changed in my own approach to the event; at the first two, I was a bit shy around the cast and guests, and just took whatever photos I could get. This time though, I was calling their names, chatting with them as they went by, and - perhaps most importantly - thanking them when they paused to say hello. I think that surprised a few people!

So, when Liv Tyler went by, or Peter Jackson was close, or Sir Ian McKellen was within earshot, I said a cheerful hello. Peter graciously posed with the refreshed Embassy (naturally, an image that would be terribly useful to our mutual friends at the Embassy Theatre Trust); Sir Ian brought over his one-off handmade Weta Workshop chain maille tie for a closer look; and Liv gathered the four hobbits for a group photo - all because I asked them to, nicely, and thanked them…

In fact, at one point, Sir Richard Taylor came bounding over and asked if he could borrow one of my cameras and take it up on stage, to get a photo of Prime Minister Helen Clark in the custom chain maille wrap the Workshop had made for her! He later came back to me to get a 2m high print of her wearing it (from an image I took later in the evening), which last I saw was towering over the Weta boardroom.

Eventually of course, the events were all over; and the cast assembled one last time to fly home - or more likely, to the next premiere. Wellington would return to its usual name, and relative normalcy - though for years afterwards, that red carpet which had been laid out over a full kilometre of Courtenay Place would turn up at events, getting slightly more worn each time, until I think it was sold off to collectors, square inch by square inch. (That story may be apocryphal, but nothing would surprise me!)

The cast depart Wellington after the World Premiere of The Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King

The cast of The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King depart Wellington Airport

Dominic Monaghan, Elijah Wood, Billy Boyd, Orlando Bloom, Sir Ian McKellen, Liv Tyler, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin (and his daughter) and Andy Serkis wait to board a custom-painted Air New Zealand plane.

A few months later of course, the film was nominated for a simply ridiculous number of Oscars, and won all eleven categories; the Embassy again played host to the local celebrations (for those of us who didn’t go to LA), and the audience cheered what seemed like every category as Rings was announced yet again, then leapt to their feet for a standing ovation when the film won Best Picture at the end of the night. Even the Prime Minister took the afternoon off to be there - another truly national celebration.

When the winners returned from LA, the city council put on an event to celebrate their success, and managed to round up just about everyone who’d received a statue. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t fantastic that day, so it had to be moved indoors to the sports arena, which made it less photogenic; but still, that’s a heck of a lot of little gold guys, no matter what the surroundings.

Being the lovely people that they are, many of the winners stayed afterwards to chat with the crowd, which made security distinctly nervous. I remember one excited person holding an Oscar and turning around to show their friend, who wanted to hold it, by which time it was getting a bit of a distance from the stage…one of the staff managed to wrangle it back towards its proper owner, and Alex Funke got to keep his third Academy Award after all. (He didn't seem worried so much, himself!)

 After the Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King's historic 11 wins at the Oscars in 2004, Wellington had a civic reception for all the winners to gather in one place.  Present were Peter Jackson, Richard Taylor, Grant Major, Dan Hennah, Alan Lee, Phillippa Boyens, Jamie Selkirk, Alex Funke, Ngila Dickson, and a number of the winners for sound & technical awards.  Over 20 Oscars sat on a single table in front of a crowd of hundreds of Wellingtonians, as Mayor Kerry Prendergast welcomed the filmmakers home.

The collected Oscar winners for The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King at a celebration event in Wellington.

I met quite a few of the LOTR folks over the next ten years of living in Wellington, and wound up back on set a few times - King Kong and Avatar being the most notable after that - but somehow, The Lord Of The Rings was still the most unique, extraordinary experience of all of them.

I could try to explain it, how the country changed in its own estimation, how LOTR tourism changed the country; but really, it’s this simple - something amazing happened, and it won’t ever happen quite the same way again.

I’m just glad - and lucky - to have been there when it did.

Bonus extended director’s cut special feature easter egg: spot me in the second & third films below! (It’s…not easy.)