Matamata is a small town of 7800 about an hour’s drive northeast of Rotorua; before Sir Peter Jackson selected a nearby farm as the setting for Tolkien’s Hobbiton, its two main industries were thoroughbred horse training and dairy farming; now a substantial amount of tourism can be added to the list. We booked our tour of Hobbiton through the local iSite, and were bussed to and from the farm (on a glorious old white bus named “Gandalf”), located about 10km out of town.
The farm property is owned and run by the Alexander family; Ian Alexander, the father, and three sons, Craig, Russell, and Dean. Peter Jackson originally chose the location in September 1998 after an aerial search of the countryside because of its isolated location (the rolling hills block out any sights or sounds of the 20th century, and the nearest road is 2km away), and because it contained three elements critical to Hobbiton: a lake, a dance field, and a large tree (the “party tree”, for those who know the movies well). To access the site, the New Zealand Army was contracted to build a road around behind the hills (hidden from view), and also built graded spaces for the filmmaker’s technical equipment and the cast & crew’s caravans, make-up trailers, and catering. Site construction started in March 1999, and filming for all three movies took place at Hobbiton from December 1999 to May 2000.
After filming was complete the original contract stipulated the sets had to be completely destroyed, and the land returned to its original state. Demolition of Hobbiton proceeded, with the mill, pub, market, and bridge razed to the ground, and about half the hobbit holes destroyed before inclement weather forced the crews to stop because the work became too dangerous. In the meantime, The Fellowship of the Ring had been released to theatres, and locals had figured out that the Alexander’s isolated farm was where filming had taken place. Soon visitors began to trickle in to see what was left of the sets, and the Alexanders, likely realising the tourist industry could bring in some extra cash to supplement their sheep and dairy farming, spent two years in negotiation with New Line Cinema to keep the remaining hobbit holes (albeit without their decorative exteriors), and developed a tour company to bring the eager crowds of Lord of the Rings devotees through.
Fortunately for us, however, the farm is once again an active film set: Peter Jackson is now directing The Hobbit, and Hobbiton has been resurrected, or more accurately, almost completely rebuilt; a Hobbiton 2.0, if you will. Reconstruction began in December 2009, and filming was scheduled to begin in December 2010. However, Peter Jackson suffered a perforated stomach lining, and filming at Hobbiton was suspended as a result. His loss was our gain: while I am genuinely sorry for Sir Jackson, and wish him nothing but a speedy recovery, I am grateful for his illness, as it allowed for us to have a tour of a reconstructed Hobbiton, looking almost identical to how it appears in the original Lord of the Rings trilogy (actually, it has been expanded for The Hobbit).
Unfortunately, that’s about all I can say about Hobbiton: while we were allowed to take pictures onset, everyone had to sign a confidentiality agreement before beginning the tour, which I will reproduce here:
The property you are about to enter is a working film production location. Everything here is the confidential trade secret and proprietary information of the film production company, 3 Foot 7 Limited.
You must keep what you see and hear strictly confidential.
Information acquired by you here must not be disclosed by any means to anyone (including your family and friends).
These disclosure restrictions also apply to Twitter, Facebook, You-tube, My-space or any other social networks, blogs, websites or the Internet generally.
You are permitted to bring cameras and recording devices but only on the condition that any photography or recording is to be used for your personal, private and non-commercial uses ONLY.
By signing below you are confirming you understand that:
- As a condition of your access you are bound by a legal obligation of confidentiality;
- If you breach your obligation of confidentiality you may be sued; and
- All rights to (including copyright in) any recordings or photographs used for any unauthorized purpose will immediately vest in the film production company upon such breach.
Serious stuff. I’ll be happy to talk about what I heard and saw and experienced after the The Hobbit movies come out, but until that point I’m going to keep quiet. :-) Nevertheless, walking around the set, I couldn’t help but wonder what J. R. R. Tolkien would have thought to see his beloved Hobbiton coming to life; I think he would have been immensely pleased.
After the farm set tour we were bussed back to the main road, and over to The Wool Shed, where we were treated to a sheep-shearing demonstration, and got to feed pet lambs with with bottles of milk (it’s amazing how affectionate animals can get when one offers food; then again, my brother were the same way when promised a lick of the beaters when my mum was making cookies).
Once back in Matamata, we had a mid-afternoon tea of smoothies (coffee for dad), and then drove the fifty or so kilometres to Tauranga, where we are currently situated at the quiet but centrally-located Roselands Motel. Right now my mum and dad are cooking up a feast of chicken, steak, beans, corn, and pasta in our little kitchenette; I’ve been prohibited from participating because of my cold, but I’ve been informed the dishes will be my sole responsibility. It’s a beautiful late summer/early fall evening, and the wind is rustling the curatins as it blows through the sliding glass door of our unit. The timer just dinged, so I guess I had better be off. Goodnight!