CAMBRIDGE, NEW ZEALAND—It doesn't seem surprising now, but imagine telling the Alexanders five years ago that, come 2003, thousands and thousands of people from all over the world—and especially Japanese women—would come to see their sheep farm, never mind that it's in the middle of nowhere, 20 minutes' drive from the nearest big town of Matamata (population 5,900). Even better, that when these folks arrived, they'd pony up 50 bucks each (roughly U.S.$30) to spend an hour traipsing around and looking at a dozen or so boarded-up holes in the ground. Not only that, but some of them will come in suits of armor, brandishing plastic swords, or ask to be married there.
Because they're polite, the three Alexander brothers—two full-time farmers, one part-time farmer and full-time accountant—might have inquired discreetly as to what you'd been smoking or expressed their deepest sympathies. But, of course, all of the above has happened—is happening—because in March 1999, Peter Jackson and New Line Cinema transformed a 10-acre parcel of their family's farm into the Shire for Lord of the Rings, and for more than a year, fans have been making the pilgrimage to see what remains of it. In fact, Hobbiton, as the Shire is also known, is one of 50 or more locations tourists have begun seeking throughout New Zealand, in large part due to Ian Brodie's Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook, a best seller in Australia and New Zealand. (The first U.S. edition hits stores Dec. 18.)
Wishing to avoid further calls at their homes, the Alexanders arranged to meet tourists en masse at the tourist information center in Matamata and drive them out by bus. Being determined to get lost, I, however, drove myself out to the farm, down curvy roads with little or no signage, keeping one eye on the odometer ("it's 5 kilometers from the petrol station at the corner"), and the other on the lookout for the "wool shed." When I found it at last, I met with Hobbiton's sunny, burly operations guy, Henry "Horndog" Horne. To date, Horne said, they'd had 15,500 guests, cobbling together some sort of infrastructure as they went along. "Sure, we've got a business plan," he said. "But it changes every day."
Horne, who wore a ring on a chain around his neck and an official Rings Scenic Tours Ltd. work shirt in black and gold (the colors of his favorite rugby team), recapped how, the day before they opened on Dec. 2, 2002, they offered locals a free preview.
Seven hundred took them up on it. After their first 10 days, they bought a van, then a second within a month. Just this week, they finished work on "Shire's Rest," aka the wool shed, which has been expanded to include a set of new toilets (behind a round Hobbit door), a concession stand, and attractive picnic tables.
As for the Shire itself—well, it's a bit anticlimatic. It's not that it isn't beautiful; it's just that there isn't a great deal to see, save one truly tremendous pine (aka the Party Tree, which does sort of call one to dance beneath it), a lot of sheep, and a few three-foot cavities in the side of the hill with plywood facades. All the 270 varieties of natural flowers, the Barberry hedges, the arch bridge, and the chimney have been ripped out. (New Line was so concerned about secrecy, they routinely demolished all the sets within days of filming.)
Still, Horne's doing his best to restore the hobbit holes and enrich the experience. He's had some sign boards built. They display stills from the movies, plus shots of the area during production that serve to orient the viewer and make it possible to imagine the set when it was full. Horne's a fount of "making-of" trivia, too—about, for example, the oak tree brought in for Bag's End (where Bilbo Baggins once lived). While there's a mighty, pre-existing, and photogenic pine near Bag's End, the filmmakers needed an oak above it, because that's how Tolkien had written it. So, at a cost of $23,000, a 26-ton oak was cut, shipped in, reassembled, and wired with scores of plastic leaves from Taiwan. The tree appears in the Fellowship of the Ring for 11 seconds.
On the way back to the wool shed, Horne told me a bit more about the cultish flock he now tends. (My favorite: the 7-foot-2 German who came dressed as a Hobbit.) He figures they had a five- or 10-year window, and then interest will probably wane—unless, that is, New Line comes back to film The Hobbit. (Lord of the Rings co-producers Barrie Osborne and Mark Ordesky declined comment on these rumors during a press conference last Friday, but they looked like cats well-fed on canary as they explained that they hadn't ruled out the possibility of a prequel.)
Of all the cast and crew, the brothers got along best with Sean Astin, the actor who plays Sam Gamgee, Frodo Baggins' sidekick and protector. Astin apparently took to New Zealand in a big way. He learned to surf at Wellington's Lyall Bay and begged pilots to teach him to fly as they shuttled between locations on the South Island. At Hobbiton, rumor has it, Peter Jackson had to assign a personal assistant to Astin just to make sure he'd be rested and on-set instead of learning how to shear sheep. But can you blame him for wanting to learn from the Alexanders? All three of the brothers shear, but the eldest, Craig, is a shearing champion. He can fleece 500 sheep in a day! Now that I'd pay $50 to see.