In October 1999, the odyssey began--and hit its first snag. Barely a week into principal shooting, Jackson decided the then 26-year-old Townsend (who'd originally auditioned for Frodo) lacked the necessary gravitas for the critical role of haunted hero Aragorn. "We admired him so much as an actor that we wanted him in the movie, and the character Aragorn became a little lost in that excitement," Jackson admits. Adds Ordesky: "The decision was evolutionary. It wasn't like Stuart showed up and everyone went, Ewww."
The phone rang for Viggo Mortensen (A Perfect Murder), 14 years Townsend's senior, and the next day, he hopped the flight to New Zealand. "I was afraid I'd always feel cowardly if I had said no," Mortensen says. "I had more than enough reasons not to do it, but in the end it was a challenge I'd always know I'd backed away from."
Jitters were called for: The entire trilogy was scheduled to shoot in one 15-month run. The crew would toil on soundstages in the capital city of Wellington--where Jackson's Wingnut Films is based--and helicopter into remote landscapes on New Zealand's South Island. All the while, Middle-earth was being created with help from revered Tolkien illustrators Alan Lee and John Howe: If you want a preview of Hobbiton, hometown of the Baggins boys, look no further than Lee and Howe's artwork.
With a requisite crew of more than 2,500--to do everything from attaching latex hobbit feet to coaching actors in Elvish dialect--locals were put to good use. When Jackson needed an army of extras for one of his attack scenes, the government called in, well, its army. "An entire nation rallied around this movie," Astin says. Glassblowers, basket makers, boatbuilders, tanners, coopers, boot makers, thatched-roofers, and milliners were marshaled to create costumes, villages, armor, and weapons. "This country wasn't settled until the 1820s. Our isolation meant everyone had to be improvisers--and to do that you had to be creative," says Jane Gilbert, head of Film New Zealand, charged with luring projects Way Down Under. "We've had a long history of solving our own problems."
There were plenty to go around during the three-Rings circus. By shoot's end, producer Tim Sanders (The Frighteners) would leave the project, as would visual-effects master Mark Stetson (The Fifth Element). "You have hundreds of people who have to mesh," Jackson says of the departures. "Sometimes it doesn't work out."
"The general atmosphere was of controlled chaos," Mortensen says. "But a lot of inspired moments captured on film come from doubt and panic."
Rewrites and additions rained down from the screenwriting team of Jackson, Walsh, and Philippa Boyens. Some addressed continuity, some offered plot tweaks, and some were just for the love of Tolkien. "The source--the bible--was always the books," McKellen says. "If there was something in the novel that hadn't made it into the script, I'd make a phone call. And Peter would say, Nahhh. And I'd say, But it's on page 344! So you slip in another six words."