March 2, 2000Off
to See the Wizards
WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND -- I'm standing in Saruman's throne
room in Orthanc, on a soundstage at the Lord of the Rings studios. The dark,
circular chamber is part Gothic cathedral, part Gestapo fortress.
Jagged, steely black walls stretch up 20 feet to the ceiling,
mirroring the beetlelike exoskeleton armor worn in battle by Saruman's Uruk-hai warriors.
Everything transmits a metallic gleam--with help from a technician who dutifully polishes
the floor between takes.
I politely show him a spot he's missed, then walk into
Saruman's antechamber. It's a jumbled mess of candles, leatherbound books, animal skulls
and papers inscribed in Old Elvish (and it feels a million miles away from the luxuriously
furnished interiors of Bag End, housed in the studio set next door).
Today, Peter Jackson's team is filming climactic scenes
between Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Saruman (Christopher Lee), the two great wizards of the
epic. Here's the setup: Gandalf discovers Saruman has misled the White Council of wizards,
and he now seeks the power of the One Ring for himself. Saruman uses black magic in an
attempt to enslave Gandalf and make him reveal the Ring's location. Cue big sticks, pointy
hats and thunderbolts for a battle between superhumans.
Reclining in a chair in the Orthanc studio is Lee, dressed in
flowing white robes with long white hair and a beard. He beckons with clawed fingers,
inviting me to look into his unblinking brown eyes.
"Although the wizards are trapped in this frail human
form, they are immortal." he croons. "It's in the eyes--the rage of being
knocked about in a human shell, but the immortal is still there." If anyone can
capture the power and magic of the immortal, it is Lee. Standing
six-foot-five, he walks noiselessly through the throne room, brandishing his Palantir
staff at Gandalf, who is knocked to the floor with evil magic.
Lee's Saruman is commanding, majestic and terrifying. A
longtime reader and admirer of Tolkien, Lee describes being introduced to Tolkien at a pub
in Oxford, England, when Tolkien was professor of English lit at Oxford and Lee a student
at a local school. "He came in, smoking his pipe, bright twinkling eyes, and wearing
his tweed jacket," Lee recalls. "He looked like a typical countryman, which he
was at heart. He seemed very shy, very reserved. I didn't say anything, though I was
completely in awe of him and his work. I think a compliment would have embarrassed
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