The new movie ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ has special significance for Te Mata man Marcus Vernon.
Together with the book of the same name — given to him by his kids for Christmas — it marks a special part of his own life recently as a horse trainer and extra on the set of the latest Peter Jackson trilogy.
Marcus, who runs Magic Mountain horse treks, spent a year down-country recently based at Titahi Bay, as one of a dozen or so trainers lucky enough to work with 70-odd horses — from eight to 18 hands high, he says — at nearby Pauatahanui.
And on “big filming days” at Stone Street Studios in the Wellington suburb of Miramar there could be up to 30 people getting the horses ready for a scene, explains Marcus.
The dwarves’ horses, for instance, were zipped into custom-made mohair, cashmere or goat-fibre suits which wrapped around their bellies, legs and throats with extra padding to make for the fat and hairy Hobbiton horse.
On hot days, adds Marcus, the suits had to be unzipped to cool the horses off between scenes.
Marcus was also used as an extra in the trilogy’s village scenes. He recalls sitting uncomfortably “on this wooden plank boat” for about four hours with a pig which fortunately, he says, behaved itself. But he had a mighty sore butt the next day, he reckons.
But most exciting of all was riding as a double for two or three dwarves — and even playing Gandalf for Sir Ian McKellen, who had a few horse-riding doubles, in one scene of the trilogy.
Marcus isn’t recognizable — even to himself — behind the mask, beard, hat and cloak of the character on horseback. But he says doing the Gandalf scene over four or five hours in the South Island more than a year ago now made him feel like a film star.
“We were choppered in from south of Queenstown, over a couple of mountain ranges to some valley in the middle of nowhere,” he recalls.
“I was dressed as Gandalf and galloped my horse up this valley, pretending to talk to Radagast (the nature-loving wizard) on the way.”
Marcus was filmed from the helicopter at different angles — “behind me, towards me, next to me”.
“Yeah I did, that day, feel like a movie star,” he admitted from the comfort of his armchair at home in Houchen Road when the Chronicle called early this week. “It was awesome.”
One other day Marcus felt “pretty important” was when he was choppered to Waiouru and around Mt Ruapehu checking out the terrain for more movie scenes. And, later, actually galloping by Ruapehu to make sure all was ready for Gandalf.
Another highlight saw Marcus put in charge of the film’s animal department for a few days in the absence of its usual head. “I had to make sure everything was in the right place at the right time, talk to the directors … lots of responsibility I wasn’t used to.
“It was a pretty good job alright,” Marcus says of his time in the industry, which started back in October 2010 and ran till Christmas 2011 but with both summer and winter breaks. A basic wage of $1600 a week, plus overtime for those 12-hour days, made it “alright” too — not to mention being put up in a plush house rent free by Three Foot Seven, the company behind the trilogy.
Three foot seven, he adds, is the size of a hobbit.
Marcus — who’s only now free to talk of his big-screen experiences because he had to sign a confidentiality agreement — says his kids aged nine and 13 got a kick out of seeing their dad’s name roll in the credits at the end of the first movie when it was released last month.
And if he ever got the chance to be part of a film again? He’d take it, he says without a moment’s hesitation.