To realize his creative vision for the films, Peter Jackson hired a highly skilled production team unlike any other, basing them entirely within New Zealand, which served as the real-world Middle-earth. The coordination of the productions for The Hobbit trilogy was no small feat as all three were entirely shot on New Zealand’s captivating North and South Islands, the locations of various film environs being as critical as the film’s characters. Location Manager Jared Connon (The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The Lord of the Rings trilogy) took on the challenge of scouting and managing the locales.
Despite his impressive film resume, Connon (pictured right) had a humble start in the industry. “I started in small television then I moved into television, commercials and then feature films,” says Connon, who was born and raised in New Zealand. “You still can’t get bigger then working on a Peter Jackson film in New Zealand.”
“We had two scripts,” explains Connon. “[This] was always going to be two films. That’s what we were thinking the whole time. During the closing days of the second film, they announced that Peter and the studio were going to make a trilogy of it. We didn’t get the script for Desolation of Smaug until we came back for pickups.”
During principle photography with the script in hand, Connon and the design department shared their thoughts on how each department could build and scout “We knew there was going to be a crossover because it was a studio-based film that relied heavily on the locations as being the anchor points,” Connon says.
Connon describes Jackson’s directing style as collaborative and constant work in progress, as ideas are continually bounced around. “It was a bit tricky to begin because creatively Peter was never really pinned down to the scenes,” Connon recalls. “He would say, ‘Show me the locations and we’ll just work it out as we go.’ Some things we thought would be locations actually happened in the studio, and studio scenes were shot on location. [Things] changed quite a bit. Peter knows the material so intimately he would develop backstories to give us more of an understanding as to the look he was going for. We had to understand his vision of the world and seasons he had created in his head.” Working with a mercurial director has its pros and cons. “A collaborative director that doesn’t pin things down can make life a nightmare for a location manager,” says Connon. “You have all your balls in the air then you’re on edge [waiting to] see if he’s going to [let one drop] or throw a chainsaw into your juggling act, but the result at the end is always worth the effort. It’s like he has an idea bigger than anything we can encompass. One of the producers on the film said to me ‘Jared, you never have to worry; there’s no point in being stressed out. Just get everything ready. Make sure you’ve thought of every possible opportunity that you can offer Peter and when it comes time to make a decision, he’ll make his decision, and then you have five minutes to get it sorted…. That’s the only five minutes you have to stress about.’”
Connon is the type of location manager that stays on a production with up to a dozen people while the film is being shot in a studio. “When we were on location for principle photography, we had a team of 50 across both units,” says Connon. “Our main location unit was about 30 crew members and our second unit had about 20. I reformatted the way we would do things, especially when we had multiple locations working and we had to move very quickly.” The crew didn’t get big travel days, and they had multiple complex sets being built in advance that needed constant attention. The location team was constantly setting up on one location as a crew took a set down somewhere else, so Connon and his people came up with a game-changing plan to make the job easier. “We hired local people as site managers for each town we visited,” explains Connon. “These people never worked in the film industry but they had excellent local knowledge and practical skills, and they knew how to work events. The best thing was these local workers had no concept of what the film industry was, so they weren’t scared by what was coming. A new location manager would have been mortified thinking that 400 people were going to descend upon them in the morning. It also gave us a real link into the community, so when we needed an immediate response from the local supplier we knew our local location worker knew the answer.”
Of all the locations chosen for The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug, Connon recalls the South Island’s Pelorus River as being the most challenging locale to shoot. It was used for a scene where the Dwarves float down a wild river in large wood barrels — and Jackson had a very particular vision for how this scene should look. “As soon as you start dealing with water, you start to complicate a filmmaker’s life immensely,” says Connon. “It’s not an easy medium to work with, whether in a studio or on location. Rivers never quite do what you want them to. Romantically we see them winding their way across a lovely plain, but this river was quite steep with a gorge that twisted and turned. Any time it would rain the water levels would skyrocket, and that’s exactly what happened.” To get to the Pelorus River, the crew built a massive walkway to cross over colossal rocks and boulders. “We had Technocranes, lights, stunt coordinators, actors and prosthetic suits that we had to constantly move,” Connon recalls. “Safety was a huge issue. We build a huge platform where all the monitors rested on a good three meters above the river. We had to screen off the river, so people driving by on the road above wouldn’t see that we were filming, get distracted and cause an accident. It was a good five days of absolute mayhem but it was all worth it when you see it in the end.”
In times of need for extra assistance, Connon knew he could rely on New Zealand’s film commissions. “We always use the film commissions wherever we go, he says. “K.J. Jennings [of Film Otago Southland] is quite linked in with the film industry and local community, and he likes to know what’s going on everywhere because there’s so much filming going in that area. He makes sure that no projects interfere with another, and he keeps in touch with the locals. Usually the local film offices make sure that all the permitting that the local council needs would be taken care of. Wellington is also a key destination for the [Hobbit] production. Most of the studio and post work and shooting happen in the semi-residential area of the city. It’s important that the film industry’s profile is kept in good terms with the local public, [and] Film Wellington helps us maintain this.”
Overall, Connon will be working on The Hobbit trilogy for roughlyfour years, which is unusually long gig in the location game. “In the end, I learned that as a location manager you have to look at the big picture and the long game,” says Connon. “This project has been so unique in the sense that I started scouting in 2009. It was not about seeing what was immediately in front of you and trying to fix it, but being able to look a year ahead and working in that space and being aware of the direction the project is heading and where your teams are going. To be on a project for three years has been really interesting. Also, you really need to manage the people as much as you need to manage the job. You have a job to do; you have to provide the director with some locations, but you’ve also got an amazing group of people around you that require management and support.”
“Everywhere we went the people of New Zealand loved [the films],” says Connon. “That was really special to me because you can go to any quarter of the country and see that people regard the films as New Zealand’s calling card and a project of national importance. Everyone wanted to make sure that these films were a success because it was the way the world was going to see us for the next few years.” This daunting location project was especially worth it, as the first of the trilogy was widely embraced by audiences. The second in the series, The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug, opens in theaters worldwide in December 2013.