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SYFY WIRE Ian McKellen

Gandalf the Blogger: Ian McKellen reposts revealing diaries from his Lord of the Rings shoot

By Donnie Lederer

It’s 2020, and when it comes to “behind-the-scenes” footage or tidbits, a fan doesn’t need to look further than a celebrity’s Instagram account or YouTube page.

Back in the early 2000s, however, we weren’t quite there yet, so a lot of this type of material has lost itself to the ages (or rather, the bowels of the internet). However, thanks to Ian McKellen, we're now reminded about some personal insight into one of the most beloved franchises in movie history.

On Friday, McKellen took to Twitter to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the beginning of his shoot on the Lord of the Rings trilogy by posting a link to a blog on his webpage. Granted, the entries themselves aren't new — McKellen himself reminded us, in one particular page, that this was originally published like a traditional blog, and then in 2010 the entries were later rearranged in chronological order. 

But McKellen's fresh reminder about their existence is timeless fodder for fans. What they get isn’t just a diary, aptly titled The Grey Book, that muses about his daily life or what shenanigans he and Patrick Stewart were perpetrating (although we’d read that as well). It’s a chronicle of his entire process of filming the famous series.

The blog starts on Aug. 20, 1999, well over two decades ago, as he has some preproduction thoughts while filming his other franchise role as Magneto in the X-Men movies. He talks about his flight to New Zealand, where he was to spend the majority of the next few years helping create something unique, including an eventual Best Picture winner with The Return of the King. In the Jan. 8 post, he speaks about how the travel affected his sense of time: "Actually I am not sure of the date. I am in Los Angeles en route for Wellington, with a 12-hour flight on Qantas/British Airways ahead of me: I don't wear a watch and all I know is that [the] UK is 8 hours ahead and New Zealand is 4 hours behind plus (or minus) a day."

When you think of Gandalf the Grey (or the White, depending on your preference), his long beard is probably one feature that comes to mind. Upon his arrival, McKellen wrote about what influences were used to create such iconic facial hair. "At the first screen test the beard was too long and cumbersome for Gandalf the man of action - he is forever tramping and riding and on the move," he wrote, "I didn't want a beard that hampered me with a life of its own once the winds blew. Alien visages stared back at me from the mirror - hirsute offbeats like Shylock, Fagin, and Ben Gunn. Even Rasputin for a moment."

Scaling things down, however, finally revealed the kind of character they were going for. "Once he had trimmed it all back, I saw a glimmer of the old wizard's sternness," McKellen wrote, referring to the film's Oscar-winning makeup artist, Peter Owen. "I smiled and tried a Gandalf twinkle, the friend of the Hobbits who admire their spirit and sociability."

And although the cast famously grew close during production, McKellen made sure to give a shout-out to his favorite (non-human) costar. "More my style is the chestnut Rastus who plays Bill the pony and is adorable," he wrote on Oct. 3, 2000. "The compliant, ever-licking Rastus is 11 years old, an American quarter horse crossed with Shetland. ... He didn't complain of dust in the eyes or polystyrene balls in every bodily crevice ...  I wish he had made it into the mines of Moria. He would not have been daunted by all those steps and passageways nor by the rowdy goblins. Indeed I would have trusted him with the ring itself."

In the Jan. 1, 2001, entry, which discussed the end of principal photography, McKellen posted a letter from Helen Clark, the prime minister of New Zealand, in which she thanked and praised him for his enthusiasm during his stay in the country. 

The blog is filled with many more anecdotes from the filming process, from chats with Hugo Weaving to touring an active volcano. Each entry is accompanied by pictures, mostly taken by McKellen himself.

You can check out the blog in its entirety on McKellen’s webpage here. It’s an excellent read for fans of the Lord of the Rings trilogy who love eyeballing every little detail about the film with more scrutiny than the Eye of Sauron.