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How one Lord of the Rings extra became New Zealand's tour guide for obsessed fans

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Denny Watkins
Dec 14, 2017

Out of all the Uruk-hai who ambush Frodo and Aragorn at Amon Hen in 2001's The Fellowship of the Ring, Mike Stearne thinks he might have been the only one who had actually read J.R.R. Tolkien's novels.

Growing up in Otautau, a town of barely 800 people on New Zealand's South Island, Stearne mostly kept his enjoyment of fantasy novels and other geeky hobbies to himself.

"I wasn't lonely, but when I was hanging out with other friends, they didn't do that kind of stuff," Stearne says.

In 1999, Stearne saw a newspaper ad looking for extras in Peter Jackson's new adaptation of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was to be filmed near his home. He jumped at the chance to be part of the movie. Stearne showed up to the casting with long blond hair that he describes as "Kurt Cobain meets Lucius Malfoy," so the producers slated Stearne to be an elf. They didn't tell Stearne their plans, however, and he unwittingly cropped off his locks in the months before filming.

Stearne was then lined up to be Aragorn's stand-in, back when Stuart Townsend was still set to star in the role. But just before filming kicked off, Townsend was dropped in favor of Viggo Mortensen — and Stearne didn't have the right proportions to be Mortensen's stand-in. The producers finally grouped Stearne with the fearsome Uruk-hai warriors who attack at end of The Fellowship of the Ring.

"It's cooler to be the bad guy anyway," he says.

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Stearne can rattle off this story easily — along with fun details about chatting with Lurz (the face-painted Uruk who shoots Boromir) in the makeup chairs, and how exhausting it was chasing Merry and Pippin down the hill in full Uruk-hai armor a half dozen times. That's because Stearne's full-time job is now to recount his minor role in cinematic history to enthusiastic Lord of the Rings fans, who pay him for personal, private tours of filming locations around New Zealand.

The tours can last from a day to more than a week, and they hit the lush landscapes that served as the backdrops for Rivendell, Lothlorien, and the gardens surrounding Saruman's tower Isengard. Tourists also see the Black Gate, the Paths of the Dead, the River Anduin, and the spot in the forest where the hobbits first hide from a Ringwraith, among other locations. They'll also go inside the Weta Workshop, which was the special effects studio for the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, along with Avatar, Ghost in the Shell, District 9, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and Elysium.

Through his website, Mike the Guide, Stearne offers other tours of New Zealand's sights that aren't fan-specific, including a combination beer and movies tour of Wellington breweries and film scene hotspots, a "Colours of Wellington" tour to check out visually striking spots around the city, and a day tour spent exploring the seaside Kapiti Coast.

Any fan would be lucky to land in a career where their geeky passions dovetail neatly with their personal strengths. But Stearne's path from video store clerk to sought-after tour guide — a process that took more than a decade — is also a road-map to seizing opportunities when they come your way.

"When I look back, a lot of cool stuff has happened to me when I've not been expecting it, but still open to it," Stearne says.

After his week on the set of The Fellowship of the Ring, Stearne found work at a video store in Queenstown for a few years. "In our mind, we were like Empire Records, but really we were more like Clerks," he says. Queenstown is a skiing and outdoors destination comparable to Aspen or Vail, and Stearne remembers actors Scott Glenn (The Defenders, The Leftovers) and Ben Mendelsohn (Rogue One) popping in to rent hard-to-find VHS tapes while they were in town filming the 2000 mountaineering movie Vertical Limit.

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During his video rental days, photographer Ian Brodie sought out Stearne to get his help pinpointing filming spots for The Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook. Brodie was also a lifelong Tolkien fan, and had secured the permission of the movie's producers to put together a guide on the prescient hunch that viewers might like to personally visit Middle-earth in New Zealand.

"Mike was the first person, outside of the film studio, that I actually made contact with," Brodie says.

Stearne had already brought a couple people he met through Tolkien fan site theonering.net up to the location, so he ventured into the forest with Brodie to show how they filmed his scenes.

Brodie continued to research filming locations throughout New Zealand by talking to more of the film crew and extras, often with Stearne in tow.

"As I continued to explore various locations, he came along for the ride and became part of the process," Brodie says.

In 2002, just before The Two Towers was released, Stearne was hired to be a tour guide by Nomad Safaris, which specialized in taking travelers in Land Rovers bouncing across New Zealand's rugged backcountry. After years working retail, it felt like a dream gig to Stearne.

"You get to smash through rivers and brush, and they pay all the maintenance on the vehicles," Stearne says.

Nomad also ran film location tours, and Stearne took eager Tolkien fans to see the real-life analogues of Middle-earth for several years, working off and on between taking extended visits to Australia and the United States. Then in 2010, Stearne moved to Wellington on the North Island and continued working as a guide with a company called Wellington Rover Tours.

After one group tour, one tourist asked Stearne to take him on a solo trip to see more of Wellington's sights the following day.

"He wasn't a big Tolkien fan, but we found a lot of common ground and had a great time exploring historic areas in a 4x4," Stearne says.

The client was impressed enough that he told Stearne he wanted more tours the next time he was in New Zealand. "That was the inspiration to see whether I could do it on my own," Stearne says. Offering private tours could also give Stearne a ladder up in the tourism business, where he'd always been a guide, but never owned his own company.

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It took another few years for that idea to grow into a viable operation for Stearne. To coincide with the release of the first Hobbit movie in 2012, Brodie put together a one-time, multi-day Lord of the Rings tour on the now-defunct Middle Earth Network, offering to take a small group of dedicated Tolkien fans around New Zealand. They hired a separate driver, but Brodie wanted Stearne to guide the tour and be the resident expert.

"There was no doubt in my mind that Mike would be the guy to go to," Brodie says. "He is such an approachable, easy going guy, and he's got an amazing sense of humor, but also a bank of knowledge."

It was Stearne's first big private tour, and it proved successful. The following year, he launched Mike the Guide.

For fans who take Stearne's tours, it's a bucket list experience that may have required a good chunk of both planning time and savings. The cost of flying to New Zealand from Los Angeles ranges from $1,000 to $2,000. A single day with Stearne's Middle-earth tour costs NZ$895 for one person (about $640 U.S.), with prices dropping as more people sign on — a group of four is NZ$355 per person per day. For an extra NZ$2,500 ($1,790 U.S.) you can add on a private tour of Weta, including a look inside their workshop and post production studio to catch a glimpse of current works in progress. Fans typically sign on for at least two days, but Stearne has taken groups on tours that last several days and cover a lot of ground on the North and South Islands.

"We could easily get to NZ$20,000 for a party of 4 for a 14-day tour," Stearne says. Suffice to say, if you're laying out that kind of cash, you're far more dedicated than the average Tolkien fan.

Since he spends all day interacting with those hardcore fans, Stearne likes to get in touch with them soon after they book the tour, to get a feel for what they want and make sure their personalities mesh.

"I definitely sell the personal thing first, it's me and you and we're hanging out in the car together," Stearne says.

Stearne doesn't claim to be a true expert on Tolkien lore, but his enthusiast's level of knowledge is usually enough to keep clients entertained. He also absorbs new factoids from the fans who treat Tolkien's The Silmarillion like their personal Bible, or who have immersed themselves in every minute of the Blu-ray special features from the extended editions of the films.

 

"If I'm in an environment where someone knows more than me, everybody wins, because they get to share that knowledge," Stearne says. "They get someone who gets it."

Stearne also likes to go above and beyond the standard group tour experience. He'll queue up Howard Shore's epic Lord of the Rings score in various locations, so the tour guests feel like they're living in the movie. "As we come up to the River Anduin, I'll play the River Anduin theme," he says.

Stearne also keeps a set of elf ears and a replica of Frodo's sword Sting in the vehicle, so tourists can take Instagrammable pics. Those props, of course, are for the fans who aren't already cosplaying — many of his clients show up in costume, Stearne says. He also meets a cross section of other fandoms on his tours, such as Harry Potter and Star Wars fans, which gives him other opportunities to engage people on a personal level.

"I'm constantly throwing pop culture references around, and if I see someone wearing a T-shirt for something I'm familiar with, then we can start a conversation about that," Stearne says.

He also personalizes each tour to visit the locations the client is most interested in seeing, and to fit the time they have available. Hobbiton, near Auckland, is maintained by the Lord of the Rings producers and remains the best preserved out of the film sets. While most of the other temporary structures for the films were dismantled, their wilderness locations mean many of the vistas are easily recognizable to anyone who's seen the movies.

"At the end of the day, it's still just a forest or a river, or standing on the side of a mountain looking around," Stearne says. "But when they turn up at the site, it looks just like the movie."

Being able to physically plant your feet in real places that represented Middle-earth also taps into part of what has made Tolkien's novels an enduring part of literature and pop culture. Underlying the sweeping narrative about good versus evil, Tolkien devoted page after page poetically describing his fictional world in minute detail. Though both beautiful and dangerous, Middle-earth is a realm with its best days long gone and where the future — even after the good guys win — never measures up to past glories.

"Tolkien set out to create a mythology for England," Brodie explains. "But he lived through World War I, he saw the demise of small English villages, and some of the places he visited being taken over and industrialized, so there has to be some sort of allegory there, as well."

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The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are also, at heart, road trip stories. Bilbo titles his own book about his adventures "There and Back Again," and there's no shortage of merch featuring the fan-favorite quote, "Not all those who wander are lost." Long before a live action film was made, the shared desire to visit Tolkien's world spawned all sorts of inventive ways to help your imagination get there, from fantasy novels, to pen and paper roleplaying games, to increasingly sophisticated and vivid RPG video games, LARPing, and Renaissance Faires. Fans who make the journey to New Zealand are ultimately creating their own IRL Hobbit adventure.

"There is finally a Middle-earth you can experience in person," Stearne says.

The final Hobbit movie was released back in 2014, and despite middling reviews (especially compared to the Best Picture-winning The Return of the King), the final Peter Jackson Tolkien film raked in nearly $1 billion in worldwide box office receipts. So Stearne is confident that tourists will want to see Bilbo's house or the spot where Boromir died for years to come.

"It plateaued a bit before The Hobbit, but The Hobbit brought it to the next level," Stearne says.

In fact, business has been brisk enough that Stearne recently expanded to a new company, Obsidian New Zealand, which will allow him to hire additional tour guides not named Mike, who aren't tied so closely to his personal brand.

"Finding the right guides as I grow will be tough," Stearne says. "I want a Tolkien nerd with extremely high standards of care and attention to detail."

He was also able to buy an expensive new black Mercedes-Benz luxury van with space for up to five passengers.

Ultimately, Stearne credits his success to the explosion of fan culture, and the fans' willingness to invest time and money to celebrate their favorite works.

"I swear there's never been a better time to be a nerd or a geek," Stearne says. "We rule the world now in our own little way. Wellington is an amazing place for anyone who's into that sort of thing."