'Hobbit' Fans Get a Real-Life Look at Middle-Earth Locations

Jordan Riefe

Contest winners spent a week exploring movie locations in New Zealand

Shortly after last summer's Comic-Con, Noelle Knopp sat down to write a postcard to Peter Jackson listing all she would do if she ever got a chance to visit New Zealand. A fan of J.R.R. Tolkien's iconic novels centered in the mythical realm of Middle-earth, the 18-year-old from an Orlando, Florida, suburb was not alone in writing the filmmaker. Right around that time, some 140,000 like-minded fans were doing the same as entrants in The Hobbit Fan Fellowship Contest in which 75 people would be chosen for an all-expense-paid trip to New Zealand for themselves and a loved one to visit the locations of the popular movies, culminating in a screening of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies with Jackson himself at Park Road Post, the editing house in Wellington where he is putting the final touches on the movie ahead of its Dec. 17 release.

"I saw this on the side of a site, and I said 'This is awesome. I have to do this. I can't not try,' " Knopp tells The Hollywood Reporter. "It happened, and it's still surreal!" Fans from over 27 countries touched down in Auckland, New Zealand, Nov. 2 to begin their journey with a stop at Hobbiton, the Matamata sheep farm that became the home of Frodo and Bilbo Baggins. There they walked through the shire like their furry-footed fictional friends and stopped at The Green Dragon for a party with actors Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, John Callen and Stephen Hunter, who play dwarves in the movie.

"This is silly, but the grass is so soft. I can see why, if you're location scouting, you can see this place as Hobbiton," Knopp says, marveling at the pristine set spread over 12 acres around her. "It's exactly as it says in the book. It's so beautiful. Being a fan for so long and imagining myself in the movies, being part of creating this sort of thing, it hits you. You're just awestruck."

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In addition to the postcard, contestants had to complete a quiz linking places in Middle-earth with real-life location, and submit a two-minute video showcasing their thoughts and memories of the Hobbit films. Knopp wore a Legolas wig and recalled watching the movies over the years with friends and loved ones. Steven Kornfeld of St. Louis, Missouri, did his best Gollum impersonation and even came up with a riddle for the judges to solve.

"I was confident the whole way through just because I know my Gollum voice. I've done it for contests before in the past — talent shows for my college and other places," Kornfeld says. Inspired by Jackson's movies to become a filmmaker, he's a communications coordinator for a consulting firm, where he produces videos and writes press releases. "It's not Hollywood, but it's secure."

Kornfeld tried out his Gollum impersonation in a question-answer session with Jackson before the screening but got little reaction from the director, who told the crowd he was working on just two to three hours of sleep per night as he rushes to finish the film. He asked them about bungee jumping in Queenstown, a short drive from the Isengard location, and zip lining in Rotorua, near Hobbiton, confessing, "I'm not an adrenaline junkie. My version of extreme sports is watching this film with you."

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Many of the fans who made the pilgrimage to New Zealand went with a parent. They are young and idealist and not unlike Jackson when he wrote, directed, starred and produced his first film, World War Two, a short he made as a teen. Back in those days, the movie that inspired him to pick up a camera was King Kong, which he of course remade in 2003. He says he cried when the big guy fell from the Empire State Building, and no doubt he would have given anything to pay an actual visit to Skull Island. The place only exists on celluloid, but not Hobbiton. It sprawls over rolling hills of saturated green, waiting to inspire the next Peter Jackson.

"When we rounded that corner and we saw everything laid out on the hills in front of us, it was just breathtaking," says Kornfeld. "I was at a loss for words. Then I was walking around later by myself and looking at all the intricate props and gardens, and I've got to admit I teared up."