Worldwide fame not a figwit of elf's imagination

By KATE PERRY

It all started when a Tolkien fan settled down to watch Frodo battle evil in the first part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, only to find herself distracted by a pouting elf in the background.

While Frodo was bravely stepping up to the plate and offering to transport 'The Ring' to Mordor, Iris from Israel was eyeing up a pretty young slip of an elf in the background and thinking "Frodo is great...who is that??" And from an acronym, Figwit was born.

The fan soon found like-minded souls in a Lord of the Rings chatroom and before too long decided to dedicate a tongue-in-cheek website to the spunky elf, called figwitlives.net. And that's when things started getting out of hand.

Film-makers Stan Alley, Nick Booth and Hannah Clarke, were friends with Figwit, aka Wellington-based musician and comedian Bret McKenzie, and decided to track his rising popularity on film.

The result is an hour long magazine-style documentary called Frodo is Great Who is That?!!, which is due to screen at the International Film Festival.

"We knew Bret, and we knew that this woman, or whoever these people were, didn't actually know who he was. We were in a great position to tell the story of unravelling Bret's identity," Booth said.

When the trio heard that Figwit fans were planning to converge on the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to watch McKenzie perform with Jermaine Clement in the Flight of the Conchords, they decided they had to record the experience.

This decision turned into a two year project, tracking Figwit's growing popularity and capturing global interest such as a front page article in one of America's largest newspapers, USA Today.

"Part of the greatest thing about making it, was after deciding we were going to do it, watching it snowball around the world," Booth said.

Alley said Internet fans seemed to have created the Figwit phenomenon as a kind of antidote to all the super serious discussion groups and story dissections by Tolkien fans.

He said without the Internet the Figwit craze couldn't have taken off. "Five years ago the girl, Iris, would have gone into a cafe with friends and said 'oh did you see that elf?', and they would have said 'no' and that would have been the end of it.

"Now she goes online and she finds she's got thousands of people who feel the same way."

Curiosity was a major driver behind the making of the documentary.

"I wanted to find out what these people were like. I had no idea. I thought they were American fan-girls," Alley said. But it turned out they were "smart, funny people who happened to have an obsession with one little thing in their lives."

The film-makers said they didn't want to ridicule anyone, and much of the humour in the documentary comes from the fans satirising themselves and their obsession.

"We wanted to step back from commenting on their behaviour. We thought what they do is actually cool, it's fun and they enjoy it, and we don't want to make them out to be freaks," Booth said.

The fans do come across as surprisingly normal, although a woman who goes by the elf name Eletar and runs a website called letsbretiton, is slightly disturbing as she insists McKenzie's talents really shone through in his three second spot.

The documentary follows McKenzie good humouredly meeting several Figwit fans while in Edinburgh, at one point even donning elf-ears and re-enacting his pivotal scene.

Most of the big names associated with Lord of the Rings, including director Peter Jackson, New Line Cinema's Barry Osborne and much of the main cast, appear in the documentary and take an indulgent view of the elf who hijacked their movie.

Alley said the documentary gives Lord of the Rings fans a chance to see the stars talking about the trilogy in a candid, non-reverential way.

Jackson and Osborne got behind Figwit to such an extent that McKenzie was brought back in for the third film in a small speaking role - mainly as a nod to his fervent fans.

Booth said the documentary is a different beast from other behind the scenes looks at the Lord of the Rings.

"A lot of them are very much driven around the production and the cast and Tolkien, and ours is very much more irreverent and strange."

* Frodo is Great Who is That?!! is screening as part of the International Film Festival, opening in Auckland on July 23 and Wellington on July 30.

- NZPA


New Zealand International Film Festival

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