Peter Jackson's multi-million-dollar mansion is apparently finished and Sir Ian McKellen is one of the first house guests. Paul Lewis discovers that the award-winning film-maker may still be learning to fit into the community he now dominates.
It's not easy hunting for the head hobbit. Given Peter Jackson's legendary quest for privacy, there are no signs to his hideaway Wairarapa mansion.
There is an inkling you might be getting close when you pass a sign that says: "All have sinned and all fall short of the glory of God." But it's courtesy of a local religious group.
The sign on Jackson's property doesn't mention God but it has a little commandment: It proclaims this to be private property and entry is by appointment only. A staff member sits at the hut at the top of the long drive, presumably waiting for sinners without appointments. It's a little Checkpoint Charlie, minus the East Germans. You can't see the impressively remodelled mansion from the road. That's the whole idea.
So the just-turn-up-and-see-what-happens strategy wasn't very bright. But the surrounds are interesting. This is lush, emerald green Wairarapa country. Lambs are dashing around paddocks, still with their tails on. Horses have their winter coats. We see a big ring-necked pheasant.
Down the road, there is a stand of naked, leafless poplars. Out of the afternoon sun, it looks a gloomy, moody copse. You half expect to see an Ent - the ancient tree-folk of
The Lord of the Rings
- break cover.
Our interest in Jackson's mansion has been spurred by reports that it has been finished after years of landscaping and additions, turning it into his private fantasyland.
"The rumour is that [Jackson's partner] Fran [Walsh] has asked him to stop building and adding things as she wants them all to live there properly now," said one local.
About 20ha, the estate has changed significantly over about five years. Old villas from elsewhere in Wairarapa have been moved on to the property, one as a manager's home, another to house a film post-production facility.
It is said to contain a private 100-seat cinema and studio. Building costs are rumoured to have reached well into the millions, with additions including a 20m indoor pool with a ceiling designed to look like the night sky. An 80m brick-lined tunnel is said to lead from beneath the house and also on site are a railway system, a private pub and a lake - the centrepiece of the estate, it is said, complete with islands and castle-like buildings and big enough for swimming and boating.
The re-creation of some elements of Jackson's best-known movies also flavour the estate. There are apparently Orcs, the villainous soldiers of evil from
The Lord of the Rings
, in the grounds. Attention to detail is so precise that even parts of the grounds mocked up to look like one of the movie battle scenes have been landscaped with indentations - designed to look like the impact of cannon balls. And then there is Frodo Baggins' hobbit house, Bag End, moved on to the property and recreated perfectly, doubling as the guest quarters. Sir Ian McKellen, who played Gandalf in the trilogy and who is in New Zealand with the Royal Shakespeare Company, is the current guest.
The locals see little of Jackson but know he is there on the odd occasions when he flies his planes - one a World War II fighter and the other an older version thought to be of WWI vintage - low over the estate. One neighbour's horses were upset with one of the first flights and three jumped their fences.
If this is all sounding a little Howard Hughes, it's probably time to reflect that those with highly public careers often have highly tuned desires for privacy. Locals say Jackson is swamped by fans and attention every time he ventures to Wellington.
The staff member at the top of the drive is needed because thick-skinned celebrity-gazers have tried to satisfy their curiosity unannounced. The locals say the grounds around the estate are armed with sensors to detect unwanted visitors - some of whom have walked along the banks of the river which flows alongside Jackson's house and knocked on the door, asking to see him.
Jackson tried to keep the house and estate secret; contractors and anyone who works for him sign binding confidentiality agreements. There is a bit of a fear factor here. Even the fact that he had bought the house and grounds from a local farming family was hidden for some time, with the sellers and others nearby signing confidentiality agreements.
One person who worked on the estate was Paul Kuchenbecker, father of mountainbiker Karl Kuchenbecker who was killed by Graeme Burton in one of the country's most infamous recent murders.
Even the locals talked to for this story asked not to be identified - such is the wall of silence around Jackson's project.
But it was surely an impossible task keeping such a secret in little New Zealand and one of the neighbours is thought to have broken ranks and blabbed. No one quite knows who - though they have their suspicions - and the fact that the little community is still wondering speaks volumes for the efforts Jackson made to keep his sanctuary secret.
Maybe his cover being blown has prompted Jackson to be even more reclusive than might be expected from a public figure planning a private retreat.
What emerges talking to people in the area is a picture of man who has chosen a remote, tranquil spot on which to build his fantasy home.
He is not the local "squire", having the community around for a barbecue. Nor does he come out of his escape to go to Christmas drinks.
The locals have offered but the invitations have always been politely declined. He sends out Christmas hampers to the neighbourhood every year. Big ones.
The general mood is positive. There are some minor grizzles - a wall here, a hill built there, trees planted over there, views blocked here and there, all in the name of privacy - but most are easy enough about the presence of their famous neighbour.
It wasn't always so.
One neighbour wanted to send back the Christmas hamper one year because they were so fed up with the heavy traffic, the noise and the dust as trucks ripped up the quiet country lane.
"It did change our lifestyles," said one local. "At times there were about 60 vehicles waiting in this road to get into the site.
"They had to rebuild the road. We live here for the peace and quiet and the rural setting."
Even today, every weekend, the rubberneckers arrive, hoping for a glimpse of a New Zealand superstar they will never see. So they stop and peer into other properties instead.
"Maybe," said another neighbour, "it would be good if he came to Christmas drinks or something and just said hello and just thanked everyone for their patience. That'd be good and that would kind of seal everything."
And there is some feeling that Jackson might have built himself a retreat - but also something of a restriction. One neighbour told how the children on Jackson's estate were spotted one day looking through the fence, fascinated by the horses and other animals.
The neighbour waved, telling the kids they could come and see the animals. The children fled.
"It might be nice," said one local, "if the kids didn't feel they had to run away."