The Road to Mordor: A talk with the crew of The Fellows Hip: Rise of the Gamers

Buzz has been increasing about an intriguing independent film that looks to blend Tolkien love, geek pride, and Lord of the Rings Online fandom into one epic adventure. Called The Fellows Hip: Rise of the Gamers, this movie is about a group of friends who undertake a journey to a convention in order to participate in a LotRO gaming competition (and stick it to some bullies while they're at it).

Many blogs, such as LOTRO Reporter and A Casual Stroll to Mordor, have promoted this up-and-coming film, and after seeing the trailer, we too became fascinated with what could be a fun movie that puts MMO gaming front and center.

One may not simply walk into Mordor, but with the right connections, one could phone the folks up there. We got on the line with three crew members for The Fellows Hip -- Ron Newcomb (producer, director and writer), Scott Mathais (producer and writer), and Shane McClung (producer) -- to see just what type of lovable insanity would cause a group of people to throw together such a movie.

Massively: Where did the idea for The Fellows Hip come about?

Ron: We began with a story that we could tell. It's a story that resonates with the fact that we are big Tolkien fans and gamers. It's a story we wanted to see and that we felt hadn't been told as of yet. The Fellows Hip is not a goofy parody; it is a story that reflects an epic, though comedic, journey that we all might like to go on one day.

How long has the film been in production? How much of it is complete at this point?

Ron: We started almost two years ago now and filmed in August 2009. We are about 80% complete; we just have a few more visual effects and a bit of sound design, and then we are going to complete our color correction to give it that high-cinematic look.

Scott: With writing, it started back in 2007. It's been a long but exciting road -- moments of despair and moments of great fun, just like any journey. We're the four hobbits minus one.

Did I see... Tom Bombadil in that trailer? Tell me, does he skip and sing?

Ron: Ahhh... perhaps you did! Since this is not a parody but more of a parallel, many characters take on the essence and character traits of the characters we love, including Tom.

Scott: That character is a mix of Bombadil, Elrond, Gandalf and maybe even Galadriel -- all the wise characters of The Lord of the Rings. We definitely gave him a Bombadillian (is that a word?) bent, knowing Tom was a character that we and other fans missed in the films.

Shane: The fun thing is this story; you will see a lot of parallels to LotR characters, but the characters in the story will also have traits of more than just one LotR character. Many fans will also recognize parallels to some of the cult-classic '80s movies that Ron, Scott and I all grew up with.

How long have you been playing LotRO, what's your class, and what's your favorite place in Middle-earth?

Ron: I always like to play as if I were there in Middle-earth. I have tried many variations, but my main is a Human Champion. And I'm pretty simple when it comes to Middle-earth. Though I enjoy Rivendell, I believe I still go back to the noob land of The Shire. I remember seeing Aragorn for the first time at the Prancing Pony -- now that was awesome!

Scott: I'm really a noob, so my time in LotRO doesn't amount to much, though I want to spend more time there. I did, however, play a level 65 Dwarf Guardian for the film. Alas, that character was provided especially by Turbine for only a short time and no longer exists. It's hard to go back. I journeyed up around Fornost and that area for awhile. It was really cool-looking and dangerous, not something you really get to know in the books or films.

Shane: I have been playing MMOs for a long time and really enjoy the depth of the stories and characters in LotRO. This is not a hack-and-slash game; it is a game where you actually picture yourself as the character and develop many skills, crafting abilities, hobbies, friends and fellowships. You are a part of the story, and you can see how you affect the game itself. My two favorite characters are my Hunter and Rune-keeper. As for favorite places, I would have to say I really enjoy the mines of Moria; Moria has a very extensive and well-done atmosphere. However, Turbine did an amazing job with the scenery visuals in the entire realm. I find myself just stopping and looking around, seeing how the world changes from daytime and nighttime.

From the trailer, it looks like the movie is inspired by the Peter Jackson films, the online game, and game conventions. Why the blend of these three? Are you worried that the film's references will go over the heads of people who haven't played the MMO?

Ron: When trying to go after a customer, you try to reach as specific as you can and you end up hitting the masses (that's the plan anyway). If we were too vague, it would not hit our fans where we wanted to and would have been just another indie film on the shelf. No, this is for gamers, convention attendees, and those who love them.

I'm a huge fan of what Peter Jackson did on film, so much that I flew to New Zealand a few years back. Tolkien introduced to a huge world in my mind; Peter Jackson put meat on the bones and brought it to life for me. I'm very visual, so what Peter Jackson pulled off was amazing. If we can create an homage to Mr. Jackson -- I would be honored.

On a fun side note, we did use his name in the film, and of course we had to get permission, so we put a thank-you to Mr. Jackson in the film, which is now listed on IMDB. If you look up Mr. Jackson and scroll way down -- there we are.

Shane: Most movies have references that most people will not recognize, but they are there for those who do. But all people will enjoy the film, and you don't have to recognize or understand the references to follow the story and enjoy The Fellows Hip.

What's your favorite fan convention?

Ron: I think DragonCon does the best fan-based convention. The organizers really seem to care about their fan base and really have fun with it. Atlanta goes all out with letting them host a huge parade where they shut down the streets for them and everything. It's a blast! Though I'm looking forward to some of my more local conventions in the DC area.

Scott: That's been our favorite so far. We've only been to a couple with the film but hope to make it to more.

Shane: Agreed, love DragonCon.

Are you still pursuing a theatrical release or are going straight to DVD?

Shane: Theatrical is something we're striving for. The main thing of note, though, is there are new ways to get the film to the fans, and we will be exploring and trying to release it all the ways available: theatrical, DVD, BluRay, OnDemand, TV and all digital forms domestic and international.

Did you get permission from Turbine to use in-game footage?

Ron: Absolutely. The Turbine folks were great to work with and went above and beyond to help us out -- including putting us on our own server and decking us out with uber toons.

Scott: Well, it wasn't our server, but one of the internal test servers. They also gave us some special powers so we didn't have to die if we didn't want to. It was cool, and like Ron said, they've been great to work with. To work with us like they have shows they're really for the fans.

Shane: Turbine has been wonderful, and by extension of their license, so has been Middle-earth Enterprises; both gave us permissions to use the LotRO and LotR references and visuals. Both companies have great people and we hold them all in high regard.

Other than The Lord of the Rings itself, what films is The Fellows Hip most like?

Ron: We have bits of other pop culture references, but I've also heard it described as The Wizard starring Fred Savage. There is another great-looking indie coming out called Zero Charisma that I bet we are a lot alike as well.

Scott: And some Napoleon Dynamite. We're definitely alike in the good-natured spirit. And Dynamite is just different geeky friends on a different epic journey. And it was epic -- in the end it changed everything for all of them.

Shane: Also a bit of Goonies, where you have a small group of friends (a "fellowship") that goes on an adventure of their own to right a wrong.

What was the most challenging scene to film?

Ron: The convention scene where we ended up using over 150 extras for the shot, most fully decked out in cosplay. But we pulled it off and the convention looks great!

Scott: And there was this commune party (think Rivendell) that we began shooting it and couple of other scenes at around 2:00 p.m. Saturday and didn't finish until 5:30 a.m. on Sunday. That was a battle in endurance.

Shane: Filming the in-game footage also took a lot of coordination and timing. We filmed it just like everything else: setting mark, calling action and cut, and doing re-shoots. But it was all a lot of fun at the same time.

What is your favorite memory from the shoot?

Ron: I remember near the end of the first week of filming seeing some of the dailies coming in and thinking, "Wow, this looks like a real movie... we are really doing it." That smile lasted me for the whole shoot.

Scott: I think just the camaraderie and that we did it -- all the people coming together to pull this off. There were sometimes when we thought the production might come to a halt, but we came together and solved the problems with a little divine help. We kept the cameras rolling and got finished on time, and that's the goal ultimately.

Shane: The wrap party, seeing everyone come together and being able to see some of the actual footage -- in its raw form -- as we enjoyed each other's company.

For somebody who plays LotRO regularly, I'm curious what a "gaming competition" in this MMO would look like. Is it player vs. monster player combat? Snowball fights?

Ron: I think in the trailer it tips our hand a little bit. It would be hard to do for sure, but the coolest and most cinematic-looking was 4v4 monster player.

Scott: We've had a few LotRO fans say they want to LotRO to have competitions. Maybe our film will help start them.

Shane: This could also include elements of the "skirmish" system along with Monster Play. I could see things coming together like one of LotRO festivals (snowball fights, etc.). But for the film monster play was best and looked great!

Geek culture's been on the rise over the past decade or two. What is your film trying to say about this community?

Ron: That there's a little bit of geek and hero in all of us. We are all geeky about something, and we all have the ability to be who we were born to be... the hero.

Scott: And that geeks are often some of the best friends. They do and have to stick together. And in that sense, we all should be a little more geeky.

Shane: Even the term geek means something completely different in the younger generations; it is no longer Revenge of the Nerds but more like TRON or Harry Potter. The geeks are the heroes.

In your opinion, why does Tolkien's world resonate with people as strongly as it does?

Scott: I could talk about that for a long time. Tolkien wrote such a rich and deep work and tapped into a lot of archetypes, myths and even spiritual things that resonate with all of us. And there is the warrior ethos, but remember, the main characters weren't warriors. They were just average Joes in way over their heads -- the Peter Parkers of the fantasy world. In a way, they were geeks and heroes.

Looking to the future -- is there room for a Fellows Hip sequel?

Ron: We have actually talked about it... the college years perhaps. We are currently considering script ideas at the moment and would love to strike gold twice.

Scott: Never say never.

Shane: *Wink* -- you never know!

Thanks for taking the time to talk with us!

When not enjoying second breakfast and a pint of ale, Justin "Syp" Olivetti jaws about hobbits in his Lord of the Rings Online column, The Road to Mordor. You can contact him via email at or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.