February 26, 2004 was my day of departure. For the second year in a row I was going to make
my way (thanks to Air New Zealand ) from the shire that is New Zealand, to the heart of
blockbusterville, the one and only Los Angeles. As with my first trip to the home of the freeway
a year before, the purpose was to attend a number of functions (sometimes called "piss ups" here
in NZ ), celebrating the latest, and in this case the last, instalment of Lord Of The Rings
trilogy, as it contended for Oscar glory.
Having experienced tinseltown in all its glory as a
member of the LOTR family the previous year, I decided I wanted to explore the potential to
create a little publicity for myself. Self promotion is an essential item in the survival kit of
any LA bound filmy.
I had (once again through my on going relationship with Air NZ), visited
a small coastal school near the city of Gisborne in NZ a few days after the world premier of The
Return Of The King in December 2003. The success of this visit came to mind as I trawled for
options to create a point of difference for myself in LA. I figured I could create a win win win
scenario and get along to visit a school. In this scenario, I win by getting to create some
publicity as an actor visiting a school, I would actually win twice as I love the spirit of the
children anyway. The kids win as the majority of them seem to really get a buzz out of meeting
actors from LOTR, and the media would hopefully win by scoring a nice little feel good story (
thatís actually a win win win win, with me double dipping )
After a number of fruitless
enquiries, Claire McKay (PR for Air NZ) and Darryl Dunne (NZ Consul General in LA) informed me of
a reading programme that Darryl had taken an active role in from prior to the films being
It transpired that when it was made public LOTR was being filmed, a local south
central LA woman, one Winnie Jackson, decided this was the vehicle to begin her war on illiteracy
in a part of town that has the lowest literacy scores for the whole of the USA. It just so
happens that another statistic this part of town reigns supreme with, is that it has the highest
youth homicide rates in the WORLD!
Despite being told on numerous occasions that LOTR was not
the book to introduce kids to reading, Winnies vision and battle plans continued to form.
Every child who committed to reading " The Fellowship of the Ring ", then writing an
essay summarising what they got from the book in terms of issues raised and how they found it as
a story, as well as writing a brief essay about themselves, would be given tickets to attend a
special preview screening of the movie, care of New Line Cinema.
As well a free ticket to the
movie the books were supplied free of charge.
With "The Fellowship", Winnieís baby, now
named Operation Read, saw 1,000 kids take up the challenge.
By the time the preview screening
took place for "The Two Towers" there were 4,000 kids who had stepped up.
What happened in
December 2003 with "The Return Of The King" was beyond Winnie's wildest dreams. Winnieís baby was
now a monster. The response was such that the preview screenings had to take place over 3 days,
as 12,000 kids were bussed into Hollywood to witness Gamling and the rest of the team bring peace
to Middle Earth. (Which one was Gamling? I hear you say!ÖÖÖ just look to the right, or left of
Theoden, he is the one who is there sometimes)
When I entered the picture, informing Winnie via
a fax that I was interested in visiting a couple of schools, it was akin to throwing myself into
the path of a human tornado. When you get swept up by this lady, itís no longer your choice when
you touch the ground.
With about 2 days to my departure on the 26th, I suddenly found myself
scheduled to visit not one but three schools in south central LA. Now I was fully engaged and the
producer in me started to tick over. I was going to be sleeping on the couch at Sala Bakerís
apartment, and Lawrence Makoare was crashing there also, so why not get them on board? Without
hesitation, both were more than happy to take part. Air NZ came on board supplying 300-400
beautiful posters that we could sign and give to the kids, as well as a model plane bearing the
LOTR/Middle Earth decals, for each school. I managed to get the local NZ television crews who
were to be present in LA for the Oscar season interested in covering the visits and the schools
themselves drummed up interest from NBC as well numerous print media journalists in LA.
all shaping up very nicely.
During my time in Wellington leading up to the world premier for
ROTK, I had the pleasure, each day, of meeting up with Royd Tolkien, great grandson to the man
himself. This guy is a real cool dude and it just so happened he was also travelling to LA to
party (call it PR, it sounds more noble). I began to imagine the buzz it would be for these kids
to meet this guy, descended from the loins of the genius himself, and so 48 hrs. out from hitting
LA, I emailed Royd to see if he would be up to hanging with the Kiwi contingent as we visited
some schools. This would entail Royd giving up a full day, being picked up at 8 am about 14 hrs.
after he had arrived in LA from the UK.
Literally 2 hours before I left my home to go to
Auckland airport I checked my emails and there was a reply from Royd informing me he would love
to take part!!! It was all meant to be, them there stars were aligning.
At 9 am on the 27th.
Feb. Sala, Lawrence and myself watched as our limo, an LA Probation Department van pulled up to
(wrong side of the road I might add, mind you the steering wheel was on the wrong
side of the van also!) Inside were the wide awake and smiling faces of Royd and his mate Martin,
as well as our host/chauffeur for the day, the incredible deputy Gregory James. This guy is as
possessed in his quest to shine light into the lives of the youth of LA as Winnie is in her quest
to get their eyes onto the pages of books.
We were now all aboard and bound for the city of
Cerritos in south central LA.
First up was Tetzlaff Middle School where Principal Colin Sprigg
has been a champion of the reading programme from its inception.
Next we rolled into Dr. Laura
Rogers' Artesia High school, then we finished the day on Don Hasting's turf at Los Alisos Middle
Eight hours, 300-400 signed posters and many questions later we rolled back onto the
freeways and headed for home.
What an experience, each of us felt both tired and
These kids were such a pleasure to have shared time with, their enthusiasm for the
books and films was boundless, we could have spent a full day at each school, but we had parties
One lasting impression was had at Los Alisos school, where, as we sat signing
books and posters, the chorus of calls for hugs from "Mr. Tolkien" began. A number of girls stood
just out of sight from us and would call longingly from a distance "Mr. Tolkien, can I have a
hug?" I tell you the guy is the next Orlando Bloom.
During our time with Deputy Gregory James
he had talked about some other kids who took up the challenge laid down by Winnie. These were
teenagers incarcerated, many by Californiaís incredibly harsh and draconian "3 strikes and youíre
out" policy. Gregory had expressed his desire that one day we may be able to visit one of the
"lock downs" to support the incredible effort these kids had to put in to read books in an
environment where doing so not only meant they were ridiculed by some put them at risk of
physical violence from others.
This image stuck with me and so on my return to LA after
attending the London Film & Comic Con, I contacted Gregory and so began the next part of my
journey into Winnieís dream.
Friday 19th. of March was the day that Gregory, once again at the
helm on the wrong side of the van and road, pulled up to the kerb and we hit more of the
freeways, this time bound for the confines of Camp Holton, a county probation lock down facility.
Upon arrival, the first thing to catch my eyes was the sign stating "Watch for Snakes."
Beauty! I come from NZ, a mossie bite is about as bad as nature gets (apart from the odd shark
attack!). Successfully negotiating the snakes, we were now standing at the front gates to a
"lockdown". It looked like they meant for you to stay once inside!
As soon as the gates slam
behind you, you know this is for real. However the other overriding reaction is that the kids who
come here have a life line. This camp is situated in a valley tucked away from the outer lying
edges of the city. When you enter the valley there is no city, sight or sound, itís incredible.
Many of the young men in here had never known silence, literally, let alone seen woodpeckers or
the other myriad of birds that were perched chatting and calling, in the trees spread throughout
the compound. One young guy was mowing the lawns others were running errands for the office
staff, while the rest of the camp were in school.
This really was time out from the rigours of
survival on the streets amidst some of the most brutal urban violence in the world.
took me for a round of introductions, meeting the wonderful superintendent Leon Bass as well as
many of the dedicated staff who invest their time and love trying to guide these young lives onto
It was such a powerful experience already.
Once the OK was given, 130 kids
ranging in ages from 13-17, came jogging in single file from all directions. Classrooms were
emptied, kitchens abandoned (the kids work in all facets of camp life) and lawnmowers parked as
they assembled to sit in formation on the concrete basketball courts. This happened like a
military exercise, commands were barked, orders obeyed and questions answered, all at full
throated voice and drilled physical response.
During our visits to the schools, Gregory James
had acted as our chauffeur and guide, here in Camp Holton I got to witness the fuel that fires
Deputy Gregory James. As it happens Gregory had been to the Camp for his one visit of the year a
couple of days before. He runs a programme called The Honour Ensemble. Gregory literally
transforms the lives of kids such as these. He does this by introducing the concepts of
discipline, respect and expression through a style of interaction that seems unique to him. He is
a former promising Hollywood High actor who decided to use his talent and unconditional love for
his fellow beings to work miracles in young peoples lives.
Having had the kids who took part in
Operation Read stand to be acknowledged, Gregory spoke of their courage and honoured these guys
while informing the others that they also had what it takes to free themselves from their current
journeys. As he spoke I found myself instinctively walking to each of the kids standing, shaking
their hands and embracing them.
Once I was introduced I stood at the front of the seated sea
of boyish faces and began to introduce myself and my background. After only a minute or so I had
to apologise as I stopped talking, tears beginning to well and spill down my face. My guts were a
knotted mess of emotion, sitting before me were kids who may well have been my children, kids who
had a Mum and a Dad somewhere, maybe brothers and sisters, grandparents. Apparently in many cases
Dad has never been present, Mum is struggling to pay the bills and acceptance by peers etc is
often conditional ( with us or against us stuff).
Once I got it together, I carried on with my
talk, hopefully speaking in a manner that indicated my respect for the guys who took part in this
amazing reading programme and also offering my heartfelt thanks to all of them for allowing me to
Gregory then informed them that he was going to follow up on a promise he had given
to everyone during his previous session with them. Each of the kids was to be given a copy of the
It had been arranged that I would sign copies of the books for the guys who
partook in Operation Read, however having had the experience of being in their company I knew I
had to sign a copy for every kid at Camp Holton. Maybe some of them wouldnít give a toss about
having the book let alone having me personalise each copy to them, but again it was an impulse
that I knew I had to pursue.
A couple of hours later, having had the chance to talk to a
couple of the guys and sign about 150 of the books ( some of the staff were keen for a copy as
well!), Gregory and I hit the road back to bedlam, well Hollywood anyways. It was kind of weird,
feeling grateful and almost guilty, driving back to LA and my version of freedom, knowing Camp
Holton was going into the evening phase of its routine, with 130 young men putting their heads
onto pillows as the sound of doors locking bade them to sleep.
It later turned out that
about 4-5 of the guys who stood up had in fact not taken part in Operation Read, they just wanted
to be part of the moment. Gregory had to stop one of the staff from asking these kids to sit
down. His reasoning being that it was better for them to decieve for a good cause than be busted
once again. He also told me on the drive home that these guys had now put their own respect at
stake and reading the book was their road to redemption. We had a real good laugh about this
naÔve kiwi being conned by these young street smart kids.
I came away from that experience
knowing that I wanted to see a documentary made about this incredible programme Operation Read
and the inspiring people behind the scenes.
( sorry Iíll speed this up, Iím raving here but I
find it hard to retell this experience without tracing every step)
On the 23rd of March,
having been introduced to award winning doco maker Kyra Thompson by Kathy Eldon ( yet another
inspiring new friend in LA ), I was headed back to Camp Holton. This time it was with Gregory,
Kyra, AP Murray ( with digital video camera in tow), Amy Eldon ( award winning doco maker) and my
We had a court order allowing us to film inside the facility, for the purpose of
creating a short promo to use in applying for funding to make the documentary of Operation
The visit was amazing, again it filled me with such powerful emotions and determination
to get this feel good story out there.
My last session with Winnie was on Friday march 26th at
a luncheon held at the world class Cerritos library. ( if you ever have the chance, check it out,
thatís an order!)
The luncheon was Winnies chance to honour all who had helped in her journey
to open new worlds of opportunity and vision for kids many of whom would not normally consider a
book as part of their minds diet.
Citations were awarded, food was eaten and glowing speeches
given. I had the chance to express my gratitude to Winnie and Gregory, as well as Ken Kondo and
the LA Probation department, and the schools who allowed me to share in this joyous series of
We had immediate expressions of interest with regard seeking funding to make this doco
a reality and will continue to pursue these and look for further avenues also. Our team is
getting close to being in place and in fact I have had a wonderful offer of support from the
incredible Josie, one of Peter Jacksonís staunchest allies throughout the epic production of
It is meant to be and it will be.
Bring on the DVDs, the extended DVDs, reruns,
conventions, docos. Itís all good!
Much love to you all if you managed to read this whole
bloody rave, well done you are now part of Operation Read.
See you at a screening near