Where was The Luminaries filmed in New Zealand?

The Luminaries director Claire McCarthy reveals where – and how – the BBC drama was shot.

Filming on the beach for The Luminaries

Watching The Luminaries will probably give you the strong desire to pack your bags and head for New Zealand – which is difficult, because most of us probably won’t be flying across the globe any time soon. So in the meantime, we’ve rounded up all the key locations in the drama and how they were filmed for this six-part BBC drama set in the midst of the 1860s gold rush.

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RadioTimes.com spoke to director Claire McCarthy, who can also be seen in our special The Luminaries Q&A alongside Eve Hewson and Himesh Patel. Here, she lets us in on the secret of how the magic was created on-screen.

Where was The Luminaries filmed?

The Luminaries location

The Luminaries was filmed in New Zealand. But while the story itself is set on the South Island by the coast in Dunedin and Hokitika, the vast majority of the TV drama was actually filmed on New Zealand’s North Island around the city of Auckland – on beaches, on farmland, and even in a muddy parking lot.

The team did investigate whether they could film in the real-life locations. However, it soon became clear that too much had changed since the 1860s gold rush era.

“We went to Hokitika which is the novel’s set, and we also went to Dunedin,” McCarthy said. “I was kind of optimistically hoping that there would be more period-correct architecture that we could utilise, for the shooting. But we quickly discovered that a lot of the things of the era made in the 1800s were sort of readapted or reappropriated into shops or housing.

“So the decision was that we would be building pretty much 85% of the project ourselves from scratch. So that meant 165 sets, and creating Dunedin, which is the burgeoning city that Anna’s character arrives in in episode one, and then the Hokitika goldfields.”

How did they film Dunedin?

The Luminaries

You certainly wouldn’t guess from looking, but Dunedin was constructed in the car park of a tire factory in Auckland.

“We built the main street of Dunedin and a network of shops which were all useable, and were quite incredible,” McCarthy said.

“We really took a lot of inspiration from historical photographs, we collected thousands of images that we hung around the production office and the art department. We often recreated actually photos from the time, and also just the weathered, real integration of dirt and mud and just those aspects of it.”

She added: “We didn’t have a lot of money and we had to be very resourceful about how we made everything and what we were doing to help service the story.” Thankfully, the building style of the time was very rough-and-ready: “They sort of had a Victorian-esque aesthetic, but they also really quickly put up buildings, and often things were made from whatever resources could be found on the landscape itself.”

The Dunedin portion did also involve some filming on location, including the scene where Anna Wetherell (Eve Hewson) meets Lydia Wells (Eva Green) for the first time; this was shot in a “beautiful old park” in Auckland. And when Lydia meets Alistair Lauderback (Benedict Hardie), that’s in a period-correct historic home in Auckland; the upstairs doubled as the hotel where Emery Staines (Himesh Patel) first stays in Dunedin.

Is the House of Many Wishes a real place?

The House of Many Wishes - The luminaries

No! But McCarthy and her team did find an “incredible high-gothic hybrid Victorian building” in Dunedin which they used for inspiration for the House of Many Wishes where Lydia Wells runs her gentlemen’s parlour / gambling house / possible brothel.

“It had one sole female tenant, and the building, they’d tried to set fire to it several times,” she explained “It was apparently a house of ill repute and all sorts of salacious stories were about this particular place. At the time it was called the Orient Hotel.” While novelist Eleanor Catton hadn’t used it as inspiration for Lydia’s fictional HQ when she wrote the original story, this became the jumping-off point when it came to constructing the set.

Where did they film the beach scenes?

The Luminaries

Several times throughout the story, we see our characters by the sea: walking on vast beaches, perching on driftwood, making perilous landings, or picking over shipwrecks. These scenes were actually filmed at Piha beach in Auckland, a 45 minute drive from the city.

“The beaches in Auckland are wild,” McCarthy said. “And there’s something hopefully that communicates in the series about how intrepid this place is… the coastline and the landscape and the ruggedness of it.”

How did they film the Godspeed?

The Luminaries

The Godspeed is a ship which belongs originally to Alistair Lauderback, and it’s central to the story. But the team ended up having to take down the Dunedin set in that tire factory car park – so they could build the Godspeed there instead.

“The tricky thing for us too is that there was no heritage marine fleet in New Zealand that we could utilise,” McCarthy said. “Necessity is the mother of invention, you just kind of end up rolling with it and you come up with solutions.”

Unfortunately, the set could not be soundproofed, and it was plagued by birds.

“Twice a day the seagulls would come across shrieking, usually at times of course when Eva Green’s in the middle of a really important piece of dialogue,” the director said. “And then they would come back again in the afternoon at about 4pm. So it was great.”

Where was Hokitika filmed? And Crosbie’s cottage?

The Luminaries

The second key location for The Luminaries was Jonkers Farm, which describes itself as “540 acres of isolated paradise” 45 minutes outside of Auckland. Here, the production team built 1860s Hokitika from scratch, from the settlement to Chinatown to the goldfields. They also built the cottage where Crosbie Wells (Ewen Leslie) lives.

“The set in Hokitika was an almost 360 degree set,” McCarthy said. “So we created that whole main street, and a network of buildings which were all largely workable…  So that was where Anna’s Gridiron hotel was, and where she lived when she first arrived in Hokitika.”

Did they film on Maori land?

Filming in the river for The Luminaries

“There are two pieces that we did shoot on location,” McCarthy revealed. The first location was the beaches – and the second was around Hokitika: “We were really, really committed to wanting to shoot in Ngāti Waewae, which is where Te Rau’s character comes from.”

The character Te Rau Tauwhare (Richard Te Are) is a greenstone hunter who befriends both Crosbie and Emery in the TV drama.

“We had the backing of the Ngāti Waewae community which was such an honour,” the director told us. “On day one they presented us with a really beautiful large chunk of a greenstone which is only found in the Hokitika river, which is referenced in the series.

“And so it was really important, and such an honour that they wanted to be part of the story and wanted to be able to consult with us. Which they did very much so on things like the carvings, his facial tattoos, allowing us, showing us locations and inviting us into their community to be able to shoot there.”

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The Luminaries begins on Sunday 21st June at 9pm on BBC One, and will be available as a boxset on iPlayer immediately afterwards. Check out what else is on with our TV Guide