Trevor Hogg profiles the career of director Peter Jackson in the first of a two-part feature...
“I grew up in a little town in New Zealand at the bottom of the North Island called Pukerua Bay,” revealed Peter Jackson when reflecting upon the coastal community of his youth. “There’s stone caves inside the mountains. There’s lots of hills, waterfalls, streams going down, houses perched in amongst the hills. Our house was on the edge of a cliff that sort of plummeted right down into the ocean.” Having no siblings, the internationally acclaimed filmmaker spent his childhood reading books and imagining great escapades unfolding around him. Captivated by the works of British author Enid Blyton, Jackson and his buddies would ride off on their bikes in the early hours of the morning seeking adventure.
At the age of nine, the young New Zealander experienced a profound moment when he saw the original King Kong (1933) which “really accelerated a burgeoning interest in special effects, models, and films.” When a neighbour, who lived down the street, gave the family a Super 8 movie camera as a Christmas gift, Jackson finally had the means to bring his fantastical stories to life. “I did a WWII drama film with friends of mine in old army uniforms – kids with big helmets and uniforms that don’t fit very well – running around.” To add more authenticity to the production, the aspiring moviemaker went so far as to dig trenches in the garden of his supportive parents.
The director’s early amateur efforts did not go entirely unnoticed. Influenced by the work of visual effects wizard Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts), Peter Jackson and his friends acted in and shot a short film called The Valley in 1976. Four prospectors travel down into a valley where they encounter a rift in the time/space continuum. Misfortune ensues as one of the group members is abducted by a harpy, and another (Jackson) tumbles off a cliff. The remaining two men fight and destroy a Cyclops; escaping on a makeshift raft, they discover that the city of Wellington has been overrun by mystical beasts in a Post-Apocalyptic world. The ambitious silent production, filmed using Jackson’s beloved Super 8 movie camera, was broadcasted on the television show Spot On.
The teenager could not wait to leave school because he wanted to earn enough money to buy an essential piece of filmmaking equipment. “I got a job at a newspaper as photolithographer, and during the seven years I was there, I basically spent two of the years saving up for a 16 m.m. camera, which cost several thousands dollars, and I was only getting paid 75 bucks a week. I lived at home with my parents all this time because I couldn’t afford not to.”
A cinematic renaissance swept Jackson’s island homeland beginning in the late 1970s. “When I was about 16 or 17 years old, Roger Donaldson [The Bounty] made a movie called Sleeping Dogs , which was New Zealand’s first real feature film. Other filmmakers, Jeff Murphy, quickly followed. Goodbye, Pork Pie , which was a very funny comedic film, came along, and then suddenly, with a hiss and a roar, the New Zealand film industry got underway, and the government formed the Film Commission.”
From 1983 to 1987, Peter Jackson worked holidays and weekends to produce a short film which evolved into his feature film debut. On the behalf of an intergalactic fast food franchise, aliens attack New Zealand so to harvest the human population. The hostile space invaders soon encounter unexpected opposition from an insane four-man paramilitary unit. Shooting in and around Pukerua Bay, the novice director received a grant from the New Zealand Film Commission which enabled him to complete the horror movie, and quit his job. “We got it done in 1988 for the Cannes Film Festival. It was called Bad Taste, and it sold really well.” Jackson also proudly stated, “It was the fastest selling New Zealand film ever.” The gory production, which started the tradition of the director making appearances within his own feature length movies, was able to secure a distribution deal in the space of forty-eight hours.
Returning home from France, the newly christened professional filmmaker decided to collaborate with two writers, Steven Sinclair and Fran Walsh. “We started to write a zombie comedy film called Braindead, but we couldn’t get the money for that. It was too expensive. So we had this other idea called Meet the Feebles, which was a cheaper idea based on puppets, like the Muppets, but puppets who do sex and drugs, and they murder each other.” Jackson still revisits the 1989 movie. “It’s very funny. It’s the one film I screened for the cast of King Kong when they came down to New Zealand.” The movie also went to the Cannes Film Festival and did well enough in the marketplace to secure the funding to make Braindead.
“I have a fairly large sense of humour, one of my idols is Buster Keaton, and you look at some of the stuff in Braindead, it’s Buster Keaton with blood.” Whereas Bad Taste was slow in getting the action started, Jackson went about rectifying the situation with his third feature effort. “I was determined not to have too much dialogue, just enough to set the stories and the characters, and then just let it rip.” Released in 1992, the movie gave censors in Germany and the United States nightmares with its depiction of extreme gore. The R-rated American version, renamed Dead Alive for copyright reasons, had nineteen minutes of footage removed so to tone down the violence.
After three gory features in a row, Peter Jackson was ready for a creative change. “Fran said to me, ‘Why don’t we do something on the Parker-Hulme murder case?’” The infamous 1954 incident occurred in Christchurch, New Zealand when two teenage girlfriends facing a permanent separation from each other collaborated to brutally kill one of their mothers.
To play the role of Pauline Parker, Fran Walsh was able to uncover, in a New Zealand classroom, Melanie Lynskey; the search for an actress to portray Juilet Hulme (the schoolgirl whose family was returning to England) led to a discovery on the other side of the world. “John Hubbard, our London casting director, had very good instincts. I remember very clearly, he said to us, ‘Kate Winslet’s going to be a big star one day.’” Once shooting commenced on Heavenly Creatures, Jackson was very impressed by the young British performer who was making her motion picture debut. “The best actors don’t pretend,” explained the director. “They’ve gone to a dark place, whatever that is, and they are living the anguish and the pain, and they’re giving that to you to film for your movie, and that’s what Kate does.” The other star of Peter Jackson’s breakthrough 1994 production was the depiction of the adolescent fantasy world which the murderous female companions inhabit; the imaginary images were created under the supervision of Richard Taylor at Weta (a special effects company co-founded by Jackson in 1993).
Upon being asked whether or not the big screen story accurately retold the sordid tale which the residents of Christchurch would rather forget, Fran Walsh answered, “Our intention was to be true to what we understood of the girls’ friendship…and the nature of those families from which those two girls came. It was never an attempt to recreate reality.” Composing the screenplay, with the aid of Pauline Parker’s personal diary, was very much a collaborative effort between Walsh and Jackson. “I think that we both have a good understanding of structure, which helps,” replied the director. “I’m obviously very visually oriented, and Fran is very good on dialogue and character, so we complement each other quite well.”
The resulting script was nominated at the Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay, thereby, cementing the writing team who had also become partners in life. “It was nice,” reflected the filmmaker. “I think Fran and I both absolutely valued the fact that we got two or three years of just getting to know each other as friends, as co-workers, co-scriptwriters before anything got serious. It’s given our relationship a really stable, solid foundation.”
Shifting to less serious subject matter in 1995, Peter Jackson co-directed with fellow New Zealander Costa Botes (Saving Grace) a mockumentary about a series of lost movies rediscovered in a shed. The originator of the recovered works is the fictitious filmmaker Colin McKenzie whom the two men present as the father of modern cinema. Jackson and Botes conduct celebrity interviews with Miramax Films cofounder Harvey Weinstein and film historian Leonard Maltin, while actor Sam Neill (Dead Calm, Jurassic Park) and movie archivist John O’Shea provide a “serious” commentary to the contrived tale. Playing the critically lauded McKenzie is theatrical performer Thomas Robins who is better known to moviegoers as the ill-fated Déagol in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003).
“The Fighteners came about through slightly odd circumstances,” said Peter Jackson of the 1996 movie which would become his first Hollywood picture. “We heard that Robert Zemeckis [The Polar Express] was looking for a film that he would direct that was based on his Tales from the Crypt T.V. series. And we had this idea for a ghost story about a sort of a psychic conman who uses the ghosts to scare people so that he gets employment.” Zemeckis liked the concept, however, when the completed script was delivered to him, he had moved on to something else; Jackson and Walsh produced the film themselves.
Recruited to play the role of the paranormal charlatan was Michael J. Fox, a Canadian actor who became famous playing time-traveler Marty McFly in the Back to the Future trilogy. Faced with the beginnings of his fight with Parkinson disease, Fox cleverly disguised his body tremors throughout the entire picture by never standing still. A hybrid of horror and comedy, The Frighteners featured the music of Danny Elfman (Batman) and actor Jake Busey (Enemy of the State) as the spirit of a long since executed mass murderer who has continued his killing ways beyond the grave.
The film was originally conceived as a Halloween release but was bumped by a blockbuster starring actor Sylvester Stalone (Rocky). “Daylight  was delayed for six months and so they [Universal Pictures] decided to bring The Frighteners up from Halloween and to plunk it into the middle of summer. So, that was, ultimately, our biggest frustration because it never was and should never have been a summer movie.” The reviews ranged from scathing, “The Frighteners is not immune to overkill, even though most of its characters are already dead,” (Janet Maslin - New York Times) to favourable. “Director Peter Jackson, at home with all kinds of excess in New Zealand, keeps everything spinning nicely, not even losing a step when the mood turns increasingly disturbing.” (Kenneth Turan - Los Angeles Times)
Next on the Jackson’s cinematic agenda was a remake of the movie which had compelled him to become a filmmaker, King Kong. With the giant gorilla picture Mighty Joe Young (1998) already in production, Universal Pictures balked at the idea. Left to find another project, Peter Jackson decided to adapt a literary classic which would propel him and his native New Zealand into the Hollywood spotlight.
Continue to part 2.
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Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.