Trevor Hogg profiles the career of director Peter Jackson in the second of a two-part feature… read the first part here.
Peter Jackson decided to pursue his dream of producing a fantasy film as his follow-up project. Lacking major studio support to remake King Kong, the director chose to adapt a literary masterpiece. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings chronicles the epic struggle between the forces of good and evil to control a ring which has the power to rule Middle-earth, a world populated with Elves, Dwarfs, Orcs, humans, sorcerers, and tiny furry earthlings known as Hobbits. Evolving into a series of three books, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King, the trilogy was influenced by the academic’s fascination with languages, the dawn of the industrial age, the scarcity of English folklore, the horrors of being a soldier in WWI, and the rise to power of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Socialist Party in Germany.
“I had read the book when I was 17 and thought ‘Wow, this would make a really cool film,’” remarked Peter Jackson. The tale expanded upon a children’s story the Oxford professor wrote called The Hobbit; in it the title character, Bilbo Baggins, accidentally discovers a ring which has the ability to make him invisible. 1978 saw the release of an abysmal cartoon version (which covered half of the epic trilogy) by producer Saul Zaentz, who had purchased the film rights from Tolkien.
With Zaentz reluctant to endorse a live-action adaptation after being badly burned the first time around, Peter Jackson approached Harvey Weinstein of Miramax to intervene on his behalf. It turned out to be a fortuitous decision by the filmmaker as Weinstein had rescued another project by Saul Zaentz, The English Patient, which subsequently went on to win Best Picture at the 1997 Academy Awards. A deal was struck between the two producers. “He [Weinstein] did get Saul to agree to license the rights for a period of time to Miramax,” explained the director, who soon afterwards found himself faced with another problem. “Miramax didn’t want to do three movies. We did pitch the idea of doing sort of three, but they wanted one or two. So we started developing a two-part script, where the first part would end at the Battle of Helm’s Deep.” As the production costs rose, Harvey Weinstein’s enthusiasm for the project diminished. “Harvey said that he couldn’t spend more than $75 million per picture.” To resolve the issue, Weinstein proposed that instead of two films there should be only one. Peter Jackson balked at the suggestion; he had no interest in attaching his name to the “Reader’s Digest Lord of the Rings.” The one and a half year project had reached an impasse which was broken when the moviemaker’s longtime manager, Ken Kamins, convinced Weinstein to allow Jackson four weeks to find another studio.
“We went through this process of sending the scripts to everybody in L.A., everybody in Hollywood, some people in London,” recalled the director. “Only two people replied, which was New Line and Polygram, and Polygram was being sold at that stage.” The pending corporate sale of the English company meant that Jackson would have to wait until after the new owner took over. “So that just left us with New Line and Mark Ordesky, who is an old friend of mine. I had written A Nightmare on Elm Street script for them some years earlier and had worked with Mark on that.” There was another factor playing in the filmmaker’s favour. “I knew he was a big Lord of the Rings fan because he had Lord of the Rings posters around his apartment.” A meeting and a concept presentation was subsequently arranged with New Line Cinema founder Bob Shaye who asked Jackson a rather puzzling question. “Why would you want to charge nine dollars to see this when you could charge $27?” The filmmaker was left temporarily confused until he realized that Shaye was interested in adapting the trilogy into three not two movies.
“So we then embarked on another round of pre-production,” stated the New Zealand moviemaker. “We had to now write three movie scripts.” To aid them in completing the monumental task, Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh relied on the help of another screenwriter. “I can remember it very clearly,” recollected Philippa Boyens, of the moment she learned that Jackson and Walsh were adapting one of her all-time favourite stories. “My partner at the time, Steven Sinclair, had worked with Fran and Peter before on Feebles and Braindead. We were at my house, and we got a call from Fran. And he put the phone down and said, ‘You’ll never guess what Fran and Peter are working on.’ And I was doing something and said, ‘Oh, what?’. He said ‘Lord of the Rings’, and I just went, ‘You’re kidding!’”. After reading a rough treatment and handing over some notes to Jackson and Walsh, Boyens became a permanent addition to the couple’s writing team.
“New Line were prepared to take the risk to fund the filming of all three because that’s what was going to be so much cheaper for them,” stated Peter Jackson. It was a very shrewd judgment call by the studio. Movie sets had to be built only once while the acting talent was signed to one contract which paid them the same rate for the entire franchise.
Faced with eighteen months of principal photography, Jackson made an abrupt recasting decision within the first week of shooting the trilogy; he replaced Stuart Townsend (Wonderland) with the older Viggo Mortensen (Eastern Promises) for the character of Aragorn, the man who is destined to become the ruler of Middle-earth. After Patrick Stewart (X-Men) passed on playing the ancient and wise Gandalf, another British actor, Ian McKellen (Gods and Monsters), decided to pickup the wizard’s staff. McKellen’s subsequent performance would result in the trilogy receiving its only Oscar acting nomination; the massive international cast for the fantasy epic also featured the talents of Cate Blanchett (The Aviator), Sean Bean (Patriot Games), Orlando Bloom (Pirates of the Caribbean), Christopher Lee (Sleepy Hollow), Sean Astin (Rudy), John Rhys-Davies (Raiders of the Lost Ark), Ian Holm (Alien), Hugo Weaving (The Matrix), and Elijah Wood (Deep Impact). The most fascinating character of all required the use of a computer, motion capture technology, and the skill of performer Andy Serkis (Oliver Twist) to bring the schizophrenic and devious creature Gollum to the big screen.
Released sequentially from 2001 to 2003, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King, the overwhelming positive reaction of movie audiences and critics caused The Lord of the Rings to become a multi-billion dollar film franchise. Success was not only confined to the box office as the Academy Awards rewarded the final installment, The Return of the King, with eleven Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Editing, and Best Visual Effects.
Endowed with a financial windfall, Jackson was able emulate the mini-studio empire of George Lucas, the creator of the Star Wars movie franchise. With WingNut Films (the director’s production company), Weta Digital (digital effects) and Weta Workshop (physical effects) at his disposal, the filmmaker had the freedom to remake the beloved movie of his childhood. “King Kong is, in my view, one of the great pieces of escapist entertainment. It has everything that’s wonderful about escapist cinema. It’s got monsters. It’s got intrigue, adventure, action, lost islands, dinosaurs, gorillas, and then at its heart, it’s got a wonderful love story. It’s a very romantic story about a gorilla who had no empathy with any other creature. His heart is lost to Ann Darrow, to this young woman, and it’s a bittersweet sad story, whilst being this wonderful adventure.” When asked why he would remake a classic, the director answered, “I’m a huge fan of the original film, but that didn’t make me feel like this film should never be remade.”
For Peter Jackson, the sad truth is that the majority of children today do not watch black and white films, which means there is a large audience base that has never seen the 1933 movie; he acknowledges the 1976 colour remake, which cast Jessica Lange in the role made famous by actress Fay Wray, but to the director both versions are too dated to capture the imagination of current moviegoers. To update the story for modern sensibilities, Jackson took advantage of a tool that the previous filmmakers did not have – computer technology; it enabled him to create the great ape in a photo-realistic way as well as preserve the Depression Era setting. By developing his own software program, Jackson was able to reconstruct New York City of the 1930s with the touch of a computer button; however, the filmmaker did not entirely abandon the use of models. The Empire State Building was constructed by using the iconic structure’s original blueprints, while the Curtis Hell Divers, the planes that attack the beast, were created by going back to the factory drawings.
As for depicting the title character for his 2005 picture, Peter Jackson had a very clear vision. “Kong is a wild animal. We wanted to not make him unduly cute. He’s a terrifying, frightening animal who is unpredictable, full of rage.” Despite his overwhelming physical might, the gorilla is not invulnerable, especially when he becomes enamored by his human prisoner. “The tables really turn when you reach a point where Kong is now fearful that Ann’s going to be taken away or be hurt. So he goes into a protective mode and then, at that point, the power shift has happened.” To make Kong more believable, Jackson recruited the performer who brought Gollum to life in The Lord of the Rings. “Andy [Serkis] is a very strong actor, and very full of aggression and rage and power,” explained the director. “He’s just fascinated by channeling that, through the process of motion capture, and allowing it to be translated onto the face of a completely different creature.”
Cast to play Ann Darrow was Australian actress Naomi Watts (The Ring) who starred along with Jack Black (High Fidelity), Adrien Brody (The Pianist), Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot), and Colin Hanks (Orange County), the son of two-time Oscar-winner Tom Hanks (Forest Gump, Philadelphia). Like Kong himself, the production budget for the remake grew to a record-breaking figure of $207 million; the film went on to become the fourth largest grossing movie in Universal Pictures’ history, earning $500 million at the international box office and another $100 million through the sales of its DVD version. At the Academy Awards, King Kong was presented with the Oscars for Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing.
Also released in 2005 was a science fiction short film which so impressed Peter Jackson he decided to mentor its creator, filmmaker Neill Blomkamp. Jackson contracted Blomkamp to direct what would be the young South African’s big screen debut, a movie version of the video game Halo. When the project fell through due to corporate feuding, Peter Jackson encouraged his protégé to expand Alive in Jo’burg into a feature length film.
In 1966, 60,000 black South Africans were forcibly removed and relocated to Cape Flats, which was also referred to as District Six. Drawing on this incident for inspiration, Blomkamp renamed his segregation tale District 9. An alien species, stranded on Earth in 1982, moves from one refugee camp to another in Johannesburg, South Africa. The present day setting eerily echoes the tin roof Soweto townships of the Apartheid Era. Government soldiers invade the poverty-stricken ghetto where the crayfish-like creatures are regularly rounded up and harassed. When a careless inspector, played by Sharlto Copley, gets sprayed by a foreign substance, he finds himself on the run with the rest of the alien outcasts.
Making use of a mockumentary style where the movie characters are interviewed between segments of news and surveillance footage, and supported by a clever viral marketing campaign, Neill Blomkamp was able to produce an unexpected summer hit. Aided by favourable movie reviews, the opening weekend box office receipts easily recouped the picture’s $30 million production budget. Christy Lemire of the Associate Press wrote, “District 9 has the aesthetic trappings of science fiction but it’s really more a character drama, an examination of how a man responds when he’s forced to confront his identity during extraordinary circumstances.” One place where the film has not been warmly received is in Nigeria where the African nation’s Information Minister has taken offence to his countrymen being portrayed as cannibalistic gangsters.
The greatest creative challenge Peter Jackson has ever faced might prove to be the adapting of the bestseller The Lovely Bones for the big screen. The book, authored by Alice Sebold, tells the story of a teenage girl, Susie Salmon, who is raped and murdered by her serial killer neighbour, George Harvey. Trapped in the “In-Between”, Susie watches over both her grieving family, and Harvey who prepares to lay claim to another victim. The grim tale is not entirely fictional for when the novelist was an eighteen year old student, she was brutally assaulted sexually.
With a $65 million dollar budget and disturbing subject matter, questions are already being raised as to whether the 2009 release is more an art-house than blockbuster picture. The criticism does not faze the filmmaker. “One of the enjoyments you get from making movies is always being outside your comfort zone – it’s the flirting with danger that’s most interesting. And I feel I was settling into a pattern with these blockbustery effects films. It was time to try something different.” As to whether movie audiences would be turned off by the darkness of the material, Jackson responded, “I found the book to be curiously optimistic. I felt inspired by Susie’s struggle to come to terms with her own death. In the face of overwhelming grief, she finds hope. She holds onto love, and by doing so she transcends the horror of her murder. There is a lightness and joy that you feel at the end of the book – a sense that you’ve gone through an intense experience but you’ve come out the other side, freer. That is definitely the tone we were reaching for when we made the film.”
In describing the “In-Between” world, Saoirse Ronan (Atonement), who portrays the murdered main character, remarked, “Whenever Susie feels happy, Heaven is sunny and there’s birds and everything. Whenever it’s not so great, it’s raining or she’s in the middle of the ocean.” Peter Jackson went onto add, “We certainly have no intention of using this movie to paint a definitive picture of what Heaven is like, and who resides there. When Susie finally does move on from this ‘In-Between’ existence, we’re happy for audiences to imagine this new world in whatever way makes them comfortable.”
Cast as Susie Salmon’s parents are Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardener) and Mark Wahlberg (The Departed), who replaced Ryan Gosling (Fracture) just before principal photography started. “The age of the character versus my real age was always a concern of mine,” revealed Gosling, who had grown a beard and gained twenty pounds for the role. “Peter and I tried to make it work and ultimately it just didn’t.” Portraying the murderous George Harvey is Stanley Tucci (The Pelican Brief), while Susan Sarandon (Dead Man Walking) plays Lynn, Susie’s maternal grandmother. Peter Jackson is not anxious about the public’s reaction to the movie. “I always make films for myself to some degree – this book affected me when I read it, and the film very much depicts the way in which I was affected by the story, characters, and content. It’s a very personal film, rather than an attempt to please everyone who enjoyed the book which is an impossible task.”
With a financial settlement reached between New Line Cinema and the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien, the last hurdle has been overcome to bring The Hobbit to the big screen. Peter Jackson is producing a two-part live-action adaptation (a cartoon version was released in 1977) which is being directed and co-written by Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth). The first installment is scheduled to be released in 2011, with the second one following a year later in 2012. As for there being a third film to serve as a bridge between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Jackson stated, “One of the things that we were really excited about when we got to thinking about it, is that we can take that expanded information [from The Lord of the Rings] and we can apply it to The Hobbit and sort of make it fuller and more epic.” The filmmaker went on to say, “We figured we really needed two epic films to be able to tell that story. So that is the plan.”
Another project has Peter Jackson co-producing with Steven Spielberg (Minority Report) a trilogy of 3-D animated films based on The Adventures of Tintin comic books by Belgian artist Georges “Hergé” Remi. Using motion capture technology as well as actors Jamie Bell, Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead), Daniel Craig (Munich) and Andy Serkis, Spielberg directed the first installment entitled The Secret of the Unicorn, which is to be released in 2011. Also, on Jackson’s agenda are a proposed remake of the classic WWII film The Dam Busters (1955) and the adaptation of Temeraire, a fantasy series of novels about dragons being deployed for combat during the Napoleonic Wars.
The child who grew up running about with a Super 8 movie camera has a more subdued attitude as an adult about the profession of filmmaking. “It’s a process of constant disappointment but somehow you have to hope that you set your goals high enough that even with the disappointment, you still end up with something that other people enjoy.”
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.