Peter Jackson: Behind the Man of Middle Earth

It’s always fun to rediscover how filmmakers emerged into the public eye. When was it exactly? What film did they write, direct, or produce that was embraced by the contemporary viewing culture and catapulted them into fame and cinema history? Before this director made their ‘anthem film,’ how many movies did they make that went only slightly recognized, if recognized at all? The answer to how many filmmakers this happens to might surprise you. One in particular is the man behind Middle-Earth, Peter Jackson, the Academy-Award winning director whose popularity in America erupted between 2001 and 2003. Before his The Lord of the Rings trilogy, he directed a number of darkly comic ‘splatter’ horror films, a teenage murderous romance tale, a Muppet-esque musical, a mockumentary, and a silly Casper-style ghost comedy with Michael J. Fox. In the present, Jackson is one of the most well-known and renowned filmmakers of a generation keen on producing and collaborating with new and veteran filmmakers alike. With Jackson’s highly anticipated return to J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantastical world, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,the first in a brand new trilogy, being released this weekend, Reel Reactions investigates Jackson’s path from obscurity and low radar cultdom to universal recognition.

Born on Halloween in 1961 in a coastal down near Wellington, New Zealand, to a factory working housewife mother and a wages clerk father, Jackson grew up a film fanatic – one of the many components noticed early on in aspiring filmmakers – and named the famous 1933 version of King Kong as his favorite film. Jackson was also particularly a fan of Ray Harryhausen films and became infatuated with the television series’ Thunderbirds and Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which from both Jackson has drawn obvious inspiration. Jackson was given a Super 8 camera as a gift and immediately began making short films with his friends, including a stop-motion remake of his beloved Kong. With his first camera he also worked extensively on a World War II epic, a James Bond spoof entitled Coldfinger, and a passion project, The Valley, which reached a notable length of twenty minutes.

Peter Jackson Biography Photo

In school, Jackson was never the most popular kid or the most beloved, he was more in keeping with that stereotypical niche kid who fixed his interests on particular projects of his choosing without giving grades, sociability, or popularity a second thought. Many of his classmates remember him wearing a Duffel Coat and possessing a nearly religious obsession with film and making film, even though he never had any formal training in filmmaking and acquired all of his technical experience from trial and error. At age sixteen, school completely fell by the wayside when he decided to dropout in order to begin working a full time job as a photo-engraver for a local newspaper. Jackson worked this job until he was twenty-three, looking to earn and save as much money as possible so that he could buy his own film equipment, and when the time came, he invested in a 16mm camera which was put to use immediately. In this frugal period, the imaginative J.R.R. Tolkien entered Jackson’s life for the first time when he discovered the 1978 animated film, The Lord of the Rings, directed by Ralph Bakshi. Jackson fell in love with Tolkien’s story early on, but there would be many years before he reunited with it again. In the meantime, Jackson and his 16mm camera were hard at work on what would become his very first feature: Bad Taste.

Jackson’s 90-minute splat-medy (spatter comedy) came together in a sporadic and miraculous fashion between 1983 and 1987. Bad Taste centers on a group of aliens that arrive on Earth looking to turn the human race into food. Jackson worked on the film during the weekends (he was working full time during the weekdays) and a number of Jackson’s friends participated both in front of and behind the camera for a daily earning of $0. Jackson even starred in the film himself, portraying two different characters that famously combat one another atop of a cliff. Late assistance from the New Zealand Film Commission allowed the film to finally be completed; executive NZFC director Jim booth was convinced of Jackson’s filmmaking skills and urged the Commission to back the filmmaker – Booth’s loyalty to Jackson led to his own departure from the NZFC to become Jackson’s full time producer. Bad Taste was quickly sold to twelve countries following its 1897 debut at the Cannes Film Festival.

Peter Jackson Biography Photo

Collaborative efforts with playwright Stephen Sinclair, writer/actor Danny Mulheron, and writer Fran Walsh – who would become Jackson’s life partner in addition to his professional and writing partner – culminated in a number of unfinished and unproduced scripts including a Nightmare on Elm Street sequel and the tabled Braindead, which would be made much later after tiresome rewrites. Meet the Feebles became the immediate followup to Bad Taste and credited all four of the aforementioned writers. Utilizing Muppet-like puppets, the ensemble comedy was originally envisioned as a for-television short film but quickly became elongated when excited Japanese investors threw financial backing in Jackson’s direction. Jackson notes that his sophomore feature has an alienated quality about it, but since very black and satirically savage comedy doesn’t really resonate with a whole lot of people, this characteristic didn’t help the film’s cause when it went weeks over schedule. As Jackson segued into production on the postponed Braindead, he hired Richard Taylor and Tania Rodger to once again do the special effects after having wowed the filmmaker during Meet the Feebles. This director-special effects team partnership still continues with Jackson’s work in the present.

Braindead, also known as Dead Alive,was released in the early 1990s and has become a splatter subgenre landmark in the twenty years since. The twisted zombie tale features a protagonist who attempts to keep the ravaging zombies inside his own personal place of refuge while maintaining a straight face and unreactive internal calm and normalcy. The traditional zombie film would have the protagonist struggling to keep the undead away from him, but Jackson flips the concept on its head. Practical effects like miniatures and stop motion and Raimi-esque gore makeup were all used to great effect on Braindead.

Peter Jackson Biography Photo

As the mid-90’s neared, Fran Walsh proposed a new idea to Jackson which would be a heavy change in tone and style from all of Jackson’s previous work. The real-life inspired film would draw from the Christchurch Parker-Hulme murder, which resulted in the death of a young girl’s mother at the hands of the girl herself and her best friend. The film’s dark material was met with large enthusiasm and Jackson believes that was the only reason why it actually got made. Casting two young, and at the time unknown, actresses – Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet – Jackson began filming what would become the most acclaimed film of his career at the time, Heavenly Creatures. Come the end of 1994, widely read periodicals, including Time and The Guardian, listed Heavenly Creatures in their Top 10 films of the year and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded both Jackson and Walsh with a nomination for Best Original Screenplay. The US-based Miramax became attracted to Jackson as an emerging artist stateside and pounced on the filmmaker, vigorously promoting him in America.

The ambitious made-for-television mockumentay, Forgotten Silver, followed Heavenly Creatures and was met with misdirected viewer outrage. Centering on film pioneer Colin McKenzie, of Jackson’s native New Zealand, who had supposedly developed both color film and ‘talkies,’ the film possessed no warning that the story was fictionalized, so the ferocious anger stemmed from the realization that McKenzie was a fabricated character with no place in physical history. Jackson was playing on the myth that New Zealand was a nation of innovators and trail-blazers that all either go unnoticed or completely forgotten. Fatherhood and The Frighteners followed.

With support from Robert Zemeckis, Jackson’s first big budget Hollywood film, The Frighteners with Michael J. Fox, was shot entirely in New Zealand, despite being set in a North American town, and was a major partnership with Weta Workshop, a special effects company born from George Port who did all of Heavenly Creatures’ effects. Weta’s prominence grew during this period thanks to major utilization by Jackson. Unfortunately, The Frighteners itself was a commercial and critical failure, which led to some bizarre legal trouble where Jackson attempted to bring the New Zealand Listener to court over a negative film review that attacked Jackson personally. Jackson’s large scale King Kong remake was then shelved as to not conflict with Mighty Joe Young and Godzilla, both being released that year. Tensions between Jackson and the NZFC were also at an all-time high. The flames were slowly dying as Jackson tried to grasp the reigns of his career. To keep his mind off of Frighteners’ failure and defamation he claimed he was facing in the press, Jackson decided to jump at the opportunity to purchase the rights to three timeless fantasy novels by his own beloved author, Mr. Tolkien.

Peter Jackson Biography Photo

Miramax was pushing Jackson to condense the maddeningly dense The Lord of the Rings book trilogy into a single film after their original two-film production no longer became a pursuable option for the studio. A last minute deal with New Line Cinema overcame a tight deadline by allowing Jackson to make each book into its own film. Principal photography lasted from Columbus Day ’99 to Christmas ’00 all across New Zealand and the spaced out release dates allowed for extended post-production periods and the opportunity for more shooting before each film’s respective holiday release. By the trilogy’s completion in 2003, Jackson’s popularity had skyrocketed and the LOTR trilogy had become immortal stepping-stones in cinema, particularly The Return of the King, which won the Oscar for Best Picture (the first ever for a fantasy film) and garnered a Best Director Oscar for Jackson (I can’t hide my respect for his work on LOTR, even though none of them really resonate with me – I’m just not a fantasy guy). Following his ambitious trilogy work, Jackson lost over 50 pounds and slimmed down to a nearly unrecognizable image. “I got tired of being overweight and unfit, so I changed my diet from hamburgers to yogurt and muesli and it seems to work,” Jackson told The Daily Telegraph. It was at this point that Universal knew they would be foolish to leave his King Kong remake on the shelf for any longer.

Reportedly receiving the highest upfront salary of any film director to date – $20 million – against a 20% take of the box-office rentals (which is the portion of the price of the ticket that goes to the film distributor, so Universal in this instance), King Kong grossed a whopping $550 million worldwide during the 2005 Christmas season. Despite my eye-rolling to Jackson’s bloated remake and my preference to the 1933 classic, it is joyful to see a filmmaker get the opportunity to remake the film that originally inspired him, even if its existence is somewhat unnecessary. A four year gap would separate King Kong from Jackson’s next directorial project and this gap was filled with more collaborations, this time with Steven Spielberg and Guillermo Del Toro.

Spielberg was looking to adapt The Adventures of Tintin into a motion capture film and was so impressed by the Weta Digital effects that Jackson used for The Lord of the Rings that he reached out to Jackson for assistance. Jackson signed on as a producer and got Jamie Bell and Andy Serkis (Gollum from LOTR) to star in the film. Since the film earned mostly positive reception and positive box office gross, Spielberg has confirmed two upcoming Tintin sequels, the immediate one featuring Spielberg in the producer role with Peter Jackson helming. At the same time, Hollywood’s most ideological mind but most inconsistent filmmaker, Guillermo Del Toro, was working on a two-film production of The Hobbit, Tolkien’s prequel to The Lord of the Rings. New Line Cinema had a falling out with Jackson, but the studio’s crippling economic status forced New Line head Robert Shaye to repair the burning bridge and, as a result, Jackson reluctantly returned to write and produce Del Toro’s The Hobbit. As production delays ensued, Jackson embarked on a smaller scale production: an adaptation of Alice Sebold’s bestseller, The Lovely Bones. With large Oscar anticipation, The Lovely Bones resulted in a shocking disappointment, receiving very poor reviews and a complimentary box office take, stemming from his meddlings with Sebold’s story, his stark tonal changes, and his overstuffed visual effects. Its strong cast, fantasy driven storyline, and Jackson’s involvement had all the makings of a strong Best Picture candidate, but it ended up with only one Academy Award nomination: Stanley Tucci for Best Supporting Actor.

As the ten-year anniversary of The Fellowship of the Ring neared, The Hobbit was still facing heavy production delays, so much so that Del Toro eventually dropped out to pursue Pacific Rim. Caught in limbo, Jackson was thrown back in negotiations to return to Middle-Earth. Come the end of March 2011, production on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey would begin production with Jackson officially slated as director. Only a few months ago, Jackson decided to turn the two-film adaptation into a brand new trilogy, expanding the single Tolkien novel by incorporating material found in The Lord of the Rings Appendices. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and The Hobbit: There and Back Again are currently preparing release dates around this time in both 2013 an 2014, respectively.

In the twenty-five years since his prevalence in the New Zealand underground film circuit, Peter Jackson has exploded in the world of contemporary movie making, currently adored by fanboys and cinephiles alike. He’s been prominent in the producing realm as well, having stood by numerous filmmakers since the mid-90’s. Most recently, he was a major proponent of Neill Blomkamp and majorly financed Blomkamp’s feature debut, District 9, which went on to be nominated for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay for Blomkamp in 2009. For a number of years, the Xbox hit Halo was slated for a big budget adaptation but financial withdraws shelved the project and its fruition is not being pursued by anybody presently. On set, Jackson is regarded as being anal for detail attentiveness and is known for shooting scenes from many angles, with LOTR he was deemed a perfectionist. However, his humor is always present and he’s generally a playful dude who likes to insert himself in Hitchcockian cameos within all of his films. He’s even had cameos in other features, like Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz and an episode of HBO’s Entourage.

Peter Jackson has had a championing film career and he is sure to only continue to escalate in the futre. With two more Tolkin-based films and assuredly a plethora of more ideas on the horizon, Peter Jackson will be around for a very, very long time. From introverted and creative film buff to Oscar winning filmmaker, I believe that every aspiring student of film has a moment where they wish to be the next Peter Jackson.

Article by Mike Murphy


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