BY JEFFREY RESSNER
Photographed by Louise Hatton
Peter Jackson is the most successful fanboy in New Zealand. He grew up poring over the work of stop-motion pioneer Ray Harryhausen as if it were sacred text, baking foam latex monster masks in his mother’s oven, and watching every genre film possible in his small Wellington suburb during the 1960s and ’70s. After spending nearly a decade making gory splatter comedies, the first one appropriately titled Bad Taste (1987), Jackson turned to more serious subject matter in 1994 with Heavenly Creatures, based on an infamous New Zealand murder case from a script he wrote with Fran Walsh, who remains his longtime producer, co-writer, and off-screen partner.
Jackson’s greatest achievement to date, however, has been adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy series The Lord of the Rings and its prequel The Hobbit into two blockbuster trilogies. In addition, he remade his favorite childhood film, King Kong (2005), adapted the best-selling novel The Lovely Bones (2009), and produced the sci-fi film District 9 (2009). Along the way, he has single-handedly created a multi-billion-dollar film industry in Wellington known as “Wellywood,” including a self-contained studio complex with soundstages, a postproduction facility, a computer effects company (Weta Digital), and a costume and prop shop (Weta Workshop). “The Weta Cave,” a booming mini-museum and gift store, attracted 100,000 visitors last year.
The Quarterly made a pilgrimage to Wellington as Jackson was shooting “re-takes” for the second Hobbit film (due out later this year). He seemed right at home inside the Middle Earth inn, The Prancing Pony. There was a jovial mood on the set as a hapless animal wrangler tried to convince an ornery black cat to react to some dialogue. After the feline finally delivered the goods, the crew broke for lunch and Jackson talked about his craft and career.
JEFFREY RESSNER: What are your earliest memories of watching movies?
PETER JACKSON: Well, I lived in a little village, Pukerua Bay, about 25 miles north of Wellington. Back then, the only place to see movies was on TV, or to get on a train and travel into the city where there were about a dozen cinemas. So during the ’60s, most of my influences came from TV. I was a child of [the British TV series] Thunderbirds, The Avengers with Diana Rigg, the Irwin Allen American shows such as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Time Tunnel, and so on. I loved things that were larger than life and fantastic. I also saw King Kong on TV, and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad in one of its big screen re-releases. That got me interested in stop-motion animation. Since I was an only child, stop-motion was attractive because it was essentially a one-person operation. I read about how [visual effects artists] Willis O’Brien with Kong and Ray Harryhausen were all by themselves in a dark room creating incredible sequences. I spent a long time—from around 9 years old through 15—wanting to be a stop-motion animator. As I got a little older and made friends, I began to shoot more live action, and at 15 I entered a school movie competition with a film called The Valley that combined stop-motion with live action. That led me to the idea that real storytelling is not just in stop-motion, it’s in the overall film. I started to understand that to tell stories I needed to do more than make little creature sequences.
Q: You pretty much taught yourself how to make movies. Why not go the traditional film school route?
A: We didn’t have any film schools. In America they had them, yeah, but I was a kid growing up in New Zealand, and there was no possibility in my mind that I would ever go to a film school in America. It would have been like going to the moon. There’s something about being here in New Zealand, a certain isolation, and back in the ’60s and ’70s, it was even more isolated than it is now. I used to send away for eight-minute Super 8 movies of various Ray Harryhausen scenes advertised on the back of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. Everything was sent by sea then; there was no airmail, and it would literally take six months for these films to arrive. There’s something about growing up like that that gives you a certain independence. You’re not suddenly thinking, ‘Well, I want to be a filmmaker, so I’ll get people in a film school to teach me what to do.’ Instead you tend to say, ‘OK, I’m going to teach myself. I’m just going to grab a camera and do it.’ There’s a very go-to kind of attitude in New Zealand that stems from that psyche of being quite isolated and not being able to rely on the rest of the world’s infrastructure.
Q: That led to everything from financing your own films to actually making your own camera equipment. Is it true that you built a Steadicam-type harness for $20 worth of parts from a hardware store?
A: Yeah. There was a great magazine in the ’80s called Cinemagic for home moviemakers who liked to do monster and special effects movies. It was like a magazine written just for me. I pored over every issue, and one of them had plans on how to build your own Steadicam. I just thought, ‘Wow, this sounds amazing.’ So I literally followed the instructions and built one. I was shooting Bad Taste (1987) using a 16 mm Bolex, and I was able to run along with the camera on my arm. It worked OK, not too badly.
Q: Your first three or four movies were ‘splatter’ pictures. Were you genuinely interested in the genre, or did you just consider it a way into the business?
A: It was practical. When you’re starting out, you know, you have to do something on a very limited budget. You’re not going to be able to have great actors and you’re most likely not going to have a great script. My first movie, Bad Taste, was really made up as we went along over four years, and it didn’t even have a script. Not having actors or a script tends to be somewhat limiting. [Laughs] But what you can do is say, ‘OK, I have to make an impact under these circumstances.’ And so you go to the extremities, which is, you make it really gory, you make it funny, but you also make it a gross-out film with things that you wouldn’t imagine anyone would ever dare show and therefore gets lots of attention. Obviously, I have a love for horror like Re-Animator, The Evil Dead, Dawn of the Dead—I was totally into those films, and I still am. Horror movies are a wonderful way for young filmmakers to break into the business, because they let you make an impact without the finesse you need if you’re trying to do, say, a drama or comedy.
EARLY DAYS: (from top) Jackson delighted in the primitive special effects for Bad Taste, and later learned how to work with actors on The Frighteners and Heavenly Creatures, Kate Winslet’s first film role.
Q: After your earliest movies were released, you decided to stay in New Zealand when you could have moved to London, or even Los Angeles. You didn’t dream about going to Hollywood like many young filmmakers?
A: No, I was happy making movies in the country where I live. There was no real reason for me to leave. You’ve got more control here. As strange as it may seem, we were in a world back then when we were making movies on very limited budgets, yet we enjoyed a degree of freedom. The New Zealand Film Commission would give us money, and we ultimately got the funding to do Braindead, but nobody would say, ‘Do this or do that.’ We were allowed to do anything that we wanted to do creatively. For Fran and myself, we were living our dream—somebody was giving us money and leaving us alone to make films. I always had this image that Hollywood for a young filmmaker would be very different. I’d be asked to do A Nightmare on Elm Street or some sort of franchise movie, and it would be completely controlled. There was always that question: Do you want to make your own movies, or do you want to be a director for hire? I’ve always just made my own movies, and it was just easier to do that in New Zealand.
Q: You left genre pictures with Heavenly Creatures (1994), in which the audience entered the fantasy world of two teenage girls who would become murderers.
A: Fran and I wrote that together; probably the greatest fun we’ve ever had working on a script. We spent a year researching the story like private investigators, traveling to Christchurch where the events took place to interview the people who were involved. It’s a very notorious real-life crime and there’s always been a sense of mystery around it. We had to try and bring audiences inside the heads of the girls to at least understand how it could happen. Not to justify it, obviously, but to explain their motivations. We really tried to put ourselves into the girls’ world. They went into seemingly euphoric states playing Mario Lanza records, but Fran and I had never heard a Mario Lanza tune in our lives so we went out and got every old LP we could find. The Lanza music, in a way, informed a lot of the psychology we wanted to put into the film, as did their diaries, which are full of this fantastic world they created of fairyland kings and princesses. It was almost like a soap opera; one character is scheming against somebody, and then this character murders someone else. You could see this all playing out in the months leading up to the murder.
Q: You used digital technology to depict the dream world in Heavenly Creatures. Back in the early ’90s, especially in New Zealand, how did you know this was where the visual effects industry was heading?
A: I’m not a computer guy. I have no real interest in it, and I can barely use email. But when I grew up, I was absolutely obsessed with visual effects, and I still am to a certain degree. When we were working on Heavenly Creatures, Terminator 2 had just come out, and Jurassic Park was about to be released. It was clear that if I really wanted to keep making visual effects that I would have to get into computer technology. I could see the writing on the wall. Heavenly Creatures’ budget was $2.7 million and, while in preproduction, we thought we could afford to actually buy one Silicon Graphics computer and a bit of software. So I consciously used the film’s budget to get into computers. We did about 30-odd shots, incredibly primitive, and some green screens where we put things in the background and composed them. It was simple stuff, but it was a learning curve, and done very deliberately in a way I could get my budget to pay for the computers while learning what was involved with those types of effects.
LORD OF THE MANOR: Jackson shot The Two Towers and the rest of the Rings trilogy on Middle Earth sets built at his New Zealand studio.
Q: You have since created Weta Digital to handle effects for you and other directors including Steven Spielberg and James Cameron. What’s been the most difficult project so far?
A: Probably the one effect that was going to make or break The Lord of the Rings movies was our Gollum. If the movies were stigmatized by a horribly executed fake cartoon character pretending to be Gollum, they would have suffered greatly. It was a risk, because we shot the sequences in the film assuming we were going to put a digital character in there long before we ever successfully realized it. We would have had no option to go back and put somebody in makeup and shoot those scenes again. Our chips were on the table on the assumption that we could make a very compelling, completely digital character. Not a monster, but a real character with personality and emotion and a subtlety of performance.
Q: Can you get the same emotions from a CGI character that you can get from an actor wearing makeup?
A: I do think that for the degree of performance that I want to get out of some of these characters, we’re getting to the point where digital effects are certainly overtaking prosthetics to some extent. For instance, in the movies we’re making now, we have a lot of drawf characters. Now you would never make the 13 dwarfs of The Hobbit CGI characters. That would be kind of crazy; you’d virtually be making a Pixar film. You want to get all the wonderful joy out of the individual performances. However, on The Lord of the Rings we had actors in prosthetics playing the orcs, and I was always a little frustrated by that. If I could have afforded it then, I would have much preferred to have all the orcs CGI. Now, in The Hobbit, I can.
Q: Aside from Weta Digital, your holdings also include partial or full ownership of a costume and props company [Weta Workshop], a full postproduction facility [Park Road Post], a studio complex with four soundstages [Stone Street Studios] as well as an equipment rental company. Do you like being a studio owner?
A: No, not particularly. I reap the benefits without getting a great deal of enjoyment from both being a co-owner of a visual effects company and being a co-owner of a studio. The benefits are that you own it, so you get to use it. The biggest benefits of Stone Street Studios and Weta Digital is that they’re both within five minutes of home. There are no traffic lights, and no rush hour and I can literally be home in five minutes after driving out the gate. Those benefits are huge for my lifestyle. In Los Angeles or London a lot of filmmakers get in a car and they’ve got an hour’s drive or more before they arrive at the studio, and then another hour’s drive back at the end of the day.
Q: How did the studio come about?
A: Back before The Lord of the Rings got green-lit, things were looking wobbly. Miramax had been involved but pulled out, then New Line took over but the budget was more than they had hoped—and we hadn’t even finished writing the scripts. Still, there was a sense that the movie might actually happen, and we wondered where we going to film it. There are no real studios in Wellington except for a television studio, and that wasn’t really suitable for a huge film that needed a lot of space. Fran and I looked around at various properties but the Wellington area doesn’t have a lot of spare land. We saw an old paint factory for sale only five minutes from our house, which had enough room for a lot and warehouses we could turn into studios. We thought, ‘Well, if The Lord of the Rings happens, this is exactly the sort of place we’d need. This is absolutely incredible.’ But it was very expensive. At the time it was just Fran and I, and if we committed to it and for some reason the film didn’t happen, we’d be in big, big trouble. I mean, we were mortgaging our house just to make the down payment on the place. One day the real estate agent was showing us around; the paint factory had been closed for six months, so it was mothballed and covered in dust. The cafeteria was dull and gray, and there were a lot of old Formica tables with chairs stuck up on top of them. Just before we left, I saw a paperback book sitting on one of the cafeteria tables—it was a copy of The Lord of the Rings. I called Fran over and pointed to it, and we looked at each other and then said to the guy, ‘OK, we’ll take it.’ And that became Stone Street Studios.
Q: After the enormous success of The Lord of the Rings, Universal came to you with an offer to remake King Kong, which the studio had tried launching earlier. Why did you decide to take it on?
A: The first run-in I had with a King Kong remake was when I was 11 years old and I did about 30 seconds of stop-motion animation using a puppet and a model of the Empire State Building made out of cardboard. But after The Lord of the Rings, Universal came to me and asked, ‘Have you still got any interest in Kong?’ When I’m invited to remake King Kong, I can’t say no. It was a childhood dream on one level, and I also felt that I had something to offer to the legend of Kong. A lot of young people out there were never, ever going to watch the black and white version. It’s such a great adventure story and so emotional, that I wanted to be the guy making Kong for a generation that will watch this version but not the other. I have to say, I saw a bit of my Kong about a year ago, and I actually think the last half-hour—those scenes in New York through the end of the Empire State Building sequence—is probably the piece of filmmaking of which I’m the proudest. I recall we were very rushed in postproduction, and we really needed to get 15 or 20 minutes out of the first two-thirds of the film. We needed to tighten it a bit, but we could never figure out a way to do it in the time we had. So it’s a wee bit long, but I’m still very proud of it.
DANGEROUS PLACES: (top) For a change of pace, Jackson guided Saoirse Ronan back from the dead in The Lovely Bones; (below) He shows Sean Astin how to attack in The Return of the King, the final part of the Rings trilogy.
Q: You’re best known for your effects work, but you’ve also elicited solid performances from actors. What approach do you take to dealing with actors?
A: When I was younger, I was always intimidated by working with actors. I never directed theater or had any intuition in how to direct them; I didn’t really know what to say. But it’s become less of a mystery to me as the years have gone by. The one thing I try to do as much as possible is to just describe to them what I want the audience to be taking from a particular moment. That has proven to be very simple and effective. In the old days, I used to think I had to explain to an actor how to act, which was a terrible mistake. It’s nothing to do with that at all, because if you cast the right actors, they certainly know what they’re doing. All they need to know is what you want, so it’s about being very clear in my communication. We cast very carefully. We try to cast very good actors who are suitable for the roles, and who are also nice people. I find that I work better with actors if I’m relaxed with them and they’re relaxed with me, and there’s no nonsense going on. I’m not a proponent of having stress on set. I remember reading an interview with a director who said he likes to have a lot of tension on his sets because it puts on an edge and gets the best possible results. That’s a lot of crap. It’s a hard job, and it’s best to have a group of people who enjoy being with each other, and are trying to create something cool and having a good time.
Q: When you’re editing, how do you go about choosing the best performances?
A: I really edit in two phases. The first is when I’m sitting in my chair in front of the screen as we’re shooting. I usually try and lean into the monitor in front of me, and at that point, when the camera’s rolling and we say ‘Action,’ I try to push everything else away. I try to forget where I am and imagine that I’m in a theater looking at a movie on the screen. So I’m looking for the timing, the performances, and whether or not I’m feeling it. I’m looking very intensely at the shot that we’re doing and it gives me all the information that I then give to either the crew or actors for the next take.
As we’re shooting, I also file away in the back of my head the various takes and bits of takes I like. I don’t shoot a huge number of takes, probably six or seven as a minimum, and maybe nine or 10 maximum. Obviously, there are some occasions where you have to shoot more if there’s very difficult timing or camera problems or something. But generally, that’s the level of takes that I shoot to make sure I’m happy. Then, in the cutting room, I’m very confident that I’ve got the scene that I need once we finish shooting it, and it’s somewhere in the middle of all these takes. I’m not very good at selecting takes or giving the script supervisor notes on set. I usually just keep quiet rather than talk about it. I just log it in the back of my mind and say, ‘OK, I know that in those last five or six takes, there are bits in each of those takes that will be good, and we can put the scene together. I’m very happy with it, time to move on.’ But I haven’t necessarily communicated that with the script supervisor or the editor or anybody, I just know that I’ve got it. The same things I liked often jump out again in the cutting room—it’s almost like a second pass at it.
Q: What directors have inspired you over the years?
A: I’ve always been completely into genre directors: Stuart Gordon, George Romero, Sam Raimi. I like Kubrick—not that I could ever make a film like him. On The Lord of the Rings where we had an 18-month shoot, I got so exhausted and when that happens your brain stops sparking and your imagination stops fizzing the way you’d like it to. I got to a point where, on my day off, I’d put on a DVD of Goodfellas or Casino and say, ‘OK, I know what I’ve got to try and do now.’ I couldn’t do it as good as Scorsese, but it inspired and re-energized me, telling me what my job is: to come up with interesting ways to shoot scenes, interesting camera moves, and interesting ways to show the performance. I used to do that as a therapeutic thing when I was in a state of exhaustion.
Q: You won the DGA Award for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and the film received multiple Oscars and accolades from practically every quarter. What did the DGA honor mean to you?
A: That whole time around The Return of the King was a whirlwind, because there was some serious Academy campaigning going on and New Line was determined to get awards in various Oscar categories that we hadn’t won at that point. So it wasn’t my favorite experience doing all that. But, certainly, the DGA Award is great because it’s from your peers, and you’d like to think trade ads and campaigning and hype don’t influence them. Coming from my fellow directors, it was so very special. What I remember almost more than anything else about the DGA event was Carl Reiner, who served as the emcee and who was very funny that night.
Q: Has the Guild ever helped you deal with a specific problem or situation?
A: Just before we started shooting The Hobbit, there was a sudden, very explosive labor dispute driven by the Australian actors’ union, MEAA, which also controls the New Zealand actors’ union. They were putting a very ill-considered and unwise pressure on The Hobbit, which was going to drive the film’s production away from New Zealand. I called the DGA and asked if there was anything they could do to help. They were supportive. I don’t know what went on behind the scenes, but we did manage to get it resolved.
Q: You started out doing your own small films in New Zealand and now you’re known all over the world. What’s that kind of fame like for a director?
A: The weird thing about being a director of films that have a certain popularity and a following is that you are forced to have to deal with things that you have no interest in but they become part of your life. Like you have to deal with increased security. You have to deal with privacy issues. A lot of things that really don’t have anything to do with filmmaking. You have to have a team around you, assistants, and people that look after you. I never imagined that sort of filmmaking when I was young. I never thought I’d find myself in this place. There’s the actual craft of directing and then there’s this other baggage that comes the more successful you are as a director. Your craft is still there but all this other stuff kind of starts to build up around you.
Q: Usually the term ‘re-shoot’ is considered a bad word in Hollywood, but you deliberately schedule new shooting for most of your films. How did that practice come about?
A: Every time we’ve made these [epic] movies, including The Lord of the Rings, we’ve always done six to ten weeks of shooting during the same year each one is due to come out. I don’t call them re-shoots, I call them pick-ups. We’ve come to realize as filmmakers that, no matter how much work you do on a script and how much care you put into shooting the movie, once you’ve edited that film and look at it, you naturally discover many ideas about how to fix things. Whether they’re problems or just things you could do better or a great idea for a scene that you never had before, you think, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we could show this or that?’
So whenever we budget and schedule films, we always allow what we call a pick-up period of shooting about halfway through postproduction. We cut for two or three months, then we allow between four and eight weeks of shooting, depending on our instincts. And we do that in the budget at the very beginning, before we’ve shot a single frame. We never go to a studio saying, ‘We’d like to shoot for six additional weeks, can you give us more money?’ Unless it’s a disaster or an emergency, they’re naturally going to say no. So we get into the movie with this schedule already in place and the studio already signing off on it. We book the actors for it too, so when we’re doing their deals at the beginning, we say, ‘OK, we’re shooting these months, but next year we’re also going to need you for June and half of July, and you have to sign on for that as part of the initial deal.’ Every filmmaker and studio should plan for this. When you think of the hundreds of millions of dollars that go into these films, because the initial upfront cost is so huge and the stakes are so high, a movie can be made so much better if there’s an opportunity to go back and do a little more shooting. It just seems a common sense thing. And financially it’s not terrible; we use a slightly smaller crew than the first time around, and we’ve kept most sets in storage so the costs aren’t crazy. It gives us a chance to really craft the movie and try to make it as great as we can.
Q: What are your favorite aspects of new technology?
A: I like the way cameras are getting lighter and smaller, because I’ve always been frustrated by their sheer scale and weight. They’re so heavy and it takes so much machinery to move them around. If you want to move from A to B within a shot, it may be that the only thing you can use is a crane, which then has to be wheeled in, takes an hour to set up, and it’s all very cumbersome. Then, if you change your mind and you want to move the whole thing three feet to the left, that’s going to be time consuming as well. Now, thanks to RED, the smaller and more lightweight your camera is, the more inventive you can be as a director. You haven’t got that nagging thought in the back of your head of, ‘How are we going to achieve this shot?’ Once you’re dealing with a camera that weighs just seven or eight pounds, you’ve got a lot of options how to pull off different shots.
GOING BACK: (top) Jackson, working with Martin Freeman, shot The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey at 48 fps giving the audience “the best 3-D they’d ever seen.” (above) Making King Kong, with Naomi Watts in front of a blue screen, was a childhood dream come true for Jackson.
Q: As a director who likes to work on a large canvas, do you think a film can be overpowered by effects?
A: A lot of people are reacting to tent poles and summer blockbusters as if it’s a genre with some sort of a stigma—as if people are sick of all the spectacle with no content. And that’s fair enough. There is a sense of the studio machine feeding the summer with these massive movies where, I admit, there’s not enough attention necessarily paid to story and character. Because that’s ultimately all we ever care about. I have come to realize that over the years, and I’ve made these mistakes myself. If you don’t engage people emotionally in a story or with a character, you’re wasting your time. It’s all about making people feel that they’re participating in the film rather than observing it.
Q: For The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and the upcoming films in the trilogy, you’ve been a champion of the 48 frames per second format, which has received mixed reviews from some critics. Do you see technology changing the basic film-going experience?
A: Well, you have to differentiate between the response from critics and from the public. Critics went after it, mainly because it was so different and it wasn’t their perception of what film is. But the overwhelming response from audiences is that it was the best 3-D they’d ever seen. For the last hundred years we’ve been used to seeing film at 24 frames in a celluloid format. I’ve asked myself, ‘In a hundred years’ time, is film going to look like it does now?’ And I think the chances of that are incredibly small. Somewhere between now and the next hundred-year mark, people should be experimenting, using technology to push things forward, trying to break out. It’s obviously a very emotional question for some. There’s a look that some people associate with cinema that is obviously cherished. Do you preserve that? Or do you try to use technology to improve the audience experience? That’s what I’m interested in. I’ve got no great nostalgic desire to preserve the look of film. Anything we can do with ever-evolving technology to actually immerse people in the entertainment experience is something we should all be trying to do.