This fascinating look at the now-celebrated director tells of the inspiration that led to the making of the three world-famous Lord of the Rings films - and the six other films that preceded them. This unauthorized biography, Peter Jackson: From Prince of Splatter to Lord of the Rings, traces the journey of a young movie fanatic, from Sunday afternoons spent fooling around with a camera, through low-budget cult movies, to control of the most ambitious film project ever, on what is probably the best-loved fantasy novel ever written.
This in-depth biography explores the many talents of the young Peter Jackson: the making of Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles, Braindead, Heavenly Creatures, Forgotten Silver, The Frighteners, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The story behind the Rings - which tells how Jackson got the rights to make the film and the permission and funding to make three films rather than collapsing the story into just one or two films, interviews, and other behind-the-scenes material from the making of the landmark films. Past and future - in which author Ian Pryor considers Jackson's achievements and possible future - including his remake of King Kong.
From casts of zombies, traumatized puppets and murderous teenagers, to deal-making in Hollywood, this book is about following one's visions wherever they might lead.
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About the Author
Ian Pryor has been writing about cinema, and interviewing actors and moviemakers, for more than fifteen years. His features about New Zealand films and filmmakers have appeared in publications in England, the United States, Spain, Australia and New Zealand.
Ian Pryor, author of Peter Jackson: From Prince of Splatter to Lord of the Rings, has been writing about cinema, and interviewing actors and moviemakers, for more than fifteen years. His features about New Zealand films and filmmakers have appeared in publications in England, the United States, Spain, Australia and New Zealand.
Read an Excerpt
From Prince of Splatter to Lord of the Ring
By Ian Pryor
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2004 Ian Pryor
All rights reserved.
THE LUNATICS ARE TAKING OVER THE FIELD
'When you grow up in the suburbs of Sydney or Auckland, a dream like this seems vaguely ludicrous and completely unattainable. But this moment is directly connected to those childhood imaginings.'
NEW ZEALAND-BORN RUSSELL CROWE, ONSTAGE IN LOS ANGELES TO ACCEPT THE BEST ACTOR OSCAR FOR GLADIATOR
'It sure beats working in an office.'
CREW MEMBER TANIA RODGER, ON THE SET OF MEET THE FEEBLES
It's almost the end of Saturday afternoon, and the shadows are beginning to stretch across the sports field: late summertime at the bottom of the world. Peter Jackson stands on the grass in his shorts during a break in an international cricket match. Slowly, he begins to stamp his bare feet on the ground — first one foot, then the other.
In the stands all around him, thousands of sunburnt cricket fans start to follow Jackson's lead. Within moments, the metal oval of the sports stadium echoes with an unearthly sound. It is not the noise you expect from 25,000 cricket fans, but the deep and sinister march of an army on a direct route to slaughter. The smallest of smiles alights on Jackson's face, then quickly disappears again. He is concentrating on maintaining his stomping rhythm.
When he first strides out onto the field, the crowd greet this bearded, bespectacled figure with applause that is long and spontaneous. Jackson takes the mike and announces that he is here to record some sound effects for the second movie of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, in a scene where 'thousands and thousands of orcs attack a castle called Helm's Deep ... We thought that you guys would be able to help us.' The Wellington crowd dutifully go wild. Soon most of them are chanting in a mythical language, beating their chests in time and following the director's every command. Not that any of the set tasks are especially difficult — this is a great opportunity to be idiotic and culturally useful at the same time, while helping New Zealand to get heard around the world.
Jackson thanks them and ambles off. Compared to the nightmares of making his second feature Meet the Feebles — filmed thirteen years ago in a rat-infested railway shed, literally a stone's throw from the stadium in Wellington — today has gone pretty well. In fact, Jackson's brief turn in front of a crowd of sports fans marks something of a sea change in New Zealand culture: for a moment, one branch of lunacy has been allowed to take over the field from another.
The game of cricket represents New Zealand's traditional mode of lunacy — the idea that fun is had by spending a day in the sun, waiting for those few short seconds when a batsman connects with a small round ball. But the main thing to recognise about this tradition is that the shape of that ball does not really matter: just so long as it involves some kind of sport.
The opposing mode of lunacy could easily be represented by setting up a bunch of microphones in front of a crowd, and hoping that a few minutes' work will result in some decent sound effects for your next blockbuster movie. But it could just as easily be the idea of turning a historic homestead into an alien spaceship. Or recreating the Vietnam War by using a bunch of glove puppets and a small patch of forest. Whether you are making monsters out of Plasticine or spending hours filming two lovers talking in the kitchen, the act of moviemaking is almost by definition an act of madness. Some would argue that the whole task becomes even more demented when your location is a bunch of islands at the bottom of the South Pacific Ocean.
In New Zealand, decades of infatuation with things sporting — especially rugby — mean that even today many locals still think of creativity primarily in terms of how well you can pass a ball. The country's impressive record in so many arenas of physical activity — steamrolling through most of the opposition on the rugby field, throwing up fences on a rain-lashed farm, being first up Himalayan mountains — has inadvertently helped stifle wider acceptance of other forms of talent.
Many countries get worked up about their sport: England, Italy and the US all spring quickly to mind. But ball-play aside, each of these nations has an equal knack for turning their own creative talents into the stuff of major-league public appeal — whether on television, in opera houses, or at the cinema. Unfortunately, when it comes to noticing their own talents, New Zealanders have an impressive history of looking the other way — usually across the oceans to the latest imports from the US and England.
But now Peter Jackson is standing in front of a crowd of New Zealand sports fans, and most of them are clapping as if there is no tomorrow. His public profile is currently higher than any local filmmaker or actor in the nation's history, including Piano director Jane Campion and Xena star Lucy Lawless. And no wonder: at the time of writing, Jackson's The Two Towers is the fifth-highest grossing movie in the history of cinema, with The Fellowship of the Ring not far behind. The trilogy is winning him labels like 'visionary' and 'genius', rocketing him from nowhere onto magazine lists of Hollywood's most powerful, and turning heads towards a country with a population less than half that of Los Angeles.
Jackson's place in the rollcall of international blockbusters is remarkable in more ways than just size. After Canadian-born James Cameron's chart-topping Titanic, the first two Lord of the Rings movies clock in as the second- and third-highest grossing films ever made by a non-American. But success at the international box office is no guarantee of wonderful cinema. If it were, the man at the centre of this book would arguably have another three mega-grossing movies on the list (and narratively undernourished epics like Twister and Pearl Harbor would not be found anywhere in the top 40). Nonetheless, The Fellowship of the Ring has taken an unusual path among recent blockbusters, swiftly joining the ranks of instant pop culture classics like Shrek and The Empire Strikes Back, movies which three normally disparate groups — film critics, the general moviegoing public and the majority of diehard fans — have all embraced.
Peter Jackson had already taken a number of steps down the road of cinematic infamy before his encounter with Middle-earth swung him back towards respectability. Along with their share of positive press, a number of Jackson's films have been labelled as gross and revolting, and others even attacked for deceiving the public. A number of international critics have declared Dead Alive one of the bloodiest movies in cinema history (some, admittedly with great enthusiasm).
Controversy is great publicity, and the salacious nature of the characters that populate many of Jackson's movies — drug-addicted frogs, repulsive ores, murderous teenagers — have helped his rise to fame. But such images have also helped obscure the depth of Jackson's talent: how his films are in their best moments the work of a natural, trying out a colourful form of cinematic ballet. There are moments in Dead Alive, Heavenly Creatures and The Fellowship of the Ring — three very different movies — that leave the viewer breathless.
Over the years Jackson has turned down a number of lucrative offers to work in Hollywood, arguing that there is more sense to staying in the country where he was raised. That way he can make movies with less money, but more freedom. In choosing this path, Jackson has broken the mould that requires New Zealand filmmakers to be either semi-anonymous, or else based permanently in other countries. Along the way, he has also helped change the course of a nation's cinema: not only by making it that much bloodier and funnier, but by showing that there can be a middle way between Hollywood and home. You see New Zealand has a sad yet noble tradition of making movies which are more often admired than actually seen. Now, using Hollywood money, Jackson has pulled off a series of epics that in terms of sheer audience numbers, have comprehensively beaten Hollywood at its own game.
FROM BLOODSHED TO BILBO BAGGINS
Talent, ingenuity and a strong degree of self-belief have all played vital parts in Jackson's rise to fame, as has his refusal to bow to the expectations of either fans or the film industry. The, director's do-it-yourself solutions to that common dilemma of first-time filmmakers — not having enough cash — are echoed in the work of a number of New Zealand movie pioneers. It is probably no coincidence that one of Jackson's only rivals for the title of youngest moviemaker in New Zealand's history is Rudall Hayward, who wrote, directed and produced his debut feature at the age of twenty-one (when the century was not much older). That is the age at which Jackson began directing and acting in the short film that eventually become the amiable alien-invasion tale Bad Taste. With the help of friends Jackson built his own camera cranes, shot much of the movie silent, and created many of the makeup effects himself.
Jackson's basic ingredients range widely, from horror and action-movie shenanigans through to lurid melodrama. But his trademark style of cooking is to pour ample servings of violence over whatever plotline he is working with, then stretch the results into the stuff of outrageous comedy. The combination in one meal of two such strong flavours could well prove a nightmare for a lesser cook. Yet the joy which Jackson gets from combining blood and laughter is so palpable and childlike onscreen that it has won him fans all the way from splatter addicts to those who normally avoid horror movies like the plague.
This trademark style was established in three titles which proved variously just how extreme one could get with a non-existent budget, a bunch of depraved puppets and a house-load of zombies. In fact, the trio of Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles and Dead Alive displayed such a naturally winning way with comedy and bodily fluids that it was something of a surprise to learn that Jackson might be capable of other types of filmmaking. Peter Jackson hardly seemed the first director you would arrange a meeting with if you were hoping to evoke the tragedy of a real-life murder. But that is exactly what he did with Heavenly Creatures, a movie based on the infamous Parker–Hulme tragedy in which two teenage girls together murdered one of their mothers. The film led Jackson and his creative and romantic partner Fran Walsh towards their first Academy Award nomination, and marked the breakthrough of a young British actor named Kate Winslet.
Heavenly Creatures revealed an originality of vision and mastery of character which won it keen international audiences, while simultaneously helping propel Jackson into the vague, amorphous world of the 'worthy' filmmaker. This unexpected lurch into artiness left many film critics and movie financiers, both of whom profess to desire originality while secretly finding that pigeonholing makes their job a whole lot easier, rather confused. And the two productions that followed — one whimsical and inspired, the other twisted but spectacular — hardly clarified anything, apart from the fact that talent hates being stuffed into simple boxes.
Forgotten Silver appeared one Sunday evening on New Zealand television. That now-legendary screening in late 1995 had many viewers believing that a young, unappreciated New Zealander had been responsible for history's first full-length movie, the first use of colour film and the first talkie. Once the hoax was revealed, scores of irate viewers wrote letters to their local editor, asking why a government broadcaster could have had anything to do with such lies, and the filmmakers received threats of bodily harm.
If Jackson had come to you after Forgotten Silver and his failed entrée into Hollywood — the Michael J Fox ghost story The Frighteners — with plans to make a major-scale, mass-appeal epic, you might well have wondered if he was living in some alternative reality of his own. One could easily imagine the Kiwi prince of splatter revelling in the gore of the battle scenes, and chucking in dollops of off-colour humour wherever there was a danger of any sense of grandness. But an epic fantasy with at least fifteen major characters, and a whole universe of mythical peoples to introduce? The chasms such moviemaking can throw up have sprained the ankles of people with far more expensive footwear than Peter Jackson. Yet somehow, Jackson's feet have survived the journey unscathed.
A COMPLICATED KIND OF CELEBRITY
Peter Jackson's path to mainstream celebrity began long before hobbits or orcs entered the picture. On his home turf, Jackson has been photographed by the media more often than any other local filmmaker: sometimes grinning, with chainsaw in hand, sometimes standing alongside his latest menagerie of cinematic creatures. Obvious PR skills, perhaps, but important ones, especially in a country where worthy local movies often drown in the sea of advertising that helps Hollywood product to rule the waves.
As the years have gone by, the images captured by the media have gradually changed, though on few occasions could you argue that Jackson has ever been a victim of fashion. From the boyish, curly-haired figure of the early photos, he has begun more and more to resemble the American cliché of the movie-brat director — the messy beard, the spectacles, the T-shirt. The later image certainly tells us part of the story: Jackson's feet grounded in New Zealand earth, while his head is up in the clouds, dreaming up new cinematic visions. Yet this picture helps downplay Jackson's ability to be a master of public relations one minute, and a fearsome adversary the next.
The young filmmaker who burst from a small seaside town near Wellington onto the cult movie scene, proved to be a journalist's dream — unpretentious, intelligent and able to make cinematic slaughter sound like the healthiest thing in the world. But as he has become more powerful, so has the contrast between Jackson's low-key, quietly-spoken exterior and his expressions of annoyance at those who don't share his particular vision.
Much of this annoyance has been directed at the New Zealand Film Commission, the body which enabled Jackson's first three films to be made. Over the years the director's relationship with the Commission, the government-appointed body that funds the majority of local films, has taken as much of a rollercoaster ride as any Jackson movie, as Chapter Eleven will show. At one point in the late 1990s Jackson seemed to be putting himself forward as the Film Commission's Mr Fix-It, telling entertainment magazine Variety, 'I have a choice: either try to do something about the NZFC's problems, or leave the country.' But his attempts to make the Commission more filmmaker-friendly have often taken the form of full-frontal attacks, and succeeded mostly in getting a lot of backs up. When The Two Towers had its splash Wellington premiere in the final days of 2002, the Jackson–NZFC relationship reached perhaps its lowest ebb. Thanks partly to his anger at the Commission for refusing to pay him out on bills owed by a local film company that had gone belly-up, Jackson publicly revoked invitations for two of the Commission's senior staff to come to the premiere party.
Jackson's dreams — and those of some vital collaborators, not least writers Fran Walsh and Stephen Sinclair — have helped reinvigorate film genres from which much of the magic has been bled dry. These days fantasy, horror and science-fiction movies often rush us directly to other worlds in order to open our eyes to some new creature, spectacle or chase. But many of these films give the fantasty genres a bad name, because all that eye-candy arrives without the backup of a satisfying narrative.
That Jackson's movies have never fallen into this trap is perhaps surprising, especially when you consider his long fascination with the nuts and bolts of special effects — a fascination which would later see him co-owning one of the biggest effects factories on the planet — and the fact that his debut movie lacked even a script. The easy thrill of spectacular effects is surely a big part of how modern fantasy cinema gets by with such uninspired scriptwriting. And something of the show-off — the magician who wants to stun us, just because he can — still lurks in most of Peter Jackson's films.
Excerpted from Peter Jackson by Ian Pryor. Copyright © 2004 Ian Pryor. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
Prologue: In a House by the Sea,
1. The Lunatics Are Taking Over the Field,
3. The Movie that Grew: Bad Taste,
4. Not Your Everyday Average Creatures: Meet the Feebles,
5. Beating the Curse of the Zombies: Dead Alive,
6. The Undead on Set,
7. A Different Kind of Murder: Heavenly Creatures,
8. Putting It on Film,
9. Empire-building: Forgotten Silver and the Birth of Weta,
10. Finding Hollywood Without Really Looking: The Frighteners,
11. The Political Animal,
12. Finding the Ring,
13. Roll Camera,
14. Spies in Middle-earth,
15. Unveiling the Ring,
16. Past and Future,
Epilogue: In a House by the Sea,
Appendix 1: Movies in New Zealand,
Appendix 2: Timeline,
Appendix 3: Filmography,
Appendix 4: Inspirations and Influences,
Appendix 5: Movies As Yet Unmade,