August 29, 1998
Kiwi Lord of the Reels
When Peter Jackson was 10 he pin-pricked holes in the celluloid of his Super-8 film The Dwarf Patrol to create the illusion of gunfire flashing from rifle barrels.
The three films based on the classic fantasy trilogy The Lord of the Rings which he begins shooting next May will be worked on in his studios in Miramar, near Wellington's airport, by five dozen special effects technicians deploying an array of computers more powerful than any in the country apart from Telecom's.
The scale of the undertaking, to be made entirely in New Zealand, beggars belief. At $NZ264 million the budget is bigger than Te Papa's and represents about four times the country's annual receipts from wine sales, or almost two thirds of our revenue from kiwifruit exports. [Te Papa is New Zealand's national museum.]
It will, incidentally, propel the 36-year-old Jackson to near the top of the country's rich list. Industry observers were this week estimating he'll have an annual take-home pay of between $10 million and $20 million for the next few years. One joked that maybe the habitually dishevelled Wellingtonian will be able to buy some new clothes.
The production, the largest ever undertaken south of the equator, is proof that the Film Commission's talent-priming role can pay off big-time, not to mention a tribute to the perseverance and dedication of a man who can barely remember a time when he wasn't going to make films.
And he remembers when it started. He was 5 and growing up in Pukera Bay on the outskirts of Porirua, and he went to see the film version of the television series Batman. "There was a moment in the movie when Batman and Robin slid down their fireman's pole," he recalls. "Halfway down there's a jump cut and they suddenly transform into their bat costumes. It amazed me and I remember vividly asking my cousin who was older than me how they did that.
"He didn't really know, of course, but he just said, 'Special effects' and I just thought, 'Wow!' That really was the seed of a fascination that you can do extraordinary things with film that take you outside the normal world." At 8, he got his chance. His parents got a Super-8 camera for Christmas and the young Jackson commandeered it.
"I grabbed it straight away and got friends of mine and we made World War Two movies and horror movies and I made little monsters out of rubber and plasticine and did some very crude stop-motion animation."
Spurning sports and parties as a teenager, he transformed his bedroom into an animation studio. These were pre-video days. Jackson held strips of celluloid up to the light, cut them, spliced them. So the 25-year-old who made the low-budget 16mm splatter picture Bad Taste was already a self-taught veteran.
Brain Dead and Meet the Feebles, which followed, were in the same bloodstained mould, though boasted bigger budgets. But by the time he made Heavenly Creatures, about the infamous Parker-Hulme matricide, Jackson was clearly a film-maker of some mastery.
That mastery attracted the attention of Bob Zemeckis, the maker of the Back to the Future films and Forrest Gump, who backed Jackson's first Hollywood outing - the witty and ironic ghost spoof The Frighteners. Despite indifferent success at the box office it was enough to convince Hollywood there was a talent in Miramar worth going around the world for.
Jackson had been slated to direct a remake of King Kong (he had a childhood passion for the 1933 original which, he says, "captures the magic of why I'm in the movies") but Universal, unwilling to enter a three-way race with Columbia's Godzilla and Disney's upcoming Mighty Joe Young (about a 3m gorilla) pulled the plug. Eight months' work had came to nothing, but Jackson had "Plan B and it wasn't a bad sort of Plan B."
Yet The Lord of the Rings nearly didn't make it either. Jackson and his co-writers (partner Fran Walsh, with whom he shared an Oscar nomination for the Heavenly Creatures screenplay, playright Stephen Sinclair and Philippa Boyens) had always planned to tell the story at epic length and the original producers, Miramax, had agreed to two three-hour films.
Then, only six weeks ago, Miramax got cold feet. They said they wanted a single movie - three hours at most.
"It would have meant literally cutting more than half the script and doing a Readers' Digest version and I wasn't able to deal with that," Jackson says mildly. "I told them I couldn't be on board even though it meant they would have to get someone else to make it. I would have spent the rest of my life regretting it."
Miramax's Harvey Weinstein gave Jackson three weeks "to find someone to make the film that you want to make."
A knuckle-whitening round of doorknocking in Hollywood followed before New Line (whose track record includes Freddy Krueger's Friday the 13th films, Jim Carrey's Mask, and more recently Wag The Dog and Lost In Space) made a suggestion beyond Jackson's wildest dreams: three books should make three movies.
The rest, as they say, will be history.