Peter Jackson, currently one of the world’s most well-known directors and the unofficial face of the entire nation of New Zealand, started his career in a somewhat irregular fashion. He grew up in the small seaside community of Pukerua Bay in New Zealand. Despite developing an early love for movies and a wildly creative imagination, Peter Jackson’s childhood was rather typical of any child. Though one thing was apparent from a very early age and that was Jackson’s love for cinema. This passion stems from his first viewing of King Kong (Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933) as a nine-year-old boy on a tiny black-and-white television set. (1) This film, along with many, many others, inspired Jackson to attempt his own filmmaking projects and invent his own special effects. In fact, he became quite competent in the art of claymation, often employing the technique in his early childhood films. While many subjects interested the young Jackson, such as monsters, war, zombies and James Bond, it is very clear that he was not interested in the mundane. He craved excitement, adventure and loved the escapist films that provided it. This passion for the fantastical can be seen as the single driving force behind each and every film project Peter Jackson has embarked upon. Whether its aliens, zombies, elves or giant apes, Jackson loves taking his audience to places they could only dream of – places that transcend the everyday and make the child inside us bubble with excitement. Occasionally, these places are wondrous and beautiful, yet more often they are horrific and frightening. In either case, they are never anything short of amazing.
While Peter Jackson spent much of his childhood making World War II films in his backyard and zombie films in the local cemetery it was in 1981 that his most ambitious project began. Jackson started shooting Roast of the Day, a ten-minute short film based around an aid worker who comes to a small town seeking donations, but instead finds himself the unwitting main course for a group of famished cannibals. Filming on weekends with a tiny group of friends, the film had no script and was funded entirely by Jackson’s job as a photo engraver. He built all the equipment himself including a dolly, a Steadycam and a crane, and personally created all the make-up and special effects. (2) As the film progressed Jackson began to realise that he had significantly more useable footage than would be needed for the original 10-minute concept and, inspired by the recently released Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981), decided to expand the film to feature length. (3) To achieve this, Jackson added the plot revolving around aliens invading the small town and using humans to create an intergalactic fast-food meal. Towards the end of production, Jackson was able to secure some funding from the New Zealand Film Commission, which provided the roughly $250,000 that was used to complete principal photography and fund professional post-production techniques. After a total of four years of weekend filming, the newly titled Bad Taste (Peter Jackson, 1987) was screened in the market at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was positively received and gained an international distribution deal. (4)
Bad Taste in an interesting little film. It reveals Jackson’s love for gore and absurdist humour, along with his natural flair for creating original and often spectacular special effects. It is clear that Jackson never wants to disturb his audience and, while Bad Taste is ludicrously violent, it is always depicted in a comical manner. The scenes of exploding heads, impalings and dismemberment are not intended to frighten the audience; instead, they aim to amuse and evoke a hearty laugh. This is a common trait within the genre of the splatter film, which, while still adhering to many of the stylistic conventions of the horror genre, focuses on the blood and gore, amplifying it to such an extent that it becomes comical. At this stage in his filmmaking career, it is obvious that Jackson, while possessing vast amounts of talent, has neither the experience nor the financial means for it to be fully realised. This would soon change.
After the success of Bad Taste at Cannes, Jackson was offered numerous deals in attempts to coax the filmmaker to Hollywood. Yet, to the amazement of many, he chose instead to stay in New Zealand. (5) While it may initially seem like a rather dire career move, particularly for a filmmaker like Jackson, who is very much interested in mainstream Hollywood films, Jackson had his own plans. His follow-up film was something nobody could have predicted, a film following the behind-the-scenes exploits of a troupe of puppets who perform a theatre show which has the potential to become a big television success. However, things do not go very smoothly and the film documents many of the sordid activities occurring behind closed doors. The film was called Meet the Feebles (Peter Jackson, 1989) and was quite unique, to say the least. Jackson continued with his love for gore and violence, only this time it was served up with a healthy dose of social commentary and a smorgasbord of puppets. Meet the Feebles is not for the faint of heart as it features scenes of rape, drug addiction, mass murder and various other unsavourily acts. While Bad Taste was a shallow celebration of violence, Meet the Feebles makes an overt comment about the entertainment business. It uses the unlikely culprit of puppets to comically examine the seedy underbelly of film and television industry. This is typical of Peter Jackson; the man is notoriously laid back and never allows himself to be taken too seriously. (6) Therefore, it seems quite revealing that so early on in his career Jackson would be poking fun at the very industry he was attempting to break into.
Meet the Feebles was by no means a big success. After all, how many people would actually want to pay to watch muppets be massacred by a machinegun wielding hippo? However, it does demonstrate Jackson’s unique vision and talent. The film is rather unfocused, yet it was a rather large step forward from the no-budget Bad Taste. Despite failing to gain international distribution, Meet the Feebles cemented Jackson’s cult status and even more offers from Hollywood came flooding in. But, as before, Jackson was determined to remain in his home county of New Zealand and all the offers were rejected. Hollywood did, however, heavily influence Jackson’s work in a somewhat unconventional way. In 1990, story analyst Robert McKee was brought to New Zealand by the Film Commission and delivered his famous seminar on screenplay story structure to packed lecture rooms in Auckland and Wellington. In the audience was Jackson. (7) This seminar left an enormous impression on Jackson and it can be seen in his work that followed.
The next project embarked on by Jackson was the zombie film Braindead (Peter Jackson, 1992). The effects of the scriptwriting seminar are immediately obvious in the way the film is structured and the way recurring imagery is used to link key aspects of the film’s plot. Braindead feels like a much sturdier and more focused piece of filmmaking than anything attempted by Jackson previously. It is also obvious that Jackson was maturing as a filmmaker as Braindead deals with many of its issues in a more subtle and intelligent way than anything found in Meet the Feebles. The story of a young man finding his own voice and standing up to his mother is rife with shades of the Œdipal complex as well as other Freudian concepts regarding the mother and the womb. However, while his films may have gained a new level of complexity, Jackson retains his love for blood and guts in Braindead. In fact, Braindead it not only by far the goriest film Jackson has made, it is quite possibly one of the goriest films in the history of cinema. The film’s finale, featuring hordes of zombie-fied partygoers and an upturned lawnmower, simply has to be seen to be believed. It is reported that approximately 300 litres of fake blood were used to create that one scene alone. (8)
With three feature films under his belt, it was time for Jackson to branch out. All his previous films had focused on gore and violence; it was time to change tack. And what better way to do that than by making a film about two young New Zealand murderers. While this may seem like familiar territory, this film was to be vastly different from anything Jackson had previously attempted. To begin with, it was a true story. Initially, the facts were scarce and the subject matter seemingly unsuited to film, but there was something there. Perhaps Jackson saw something that told him it would make an amazing film, or perhaps he just got lucky following a story that caught his eye. Either way, Jackson personally conducted unprecedented amounts of research on the case of the two young schoolgirls, Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme, who murdered Pauline’s mother. (9) This extensive research allowed for Jackson to develop a script that delved into the troubled psyche of the two young girls in a way never seen. He was able to unearth the core of what happened and began to understand why these two children would commit such a horrendous act.
Heavenly Creatures (Peter Jackson, 1994) was indeed vastly different to Jackson’s previous work, yet his unique style and vision were still present, as was his sense of the fantastical. The film is based very heavily in reality, yet Jackson used the imaginations of the two girls to initiate fantastical dream sequences. These surreal moments, often filled with life-size plasticine characters, are used both to entertain the audience and also to give the audience a greater understanding of the psyche of the two protagonists. (10) It was a conscious effort by Jackson and collaborator Fran Walsh to not focus on the murder, but instead to tell the story of the two girls and the incredible friendship they shared before and leading up to the terrible event. It was a wise move indeed as the script for Heavenly Creatures was nominated for a Best Screenplay Academy Award. It did not win, but it surly gave Jackson’s reputation a humungous boost. No longer was he just some wacky Kiwi who made movies about zombies and aliens; now people began to consider Jackson a “respectable” filmmaker. Heavenly Creatures is also responsible for another important development in Jackson’s career: the creation of WETA. WETA was formed to handle the digital effects required for Heavenly Creatures, such as morphs, dissolves and colour grading. These are remarkably humble beginnings for what would one day become the leading special effects house in the entire world. (11)
Never to take the obvious route, Peter Jackson’s next project was again something out of the ordinary. This time he moved away from the silver screen and decided to try his hand at television. The project was Forgotten Silver (Peter Jackson and Costa Botes, 1995), a mockumentary that was aired on New Zealand television to unwitting audiences, many of whom assumed it was in fact real. The film followed Jackson as he retraced the steps of ‘forgotten’ New Zealand filmmaker Colin McKenzie. Of course, Colin McKenzie was merely a character dreamed up by Jackson and Botes, yet the fake archive footage and interviews were outstandingly convincing. (12) In the mockumentary, Jackson claims to have found old films made by Colin McKenzie which disproved numerous historical facts, such as the Wright brothers’ first flight or the advent of colour film. Jackson helped create a sense of realism within the film by enlisting well-known experts and celebrities to give fake interviews claiming that Colin McKenzie did indeed perform the feats Jackson suggested he did. (13) The entire concept is rather ludicrous and is very funny, yet due to the high quality of the production it is understandable that audiences missed the joke.
Much of the project’s success was due to the involvement of WETA which, through Jackson’s guidance, was fast developing its skills as a world-class special-effects house. (14) Despite being made for television, Forgotten Silver was perhaps Jackson’s most technically ambitious project to date. It called for the creation of vast temple ruins and a biblical epic, which would have been next to impossible without the use of computer generated imagery. Similarly, the footage that apparently revealed New Zealander Richard Pearse as being the first person to invent a powered aircraft required intricate special effects and models to be crafted in order to evoke a sense of authenticity. Jackson’s quest for perfection didn’t end there. In fact, in order to distress the “found” Colin McKenzie footage, he had the WETA crew rub dirt and spit over the celluloid and drag it along the ground. (15) While it was possible to rather quickly use digital processes to simulate distress on the film, Jackson felt that it wasn’t believable enough. Again, such levels of detail and commitment to the project are what allowed it to be so successful at fooling its audience. (16)
It was around this time, the mid-1990s, that computer-generated effects started to play a large role in filmmaking, particularly large-budget Hollywood filmmaking. These advancement can be seen in Peter Jackson’s following film project, The Frighteners (Peter Jackson, 1996). Originally Jackson and partner Walsh wrote the script for the frighteners for Robert Zemeckis, who intended to utilise it as part of the Tales from the Crypt series, with Jackson simply writing, not directing. (17) However, upon reading the script, Zemeckis felt is was strong enough to work as a feature film and thus Jackson agreed to expand the concept and came on board as director. However, despite featuring Michael J. Fox in the lead role and implementing then state-of-the-art computer-generated effects, the film failed to make a significant amount of money at the box office. (18) One of the main reasons for this was the film’s rating. Originally aiming for a PG-13 classification in the United States, the film, despite Jackson’s protests, was classified R, thus alienating much of its target audience. While nowhere near as blood-drenched as some of Jackson’s previous films, the tone of the final act of The Frighteners is decidedly sinister. Interestingly, when Jackson discovered that the film was to be rated R, he re-shot a number of scenes, such as the death of Milton Dammers, to considerably increase their levels of gore.
While the film was not a commercial success, it did teach Jackson a great deal about the America film industry. (19) Even though he demanded the film be shot in New Zealand, it was financed by American investors and featured a predominantly American cast. Also, The Frighteners called for the expansion of Jackson’s WETA special effect company from a single computer to 35 computers and artists. The film demonstrated the competence of Jackson’s special effects houses as well as his own skill at combining digital elements with live action performances. The Frighteners also features many aspects common to all of Peter Jackson’s films. Most obviously, it is based around the fantastical: ghosts and grim reapers, serial killers and psychics all feature prominently – as does Jackson’s goofy sense of humour. Slapstick gags and surreal visual jokes litter the plot of The Frighteners, ensuring that no one can ever take it too seriously. Interestingly it also deals with themes regarding oppressive parents and dabbles in Freudian themes of repressions and also touches upon the Œdipal complex.
Following The Frighteners, Jackson’s next project was to be a remake of King Kong, but in 1996 deals with Universal fell through and the project was cancelled. Jackson, however, was not disheartened. In 1997, Jackson acquired the rights to J. R. R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings books and began developing them into filmable screenplays. Initially, the project was to be financed by Miramax with the condition that it be compacted into two films. However, after a significant amount of pre-production, Miramax pulled out, leaving Jackson to find a new studio to support the film. (20) Luckily, New Line stepped in and offered to not only support the film, but offered to make a trilogy, allowing Jackson to stay faithful to the source material. (21)
The shooting of The Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson, 2001-2003) films is quite unique and rather fascinating. Despite being one of the most expensive and ambitious projects in cinema history, the production was very much like that for a small independent film. (22) The entire shoot took place in New Zealand and there was a “do it yourself” attitude that is typically absent from large Hollywood productions. Filming The Lord of the Rings trilogy was a daunting prospect, particularly when you are filming three films back-to-back over a 14-month period of principal photography. All in all, from the purchasing of the rights in 1997, to the release of The Return of the King in 2003, Jackson devoted more than six years of his life to bringing this story to the screen – a remarkable achievement in dedication and sheer willpower. Yet, even with such a monumental pressure on his shoulders, Jackson still managed to fill the three films with his own personal style. His goofy sense of humour is there in spades, and the monstrous beasts and grotesque creatures are a hallmark of a Peter Jackson film. But perhaps the most telling aspect of the trilogy is the astounding attention to detail. Jackson wanted Middle Earth to be real, to look real, to “feel” real. Despite all the magic and the monsters, the places and the characters feel real, and this is thanks to the enormous amounts of detail packed into every aspect of the production. (23)
The Lord of the Rings trilogy is obviously a huge landmark in Jackson’s career, not only did the films become some of the most commercially successful of all time, but they have also lifted Jackson to the top of the Hollywood pecking order. (24) His digital effects company, WETA Digital, became one of, if not the, most respected effects company in the world; similarly, his WETA Workshop prop house also became one of the most successful businesses working on prosthetics and weaponry for films such as The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Andrew Adamson, 2005).
After the huge success of The Lord of the Rings films Jackson did not slow down, instead moving straight into the remake of King Kong, which, thanks to his sudden fame, Universal was now more than happy to finance. Not only did it finance the film, but Jackson was reportedly paid a fee of US$20 million upfront, the highest salary ever paid to a film director in advance of production. (25) Obviously the project was one that was very close to Jackson’s heart, as the original King Kong is listed as being his favourite film ever made. Jackson’s version, however, aimed to expand on the story and characters found in the original film, yet with a runtime of roughly three hours it was perhaps a slight case of overkill. Nevertheless, the film delivers plenty of action, gross creatures and Jackson-style humour, as well as fleshing out the relationship between Kong and Anne by expanding Kong into a fully rounded character. (26)
Now, more than one year after the release of his King Kong remake, Jackson is finally slowing down. He has taken some time off to develop and write a script based on the novel The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. It’s a much smaller film, more in the vein of Heavenly Creatures than the mega blockbusters Jackson has become known for. His effects companies are going strong, working on many new and exciting projects, such as the new James Cameron film slated for release in 2009. Jackson has also recently partnered with Microsoft to create a video-game company called WETA Interactive, which will develop computer games for the Xbox 360 video-game console.
Despite having already completed his dream project of directing King Kong, the future looks bright for Jackson. He has established himself as both a fiercely creative filmmaker and a smart and successful businessman. He is also working as a producer on a number of projects, such as a movie based on the Halo video games and a remake of The Dam Busters (Michael Anderson, 1955). There are also many potential directorial projects looming on the horizon, including a filmic version of The Hobbit. He also recently purchased the rights to the fantasy novel series Temeraire.
Jackson has also expressed an interest in returning to his roots and directing some lower-budget splatter films again. For this is where his heat truly lies: in the blood-soaked celluloid of the gore film. Its traces can be found throughout his entire body of work, and it only seems fitting that one day, sometime in the distant future, Jackson will once again treat audiences to a fantastic spectacle of exploding heads and slimy entrails, a celebration of all things gruesome. While exactly what lies in store for this New Zealand filmmaker is uncertain, there is one interesting fact, one little coincidence, that just might explain Peter Jackson’s love for blood, guts and ghouls. He was born in 1961 on 31 October. Halloween.
- Brian Sibley, Peter Jackson: A Film-Maker’s Journey (Sydney: Harper Collins, 2006), p. 4.
- Stephen Rebello, “Peter Jackson’s ‘Bad Taste’: The Gleefully Anarchistic Film Helped Pave the Director’s Road to the Academy Awards”, in Variety, Vol. 393, No. 4 (December 2003), p. 1.
- Costa Botes, “Made in New Zealand: The Cinema of Peter Jackson”, in The Bastards Have Landed, May 2002.
- Sibley, p. 28.
- Sibley, p. 30.
- Sibley, p. 25.
- Botes, p. 1.
- Sibley, p. 85.
- Ibid, p. 109.
- John Fried, “Heavenly Creatures”, in Cineaste, Vol. 21, No. 4 (Fall 1995), p. 2.
- Sibley, p. 115.
- Andrew Horton, “Forgotten Silver”, in Cineaste, Vol. 26, No. 3 (Summer 2001), p. 2.
- Sibley, p. 159.
- Sibley, p. 200.
- Botes, p. 1.
- Sibley, p. 203.
- Botes, p. 1.
- Ralph Novak, “The Frighteners”, in People Weekly, Vol. 46, No. 5 (July 1996), p. 1.
- Botes, p. 1.
- Sibley, p. 368.
- John Horn, “Crossed Swords, Cold Cash: A Studio Gambles on an Epic Series”, in Newsweek, 10 December 2001, p. 78.
- Jeff Giles, “Lure of the Rings: How a Little-Known New Zealand Director Landed the Most Ambitious Franchise in Movie History”, in The Bulletin with Newsweek, 119.6306 (December 2001), p. 1.
- Brian Sibley, The Lord of the Rings: The Making of the Movie Trilogy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002), p. 12.
- Tom Shone, Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer (New York: Free Press, 2004), p. 309.
- Sibley, 2006, p. 412.
- Jenny Wake, The Making of King Kong: The Official Guide to the Motion Picture (Chicago: Pocket Books, 2005), p. 36.
Bad Taste (1987)
Meet the Feebles (1989)
Heavenly Creatures (1994)
Forgotten Silver (co-directed with Costa Botes, 1995)
The Frighteners (1996)
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
King Kong (2005)
Costa Botes, “Made in New Zealand: The Cinema of Peter Jackson”, in The Bastards Have Landed, May 2002.
John Fried, “Heavenly Creatures”, in Cineaste, Vol. 21, No. 4 (Fall 1995).
Jeff Giles, “Lure of the Rings: How a Little-Known New Zealand Director Landed the Most Ambitious Franchise in Movie History”, in The Bulletin with Newsweek, 119.6306 (December 2001).
John Horn, “Crossed Swords, Cold Cash: A Studio Gambles on an Epic Series”, in Newsweek, 10 December 2001.
Andrew Horton, “Forgotten Silver”, in Cineaste, Vol. 26, No. 3 (Summer 2001).
Ralph Novak, “The Frighteners”, in People Weekly, Vol. 46, No. 5 (July 1996).
Stephen Rebello, “Peter Jackson’s ‘Bad Taste’: The Gleefully Anarchistic Film Helped Pave the Director’s Road to the Academy Awards”, in Variety, Vol. 393, No. 4 (December 2003).
Tom Shone, Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer (New York: Free Press, 2004).
Brian Sibley, The Lord of the Rings: The Making of the Movie Trilogy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002).
Brian Sibley, Peter Jackson: A Film-Maker’s Journey (Sydney: Harper Collins, 2006).
Jenny Wake, The Making of King Kong: The Official Guide to the Motion Picture (Chicago: Pocket Books, 2005).
Articles in Senses of Cinema
David Melville, “Dangerous Dreamers: Fantasy, Passion and Psychosis in Heavenly Creatures”
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