Cinematic Thoughts for Cinematic Minds
To try and briefly summarise the career of Peter Jackson is almost impossible. As a director, writer and producer he has created and influenced some of the most remembered films of our generation. And now with next month’s release of ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’, the first part in an all new trilogy, it’s time we take an attempted look back at Peter Jackson’s career to date. Nevertheless… here we go…
The Splatter Period
Over four years (from 1983 to 1987) Jackson’s first feature, Bad Taste, grew in haphazard fashion from a short film into a 90-minute splatter comedy, with many of Jackson’s friends acting and working on it for free. Shooting was normally done in the weekends since Jackson was now working full-time. Bad Taste is about aliens that come to earth with the intention of turning humans into food. Jackson had two acting roles including a famous scene in which he fights himself on top of a cliff.
Jackson’s next film to see release was Meet the Feebles (1989), co-written by the four writers mentioned above. An ensemble musical comedy starring Muppet-style puppets, Meet the Feebles originally began as a short film intended for television, but was rapidly expanded into a full-length film after unexpected enthusiasm from Japanese investors, and the collapse of Braindead, six weeks before filming. Begun on a very low budget, Meet the Feebles went weeks over schedule. Jackson stated of his second feature length film, “It’s got a quality of humour that alienates a lot of people.. It’s very black, very satirical, very savage.”
Jackson’s next release was the horror comedy Braindead (1992) (released in North America as Dead Alive), now seen as a landmark in splatter movies. Originally planned as a Spanish co-production, the film reversed the usual zombie plot. Rather than keeping the zombies out of his place of refuge, the hero attempts to keep them inside, while maintaining a façade of normality. The film features extensive special effects including miniature trams, stop motion and a plethora of gory make-up effects.
Heavenly Creatures and Forgotten Silver
Released in 1994 after Jackson won a race to bring the story to the screen, Heavenly Creatures marked a major change for Jackson in terms of both style and tone. The film is based on real-life events: namely the Parker–Hulme murder in which two teenage girls in 1950s Christchurch became close friends, some say lovers, and later murdered the mother of one of the girls. Jackson’s partner Fran Walsh helped persuade him that the events had the makings of a movie; Jackson has been quoted saying that the film “only got made” because of her enthusiasm for the subject matter. Many New Zealanders were apprehensive about how Jackson would treat the material, an apprehension that would later turn in many cases to relief. The film’s fame coincided with the New Zealand media tracking down the real-life Juliet Hulme, who now wrote books under the name Anne Perry. Jackson would cast the actors Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet in the roles of Parker and Hulme. Heavenly Creatures received considerable critical acclaim, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay and making top ten of the year lists in Time, The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald, and The New Zealand Herald.
The following year, in collaboration with Wellington film-maker Costa Botes, Jackson co-directed the mockumentary Forgotten Silver (1995). This ambitious made-for-television piece told the story of New Zealand film pioneer Colin McKenzie, who had supposedly invented colour film and ‘talkies’, and attempted an epic film of Salome before being forgotten by the world. Though the programme played in a slot normally reserved for drama, no other warning was given that it was fictionalised and many viewers were outraged at discovering Colin McKenzie had never existed.
Move to Hollywood
The success of Heavenly Creatures helped pave the way for Jackson’s first big budget Hollywood film, The Frighteners starring Michael J. Fox, in 1996. Thanks partly to support from American producer Robert Zemeckis, Jackson was given permission to make this comedy/horror film entirely in New Zealand despite being set in a North American town. This period was a key one of change for both Jackson and Weta Workshop, the special effects company — born from the one man contributions of George Port to Heavenly Creatures — with which Jackson is often associated. Weta, initiated by Jackson and key collaborators, grew rapidly during this period to incorporate both digital and physical effects, make-up and costumes, the first two areas normally commanded by Jackson collaborator Richard Taylor.
The Lord of the Rings
This is where Jackson’s career took its next turn. In 1997 he won the rights to J.R.R Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings Trilogy’ of classic fantasy novels in a bid to bring them to the big screen. Initially the films were funded by Miramax who saw them being a two film production. However, after that initial deal fell through Jackson pitched the films as they were intended to be, a trilogy, and New Line picked them up. The Lord of the Rings was finally born.
The films were shot almost exclusively on location between 1999 and 2000 giving the films their epic feel. ‘The Hobbit Trilogy’ has been criticised already for embarking from this style with many of its scenes shot in Weta Studios itself. New Zealand provided the perfect back drop for Middle Earth. It has hundreds of square miles of untouched wilderness from snow-capped mountains to open savannahs, truly the only place where Tolkien’s work could have been visualised.
The Trilogy made Jackson a household name. ‘The Return of the King’ won eleven academy awards including Best Picture and Best Director. It became the first fantasy film to ever clear up at the Oscars and the second sequel (after The Godfather Pt. II) to win Best Picture.
What to do next…
Jackson and Weta next set about giving King Kong a much needed re-boot to bring into the 21st Century. Effects wise for its time an absolute masterpiece if viewed in IMAX format. Yet it really was a scene for scene near rip off of the two previous versions, mainly the original. But it still showed Jackson’s abilities to produce big epic films. King Kong v.03 is still a huge achievement if a little forgettable.
A massive sideways step then occurred for Jackson as he took on the task of adapting Alice Sebold’s ‘The Lovely Bones’ a story of a young girl who is taken into an underground layer and murdered by a neighbour who then comes back to haunt her father to help him solve her murder. Jackson had proven his ability to cover tough narrative subjects in ‘Heavenly Creatures’ and he directed this film to perfection and with great sensitivity. Visually this film is beautiful, adding to the heart warming and immensely powerful message behind its narrative. Although dark and distressing ‘The Lovely Bones’ carries a positive message of sorts, we won’t say much but karma is a bitch.
Jackson as a producer then went onto to be involved with yet more excellent projects. He was initially after the success of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ commissioned to produce the movie adaptation of Halo from the huge Xbox franchise. Director Neill Blomkamp came on board and funding was allocated but after a rights dispute the project was officially postponed. Updated in June this year the IMDB page cites three casting credits and still holds Jackson and Blomkamp in their proposed roles. The possibility of this film ever being made is still slim but while it remains on hold there is still hope out there. What Jackson and Blomkamp did with their Halo funding was create ‘District 9’ the tale of alien refugees living in downtown Johannesburg. A low budget effects epic which went on to be a box office hit, ‘District 9’ launched the career of Neill Blomkamp and showed just how awesome Halo would have been… sigh… maybe one day…
Then Jackson teamed up with the one and only Steven Spielberg to produce ‘The Adventures of Tin Tin: The Secret of the Unicorn’ taken from the pages of Herge’s classic graphic novels this motion capture adventure really translated the beauty of the original comics and paved way for two sequels to be commissioned.
After years of legal disputes and arguments Jackson finally won the battle to bring The Hobbit to the screen. Initially planned as two prequel films, Jackson handed over the reins to Guillermo Del Toro to direct the next foray into middle earth. However, after lengthy writing setbacks and production problems Del Toro walked from the film, although he still holds a writing credit. Jackson stepped in again to direct and save the films from collapse. And so here we are in 2012 just under four weeks away from the release of ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ the tale of Bilbo Baggins played by Martin Freeman who is swept away by wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and a host of dwarves to steal a treasure guarded by the dragon Smaug… and you know the rest. But Jackson sprung a surprise on us two months back with him splitting the story into three films the sequels now titled ‘The Desolation of Smaug’ and ‘There and Back Again’. How Jackson plans to stretch this beloved tale over three films is unknown to many. It appears though that he is attempting to use everything he can of Tolkien’s famed appendices which tie The Hobbit into The Lord of The Rings universe so expect to see Legolas, Aragorn and Gimli one last time as it remains to be seen whether the master kiwi of cinema is bringing us another slice of genius or just flogging a dead horse.
Whatever happens next… Peter Jackson is a cast iron legend…