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Lord Of The Wingnuts:
by Porl Broome
The story of Peter Jackson's rise to the upper echelons of Hollywood filmmaking is a unique and
deeply inspiring one. It's less than 20 years since he managed to scrape together enough money, from
his job as a photo assistant on a Wellington newspaper, to buy a secondhand 16mm camera and begin
filming (in his spare time) on a short 10-minute movie entitled Roast Of The Day. Four years -
and a small contribution from the New Zealand Film Commission - later the film had grown, was
finished and re-titled Bad Taste.
The fact that Bad Taste even got finished, let alone released, is testament to Jackson's enthusiasm, determination, and his knack of finding the right person at the right time (in this case Jim Booth of the NZFC - later to become a partner in Jackson's Wingnut Films). But how the hell did he progress from being the creative force behind a small cult comedy horror flick, to driving the $180 million leviathan project of Tolkien's The Lord Of The Rings trilogy?
Peter Jackson was born on October 31st, 1961, in the unlikely-named small town of Pukerua Bay, just outside Wellington, New Zealand. As a child he began making short films with his parent's 8mm camera, including a World War II piece entitled The Dwarf Patrol, filmed in a ditch in his back garden at the age of 12, and a 'James Bond' short. All the while he was pushing himself, by experimenting with the medium, and with the potential for cheap visual effects.
His first full-length feature, Bad Taste, was entirely made by Jackson and his mates, who also starred in the film (Jackson himself in two roles). When it was first released in 1987, Bad Taste was a true breath of fresh air (it achieved even more attention when released worldwide on video, a year later). It was raw, it was impetuous, and above all else it was very, very funny. The plot was basic (but inspired), and ran like this: an alien fast-food manufacturer on the look out for a 'new taste sensation' with which to 'sweep the galaxy' has landed in rural New Zealand and promptly slain and boxed-up the entire population of the town of Kaihoro. The government despatches 'The Boys' (a 'crack' unit formed entirely for this unlikely purpose) to investigate. After one of their number, Derek (Jackson) takes a seemingly fatal swan dive off a cliff after torturing a captured alien called Robert (also played by Jackson), and a civilian con-man is taken prisoner - the remaining Boys are forced to infiltrate the ranks of the aliens, and attempt an intrepid rescue mission...
At the time of its release, Bad Taste was hailed as the bastard son of Monty Python and The Evil Dead - watching it now it's clear that the mix is more like 80 percent Python, and 20 percent Sam Raimi. Even the gore is more Pythonesque than horrific, and is played for laughs from start to finish. The really interesting thing about the film is that, because it was mostly filmed sequentially (with the exception of the Derek segments - which were conceived at a late stage in the project), you can almost spot the point at which the NZFC injected funds - suddenly (about 45 to 50 minutes in) the special effects become actually 'special', and even the pace of the film seems to pick up. The climax really has to be seen to be believed, and leads one to wonder whether Derek will ever show up on our screens again sometime in the distant future, perhaps marauding around the far reaches of the universe.
(Aside #1: It should be noted here, for those who have watched the film and didn't realise - and also for those about to watch it - that the car which Derek drives in the film - kind of a customised Popemobile, with the heads of John, Paul, George and Ringo [in full Sgt Pepper regalia] in the dummy front window, was actually Jackson's own car. He apparently used to drive around the Wellington area in it, with a compilation tape consisting of the first 10 seconds of every Beatles song. He claimed it helped to keep him awake at the wheel, as he'd just be getting into singing along to one track, when it would finish, and the next would start. I don't know if the car's still running, but it conjures an interesting image to think of him rolling up to world premieres, and the like, in it!)
Bad Taste was presented at the Cannes Film Festival by the NZFC, where it was sold to 30 countries, and managed to recoup its meagre costs within days - leading to almost instant funding offers for Jackson's next project, which he had been pitching as the zombie movie to end all zombie movies. He had written the new script with his future wife Fran Walsh and Stephen Sinclair, both of whom he had met while making Bad Taste - and was eager to make a start on the film. However, despite the international interest stirred up by his debut feature (mostly, for some reason, in Spain and Japan), the budget still wasn't quite there to make the film, entitled Braindead, the way he wanted to. As a result a script was hastily written for a new movie with another friend (Danny Mulheron), this one requiring a much lower budget, partly because there would be no actors to pay. It was to be a puppet film! Now, as this was a Peter Jackson film, nobody was ever going to expect a straight puppet film for kids - everybody knew that something special was on the cards.
Meet The Feebles confirmed everything that those of us inspired by Bad Taste had been hoping - Peter Jackson was indeed one sick puppy, who shirked from nothing when it came to entertaining us. He was here to stay, and he was confirmed as our new hero.
Jackson's proviso behind Meet The Feebles was thus: "Imagine a scenario where the Muppets have just finished a TV show. What would happen if they went backstage and behaved like normal people?" Read 'normal' in Peter Jackson's mind as a crazed frog haunted by 'Nam flashbacks, a shit-eating fly, an exhibitionist hippo, a rabbit which humps anything that moves, puppet prostitution and racketeering, copious quantities of intravenous hard drugs, and well you can pretty much imagine the rest! The film's plot involves the various manic talents of the show having to pull their act together (despite the alcoholism, and other lass savoury habits) and present the show of their lives, in order to land a regular syndicated TV spot. Will they manage it? Or will the cracks and crackpots be impossible to hide?
(Aside #2: Watch out for a couple aliens fresh from Bad Taste, which appear to have wandered into the audience at one point.)
I first saw Meet The Feebles during it's brief belated UK cinematic release (which coincided with the release of Braindead), the audience (in Theatre Five of the old Coventry Odeon - little more than a cupboard really) consisting of me and the projectionist (well, he may not have been watching) - and seeing it on the big screen is an experience I shall never forget.
After Meet The Feebles had made the rounds of the world's film festivals, funding for Braindead was even easier to find, and, following a wholesale rewrite, the film went into production in 1991.
Braindead (aka: 'Dead/Alive - in USA, to avoid confusion with a confusing paranoiac Corman flick of the late 1980s), is really the culmination of Jackson's extreme splatter desires. It's what Bad Taste probably would have been if he'd had the money to spend on proper actors, decent costumes, great locations, and extra bags of fake blood, in the first place. As Jackson himself is keen to point out, one of the interesting things about Braindead is that it really turns the whole zombie film plot device on its head. Usually, the protagonist is trapped in the house trying to prevent the zombies from breaking in and eating his brains, but here the main character (Lionel) is trying to stop the zombies from breaking out of the house, to prevent the neighbours (and his potential love interest) from discovering what's happened to his mother.
There are numerous highly memorable and hilarious moments, and quotable one-liners, such as the kung-fu priest ("I kick arse for the Lord!"), the zombie baby (born of a passionate tryst between the aforementioned priest and an undead nurse), the women's welfare dinner (during which Lionel's mother unknowingly decays into her soup), the giant regenerated zombie-mother blimp creature and the hordes of zombies which eventually overrun the house at the film's climax, and not forgetting their eventual downfall... the rotary lawnmower.
The film is pure black splatter comedy magic. It's a thrilling 90-minute rollercoaster ride, it's a total riot, it's high octane entertainment, it's every corny over-the-top cut-and-paste review snippet simile you can think of! I mean, how could it fail? It's a zombie film set in 1950s smalltown New Zealand, whose main character is a nerdy little guy who still lives with, and in fear of, his elderly mother who in turn (while following her son on his first ever date) accidentally gets bitten by a rare monkey-rat - imported from a little-known, but much-feared savage Pacific island - which carries a zombifying plague. And that's just a rough synopsis of the premise! It's bewildering... and I'm going to move on before I run out of euphoric adjectives. Just let me mention that this film - only his third effort - netted Jackson both the Best Film and Best Director awards at the 1993 New Zealand Film Awards. At last he was proving that there was more to the New Zealand film industry than tedious films about pianos washing up on beaches and Harvey Keitel's arse.
Jackson next donned his co-producer's hat (along with Jim Booth) on the Wingnut Films short, Valley Of The Stereos. Written and directed by George Port (and co-written with Costa Botes, on whom more later), the concept of the 15-minute film runs thus: "you have two characters, a hippie who would kill for peace and quiet, and a heavy metaller who would rather die than turn down the volume. It could only end in... The Valley Of The Stereos!" I've yet to find a copy, but it sounds like a corker!
It was at this point that Jackson first drew attention from Hollywood, as New Line Cinema asked him to submit a script for what was to be the sixth (and final) A Nightmare On Elm Street film (Freddy's Dead). Jackson duly completed and submitted his proposed script, only to find out that another (vastly inferior) script had already been green-lighted. Needless to say, his first contact with Hollywood didn't exactly leave him feeling love for the American way. Although it wouldn't stop him working with New Line Cinema in the future, he would make sure, from now on, that everything was done on his terms.
For now he had another project to concentrate on, and it would be one which was guaranteed to raise more than a few eyebrows.
Heavenly Creatures probably ranks, in hindsight, as one of the cleverest career moves of all time. While working on Braindead Jackson and Walsh had begun research into the true life story of Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme, with a view to adapting the story as their next film. The Parker/Hulme case is a notorious part of New Zealand's criminal history. The tale of two 15-year-old girls, with wild imaginations, who descended deeper and deeper into their own fantasy world, and eventually conspired to murder Pauline's mother in order that they not be separated, dealt conservative New Zealand of the 1950s a horrific blow to its conscience which resonates through to this day. But surely the subject matter was far too sensitive for a full throttle joker like Peter Jackson to cope with? Wasn't it?
What Jackson managed to bring to the film, however, was a real aura of enchantment. We get to know the girls as they get to know each other, and as the camera swoops around them in dizzying pirouettes, we are carried along in the throes of their bubbling enthusiasm. We laugh with them as they play, are fascinated while they weave their stories of the fictional kingdom of Borovnia, we fall in love with their idols as they fall in love, we allow ourselves to become best friends with these extraordinary characters. Then, before we realise it, bam! Their escapist games have turned to murderous plots, and we find ourselves truly concerned that our friends, our heroines, have come to this. How did it happen? They were just like us...
Most cinematic adaptations of true-life murder/crime cases tend to fall down in one major respect, they may be sympathetic to both parties, seeking to discover a reason behind the madness, but usually they end up being too maudlin for their own good (two examples identified by Jackson as influential to him, but suffering from this depressive attitude, being Let Him Have It and Dance With A Stranger). This approach serves to disassociate the viewer from the story, and even attempt to draw some pity from us. Jackson's method of attack is at the same time both so delicate and so over-the-top that never once does he glorify the crime, but also never once do we feel we have to pity the protagonists. It's also perfectly clear from the off, that we are watching a Peter Jackson film. Okay, so there's no over the top splatter - indeed not many special effects at all apart from the fantastical Borovnian scenes, with their mighty morphing life-size Plasticine figures - but his presence is felt in the superb fluidity of the cinematography, in some of the gregarious incidental characters (the doctor and the vicar, especially), and just in the sheer effusive nature exuded by the girls. Indeed it's incredible to think that neither one of the two teenage stars had made a feature film before this one (Melanie Lynskey was discovered at the last minute, after months of Walsh trawling New Zealand's schools for a suitable Pauline, and Kate Winslet was merely a young unknown English actress starting out on her career). One can only hazard a guess at how big a contribution Jackson made to their final performances.
As well as winning a whole slew of awards at the 1995 New Zealand Film Awards (including Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actress), Walsh and Jackson's screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award in 1996. Somehow, Peter Jackson had achieved a major coup, he had made the cross-over that eludes so many directors. What's more he had managed it on his own terms, and without compromise.
After the untimely death of his production partner Jim Booth in 1995, Jackson stepped in as executive producer of romantic comedy adventure Jack Brown Genius - which, along with Fran Walsh and the film's director Tony Hiles, he had also helped to write. This charming, if thoroughly bizarre little film, shares a lot of connections with Jackson's world (another of Jackson's longtime collaborators, Jamie Selkirk, was also involved). The story involves a modern-day inventor, who is struggling to control the monk who lives in his brain, who in turn is compelling him to build a set of wings in order that he can escape from purgatory. And you thought Being John Malkovich was a novel idea! I don't know what they put in the water in New Zealand, but it's time they started exporting it.
For his next directorial effort, Jackson teamed up with fellow writer/director (and noted film critic) Costa Botes and the NZFC to make what is probably his most overlooked film (especially in the UK, where it is nigh on impossible to find on video or DVD) Forgotten Silver. This documentary piece, made in part to commemorate New Zealand's 100 years of cinema, tells the story of little known native film director Colin McKenzie. It begins with Jackson relating how he discovered a horde of the director's films abandoned in the shed of his parent's neighbour (who turns out to be McKenzie's aged second wife), it then continues as a homage to McKenzie's greatest works, and features tributes from the likes of Sam Neill, Leonard Maltin, Harvey Weinstein, and Jackson himself. At the time of its airing, on television in New Zealand, the majority of the audience was enchanted and grateful that at last they were being informed about the work of this great New Zealander (who, as well as inventing slapstick, making the first film with sound, experimenting with colour film, and filming the Spanish Civil War, somehow managed to film his own death in 1936). The only strange thing was, why had they never heard of this great man before?
The answer, because he never existed. Forgotten Silver is the greatest mockumentary since This Is Spinal Tap!, although many of the hoodwinked viewers in New Zealand were a little too upset to appreciate this point at the time, and disliked the deception. Although it really makes you ponder on how gullible you would have to be to believe some of the feats attributed to McKenzie in the course of the film! Still, at least the rest of the world got the joke.
The film stars Michael J. Fox as Frank Bannister, a paranormal con-man, who makes his living by charging the local townsfolk to rid them of their troublesome hauntings. The con is that although the ghosts he is 'busting' are actually real ghosts, they are also his mates and lodgers, and they're all in on the scam together. So things open in a nice and funny, if childishly nasty way, but don't be fooled by this, because it's not long before things turn decidedly nastier. Actually, it's not until you come to watch this film a second time that you realise just how dark it is. Despite the many jokes, and the many humorous performances (mostly from Bannister's spectral sidekicks), the film's two villains - executed serial killer Johnny Bartlett (Jake Busey), and his still living ex-girlfriend Patricia Bradley (Dee Wallace Stone) - really do have a highly sinister presence. This is especially evident in the mid-section, while Bartlett is high-tailing it around town in the guise of the Grim Reaper. The sense of the macabre, although leavened with black comedy all the while (witness the extreme almost Herr Flick-ness of the investigating FBI agent), is heightened right up to the final showdown.
What could have so easily turned out to be just another Casper is elevated to something far greater, by the quality of the script, the direction and the performances - but mostly, it has to be said, by the sheer amount of creative control retained by Jackson. He was originally obliged to deliver a finished film which would achieve a PG-13 rating in the US. When the MPAA viewed the film and gave it an R-rating they did so not because of any particular content of the film, but purely because of its dark tone. If that's not a recommendation, then I don't know what is!
Following The Frighteners, there were many rumours bandied around concerning where Jackson would be popping up next. For many months he worked on pre-production for a remake of the original 1933 version of King Kong - even going so far as hiring a special effects team, to begin work on models. Shooting was supposed to begin at the end of 1997, but the project never received the promised green-light, and due to what was deemed a saturated market (both Godzilla and the remake of Mighty Joe Young were released at around this time) pre-production was cancelled. Rumour has it that a completed script is still knocking around somewhere, so don't be surprised if this is picked up again sometime down the road.
As if to pack his résumé with even more work experience, in 1997 Jackson contributed some of the special effects work on the woeful Jodie Foster vehicle Contact. But then it was the script which sucked, and not the special effects, so he can't really be blamed in any way.
Next came another bout of speculation, which was to persist for over a year, rumour had it that he was working on a Tolkien project. Some sources said is was to be an adaptation of The Hobbit, but it wasn't until the summer of 1998 that Jackson formerly announced that his next directorial project was to be a trilogy of films forming a complete adaptation of Tolkien's magnum opus The Lord Of The Rings. All three episodes were to be made back-to-back, with filming commencing in New Zealand (of course) in the Spring of 1999, the finished films being released one at a time over the course of a year. The original plan was to release the films at four month intervals, of course, as we know now, this plan was later changed so that the films would be released annually.
The project received an unprecedented amount of build-up and hype. Almost from the beginning of production the official website was offering cast lists, sneak previews of costumes, sfx sketches, interviews with the cast and crew, and teasing snippets of trailers. But the excitement really began building when the full-length trailers for the first movie, The Fellowship Of The Ring, were aired both on the internet and the cinema screen. Those of us who had read the books were actually presented with something we recognised. Things appeared to be exactly as we imagined them, it was almost as if Jackson had come along and siphoned out our visualisations of the text from our heads and smeared them on the screen. The trailer was magnificent - but hold on, you can make a great trailer from a mediocre film (witness The Phantom Menace), and, for perhaps the first time, Jackson actually had a lot more people's hopes and expectations laying in his hands than a few hardcore fans who still had fond memories of him uttering those unforgettable words: "I'm a Derek, and Derek's don't run."
Even the untimely release of the first Harry Potter film didn't dampen the spirits of those waiting for The Fellowship Of The Ring, they knew which of the two would be the ultimate winner. How could a four-eyed prepubescent public school boy possibly hold his own next to a Gandalf the Magnificent who was being played by a true-life Knight? Pah, no contest.
Let's just spend a moment considering what a mammoth project The Lord Of The Rings is. For years it was deemed impossible to bring this story to the big screen - many had begun with hopes of achieving it, and had been forced to abandon those hopes. Of course, Ralph Bakshi half-managed it with his animated version which still has a fond place in some of our hearts, despite many misgivings. It really was an unprecedented cinematic exercise, and at its helm was a rotund, bearded Kiwi film director who just a dozen or so years ago was filming himself barfing into a Pyrex dish with a 16mm camera, and who (rumour has it) refused to wear trousers. Would you trust this man with your pet, let alone 180 million dollars? Well, New Line Cinema did.
With The Fellowship Of The Ring, Peter Jackson confirmed his much deserved place somewhere up there in the highest reaches of today's directorial gods. He took one of the most beloved stories of all time, and produced a film which has the power to enchant everyone who watches it (from the die-hard/usually-impossible-to-satisfy Tolkien fans, and the staid literary critics, to those who have never even heard of the Oxford don) and at the same time he has subtly stamped his own personality on it. The action is relentless, the comedy and the enchantment is ever present, and the enthusiasm evident, in both the direction and the actor's performances, is boundless. True, the real test of the man will come with the second instalment, The Two Towers - which is widely regarded as the most tedious of the three books - but on the evidence of the first film, we should be in for a treat. As for the battle scenes of The Return Of The King, well, we have a long time to bate our breath.
(Aside #3: Jackson has a Hitchcockian habit of popping up in cameos in all of this films - in Fellowship it's as a belching drunk, in Braindead he plays the undertaker's assistant, etc.)
The first instalment has already received a slew of award nominations from both BAFTA and the Academy (including Best Film and Director), but after losing out in the Golden Globes to In The Bedroom, hopefully at least one of these other gongs will be heading Jackson's way.
The rumours as to what the future holds for Peter Jackson, have yet to start flying - after all, he still has months of work to oversee on Lord Of The Rings. But one of the greatest indications on the man's standing after Fellowship is the move being motioned by a hardcore faction of Star Wars fans who (following The Phantom Menace, and the less than promising glimpses of Attack Of The Clones) have started an online petition to try and get George Lucas to hand over the creative reigns on the final Star Wars instalment (Episode 3) to Jackson.
Time will tell whether this ever happens, or even if Jackson would accept such an offer, but whatever he turns his hand to in the future, the one thing that you can guarantee is that it won't be dull. In fact, reading back over this, I'm struck by how many times I've used the word 'enthusiasm' - and I think that's really what it all comes down to. Peter Jackson loves films, and he loves to make films. I, for one, hope he never loses that quality - as it is truly helping to bring a bit of much needed magic back to the silver screen.
Peter Jackson filmography (A-Z):
Bad Taste (1987), Braindead (1992), Contact (special effects, 1997), Forgotten Silver (co-writer and co-director, TV 1996) The Frighteners (1996), Heavenly Creatures (1994), Jack Brown Genius (executive producer and co-writer, 1996), The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring (2001), Meet The Feebles (1989), Valley Of The Stereos (co-producer, 1992)
Forthcoming - LOTR: The Two Towers (due December 2002), LOTR: The Return Of The King (due December 2003)
Online resource: The Bastards Have Landed! - the official Peter Jackson website
tZ The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring - film review
tZ The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Rings - another review
tZ The Lord Of The Rings: Official Movie Guide - book reviews
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