An old joke needs updating for today’s movie world–with apologies to a certain 800-pound gorilla. Q. Where does Peter Jackson sit? A. Anywhere he wants.
After the Lord of the Rings trilogy brought in billions of dollars and nearly as many Oscars, Peter Jackson could have made any movie he wanted. In 1997, Universal killed his remake of the mythic 1933 classic, King Kong, but by 2003, they were so eager to make amends, they gave him a new deal that brought in $20 million for himself and Fran Walsh (his collaborator and the mother of his children) and Philippa Boyens (her screenwriting partner). The lure of the material? Boyens says simply: “Kong is pure cinema.” Or from the studio’s point of view, the original blockbuster.
Still, Jackson made a lot of decisions guaranteed to get the studio executives nervous, beginning with his casting of non-action stars: Jack Black as ambitious film director Carl Denham, Adrien Brody as heroic writer Jack Driscoll and Naomi Watts as monkey-lust object Ann Darrow (the part made famous by Fay Wray). More factors to keep those executives sleepless, thousands of miles away from New Zealand: Jackson’s resolute determination to set the movie in the Thirties, a budget that ballooned from $150 million to more than $200 million—and a running time that grew from two hours to three hours (nearly double the length of the 1933 original).
Kong is now landing in theaters with a mighty roar, but back in November, when Rolling Stone went to New Zealand to interview Jackson, things were in a less assured state. Just ten days before the final print had to be delivered to Universal, dozens of complex special-effects shots had yet to be completed; animators had been working hundred-hour weeks for months straight and got sent home when they started hallucinating from exhaustion.
On an anonymous suburban street of Wellington, New Zealand, across the road from some grotty warehouses, Jackson has built a lovely art deco production facility. (His other greatest extravagances: a couple of expensive cars and placing the entire Bag End set from Rings in the backyard of his country home.) In a large screening room, Jackson sits barefoot on a leather couch, looking exhausted but focused, overseeing the final sound mix. By his left hand are bowls filled with grapes and strawberries, both of which he compulsively pops into his mouth. It’s all part of the Jackson diet plan–the director, once famously as roly-poly as a hobbit, is now at least seventy pounds lighter. That doesn’t mean he’s gone Hollywood, or at least not much. Whereas he previously would sometimes wear the same shirt for a week at a time, he now has three woolly shirts that he keeps in perpetual rotation. Today’s color: gray.
Through it all, Jackson–the film geek’s film geek–had one main goal. “I try to be selfish,” Jackson says. This is a remake of Kong that I’d like to go see.”
How are you holding up?
I’m full of anticipation, but I’m totally exhausted. It’s not really about the film at the moment. It’s about the mechanics of mixing this reel today, and the logistics of getting the color timing done for Reel Six at seven o’clock in the morning.
The last time we spoke, at the end of Lord of the Rings, you told me “I never want to make a three-hour film again in my life.”
I remember saying that. It’s still true: I never want to make another three-hour film again in my life. Until two months ago, we had no idea we were making a film that would be this long. All our planning, budgeting and scheduling was designed around a film that maybe was two hours, fifteen minutes. It wasn’t a particularly long script. I don’t know what happened—it was a surprise to us. At a certain point, you can’t shoehorn the film into a certain length—it’s about telling the story, moment by moment.
Universal must have freaked out when you told them it was going to be three hours long.
We were lucky, because they took it well. When we screened it for them, half their notes were about putting back scenes we’d shown them earlier but had taken out to get the length down.
Given that the 1933 original film still exists, why do a remake?
That’s a very fair question. I have a pet answer: there’s a generation of kids today who don’t watch black-and-white films anymore. You have to be captivated by something, and even my own kids don’t have the patience for the 1930s style of storytelling and acting and special effects. But the real reason is that I’ve been wanting to make this ever since I saw King Kong. I mean, I first tried when I was twelve. I built a cardboard model of the Empire State Building and a little model of King Kong, about a foot tall. He’s gone a bit rotten, but I’ve still got him. I’ll bring him in and show you, if you come around tomorrow. He’s a little decomposing chap made out of wire armature. My mother gave me a fur stole –I chopped it up and glued it on. Then I shot him with my parents’ Super 8 camera.
Did you first see Kong in a theater?
On TV. We never had any revival houses here, really. When I was a kid, we had one television station–and it was pretty boring. Lots of British World War II movies with John Mills and Dickie Attenborough—stiff upper lips. But one Friday night, Kong was on. I watched it, and I wanted to become a filmmaker ever since. Making this movie, I was trying to relate as much as I could to the nine-year-old version of me who first saw Kong; I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t made by an old jaded guy.
Why did King Kong have such a huge impact on you?
I was already in love with fantasy and escapist entertainment and special effects. And in Kong I think I just experienced the most perfect bit of escapism that’s ever been created. It had everything that a nine-year-old kid would want: I mean, dinosaurs on an uncharted island! But most importantly, I cried when Kong fell off the Empire State Building. So it was showing me what film entertainment could be. It could give you an outrageous adventure, but it could also move you in a profound way. And that’s always what I aspired to.
King Kong has attracted a lot of theorizing over the years: Kong is a Christ figure, Kong is the black man in chains, Kong is a manifestation of fear over Darwinism….
I don’t get into that sort of thing. I’ve been collecting Kong books all my life, but some of them I just look at the pictures. There are a lot of people who love to look into the meanings of anything in movies—it happens with me a lot in France. They want to assume that everything is making a statement about something. But I don’t like Kong because it has any intellectual resonance–I like it because it’s a cool monster movie with dinosaur fights and he gets to battle biplanes on top of the Empire State Building.
We’re certainly aware of what story we’re telling. There’s interesting things about the exploitation of nature and the way that Kong is ripped out of this natural environment to be exploited by humans. And this is as far as I go into analyzing it: The story is about a creature who has never empathized with any other living being, and the second that he does, he’s doomed. The worst thing that Kong ever does is decide to protect Ann Darrow. That’s a terrible tragedy.
It occurs to me that the great movie monsters were all misunderstood.
Yeah. Well, one of the things that we have tried to do with our Kong is to make him not a monster in the slightest, but to make him a gorilla. Andy Serkis, who did the motion capture of Kong, went to study families of gorillas in the Rwandan mountains. I didn’t have that experience, but I watched every single documentary I could find. Being filmmakers, we manipulate the truth to whatever we want it to be, but I think it’s important that everything have a basis of truth. Gorillas have a strong code in maintaining eye contact and who’s allowed to have it and where you avert your eyes. We used a lot of that. Every moment that Kong makes eye contact with Naomi in our movie is a moment that we’ve discussed and talked about.
Before you had even finished the script, you had started working on that amazing twenty-minute sequence where Kong fights the T. rex.
That scene was fun, but it was intimidating. The T. rex fight in the original film is one of the great pieces of stop-motion animation ever. I think that’s one of the reasons I did the cowardly thing and decided to make it three T. rexes. Not that three is better than one, but I figured at least we can up the ante and make it more chaotic. I don’t know how well you know the original Kong movie—
Not as well as you.
We did pay homage. At the end of the fight in his movie, Kong kills the dinosaur and hinges his jaw. [Original animator] Willis O’Brien eked this brilliant performance out of these puppets moved frame by frame, and created a moment where Kong is pondering the existence of life and death. He has almost a childlike curiosity. I had our animators copy Willis O’Brien’s animation for a few frames, just to nail the same moment.
You have a lot of continuity in terms of your collaborators, but unlike some other directors, you don’t really have a repertory company of actors.
The irony is that I’d really like to. We thought about using Lord of the Rings actors on Kong; at the end of the day, the characters on Kong didn’t quite fit any of them. Obviously, Andy Serkis worked out, but he was the only one. We’d always wanted to work with Naomi, and as Carl Denham evolved, Jack Black seemed just right for the role.
In the original film, Jack Driscoll was this slightly lunkheaded first mate of the ship. We needed to change that, because we couldn’t figure out how the romantic relationship would work. Ann obviously likes Kong and wants to protect Kong, but she doesn’t love Kong–she loves Jack. It’s a strange little triangle. And we didn’t want a macho character to be occupying the space of the Driscoll character, because Kong is the alpha male and it would be this clash of these two macho guys. So we thought it was interesting to make Driscoll a more intellectual character, and Adrien seemed absolutely right for that. So I figure I do have a repertory company: It’s just gotten bigger because I’ve got all my Kong actors in it now.
How did you lose all this weight?
I just ate less and I ate healthy. I went on a crash soup diet for a while. I deliberately stopped eating meat for a while, and then I lost my taste for it. entirely I’m not a vegetarian for moral reasons, but I can’t eat meat anymore.
So what’s next?
It’s been ten years on these two projects, Lord of the Rings and Kong. That’s a big chunk of my working life—and it’s going to be an incredible sense of freedom next year, to suddenly be allowed to think of new things. We’re planning on doing the Alice Sebold novel, The Lovely Bones. But we want to just ease the schedule a little bit and take some time to rest. With Lord of the Rings and Kong, we had to lay the rails in front of the train as it was bearing down behind us. This time, we’re not going to let the schedule drive the process, and we can repair our brain cells slightly. I feel like I’ve got a constipated brain from sheer exhaustion—right now, my imagination is blobby and globular.
Is your lawsuit with New Line over the Lord of the Rings profit-sharing still happening?
Yeah. I don’t like the idea of suing New Line at all—these people are my friends and I’m hoping I can work with them again. But you have an audit, which is a perfectly standard procedure, and the accountants have a difference of opinion, and they say “Let’s get somebody independent to make a decision,” and these so-called lawsuits happen. But there really isn’t anything personal in it.
And what’s the status of The Hobbit?
New Line have the rights to produce a film of The Hobbit, but it has to be distributed by MGM. If you remember, about six or eight months ago, MGM was bought by Sony, which was frustrating, because it looked like Time Warner [New Line’s parent corporation] was going to be the buyer—and then all the rights would’ve been in the family. MGM and New Line were going to have to talk to each other, but now Sony and New Line will have to talk to each other. I keep asking about it, just out of interest, but they haven’t sat down yet. Hopefully someday the phone will ring—”Hey, let’s do The Hobbit”—which I’d be perfectly happy to do.
You’re also executive-producing the movie adaptation of the video game Halo. Was that so you can keep your effects people and support staff employed?
Yeah. We’ve got this infrastructure down here, which is designed to help a director make very complicated films. I don’t really want to lose this team. I’ve never been an executive producer before, so I must confess to not knowing exactly what my responsibilities are, but the way I’m imagining it, I get to sit around suggesting ideas, but I don’t have to get up at 6:30 in the morning and go to the set for twelve hours. This time, other people get to do the hard work and I have the fun. Plus I’m a huge Halo fan.
When do you have time to play video games?
At night and on the weekends. I made sure I got Halo 2 the first day it was in stores. I don’t really get that excited about most films anymore. I don’t know whether it’s because I make them or because I’m just not that excited about the ones being made. But Halo reminded me of what it was like when I was a kid waiting for the next James Bond film to come out or the next Ray Harryhausen film: three weeks to go, two weeks to go….
Obviously you’ve got a lot more money than you used to. How has that changed your life?
I don’t know, because I haven’t had a life. I’m looking forward to finding out. We got to build this facility and make our films here. Every time I show up at work, I quietly thank all the Lord of the Rings fans who went to see the movies, because it meant we could build this place.
What’s the difference between Lord of the Rings fans and King Kong fans?
Kong fans aren’t so into the fancy dress [costumes].
It gets sweaty inside that gorilla suit.
Yes, it’s pretty hot in there. They’re all very nice people. There’s no need for them to fight with each other or resort to any form of violence.
Interview by Gavin Edwards. Originally published, as “Planet of the Ape,” in Rolling Stone 990/991 (December 29, 2005 / January 12, 2006).