Over and again for the past three years, movie writers and pundits have expressed their surprise and wonder that Peter Jackson, the little round fellow from New Zealand who made strange little offbeat horror comedies like Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles and Dead Alive, would, just a few years later, take on one of the most bombastic film projects ever - and make it work. As we remarked last year introducing our interview package accompanying the theatrical release of The Two Towers, "it's still a rare film that's as enthusiastically lauded, embraced or even just plain loved by critics and audiences alike as The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring."
Turns out, it wasn't just beginner's luck. As tough a story as Two Towers is to hold together, many even prefer the film to Fellowship. And now, The Return of the King is out. Expectations are high, reviews are generally wildly favorable, and slowly, it's sinking in: The long journey has come to an end.
So now you've completed the trilogy. How has your life changed since?
Well, I've only just finished the movies a couple of weeks ago. I haven't really had much of a life for the last two or three years. I mean, seriously. I've just been getting up and going to work on the movies. So I don't really know. I guess the thing that's changed in the last few years is that I've moved from being a relatively obscure filmmaker to somebody that one's heard of now, which is... sort of... I don't know whether that's a good thing or a bad thing! [laughs] But I'm looking forward to King Kong, which is the next film that we're making. We'll see what happens after that.
Why King Kong?
King Kong is my favorite film. I saw the original King Kong when I was about nine years old, and actually, when I was a teenager, I tried to do a remake of King Kong. With a rubber gorilla and stop motion. And I made the top of the Empire State Building out of cardboard and tried to do this little animated version of King Kong when I was about fourteen or fifteen.
Are you going to be making any changes from the original?
Well, we're going to set the new film in 1933, so it's going to be in the same year that the original film came out. So that was a contemporary film and this one's going to be a period film. We're going to follow the same basic structure. There won't be anything radically different in terms of the structure, but we're obviously going to do a little work on the characters and the dialogue and the emotional storyline.
Is it true that Naomi Watts will play the Fay Wray character?
Yes, it's true.
How is King Kong relevant to our own period?
I don't think it has to be relevant to our period in particular; it's just a great story. You can tell great stories in any period. What's interesting is that the young generation today, the 15-year-olds, don't really watch black-and-white films anymore. My generation did. We used to watch classic horror films on TV and things, but young kids today don't really have any patience or tolerance for old black-and-white films. So I think King Kong's a great story to use the technology and sort of reintroduce it to kids who don't really know much about it.
You said last year that you first wanted to make a smaller movie after Lord of the Rings. So what happened? When did you change your mind?
[laughs] Well, we did work on King Kong in 1996. We worked on Kong for about eight months before Universal pulled the plug. So they came back to us this year, asking if we'd be interested in doing Kong, which we were, obviously. It's still a film we want to make. We just thought about the logistics because it seemed like a much more logical idea to do Kong, which is obviously a big movie, while we've still got the Lord of the Rings team in place. As people have been finishing work on Lord of the Rings, they've been able to move straight into King Kong. Because we've been working on Kong for about four or five months. That seemed like a much more sensible idea rather than go and do a small film first and have most of the team disband all around the world and then have to bring them all back again. So. We'll do Kong and then we'll go and do something a lot smaller.
Interesting, because the first year, you said you could mostly identify with the hobbits. And now, in a way, you have to identify with the king.
[laughs] Well, King Kong's not any bigger than Lord of the Rings. I mean, Lord of the Rings is three movies at the same time, and that's as big as it's ever going to get, really. Kong looks relatively simple compared to Lord of the Rings, to tell you the truth. Simple from a logistical point of view. Obviously, it's always difficult to make a good movie. But from a sheer organizational point of view, Kong is smaller.
But you'd like to make a film like Dead Alive again?
Oh, I'd love to make a film like Dead Alive again. Oh, yeah, that'd be great.
Let's talk about the big one. Is the DVD version going to be your "Director's Cut"?
No, that's not true, actually. The movie that we make is the theatrical version and the DVDs are for fans. Putting in extra scenes and things that we have left over is something that I do for the fans. The theatrical versions of the movies are definitely the ones in which we pay most attention to the pacing. When we put the extra scenes in, then we're obviously allowing the pacing to be a lot more loose and slow. The concept of watching something at home with a DVD allows you a slower pace, but I certainly wouldn't want the films to be that way; I wanted them to be the tightest, fastest films I could possibly make.
The color tone seems brighter in this one.
Really? Maybe the lamp in the projector in this theater was brighter! [laughs] No, really. I don't know whether the tones are brighter in this one or not. The color palette of the movies is really dependent on where the scenes are set and this one has got quite a few scenes in Morder, which is quite gray. I don't necessarily think this is a brighter movie.
Rumor has it that Christopher Lee is a little angry because you had to cut him out of this version. Were you able to explain it to him?
Yeah, sure. He's not really angry. I mean, it all got trumped up a bit by the media and he had a fan club which launched a petition, which was unfortunate, really, because we couldn't do anything about it. Petitions are great if there's something you can do, but it was all way too late. No, the scene with Sarumon was never part of Return of the King. It was a scene that was left over from the end of The Two Towers. Really, we were making the decision as to whether to put it on the DVD or try to put it in the theatrical version of the film. At the end of The Two Towers, once we were finished with the Battle of Helm's Deep, it felt like we had to get out of that movie as fast as we could because this scene, which is about seven minutes long, felt sort of anti-climactic. When we tried it at the beginning of Return of the King, it felt like we were still in last year's movie. It felt like we really hadn't moved on. So we made the decision to put it into the DVD, so it'll eventually be a part of the overall whole.
You've talked a lot in other interviews about saying farewell to each of the actors as they finished work on the films. What about yourself? How did you say farewell to the movie? You know, the last shot in the can...
Well, it was strange. I couldn't quite believe it was over. They had a farewell for me at the end of it. Because we had said goodbye to each of the actors by giving them a present. Usually, we'd give them their sword if they were one of the hero actors. And I'd done a cameo in The Fellowship of the Ring where I was in the street eating a carrot in Bree. And so, they presented me with a framed carrot. [laughs] I must admit I would have preferred Viggo's sword or Elijah's sword, but I got a carrot. But never mind. [laughs]
It's... just... strange. At the moment, it sort of feels like our lives have mirrored the movie, in a way, because the film has so much closure in it. It has a sense of finality and it's very emotional and that's what we're all going through at the moment. We're living in the movie in some way.
At the end of the film, Frodo says something about knowledge, that once you've had it, you can't go back.
You can't go back.
It seems almost biblical. Once you've tasted of the Tree of Knowledge...
Have you personally acquired some knowledge of cinema and this particular way of making movies that won't let you go back?
I suppose I probably have. I mean, every day that you're shooting a movie, you're at film school. Every day, you're learning. That's one of the exciting things about making films. You never know it all. You're continually in a process of getting experience and learning what to do. I think that what I've come away with from Lord of the Rings more than anything is coming to believe that emotional truth is stronger than anything you can put on screen in terms of spectacle or special effects. You know, that to have emotional scenes that feel somehow to be true, that the characters have depth, is ultimately the most powerful form of storytelling. It's actually something we're going to carry into King Kong. We've learnt a good lesson.
Is the Oscar more on your mind this time around?
You know, I'll let other people decide that. There is a stigma in Hollywood against fantasy films, so it's always going to be a bit hard to overcome that, I think. But it's going to be interesting to see, isn't it? The thing with the Oscars is that I try not to get too emotionally involved and to let everybody else speculate and just sort of sit and watch, really, and see what happens.
Back to the question of responsibility. You've become a very powerful filmmaker in the last three years. How comfortable are you about that? Is it a form of responsibility?
It's strange because I don't really feel any different myself. It's how other people perceive you, these labels. No, all I really want to do is to do what I've done so far in my career, which has been just making films that interest me, films that I want to make. I don't feel I have any responsibility to fulfill any expectations that other people have. I just want to do stuff that I like, and they certainly won't all be big films. I don't want to try to be topping Lord of the Rings for the rest of my life. That would be a very unsatisfying way to try to finish your career.
I've heard that when we get the extended version of Return of the King, there'll be a lot more deleted scenes you'll have to show us.
There's about the same amount, I think. I haven't done it yet, so I can't be quite sure. I know we've got about an hour worth of deleted scenes that we didn't use, which is sort of similar to what the first two had. When we do the DVD, like I say, there are scenes I just think the fans would like to see. They fill out the background of the characters a bit more. We never put all the scenes in; we just decide on the ones that we think are going to be most interesting. I can guess that there'll probably be about 30 minutes worth of stuff that we can put on the DVD.
Will we get another DVD again several years down the line?
I don't think so. There's a bunch of scenes I don't think we'd ever put on, so, no, these DVDs will be it probably. I would imagine.
As the years go by, we've seen new versions of movies by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, films like Star Wars and E.T.. Do you think something like this could happen with The Lord of the Rings at some point?
That's a good question. I don't know. You'll have to ask me in 20 years time. I'm not really sure, though, because what's happened with those guys, obviously, is that the technology has increased so much since the original Star Wars was made, all this CG. I certainly don't blame them for wanting to go back and improve the effects. Our effects are pretty good, so I don't know if, in 20 years, they'll seem old-fashioned. They probably will. I suppose they will, won't they? I don't know. We'll have to wait and see.
What about the 100 million pounds.
100 million pounds of what?
That's what you're supposedly being paid. Is that going to change you? A pair of shoes, maybe?
That'd be quite a pair of shoes! No, that figure's not in any way accurate. But anyway, that's not really the point. No, the money I've earned on this I'm putting into a post-production place back home. Sound-mixing and a film lab, video post-production, so that the New Zealand film industry can have something that it can use to do state-of-the-art post.
What's precious to you now?
At the moment, it's going to be a bit of sleep. A rest and time with the family is good.
Are there any other books you've wanted to make into films?
Well, we're adapting Kong, which isn't a book, but it is an adaptation. But no other books I'm interested in. If you have any ideas, let me know.
When you talk about emotional truth in King Kong and Lord of the Rings, I think of the relation between the intimate and the epic, as when Sam says he can't carry the Ring. In what ways are you going to carry that into King Kong.
I guess that what I'm talking about is the fact that no matter what the fantasy trappings are with those trolls and the Orcs and everything else, the most powerful thing is to keep it truthful in the context of its own world. So we think that the most interesting King Kong is going to be one in which it feels like it's a real story playing itself out. So it doesn't have that sort of slightly Hollywood veneer of, you know, Indiana Jones-y sort of escapism. It has much more of a real quality to it.
Ok, let's say there is a gorilla on this island and he does kidnap the girl and he does think he's going to kill her and then he decides not to because it's the first time in his existence that he's ever connected with another human being... You know, to actually tell that story with real heart and a sense that you can believe it and buy into it and don't get overwhelmed by the fantastic elements of it. That's what we're going to try to do.
Where does Andy Serkis come into this?
Don't know yet. I know Andy's quite keen to be involved, I know Ian's going to be involved. It's great. I'd love to work with as many of our actors as we can. Beyond the Naomi Watts casting, we haven't done anything else. We're just going to wait until we've got our script finished, which is going to be around February, before we do any other casting.
Do you think Andy Serkis will be examining Kong in the way that he took on Gollum?
He could. We haven't actually talked about it with him at all yet. I think he's quite keen to do it. But we haven't had any discussions about that yet.
Lord of the Rings was a tough project. Were there any moments when you thought, "I can't do this anymore"?
The hardest period of time on Lord of the Rings was the last two or three months of shooting the three movies back to back. In 1999 and 2000, we did, like, 15 months of shooting, continuous shooting, and during the last couple of months of that, I was getting absolutely exhausted. It wasn't so much physical exhaustion, this plodding on like a tortoise; it was more mental exhaustion. I could just feel my brain shutting down. I thought I wasn't being imaginative anymore, I couldn't come up with good ideas. I couldn't multi-task. I thought that this must be what it's like to be 85 years old, you know, when you're just sort of closing down.
What I did to help that was to go home on the weekends and watch films. Particularly films that had been done with a lot of flair and imagination, stuff like JFK, Goodfellas, Casino, Saving Private Ryan. I used to just sit down and watch movies. It would get me excited again and remind me of what I was supposed to be doing. But that period of feeling my mind shutting down just because I was so exhausted, that was quite scary.
Come New Year's Eve, when you look back on your year as Peter Jackson the civilian, will you remember the year more for getting knocked out of the World Cup or for the end of the Lord of the Rings?
[laughs] The end of the Lord of the Rings, for sure. I think we were knocked out of the World Cup by a far better team, I have to say. The Australian team that knocked us out played really, really well. And I don't have any regrets about being beaten by a better team.