The Evolution of Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson has two new movies out this December, and each represents a vastly different side of the New Zealand cinema titan. Mortal Engines, which Jackson produced and co-wrote, is the kind of giant fantasy blockbuster he has become known for, while They Shall Not Grow Old, his (non-faux) documentary debut, stems from an entirely different part of his sensibilities.

Thus, it’s worth taking a look at how we got here – and how Jackson’s career has changed him as a filmmaker.

The Early, Naughty Ones

Jackson had been making short films since childhood, including an 8mm remake of the final scene of King Kong, but filmmaking only became his career with the landmark homemade splatter flick Bad Taste. Filling his four-year weekend-warrior production with innovative lo-fi special effects and Kiwi humour, Jackson scored big when he took the film to the Cannes market, despite being a total newcomer to the market process at the time. Bad Taste, shot so cheaply the negative became mouldy from being stored under Jackson’s bed, is a hyper-gory debut that demonstrates Jackson’s canny ability to create a gag and endear an audience. Telling a tale of aliens slaughtering humans for fast food, it fit into the Evil Dead niche: a low-budget, high-enthusiasm horror film that midnight audiences could cheer and throw popcorn at. Cult audiences went wild for it.

From there, Jackson teamed up with Fran Walsh (a collaboration that still lasts to this day) to make Meet The Feebles, an R-rated musical about puppet performers whose private lives are dark, disgusting, and degraded. A notoriously fraught and over-budget production, to the point that the New Zealand Film Commission removed its credit, the film wasn’t nearly as popular as Bad Taste had been. It’s a chaotic mess of ideas, many designed purely for shock value – an attempt, perhaps, to outdo even Bad Taste’s bad taste. Though replete with clever and amusing ideas, including an ultraviolent parody of The Deer Hunter, the overall effect is that of a bad South Park episode, trying so hard to offend everyone, all the time, that it all fades into fuzzy noise. Surely Jackson’s most obscure film to date, screenings are rare but raucous.

Jackson’s third feature, the 1992 zombie film Braindead (referred to internationally as Dead Alive), represented an immense jump in quality and production value. Backed by foreign investors (who mandated the casting of a Spanish actress in a lead role), Jackson turned out a film that’s arguably still the most gleefully bloody film ever made, jam-packed with inventive gore gags and memorable characters. Despite its literal messiness, Braindead sports the cleanest storytelling of Jackson’s “bodily-fluids” trilogy, and a charismatic, super-Kiwi lead performance from Tim Balme. Thanks to its over-the-top gore and quotable dialogue, it’s become a massive cult classic. Incredibly, it even spawned an equally bloody stage-musical adaptation, though that ultimately failed to inspire as much interest as the film did.

These early films, their collective budgets totalling under $4 million, represent boundless creativity from a director hungry to entertain. Looking back, Jackson says, “there was a degree of freedom that we used to have in those days that you lose to some degree — that sense of naughtiness.” Naughtiness is an understatement. With little oversight from executives, particularly compared to Jackson’s 21st century career, he and his teams were free to run wild with gore effects, transgressive content, and unusual filmmaking techniques. The camerawork in Braindead, particularly, occupies a sweet spot where the team had both a budget for gear, and a shoot-from-the-hip attitude. The film’s crazy camera movements feel almost dangerous to execute, as if the camera might fly out of the operator’s hands at any moment. Jackson would never fully return to this sense of unhinged freedom, but he had other targets in his sights.

The Road to Superstardom

With three disgusting and delightful video nasties under his belt, the early ‘90s saw Jackson pivot his career away from splatter and toward something more conventionally reputable. Miraculously, he managed to not only pull that off, but to do so without sacrificing his core personal sensibilities. In the process, he displayed a hunger for mainstream success, courting larger and larger projects until he landed his white whale.

The first of these films was Heavenly Creatures, still one of Jackson’s best films. A prestigious drama tinged with the violence and fantasy that characterise Jackson’s other films, it tells the true story of Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme, two tightly-bonded Christchurch Girls’ High students whose toxic friendship led to their murder of Pauline’s mother. It’s terrific as a dual character study – the screenplay led to Jackson’s first Oscar nomination, and it offered early roles to Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey – but it also hit on Jackson’s more tactile interests. Effects artist George Port turned the girls’ private fantasy world into a beautiful, fanciful alternate universe, full of scenes out of fairy tales and the girls’ favourite movie The Third Man. It’s this creative license that turns Heavenly Creatures from a standard true-crime story into something altogether more insightful – without diminishing the tragedy at the heart of the story. It also put the foundations in place for a little company called Weta Workshop.

Heavenly Creatures’ critical success gave Jackson newfound credibility and connections within Hollywood, including one with Robert Zemeckis that saw several projects get off to false starts. Zemeckis hired Jackson and Walsh to write The Frighteners as a spin-off from his Tales From the Crypt series, but Jackson ended up directing the horror-comedy too, bringing Michael J. Fox to New Zealand to play a ghost-hunting conman in Jackson’s widest cinema release ever at the point. The Frighteners failed to do serious business, thanks to a release in close proximity to the Independence Day juggernaut and marketing that struggled to communicate its horror-comedy tone.

Much criticism of The Frighteners centred around the cutting-edge CGI visual effects from Weta’s newfound digital arm. Roger Ebert said it looked “more like a demo reel than a movie.” Looking back at The Frighteners today, however, in a world where half of all wide releases are full of CG effects, it’s clear the film was simply misunderstood. It’s really, really good, combining dark comedy, serial-killer thrills, and supernatural action, and to horror fans’ delight, exceptionally strange performances from favourites Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace, and Jake Busey. The Frighteners is also the only film of Jackson’s whose extended edition is not just more movie, but a better movie.

It was around this time that Jackson was developing a remake of King Kong – his first attempt at a Hollywood mega-blockbuster. His original screenplay, which can be found floating around online, promised a rollicking action-adventure more akin to the ‘90s Mummy remake than the film Jackson ended up making years later. That incarnation of the project was put on the backburner, thanks to competition from Godzilla and Mighty Joe Young. But Jackson had another, considerably more ambitious project in the works.

The Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Wonders of the World

So much has been written about the Lord of the Rings trilogy, so many times have the movies screened in cinemas and living rooms around the world, that it’s easy to forget there was once a time when these films were an unthinkably risky idea. Turning a dense, lore-heavy, three-volume fantasy epic into a live-action motion picture? Shooting three giant films back to back? Convincing audiences to come out in droves to a genre that was all but dead at the time? A cast made up of character actors and newcomers, with no established movie stars to be seen? A story that required visual effects techniques that literally hadn’t even been invented yet? And all of this, from a portly beardy-weirdy in New Zealand with a love for blood and guts? It’s a miracle these films ever got green-lit, let alone became blockbuster hits, enduringly popular classics, and Academy Award clean-sweeps all at once. Not even Star Wars – not even Titanic – can lay such indisputable claim to all three.

Looking back at the Lord of the Rings trilogy, especially in the context of Jackson’s overall career (more time has elapsed between those films and today than had between Bad Taste and Fellowship), it’s a clear pivot point for Jackson, both in terms of his place in Hollywood and his work as a director. Even comparing Fellowship with King reveals a transition from traditional practical filmmaking to the new, effects-heavy contemporary status quo.

It’s not just that there’s more CGI in the later films; the filmmaking style has changed. Fellowship’s camera coverage is restrained and conventional, with only the occasional trick shot for effect. The resultant film truly feels like it was shot by a crew on the ground in a fantasy world that simply existed somewhere. By contrast, Return of the King relies much more on sweeping virtual camera moves, CGI characters, and impossible stunts, rendering the artifice more tangible, the drama just a touch more distant. That trend would continue in King Kong, and metastasise into absurdity in the Hobbit films a decade later, but The Lord of the Rings is where Jackson’s digital mastery – or the rot, depending on how you look at it – set in.

As for Kong itself – another enormous undertaking for Jackson and his team – it feels oddly like a footnote today, now that we’re a decade-plus removed from it. It was a big deal at release, but not a runaway hit; not everybody liked it, and many of those that did had reservations; it doesn’t enjoy or stand up to the volume of rewatches that Rings does. That all feels particularly odd given that, until recently, it arguably had the strongest claim on being a “passion project” out of anything in Jackson’s filmography. It’s still a strong film, if a little overindulgent, with a great Andy Serkis performance and some superb action choreography. And in many ways, it feels like the end of an era in which Peter Jackson was truly in control of the projects he was making.

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Our look at the evolution of Peter Jackson will continue, and conclude, with Part 2 tomorrow.

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