New Zealand’s Oscar winning Peter Jackson first fell in love with the 1933 King Kong when he was a mere 9 years old. Now, a few decades later and the gargantuan success of Lord of the Rings behind him, Jackson has fulfilled his life long ambition by bringing the mighty Kong to the screen as only this director can. Looking far more svelte than the last time we met and surprisingly more subdued, Garth Franklin caught up with the director in New York.
Question: As an auteur, how do you keep your vision pure when you’re known for these large spectacles?
Jackson: Well, it’s an interesting question. I don’t quite know what an auteur is. I’ve never quite understood that term because filmmaking is such a huge team effort. I regard myself as being the final filter so everything that ends up in the movie is there because it’s something that I think was cool if I saw the film that somebody else made. I’m very much trying to make the film that I’d enjoy but I’m open to ideas and I need a huge team of people to help me. Everybody contributes and I try to encourage people to contribute as much as possible, so I think that the job of a director really is to sort of funnel all the creativity into one centralized point of being. And the marketing is sort of something that really happens with other people and not something that I’m at all an expert in and I regard my job at the end of the day as to make the best possible film I can. And that’s really where my job stops and marketing people take over after that.
Question: We all know about your weight loss. How is your life now as a filmmaker and a person different with this new body?
Jackson: I’m exhausted and just absolutely tired. I felt fit for a while but then the film has been such a gruelling marathon to do. We literally finished the movie about ten minutes before we got on an airplane to come over here. We were leaving, we were flying out of New Zealand at 9:30 in the morning and at nine o’clock I was at the visual effects house approving the last two or three shots in the movie. Then at 9:15 we dropped by the dub stage to look at a couple of changes that we had made to the dubbing and approve them and then we got on the plane. So I haven’t enjoyed being healthy yet, am absolutely shattered and I haven’t really had a life. I’ve been making movies for about 10 years solid now with the Lord of the Rings films and straight on to Kong and I’m very pleased that we did that because we were able to utilize a great creative team that we’d assembled for the Lord of the Rings films. One of the reasons why I wanted to make Kong very quickly when the opportunity to do Kong came up, was because I wanted to keep this team together and be able to just channel that creativity into another project. We were in a situation, people didn’t really know it at the time because you obviously don’t talk about it, but when we flew over to Los Angeles for the Oscars for Return of the King, we were in a Kong production meeting the following day. We had a Universal script meeting the day after the Oscars and the day after that, I got on a plane and flew to New York and met with Fay Wray. We got a tour up the top of the Empire State Building and we were taking photos and videotaping the top of the Empire State Building for building our sets. We were already in the middle of doing Kong, so it’s been sort of a continuous journey for me the last few years.
Question: How did you decide what to keep and cut from the original?
Jackson: It’s a good question and really just sort of instinct to some degree. It doesn’t reflect a right and a wrong way of doing anything obviously because every filmmaker that would make a version of King Kong would do a completely different film. I’ve just wanted to make this movie for a long, long time and I’ve had images and ideas in my head for years and years and years. To me, it wasn’t a particularly difficult situation to figure out what should be in and out. I just really wanted to play down a movie in my head that is the sort of film that I enjoy. And there are actually a few scenes we shot, like we shot a version of the [scene] in the original film where they cross the swamp and they’re attacked by a creature. We actually shot that scene and it didn’t end up in the cut. Even though the movie is three hours long, there are quite a few scenes that we filmed that didn’t make it into the finished movie. So some of those things that you’re missing from the original film, I guess if we did an extended DVD which hopefully we’ll get a chance to do, you might see them popping up again.
Question: Why the passion for King Kong in particular and its inspiration for you as a filmmaker?
Jackson: Well, it did inspire me to become a filmmaker, absolutely, to such a profound effect that I saw the original Kong on TV when I was nine on a Friday night in New Zealand. That weekend, I grabbed some plasticine and I made a brontosaurus and I got my parents’ super eight home movie camera and started to try to animate the plasticine dinosaur. So really it was a moment in time when I just wanted to do special effects and do monsters and creatures and ultimately led to becoming a filmmaker. I didn’t really know what directing was when I was nine, but more about the monsters at that stage. The original Kong to me is just a wonderful piece of escapist entertainment. It has everything that’s kind of really cool about movies, such as a lost remote island and a giant ape and dinosaurs. It also has this wonderful heart and soul with this empathetic creature who when I was nine, made me cry at the end of the movie when he was killed on the Empire State Building. That moment of shedding tears for him has stayed with me and to me that level of emotional engagement and just pure escapism as well. People go to the movies for different reasons. Everybody has different takes but for me that’s a great piece of escapist entertainment, the original King Kong.
Question: Why did you go with James Newton Howard’s score and where’s the scene on the beach from the teaser?
Jackson: Well, Howard Shore was an original choice as composer but we’re very good friends and it just came to a point where it seemed like our sensibilities for the film were somewhat different. So we decided as friends that it was better not to go down that road any more for this film. James Newton Howard was a composer that we’ve obviously admired for a long, long time and we’d used some elements of his earlier scores in some temp tracks that we’d done, and his sensibility and feeling for the music seemed to relate really well to the pictures that we’d shot. What was also fun with the music was finding a little opportunity to pay homage to Max Steiner. We used some of his original score in the New York show where Kong is put on display on stage, so that was a nice way to keep an homage and a sort of compartmentalized way. The scene on the beach was a scene, it was like I was saying before. There are a lot of scenes that we shot that didn’t make it into the movie. The movie’s three hours long. It would probably be if we included everything that we shot, it would be near four hours long. That was a scene that we had filmed and had obviously been used as an important part of the teaser trailer, but subsequently when we were dealing with this big length of film, we started to refine it and started to look at it and trim it down as you do. Again, there are no real rules about what you do. It’s just you just use your instincts as to the pacing of a film and what is repetitive and what is the minimum amount you can get away with to tell the story. That scene didn’t make it in.
Question: What was the balance of making Kong human versus an animal?
Jackson: Obviously, as a filmmaker, you are going to manipulate the character as you need to make the scenes work. I certainly don’t deny that, but we did set out to base him on a real gorilla as much as we possibly could. We thought at the very beginning, what is Kong? What is he? Is he a monster? Is he some sort of a missing link or an aberration? We thought just making him a gorilla, a silverback as genuine as we possibly could would be a really good way to go. Everybody thinks of him as being a gorilla anyway although various versions of Kong have been a little different. So we studied Silverback gorillas. Andy Serkis who obviously did a lot of the performance of Kong for us, he especially studied gorillas in the mountains and he went up and tracked a group of them in the Rwandan mountains for a couple of weeks and he spent a lot of time at the zoo studying their behaviour. So everything in the movie is based on some form or another on what a Silverback gorilla would do. But obviously with a little bit of cheating and manipulation on the behalf of the filmmakers. But it was interesting because we found that with silverback gorillas, a lot of character or personality is expressed through simplicity. And I think that probably studying gorillas so much, if it had any profound effect on us, it would be in simplifying his characterization and making him less emotive. They’re very- – they don’t really give away a lot, gorillas. It’s all to do with eye contact and whether they’re looking at you or turning away and how their body language is. There’s not a lot of expression on their faces, so we tried to rein it in. We tried to pull it back as much as we possibly could. It’s interesting. One of the interesting things that I found in telling the story, it’s something I’ve been thinking about in the last few months as we’ve been doing the animation and kind of refining Kong is the fact that I also didn’t want to fall into the trap of making him too cute and making his behaviour too cute. The point in the story where we want an audience to start to empathize with Kong, I didn’t want to stop him being dangerous. I didn’t want to stop him at that point being a wild creature who can kill characters that we’ve gotten to know in the story. So it was interesting the balance of wanting people to empathize for him but also keeping that edge to his character, making him unpredictable and always a wild animal at heart.
Question: What was most important to you in adapting the material?
Jackson: Well, I think what was most important was to have people be able to connect with Kong, both in the way that he is portrayed in his performance, his character and also just technically to make him believable. I knew going into this that the movie was ultimately going to live or die on whether you believed in Kong and whether your suspension of disbelief – – because all movies are a suspension of disbelief and you hope that people will engage in the film on some level and be prepared to go along for the ride. The biggest concern that I had in terms of the film completely failing would be if Kong wasn’t believable, if you didn’t connect with him. It was a difficult thing to pull off. It was much more difficult than the Gollum character that we did on Lord of the Rings. Gollum talked the whole time, so much of his character and so much of his role in the story and what he was able to be presented with his dialogue. And you got to know him a lot through what he said and yet Kong is completely mute. He has so much screen time and so many close-ups as a character. He’s not only mute but we deliberately reined him in and didn’t want him to express very much most of the time. So I think that was the biggest challenge, the thing that we were most scared about.
Question: Talk about working with working with Naomi and getting the performance out of her with Kong not really there?
Jackson: Well, Naomi was our first and only choice for the role of Anne. I think we responded to her because she’s so honest as an actor. She doesn’t pretend in the films that she does. She makes it as believable as possible. She’s one of those actors that if she’s shedding tears in a scene, it’s because she’s thinking of something that makes her cry. She’s really in the moment and I don’t know what it is, how she does that but she’s utterly believable which obviously for this particular role in this particular movie was essential for us. Naomi was also hugely helped by Andy Serkis. I think people would obviously think of Andy being the guy who does the motion capture for Kong which he does. And he’s in a suit and he acts out the role and we did all the motion capture of the character with Andy and then that was put into the animation and into the performance. But for me, as the filmmaker, possibly one of Andy’s greatest contributions was actually being on set with the actors when they originally shot the scenes. Now none of that was recorded for Andy. He wasn’t captured on set. That was done in post production. He wasn’t even filmed. It was like Andy was just there for the other actors. And every single shot in the movie, and I don’t think there’s an exception, I really don’t, every close-up of Naomi when she’s looking at Kong, she’s actually looking at Andy. Andy would get himself into her eye line so that whenever she looked at Kong’s face, that would be where Andy was which was in a cherry picker, up a ladder or suspended on something. He was always there and he was acting his heart out as Kong. I think that was hugely beneficial for Naomi obviously and the other actors. And it was also great for me because it was the beginning of us creating Kong as a character too. I was able to talk to Andy when we were doing those scenes. It wasn’t just Naomi and me. It was Naomi, Andy and me. It was the three of us that we were able to rehearse the scene and block the scene and talk about how Kong would be behaving. And it was the beginning of the creation of that character that would then take it through the motion capture and into the animation and finally into the film. So it was a hue contribution, more than what people would imagine from Andy.
Question: Is the Bad Taste/Dead Alive type of filmmaker still inside you?
Jackson: Oh, absolutely. I hope one day that I’ll get to make another low budget horror film. I’d love to. And I certainly feel in a way now that I just want to rest and recuperate from this last 10 years of filmmaking and be able to do some more interesting things, other low budget ideas and horror movies and other types of films. It’s kind of weird but it’s only just recently that I’ve realized that for the last 10 years, I’ve just had two projects. I’ve had The Lord of the Rings and King Kong because we were originally trying to make King Kong after The Frighteners. So that was back in 1995 into 96 and then that got canned and we went into Lord of the Rings and then we went back to King Kong again. So I’ve had two projects in the last 10 years so it’s an exciting time to be able to rest up and recover a little bit now and just think of other ideas, think of things beyond those two projects.
Question: You’re still producing Halo?
Question: What attracted you to Halo?
Jackson: I’m a fan of the game.
Question: But video game movies suck.
Jackson: They do.
Question: So what will be different?
Jackson: Hopefully it won’t suck.
Question: But why not direct?
Jackson: I want a break. I want to have the fun but not the hard work. I just want to be part of the creative team but not actually have the pain.
Question: Is there a director?
Jackson: Not yet, no. We’re talking to some people but we’re going to be shooting that next year.
Question: Should we plan an Oscar party?
Jackson: I don’t think so. I don’t think these are the types of films that get Oscar attention. That was never the intention with Kong. I don’t necessarily think that will be the case.
Question: Are you doing Lovely Bones?
Jackson: Yeah, that’s the plan.
Question: Have you started thinking cast?
Jackson: No, no. I’m just going to have a break first and then we’ll do the script to that.
Question: Any special features on the DVD?
Jackson: Well, I think there’s a two disc one coming out for sure and then if there’s an extended one, it’ll probably be three or four discs if they do that.
Question: Are you surprised with the positive reaction to the Halo script?
Jackson: Well, I’m pleased, yeah. You never know what to expect.
Question: How did you lose the weight, special diet?
Jackson: No, it was just cutting out junk food.