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The Evolution of Peter Jackson Part 2 – /Film

(This is part two of a two-part series. You can read part one right here.)

In the wake of The Lord of the Rings and King Kong, Peter Jackson suddenly found himself in the position of being an in-demand effects-studio head for cutting-edge Hollywood productions. Weta’s Oscar-winning work on those films brought heaping attention on the company, which was forced to rapidly expand to accommodate the demand of multiple studios. Everything from Avatar to Planet of the Apes to the Marvel and DC Universes have had at least some work done by Weta Digital, whether as lead studio or as support for others. The effects house has routinely turned out groundbreaking and astonishing work, building on the foundations built for Rings, and justifiably won accolades for it. Among the films Weta helped to reality, too, was Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, which Jackson produced after his and Blomkamp’s Halo adaptation fell through.

The Studio Head

Despite Weta causing the Eye of Hollywood to focus intently on Wellington, it’s worth noting that its success didn’t revitalise the New Zealand film industry in quite the ways the international community seems to think it did. Weta employs a lot of Kiwis, it’s true, but generally speaking, they’re employed to work on productions originating from the United States. If you’re not employed by Weta, film-industry jobs are just as hard to come by in New Zealand as they were before. Films genuinely originating from New Zealand get a little more international visibility now, arguably helped along by Taika Waititi as much as by Jackson, but it’s as hard as ever to actually get them made. New Zealand’s film industry today is, by and large, an inexpensive industry for hire, further incentivised by tax subsidies for overseas productions. Only Peter Jackson himself has the power to unilaterally get huge local projects off the ground.

Jackson’s somewhat forgotten film in this “between-trilogies” period was The Lovely Bones, an adaptation of a beloved and award-winning novel that seemed set for Oscar recognition, but fizzled once it actually released. In some ways, it’s the mirror image of Heavenly Creatures: a crime story involving a young girl (Saoirse Ronan!) with fantastical elements courtesy of Weta. But where Heavenly Creatures was largely a showcase for its script and two lead actors, The Lovely Bones saw the visual effects running away with the story.

The Adventures of Tintin, by contrast, was all visual effects, a motion-captured animated film produced by Jackson and directed by Steven Spielberg. Adapting the Tintin comics was a dream for Jackson from childhood, and the movie has gained considerable respect over the years, even if its Stateside performance was lacklustre. It’s a remarkable example of the world’s greatest living director letting loose with a suite of new toys, and it’s wildly entertaining. The plan was for Jackson to go on to direct the film’s sequel, but that was put on hold when another project got unceremoniously dumped in his lap.

The Hobbit Fiasco

Peter Jackson was never supposed to direct The Hobbit. Somewhere, there’s a parallel universe where the original plan went ahead – where Guillermo del Toro directed a two-part adaptation in his own style, overseen by (and dovetailing with the work of) the people who brought Tolkien’s other masterpiece to the screen a decade prior. But development hell, exacerbated by financial woes at MGM, wrought havoc on del Toro’s schedule and family life, with the production delayed and delayed again. Eventually, del Toro left the project, and Jackson was saddled with rapidly redeveloping a film he hadn’t intended to direct himself.

Basically, that didn’t work. A labour dispute early in the process further delayed production (with Jackson, WB, and the New Zealand government’s response causing political rifts that continue to negatively affect workers’ rights to this day), while the sheer scale and pace of the production bamboozled even the undisputed king of large-scale productions. So hastily was the project put together that there wasn’t time for sufficient pre-production, meaning decisions were constantly made at the last minute, and literally an entire third film was commissioned in order to give the team more time to work out how to finish it. The Battle Of The Five Armies was literally the result of the production team tripping over themselves trying to hit impossible deadlines. It’s a testament to Jackson’s abilities and leadership that the movies came together at all, but they didn’t come together well.

The stories that have come out of The Hobbit are legion, and nearly all bad. As a New Zealander tangentially connected with the industry, I’ve heard no positive word about it. Sets were left unfinished before shooting. Stunt teams shot green-screen B-roll with no direction whatsoever. Actors spent entire days shooting only to be replaced via CGI. Entire characters were replaced by visual effects. And it reflected in the movies: they grew less coherent and believable as they went on, to the point that by the third film, lengthy sequences could accurately be described as pure animation. Filmmakers “fix things in post” all the time, but rarely have entire movies resulted from that process. Jackson himself appeared to age at least a decade in the four years he spent directing the films, and the films themselves feel as hollow as he must have by the end of the process.

The 2018 Bifurcation

After the Hobbit ordeal, anyone would want to do something different. Jackson’s two 2018 releases demonstrate something of a tug-of-war between Jackson’s inescapably entrenched role as a blockbuster titan, and his understandable desire to do something smaller, more personal, and altogether different. Mortal Engines, directed by pre-visualisation artist Christian Rivers (who would have directed Jackson’s remake of The Dambusters, had that project not crashed and burned), is exactly the kind of sci-fi/fantasy VFX epic you’d expect to see Jackson’s name attached to, and has gained mixed reviews in advance of its release. But his most interesting film of the year – the decade, even – is a documentary.

Jackson had dabbled in the documentary form before, in 1995’s Forgotten Silver (co-directed with Costa Botes), which told the “true” story of a New Zealander who’d secretly invented every major advance in film technology, from motion pictures to colour to sync sound. For that film, Jackson and his team convincingly created footage that looked a hundred years old, through a number of remarkably physical means. So convincing was it – right down to originally screening in a Sunday-night documentary slot on TV – that when it was revealed as a work of fiction, many Kiwis were outraged. Perhaps they should have paid attention to the opening scene, which literally sees Jackson leading a camera down a garden path.

They Shall Not Grow Old pulls the opposite trick to Forgotten Silver. Tied in with the hundredth anniversary of Armistice Day, it depicts World War I entirely through contemporary footage and interviews. That footage has been restored, stabilised, colourised, retimed, and even converted to 3D, creating the most intimate and immediate look at the actual war ever to hit screens. The Great War has long been a passion of Jackson’s, whose collection of WWI memorabilia is so huge – including tanks and airplanes – that it formed the basis of an exhibition in New Zealand’s national museum. He also made a WWI short, Crossing the Line, as a camera test for early RED motion picture cameras, though outside a brief clip, that film has never been seen by the public. Bringing all Jackson’s enthusiasm and resources together, They Shall Not Grow Old has gained universal critical approval, hailed as both an impressive technical achievement and a moving tribute to the fallen of the Great War.

Peter Jackson Christopher Lee tribute

There, But Not Back Again

Peter Jackson’s career arc is clearly dominated by The Lord of the Rings, and that property’s runaway success has resulted in both further success and a slow descent into technological obsession. Where once Jackson was dragging celluloid over concrete to simulate a century of film history, now he’s digitally remastering century-old footage in state-of-the-art high-definition 3D. Where once he made a powerful drama supported by innovative practical effects, now his closest equivalent is bloated with technically-impressive, emotionally-empty CGI. And where Middle-Earth once felt like a tactile, real place, now it’s tainted by shiny, plasticy visual effects rushed out of the door in a display of both poor planning and unfathomable hubris.

The Lord of the Rings is the turning point in this arc. You can almost feel Jackson changing as the trilogy goes on. The man entered the project a hyper-ambitious nerd and emerged from it a multi-Oscar-winning Hollywood player. Post-Rings Jackson smacks unpleasantly of post-Star Wars George Lucas. Both found themselves at the head of post-production empires, servicing blockbusters from all over Hollywood. Both were obsessed with advancing filmmaking technology and visual effects techniques. They even both made high-grossing but poorly-received and cartoonish prequel trilogies.

Jackson, however, was nearly a decade younger when he finished The Hobbit than Lucas was when he finished Revenge of the Sith. He’s probably got more gas in the tank, especially if working on They Shall Not Grow Old helped to counteract the churn of producing a nonstop string of huge epics. Where to now for Peter Jackson? Will he ever make a smaller-scale movie again? Will he return to his DIY roots (currently expressed through continued support of New Zealand’s 48HOURS filmmaking competition)?

“It would be interesting to see how disgusting Fran and I could be in our older age compared to our younger years because we’ve learned a few things since then,” Jackson said recently to The Hollywood Reporter, reflecting on his current project, restoring and remastering his first four films into a new boxed set. What would “the right project” look like that could bring the pair back to their origins? Is the Peter Jackson of 2018 able to leave his digital effects studio by the wayside? One wonders whether Hollywood, capitalism, and Jackson’s own ambition will allow him to return to that early “naughtiness,” but it’s fun to speculate.

For Peter Jackson – once a backyard filmmaker, now a multimillionaire, an Oscar winner, a studio head, a knight, and even, begrudgingly, a political figure – the weight of success must rest heavy. Money, power, and expectations take their toll. Jackson clearly craved the success he has; now we just have to hope he does something good with it.

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