Jackson: Lord Of The Screens

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Actors Drew Barrymore, left, Robert De Niro, and Kate Beckinsale attend the premiere of "Everybody's Fine" in New York, on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2009. (AP Photo/Peter Kramer)
AP Photo/Peter Kramer

By any measure, "The Lord of the Rings Trilogy" is an astonishing success, the stuff box-office dreams are made of.

And for fans, it has fantastic creatures, stunning special effects and bold heroes caught up in an epic battle between good and evil.

So far, the three films have brought in nearly $3 billion at the box office. In Hollywood history, only the "Star Wars" films have earned more, but there were five of them.

The trilogy is also the critics' darling. The franchise has 30 Oscar nominations -- 11 this year alone for "The Return of the King," including Best Picture and a Best Director nomination for Peter Jackson.

Jackson says the success of the movies is beyond his wildest dreams.

But the writer/director/producer's own life story -- of an unassuming lad from New Zealand who hates wearing shoes and long pants and at age 42 became the highest paid director in history -- plays out like a big-screen fairy-tale.

And it begins with a boy who loved to tell stories.

"I fell in love with stories watching a British television puppet show called 'Thunderbirds', when it first came out on TV, about 1965, so I would have been 4 or 5 years old," recalls Jackson. "I went out into the garden at my mom and dad's house and I used to play with my little dinky toys, little cars and trucks and things. And, I used to create little scenarios like 'Thunderbirds' used to have."

Some people never find their calling in life. Peter Jackson never even had to look for his.

"My parents got a Super-8 movie camera for Christmas when I was about 7, and I realized that I could film the stories that I was imagining and actually capture these things on film," he says.

He knew he wanted to be a filmmaker, and he soon discovered the kind of films he wanted to make.

Jackson says at 9 years old, the original "King Kong" captivated him.

"I loved the escapism, I loved the adventure," says Jackson. "And then, at the end of the movie, I cried when Kong fell off the Empire State Building. That combination of escapism and then emotional kind of impact really did make me want to become a filmmaker. I didn't want to do anything else ever."

And he didn't want to wait. Jackson quickly rounded up his friends, turned his backyard into a movie lot and began directing.

By age 14, he was already experimenting with special effects such as stop-action animation, and learning other tricks of the trade.

"When I was about 14, I got a splicing kit, which means you could chop up the film into little pieces and switch the order around and glue it together," says Jackson. "I went out and made a little James Bond movie, with myself as James Bond – naturally. And then I chopped up the fight and I glued it all together. Learning how to edit movies was a real breakthrough."

Jackson says he is a self-taught filmmaker because New Zealand didn't have a film school when he was young.

"I grew up wanting to be a filmmaker in a country that didn't have a film industry either," explains Jackson.

With no established career path to follow, no money, and still using friends for actors, Jackson set out to make his mark -- as quickly and cheaply as possible.

"Strategically, horror films are a good way to start your career," he says. "You can get a lot of impact with very little."

He released his first film, "Bad Taste," about flesh-eating aliens, in 1987 when he was 26 years old. He baked the latex for the alien masks in his mother's oven.

Jackson says, "You don't have access to very good actors. You usually don't have access to good scripts, but if you have an exuberant sort of imagination for horror and splatter … that gets people's attention."

A succession of low-budget "splatter comedies" followed such as 1989's "Meet the Feebles" and 1992's "Braindead."

Then in 1994, Jackson created "Heavenly Creatures." The movie was based on the true story of a sensational murder committed by two New Zealand schoolgirls. The film earned Jackson and his companion Fran Walsh an Oscar nomination for best screenplay.

They didn't win, but the mainstream recognition led to Jackson's first big budget picture, "The Frighteners," which starred Michael J. Fox.

Like all of Jackson's previous movies, "The Frighteners" went nowhere at the box office. But, it was another stepping stone. For the film, Jackson created a state-of–the-art computer system capable of special effects beyond any that had been seen before.

That's when he had the big idea that would change his life.

"I was just wondering, 'What can you do with these computers? What stories are now possible that had always been thought impossible to tell?' says Jackson. I always wanted to do a fantasy film, and I thought 'Of course, 'The Lord of the Rings' is the ultimate fantasy story.'"

For a 34-year-old filmmaker without a hit to his name, having a big idea is one thing. Selling it to Hollywood is another.

"It was one of those classic Hollywood stories, the way just about every studio turned us down," Jackson explains. We came over to Los Angeles to meet with people, and there wasn't anybody that wanted even to meet with us. I mean, we didn't even get inside people's offices."

With just 2 weeks left before the option Jackson had acquired to make "Lord of the Rings" ran out, New Line Cinema came to the rescue -- agreeing to shell out $300 million to shoot all three films at once. It was a deal considered to be one of the biggest gambles in Hollywood history.

"We never even had a discussion with New Line about what would happen if the first film didn't work," says Jackson. "It would have been seen as one of the all-time cinematic train wrecks … To have that first film fail and the other two, which had already been shot and the money had already been spent, just smashing in behind them. That wouldn't have been a good thing at all."

From the outset, the scope of the project was unprecedented -- 15 months of shooting, a cast of thousands that was spread out across the remote north island of New Zealand. On any day, as many as 9 different film crews were working on three different movies.

As Jackson explains, "The first unit would be shooting something from the 'Fellowship of the Ring' the second unit would be shooting something from the 'Return of the King.' It was kind of like this big jigsaw puzzle with all the pieces flying at you all the time. And, you had to kind of always stay on top of it."

Veteran actor Sir Ian McKellen, who plays the wizard Gandalf in the trilogy, was amazed at Jackson's skill and grace under fire.

"Peter [Jackson] was absolutely focused, but at the same time very relaxed," says McKellen. So very soon, you like the man so much that even if the movie had ended up being total rubbish it still would have been enjoyable."

Which points to perhaps one of the most telling things about Jackson. While happy to praise his skills as a director, it is the man himself that the stars of the trilogy, including Sean Astin and Elijah Wood, are most eager to talk about.

"He's a really lovely sweet man," says Wood. "There's something about him that's almost like an uncle. I sort of looked at him like that. I kind of regarded him as an uncle or family member."

What they saw in his low-key manner was a man born to his craft.

"There wasn't a moment where I sort of thought, 'Look at the genius of this guy,'" says Astin. "It was actually when I was away from Peter that I'd have to say, 'Wow -- that's unbelievable what he's accomplishing, because when you look at him, he's like a Willy Wonka kind of guy."

Jackson is a Willy Wonka kind of guy who turned one of the biggest gambles in movie history into one of the biggest jackpots in Hollywood.

The accolades pour in for the self-taught kid from Wellington: a Golden Globe for Best Director, a Directors Guild Award for Best Director and at the Santa Barbara film festival a few weeks ago, Jackson was honored with a "Modern Master Award," which he accepted with typical humility.

"I don't feel like a modern master at all, not 'masterish' in the slightest," says Jackson. "I'm just a kid, and I'm a kid who started to make films when I was 7 or 8 years old. And I still am."

With the "Return of the King" still hot at the box office, Jackson is already hard at work on his next blockbuster -- a $200 million remake of the film that started it all, "King Kong."

"If I can do it justice, if I can try to capture the things that I loved when I was 9 years old, then hopefully it'll continue to be inspirational," he says.

So, when the Oscars are handed out in two weeks, rest assured, whether he wins one or not, Peter Jackson will be a happy man. Either way, he'll be back doing what he loves --telling stories.

Jackson says, "It's weird, I don't feel much different being on a set with all these people shooting 'Lord of the Ring' then I did when I was at home with my Super 8 camera when I was a kid. You're there for the same reason; you're there because you want to tell stories. You have this thing in your imagination that you want to capture on film, and you want to get it up on a screen. And then other people can hopefully enjoy it."