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Director Peter Jackson

Bringing Middle-earth to the silver screen

by Laura Hayes
Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson

"I want to take movie-goers into Middle-earth, in a way that is believable and powerful."
—Peter Jackson

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Peter Jackson, a little-known director from New Zealand, has taken on one of the most daunting tasks in Hollywood history—not just bringing J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved The Lord of the Rings to the silver screen successfully, but creating three epic films at the same time.

Jackson, or "PJ" as he is known by fans, didn't start out intending to make a three-film epic. He had originally wanted to make a fantasy like The Lord of the Rings, but then he decided to make a movie version of Tolkien's masterpiece itself rather than a pale imitation. He convinced Miramax Films to back a pair of "Rings" films and they acquired rights to The Lord of the Rings in 1996. But they eventually balked at the cost of making the two films.

Jackson took his proposal to New Line Cinema in July 1998 in an effort to save the project. New Line loved the idea and quickly convinced Jackson to make not two films, but three, and on a grand scale. Part of Jackson's appeal to New Line was that he could make the movies for less in New Zealand and could use his own special effects studios, Weta Digital and Weta Workshop. New Line also agreed to let Jackson become the first person ever to direct and produce three films at once.

Middle-earth on Film

Tolkien's stories of Middle-earth have never been presented as live action films before. In 1977 The Hobbit was produced as an animated television movie. The following year Ralph Bakshi released The Lord of the Rings as an animated feature. Not only did it fare poorly at the box office, it never even finished telling the story. A second television special, The Return of the King, was made as a sequel.

"A certain form of madness"

When Peter Jackson set out to create his own Lord of the Rings he was determined not to leave his audience hanging. "I think it's unfair to say to an audience, 'Come to The Fellowship of the Ring and, if it's successful, we'll make part two'" said Jackson of the films' production. "We are making the entire trilogy one long film shoot, and then we'll cut them all together. I guess it's a certain form of madness."

Madness perhaps; a massive undertaking, certainly. The filming and production of The Lord of the Rings films cost more than $270 million. Shooting lasted an almost unheard-of 14 months, beginning on October 11, 1999, and ending December 22, 2000. Jackson had to direct seven camera crews working simultaneously across the country. All of New Zealand got behind the film effort—the prime minister even assigned a battalion of soldiers to participate in battle scenes.

In recreating Middle-earth no detail was left to chance: the gardens of the to-scale set of Hobbiton were planted a year before filming began; language coaches ensured the correct pronunciation and usage of Tolkien's invented languages; and more than 20,000 everyday objects were crafted to satisfy Jackson's insistence that every object seen in the movies belong to Middle-earth.

Like the story's heroes, the cast and crew bonded through the toil and suffering they endured. No one had a vacation during the last months of shooting, and they had to contend with floods, landslides, and snowstorms. Jackson lost both of his parents during filming and production.

History, Not Fantasy

Jackson has also had to rise to the challenge of pleasing Tolkien's devoted fans. An impassioned fan himself, Jackson insisted that everyone on the set have a copy of The Lord of the Rings to refer to. Yet he has not, like the producers of Harry Potter, remained slavishly true to the text. His expansion of the role of the Elven princess Arwen, for example, generated significant concern and online debate.

What Jackson has been true to is Tolkien's intentions. Like Tolkien, he has approached the story as history rather than fantasy (Tolkien saw himself as recreating a mythic history, and didn't actually care much for the genre of fantasy). While Middle-earth is filled with fantastic creatures, Jackson didn't want to, as he puts it, "go overboard in the mumbo-jumbo department." Instead he emphasized the characters' struggles and the world's rich history. He has also endeavored to avoid two common pitfalls of Hollywood fantasy films—making a story either too childish or too dark.

Friendship, Sacrifice, and Loss

As varied and bizarre as many of Jackson's early films have been (see Films of Peter Jackson below), he has always focused on his characters and their relationships. While filmgoers got some great action from The Lord of the Rings, they got strong emotion as well. What has held readers for almost 50 years and inspired Jackson to put such effort into the films is not the battle at Helm's Deep or the flight from the Mines of Moria, but the overriding themes of friendship and self-sacrifice, and of loss.


We are trying to incorporate the emotion of a changing world, of the loss of the beauty of the elves, of all of those really strong themes of Tolkien's."
—Peter Jackson


 

"We are trying to make those exact themes come across very strongly" says Jackson. "What we are trying to do with these movies is not be sentimental, but to be emotional. And emotion, genuine emotion, is very different than sentiment, which is a slightly cheaper version of emotion."

Standing in Rivendell

Although he has spent years on this project, no one could be happier than Jackson by the making of the films. "One of the great perks about being involved in a film like this, especially loving The Lord of the Rings as I do, is that I get to walk into Rivendell—I don't just see it on the movie, I actually get to be there . . . It's an experience that I'll never ever have again."

Films of Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson was born on Halloween, 1961, in a small town in New Zealand. His interest in filmmaking began when his parents got an 8mm camera. By the time he was twelve he had made his first film— a World War II movie complete with special effects—in his backyard. A decade later he made the first of many feature-length films. His partner, Frances Walsh, has collaborated with him on most of his films.

His films include:

  • Bad Taste, 1987. Jackson's first feature-length film, a whacky horror film about flesh-eating aliens.
  • Meet the Feebles, 1989. With the money made on Bad Taste, Jackson, together with collaborator Fran Walsh, made Meet the Feebles, a comedy about a puppet variety show gone horribly, horribly awry (it is most definitely not a kids' film).
  • Braindead (Dead Alive in U.S.), 1992. This comical, ridiculously gory film about the difficulties of living with brain-eating zombies became an instant cult fave.
  • Heavenly Creatures, 1994. Jackson's next film was a dramatic shift from his earlier works. Heavenly Creatures, based on a sensational murder case that took place in New Zealand in the 1950s, is an ethereal movie about teenage friendship, imagination, and obsession. It was nominated for an academy award.
  • In 1996 two Jackson films were released: Forgotten Silver, a mockumentary about a pioneering New Zealand film director, and a horror comedy, The Frighteners, which starred Michael J. Fox.



Information Please® Database, © 2007 Pearson Education, Inc. All rights reserved.

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