Peter Jackson: From Prince of Splatter to Lord of the Rings
Random House, $39.95,
An Irish psychic told me recently that I had a strong connection with Peter Jackson. Whacko, I thought. Bring it on. A part in any film directed by The World’s Most Hot Director. To say nothing of being able to refer admiringly to TWMHD as “Pete”, as many of my colleagues and friends already do.
My own connection to Mr Jackson is faint and retrospective. In 1992, at the behest of my then employer, Avalon TV Studios, I conducted a rather lame Lyn of Tawa interview with him. He was both patient and civil, with an enviable stillness and certitude. We’d also attended the same Robert McKee scriptwriting seminar in 1988, which had energised all participants with its illuminating message on how to structure a story. Had we known Peter Jackson was sitting among us that weekend at Victoria University, and what he was going on to achieve, would we have behaved differently? Probably not – we’re Kiwis. We would have “given him space” – unless our name was Ian Pryor. Even so, a psychic’s prediction of a strong connection to someone who now bestrides the movieland jungle like a colossus made by the Weta Workshop is not to be sniffed at. But the “connection”, such as it is, is now clear.
After days spent ploughing through Ian Pryor’s hefty, absorbing, 16-chapter, unauthorised book about the man, I do not feel merely connected to Peter Jackson, but joined at our ample hips. Leaving aside the audacity of producing such a book without the blessing of its subject, the facts alone make fascinating reading. The old Jesuit saying “Give me the child at seven and I will give you the man” seems to apply directly to the trajectory of Peter Jackson’s youngish life. He was born on Halloween night in 1961, the only child of English immigrants to Pukerua Bay. When he was eight years old, he was given his first movie camera, a primitive 8mm job. He rapidly taught himself special effects and started to make movies. Keen on the fantasy/sci-fi genre, he made models, masks and puppets, buckets of fake blood, built his own sets and wrote his own scripts. As a young adult, he completed his first feature movie Bad Taste, for which he doggedly pursued New Zealand Film Commission funding. Puppet “splatstick” Meet The Feebles was followed by Braindead, Heavenly Creatures, Forgotten Silver, The Frighteners – and The Lord of the Rings. Jackson beat the odds with determination and skill. That takes some cheek.
Of The Lord of the Rings we already know a great deal: the sets, the stars, the secrecy, the tax breaks, the latex – one unfounded rumour not in Pryor’s book is that the evil head Orc is modelled on Miramax toughie Harvey Weinstein – the BAFTAs, the Academy awards, myriad international gongs. Whew. What a ride.
So, the book. Clearly aimed at a global market, by and large it does a reasonable job when dealing with facts already in the public domain. Ian Pryor, though, does not have a strong connection with Peter Jackson, psychic or otherwise.
Descriptions of Jackson’s early years, when relations between the two men were presumably cordial, are well-written and respectful, despite a cheesy prologue written in fairytale style describing the aspirations of various Peter Jackson clones: Sensitive Peter, Chainsaw Peter, Actor Peter, and so on. While this felt forced and mildly cheeky, the ghastly epilogue speculating on Old Peter musing bucolically with Fran and his children bordered on the downright impertinent – especially given the Jackson/Walsh camp’s understandable concern for their privacy and protection of their brand.
It was always going to be difficult to write a story like this without the participation of the protagonist, and even the publisher, Random House, issues its own disclaimer. Some key players are missing. Photographs are sparse. Lord of the Rings producer Barrie Osborne features briefly via a leaked memo from the set, and that’s it. Denied access, Pryor lowers his own scholarly tone in an undignified description of himself grubbing around in a foxhole above Haywards Hill in order to spy on the Minas Tirith set.
In his acknowledgements he asserts that all errors of fact and judgement remain his own. Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? One can only imagine the fury in Peter’s camp at this flagrant cashing-in on their story. But it’s a bloody good story. And when Pryor sticks to the knitting – as with his well-crafted, concise little biographies of key players at the end of each chapter, his clear journalistic descriptions of New Zealand film history, the establishment of the Film Commission, the setting up of Weta and the minefield of the Hollywood studio system – we are informed and hugely entertained. The unnecessary is when he becomes judgmental or speculative. Along the way we learn of the second leads in the Peter Jackson firmament. The now deceased Jim Booth, Jamie Selkirk, Robert Zemeckis, New Line’s insanely brave Bob Shaye, Mark Ordesky, Costa Botes, Richard Taylor, and Jackson’s beloved muse Fran Walsh.
Peter Jackson and Lord of the Rings have changed us forever. We now have Kiwis working on films all over the world. We have a special effects workshop to rival anywhere. Important American film workers have taken permanent residency in New Zealand. All this because of the boy from Pukerua Bay.
For a viewpoint beyond Pryor’s book, I asked a Lord of the Rings crew member what he thought of “Pete”:
He’s the first true genius I’ve ever met. He tells stories so well and yet knows more technical stuff than a roomful of geeks. He instantly knows exactly what’s wrong on set … he just walks up and goes bang, bang, bang – so astute. Spot on every time. He’s an astounding man, he constantly surprises me.
We owe a huge debt to Peter Jackson for having the cheek to want to constantly surprise us. What a cheek for Ian Pryor to write about him without his permission. Good luck to both of them. I’m off to pay that Irish psychic another call.
Ginette McDonald is a New Zealand actress and comedian. She is available for weddings, bar mitzvahs and parts in any film directed by The World’s Most Hot Director.