Peter Jackson: ‘Tis Good To Be The King

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To most of those reading this, Peter Jackson is a director who needs no introduction…

…so let’s get right to this press conference that ComingSoon.net attended for his latest epic King Kong, a remake of the 1933 monster movie classic.

CS: Congratulations on your weight loss. Has that had a noticeable affect on your filmmaking?
Peter Jackson: I’m exhausted. I’m absolutely tired. I felt fit for a while, but the film is such a grueling marathon to do. We literally finished the movie about ten minutes before we got on the airplane to come over here. We were flying out of New Zealand at 9:30 in the morning and at 9 o’clock I was at the visual effects house approving the last two or three shots in the movie, and then at 9:15, we dropped by the dub stage to look at a couple of changes we had made to the dubbing and approved that, and then we got on a plane. I haven’t enjoyed being healthy yet. I’m absolutely shattered.

I haven’t really had a life. I’ve been making movies for ten years now, with the “Lord of the Rings” movies straight into Kong. I’m very pleased that we did that because we were able to utilize the great creative team we had 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, I grabbed it and wanted to do it fast, because I wanted to keep this team together and be able to just channel that creativity into another project.

People didn’t really know it at the time, because you 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 then after that I got on a plane and flew to New York and met with Fay Wray, and we got a tour of the top of the Empire State Building and took photos and videotape on the top of the Empire State Building for building a set. So we were already in the middle of doing Kong then. It’s been sort of a continuous journey.

CS: What was it about the 1933 “King Kong” that inspired you to become a filmmaker and to eventually do your own version?
Jackson: 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 9 on a Friday night, and that weekend I grabbed some plasticine and made a brontosaurus. I got my parent’s Super-8 movie camera and tried to animate the plasticine dinosaur. 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 9; it was more about monsters at that stage.

The original “Kong,” to me, is a wonderful piece of escapist entertainment. It has everything that’s really cool about movies like a lost, remote island, a giant ape, dinosaurs, and it also has this wonderful heart and soul. It has this empathetic creature who… when I was 9 I cried 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. That level of emotional engagement and pure escapism is what I personally like about the movies. Everybody goes to the movies for different reasons, has different tastes, but for me that’s a great piece of escapist entertainment.

CS: Many people consider you an auteur, so how are you able to maintain your own vision while also dealing with the studio’s marketing machine?
Jackson: That’s an interesting question, because I don’t quite know what an auteur is. I never quite understand that term, because filmmaking is such a huge team effort. I regard myself as being the final filter, so that anything that ends up in the movie is there because it’s something that I would think was cool in a movie somebody else had made. I very much tried to make a film that I’d enjoy, but I’m open to ideas. I need a huge team of people to help me and I try to encourage everyone to contribute as much as possible. I think that’s the job of a director, really, to sort of funnel all the creativity into one centralized point of being. The marketing is really something that happens with other people, and it’s not something at all that I’m an expert in. I regard my job at the end of the day is to make the best possible film I can. That’s really where my job stops. Marketing people take over after that.

CS: What was most important to you when adapting the material, as far as putting the Peter Jackson stamp on it?
Jackson: What was most important was to make people be able to connect with Kong, both in the way that he is portrayed, his performance and character and also 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. All movies are a suspension of disbelief and you hope 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, was if Kong wasn’t believable. 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, and so much of his character and so much of what he was and his role in the story was able to be presented in his dialogue. You got to know him a lot through what he said. Yet Kong is completely mute. He’s got so much screen time and so many close-ups as a character. He’s not only mute but we deliberately reigned in him and didn’t want him to express much. That was the biggest challenge.

CS: In trying to be faithful to the original 1933 version, how did you decide what scenes to keep, which ones to cut and which ones to expand upon?
Jackson: It’s instinct to some degree, and it doesn’t reflect a right or a wrong way of doing it, since obviously every filmmaker that would make a version of “King Kong” would do a completely different film. I’ve been wanting to make this movie for a long, long time, and I’ve had ideas and images in my head for years and years and years. To me, it wasn’t really that difficult. It wasn’t a particularly difficult situation to decide what should be in or out. I was just really wanting to play down a movie in my head that would be the kind of movie I would enjoy. Incidentally, a few scenes we shot–like we shot a version from the original film where they cross the swamp and they’re attacked by a creature–we filmed that scene, and it didn’t end up in the cut. Even though the movie is three hours longs, there are quite a few scenes we filmed that didn’t make it into the finished movie, so some of those things that you’re missing from the original film, if we did an extended DVD — which hopefully we’ll get a chance to do — you might see them popping up again.

CS: Can you talk about picking Naomi Watts as Ann, and working with her to get that amazing performance out of her?
Jackson: Naomi was our first and only choice for the role. 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 real 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. I don’t know what that is, I don’t know how she does it, but she’s utterly believable. Which of course for this particular role, and this particular movie, was essential for us.

Naomi was also hugely helped by Andy Serkis. People think of Andy as the guy who does motion capture for Kong, which he does. He’s in a suit, and he acts out the role and we did all the motion capture of the character with Andy and that was put into animation and then into performance. But for me, as the filmmaker, possibly one of Andy’s greatest contributions was being on set with the actors when they shot the scenes. None of that was recorded; he wasn’t captured on set, that was done in post-production. He wasn’t even filmed. Andy was there for the other actors. And every single shot in the movie–and I don’t think there’s an exception — 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’s where he was. Up in a cherry-picker or up on a ladder or suspended on something or up on a building, he was always there. And he was acting his heart out as Kong. I think that was hugely beneficial for Naomi and the other actors. It was really great for me because it was the beginning of us creating Kong as a character. 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. We were able to rehearse the scene, to block the scene and to talk about how Kong would be. It was the beginning of the creation of that character that would be taken to the motion capture and then to the animation and finally to the film. It was a huge contribution. More than what people would think coming from Andy.

CS: When creating Kong, how did you decide how human versus animal to make him?
Jackson: Obviously, as a filmmaker, you’re 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 could. We sat down at the beginning and asked, “What is Kong? Is he a monster, is he some sort of missing link or aberration?” We thought just making him a gorilla, a silverback, as genuine as we possibly could was a really good way to go. Everybody thinks of him as being a gorilla anyway, although the various versions of Kong have been a little different. So we studied silverback gorillas. Everything in the movie is based on some form or another what a silverback gorilla would do — but obviously with a little bit of manipulation and cheating on behalf of the filmmakers. We found that with silverback gorillas, a lot of personality and character is expressed through simplicity. I think that probably studying gorillas so much, if it had any profound effect on us, was simplifying his characterization and making him less emotive. They don’t really give away a lot, gorillas. It’s all to do with eye contact, and when they’re looking at you and looking away and their body language. There’s not a lot of expression on their faces. So we tried to reign it in and tried to pull it back as much as we possibly could. I’ve found in the last few months, as we’ve been doing the animation, kind of refining Kong, that I didn’t want to fall into the trap of making him too cute, and making his behavior too cute. The point in the story where we want the audience to empathize with Kong, I didn’t want to stop him being dangerous and being a wild creature who can kill characters that we got to know in the story. It was interesting; I wanted people to empathize with him but also keeping an edge to his character, keeping him wild and unpredictable.

CS: Can you talk about the inspiration for the scene where Kong is skating in the park with Ann?
Jackson: The thinking behind that scene is that we didn’t want to go straight from Kong escaping from the theater and reuniting with Ann directly up to the Empire State Building. We wanted to give them a moment together to, in a way, fulfill the relationship and the friendship that had started on the island. We just wanted to create a quiet moment for the two of them. It was that thinking that led us to creating the ice pond.

CS: Although you brought over a lot of the same team you used in “Lord of the Rings”, you ended up using James Newton Howard for the score, rather than Howard Shore. Can you talk about that decision?
Jackson: Howard Shore was the original choice as composer. We’re very good friends but it just came to the point where it seemed that our sensibilities for the film were somewhat different. So we decided as friends not to go down that road anymore. James Newton Howard is a composer that we’ve obviously admired for a long time. We’d used some of his earlier scores on some of the temp tracks we had, and his sensibility and his feeling for the music seemed to relate really well to the pictures that we shot. We also found an opportunity to pay homage to Max Steiner. We used some of his original score in the Broadway show where Kong is put on display on the stage. That was a nice way to keep an homage in a compartmentalized way.

CS: What happened to that scene on the beach that we saw in the teaser?
Jackson: Like I was saying before, there’s a lot of scenes we shot that didn’t make it into the movie. The movie’s three hours long. If we included everything we shot, it would probably be nearly four hours long. It had obviously been used as an important part of the teaser trailer, but subsequently when you’re dealing with this length of film we started to refine it and look it at it and trim it down as you do. Again, there’s no real rules about what you do. You just use your instincts as to the pacing of the film and what is the minimal amount you can get away with to tell the story. That scene didn’t make it in.

CS: Do you think you might do an extended version of “King Kong” like you did with the “Lord of the Rings” DVDs?
Jackson: I’m not quite sure. Unlike the “Lord of the Rings” situation, when the first movie came out and the extended DVDs were like a conclusion. We were doing the visual effects for the extended DVDs right after the film was finished. In this case, I think Universal is waiting for the release of the film before they decide what strategically they want to do. The tentative plan is to release the movie as it is in theaters on DVD sometime next year. There’s been talk of an extended cut, but I don’t know. We haven’t started working on it yet. If I was putting in some other cool scenes, we would have 30 or 40 minutes. We have some dinosaur sequences and other stuff as well. It’s not just drama and character stuff.

CS: Is the filmmaker that made such early schlock horror films as “Bad Taste” and “Dead Alive” still in you somewhere and do you think you’ll ever let him out again?
Jackson: Oh absolutely. One day, I hope to get to make another low budget horror film. I certainly feel that, in a way now, I want to rest and recuperate from the last ten years of filmmaking and be able to do some more interesting things. I have low budget ideas and horror movies and other types of films. It’s kind of weird, but it’s only just recently I’ve realized that for the last ten years, I’ve had just two projects–“Lord of the Rings” and “King Kong.” We originally tried to make “King Kong” after “The Frighteners,” and that was 1995 into 96, and then when that got canned, we went into “Lord of the Rings” and then back into “King Kong” again. So I’ve had two projects in the past ten years. It’s really an exciting time to rest up and think of new ideas.

CS: Are you still doing “The Lovely Bones” and have you thought about who you’re going to cast as the young girl?
Jackson: Yeah, we’re going to have a break first and then work on the script to that.

King Kong opens on Wednesday, December 14. Also, check out our interviews with Jack Black, Naomi Watts and Adrien Brody.