Peter Jackson is coming to the end of a stay in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth that has dominated a quarter of the 53-year-old director’s life, right into middle age. The result: three Lord Of The Rings films and two installments of The Hobbit that have grossed $4.89 billion in worldwide box office.
By the time The Battle Of The Five Armies, the finale to The Hobbit trilogy, plays out, Jackson’s six films may reach $6 billion, and better the current hardware haul of 17 Oscars including Best Picture for Return Of The King, and 35 other noms. Unless James Cameron has something to say about it with his new Avatar trilogy, we may never see anything again in our lives to match Jackson’s cinematic accomplishment, all done with the same creative team.
If he’s feeling the weight of that, he wore it well at Comic-Con. Mostly, he battled jet lag after the long trip to San Diego from New Zealand, where the last film waits for him to finish. He’s tired enough when I enter his hotel room that he suggests I get in bed next to where he’s resting. Then he thinks better, unsure he can stay awake unless upright. I tell him I had the same problem the night before at a very funny live Chris Hardwick-hosted game show my son was desperate to see, only to nudge me again and again for snoring too loud. Our chat started with middle-age sleep apnea and moved to Middle Earth, how close The Beatles came to doing The Lord Of The Rings with Stanley Kubrick, and how Jackson will handle leaving Middle Earth, a place he almost didn’t get to visit at all.
JACKSON: So you almost ruined your son’s time by snoring? I once flew coach class from New Zealand to London, and my friends informed me they’d gotten a ticket for the theater at the West End stage. My friend had to elbow me because not only could they see me from the stage, they could probably hear me as well. When I worked as a newspaper photo engraver in the only job I ever had, many years ago, I’d get the train home to Pukerua Bay where I was staying with my parents. An hour ride, 16 stops and almost always I’d have automatic wake-up, seconds before we pulled into my station. Travel makes you tired more than anything, and Friday was my daughter’s 18th birthday and we celebrated here.
DEADLINE: One of those tiny gorgeous kids we watched grow up in glimpses during Lord Of The Rings films?
JACKSON: She was 3 when we made The Fellowship Of The Ring. Katie and Elijah Wood were talking today and they figured out she was 3 when he first met her. She’s 18. Kids, more than anything in life, chart time for us.
DEADLINE: Movies and sports do it, too. It’s easy to be cynical, but I am so charmed by these Comic-Con people and how the proceedings bring out the child versions of themselves. Total lack of cynicism. Do you get to appreciate that still?
JACKSON: There’s a certain reality to me going out now. I’d get six paces, no further, and it would be selfies, and nothing else. In the old days, people asked you to sign something, and half would be too nervous to ask. Now, there’s an aggression to it, like they want you as a trophy on their web page. It’s a social coup to nail you on their cell phone. It changed everything. I get six paces and then can’t walk another. But I went anyway, yesterday, found a way to walk all the way around the convention center.
DEADLINE: How did you manage that?
JACKSON: Oh, I got myself a secret identity. I became the Evil Jester. You can look at the photos on my Facebook page.
DEADLINE: What made you suit up?
JACKSON: Katie wanted to, and it was her birthday. She said, Dad, we’ve got to go out on that floor. It had been years since I’d done it, even though I quite like it. I brought cash and thought I would probably buy a lot of stuff, but I didn’t. I was too caught up in watching and feeling the energy of other people. I had to clear memory from my camera, sat down and this security guy comes along and says, ‘Sir, you can’t sit there…” It has been years since I’ve been rudely spoken to by a security guy, and it felt fantastic! And, my Evil Jester costume was so successful in disguising my true identity that quite a few people actually asked me to pose with them. And I did.
DEADLINE: So they got their Peter Jackson selfie, they just don’t realize it.
JACKSON: They seemed perfectly happy just with their photos of the Evil Jester. They’d come up and say, ‘You mind if I get a photograph,’ and I thought, ‘How do I answer without giving it away?’ I’d swapped my ID card with my friend Avi, because I couldn’t use my name. I didn’t know how to do an Israeli accent, so I tried South African. “Photo? No problem a’tall!” I was Avi from South Africa, the Evil Jester.
DEADLINE: Did you ask anyone what they thought of that Peter Jackson guy?
JACKSON: No, but that would have been the ultimate, wouldn’t it? We had one of our dwarves, Graham McTavish, signing for his new TV show, and the Evil Jester stood alongside him. We took a photo. He didn’t have a clue. If I’d told him, suddenly it would have been selfie time and I’d never have gotten out of the hole.
DEADLINE: Your daughter wasn’t even born when you first took up residence in Middle Earth…
JACKSON: We first called Harvey Weinstein about the project before she was born…
DEADLINE: Six movies and almost two decades later, here we are at the end. James Cameron seems ready to play in the Avatar sandbox forever, and he can because he created it. You brought to life JRR Tolkien’s creation. It’s his, but haven’t you earned the right to stake your own creative residence claim, and keep telling stories from Middle Earth, even original stories? It’s a world many people will be sad to see you leave.
JACKSON: I don’t think that legally we’ve earned that right. Because of Tolkien’s rights, that is unfortunately an impossibility. The reality today is, the professor J.R.R. Tolkien sold the rights to both The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings when he was an old man in his late 60s. They both went to UA. This was after The Beatles went after them…
DEADLINE: The Beatles?
JACKSON: Really. The Beatles once approached Stanley Kubrick to do The Lord Of The Rings. This was before Tolkien sold the rights. They approached him and he said no. I actually spoke about this with Paul McCartney. He confirmed it. I’d heard rumors that it was going to be their next film after Help. John Lennon was going to play Gollum. Paul was going to play Frodo. George Harrison was going to play Gandalf, and Ringo Starr was going to play Sam. And a lot of other people were going to play other roles. Paul was very gracious; he said, ‘It was a good job we never made ours because then you wouldn’t have made yours and it was great to see yours.’ I said, ‘It’s the songs I feel badly about; you guys would have banged out a few good tunes for this. You were The Beatles, after all. It’s a shame we missed out.’ Tolkien sold the rights to UA in 1968 or ’69, the only work of his he sold. After he died, his son Christopher Tolkien rummaged through all his father’s archives and found all this material he thought was worthy of publication. The one everybody knows is The Silmarillion, which his father wrote in pieces, some while he sat in the trenches of the First World War.
DEADLINE: It was harder to read than the other books, I recall.
JACKSON: Well, I wouldn’t talk about that, but they got published by Christopher and he did other books as well. The Tolkien estate has hung onto those film rights, and shown no desire for anyone to do it. That’s the current situation. There’s no amount of money that Warner Bros. could pay the estate for any film rights. No, no, no. And I’m sure they’ve offered any amount of money for those film rights. Until that situation changes…
DEADLINE: Big directors like yourself make a hit movie, hang around for the sequel payday and move on. More and more directors stick with the worlds they create. Business-wise, they’re like Fortune 500 companies. You, Jim Cameron, Christopher Nolan on The Dark Knight, Michael Bay on Transformers. The results have been some of the biggest-grossing films in movie history. What is the appeal of cinematically creating a world like Middle Earth, and then not leaving?
JACKSON: Well, the bus fare home from Middle Earth is so expensive, once you’re there you might as well stay and make your living there. As you well know, we gave it a bit of an attempt on The Hobbit to step back and be producers for Guillermo del Toro. Though we were still writing and producing, this would have allowed me to do some things while Guillermo was shooting and in post. But that didn’t work out. MGM now has the United Artists’ half of the rights, but that was all pretty much up in the air then and when GDT left and I took it over, (it was) ‘OK. Peter, you’re back in.’ Like Al Pacino in Godfather III? You try to get out and they pull you back in. But once I was back in, it was a blast. This was the most fun I ever had making a film.
DEADLINE: What’s most gratifying?
JACKSON: I damn sure wasn’t going to spend five years of my life miserable, wishing somebody else had directed it. I was going to have fun and make some great movies. I had more confidence than the first time around. We shot these three more or less in sequence. I really like the third movie, I feel like we’ve gotten up a full head of steam up. I don’t want to regret anything in life, and I don’t. We made a lot of new friends. The Lord Of The Rings was this legendary experience where we bonded with so many people. I was interested to see if that could happen again, and it has. Some of The Hobbit cast are very close friends of ours, and will always be. I will walk away with a new confidence that I want to bring to new movies. I want to put everything I think I’ve learned about filmmaking and storytelling, and put it to the test in other areas.
DEADLINE: You had stories you wanted to tell onscreen about WWII, and there was As Nature Made Him, the tragedy of a newborn boy whose privates were mangled in a botched circumcision and who was turned into a girl with disastrous results. Did you pine for those future projects while in Middle Earth so long?
JACKSON: Yes, to some degree. The film we were probably going to make while Guillermo was shooting The Hobbit was The Dam Busters.
DEADLINE: Which one is that?
JACKSON: A WWII story, the breaking of German dams. There was a 1953 black-and-white movie, but this would not have been a remake as much as a retelling of the original raid on the 16th of May, 1943. It’s a very beloved story. I’ve had so many people the last five years come and ask, ‘When are you going to make The Dam Busters? When are you going to make The Dam Busters?’ Honestly, you ask me what I got out of five years of making The Hobbit? It was me feeling like I have to make The Dam Busters, because of the endless people asking, ‘When are you going to make The Dam Busters? So many people. Apart from you.
DEADLINE: Well, I’m the lone idiot who’s more concerned with make-believe Middle Earth history than actual history. Hey, by the way, Pete, I got one. When are you going to make The Dam Busters?
JACKSON: Well, we still have the rights, and it’s one in a little pot of movies. We don’t have a next movie nailed down, but certainly The Dam Busters is one of them. There is only a limited span I can abide, of people driving me nuts asking me when I’m going to do that project. So I’ll have to do it. I want to, actually, it’s one of the truly great true stories of the Second World War, a wonderful, wonderful story. There were New Zealand pilots involved. In fact, the last living Dam Buster pilot on the raid is 95 years old. Les Munro is the only one left, and he’s a Kiwi. So there’s a notable New Zealand connection. It has been 20 years since Heavenly Creatures, where we told a New Zealand story. I’d qualify The Dam Busters as a New Zealand story. Same with As Nature Made Him, because the doctor who was the cause of that family’s misery was a New Zealander, Dr. John Money. Whatever we end up doing in whatever order, we are looking forward to making Kiwi stories.
DEADLINE: Twice now, you shot a trilogy of films consecutively. What kind of changes did you make as you watched early installments unfold? The stakes in The Desolation Of Smaug seemed much higher than in the first film and you’ve titled the finale The Battle Of The Five Armies. That sounds like high stakes.
JACKSON: The Battle Of The Five Armies is the result of what the dwarves did at the end of the last film. You had a mountain full of gold and a dragon protecting it and stopping people from going in. By the dwarves releasing that dragon, they’ve set in motion a whole stream of things. The climax, the last three minutes of the last movie, really provides us with a helluva propellant into the beginning of this film. That’s fun, not needing any time for backstory, just getting right into it and keeping a thriller pace going all the way through.
DEADLINE: That’s how The Two Towers felt…
JACKSON: Of all of them, this feels most like a thriller to me. Obviously they are fantasy action adventures but this is closest to All The President’s Men’s evolving personality-based thriller style. I’m enjoying that too. We don’t introduce any new characters. We don’t go anywhere. There’s no traveling. The dwarves and everyone else got to where they need to be last time and everybody’s been introduced. Whatever happened before changed when the mountain became empty of dragon. And 13 isn’t a lot of dwarves to protect that amount of gold.
DEADLINE: What do you most love about your filmmaking life, and life in general, that you owe to this Middle Earth experience? How have you, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens grown as filmmakers and enablers of large-canvas storytelling?
JACKSON: Every time you make movies, you hope you will grow. The Hobbit was interesting in that we took so much material from the appendices of The Lord Of The Rings and tried to weave it in. We had to really create character arcs that weren’t really in a book that was written as a bedtime story. It was literally, ‘Let’s not stop to develop character here, we’re reading a story to a 5-year-old, trying to get them to go to bed.’ That is how Tolkien wrote it. To actually have to create all that framework of The Hobbit was quite an exercise. It’s hard to say what you learn but I do feel a confidence. Nothing you do is perfect, but I feel I understand more about storytelling and character development than before. I don’t know whether that would have happened had we made other movies instead of these. If it was Meet The Feebles, 4, 5 and 6, Brain Dead or whatever, we would have kept on going and making films in New Zealand whether or not we were lucky enough to make Lord Of The Rings. We would have learned, but this has been a powerhouse education. What was the first part of that question?
DEADLINE: What this experience provided you…
JACKSON: I’ll tell you what it provided us. The thing I will be forever grateful to Professor Tolkien for is providing me the chance to recreate First World War aircraft from the original drawings and be able to hire people, set up a factory and be able to make WWI planes, which was always my hobby. I was able to push that hobby to the ultimate level because of the income. We also have set up an infrastructure in New Zealand, built our production and post-(production) operation. Every time I set foot in that building, I say, thank you, Lord Of The Rings.
DEADLINE: I’ve been around long enough to remember when it was down to one guy, Bob Shaye, who said, ‘Let’s do this,’ just before the turnaround rights reverted to Harvey Weinstein, who would have hired another director to make a single film of that trilogy. In those dread moments that hit you just before you fall asleep, do you ever think how close you were to never doing any of this?
[As Jackson mulls this, a response comes from across the room, where his longtime agent-turned-manager Ken Kamins sits]
KAMINS: I do.
JACKSON: [Laughs hard]
DEADLINE: Viggo Mortensen was quoted this year saying the last two Lord Of The Rings films suffered by veering from the fantasy elements he loved in the first film. His Aragorn was so fully realized that it made me sad. Can’t I have my unblemished memory of that trilogy and his role in bringing it to life? Any thoughts on Viggo, and have you ever found yourself regretting a comment that marginalized one of your films after you saw it punctured a fan’s memory?
JACKSON: I hope I have never done that. I don’t really have a particular opinion about the first part of the question, I just used the tools I had. Viggo knows this, and we actually have communicated since then. He kind of got misquoted and he explained how it happened and we are fine with it. But I know what you’re saying, about the way people remember movies but no matter who says what or how many times they get quoted, the beauty is, everyone keeps their own experience and subjective reality of a film. Whether it’s Lord Of The Rings or something else, you have your own cherished experience. It’s so strong that sometimes it’s better to not revisit films of your childhood. When you saw a film at age 6 or 7 that made a huge impact on you, then you watch them today and think, really? That shows how the world has changed and how much more sophisticated entertainment has gotten. I grew up on Thunderbirds, these puppets with marionettes. It doesn’t hold up too well with pacing, story and scripts but to me they are still unblemished and I can still experience the feeling I had back then. Star Wars I saw at age 16, perfect age for that film, and I stood up and cheered when the Death Star blew up. I’ve met George Lucas and learned a lot to demystify the movie, but nothing changes that memory that is so precious to me. No one can ever take that away.
DEADLINE: I’ve often read people saying how cheesy the shark looks in Jaws. Maybe I don’t look close enough, but that movie holds up for me.
JACKSON: It holds up so well. We did a screening of Jaws a year ago after the new restoration. You could release that film today and you would barely know it was shot in the ’70s. It’s just a brilliant movie that works. The memories are things that will never go away and they are part of your organic upbringings, they’re implanted. And film geeks like me and you, and the people here, we are all the product of the movies we saw.
DEADLINE: It’s the core of this whole Comic-Con.
JACKSON: I was one of these people. First time I went on an overseas trip without my parents accompanying me, I was 19 and me and a buddy saved up and flew from New Zealand to Los Angeles to go to a science fiction convention. Listening to the speakers at the seminars, buying up the Famous Monsters replicas, I was all there. I still completely connect to all this.
DEADLINE: I’ve got this fantasy that one day I will sit in a theater and see all six Middle Earth movies, all in 3D…
JACKSON: Sure you wouldn’t fall asleep on me and snore?
DEADLINE: If it requires an intravenous coffee drip, I promise not to. Is that in my future? Will you convert the original trilogy?
JACKSON: It’s all money, as you know. Nothing happens in Hollywood that isn’t driven by business. It’s rights, too, that still belong to some of those international distributors, so those licenses will have to burn off and revert to Warner Bros. Apart from Titanic, a lot of those re-releases haven’t done that well. The last Star Wars re-release didn’t perform that well, or you would have seen more of this happening.
DEADLINE: If asked, you’ll rise to the occasion, or conversion?
JACKSON: I’d have no issue against it. The three films belong to Warner Bros. and I would be very supportive. It might be another 15 years.
DEADLINE: Those three years when LOTR began hitting the screen every December were my favorite period in covering the movie business. And then you put out those extended DVDs, and in Two Towers I could see the orcs and Uruk-Hai fleeing into the forest after losing the battle of Helm’s Deep and seeing them get devoured by the trees. I was giddy. So many discoveries in those DVDs. So anything you can add to the experience here, even if it makes the movies longer…
JACKSON: The Smaug movie, we’ve got 25 or 26 minutes of pretty good stuff for that DVD. The first one, there wasn’t that much we left on the cutting room floor and it wasn’t earth shattering. But this is worthwhile stuff that you haven’t seen before.