Thursday, July 1, 2010

Peter Jackson And His Schlock Horror Roots

Peter Jackson | A Constantly Racing Mind
L ooking back, I wasn't much of a Peter Jackson fan until "The Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" came out in 2001, then I started taking notice.  When he released the second epic chapter of the J.J.R. Tolkien's saga, I took notice and looked into his career up to that point.  Jackson is now at a stage in his career as an established director, and can write his own ticket, I thought it would be interesting to delve into Peter Jackson's early career as both a writer and a director.  Audiences have seen Jackson's style developing over the years in the screenplays he writes, the films he directs, and the movies he chooses to produce.  As of this writing, the directorial helm of the prequel to Jackson's LOTR trilogy is still up in the air; as audiences wait in anticipation of Jackson, hopefully, taking over the reigns of the film.

Have Camera Will Travel

Like many of us who were born in the early 60's, Jackson was able to get hold of a Super 8 movie camera.  He stared, wrote, directed, and acted in his own films.  Those were the days of free-range kids who had a hobby were free to go forth and conquer.  The thing about Jackson is that he didn't give up those childhood dreams; he pursued them.  In 1987, when Jackson was 26, he wrote, directed, and acted in "Bad Taste," a science fiction, horror-comedy.  When watching "Bad Taste," the first film that comes to mind is Sam Raimi's "Evil Dead" from 1981.  Although "Bad Taste" still looks amateurish when compared to "Evil Dead," you can see the direction that Jackson is going, in regards, to film direction and style.  Making low-budget films is an art of economy and imagination.  When little or no money is available to produce your own films, camera tricks from the early days of filmmaking are put to good use.  Not having any actors, Jackson, doubles in the part of Derek and as Robert (the alien) and with some camera placement trickery fought with himself on the side of a cliff.  Bad Taste is one of those bad films that people tend to love because of the low budget gruesome effects.  Jackson submitted "Bad Taste" to the Cannes Film Festival in 1987 where he was noticed and started to make international deals.

Cult Classic Fodder

Peter Jackson makes no bones about creating a bad film; "Bad Taste" is admired for the cheesiness and camp factor.  Unlike some directors who make terrible films by accident, Jackson's "Bad Taste" was meant to inspire the gag reflex and the funny bone.  Jackson's next film took the audience in a different direction.  "Meet the Feebles," is Jackson's social commentary about sex, drugs, and what Jackson considers the dark side of Hollywood filmmaking.  Watching "Meet the Feebles," you wonder if you are watching a film from the same Peter Jackson that brought Tolkien’s "Lord of The Rings" to the world.  The tag line went something like this, "From the director that brought you Bad Taste come a movie with no taste at all."  Following a troupe of life-size animal puppets, the ridiculous suits are unnerving as the characters portray human emotions, needs, and desires.  The violence in "Meet the Feebles" is done with in a cartoon style and lit in muted oranges, blues, and greens.  Various scenes that show Feebles puppet characters doing drugs, having sex, and in one scene, the machine gun toting Heidi the Hippo exterminates the other puppet characters.  The puppet's that Jackson uses are creepy versions of the "Star Wars Muppets. "  Watching scenes of Meet the Feebles are hints of improvement in camera technique, acting, and overall production values that one will see later in 1996's "Frighteners."

God Defend New Zealand

Choosing to stay in his native New Zealand, is a major decision that Jackson makes early in his career, and an important one.  During "Meet the Feebles," Peter Jackson had the fortune to work with Richard Taylor.  In this collaboration, audiences start to see a significant jump in the quality of filmmaking in Jackson's films.  The mark of a good director is the ability to work closely, with great people.  Taylor and Tania Rodger formed the special effects company Weta Workshop in 1987; and ever since are key contributors to Jackson's filmmaking look and feel.  Like Lucas, Jackson’s Weta Workshop works on every Jackson film since "Meet the Feebles," and continues with Jackson in the making of 1992's "Dead Alive," a horror comedy about a guy trying to keep his zombie mother under control.  Like the "Meet the Feebles," Jackson takes on mature subject matters with zombies having sex, the usual gratuitous violence, and extreme gore.  Still honing in on the craft of directing B grade horror movies, "Dead Alive" is pure camp that appeals to fans of bad movies. Working closely with Taylor and Rodger Jackson continue building Weta, as they move into production of their next film, "Heavenly Creatures."

Peter Jackson: Dead Alive | A Constantly Racing Mind

Moving Toward Mainstream

Telling a true-crime story, Jackson, and wife, Fran Walsh wrote the screenplay focusing on the events leading up to the 1954 Parker–Hulme murder.  Instead of cheap, comic horror, Walsh and Jackson go into the relationship of Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme prior to the murder of Parker's mother.  Developing characters and building tension in the story rather, gives "Heavenly Creatures" a more professional look that Jackson later displays in LOTR and King Kong.  Jackson's use of Taylor and the newly formed division of their Weta Workshop, Weta Digital to create the special effects 1994's "Heavenly Creatures."  Using the bright, colorful palette of Christchurch New Zealand, the film is bright and cheery contrasting with the dark subject matter.  Slipping between reality and the world of illusion, Weta and Jackson together creates a controversial film without going over the boundaries of good taste.  The film is notable in the fact that it received a nomination for an Academy award, but also that it starred the 17 year-old Kate Winslet in her first feature film.  As Jackson directs new films, the quality of his filmmaking improves and Jackson gets better at his craft.

A Brief Sidestep

Returning to comedy, in 1995 Jackson co-directed "Forgotten Silver" along with fellow New Zealander, Costa Botes.  Detailing the life of an unknown New Zealand filmmaker, Jackson and Botes developed an elaborate history for the fictional Colin McKenzie.  Done in documentary style, Jackson and Botes star as filmmakers rediscovering McKenzie, and even include film critic Leonard Maltin in segments giving the audience the sense of realism. Like Orson Welles's "War of the Worlds" 1938 radio broadcast, New Zealanders were shocked to find that McKenzie was made up.  More of a side project, Jackson's return to feature filmmaking was about to break wide open.

The Big Time, Almost

Peter Jackson: Frighteners | A Constantly Racing Mind The "Frighteners" was Jackson's first film to have a well-know actor starring in his film.  Six years after his success with the last "Back to the Future" films, Michael J. Fox, was starring in less than financially successful pictures. Although "The Frighteners" was about a guy in a Midwestern town, Fox flew to New Zealand, where Jackson wanted to shoot.  Released during the Summer Olympics in 1996, "The Frighteners" only grossed $29,359,216 in its worldwide release.  After "The Frighteners," Fox went back to television, starring in "Spin City" until his retirement from acting.  Again, Jackson's style of filmmaking improves, and while still making a horror comedy, "The Frighteners" doesn't come off as campy or low budget as his previous horror movies.  Utilizing Weta Digital for the effects, he maxed out the company's resources with the number of effects needed to produce all the ghosts.  In many cases, the effects seemed overused, and in many ways, the visual effects crowd out the storyline.  While watching "The Frighteners" for the first time, my immediate reaction was to double check who the director was, because the film seemed to be done in the same style as "Beetlejuice."  Until watching the end of the film did, I notice that it wasn't Tim Burton but some guy named Jackson from New Zealand.  Danny Elfman's soundtrack heightened the confusion and the dark comedy seemed more like Burton as the plot developed.  Although I thought "The Frighteners" was good, I did think the ending was too good to be true.

Peter Jackson dropped off my radarscope until the beginning of a new century.  After 9/11, the world was in need of some good escapist alternatives to the terrorists’ attacks that preceded the release of "The Lord of the Rings." Jackson's hard work for the last ten years paid off.  From the low-budget horror pictures, that marked Jackson's attempt at feature filmmaking, to the grand vision that is the LOTR in 2001 is a worthy achievement.  While still using camera tricks to create the illusion of Hobbits and Dwarves, he is now part of filmmaking history for doing so.  Jackson’s use of the breathtaking green landscape of his native New Zealand echoes in the bright blue of Cameron's Pandora in "Avatar."  The special effects of Weta Workshop rival Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic and in many ways, they are equals.  Jackson's skill at telling dramatic stories and interjecting comedy into a picture is superb.  Serving as executive producer for upcoming projects like "The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn," which is in post-production and will be released in 2011, Jackson holds the key to the future of science fiction and fantasy filmmaking.  In many ways, he has become the master of fantasy filmmaking and as the producer of "The Hobbit," he must decide if he should take over the project, and direct it himself.


Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson
Weta Workshops
Weta Digital

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