Ringer Spy Nazz attended the MANY press confrences during the ROTK media blitz last month. In this article he chats with Peter Jackson.

Special thanks to Rip It Up Magazine in South Australia for this transcript.

The VIP Panel at the Lincoln Centre Event
Peter Jackson via Satellite at the Lincoln Centre

The Epic Of All Epics – Making The Biggest Film Production Of All Time: The Lord Of The Rings

Peter Jackson’s adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s beloved three-part novel The Lord Of The Rings has rightly been acknowledged by the public as one of the great cinematic achievements of our time. All the filmmakers’ respect for the author’s work, coupled with the care and massive attention to detail put into making them seem the most ‘possible version of the books’ (to quote a phrase coined by costume designer Ngila Dickson) seems to have paid off. The Return Of The King has already smashed opening day box office records, making $34 million dollars in a single day when it opened in the US on Thursday December 18.

With the journey finally coming to an end, we present for you some of the vast collection of interviews I was lucky enough to conduct when visiting Wellington New Zealand, home-base of the production for the world premiere. Firstly, the man of the hour, director, writer and producer, Peter Jackson:

Peter, we’ve heard the saying, ‘bigger than Ben Hur’ before, but this really is. Heck, it’s even an epic among epics.

PJ: “[laughs] Possibly it is.”

How are you feeling at the moment, on the night before the world premiere of the third film, seven years in the making?

PJ: “Exhausted. I’m feeling a degree of stress about tomorrow – for me, it’s going to be a very stressful day. I’m going to try to enjoy it which is what I should try and do because it’s going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But I don’t really like being the centre of attention at any point in time. One of the drawbacks of directing films like this is, obviously, at you get to point where you have to step up and be the front-person for the film to represent the movie; which, on many levels, I’m proud to do, but it’s just a little bit scary that’s all.

“It’ll be a relief to get to the Embassy and sit and watch the movie. I haven’t seen the movie yet.”

What are going to wear?

PJ: “I dunno as long as this doesn’t get too smelly [tugs at crumpled shirt], this will be fine [laughter]!”

I know you’re not supposed to have favourites with children, but of all the characters, there must surely be one you prefer.

PJ: “There’s not. And I’m not just saying that. I think what’s really nice about these films is that they’re true ensemble movies. There’s nobody who really is the star of the movie. In fact, even the three movies we’ve made, they’ve all managed to focus on different characters as the story weaves itself. And so no I’ve always been fond of the Hobbits as characters in themselves because the Hobbits are much like us; or certainly like me. I should be saying Aragorn really but I’m more pathetic than that I’m afraid [giggles] so the Hobbits are the people I have the greatest affection for as a race.

“If I was to choose anywhere in Middle-Earth I’d like to live, it would be in that lovely little Hobbiton village. It’s actually in Mata-Mata but never mind.”

I’ve heard on the grapevine that they’re thinking of maybe reconstructing it in the wild. Is that true?

PJ: “Well I love Bag End. One of the great joys about making this film is that I got to walk around all the sets, which was great. It’s like sometimes you feel that you’re really in the world; especially up in Mata-Mata when we had that whole farm decked out as Hobbiton. But the interior of Bag-End was back in the studio here because once we were inside the door we were back in the studio. I loved the set because, as you saw in the movie, it was all made with round walls – and it’s just amazing how comforting roundness is in a building. I thought, ‘why aren’t we making round buildings? Why is it all just square, flat walls? It’s so comforting in all this roundness, so I asked New Line while we were shooting it a long time ago, I said, ‘listen if I pay for all the storage costs’ – because basically sets are big and cumbersome and, as soon as you finish with them, they get smashed up and burnt because no one wants to keep them – so I said, ‘if I pay for the storage, can I keep Bag End?’ And they said, ‘yeah sure [laughs]. We don’t want Bag End.’ So I’ve kept it and the whole idea is to stick it into a hill and have it as a guest house.”

Technology-wise, from the beginning of the making of FellowshipŠ to now, how much has it improved?

PJ: “It has improved enormously. You can’t believe the lengthy meetings I had at the beginning of the process back in 1998, round-tables like this actually; with all the different department heads. We would go through the scripts with the storyboards and try to figure out ways to do shots. And it would be sooo complicated, like, ‘oh okay, we want this creature so we’re going to have to use a motion control and make sure we measure it out. And we’re going to have to do this and that,’ and everybody was stressing about how we were going to do it. Now four years have gone by and when this year I was doing some shooting, and nobody cared any more. There were no storyboards, it was just like, ‘well we’re going to have this big elephant thing there so we’ll just shoot it. Let’s just do it quickly coz we’ve got to move on. So bang and do it [laughter]. And it could all be fixed later. It was all a real sense that we could fix it all on the computer.

“That’s one of the things that’s happened with the technology. It’s not so much that things look so much more realistic now than they did four years ago, but the speed and ease of actually using all this stuff has got a lot faster and quicker. Kids can do stuff on PCs nowadays that can rival just about anything we can do. Computer effects are just a tool and they don’t have to dominate movies or used for special effects films, but computers are very useful for creating what you’ve got in your mind and getting it on film. I think the great use of computers is going to be for low budget films. They’ll become so cheap that low budget films can afford to use them. They’re almost there now coz you can just about, as I said, do it on your home PC. It means that people who can’t afford big crowds, because they’re a low budget movie, will be able to have them because you can it all on the computer. It’ll help low budget films feel more expensive – and not just be isolated to these big budget movies.”

What do you say to the people who would have doubted you could pull this off? Is it a bit like, ‘I told you so’?

PJ: “Oh no. I dunno. Everybody has a perfect right to doubt we could pull it off. I was a director without any box office record of particular note. New Zealand, our crews down here had never made a film this big. There was every reason in the world to have a perfectly legitimate cause to say, ‘are you sure these guys can really do it?’ It’s nice to have proven that we could. It’s nice just to realise that filmmaking has got to the point now where the biggest film productions I mean this is undoubtedly the biggest film production of all time if you look at all three movies but that it can be done – and down here in New Zealand.”

Was there ever any doubt?

PJ: “No. I didn’t have those moments, no. I mean, making The Lord Of The Rings is not a lot different to making any other film. Every film has it’s own circumstances. Making Meet The Feebles was just as hard as The Lord Of The Rings – it was no easier working with puppets and trying to find ways to hide the puppeteers and not having any money in that case, so I couldn’t solve things with money and had to figure it out cheaply. That was hard and stressful and one of the great advantages of The Lord Of The Rings was having the big budget. I was able to have a lot of people helping me and what the money ultimately provides you in a big budget film is the people. You have a lot of help and it does make it easier the more help you have?”

What’s the nicest thing anybody could say about your movie?

PJ: “I really enjoyed your film. That’s all you do it for really. There is no other reason to make the movies,” Jackson admits with a good-natured chuckle. “I don’t believe in making movies that I’ve got some personal statement I want the world to tune in to. For that reason, I don’t make movies because I think I’m an artist that wants to put something into the world that I think is significant. I just make them because want people to enjoy them, because I love movies. I’m as much of a film geek as anybody else and always have been; since I was a kid.”

What’s your favourite movie, outside the ones you’ve made yourself?

PJ: “King Kong. The original 1933 King Kong is my favourite film. Buster Keaton’s The General I love. Dawn Of The Dead I love. Lots of films.”

Why make King Kong again if it captured your imagination so much?

PJ: “I think the reality with King Kong and other similar movies is that this is the first generation now – our children if you like – most of them have absolutely no interest in watching a black and white film. I was born and brought up in a time when TV was black and white. And I was afraid of watching black and white films and old fashioned films and films with scratches or pops and hisses on the soundtrack.

“The generation of today just have no tolerance or patience for old black and white movies where the acting is a little bit old fashioned and the effects are jerky or clumsy. Kids just have no interest in it at all which is a little bit of a worry. So if there’s any time to legitimately make a new version of King Kong, this is it. This is a great story that is fading out of the consciousness of our kids. Most kids today couldn’t tell you what King Kong was. They’ve heard of it but don’t really know what it is.”

Do you remember the first time you saw it?

PJ: “Yeah. It was on TV on a Friday night here [Wellington, NZ] and I was about eight or nine years old. I didn’t really know much about it. I saw it and I was just swept away. It was the moment in time where I definitely wanted to become a filmmaker. I’d made movies for a couple of years prior to that, because I was making movies when I was about seven; little films mainly inspired by Thunderbirds actually. And then I saw Kong and it was just the most magical, enchanting experience. I just forgot I was in the lounge of Krill Bay and was just suddenly swept away to Skull Island and absolutely entranced by the film. After that I wanted to do that. I just thought it must just be so much fun to make films like this. There was an allure about it.”

What was it about that story? It was acclaimed way back then for state of the art effects.

PJ: “It was made in 1933. The one in 1976 was a horrible film.”

Was that a case of special effects taking over?

PJ: “I see what you’re saying. Yeah. The 1976 one was just horrible on all counts. They just tried to make it hip and modern and kinda trendy at that time. It looks terribly dated now. I watched it a little while ago and it’s horrible just soooo dated – more dated than the 1933 version [laughs]! It doesn’t have emotion, it just has smart-arsed stuff in it. It doesn’t have genuine heart or emotion. It’s just sterile.”

In The Return Of The King, when the Hobbits return to Hobbiton and there’s the amazing scene with the actor Tim Gordon, where all the Hobbits are prancing around a big pumpkin and the four Hobbits look to each other. I wonder, do you think that echoed Tolkien’s own experience of coming back from World War I?

PJ: “Yeah. I think that’s exactly what it was. It was actually a scene we shot this year [2003]. We’d shot everything else around that area four years ago on our main schedule. We shot the coronation, the Grey Havens later and we’d shot Frodo writing in the book at Bag End. We’d shot everything around that time, back in 1999 and 2000. But this year, when I had a look at a cut of the film

“We actually showed the film to Elijah, Billy and Dom last year. you remember when they came out for The Two Towers junket last year. They went to the premiere of The Two Towers, and the next day they came round to our house. And they said, ‘look we’ve got a favour to ask can we see The Return Of The King [laughs]?’ So I played it for them this time last year which was interesting. But I felt, what we hadn’t quite shot and hadn’t written originally, was a sense of closure of them actually finishing their job. That they’d achieved something. They’d arrived back in Hobbiton and why had they done it? I wanted a scene that did that. So I was wondering what to do.

“It was intersecting what you say, because I wondered what it was like to come back from war. And I realised actually for the first time in my life – I hadn’t even thought about it – that the reason why the RSA, the Returned Servicemen’s Association, was formed. All around the world you had these Returned Servicemen’s Associations and they were formed after World War I.

“And I realised that these guys came back from some horrific, traumatic experience and they’re back in their families, and they’ve got their wives or girlfriends, children, mothers and fathers. And they can’t talk to them about what it was like. You can’t start to talk about dismemberment and lice and rats and mud in the trenches and killing people. You just can’t talk to anyone else about it. You had to be able to sit with other people who had shared the experience, not having to talk about it, but just other people who understood. So there’s this sense of understanding and everyone else doesn’t really understand.

“I wanted to have this scene in the pub, The Green Dragon Inn, that showed that. That these four guys all knew what they’d gone through, that they didn’t have to talk about it. They just had to look each other in the eye. And why they went through it was for this pumpkin next door! Everyone’s admiring the big pumpkin – and that’s what they did what they did for: to preserve that lifestyle, to preserve he simplicity of being proud of the pumpkin.”

That really summed it up.

So to young actors and movie makers from New Zealand, you’ve proved that New Zealanders can do it. What advice do you have for them?

PJ: “I think the best thing to do is obviously, as you could imagine, I get a huge amount of mail from young filmmakers from all around the world. More often than not, or just about always in fact, it’s simply from people who like the idea of being a filmmaker. They say, ‘oh I love films and can I apprentice with you?’ That’s what they usually ask: can I be your assistant and can I come and watch onset when you’re filming. I love the idea of making a movie. That approach doesn’t really work; just out of experience. What I respond to, and what anyone responds to, are films. To me today, I grew up making movies when I was a kid on Super8 which wasn’t a particularly helpful thing to use. You didn’t have sound and you couldn’t really cut it together very easily. But today, there’s such great home video equipment that I just feel that before writing any letters or approaching me or before anybody asks, go out and make films and figure it out. I think, if you can’t make a reasonably good film at whatever age you are, and can’t take it through to its completion to something you’re proud of, then you probably haven’t got what it actually takes to go ahead and be a filmmaker. So get to that point first and figure out whether you have an aptitude for it, and then by all means, send them in. It’s much better to have a film to look than just a letter saying I like the idea of becoming a filmmaker.”

You shouldn’t have said that. You’ll be inundated with 10,000 tapes!

PJ: “Oh Lord [laughs].”

[Question courtesy of Ruth McHugh, Austereo Sydney] How much did the creation of Shelob the giant spider tap into your infamous arachnophobia?

PJ: “[laughs] I know some people love them coz they eat other insects but I hate them. There was a particularly nasty spider that used to live at the back of our house when I was younger, and I used to go out in the back with my matchbox cars when I was six-years old and dig away – and come across these stubby little tunnel web spiders. They scared the hell out of me. They’re these pudgy, little, fat spiders with red backs and two horrible fangs up the front. They’re nasty and they look like it too.

“And so this year, when we commenced design work on Shelob, I said to the Weta Workshop that Shelob had to be based on the tunnel web: the spider that freaks me out the most. One of the guys brought one into the workshop the next day, in a glass jar, and it terrified me.

“So she’s inspired by a real spider. Whenever I’ve seen movie spiders before, they’ve always been based on tarantulas which are filmed in slow motion so they look lumbering and move slowly. I wanted Shelob to move fast. One of the scariest things about spiders is the way they scuttle and freeze, then scuttle and freeze again with this stop-start thing. They keep their legs reared up in the air and that’s just horrible [laughs].

“We used every fear I have about spiders for the Shelob sequence. When I watched it for the first time, my stomach tightened up and I felt sick so I thought, ‘well good! This is working.’ Because it got to me.”

How did you stay sane throughout?

PJ: “With a project like this, it’s just as important to have fun. I was very much aware that, for my own sanity at the beginning, there was no way I was going to get through 18 months of shooting and then the subsequent three years if we weren’t enjoying ourselves. So that’s the attitude that I went with. And we were fortunate to have such a great team around us. If they realise it was supposed to be fun, they all join in.”

You seem to have a knack for picking people who work well together and people who fit in to their roles. Is that something you were constantly aware of?

PJ: “Films are such strange things. Often on films, not all the time, you end up working with strangers, with people you hadn’t met prior to the experience. I was very much aware that, as a long project, if we ended up working with people that didn’t get on with each other or didn’t like it, it would make it a very difficult project. Normally a film shoot is eight or 12 weeks and this was 15-16 months of principal shooting. When we were casting the movie or talking to crew members for instance, we did think of two things. One was the skill or quality of the person. Secondly, we met with just about everybody beforehand, and just wanted to make sure they were nice people – and I know that sounds rather simple and rather naïve, but it was very important to us to work with nice people for that length of time. Basically the answer is yes, we did have to take that into account and also take it very seriously.”