Peter Jackson, the director of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, is a chubby sprite with untamed hair and beard who wears Bermuda shorts in December and walks barefoot in the Waldorf-Astoria. His most successful venture before adapting J.R.R. Tolkien's epic was an art-house film.
"If you were entrusting $270 million to someone making three movies, you wouldn't choose me," he said in a recent interview.
Jackson's modesty belies his tenacity. His nearly decadelong odyssey to shepherd "The Lord of the Rings" from book to screen has reached fruition. The first of three installments, "The Fellowship of the Ring," opens Wednesday with the next two to be released around Christmas in 2002 and 2003.
"I do believe a certain obsessiveness is a positive thing when you have to wake up every morning at 6:30 and work till 11 at night and shoot for 274 days and spend eight years of your life on it," Jackson said.
Fueled by the anxiety of knowing his son was off fighting the Nazis, British author Tolkien wrote more than 1,000 pages about a place called Middle-earth. Elves, dwarves, wizards and 3-foot-6 humanoid creatures called hobbits battled for possession of a ring that could make the bearer all-powerful.
The ring falls into the trusted hands of a hobbit named Frodo Baggins, but evil is never far away. "Lord of the Rings" was a hit in Europe in the '50s, then embraced by the counterculture here in the '60s before it gained mass popularity.
"No matter what liberties we took with dialogue and the plot," Jackson said, "we did want to give people the feeling we had gone on location to Middle-earth to shoot the film."
To shape the sword and sorcery into three holiday movies required hubris. Jackson seemed to be of more humble ambition. You could say he was born to make splatter flicks, given his arrival into the world on Halloween in 1961. As a boy, he shot movies with his parents' Super 8, punching holes in the celluloid to simulate gunshots. He displayed his lust for gore in a low-budget science-fiction romp called "Bad Taste," which screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1987, and he also created the 1991 zombie fest "Braindead" and 1996's "The Frighteners."
But it was the original "King Kong" that turned him on to filmmaking. He pledged to take on the big ape someday. Just when it seemed like it would happen, the studio in charge, Universal, got cold feet because a new "Godzilla" and another gorilla movie, "Mighty Joe Young," were in the works. Jackson regrouped with his special-effects team to come up with another fantasy project.
"We kept saying it has to be like `Lord of the Rings' and we kept talking about `Lord of the Rings' so much, we thought it would be worth making a phone call to find out who had the rights to it," he said.
Jackson's investigation led him to Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein had distributed Jackson's "Heavenly Creatures," for which Jackson's wife, Fran Walsh, had written an Oscar-nominated screenplay about two friends (one of them played by Kate Winslet) who plot to kill one of their mothers. The movie was an art-house hit here, so Weinstein was eager to deal.
But when the studio boss expressed a desire to make just one movie, Jackson balked. The director wanted to make two. Weinstein gave Jackson a month to shop the project around. Only New Line entertained the proposal with one caveat: Because Tolkien wrote three books, why not make three movies?
The 40-year-old Jackson, who grew up near Wellington, New Zealand, believes he won over the studio because he could create out-of-this-world wonder on a down-to-earth budget. "The reality is we make movies in New Zealand for half the price they would cost elsewhere," he said. "If we're living in a world where `Pearl Harbor' costs $150 million, I've got to believe `Fellowship of the Ring' would cost $180 million."
Wearing a purple polo shirt with the shorts, Jackson looked like a hobbit about to play 18 holes at a very liberal country club. But his scruffy exterior houses a capable core.
"I can't imagine anyone else, be it the usual candidates like Lucas or Spielberg, maintaining the focus and having the endurance to get through this," said Viggo Mortensen, who plays the human warrior Aragorn, spending 1½ years on location with Jackson in the forest of Matamata on New Zealand's North Island.
Jackson said the toughest times came working knee-deep in a swamp, with snow on the way and the police hounding his crew to finish up.
"A director has many duties," Jackson said. "One of them is to be calm. In an organization as big as we had with 2,000 people working over a long period of time, if the director started to unravel, the entire thing would fall apart like a house of cards."
Elijah Woods, who plays Frodo Baggins, said Jackson never lost his cool. But not even a spell cast by one of Middle-earth's powerful wizards could ease the filmmaker's self-doubt.
"The fear of failure is one of the most powerful creative forces at work," Jackson said.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times