He's described locally as a "genius masquerading as an ordinary person," a creative whirlwind, finan-cial powerhouse and folk hero rolled into one. Yet even that can't quite measure the effect "The Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson has had on his native country.
Certainly, when one of the world's smaller countries, New Zealand (population 3.8 million), snags one of the biggest deals in cinema history, it's bound to stir things up. But Jackson's wildly ambitious film trilogy has shaken up his world the way Gandalf shook up Middle-earth; he's left no part of the kingdom untouched.
The three films, all shot here, have brought in hundreds of millions of dollars to New Zealand's economy, turned the country into an international movie-making force -- the capital has been nicknamed "Wellywood" -- and made Jackson perhaps the country's best-known export. Excitement here is especially high now as Jackson gets set to release the second part of the trilogy, "The Two Towers," later this month (it opens in Los Angeles on Dec. 18).
To be sure, there have been success stories here before, from Mt. Everest conqueror Sir Edmund Hillary to the All Blacks rugby team to director Jane Campion, whose film "The Piano" became a worldwide sensation and won an Oscar for local actress Anna Paquin. But none comes close to the sweeping tide of popularity for Jackson, the country's latest and greatest hero.
After directing cult horror movies ("Bad Taste," "Braindead" and "Meet the Feebles") and the 1994 art-house hit "Heavenly Creatures," the 41-year-old Jackson has become an international celebrity with the "Rings" trilogy. Perhaps because of the nation's egalitarian pioneer roots, underdogs are championed here, highfliers cut down to size. But that's not the case with Jackson, who has elicited widespread approval from the locals. Kids think he's cool, grandmothers a godsend, and taxi drivers and tradesmen admire his work ethic and self-taught skills.
They regard with fondness his individual style, which is so incongruous with corporate success: the ungroomed, casual attire -- the trademark shorts,T-shirt, (ideally) bare feet, longish unkempt hair and spectacles. "Right from the start, Peter was different: gifted, fiercely independent, determinedly film-literate and very hands-on. He could put his personal stamp on a project yet work closely as a team player," says Tom Cardy, a journalist with the Dominion Post newspaper in Wellington.
At Wellington's Te Papa Museum, which is hosting a "Lord of the Rings" exhibit, a 14-year-old schoolboy offers his astute analysis of Jackson: "He's like a studious nerd, like Harry Potter grown up and fatter -- but still a kid at heart. And we like that."
"Lord of the Rings" has made the low-key Jackson a financial power -- as well as power broker -- in New Zealand. He's worked closely with the government, which has even created an unofficial "Lord of the Rings" minister to promote the films around the world.
Certainly "Rings" has made him wealthy; according to a conservative estimate by the New Zealand National Business Review, in excess of $20 million (in U.S. dollars). According to press reports, his share from "The Fellowship of the Ring," the first of the trilogy, was 5% of New Line Cinema's gross (the film took in $860 million worldwide at the box office and received 13 Academy Award nominations, winning four), so the real figure is likely to be much higher, and with the release of two additional films, fast increasing.
"There's more than one Peter," says Ruth Harley, chief executive of the New Zealand Film Commission. "There's the ordinary person next door, and also [the] extremely competent runner of a very large business, one of the sharpest deal makers in Hollywood, and an extraordinary filmmaker."
He owns several houses (his own quite unpretentious); Wingnut Productions; Three Foot Six, the company especially formed for the trilogy; the Film Unit, a production facility purchased from the government in 2000; and he is a partner in Weta Workshop, an Oscar-winning special-effects company he set up almost 10 years ago with friends and partners Richard Taylor, Jamie Selkirk and Tania Rodger.
Jackson's grandiose movie project (the three films cost more than $300 million and took 18 months to shoot) was financed by New Line Cinema. Jackson and New Line worked in close synergy with New Zealand's government, having created an unprecedented troika (of country, studio, production house) that has changed the way films are made here.
The prime minister, Helen Clark, who's also the arts minister, believes that the success of "Lord of the Rings" shows how creative industries can be used to boost the national economy. "Look at the place of Hollywood in the U.S. economy," she says, though she has clashed with Jackson over continuing tax breaks for studios and filmmakers who shoot in New Zealand. "The creative industries are the fastest-growing part of the international service sector. And we have to heed that and get our share of it."
The success of "The Lord of the Rings," Jackson hopes, will act as a catalyst for the New Zealand film industry. "There are obvious intangible benefits to national identity and awareness, but this has hit with such a massive scale that the New Zealand film industry has never experienced anything like it."
To Clark, "Peter is a new kind of hero, a brilliant guy who had enormous faith in his ability to make movies. New Zealanders respect that, rejoice in his success and have got the message that there can be a lot of spinoffs from this global phenomenon."
The 'Ring' treadmill
Jackson's office bears testimony to the colorful imagination of the cinéaste and the child within. Set well back off the street in a quiet beachside suburb of Wellington, the nation's capital, the Tudor house is filled with brightly painted model planes and a huge poster and sculpture from the original "King Kong," his favorite film.
Bright walls are offset by billowing curtains. Downstairs, glass cabinets display a wide range of collectibles from the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy; Weta bought a license from New Line to create a line of "Rings" products.
Jackson is still on the "Lord of the Rings" treadmill. The exhaustion, if not visible, is audible. He has recently overseen production of the special-edition DVD, released last month, of "Fellowship of the Ring" and 10,000 prints for the upcoming release of "The Two Towers." There are constant demands on his time. His mantra -- "One day at a time. Each day to perfection" -- is undergoing the kind of test Frodo and the Fellowship would understand.
Jackson may be a folk hero here, but you wouldn't know it from talking to him. For one thing, he goes out of his way to assert that he's just a regular guy with a family. And he hasn't paid much attention to the cult status that "The Lord of the Rings" has brought him.
"I've been so caught up making the films that I live in a very insular world at the moment; not because I choose to, but as somebody who's in the middle of making three very complicated movies over a four- to five-year period. I'm lost in my work," he says. "It's like being on a train you can't get off, furiously building the rails in front of the train."
All the same, he and Fran Walsh -- a co-screenwriter on "Lord of the Rings" and the mother of his two children -- are discussing future film projects, "the next one probably something much smaller, just as a break," Jackson notes.
Weta, meanwhile, is branching out to television and related ventures. Through a new offshoot company, TV Uncharted, it's developing four shows for international distribution. Jackson's corporate philosophy is intuitive and lacking in hierarchy. "It's about natural progression, not five-year plans," Jackson explains. "You listen to the murmur in the workshop. You've got to know what the group feels like doing. After ["Lord of the Rings"], we had 21 sculptors who wanted to continue the craft, so what do you do? Create a merchandising company that celebrates sculpture."
Notes Weta partner Taylor: "It's not about amassing kingdoms. It's about pride and ownership." Making the trilogy at home -- the films were shot over an 18-month period from 1999 to 2001 -- wasn't about proving that New Zealanders could do it. "We're no better than anyone else. It's just that it's uniquely of our culture," Taylor says over tea at Weta's 68,000-square-foot creature and special-effects workshop.
In addition, the country's spectacular scenery became a crucial component of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, forming a majestic, even otherworldly, backdrop for the films. In "The Two Towers," snow-covered mountains, pristine forests and secluded rivers play a crucial role in bringing J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy Middle-earth to life.
"The people who do their work in Hollywood are the best in the world, but they're doing it in the environment where they feel comfortable," Taylor adds. "We're living in this little country, where we've been working out of tin sheds and sharing a filmmaking psyche with Peter."
'Stuff of dreams'
Taylor notes that he and Jackson "grew up making up our own worlds. Limitless horizons and space give your mind clarity and room to roam."
In Jackson's case, entertainment was black-and-white TV and books. When he first read "The Lord of the Rings" as an 18-year-old photo engraver for a local newspaper, it had a huge impact, but it didn't transform his life until much later. "I wasn't even working in the industry then," he says. "At that point, it was the stuff of dreams."
It wasn't until 1995, when he was planning to make an original fantasy film to follow "Heavenly Creatures," that Jackson found that his mind kept drifting back to "The Lord of the Rings." By then, Jackson was not only directing, but he was also acquiring the technology necessary for his breakthrough.
Jackson and his friends had already formed Weta because none of them could afford to buy the computer they were leasing for the making of "Heavenly Creatures." "We knew the future of visual effects lay predominantly in digital hardware, so we pooled our resources and acquired the one computer which has grown into the largest computing power in the Southern Hemisphere," says Taylor.
The government is trying to build on Jackson's success, including establishing a special film production fund, as an incentive to get international financing for local filmmakers who shoot in New Zealand. "We're providing them with opportunities to do bigger films in hopes that we can breed more Peters," explains Prime Minister Clark.
In fact, cloning Jackson or identifying others of his caliber appears to be a government mission -- in fact, it's even appointed an unofficial "Lord of the Rings" minister, the Hon. Pete Hodgson, who is a minister for foreign affairs and trade in the government. "Peter's an ordinary bloke who's achieved the extraordinary," says Hodgson. "He only sees solutions. We'll be hard-pressed to find another like him." Hodgson's department will be sponsoring promotional premiere events for "The Two Towers" at diplomatic missions around the world, including Los Angeles, in the next few weeks.
"Peter's success has opened the door to other possibilities, and the beauty of being a small country is that you make things happen a lot faster," Hodgson says.
The government estimates that the trilogy will bring about $400 million to the New Zealand economy, with significant boosts to employment, tourism, screen production and related services. The trilogy has "generated interest from around the world," notes Paul Voight, who manages an investment firm that works on film projects in New Zealand. "We've had inquiries from Europe and China, Japan, Korea and India, which for us are new markets."
It's more difficult to quantify the trilogy's indirect benefits, such as on tourism. Evidence at this point is anecdotal, but while tourism in other parts of the world has recorded severe downturns due to the Sept. 11 terror attacks (and more recently a deadly bombing in Bali), New Zealand's reputation as a safe destination has combined with interest generated by "The Lord of the Rings" to keep its figures booming.
The government campaign should be aided by a "Lord of the Rings" exhibit that's scheduled to open Dec. 19 at Wellington's Te Papa Museum. After February, the exhibit will tour for two years to several international museums, including possibly one in Boston. The exhibit will showcase an array of movie props, costumes, jewelry, designs and accessories and will feature interactive and high-tech components.
Naturally, Jackson's hometown, the scenic and culturally hip Wellington, has reaped the greatest direct benefit from "The Lord of the Rings." Its annual tourism is estimated to be growing by more than 10%.
Just a few years ago, New Zealand's major directing talents left their homeland to pursue careers at a higher level in Australia or the U.S. "Now, the cool thing is to return," says the film commission's Harley.
Two local talents -- Lee Tamahori, who directed the new James Bond film, "Die Another Day," as well as "Once Were Warriors," a drama set among New Zealand's Maoris; and Vincent Ward ("Map of the Human Heart") -- are coming back, each shooting a big-budget 19th century drama. "All we need is for Jane Campion to make a film here and we'll have a full house," Harley says.
Campion (who still has family and a house in the Wellington area) does return regularly. Recently, in fact, the owner of the Chocolate Fish, an unpretentious cafe in the beachside suburb of Miramar that was a hangout for cast and crew during the "Lord of the Rings" shoot, had to pacify two disappointed tourists who had made the trip especially, hoping to catch Jackson or one of the trilogy's actors. "I'm sorry we can't oblige," the owner said. "But you do have an Oscar winner at the table next to you -- Jane Campion."
Jackson has also been the subject of some controversy here as well. There are some here who claim that his purchase of the Film Unit in 2000 -- a government-run production facility -- was another step in his empire-building, rather than an altruistic gesture. And Jackson and the prime minister don't see eye to eye on continuing tax breaks for studios who film in New Zealand, a concession the government granted to New Line but now wants to end.
"The films were well underway before we came into government," Clark says. "It was a giant loophole and actually cost the government and taxpayers a ton of money."
Jackson bristles at this. "It's like you're running to the finishing line and you shoot yourself in the foot," he says. "New Zealand can earn serious money, and the situation is not being assisted by shutting down tax breaks, especially considering what Australia and Canada can offer. I think it's an appalling piece of policy."
Still, it's clear that Jackson has become a national treasure here. "You can't overestimate what Peter has done," Harley says. "He's changed the scale of people's ambitions."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times