Will 'Rings' Magic Last?

Times Staff Writer

When director Peter Jackson was a boy, the neighbors enjoyed the Super8 films he shot in his backyard.

Now, with the rest of the world watching his movies, the backyard is bigger and surrounded by taller fences. Each Sunday, tourist buses trundle through this tiny coastal suburb of the country's capital, Wellington, the passengers eager for the slightest sign of their hero. Perched on the edge of threadbare seats, they press their noses against the windows and stare eagerly at clusters of industrial warehouses.

There, hidden from view, Jackson has created his own private Hollywood. Everything he needs is tucked along a two-mile stretch of hills rolling down to the rocky beaches of Evans Bay.

Jackson co-owns New Zealand's largest visual effects company, Weta Digital, as well as the nation's leading props and physical effects business, Weta Workshop. Both won Oscars for their work on the first two "Lord of the Rings" films.

The 42-year-old director controls the majority of the country's sound stages. His film laboratory, the Film Unit, is the biggest in New Zealand. And here in his hometown of Miramar, he is building the most technologically advanced sound-editing facilities in the world.

He painstakingly constructed his empire over the last five years, and he couldn't have done it if not for the trilogy that has grossed nearly $1.8 billion thus far.

As the New Zealand production team wrapped up "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" this month, there was one question on everyone's mind: Will the empire survive?

"It's a concern and fear that's been hanging over our heads since Day One," said Suzanne LaBrie, facilities manager for Weta Ltd., the parent company of Jackson's digital visual effects, physical effects and props shops.

In many ways, Jackson is following in the footsteps of "Star Wars" creator George Lucas, the only other director to establish his domain outside of Hollywood and have a lasting effect.

The development of Jackson's production power is a reflection of the Hollywood rebel. Friends describe him as focused and fiercely loyal, an iconoclast with a love-hate relationship with Tinseltown. His wit warms the film set, where his pockets typically are filled with lollipops.

Critics paint him as a ruthless businessman who has forgotten his roots. They say he manipulated the law to get as much as $200 million in tax breaks for his "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Jackson declined to comment for this story.

For people such as sound engineer Bo Borders, Jackson represents the future of filmmaking -- if the director can keep the empire thriving.

Over the last four months, Borders has been laboring over mixing boards and putting the final polish on "The Return of the King." As he studies a monstrous movie screen, he crouches over a mixing board, coaxing out the sound of horse hoofs.

Last year, Borders was sitting in another sound stage in California -- one belonging to George Lucas. It boasted the same expensive chairs, amazing 100-foot mixing board, and dark wood and clean lines inspired by the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright.

"It's like being back home at Skywalker Ranch," Borders said. "Sort of creepy, isn't it?"

Peter Jackson's dream began in a quiet suburban brick house, where he used his parents' Super8 film camera to create short movies in the 1970s.

As his interest in filmmaking grew, the family home morphed into an impromptu studio. The backyard became a stage. The kitchen counters were used to concoct masks, the stove to melt the monster miniatures into gruesome shapes. His cast and crew hailed from local theater.

By the early 1990s, after a stint studying film at nearby Kapiti College, Jackson began churning out a series of films that were light on budget and heavy on gore. Miniature demons and buckets of fake blood were crammed into one of the bedrooms of a small house in Wellington. Scanners and film printers filled another room.

Back then, Jackson's digital effects team consisted of one man and one computer.

"We only had the computer storage for five seconds of film," said George Port, the animator who went on to co-found Weta Digital with Jackson. "It took months to get the most simple explosion done."

That cozy culture changed a few years later, when Jackson signed up with Hollywood producer Robert Zemeckis to make the comic-horror film "The Frighteners." The estimated $30-million film project allowed Jackson to expand his effects team to 40 people.

It also introduced the New Zealand crew to a Hollywood reality.

"They come here because of cost," Port said.

When New Line executives decided to film the "Rings" trilogy in New Zealand, the main factor was a tax law.

In 1999, Jackson and studio executives approached government officials with an unorthodox request: Let us use a tax law to take an upfront deduction for the overall production cost of all three films -- an estimated $200 million off the films' reported $400-million production. Jackson pointed to the thousands of jobs the movies would create as well as the trickle-down economic benefits that would help everyone from local tailors to restaurateurs.

Few people were aware of the tax law, said Bill English, who was the country's finance minister at the time. The law was designed in part to help all kinds of companies offset some of the costs of their tangible assets, such as furniture.

"The 'Lord of the Rings' people came in and did some of the most creative tax accounting I've ever seen," said English, who now leads New Zealand's National Party. "They lobbied the government hard."

The New Zealand Parliament approved the deal in 1999. Then, fearing that other American studios would drain government coffers, they ended the tax concession later that year for foreign investment in films.

"It was an ingenious scheme that cost New Zealand taxpayers an enormous amount of money, and there's no proof that there are any long-term benefits from those movies to our economy because of it," said Jim Anderton, New Zealand's minister of economic development. "Peter Jackson knew the culture here and knew how to get things he wanted."

As filming on the sequels was well underway in 2000, the country's excitement over the trilogy grew. So did the problems.

Culture clashes arose between scrappy New Zealand workers used to handling multiple jobs on a small-budget film and experienced Hollywood crews used to the structure of a blockbuster project. One of the Americans on the production team was overheard describing the locals as "Mexicans with cellphones." The next day, dozens of local workers arrived on the set with fresh T-shirts bearing the phrase.

The bustling production caused unexpected chaos in the Miramar neighborhood where Weta's digital and prop departments were based.

On Manuka Street, Weta workers cram their cars into every free inch, whether it's along the curb or across the lawn. There's not enough space to build a proper parking lot.

Many residents, tired of the commotion, have moved. Real estate agents say that in the last year, nearly half of the 13 houses on this street have been put up for sale.

"That was a quiet street," said real estate agent Clare Aird, who handled one of the sales. "Now there's constant noise."

Then there was the laundry problem. Blacksmith A.K. Goss -- hired by the film production to make everything from iron pans to steel swords -- was adding more coal to the forge when an angry elderly woman came storming into the Weta Workshop facility.

"She yelled, 'You're the ones putting all that [soot] over my sheets!' " Goss said. "I told her I was sorry the fire's ruining her bedding, but I've got several hundred of these Uruk-Hai weapons to make. She wasn't impressed."

Animators down the street at Weta Digital ran into their own problems as they labored recently over "Return of the King." As the days passed, all that mattered was delivering the last scenes to the printers -- even as Jackson insisted on shooting more footage. For Eileen Moran, chief operating officer of Weta Digital, each completed scene brought the effects company one step closer to the unknown. When the trilogy is done, there may not be enough work for some of the 408 workers. As many as half might have to leave the company.

That unnerves some of the locals. "I was at one party, and all these New Zealanders would come over," said Christopher Boyes, an American sound designer who mixed all three of the "Rings" films. "They kept asking, 'What's going to happen to us?' I felt so bad, because what do you say?"

Company executives acknowledge they will ramp down the Weta Digital facility. They say they are scrambling to keep much of their staff busy until 2005, when Jackson begins filming his next potential blockbuster, a remake of the 1933 film "King Kong." Moran began bidding on other post-"Rings" film and television projects nearly a year ago -- a car commercial here, a sequence of effects for a smaller film there.

Some workers who have wrapped up their part on the trilogy already are working on "King Kong." Artists with the prop and physical effects side of Weta are developing sketches and models of the enormous gorilla and the estimated 30 dinosaurs that will be featured in the film.

Meanwhile, Jackson's empire continues to grow. A model of his new film laboratory takes up an entire picnic table. It is Jackson's dream, and it looks familiar, with the gorgeous front door, modeled after those at Frank Lloyd Wright houses in Northern California, and the sprawling gardens and the massive fireplaces -- just like those at Lucas' Skywalker Ranch.

In large part, the future of Jackson's empire relies on the faith of people such as animation supervisor Paul Griffin. Just two months ago, Griffin left Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic in San Rafael for a job at Weta Digital. He sold his house in California and, days later, paid cash for a gorgeous home with a 180- degree view in the Wellington suburb of Seatune Heights.

"We're taking a leap of faith that Peter Jackson will do what George Lucas did," said Griffin, 43, whose wife and three teen-age children are now in New Zealand. "I'm gambling that other projects will come."

Outside, semi trucks loaded down with props and studio lights rumbled past the Weta building. They were heading to a sound stage across town, near the Dry Creek Quarry, which Jackson transformed into Helm's Deep for "Two Towers."

But the trucks had nothing to do with "Lord of the Rings" or Jackson. They were hauling stage equipment for Paramount Studios, whose cameras are rolling on the comedy "Without a Paddle," starring Seth Green and Matthew Lillard.

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