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December 2005
King Kong: An Interview with Director Peter Jackson

King Kong: An Interview with Director Peter Jackson

By Wilson Morales

If there was any director good enough to do the remake of "King Kong", who's better equipped to do it other than Peter Jackson? Becoming the first person to direct three major films simultaneously, with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and winning many accolades and Best Picture Oscar on the last one, The Return of the King, gives Jackson to claim to do it. It was the original film of King Kong, the '33 version, that inspired Jackson to be a filmmaker and now he has the financial and technology means to pay homage to that film. With a cast and crew filled with Oscar winners and rising stars, Jackson's journey to remake a film for today's audiences is near completion once the 8th wonder of the world is released in theaters. In speaking to blackfilm.com, amongst other journalists, Jackson shared his vision on making this fantastic and entertaining film.

A lot of people call you an auteur, but you do these huge movies. How difficult is it to keep your vision pure?

Peter Jackson: It's an interesting question. I mean, I don't quite know what an auteur is. I've never quite understood that term, because filmmaking is such a huge team effort, you - I mean, I regard myself as being sort of the final filter, so everything that ends up in the movie is there, because it's something that I'd think was cool if I saw the film that somebody else had made. I'm very much trying to make the film that I've enjoyed, but I'm open to ideas, I need a huge team of people to help me, everybody contributes and I try to encourage people to contribute as much as possible. I think that's the job of a director really, is to sort of funnel all the creative into one centralized point of view. And the marketing is sort of something that really happens with other people, it's not something that I'm at all an expert in, and I regard my job at the end of the day as to make the best possible film I can, and that's really where my job stops and marketing people take over after that.

How is your life as a person and filmmaker different with this loss of weight?

Jackson: I'm exhausted, I'm just absolutely tired. I felt fit for a while, but the film has been such a grueling marathon to do. We literally finished the movie about ten minutes before we got on an airplane to come over here. We were leaving, we were flying out of New Zealand at 9:30 in the morning, and at nine o'clock I was at the visual effects house approving the last two or three shots in the movie and then at 9:15 we dropped by the dub stage to look at a couple of changes that we had made to the dubbing and approved that and then we got on the plane. So I'm absolutely - I haven't enjoyed being healthy yet. I haven't really had a life. I've been making movies for about ten years solid now with the 'Lord of the Rings' films and straight on to 'Kong,' and I'm very pleased that we did that, because we were able to utilize a great creative team that we'd assembled for the 'Lord of the Rings' films, and one of the reasons why I wanted to make 'Kong' very quickly, when the opportunity to do 'Kong' came up, I grabbed it and wanted to do it fast, because I wanted to keep this team together and be able to just channel all that creativity into another project. We were in a situation, I think people didn't really know it at the time, because you obviously don't talk about it, but we were - when we flew over to Los Angeles for the Oscars, for 'Return of the King,' we were in a 'Kong' production meeting the following day. We had Universal script meetings the day after the Oscars and the day after that I got on a plane and flew to New York and met with Fay Wray, and we got a tour up at the top of the Empire State Building, and we were taking photos and video taping the top of the Empire State Building for building the set, so we were already in the middle of doing 'Kong.' So it's been sort of a continuous journey for me, the last few years.

You are faithful to the old version, how did you decide what scenes to keep and which to cut?

Jackson: It's a good question, it's really just sort of instinct to some degree, and it doesn't reflect a right and a wrong way of doing anything obviously because any filmmaker that would make a version of 'King Kong' would do a completely different film. I've been wanting to make this movie for a long, long time, and I've had images and ideas in my head for years and years and years. And to me it wasn't really that difficult, it wasn't a particularly difficult situation to figure out what should be in and out. I was just really wanting to play out the movie in my head, but as the sort of film that I'd enjoy. And there's actually a few scenes we shot, like we shot a version of the original film where they crossed the swamp and are attacked by a creature, we actually shot that scene and it didn't end up in the cut. But even though the movie is three hours long, there are quite a few scenes that we filmed that didn't make it into the finished movie. So some of those things that you're missing from the original film, I guess if we did an extended DVD which I'll hopefully get a chance to do, you might see them popping up again.

What was it about the old 'Kong' that inspired you to make this movie, and become a filmmaker?

Jackson: Well it did, it did inspire me to become a filmmaker, absolutely. It's such a profound effect, I saw the original 'Kong' on TV when I was nine, on a Friday night, in New Zealand, and that weekend I grabbed some plasticene and I made a brontosaurus out of plasticene and then I got my parents super 8 movie camera, and I started to try to animate the plasticene dinosaur. So it really was a moment in time when I just wanted to do special effects and do monsters and creatures and ultimately led to me becoming a filmmaker. I didn't really know what directing was when I was nine. It was more about the monsters at that stage. The original Kong to me is just a wonderful piece of escapist entertainment, it has everything that's kind of really cool about movies, like a lost remote island and a giant ape and dinosaurs, and it also has this wonderful heart and soul, it has this empathetic creature who when I was nine, I cried at the end of the movie when he was killed on the Empire State Building. That moment of shedding tears for him, has stayed with me, and to me that level of emotional engagement and just pure escapism is what I personally like about the movies. People go to the movies for different reasons, different - everybody's different, has different tastes, but for me, that's a great piece of escapism entertainment, the original 'King Kong.'

What happened to the teaser scene from the beach? And what happened to Howard Shore?

Jackson: Well, Howard Shore was an original choice as composer, we're very good friends, but it just came to a point where it seemed like our sensibilities for the film were somewhat different. So we decided as friends that it was better not to go down that road any more for this film. So James Newton Howard was the composer that we've obviously admired for a long, long time, and we'd used some elements of his earlier scores in some tracks that we had done, his sensibility and his feeling for the music seemed to relate really well to the pictures that we'd shot. We also found an opportunity, what was fun with the music too was finding a little opportunity to pay homage to Nick Steiner , we used some of his original score in the New York show, where Kong was put on display, on stage. It was a nice way to keep an homage in a compartmentalized way.

And the beach scene?

Jackson: Yeah the scene on the beach was a scene, like I was saying before, there's a lot of scenes that we shot that didn't make it in the movie. The movie's three hours long, it would probably be if we included everything that we shot, it would be probably near four hours long. And that was a scene that we had filmed, and it had obviously been used as an important part of the teaser trailer, but subsequently when we were dealing with this big length of film we started to refine it and look at it and trim it down as you do, and again, there's no real rules about what you do, you just use your instincts as to the pacing of the film and what is repetitive and what is the minimum amount you can get away with to tell the story. And that scene didn't make it in.

What was the balance between making Kong human and keeping him animal?

Jackson: Obviously as a filmmaker you're gonna manipulate the character as you need to, to make the scenes work. Certainly don't deny that, but we did set out to base him on a real gorilla as much as we possibly could. We thought at the very beginning, what is Kong? What is he? Is he a monster, is he some sort of a missing link or an aberration? And we didn't really - we thought just making him a silver back gorilla, as genuine as we possibly could, would be a really good way to go. Everybody thinks of him as being a gorilla anyway, although various versions of Kong have been a little different. So we studied silver back gorillas, Andy Serkis who obviously did a lot of the performance of Kong for us, he especially studied gorillas in the mountains and he went up and tracked a group of them in the Rwandan mountains for a couple weeks, and he spent a lot of time at the zoo, studying their behavior. So everything in the movie is based on some form or another on what a silver back gorilla would do. But obviously with a little bit of cheating and manipulation on behalf of the filmmakers. But it was interesting, because we found with silver back gorillas, a lot of character and personality is expressed through simplicity and I think that probably studying gorillas so much, if it had any profound effect on us, it would be in simplifying his characterization and making him less emotive. They're very - they don't really give away a lot, gorillas, it's all to do with eye contact, whether they're looking at you or turning away, and how the body language is. There's not a lot of expression on their faces, so we tried to rein it in, we tried to sort of pull it back as much as we possibly could. One of the interesting things that I found in telling the story, and it's something that I've been thinking about in the last few months, as we've been doing the animation and kind of refining Kong, is the fact that I also didn't want to fall into the trap of making him too cute and making his behavior too cute. The point in the story where we want an audience to start to empathize with Kong, I didn't want to stop him being dangerous, I didn't want to stop him being a wild creature who can kill characters that we've got to know in the story. It was interesting, the balance of people wanting to empathize for him, but also keeping that edge to his character, making him unpredictable and always a wild animal at heart.

Did you make this film at this specific point in your life? Was the nine hundred pound gorilla a metaphor for 'Lord of the Rings?'

Jackson: No, not really. I don't really think quite like that, my brain doesn't quite function on that level, no I was just - I'm a lifelong Kong fan who finally got to play with the toys, and finally got the chance to do what I've been wanting to do since I was twelve and to make the story.

What was most important to you in adapting material?

Jackson: Well, I think what was most important was to help people to be able to connect with Kong. Both in the way that he is portrayed, his performance, his character, and also just technically to make him believable. I knew going into this that the movie was ultimately going to live or die on whether you believed in Kong and your suspension of disbelief, because all movies there's a suspension of disbelief and you hope that people will engage in the film on some level and be prepared to go along for the ride. The biggest concern that I had in terms of the film, completely failing, would be if Kong wasn't believable, if you didn't connect with him. And that was - it was a difficult thing to pull off, it was much more difficult than the Gollum character that we did on 'Lord of the Rings.' Gollum talked all the time, and so, so much of his character and so much of his role in the story and what he was, was able to be presented with his dialogue. And you got to know him a lot through what he said, and yet Kong is completely mute. And he has so much screen time and so many close ups, as a character, he's not only mute, but we deliberately reined him in and didn't want him to express very much most of the time, so that was the biggest challenge, I think we were most scared about.

How was working with Naomi? How did you get these reactions out of her, working opposite Kong?

Jackson: Well, Naomi was our first and only choice for the role of Ann. And I think - we responded to her because she's so honest as an actor, she doesn't pretend in the films that she does, she makes it as believable as possible. She's one of those actors that, if she's shedding tears in a scene, it's because she's thinking of something that makes her cry, you know, she's really in the moment, and I don't know what it is, how she does that, but she's fully believable. Which obviously for this particular role in this particular movie was essential for us. Naomi was also hugely helped by Andy Serkis. I think people would obviously think of Andy as being the guy who does the motion capture for Kong, which he does. And he's in a suit and he acts out the role, and we did all the motion capture of the character with Andy, and that was put into the animation and into the performance, but for me, as the filmmaker, possibly one of Andy's greatest contributions was actually being on set with the actors when they originally shot the scenes. None of that was recorded for Andy, he wasn't captured on set; that was done on post production, he wasn't even filmed. It was like Andy was just there for the other actors. And every single shot in the movie, and I don't think there's an exception, I really don't - every shot, every close up of Naomi when she's looking at Kong, she's actually looking at Andy. Andy would get himself into her eye line, so whenever she looked at Kong's face, that was where Andy was, up in a cherry picker or up a ladder or suspended on something or up on a building, he was always there. And he was acting his heart out, as Kong. I think that was hugely beneficial for Naomi obviously and the other actors. And it was also great for me, because it was the beginning of us creating Kong as a character too, I was able to talk to Andy when we were doing those scenes, it wasn't just Naomi and me, it was Naomi, Andy and me, it was the three of us that we were able to rehearse the scene and block the scene and talk about how Kong would be behaving. And it was the beginning of the creation of that character that we'd then take through the motion capture and into the animation and finally into the film. So it was a huge contribution, more than what people I think would imagine, coming from Andy.

Is that 'Bad Taste' filmmaker still inside of you?

Jackson: Oh, absolutely. I hope one day that I'll get to make another horror film, I'd love to. And I certainly feel that in a way now I just want to rest and recuperate from this last ten years of filmmaking and be able to do some more interesting things, other low budget ideas and horror movies and other types of films, because it's kind of weird, but it's only just recently that I've realized that for the last ten years, I've had two projects, I've had 'The Lord of the Rings' and 'King Kong,' because we were originally trying to make 'King Kong' after 'The Frighteners.' So that was back in 1995. And that got canned, and we went into 'Lord of the Rings,' and then we went back into 'King Kong' again, so I've had two projects in the last ten years, so I'm kind of - it's really an exciting time to be able to rest up and recover a little bit now and just think of other ideas, think of things beyond those two projects.

You're producing, do you have any directors?

Jackson: Not yet, no, we're talking to some people, but that'll be - we're going to be shooting that next year.

Where did the inspiration come from for the Central Park scene? It was so poignant.

Jackson: The thinking behind that scene was that we didn't want to go straight from Kong escaping from the theatre, he reunites with Ann, we didn't want to go directly up to the Empire State Building, we wanted to give them a moment together, to in a way fulfill the relationship and the friendship that had started on the island, so we just wanted to create a quiet moment for the two of them. And it was that thinking that led us to come up with the idea of the ice pond.

So are you beginning to plan your Oscar party?

Jackson: I don't think so, I don't think these are the types of films that get Oscar attention. I mean, that was never the intention with Kong. I don't necessarily think that will be the case.

For special effects?

Jackson: Oh sure, for the technical awards, yeah, the visual effects are incredible.

Can we expect an extended DVD for Kong? What more can we expect on there, how long will it be?

Jackson: Well, I'm not quite sure, because unlike 'Lord of the Rings,' and in 'the Lord of the Rings' situation, once the first movie came out, then the extended DVD's were like sort of a foregone conclusion, and we were even doing the visual effects for the extended DVD's sort of straight after the film was finished. In this case I think Universal (Pictures) are waiting until the release of the film before they decide what strategically they want to do. The tentative plan is to release the movie as it is in the theatres on DVD sometime in the middle of next year, and there's certainly been talk of an extended cut, but I don't know, we haven't started working on it yet, that would be something we do during the new year. If I was putting in some other cool scenes, we'd have about thirty or forty minutes worth of extra stuff that we could do. There's some dinosaur sequences and some things as well that it's not just drama and character stuff.

KING KONG opens on December 14th, 2005


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