On the eve of last week’s Comic-Con International, I spoke to Peter Jackson about oppressed aliens, Hobbits and, most interestingly, the proliferation of remakes, sequels and adaptations in Hollywood. The interview was for a lengthy Los Angeles Times Calendar cover story previewing the San Diego expo. Only a few quotes were used in that piece; here’s the full Q&A… — Geoff Boucher
GB: Welcome to Southern California or, as we like to call it, the fiery surface of the sun…
PJ: Yes, it’s very hot. I’ve just come from winter in New Zealand. My God, It was like stepping into a furnace yesterday. The hot wind coming off the concrete was just appalling.
GB: I saw the trailer for “District 9” and I’ll be watching the whole film soon. It’s looks quite compelling. You must be excited to be bringing it to San Diego.
PJ: I think one of the good things with that movie is that no one is expecting anything really. So I think one of the advantages we’ve had is we’ve sort of came out as a complete surprise which was actually quite good, really. It wasn’t really planned that way but we quietly made it down to South Africa and New Zealand sort of under the radar. It was never a film that people knew about until it suddenly started getting the trailers and the posters started going around and then it was like, ‘Oh my God this is a weird, little strange film.’ “
GB: “District 9” is a bit of a rarity in the Comic-Con sector in that it’s not an adaptation of a comic book or a toy, it’s not a remake or a sequel, it’s not based on an old television show….
PJ: Yeah, I guess so. I mean I guess Comic-Con in a way celebrates popular culture so its emphasis is always going to be on the culture that exists, I guess, which is clear enough. But I suppose it covers everything doesn’t it? It covers movies and TV and it’s obviously become a place where if you’ve got something new it’s a good place to expose it to the fans.
GB: Certainly, it’s a place to introduce the new and celebrate the past, but I suppose what I was suggesting is that these days it seems difficult to make a big special-effects film unless it’s based on some pre-existing, known quantity in pop-culture, such as a novel, comic book, video game, TV show, toy line or previous movie. You look at the Harry Potter films, “Iron Man,” “Star Trek,” “Transformers“…
PJ:I mean, personally I think that’s one of the most depressing things about the film industry generally today. The writers and directors should be blamed just as much as the studios because really everything seems to be a remake or adapting a 1970s TV show that was never particularly good. Why anyone thinks that it would be a good feature film now, you know, goodness knows why. And I guess it’s easy to say it’s security that you know a studio is only prepared to put $150 million or $200 million into something if it’s a known quantity. But at the same time I’m also aware that audiences are getting fed up with the lack of original ideas and original stories. And if you look back to the great days of “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” and those sorts of movies, they weren’t based on TV shows, they weren’t based on comics. They were inspired by them and they had DNA in them which came from years of Flash Gordon and various things in the past but nonetheless they were original. And yet we seem to be incapable as a general industry, which includes not just the studios but the filmmakers and writers and directors, we seem to be incapable of doing that now for some reason. It’s a little bit depressing. But hopefully it’s a cycle. Everything in the film business tends to be cyclic and hopefully this all drains itself out in a couple years and we’ll be back into original stories again.
GB: I think there’s also a sense now that special effects have finally made it possible to successfully adapt the great past works in literature that couldn’t be realized visually on a screen in the past, such as your own “Lord of the Rings” series, “Alice in Wonderland” and the Narnia films. Those sort of properties are a bit different than making a movie about a bestselling toy…
PJ: There are perennial stories like “Alice in Wonderland” and Sherlock Holmes and those sorts of things, which have been around since almost as long as film, and Frankenstein is another one. They’re perennial favorites, which get remade every 20 years and that’s OK. We almost expect that but it is really the making and putting huge resources into something that was never that good in the first place, which I guess nonetheless is a brand name. And I guess one of the most cynical ones is when people can take toy lines and turn them into films. To some degree I was very dubious of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” idea — taking a theme park ride and turning into a film — even though they seemed to end up being quite fun films.
GB: That’s true, although “Country Bears” and “Haunted Mansion” suggest that the rest of the theme park might be best left alone. Can you talk a bit about “District 9” and how you came to the project as producer?
PJ: Well I came to it because Neill Blomkamp, the director, and I got to know each other when we were supposed to be making “Halo” together, with me producing it and he directing it, and that movie didn’t happen. It’d been about three or four months in prep and we were working on the screenplay and he was in New Zealand where the production was going to be based and he was working with the visual-effects guys and doing lots of maquettes and lots of production design and conceptualizing.
Then the studio didn’t want to go ahead and make it and they started sort of arguing amongst themselves. It was a co-production between Fox and Universal and so the thing kind of imploded and fell apart. We felt sorry for Neill because we’d offered him the job as director and we’d spent quite a few months working on it and it’s pretty traumatic when a film falls apart, even though we saw it coming a little bit ahead of time. It’s a pretty gut-wrenching thing because it happens when you’ve spent three or four months on a project and you’re kind of emotionally committed to that project, so there is emotion involved and it gets pretty tough.
So we just felt terrible for Neill and thought, ‘My God, thisis his introduction to the world of feature filmmaking?’ He’d only done commercials and short films and then this happened, which we felt responsible for. We were supposed to look after him and nurture him and put him through this process and instead he’s gone through hell. We felt terrible and obviously we still felt totally believing in his abilities as director. But they didn’t want to make it and there’s nothing we could do. We don’t own the ‘Halo’ franchise. We can’t raise the money somewhere else. It’s their property, they’ve got the license for it. So the way to avoid this [happening again] is to do something original, to do it at a lower budget, finance it independently, and not finance it through a studio. You know, there are ways of avoiding it. We came up with the idea for ‘District 9.’
GB: The film is an expansion on Blomkamp’s 2005 short film, “Alive in Joburg,” correct? That was a six-minute, documentary-style film about extraterrestrials living a slum life in South Africa…
PJ:Yes, is based on one of Neill’s “Alive in Joburg.” Because he grew up in South Africa, he had witnessed the end of the apartheid era and all the ugliness that came with apartheid and also the difficulties that the country’s gone through since then. That was his life and I thought it was really terrific; often young directors make their first movie based on popular culture. They don’t base it on something that they’ve actually experienced. They base it on something they read or a comic book that they liked or a TV show they liked. But I thought it was really neat that Neill was affected by apartheid to the degree that he felt he had something to say about it through aspects of it being used in a genre film. And so we financed the development of it ourselves. My partner and I just paid for the development of the project out of our own pocket and he went to South Africa. He shot some test film of his friend Sharlto Copley, who’s not a professional actor as such. He’s an old buddy of Neill’s … they used to know each other when they were young and Neill wanted Sharlto to be the lead in the film. And he’s actually really, reallygreat. You’ll see that for yourself when you see the film. But we’d never met Sharlto so we sent Neill to South Africa to shoot a little 10-minute test of Sharlto and to shoot some more South African stuff just to sort of inspire the story. And then he came back and we wrote a script with him — or, more precisely, he did the script and we sort of helped him and advised him with the structure and stuff. And then it was all go and we raised the money through QED, an independent finance company. And it all happened quietly and below the radar.
GB: That’s an interesting point you make about a tendency of new filmmakers to celebrate material they love as opposed to creating something entirely new. I suppose it makes sense that homage and craft are less elusive than unique personal voice…
PJ: I can understand it because when you’re a young kid or a young adult and you’re wanting to make a film — and this is pretty much my story too — you tend to interpret. To be an original is probably the hardest quality to find if you’re a young filmmaker. Everything you want to do is based on some level on something you’ve already seen and obviously you either want to remake some favorite film or bring something you love to the screen, such as a comic book. I grew up wanting to do a new vision of “King Kong.” I tried to do a remake of “King Kong” when I was about 12 years old on a Super 8. So that was sort of a long-held dream of mine. I was inspired by the great [Ray] Harryhausen movies and I did a lot of stop motion on a Super 8; it’s other people’s movies that inspire your direction in the career and the reason you want to be a filmmaker is the fact that you love these films so therefore you’re heavily inspired by them. You tend to want to make your movies based on something you’ve seen and then you get a little bit older. Sometimes it takes a few years until you feel enough confidence to be a bit more original. You are open to try things out that are not based on things you’ve seen, but come from ideas you’ve got in your head. It does take a certain degree of self-confidence to get to that place and a lot of young directors don’t have that and I understand that. But Neill, I mean when you see “District 9,” what you will see is a very original and particular vision for a movie. He didn’t want to shoot it like a traditional drama. He didn’t want the visual effects to be pretty and intricate. He wanted a sort of down-and-dirty documentary style. He wanted to have a raw energy about it. That’s one of the qualities Neill has — he’s an original thinker, which is terrific.
GB: I spoke to Guillermo del Toro recently and was reminded how delightful he is. There’s such great excitement about “The Hobbit” films that he will be directing to add to the canon of your “Lord of the Rings” films. The fact that you are producing those films and are making your first trip to Comic-Con, there are lots of rumors that you might announce some news about the casting for “Hobbit”…
PJ: No, not unless I get kidnapped and tortured for that information! I’m there really pretty much to support “District 9.” We made a decision that Guillermo and I talked about and we talked about it with the studio as well, and decided that on anything to do with “The Hobbit” … it was too early. We decided that every time someone sticks a microphone in our faces and says, “Is there anything to say?” that we’d always just answer ‘No, no it’s too soon, too soon.” But when we want to release our first real information or our first imagery, we’ll figure out a way to do that. But we literally aren’t there yet. We’re still working on the scripts, and Guillermo’s still doing a lot of conceptual design. We’re exploring ideas. There’s no final designs, necessarily, that we want to share with anyone yet. We haven’t cast a single person in the movie yet. Obviously we have hopes that some of the existing actors from “Lord of the Rings” will come back. The ones that we need for “The Hobbit,” we’re hoping we’ll get them back. But deals haven’t been done with any of the new actors that we will need. We haven’t yet made any offers to anybody. So there isn’t really anything to say. I imagine at next year’s Comic-Con it’ll be a little different. I would imagine because at next year’s Comic-Con we will have been shooting for eight or nine months, so I’m sure that there will be something cool then. We’re looking forward to that. We decided to get the screenplays finished first and then, because some of the casting, and particular for the dwarf characters, is pretty much dependent on the personalities and the type of characters they are. So we thought we’d just get the script written and make our decisions on the characters based on the script, and then we can go out and cast the right people.
GB: It’s pretty astounding that you haven’t been to San Diego before this year…
PJ: Every time that Comic-Con’s happened I’ve been busy and it’s mainly because of the release of the “Lord of the Rings” films and “Kong” always happened in December. They were always December movies so at this time of the year I was often shooting pick-ups because I used to like doing three of four weeks of pick-up shooting during post-production, which always used to happen around July, and so I got locked into a schedule of never really being available to come over. I used to shoot little greetings, videos and things … this is the first time I’ve ever actually been able to come over. I’m looking forward to it. Don’t quite know what to expect because everyone says it’s a lot of fun. I mean the trouble is, the thing I’d like to do at Comic-Con — and I really wouldlove to do it more than anything — is just go shopping and buy some model kits, because I still collect and make them and paint them and I’m sure there’d be some great ones there. But I just know there’s no way I could actually do that. It’s a shame actually. I’m sure that’d be the brilliant, the perfect place in the world to buy some new kits. I do have someone who’s going to go around and photograph kits for me. The other alternative was to dress up in a stormtrooper costume. I don’t think I’d have the time to do that, unfortunately. It is tempting. Tell people that the nearest stormtrooper could be me.
— Geoff Boucher
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CREDITS: Top: Peter Jackson in 2004/Lawrence K. Ho-Los Angeles Times. Second photo: “District 9” image/Sony Pictures. Third photo: Jackson in 2006 at Golden Globes/ Mark J. Terrill — Asociated Press. Bottom: Viggo Mortensen and Jackson on the set of “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King”/New Line Productions.