Peter Jackson grew up in the seaside village of Pukerua Bay, 40 minutes north of Wellington. His doting parents, Bill and Joan, had an early taste of their precocious son's future when he was given a super 8mm camera and proceeded to make war movies in the backyard. For years, their garden was repeatedly dug up as young Peter strove to recreate the battlefield trenches of the Somme.
From battle pictures, Jackson graduated to themes of horror and fantasy. Inspired by seeing King Kong on television, he also became fascinated by miniatures and animation. Close inspection of young Jackson's amateur films would reveal an ever-developing sophistication of technique, and a uniquely biting sense of humour. He also had an impressive ability to lead and motivate others into contributing to his productions.
Despite doing well academically, Jackson dropped out of school after getting university entrance. He took a menial position as a photolithographer with Wellington's daily newspaper because the job description mentioned ‘film', and used the money to feed his film habit.
After early efforts like James Bond spoof Coldfinger, and (abandoned) feature The Curse of the Gravewalker — shot in Super 8 using a Cinemascope-style lens — Jackson made his feature film debut in 1988 with Bad Taste. The four year DIY odyssey that eventually delivered the film to cult success has been extensively documented, including in this documentary. Lifelong professional associations were established in this period — with late Film Commission head honcho Jim Booth (who would become Jackson's producer), writer and future partner Fran Walsh, writer Stephen Sinclair, editor and future business partner Jamie Selkirk, and Hollywood lawyer Peter Nelson.
Jackson's larval talent would metamorphose into something extraordinary over the course of his next two films. Puppet satire Meet the Feebles (1989) was a scattershot array of gags, some puerile, many hilarious. The film's ambition, and some of the stresses of making it, is revealed in documentary Sex, Drugs and Soft Toys. The take no prisoners approach was continued in Braindead (1992 — retitled Dead Alive for American release). But this was a far slicker production, an original contribution to the zombie genre that raised the bar for all future splatter movies to follow. Critics began to note Jackson's talent: Village Voice called it "hysterically funny", while The Hollywood Reporter correctly predicted it would become a cult favourite.
Though he was celebrated by horror fans worldwide, Jackson's reputation remained distinctly mixed at home. This situation would change drastically after the release of Heavenly Creatures (1994), inspired by the Parker/Hulme case. He had never craved respectability, but now he had it (including rave reviews from Time magazine, Variety, and The Guardian). The film took his own career to another level, and launched careers for its teen stars, Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet. Heavenly Creatures won a Silver Lion at Venice, and Walsh and Jackson were nominated for a screenwriting Oscar.
One significant outcome of Heavenly Creatures was that Jackson had taken his first steps into the digital realm, establishing a very basic CGI facility, initially bundled together with Richard Taylor's physical effects operation under the title Weta Ltd. Weta's digital arm would rapidly ramp up from one person and a computer into a team of two, then seven, then over 30, as production of the big-budget, Universal Pictures funded ghost story The Frighteners (1995) got under way. Just over a decade later, during production of Avatar, Weta's workforce would reach 900.
Simultaneously, Jackson was working on the elaborate hoax that was Forgotten Silver, alongside co-writer and co-director Costa Botes (more on the film's making can be found here, and in documentary Behind the Bull). The Frighteners would be Jackson's entrée to Hollywood. Forgotten Silver was, in effect, an affectionate goodbye to his old way of working.
From now on there would be no more making do, improvising, or cobbling together. Jackson's operation, and Weta, became state of the art. He invested hugely in equipment, and threw himself into preparations for a remake of King Kong. Unfortunately, the plug was pulled by the studio, Universal.
Jackson was potentially in severe trouble, with a raft of employees to support. But a lifeline came from another studio, Miramax. Casting around for a suitable project, Jackson had suggested he could adapt a certain well known trilogy by JRR Tolkien. It was a madly ambitious proposition; the rights were said to be impossible to obtain.
But they were obtained. Then after almost two years of hedging, Miramax bowed out. It seemed impossible that Jackson could find another backer. But he did. The result, after seven years of persistence, was an instant screen classic. In fact, three of them. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was a mammoth success, critically and commercially. Finally, Jackson found himself at the head of a proud Kiwi contingent at the 2004 Academy Awards. With 11 Oscars in the bag, Lord of the Rings was officially as big as Ben-Hur and Titanic.
The writing trio of Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens segued from Tolkien into remaking Jackson's beloved King Kong, using many of the creative team that had worked on the Rings trilogy. It won three Oscars (two for sound, one for visual effects), and saw Jackson's direction nominated for a Golden Globe.
The Jackson/Walsh/Boyens trio next adapted Alice Sebold bestseller The Lovely Bones. The result met with mixed reviews, although Time critic Richard Corliss was not alone in praising both the film and the BAFTA-nominated performance of teen star Saoirse Ronan.
Next came a keenly anticipated adaptation of Tolkien's The Hobbit. Delays meant Jackson ultimately took over the reins of the production (initially a two-parter, then a trilogy) from Pan's Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro. An Unexpected Journey opened in December 2012, and proved one of the year's biggest hits. The Desolation of Smaug followed in December 2013, then in 2014 The Battle of the Five Armies.
Today, the shy kid from Pukerua Bay is no more. Peter Jackson has lost all trace of a formerly crippling stutter. He's a tycoon whose doings are regularly reported in the front pages of the newspaper that formerly employed him in its basement. As his friends always said of him, he was the sort of guy that wanted the whole electric train set.
Jackson's achievements include rescuing the nation's ailing Film Unit Laboratory and transforming it into Park Road Post, a world class laboratory and sound mixing facility. Weta Digital employs hundreds of artists and technicians, and has become a sought after provider of CGI spectacle for Hollywood films, including Prometheus, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and visual effects Oscar winner Avatar. Jackson's old friend and longtime collaborator Richard Taylor, runs a large and hugely successful workshop next door, designing and manufacturing armour, props, and miniature models.
Jackson has also mentored emerging talents. He was a producer on sci fi hit District 9, which marked the feature debut of South African talent Neill Blomkamp, and on Mortal Engines, the debut of his longtime storyboard artist Christian Rivers. Having branched into co-production agreements with giants like Steven Spielberg (Tintin) and video game development with the likes of Microsoft, Jackson has the world of entertainment at his feet.
Ben Child, 'Peter Jackson set to direct second Tintin, says Spielberg'. The Guardian website. Loaded 14 February 2012. Accessed 19 November 2012
Richard Corliss, 'A Heavenly Trip Toward Hell' (Review of Heavenly Creatures) - Time magazine, 5 December 1994
Richard Corliss, 'The Lovely Bones: Dead Girl's Love Story' (Review) - Time magazine, 7 December 2009
James Hannaham, Review of Dead Alive - Village Voice, 9 February 1993
Jeff Menell, Review of Dead Alive - The Hollywood Reporter, 21 January 1993
Ian Pryor, Peter Jackson - From prince of splatter to lord of the rings (Auckland: Random House New Zealand, 2003)
David Rooney, 'Heavenly Creatures' (Review) - Variety, 11 September 1994
Brian Sibley, Peter Jackson: a Film-Maker's Journey (Sydney: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2006)
Philip Wakefield, 'Close Encounters of the 3D Kind' - Listener, 19 December 2009, Volume 3632