Peter Jackson On the Spot

It has taken six years to bring the Lord of the Rings trilogy to the big screen. While editing the final film, Return of the King, due in December, director Peter Jackson, 41, is thinking about what’s next. “It’ll be small,” he says. To keep the momentum at his effects house, Weta Digital in Wellington, New Zealand, Jackson and partner Richard Taylor have inked a deal with Ohio Edit, New York, for Weta’s first U.S. commercial representation. Jackson discusses advertising, Oscars and what makes Middle Earth great escapism.

Q. Why seek U.S. commercial work now?

A. We’ve been working on nothing outside of The Lord of the Rings for the last three or four years. We want there to be a future for Weta. Even doing a complex film like Return of the King—we’re running a crew of nearly 300 people—there’s always periods of time when people aren’t waiting for shots to be delivered or there might be time when the animators aren’t busy, that the compositors aren’t busy. We want to be doing either a lot of effects for big films—to be the primary effects company—or to choose commercials, which are a smart way to keep everybody busy throughout the year.

Do you have an interest in directing spots?

I haven’t got time to at the moment. I’ve never directed commercials, and I don’t have an ambition to, I have to say.

What can we expect from Return of the King?

It is going to be the best of the three. It’s my favorite. The story’s great because all of the different conflicts that we’ve established come together in this huge, big climax. It’s the most fun from a filmmaking point of view, because there’s a little bit of a frustration with making a film that can’t quite resolve itself at the end. This one does.

Did you always envision telling Tolkien’s story in such epic proportions?

It’s hard to imagine exactly what you’re getting into. We planned to do three films at the same time, so we knew that was going to be tough and unusual. So much of these films have grown organically during both shooting and postproduction. In our original plan, which we drew up in about 1997, we thought we would have about 350 CG shots for each of the three films. We’ve ended up with 800 shots on the first two, and there’ll probably be 900 shots in the third. They tend to balloon and expand as you get excited about it.

Will there be a film version of The Hobbit?

I would have thought that given the fact there can only be three Lord of the Rings movies that that’s the natural fourth one. New Line’s never spoken to me about it, and if they did ask me to do it, I would certainly give it good consideration. I probably would not want to do it immediately. I would want a little rest—a year or two, I would imagine.

What intrigued you about the trilogy?

To me it embodies what I love about movies. I love movies for their escapism, for the fact that you go into the cinema and you just give yourself over to the film and allow it to sweep you away. That’s what should happen with a good movie. I like being able to look at a film and forget where I am and forget what happened that day. I’m somewhere else.

How did you achieve that?

The Lord of the Rings is almost the perfect example of that escapism. Part of the philosophy of making the movie is, we wanted it to feel real. If we made it too fantastical or too unbelievable with the production design and the locations and the actors playing it in a hammy way, you wouldn’t make that connection with the audience. We’ve tried hard to present a tone that’s based on reality, even if it is Middle Earth and even if there are trolls and elves and other fantastical characters. Somehow you’re prepared to believe in it.

What’s the most common mistake made with special-effects work?

It has got to a point—and this is true, obviously, with commercials too—that anything you can imagine can be put onscreen. In a sense, commercials have led the way because they are traditionally the place you see the most extraordinary imagery—they’re not constrained by the needs of telling a complex story. Ultimately, films have to have an emotional truth to them. There’s films which might have the best special effects in the world but for some reason you’re not engaging with the film. It’s like you remain only a member of the audience. The other is one in which you are engaged and you’re swept away and you participate in the film. There’s a real difference between participating in a movie and observing a movie. Your responsibility as a filmmaker far exceeds just focusing on the effects. You have to get the script and the story and performances to a point that people are going to believe in the movie. Otherwise everything’s a waste of time.

The Two Towers received Oscar nominations for best picture and visual effects, but not best director. Are you disappointed?

Well, I never expect to get anything. The Two Towers is a middle movie, and we made this big impact last year because we were new, the film was new, and people didn’t really know what to expect with The Fellowship of the Ring. I didn’t expect anything from The Two Towers. I didn’t think that we’d get nominated for best picture either. I thought people would regard it as just a continuation.

Any idea what you’ll work on next?

Part of me would like to have a rest. Six years on one project gives you a lot of time to think about what you might be doing next. We’ve compiled a little list of seven or eight possible film ideas. They pretty much all involve original screenplays. We want to do some New Zealand drama things—Heavenly Creatures-style films, if you like. There are some true stories we’ve been researching that would make fantastic films. If we do one of those, it’s likely to be quite a small film. Just drama.