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Peter Jackson- Famous Film Director Study and how he Made it.
The Peter Jackson story is inspiring. He is living proof that anyone from any point of the world can make it big in Hollywood. He has now created three of the biggest films of all times. He made ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy and won numerous Oscars in the process. He came from nothing to a Superstar A List film director that makes films on his own terms. He has shot and post produced all his films in his native New Zealand and made it to the very top of the A list directors and Film Makers in Hollywood. Today he always makes films in his backyard on his terms.
Yet he started with just a hand-held 8 mm camera shooting home movies with his friends. Right from an early age Peter Jackson had a love of movies. When he was a child he saw ‘King Kong’ and he was hooked by the film medium.
How did Peter Jackson end up directing and shooting the film version of “The Lord of the Rings” and ‘King Kong’ and The Hobbit? How did he do it on his terms in his city?
Peter Jackson, an only child, loved to play with the family camera acquired in 1969. In 1973, Peter Jackson made his first attempt at a film. Only 11 years of age, he had his friends play soldiers. He found that he was fascinated by effects and would endlessly play with the camera trying to obtain different effects. Time Lapse was one of his favourite effects.
In 1978, at the age of 16, Peter shot his first serious film ‘The Valley’ with his 8mm camera – a fantasy film with different puppet monsters and people and stop-frame
animation. The film actually made an impact and even screened on TV. This was encouraging for Peter Jackson.
Soon after Peter left school he made up his mind that there was only one thing that he wanted to do and that was to be a Film Maker.
Peter Jackson is a prime example of making films from an early age, even though, these films were very experimental. He just got out there and made these films with what ever he had. Also, Peter Jackson never went on to other people’s film sets. Mainly he made his own films and then found funding and eventually he was making feature films. His film obsession carried him through.
If you have a desire to make films, make sure you first complete a film course that shows you how to make films professionally. It will save you years working out how to make films and also save you thousands of dollars.
A List Film Makers are obsessed by the medium of film.
When they start, many film directors make micro budget films till they prove themselves and then finance attracts to their future projects.
When he left school in 1978, he found a job as an apprentice photo-engraver. On his way to Auckland he picked up a paperback book to pass the journey. The book was called ‘Lord of the Rings’ and thus started his long association with the classic.
His Photo-engraver study took three years where he excelled in his class. At the same time, he was working as an apprentice engraver. He would never take overtime as he wanted to keep the weekends free to pursue his passion of Film Making.
He was always experimenting making sequences from favourite films such as ‘Sinbad’, ‘A Clockwork Orange’, ‘Halloween’, and many of these experiments were never finished. But still it was all valuable practice in the art of Film Making. Over the next four years, different experimental films were shot. This all led to Jackson’s first self funded feature film, ‘Bad Taste’. Peter Jackson had very supportive parents who were delighted that he had found a passion in life and they were going to do all they could to help him out.
In 1982 Peter Jackson visited Los Angeles and the Universal Back Lot.
He vowed to become a professional film maker. He did not know how this would
happen. Somehow it would happen. On that day he decided that it was time to make serious films and get them seen around the world. It was the moment of decision.
It took till 27th October 1983 before Jackson started to shoot his first serious film ‘Bad Taste’. Here is where the story of Peter Jackson takes a turning point. When he started to shoot ‘Bad Taste’, it was supposed to be a ten minute short film called ‘Roast of the Day’.
Peter Jackson had bought varied camera equipment and therefore used this to shoot on the weekends and make the film for very little money. With hardly any script they aimed at finishing the film in six weeks. In the end it took about three years to shoot.
And the short film had blown out to a feature film that would eventually be a cult hit film in 1988.
These days it is so easy to buy and acquire acceptable equipment and edit on Final Cut Studio and find actors to act in your film. Today it is easy to create an infrastructure to go out there and make your film and then enter it into strategic Film Festivals. If you have the talent and a great film, the industry will discover you. It is that simple. However, it is highly advisable to enroll in a film course.
There were many tests and tribulations over the shoot of ‘Bad Taste’. As the film grew, Peter would get more and more ideas for the film.
“I kept shooting and shooting every weekend and then I would go to my job at The Evening Post and I would be sitting there bored thinking up ideas for the next weekend shoot.”
Progress was intermittent and was based on how much Peter Jackson could afford from his weekly pay packet. Over three years the film was slowly shot.
Peter Jackson learned so much through creating this film. He built his own tracks and crane which gave the film movement. About fifteen minutes into the shooting, Peter Jackson did some intense editing and found that he had a 55 minute movie.
Up to this point he thought he was making a fifteen minute short. He then realized that the then titled ‘Giles Day Out (Bad Taste)’ could expand to a 90 minute feature film. Suddenly this short film was now his first feature film. So far the film had cost $8,500 and therefore he needed to raise money to complete it. Peter Jackson applied for funding to the NZ Film Commission. Jim Booth assessed the application and rejected it.
The 23 year old Peter Jackson was devastated. Ironically, Jim Booth would be his producer on his next four feature films, so he did recognize a talent when he saw one. Peter wrote an 8 pages diatribe pointing out why the NZ Film Commission was making a mistake. Of course, the disappointment of the rejection had repercussions on set. One of the key actors, Craig Smith, resigned and like a soap script, Peter had to find a way to write his departure out of the script.
At this point the new title for the film was created. ‘Bad Taste’ and the shooting continued. Also, the Production Company, Wingnut Films, was born. The company was named after a pet rabbit. Wingnut is today one of the most successful
production companies in the world. In 1985 Peter listed the company and the production in the film magazine, Onfilm.
A valuable lesson can be learned from Peter Jackson’s experience. film directors will have challenges and will be rejected. It is how you handle these challenges and rejection that will decide if you make it.
Peter just pushed on with whatever resources he had and made it happen. This is inspirational for any would be film maker out there. Just do it! If you have the talent you will be discovered, provided you enter Film Festivals.
In 1986, Peter went back to the NZ Film Commission. At this stage, 75 minutes of the film had been shot. Jim Booth watched the film with his assistant, Cindy Treadwell, and she pushed him to help Jackson out. But still, it would take some months before the commission saw the light. After much debate with colleagues, the NZ Film Commission finally funded ‘Bad Taste’. Tony Hiles was the man who finally green lit the funding in stages to complete the shooting of the climax and the post production.
So, in 1986, Peter received $5,000 from the Film Commission and quit his day job at the Evening Post. He was now a full time Film Maker.
Sound Post required a lot of work as the film had poor Location sound. But with the film supported by the New Zealand Film Commission it gained a momentum and support that would see it achieves cult film status. It had the professional finish.
In 1987, four years after the first days shooting, ‘Bad Taste’ was ready to be screened to the world
Throughout 1987, Peter Jackson, Stephen Sinclair and his future wife, Fran Walsh, wrote ‘Braindead’. They were making sure that there was another project to go once ‘Bad Taste’ succeeded.
This is very important for film makers to realize that they should have projects ready to go once they have succeeded with a project as there is only a small window of opportunity once you have succeeded with a film. Learn as much as you can and look into attracting film mentors that show you the ropes. ‘Braindead’ went through several drafts and then was submitted to the NZ Film Commission with a budget of $2.5million.
Also, at this time, ‘Meet the Feebles’ was created and written. They requested only $40,000 for this project which mainly required puppets.
This so called small project was to keep Peter busy for the next six months before going to Cannes with ‘Bad Taste’. Peter thought that he would definitely get the funding for the project. He was extremely disappointed when the funding for ‘Meet the Feebles’ was rejected.
The core group that Peter had pulled together were very angry about the rejection and at a meeting decided that they would self fund the project for $25,000. They all chipped in the money and over six months made ‘Meet the Feebles’ as a short film.
This was a completely different approach to ‘Bad Taste’. The idea was to shoot the film in one block of time and post quickly; and in six months the second Peter Jackson film would be ready. However, delays happened and Feebles did not start shooting till two weeks before Cannes. Shooting had to stop and Peter went off to the South of France.
Peter went with Tony Hiles and they promoted the film ‘Bad Taste’ relentlessly. ‘Bad Taste’ was greeted with a standing ovation at Cannes and generated serious interest from buyers. A Spanish Distributor bought the rights for
Spain and also offered financial commitment for ‘Braindead’ if a Spanish actress was cast.
The film then screened in Paris at the Festival of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It received a highly enthusiastic response. Peter was supposed to go away for two weeks but ended up away for two months as ‘Bad Taste’ continued to get rave reviews.
When he returned, ‘Bad Taste’ became the hottest ticket at the Wellington Film Festival. Everyone had heard about how well the film was received in Cannes.
Peter Jackson was on the way. What had he done to get to this point?
- He made a Decision that he was going to be a Film Maker.
- He mad a micro budget film called ‘Bad Taste’. This would be his Film School.
- He continued through to the end even though the NZ Film Commission initially rejected the film.
- He screened at Cannes and received a great response and……
- Peter Jackson the Film Maker was born.
- ‘BAD TASTE’ went on to sell very well all over the world. It gained tremendous word of mouth and became a cult hit film.
It only takes one successful Film to turn a career……. Learn how to make that film happen now
Peter Jackson had to make the most of his opportunities. Back in New Zealand he got to work on the shooting of ‘Meet the Feebles’. Also, Development funding was granted for the ‘Braindead’ script.
Ironically, Jim Booth, who had rejected funding for ‘Bad Taste’ and ‘Meeting the Feebles’, quit his job at the NZ Film Commission and decided to become Peter Jackson’s producer. He had sensed an emerging talent and had decided to get involved in day to day film making. Rejection is part of the game of film making.
This was a significant development and was a very important step in Peter Jackson’s rise. Jim Booth would bring a professional producing element to Peter’s films. This is important when raising money.
Two more people entered Peter Jackson’s life. Richard Taylor and his partner Tania Rodger, who would later become the creative backbone of Weta Workshop. Weta would create the miniatures and prosthetics and weaponry used in ‘Lord of the Rings’.
Firstly, they would help on ‘Braindead’ and the expansion of ‘Meet the Feebles’ feature film. In 1988 , the New Zealand Commission had offered $1.5million to fund ‘Braindead’. There was one catch. $1 million dollars had to be found elsewhere to match the funding. This proved to be very difficult to find.
Jim Booth and Peter Jackson went to Mifed in Milan to raise the money but had no success and by the end of 1988, the New Zealand Commission decided that they could no longer support the project.
After desperate pleas they extended the deadline to raise the missing money to January 1989. And, in that time, they raised no interest in the project.
The film shooting which was scheduled for February had to be cancelled. This devastated the crew who had to be stood down at a meeting. Jim Booth spoke about how it was a postponement. This was a seminal moment because by the end of the meeting all the crew and Peter Jackson decided to expand ‘Meet the Feebles’ from the current 20 minute short film into a feature film and self fund and try and raise money from whatever sources would invest.
This is so important!
Peter Jackson consistently had rejections in the first decade of his film
making life. However, he would hit back and just continue to make films.
That is what a successful film director does. They take setbacks on the chin and move on and find another way.
I personally believe this is the most important characteristic after talent. Take Setbacks and move on. Also your network is so important and why if you wan to make it in film, join a film course where you meet like-minded people.
Jim Booth went back to his old place of work, the NZ Film Commission, and worked out a funding arrangement. In an ironic twist, the film that Jim Booth, the funder, had rejected the year before was now being submitted again by Jim Booth, the producer
At Mifed, a Japanese company had expressed interest in ‘Meet the Feebles’ and they committed a distribution guarantee. Also, a deal was struck with a distributor called Perfect Films in London. The film was taking off.
In February 1989, less than a month after the collapse of ‘Braindead’, ‘Meet the Feebles’ was up and running. The New Zealand Film Commission doubled the money raised and invested $475,000 into ‘Meet the Feebles’. The rest of the film could be shot and made. They hired a railway shed and started making the film.
However, the filming would be challenging and stressful as the film went over schedule. The NZ Film commission threatened to remove Peter as director from the film and relations would become severely strained.
Over schedule, the Film Commission gave a deadline to finish the film and, of course, Peter Jackson did not have the film shot by that deadline. So a Secret shoot happened whereby they told the Commission they had completed and continued to shoot at night. Everyone still got paid. Jim Booth the producer was personally guaranteeing the funding from a bridging loan.
Miraculously a fine cut was ready by July 1989. The Film Commission saw the film and declined a credit. They did not like the film. But the rest of the world did.
From here on, the film received a great response around the world and won numerous film festivals and sales and cult film status. Peter Jackson was now a two time successful film maker and the powers that be in Hollywood were taking note. One of these was Mark Ordesky at New Line Films in LA. They would eventually bankroll ‘Lord of the Rings’. In 1990, they marked Peter Jackson as a man to watch.
Jim Booth finally created a deal for ‘Braindead’ with presales in Japan and a deal with Avalon Studios. The NZ film Commission then financed the difference and the film went into production in September, 1991.
This was the first time Peter Jackson directed professional actors. The shooting was smooth and the decent budget was $2.5 million. This was the first time the whole film was budgeted from start to finish.
In 1992, the film was ready and ‘Braindead’ did very well at festivals – Rome, Montreal – and sold well all over the world. At the New Zealand Film Awards, the film won awards for Best Film, Best director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Costumes and Special effects. Success was following Peter Jackson and he had made a name for himself as a Cult Film Maker. Braindead was screened at Cannes and received critical attention and sales. It also had to be screened three more times at Cannes.
Straight after the success of Cannes in 1992, Peter Jackson applied for funding for a film that he was keen to make, ‘Heavenly Creatures’. In 1992, Peter and Fran Walsh became romantic partners. She had been a major writing contributor and now she would come even more involved in future Peter Jackson projects.
This film was about two girls that murdered their parents. While he had being cutting ‘Braindead’, Peter and Fran had worked on the screenplay at night for ‘Heavenly Creatures’. This would be a complete departure from the splatter films and would be a more serious dramatic film.
Peter would also get his first Hollywood Agent at this point. Ken Kaminsof Inter talent signed up Peter and he would be instrumental in Peter’s future career. The doors of opportunity were opening up. He could now get directing gigs in Hollywood but Peter chose to make films in Wellington, NZ.
“Staying in New Zealand and making low budget independently financed movies allowed me to control my career path and make my own decisions in a way that would not have being possible in Hollywood”, Peter Jackson.
Film Festivals are very important for a film career. This is one of the areas we guide and train film makers in. Entering Film Festivals. It is so important you have film festival strategy for your short films or feature films.
In November 1992, ‘Heavenly Creatures’ was green lit by the New Zealand Film Commission and went into production in 1993.
At the same time that ‘Braindead’ was screening at Sundance Film Festival, Peter and Fran met Robert Zemeckis (‘Forest Gump’, ‘Castaway’) and he agreed to consider a project that Peter pitched called ‘The Frighteners’.
They went back to New Zealand and shot ‘Heavenly Creatures’ with a then unknown Kate Winslet. During Post Production they wrote ‘The Frighteners’. At this stage of his career, Peter Jackson was on a roll.
‘Braindead’ now received $3million in sales and was a big step up for Peter Jackson as he was proving that his films made money.
If your films make money, The Law of Attraction will attract more film opportunities to you. Hollywood executives love film makers who make money.
Miramax Films took note of Peter Jackson and got to see an early cut of ‘Heavenly Creatures’. They liked what they saw and bought the distribution rights for America and The Australian and American Rights for the film.
During the shooting of ‘Heavenly Creatures’, Peter Jackson’s producer, Jim Booth, was diagnosed with cancer and very quickly deteriorated and died. By the end of 1993, earnings on ‘Braindead’ reached $3 million and Peter now was a bankable director. In 1995, ‘Heavenly Creatures’ was released with critical and box office success.
The Script for ‘The Frighteners’ was delivered in January. As a result of Peter’s success, the studio system financed ‘The Frighteners’ with Michael J Fox as the star and Robert Zemeckis as the Executive Producer. Soon he was shooting ‘The Frighteners’ in New Zealand. I know it is a clique but nothing breathes success like success. Now he could negotiate to shoot in his home town of Wellington. This was his first Hollywood movie and Hollywood was coming to New Zealand.
In 1994, Miramax signed an exclusive three year first look deal with Peter Jackson. The next time Peter Jackson would make a movie, he would make Lord of the Rings. This would catapult him into the A List film directors and move him into the same company as Steven Spielberg.
If you want to be a film Maker get out there and make a film now. Find out how to make them professionally and also meet like-minded people on one of our part time film schools.
In September 1995, ‘The Frighteners’ was in Post Production and Peter was trying to think of his next project. He was lying in bed on a Sunday Morning thinking about what projects could utilise the computer effects that they had developed for ‘The Frighteners’.
How could they keep the Special Effects Company busy and expand his increasing knowledge on CGI Effects? At this stage the first films had started to use CGI. The breakthrough film had been Stephen Spielberg’s ‘Jurassic Park’ in 1993.
Peter said to his partner Fran, “You know the genre that’s never been done well is the Fantasy Genre?” Then the conversation moved on to what kind of Story they could write when Peter said that he would like to do a ‘Lord of the Rings’ type story.
Then the light went off. Why had no one made ‘Lord of the Rings’?
From there, Peter Jackson wondered who had the Rights to the ‘Lord of the Rings’. Then in the space of another few minutes the excitement hit and it was a case of “let’s get the rights to the ‘Lord of the Rings'”.
From here it would take another four years to attract $150 million and the first day of shooting would happen. A big break between movies. Then it would take to 2003 to conclude the productions of three movies that would be released a year apart. The scale of the production was huge and it would all be produced in New Zealand.
Why did it take four years? Hollywood machinations would slow down the financing. Also, a script had to be written for three movies from three books. And a mammoth production would have to be created. At the centre of this film would be Peter Jackson and his less acknowledged partner, Fran Walsh.
So, on that Sunday morning, Peter Jackson made the first phone call to his agent, Ken Kamins, in LA and asked him to track down the rights for ‘Lord of the Rings’.
Miramax would eventually get the rights. In the meantime, Peter Jackson developed a script for ‘King Kong’ which, at one stage, was going to be his next project but would eventually take to 2005 to happen.
In August 1996, Universal released ‘The Frighteners’ right during the Atlanta Olympics and the film had a poor showing a Box Office. This was the first time that a Peter Jackson film was not enthusiastically received.
Still, in 10 years, Peter Jackson had come from begging for finishing funds for his film ‘Bad Taste’ to deals in Hollywood for ‘King Kong’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’.
Anyone who has talent and commitment can make it in the film industry. But it is so important to get the right training. Take action as soon as you can and enrol on a high quality film school
Due to the deals that happened, ‘King Kong’ was written first as they thought that they were going to make that film first. But in 1996, ‘King Kong’ financing fell apart.
It was at the time very disappointing and as Peter Jackson says, “Rarely even at the highest level in the film business, do all the pieces – the financing and all the creative decisions fall into place on a movie. There will never really be a moment when everybody can say with certainty ‘This movies going to go forward without a doubt’.
I believe there is a great lesson to be learnt from Peter Jackson.
He had so many disappointments.
- Bad Taste rejected for NZ Commission Finance (eventually financed for finishing funds).
- Feebles rejected for finance (eventually financed for second half of production).
- Braindead Finance falls apart weeks from production (eventually financed).
- King Kong Studio Deals fall apart in 1996 (eventually financed in 2005).
- Also, Peter had wanted to make ‘Planet of the Apes’ but this project went into limbo (eventually to be made elsewhere).
- The Frighteners is a Box Office Failure.
What did Peter Jackson do once he had a disappointment? He regrouped and immediately found a way to make another project happen.
Many Film Makers fall into the trap of giving up, falling into depressions and losing confidence, becoming bitter, getting jealous and even worse totally giving up. So 1996 was not a good year.
In 1997, Peter and Fran wrote a treatment for ‘Lord of the Rings’. At this stage it was only going to be two movies. It was 92 pages and had 266 sequences. It took three months to write.
“That treatment remains the backbone of the film and showed that it was a whole piece”, said Phillipa Boynes. She would become a co-writer on the ‘Lord of the Rings’ Screenplay.
At first Peter agreed to deliver two films to Miramax for $75million.
When two scripts at 147 pages approx were delivered, the perceived budget ended up being much more. It was assessed that the budget would be $150million. This caused major friction with Miramax who eventually demanded that only one movie should be made of ‘Lord of the Rings’.
This deteriorated into a situation where Miramax and Peter would not budge on their positions. It looked like the film was going to topple over. Peter’s position was that he would not make the film unless it was two films.
Miramax wanted one film at $75million.
In July 1998, the moment of truth arrived where Peter would tell Miramax his ultimatum. He would not make ‘Lord of the Rings’ unless it was two movies.
He would not be involved if it was only one movie. All ready Miramax had invested $15 million in Development. A lifeline was negotiated with Miramax by Peter’s American Agent, Ken Kamanis.
Peter had one month to find another company willing to finance ‘Lord of the Rings’ or the project would stay with Miramax and go into turnaround.
Peter Jackson and Fran immediately got to work and rang every company in LA. They also realised that their only chance of getting finance was to show a film sample. The film sample would cost Peter Jackson $50,000
So in 4 weeks they had to prepare, write, shoot and edit a short film sample of ‘Lord of the Rings’ and then fly over and persuade another studio to take on the immense budget and draconian terms that Miramax wanted. It really was Mission Impossible but somehow in four weeks they pulled it off.
Ken Kamanis, Peter’s Agent, sent the two scripts and a copy of the animatics in the hope that different studios would meet and listen to Peter’s Pitch and film screening. Most studios declined to see Peter Jackson. Only New Line and Polygram wanted to see Peter Jackson when he finally got to LA.
Polygram could not finance the film at this point and so Peter Jackson only had one option left – New Line.
The historical meeting took place on Friday, 24th July,1998. They had left this best prospect to last so that New Line would think that there were other offers on the table and they would have to act fast. Bob Shaye was notorious for just walking out of meetings if the project did not interest him so the sense of foreboding was high.
Bob watched the $50k film of ‘Lord of the Rings’ and did not leave. He stayed for the whole 35 minute film and then said,
“Why would anyone want movie-goers to pay $18 when they might pay $27?” It was an ‘excuse me please explain’ moment. Peter and Fran thought that he was indicating the movie ticket should increase for ‘Lord of the Rings’. Bob, the head of New Line Cinema, then said, “I thought there were three books. Why do you want to only make two movies?”
Peter and Fran were totally perplexed and thinking that he was letting them down softly. Bob then said, “If you are going to do justice to it, it should be three movies”. Peter, still in shock, finally said, “There are three books and yes three movies would be terrific”. He could not believe how good this meeting was turning out to be.
Bob Shaye said that before the meeting he did not think that he would like what he was going to see. But when he saw the 35 minute showpiece film, he liked it so much that he decided he wanted to make three movies.
Three films could be shot as one and if the first one was successful then the other two would be too. It could be a bonanza for New Line and was worth the risk. It made better business sense to make three films.
For all concerned it was the most successful meeting ever.
What can you learn from this. The power of actually making pilots or short films to sell your talents and your projects. Learn how to make films professionally. Peter and Fran went in to sell two movies and came out with three and started on the road to making three of the most successful films of all time.
At the end of meeting, Bob Shaye formally committed to three films and Peter and Fran and his agent stumbled out of the New Line office in a total state of shock.
Three movies and three of the biggest movies. It would take till the end of 2003 to make all three films and it would involve a marathon 14 month shoot and a release of a film per year in 2001, 2002, 2003.
And all from one meeting and a demonstration film that showed how they would make the films.
Mark Ordesky, the New line executive who was put in charge of supervising the deal, said after the meeting, “One day this will be seen as one of the most visionary business decisions in modern cinema.”
And so, Peter Jackson moved into the very special category of A+++ league of film directors in the world making the three landmark ‘Lord of The Rings’ movies.
It is worth reading books about the making of the film as its scope was so big and challenging. After the success of ‘Lord of the Rings’ Peter Jackson went on to make ‘King Kong’ and The Hobbit.
So how did Peter Jackson make it to the very top of the film director World?
- Passion and love for making Movies. He learned how to make films
- The ability to take knock-backs and disappointments and move on to another project or another way of making that film.
- The ability to network and meet the right people to get the film made