History does not record if the late Sir David Frost ever approached Peter Jackson to star in his seminal television show ‘Through the Keyhole’. But the chances are he didn’t. It would have just been too easy. Who else could possibly live in a mansion in New Zealand with an exact replica of a Hobbit house in the basement?
Jackson, who is worth an estimated $500 million and was responsible for a total of six films about JRR Tolkien’s flat-footed heroes, employed some of his best set designers to transform the lower ground floor of his house into a perfect reconstruction of Bag End, Bilbo Baggins’s home.
The planes would also be a bit of a giveaway. The 57-year-old director owns a hangar full of First and Second World War aircraft, and an airfield on which he hosts a bi-annual air show. And it is now common knowledge, thanks to the broadcast earlier this month of his astonishing documentary about life in the trenches, that Jackson is something of an expert on the conflicts of the 20th century.
‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ was a mammoth project, which involved restoring and colourising original, flickering, black-and-white footage of everyday life on the front line, much of it previously unseen, and adding audio from 600 hours of BBC interviews. The resulting film was a universally acclaimed documentary that brought the soldiers to dramatic life.
“It was a passion project,” he tells me when we meet in an editing suite in Los Angeles. “I wanted it to be 120 men telling a single story: ‘What was it like to be a British soldier on the Western Front?’ “
The film has been sent to every secondary school in the country. And now Jackson is planning to revolutionise our view of one of the most famous operations of the Second World War: the Dambusters raid. The director has wanted to remake the classic 1955 film, which told the story of Operation Chastise, the RAF’s 1943 attacks on three German dams, using the technologically advanced “bouncing bomb”, for many years and was due to begin work in 2009.
The long delay has led to speculation in some quarters that it may never happen. But Jackson confirms that it will — and that it has to happen soon. “We are clinging on to the rights for The Dam Busters, and we have them for another year or two,” he says. “It’s just a great story, it’s always been a great story. But it’s an even greater story now than it was in 1955 because, back then, there was still so much of the story that was under the Official Secrets Act.”
One of the details that was top secret was the specific design of Barnes Wallis’s bombs. “They couldn’t show the bomb spinning, because the fact that they applied backspin to the bomb to make it jump on the water was still a state secret,” he says.
Jackson is also planning a less “romanticised” version of the operation.
“The real story is so much more interesting. It’s a story of politics, of ingenuity and peril, and it’s also a story about trying to do something that cost an awful lot of money.”
That situation is, he says, “something we can all relate to as filmmakers. You had to apply to the government to fund it — because it was a very expensive thing to build, and very expensive to prep the squadrons and fly these planes — and then to get it through a very bureaucratic system. And that’s as much of an interesting story as the actual raid itself.”
Jackson, who has regained a portion of the weight he famously lost after the end of ‘The Lord of the Rings’, is softly spoken, with the thoughtful demeanour of an academic. Born and raised in Wellington, New Zealand, the son of English immigrant parents — his mother a factory worker, his father a payroll administrator — the director was obsessed with movies from an early age.
He began making short films with his friends on the family’s Super 8 camera, and first attempted to remake King Kong at the tender age of nine, with his own clay models. His special effects expertise is entirely self-taught.
Working on his early low-budget comedy ‘Bad Taste,’ he met Fran Walsh, his long-term partner, with whom he co-wrote ‘Heavenly Creatures,’ the critically acclaimed 1994 drama starring Kate Winslet, which won them an Academy Award nomination and brought Jackson to the attention of the film industry. Since then he has become known for his big-budget, special effects-heavy films, including not only ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’, but also his (second) remake of the 1933 monster classic ‘King Kong’.
His latest film is in this mould. ‘Mortal Engines’ is adapted from the Young Adult novels of the same name by Philip Reeve, and is an ambitious, post-apocalyptic adventure, which Jackson wrote and produced.
But it is very different, he tells me firmly, from the recent rash of dystopian tales. “There are very few dystopian films that I enjoy,” he says, running his hands through a thatch of grey hair. “Lots of them have themes about trying to crush people’s spirits, and they make the survival of those people look absolutely miserable. They’re just unpleasant films to watch. We wanted to make a movie where you could imagine, ‘Well, OK, if I had to go and live in this world, it doesn’t look too bad’ — there are museums, there are parks, there’s a library. It is not an unpleasant world, it’s not an unpleasant existence.”
Starring Hugo Weaving, Hera Hilmar and Robert Sheehan, the high-concept ‘Mortal Engines’ is set in a world ravaged by the “Sixty Minute War”. “Countries don’t exist anymore, so there are no borders,” explains Jackson. “The oceans have gone down and the land has risen up. Britain no longer exists — it is just London.”
The film contains several barbed jokes about “Europe”.
What has emerged from the ruins is a new, traction-based society, with cities on top of tank-style wheels marauding across continents.
Shot entirely against green screens, in a studio in Wellington, the action centres around Tom Natsworthy (Sheehan), an apprentice historian from London, who has never set foot on solid ground, and Hester Shaw (Hilmar), a fugitive assassin seeking revenge for the murder of her mother when she was six years old. In Reeve’s four books — the first of which is the basis for this film — the lead characters are teenagers; Jackson has aged them almost a decade. He has also handed over directing duties to his longtime collaborator Christian Rivers.
“The Hobbit took five years, and I came out of that exhausted, and not really wanting to direct this, but the rights to it were running out,” explains Jackson. “Unless we started work on these films [he is planning to adapt all four books] we were going to lose the rights very soon, so it seemed like the right time for Christian to step in.”
What are his hopes for the film? One would expect the man who directed ‘Lord of the Rings,’ the highest-grossing film trilogy of all time — with its final instalment, ‘Return of the King,’ tying with ‘Ben Hur’ and ‘Titanic’ for the most Academy Awards in history (11) — to be confident. You could even excuse a little arrogance. Not when it comes to a perfectionist like Jackson.
“You’ve always got something to prove — fear drives you,” he says. “There’s nothing I do that isn’t completely terrifying, because you don’t know if what you’re making is good or bad.” He pauses. “It’s easy to make an awful movie, any time.”
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‘Mortal Engines’ releases in the UAE on December 6.