Jackson leaves Kong in fate's hands

By Russell Baillie

On this New York early winter morning, the top of the Empire State Building is coated in heavy cloud, the Manhattan streets below are slippery with snow, and the temperature hovers around zero.

A few blocks away inside a chintzy hotel room above Park Avenue, Peter Jackson's own observation deck is stuck in its own mental fog.

Granted, he has been a bit busy at work. He nearly always is in December. Though this time last year was relatively light, a bit of a breather after the consecutive releases of the Lord of the Rings trilogy which became the cinematic grand finales of 2001-2003.

But not 2005. For this is the Christmas of Kong.

A spectacle-free Jackson looks, yes, thinner, younger, if a touch greyer, and a little less jolly.

Though he's quick to laugh at his fatigued state and its cause - overwork, jetlag and being forced to talk up a storm in the past few days to the world media about his King Kong, a movie he's not sure he's qualified to comment on yet.

"We are just in that weird no-man's land of doing press talking about a movie that is so fresh that you can hardly talk about it because the questions demand a sense of perspective. 'Are you pleased with what you have made?' Is this the film you wanted to make since you were 9?' And I don't know.

"I don't know the film that well. I need to answer those questions in six months time."

Jackson finished Kong only last Monday, signing off some last computer animation shots and sound mixes at 9.15am before catching a 9.30am flight to New York.

When the film had its first screening for American media two days after he arrived in New York, Jackson passed up the chance to attend.

"Because I had only finished the movie some 15 or 16 hours before I couldn't face seeing it that quickly."

He'll see it in its entirety for the first time at its official world premiere in Times Square today.

Remaking King Kong was the project of his dreams - the original movie, as everyone who knows the slightest bit about his career, was what inspired him to be a film maker.

He saw it when he was 9 on the telly one Friday night. He cried at the end.

A fortnight ago he found he couldn't face watching his Kong's demise atop the Empire State again and again during a sound mix session. He left his engineers to it and went out to get some fresh air.

Jackson and his cohorts almost got to remake Kong in 1996. But backers Universal Studios thought better of the idea after the director and his team had already put in more than six months' preparation work.

It was, of course, a blessing in disguise. The next option was The Lord of The Rings. Had they made the film back in the mid 90s, Jackson says, "it wouldn't have been as good. Tonally it would have been completely different. Based on the script we wrote back then it would have been like The Mummy or Van Helsing, because that was the world that we were in".

"That's what we perceived to be a Hollywood film back in 1996 ... "

Universal came back after the first Rings movie convinced it that yes, it wanted to be in the Peter Jackson business after all. It reopened discussions on Kong.

Flash forward to next week and US$207 million ($290 million) later comes the release of the film, which after the hefty trilogy instalments is yet another Jackson three-hour wonder.

Not that that was the original intention. "We swore we were never going to make another three-hour film. What utter craziness."

Jackson has said elsewhere that he was making the film for that 9-year-old Peter. Which, looking at the spectacular result, can only make you conclude he was a demanding little bugger.

"Ha ha. Yeah. But it's a lot more complicated than the 9-year-old Peter. The 9-year-old Peter would have expected a stop motion animation film. The 9-year-old Peter didn't know about computers - they hadn't been invented yet. So I think the 9-year-old Peter would have been a little more impressed with this movie than what I was imagining back then."

And as a Dad of kids around that age? "I think it's a great film for kids that age. I think if I was 9 years old and saw it I would be pretty blown away myself."

But it's a film about a big gorilla falling for and beating his chest over the blonde of his dreams.

"We didn't want to emphasise the sexual element of the story. A lot of people have this rather amusing take on King Kong and his girlfriend Ann Darrow and how does that work? And it wasn't so much in the 1933 film but they did play it up a bit in the 1976 version and it wasn't something that interested us."

Jackson's film remains faithful to the story of the original, which ran only to 100 minutes. The Kiwi deadpans that he doesn't know why his version was almost double the duration.

He invited Universal executives down to New Zealand, effectively to advise on where they could see cuts being made to reduce its running time.

Only the studio big-wigs loved what they saw and readily agreed to release a three-hour cut. Though that involved Jackson contributing to the budget over-run for the extra running time, all of which required more sound, more finished special effects and more music.

"[The studio] didn't help the situation in a funny regard because at that point we only had three or four months to finish a three-hour movie, which meant Weta suddenly had to work around the clock to get all the effects done - more running time, it means more of everything."

Adding to the deadline fever was the departure of the Rings' soundtrack composer Howard Shore.

Jackson says they agreed they were on different pages as far as the film's music went and by mutual agreement - and in interests of their long-standing friendship - Howard exited the project to be replaced by a madly scribbling John Newton Howard, who had to write and record the soundtrack with barely weeks to go.

There have been other stresses on the Kong shoot for Jackson, including a lighting-rig accident which got the production in hot water with officialdom and the unions.

As well, the film's sea-going steamer Venture 2 sprang a leak off the Kapiti Coast and put into Kapiti Island.

It's all just the sort of stuff that happens on the big jobs, Jackson says resignedly.

And if Kong had its trials during its production, it faces its biggest in the coming weeks, though Jackson says compared to the pressure of finishing the film, any anxiety on whether it will perform at the international box office is relatively minor.

"You have at the back of your head, 'I hope it will open well at the box office and Universal are going to get their dough back'.

"Because every movie is a roll of the dice and some dice are a bit bigger than others.

"At some point fate takes over. Fate dictated that we didn't make this movie in 1996. It decided that we should do Lord of the Rings instead. Fate was being kind to us then so maybe fate is being kind to us now. So we'll soon find out."

And through that fog you can make out a man relieved that his work on his dream project is done and he's happy with it.

And that for the first time in a decade - other than plans to adapt the novel The Lovely Bones - Jackson is already enjoying the idea of his future being unplanned and without deadlines.

"It's the first time in 10 years I've been able to think beyond Lord of the Rings and King Kong. Those two projects have been 10 years of my life and in terms of a career that's a substantial amount of time, so one of the things I am really looking forward to is having a rest."

* King Kong opens to the public in New Zealand on December 14.

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