Lord of the screen: Jackson on leadership

By Geoff Cumming

Sir Peter Jackson has been named as the 2014 winner of the Blake Medal, created in honour of the late Sir Peter Blake. Geoff Cumming talks to the world-famous film-maker about what his success has done for New Zealand

Sir Peter Jackson. Photo / AP
Sir Peter Jackson. Photo / AP

The film-maker who casts a Kong-like shadow over this country's big budget movie industry laughs down the phone at the suggestion he makes a model leader.

Dishevelled and non-conformist are the tags normally attached to Sir Peter Jackson, the movie-making maverick of the untamed locks, flannelette shirts and legendary bare feet.

"I'm just a guy who grew up in Pukerua Bay and got lucky enough to be doing my hobby as a job," he deadpans, as if we've never heard that before.

He's been knighted, honoured, laden with Oscars and eulogised by peers - largely for an ability to translate a child-like imagination into widescreen magic for all ages.

But as our latest recipient of the Blake Medal, it is leadership for which Jackson is now being recognised, placing him alongside more conservatively attired former winners from business, education, science and law.

"If somebody had said to me as a shy and retiring 15-year-old that one day I would get an award like this I would have said they were completely mad," he acknowledges.

Yet there's long been a gap between the image Jackson projects and his standing in the movie industry, entrusted with gazillion-dollar budgets by Hollywood moguls and playing the commercial and legal hardball which accompanies such stakes.

Putting Jackson on the same stage as Sir John Anderson, Dame Margaret Bazley, Sir Stephen Tindall, the late Sir Paul Callaghan and others takes no great leap of the imagination which so distinguishes his movies.

It's folklore that growing up an only child in isolated Pukerua Bay, with its rugged coast, caves and bush, fired that imagination; that he commandeered his parents' Super 8 movie camera to make stop-motion films with his plasticine models and home-made props; that his early attempt at a short film, Bad Taste, grew into a feature-length "splatstick" classic which outsold the worthy local movies being made at the time. He and collaborator and partner Fran Walsh attracted the attention of Hollywood with the shoestring Heavenly Creatures in 1994 and a few years later he was overseeing a $600 million budget for The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

These days, the Miramar film industry which is synonymous with Jackson - including world-renowned special effects companies Weta Digital and Weta Workshop, Stone Street Studios and Park Road Post - ensures a stream of post-production and FX work for Wellington, employing 5000 and generating over $400 million a year. TLOR launched a Middle-earth tourism boom and his blockbuster premieres have become huge moneyspinners for the city, with fans and prime ministers basking in the afterglow. Visitor numbers to Wellington rose 16 per cent in the year following the world premiere of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey while thousands each year take the Weta Cave workshop tour.

Not surprisingly, Jackson puts the success down to others, particularly Walsh.

"My films are the result of 1500 to 2000 people that I have a responsibility to lead. If I was taking something personal from this award it would be as leader of this group of people.

"I tend to surround myself with people who are cleverer than me. Whatever the skill, whether it's makeup or digital or art department, I challenge them to come up with better ideas than me, to surprise me with how good it is. I would guess that my best leadership quality is picking the right people."

No argument, it's leadership which delivers at the box office and in tangible economic benefits. TLOR became the highest grossing trilogy in movie history; the first two in The Hobbit trilogy (the final instalment is due out in December) topped the US box office for Warner Bros and brought further Academy Award nominations for Weta Digital and Park Road Post.

In between he's found time for "pet" projects as producer or director of King Kong, The Adventures of Tintin, District 9 and The Lovely Bones.

Jackson's halo slipped in 2010 when he went public during a union standoff over employment arrangements for The Hobbit, prompting the Government to change labour laws and sweeten incentives for the movie. Jackson imbued his part with a fair amount of over-acting but he is unrepentant. "I wasn't fighting for my job - I was trying to retain all that work for Kiwis. The Hobbit could have been made in many other countries, which is where Warners were heading.

"In this industry you have to pick your battles, and that's one that was worth fighting."

But his advocacy for the studio cemented belief in some quarters that he had become part of the Hollywood machine, rather than flagbearer for the New Zealand screen industry.

Being a standout success in an otherwise struggling industry does come at a price.

In Auckland, there is something of an "us and them" mentality - some maintain that Jackson's dominance stymies the flourishing of an indigenous film culture.

Interviewed on TVNZ's Sunday programme earlier this month, director Geoff Murphy commented: "Peter Jackson doesn't make New Zealand films, he makes for Warner Bros. He makes American films, pop culture films. There's nothing to do with us as a culture." (Murphy at the same time praised the scale of Jackson's achievement and described him as an extraordinary craftsman.)

Jackson says the argument that his success overshadows the indigenous film industry is "just plain silly". "I don't take a cent away from the Film Commission's budget and that's the sole source of funding for our indigenous film culture."

He and Walsh have long been nursing a couple of "New Zealand stories" and he says the conclusion of the Tolkien double-trilogy will bring the opportunity to develop them - alongside the long-awaited remake of The Dambusters and The Adventures of Tintin sequel.

He rejects the notion that he has become part of the Hollywood establishment, casting himself as "a Kiwi film-maker who has never gone to Hollywood, who has brought $1.5 billion into the New Zealand economy and employed many thousands of New Zealanders for nearly three decades".

He does other things, like supporting the 48Hours film festival and giving local producers access to world-class facilities at cheap rates.

"Everyone's happy to help emerging film-makers but it's only possible because the mortgage gets paid by employment on larger-budget international films.

"Unless you have some form of success and the ability to build this infrastructure you don't really have a film industry."

He shares the frustration that more local film-makers haven't broken through at international level. In 2010, he and Australian film academic David Court led a review of the Film Commission which recommended a raft of changes, few of which were implemented.

The real problem, he says, is funding - and he aims to lobby for more in his role with the new Screen Advisory Board (which also comprises Walsh, James Cameron, Jon Landau, Jane Campion and Andrew Adamson).

He acknowledges that the Film Commission can't be expected to fund more than low-budget films. The task, he says, is to identify and channel funding to emerging talent with the potential to grow - to help them to "break the shackles" of the Film Commission and gain an international reputation.

"I want to help the commission find the right people."

Sir Peter Blake leadership awards

Launched in 2004, the Sir Peter Blake leadership awards recognise leaders who set an outstanding example for young people to emulate. The annual Blake Medal winner is chosen from nominees who fit the criteria of achieving both personal success and adding significantly to the cultural landscape and/or commercial success of New Zealand.
"Like Sir Peter Blake, they lead by example, they empower teams around them and they are driven to succeed," the organisers say.

This year's Blake Medal winner is film-maker Sir Peter Jackson. Also announced at last night's ceremony were six "Blake Leaders" - people aged between 25 and 45 who have shown exceptional leadership in their careers or lives so far.

They will be able to tap into further mentoring and support.

This year's Blake Leaders are:

• Tim Alpe, co-founder and chief executive of Jucy Group.

• Dr Sam Hazledine, of medical recruitment service MedRecruit.

• Sarah Robb-O'Hagan, president of fitness company Equinox.

• Therese Walsh, NZ organiser of the 2015 Cricket World Cup.

• Matt Watson, environmentalist and TV fishing show presenter.

• Kathryn Wilson, footwear designer.

- NZ Herald

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