7.9.7 Los Angeles Times, 07-14-1996
Nothing to Be Afraid Of
Hollywood lets New Zealander Peter Jackson make a $38-million horror flick his way.
By Erin Kennedy
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 14, 1996 Home Edition, Calendar, Page 5
WELLINGTON, New Zealand--When Universal's "The Frighteners" arrives in theaters Friday, studio executives will be paying close attention to see just how much high-tech frightening can be achieved on a mere $38 million.
The R-rated black comedy-thriller, starring Michael J. Fox as "psychic investigator" Frank Bannister, was made here by Kiwi director Peter Jackson, who co-wrote the movie with Fran Walsh, his partner on and off the job.
For years, Jackson was regarded as a talented eccentric with a penchant for low-budget gore fests, but that changed with the release of 1994's "Heavenly Creatures." The critically acclaimed film, based on true events, starred Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey as Christchurch schoolmates whose flight from reality leads them to kill one of their mothers. (Winslet's character, Juliet Hulme, changed her name to Anne Perry upon her release from prison in 1959 and now lives in Scotland writing best-selling crime novels.)
Wrote critic Geoff Brown of The Times of London: "The splatter-movie maestro of 'Bad Taste' and 'Brain Dead' has grown up and wedded his imagination to a script calling for something beyond toilet jokes and decapitated heads."
"Heavenly Creatures," which cost between $4 million and $5 million, grossed just $3.1 million in the United States but $12 million worldwide and earned a best original screenplay Oscar nomination for Jackson and Walsh, as well as the Venice Film Festival's Silver Lion and Toronto's Metro Media award for best film, putting the couple on Hollywood's radar screen.
So why are they still here, working out of a warehouse studio whose location is best described as the cheaper side of town--a town of 150,000 whose distance from the motion picture capital is more than simply the 6,852 air miles separating the two?
Because, with Universal's money and its blessing, they can.
"There's more to life than making movies and I don't want to be an expatriate," Jackson says shortly before departing for the United States to promote "The Frighteners." "I am comfortable and confident making things in New Zealand with New Zealand crews. In Los Angeles, I'd be a fish out of water, and it would make everything that much more difficult--I like things to be as sweet as they can."
Those sweet things include being able to choose whom he works with and to maintain a family atmosphere. On Jackson's sets, everyone sees the rushes, and crew members are encouraged to come up with ideas.
Still, when it came to the question of whether small-town Northern California could be re-created convincingly down under, Universal needed some proof. So Jackson sent a photographer around the country to capture images of buildings, towns and streets. Several hundred photos later, Jackson had a green light.
Filming took seven months, the longest shoot Universal has ever approved in advance, and proceeded with little interference. And having Robert Zemeckis ("Forrest Gump," the "Back to the Future" series) as executive producer, with his extraordinary track record, was another factor in letting Jackson go. "I think as long as Bob was assuring them everything was OK, they were happy," Jackson says.
Universal Pictures Chairman Casey Silver, while declining to predict box-office results, says he expects "The Frighteners" to be "very profitable." With the right script, director, cast and production plan, Silver adds, "you let the filmmakers make their film unless problems arise. And with this one, that didn't happen. New Zealand is only a plane ride away. But I can't say enough superlative things about Peter and Fran--they are really gifted."
While "The Frighteners" was brought in for about half what it would have cost in the United States, it nonetheless dwarfs the spending behind Jackson's debut film, "Bad Taste," the offbeat hit of the 1988 Cannes Film Festival. In those days, he would haunt butcher shops for the most revolting bits of innards he could find to use as gore.
"I don't miss things like going to the butcher shop," he says. "The scale of this film is very different from what I'm used to--it's a good experience having a lot of people doing the work for you."
"Bad Taste" was filmed on Sundays because Jackson, then employed full-time as a printing production worker for Wellington Newspapers, had to work overtime on Saturdays to pay for film. He baked foam latex alien body parts in his mother's oven, built his own camera cranes and tracks and, along with his unpaid work mates, turned the fields of Pukerua Bay and the homestead of some family friends into an intergalactic battlefield.
He grins as he agrees that a decent budget certainly takes the pressure off. "The Frighteners" contains 570 special-effects shots, or 51 minutes of screen time, the most effects shots ever put into a film. Given this complexity, he was able to film the equivalent of only about 45 seconds per day.
Many of the film's central characters are ghosts, which created its own problems. A one-minute scene might have three ghosts, a living person and the background, and each of those might have five takes, all filmed as separate layers.
While others involved in the film have boasted that its effects surpass those of "The Mask," Jackson is wary of comparing his work to others'. But he is adamant that on a quality basis, "The Frighteners" is as good as anything around. It is different, though, in that movies such as "The Mask" or "Twister" are episodic, with three minutes of effects every 20 minutes or so.
"We have not treated the ghosts as special effects--they are also principal characters. The idea is that after the first 10 minutes people will forget they're special effects, listen to what they're saying and react to them based on their part in the story."
In 1993, Jackson, Jamie Selkirk and Richard Taylor set up WETA Ltd. to create the effects and models for "Heavenly Creatures," starting off with three computers in an old warehouse complex that is also home to Jackson's studio.
By the time they started "The Frighteners," they had about 15 computers of their own, along with about a dozen leased or borrowed around Wellington and a few from Universal's London office. At their busiest, Jackson and his team had 25 computers employed to create visual effects.
A decision to move the release date a month sooner sent the producers scurrying to find effects specialists to bolster the 12 already working.
"We shopped around to see who was available, and [digital effects supervisor] Wes Takahashi had worked with a lot of them in the States at Industrial Light & Magic, so he got in touch with some who weren't busy at the time, fortunately for us," Selkirk says.
"It was a pretty big shift for most of them, but they seemed to thoroughly enjoy their stay here. They could really communicate well with Peter, whereas the effects houses in America don't seem to communicate much with the director. . . . Peter could sit down with them and get the effect he wanted there and then."
Selkirk says some of these crew members will return to work on the next Jackson-Walsh collaboration for Universal, a remake of "King Kong," which Jackson hopes to begin filming by the end of 1997.
Walsh says it is difficult to describe what kind of movie "King Kong" will be with the script still unwritten, but promises a period film set in 1933, "a thrilling adventure with some heart."
It is a high-profile project (budgeted at a studio-pleasing $30 million to $40 million) that would have seemed out of the question for Jackson just a few years ago. But his track record and string of awards have pulled him and Walsh from the fringes of the film industry into its spotlight.
Walsh, for example, was recently appointed a member of the New Zealand Film Commission, the industry's main funding and marketing body.
Compared to similar commissions in other countries, New Zealand's budget is tiny, only about $13 million, with most of the revenue coming from film sales and lottery disbursements, and only about $1.25 million from the government.
Jackson has been outspoken about the lack of government money for New Zealand filmmakers, warning that many would go overseas if more money were not pumped into the industry.
"The average American has never heard of the All-Blacks [the national rugby team] and doesn't know anything about our sporting success, yet they all know New Zealand from movies like 'The Piano,' 'Once Were Warriors' and 'Heavenly Creatures,' which were made here with a tiny amount of support from the government."
With his mop of dark, curly hair and beard, and his trademark creased shirt and baggy trousers, Jackson does not exactly cultivate a sleek Hollywood look. Walsh is similarly unpretentious, and with her fresh, unmade-up face, long dark hair and casual dress, she looks like a young art student.
Despite their recent success, the couple, both in their mid-30s, still live in the same house in a seaside suburb they've had for several years.
Walsh, who started out writing television scripts, met Jackson nearly a decade ago, as "Bad Taste" was in post-production. They found that their writing styles and senses of humor meshed, and they began work on "Brain Dead," a 1992 comedy horror about a young man whose mother becomes a zombie after being bitten by a monkey at Wellington Zoo.
"The first two or three movies you make, you finish and you're not sure if you'll ever make another in your life. If people don't like it, that's tough," Jackson says. "Now I'm at a point where I can decide between different projects, and that feels comfortable."
The couple, who seem unsurprised by their "King Kong" coup, are looking forward to writing again, their favorite part of filmmaking.
"You can write lying in bed. You can relax. It's also the one time in the whole movie process when you don't feel enormously pressured," Jackson says. "There's no one breathing down your neck, there isn't a huge amount of equipment or money or pressure and no worries about going into overtime.
"The whole thing turns rather sour once you start making the movie. . . . I enjoy directing but if someone said to me I had to choose I would certainly choose writing."
Walsh--who also served as associate producer on "The Frighteners," dealing with casting, music and editing--adds that the scripting stage is also the best because it allows them the most time as a family, spending time with their 13-month-old son, Billy.
"When Peter's making a film, I don't see a lot of him because he's on set 15 hours a day and I'll be doing other things. . . . And in post-production, he's in the editing room for months--for a year in this case--so I certainly don't see as much of him as I'd like."
And, she says, there has not been a time when their family life has not been dominated by film: "Billy was born three weeks before we started shooting, and we just flew out the final print of 'The Frighteners' today."
Like Jackson, she is adamant that they will stay in their native country.
"Our distance gives us some insulation from the frenetic pace of Los Angeles, and that's quite nice. . . . They [Universal] are going to run him ragged on his press tour, but they can only do that for two weeks and then he's not available.
"It's quite good being at the bottom of the world--the higher-ups can't be meddling all the time and peering over your shoulder."
Erin Kennedy covers entertainment for the Dominion, based in Wellington .
Copyright, The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times, 1996.