Peter Jackson Biography

October 31, 1961 Pukerua Bay, North Island, New Zealand


AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission.
Jackson, Peter.
AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission.

Peter Jackson made a name for himself in the movie industry with a small collection of gory, low-budget horror films including Dead Alive and The Frighteners. He worked from his native New Zealand, more than six thousand miles from Hollywood. To many, Jackson may have seemed like the least likely person to be chosen to direct one of the most lavish and big-budgeted film projects ever attempted. He may have seemed even less likely to succeed in such a venture, but succeed he did, in grand style. Jackson spent seven years of his life creating the three Lord of the Rings films, which are based on the beloved classic fantasy novels by J. R. R. Tolkien (1892–1973). Each installment of the trilogy earned the devotion of millions of fans, close to $1 billion worldwide at the box office, and multiple award nominations. With the final film, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Jackson hit the award jackpot. The film swept the 2004 Academy Awards with eleven victories, including best director, best adapted screenplay, and best picture. With these three films, Jackson went from being a filmmaker admired by a select group of fans to one who is regarded by many as one of the world's top directors.

An active imagination

Jackson was born in 1961 on Halloween, October 31, an appropriate birthday for a boy who would grow up to make exceptionally scary, blood-soaked films. Growing up an only child in a town near Wellington, New Zealand, he found his imagination fired by watching such television shows as Monty Python's Flying Circus and Batman, and old monster movies like the 1933 version of King Kong. At the age of eight, Jackson began playing around with his parents' 8-millimeter camera, making home movies. At age twelve, he and some friends shot a short World War II film, using Jackson's backyard as the set. Perplexed as to how to create realistic gunfire in the film, Jackson hit upon the idea of making holes in the strip of film in the frames where the guns would be fired; when the film was projected, the holes appeared as a flash onscreen. This special effect was the first of many Jackson would create throughout his career: as a filmmaker he became famous for his elaborate, complicated special effects.

"To me [the Lord of the Rings trilogy] embodies what I love about movies. I love movies for their escapism, for the fact that you go into the cinema and you just give yourself over to the film and allow it to sweep you away."

When Jackson was seventeen years old, he left school to find a job in New Zealand's movie industry. To support himself, he took a job as an apprentice, a beginner learning a trade, in the photo-engraving department of a newspaper, the Evening Post. Among his first purchases once he started receiving paychecks was a used 16-millimeter

The Creation of Gollum

Many of the computer-generated creatures in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy have incredibly lifelike features. They seem to live and breathe, in some cases to think and feel. One such creature, Gollum, exhibits as much emotion and complexity as any of the human actors, and for that, actor Andy Serkis (1964–) is responsible. In a unique pairing of human performance and computer-generated images, or CGI, Jackson hired Serkis to provide not just the voice of Gollum, but the creature's facial expressions and body movements as well.

In the films, which depict the long and painful journey of the hobbit Frodo to destroy the One Ring, a ring that makes its bearer all-powerful and must be destroyed to prevent its misuse, Gollum is a deformed, stooped, hairless creature who once was a ring-bearer like Frodo. He began life as a hobbit named Smeagol, and his years possessing the ring corrupted him in both mind and body. Gollum joins Frodo and his friend Sam for a portion of their journey, longing to steal back the ring, which he calls "my Precious."

Serkis originally agreed to the role of Gollum thinking it would involve a few weeks of voice-over work. He told Michael Fleming of Daily Variety, "I remember thinking, a voice-over? Why can't I get offered a decent acting role in a major movie? ... This didn't seem that involved." He soon realized, however, that his contributions to the character would go far beyond Gollum's reptile-like hissings. By the end of the three films' production, Serkis had worked more hours than any other actor in the films. And his extraordinary contributions brought him high praise from critics and fans, with many suggesting he should be nominated for an Academy Award for his performance.

Serkis began by acting out the role of Gollum with his costars, creating the character's physical style. Animators observed Serkis's performance, using his movements as the basis for the Gollum they created on computers. Serkis then went through each of Gollum's scenes again, this time wearing a high-tech motion-capture suit. Sensors covering the suit transmitted details about Serkis's every move to the animators' computers, enabling the graphic artists to digitally recreate Serkis's physical motions with startling accuracy. Serkis performed his scenes a third time to capture Gollum's voice and to give the animators a starting point for Gollum's facial expressions. A team of forty animators then spent untold hours refining the creature's movements. At Serkis's Web site, the films' creature supervisor, Eric Sainden, explained the complexity of the computer-generated Gollum: "There are around 300 different muscles or more on Gollum. He has a full skeleton and a full muscle system that's all driving what you see on his skin.... The facial system we're doing has about 250 different face shapes...." The result is a believable, realistic Gollum, what Peter Jackson described at Serkis's Web site as "probably the most actor-driven digital creature that has ever been used in a film before."

For Serkis, his months of work creating Gollum have yielded an unusual legacy, summed up in Daily Variety: "The performance is signature Serkis—even though the actor was erased from every scene."

camera. Soon, with the help of some friends, Jackson had begun making a short film about aliens from outer space who dine on human flesh. He spent weekends and holidays for several years working on this film, spending his own money to finance it. It eventually became clear that the film, titled Bad Taste, would be a full-length effort. Jackson cowrote the film and served as director, producer, cinematographer, editor, make-up artist, and even actor. He also served as fundraiser, successfully applying to the New Zealand Film Commission for a grant to complete post-production work. When the movie was completed, the commission felt enough confidence in it to take it to the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in France. Audiences there reacted strongly, some loving it and some despising it. However, even its detractors could see evidence of a unique, talented filmmaker. As Stephen Rebello of Variety wrote in 2003: "Wade through the spilled guts, shove aside the cracked skull and exploding sheep in 1987's Bad Taste, and you're bound to see the flair of its twenty-six-year-old director." Bad Taste was sold for distribution in thirty countries, giving Jackson a big enough paycheck to allow him to quit his job at the newspaper and become a full-time filmmaker.

A blood-spattered film catalog

At a screening for Bad Taste, Jackson met Fran Walsh. Finding that they shared a dark sense of humor and similar taste in films, the two began a writing partnership that blossomed into a long-term relationship. They have two children together, Kate and Billy, and have cowritten the screenplays for nearly all of Jackson's directorial efforts. Jackson's second film, 1989's Meet the Feebles, continued his tendency to push the boundaries of good taste. Richard Corliss of Time magazine described it as quite probably "the first all-puppet musical-comedy splatter film," tipping the kid-friendly world of Jim Henson's Muppets on its head. The puppets in Meet the Feebles get caught up in drugs, sex, and mass murder. The movie is filled with disgusting displays of bodily functions and fluids. While some movie-goers were no doubt repulsed by the film, others appreciated Jackson's sick sense of humor.

For his next film, Jackson took on a standard of the horror film genre: the zombie movie. In Braindead, which was released in the United States in 1992 as Dead Alive, a woman is bitten by an infected monkey and turned into a zombie. The film features a growing crowd of the walking dead, destroying a town and attacking citizens. Brain-dead displays extraordinary levels of gore and violence, but the filmmaker never takes himself or the film too seriously, injecting heavy doses of campy humor and silliness. The film's hero, for example, tackles a herd of zombies with a lawnmower. Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman wrote that the film "manages to stay breezy and good-natured even as you're watching heads get snapped off of spurting torsos." Jackson has labeled this blending of comedy and gore "splatstick," a term that can be applied to most of his early films.

In 1994 Jackson directed a film that surprised his hardcore fans. Heavenly Creatures, while still displaying a fascination with the darker side of humanity, is a departure in terms of style, avoiding the over-the-top gore of his other films. Depicting the true story of two New Zealander girls, Pauline and Juliet, whose intense friendship and obsession with the fantasy world they create lead them to kill Pauline's mother, Heavenly Creatures attracted the notice of critics and filmmakers around the world. Jackson's fans knew he was intensely creative and skilled at weaving lighthearted humor into scenes of gruesome violence. But with Heavenly Creatures, he revealed an ability to convey subtle and complicated emotions. The story is told from the girls' point of view, and Jackson draws viewers into their world, creating a sense of identification while also confronting the horror of their actions. Cowritten with Walsh, Heavenly Creatures received an Academy Award nomination for best screenplay. It lost the award to Pulp Fiction, but the film earned such positive attention that it led to greater opportunities for Jackson as a filmmaker.

With The Frighteners, Jackson returned to his comedy/horror roots, but this time he had the support of a large Hollywood film studio (Universal), a major star (Michael J. Fox), and a big-name producer (Robert Zemeckis). Determined to stay in his home country, Jackson insisted that the movie be made in New Zealand. His homegrown visual-effects studio, Weta Workshop, created close to six hundred computer-generated special-effects shots for the film. Fox plays a con-man who communicates with the dead and is reluctantly drawn into a hunt for a deadly spirit on a killing spree. Intended as a Halloween release, the film became a victim of schedule juggling and came out in the summer of 1996. It failed to connect on a large scale with audiences, though Jackson's fans happily added it to the list of reasons to marvel at the New Zealander filmmaker.

A gigantic risk

Jackson and Walsh, longtime fans of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, wanted to make a fantasy film and considered the classic trilogy to be the model for all fantasy literature. Wondering why it had not been attempted before, they—and their writing partner Philippa Boyens—began working on a screenplay with the backing of Miramax, the Disney-owned film studio. Problems arose when Miramax became worried about the projected cost, suggesting the trilogy be compressed into one film. Jackson began looking for another studio to finance the film. With a projected cost of nearly $300 million for three films, and with nothing in his past experience to suggest that the New Zealander was the right director for the Tolkien masterpiece, Jackson's pitch was a tough sell. Taking on a great risk, New Line Cinema agreed to back the films, counting on the widespread fan base for the books to bring people into theaters. It was decided that the three films would be shot at the same time, something that had never before been attempted in the history of film. The decision arose from the studio's desire to cut costs, but Jackson came to feel it was the best approach: "I felt that in order to do the tale's epic nature justice, we had to shoot it as one big story because that's what it is," he explained at the Lord of the Rings Web site. "It's three movies that will take you through three very unique experiences but it all adds up to one unforgettable story."

Tolkien's novels, first published in the 1950s and read by millions of people in many different languages, transport readers to a distant time in an imagined realm called Middle-earth. An epic battle of good versus evil, The Lord of the Rings features a varied collection of creatures, including hobbits, elves, dwarves, and humans, waging war against wickedness. The films boast a huge cast, including Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellan, Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett, and many others. The actors spent well over a year in New Zealand shooting the film, far away from their homes and families. They learned how to ride horses, sword fight, and speak Elvish, a language invented by Tolkien. Language coaches were brought in to develop a unique accent for a language that had existed only on the page.

Jackson and his crew went to great lengths to create the Middle-earth universe as described by Tolkien, paying attention to every last detail. "From the beginning I didn't want to make your standard fantasy film," Jackson stated in an article at the Lord of the Rings Web site. "I wanted something that felt much, much more real. Tolkien writes in a way that makes everything come alive and we wanted to set that realistic feeling of an ancient world-come-to-life right away with the first film, then continue to build it as the story unravels." In the same article, Blanchett, who plays Galadriel, the elf queen, recalled the vivid world the filmmakers had created: "By the time I started working, there was such a strong and real-life sense of the various cultures, their histories, and their hopes for the future. It was really like becoming part of a whole different universe. I've never experienced anything like it before." The special-effects experts at Weta deserve much of the credit for the films' richly textured universe. The first two installments each have eight hundred special-effects shots, while the third part includes more than fifteen hundred. Such shots are perhaps most crucial to the gigantic battle scenes, which are populated by thousands of computer-generated creatures.

A huge payoff

Jackson understood from the beginning that he had a dual purpose with these films. He felt a tremendous obligation to remain faithful to the books, knowing the intense devotion felt by many Tolkien fans. He also knew, however, that the films had to entertain and make sense to moviegoers who had not read the books. At the film's Web site, Jackson recalled that he, Walsh, and Boyens combed through the books when writing the screenplay; in addition, "every time we shot a scene, I reread that part of the book right before, as did the cast. It was always worth it, always inspiring." The first part, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring came out in December of 2001 to great acclaim. Not only were most Tolkien fans impressed by the care Jackson lavished on the film, but millions who had not read the books—and many who had no interest in the fantasy genre—were entranced as well. The film earned more than $850 million at the box office worldwide and garnered numerous award nominations and several victories. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers was released one year later, in December of 2002. Despite the challenges of the second film—which starts abruptly where part one left off and ends without any tidy sense of resolution— The Two Towers succeeded phenomenally. Its worldwide earnings exceeded $900 million, and it too received a number of important awards.

Before the release of the third installment, expectations soared. When Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King came out in December of 2003, millions of fans breathed a sigh of relief. The conclusion of the trilogy proved as engrossing as the first two segments, and many reviewers wrote of its intense emotional impact. At the film's Web site, Jackson acknowledged the satisfying sense of closure the final film gives: "The journeys these characters have been on, what they care about, what they've been fighting for, what some of their friends have died for, all leads to the events in The Return of the King. " As many expected, Return of the King swept the 2004 Academy Awards, winning the Oscar in every category in which it had been nominated, including best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay, and best visual effects. The film also won best director and other awards at the Golden Globes ceremony and from the British Academy of Film and Television Awards (BAFTA).

Peter Jackson accepts the Best Director Oscar for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission.
Peter Jackson accepts the Best Director Oscar for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King .
AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission.

In the midst of the release cycle for the three Lord of the Rings films, Jackson was often asked by journalists what project he would tackle next. He generally replied that he and Walsh were looking forward to working on another small film on the order of Heavenly Creatures. But when the offer came for him to direct a remake of King Kong, hardly a "small film," Jackson could not refuse. The original 1933 version was the movie that had made Jackson decide, at the age of nine, to become a filmmaker. He had been offered the chance to direct a King Kong remake once before, in the mid-1990s, but funding had fallen through. When the chance came along again, he leaped at it. Having traveled with him to Middle-earth and back, millions of Jackson fans eagerly anticipated the next ride.

For More Information


Corliss, Richard. "Peter Jackson: Lord of the Cinema." Time (April 26, 2004): p. 100.

Fleming, Michael. "Oscar Hopeful Serkis 'Towers' over CGI Brethren." Daily Variety (November 22, 2002): p. 2.

Flynn, Gillian. "Gory Days." Entertainment Weekly (March 22, 2002): p. 63.

Gleiberman, Owen. " Dead Alive. " Entertainment Weekly (March 5, 1993): p. 40.

McLean, Thomas J. "'King' Maker.' Daily Variety (December 19, 2003): p. A6.

Rebello, Stephen. "Peter Jackson's Bad Taste. " Variety (December 8, 2003): p. S92.

Web Sites

"Andy Serkis: The Lord of the Rings. " Andy Serkis. (accessed August 1, 2004).

The Lord of the Rings. (accessed August 1, 2004).

"Peter Jackson: The King of the Rings." BBC News. (accessed August 1, 2004).

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