Could Peter Jackson look any less like one of the most powerful men in the movies? He’s dug out a rumpled shirt from the back of the wardrobe because we’re taking his picture today. And he’s no fan of shoes—"I only wore them today because there’s a bloody photoshoot!" Yet there’s no mistaking his importance: the 53-year-old New Zealander is the man Hollywood trusted with $1 billion to make trilogies of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit novels. Each of the five films so far has taken in the region of $1 billion at the box office.
Along the way, Peter Jackson made beardy fantasy stories cool again (no Lord of the Rings, no Game of Thrones). He’s also turned New Zealand into the world center for special effects (not to mention propelling the country to the top of every nerd’s list of dream holiday destinations). You can praise or blame Jackson for another milestone too: making epically long blockbuster bum-numbers the norm. All in all, his Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, six in total, add up to more than 17 hours of storytelling—and that’s before the director’s cuts…
Today, Jackson is exhausted. The premiere of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is looming and he has been working round the clock to finish the film. We meet at a post-production studio on a dowdy industrial estate near Pinewood Studios, on the very edge of London.
Jackson has a house near here and is lying low until the premiere. His voice is deep and throaty, like he’s fighting off a cold, as he collapses into a sofa with a mug of tea—bag still in—resting on his knee. But he instantly perks up answering the questions we’ve gathered from the actors who’ve worked alongside him and who know him best, including Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins) and Andy Serkis (Gollum). When I mention that the Time Out team has just been watching the new Star Wars trailer while we’ve been waiting, he begs me to say no more: he’s saving it for later. He truly is the movie geek’s movie geek.
Exactly 15 years ago you were in New Zealand shooting the Lord of the Rings films. Here we are, a decade and half later and you’ve finished the third and final Hobbit film. Did you throw a party? We only finished tweaking it a week ago. We worked around the clock, 20 or 22 hours a day. The last day lasted 40 hours straight with no sleep. The team around me came in shifts, and I just sat there. Then a man in a white suit comes and takes it away from you! Did I celebrate? You just go home and sleep!
Are you happy with it? It’s my favorite of the three. It’s a thriller. Each film has its own vibe— even though I made them all at the same time. Each one has a personality, like when you have three children. They may all come from the same gene pool but they have distinct little characters. This one is definitely the thriller.
Ian McKellen, who plays Gandalf, has a question for you: "Do you think the Tolkien estate would ever permit a Middle-earth theme park like the Harry Potter one in Florida? If so, might you want to be the curator or designer?" Ha! I think the answer’s probably no. I don’t think they have any desire to see a Middle-earth theme park. I mean, I’ve kept a lot of the costumes and props just because I always do on my movies. I’m a magpie. I’m a collector. I like to hang on to stuff. I don’t think a theme park will ever exist but who knows.
Richard Armitage (Thorin Oakenshield) asks: "Pete, of all the things you have collected, which is your most treasured?" My favorite thing I’ve got is the original armature [stop-motion creature model] from the 1933 King Kong movie. I got it at Christie’s auction some years ago. It’s in storage. I’ve got a little collection of stuff like that. I have them in a secure storeroom away from my house but it’s laid out like a little museum. So when people come we can give them little private tours. The armature’s got pride of place. The only people who get to go round there are people who I think will actually appreciate it. Just a few people.
Will you ever make any of this stuff more public? Well, one of the things I want to do in the new year is focus on getting a little film museum going down in New Zealand. Not just stuff from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit but a general movie museum with memorabilia. In a way, my next project isn’t really a film, it’s getting this museum going.
Ian McKellen wants to know: "If you ever had to leave New Zealand, where would you be happiest?" Oh God, I don’t know. Maybe the UK. I do have an affinity for the UK. My parents are from Britain. Certainly not America: I’m much more of a UK-oriented person than I am a US one; I’m sure you know what I mean. It’s the lifestyle. I’m much more into the British lifestyle than the American lifestyle.
Martin Freeman (Bilbo) asks: "Was it a difficult decision to take over the helm for The Hobbit from Guillermo del Toro?" [Pacific Rim director Del Toro pulled out of directing The Hobbit in 2010.] Yeah, it was difficult. It was never part of the plan. Guillermo was going to direct the movies and we were going to produce them. So Fran [Walsh, Jackson’s life partner, co-writer and producer] and I had other films that we were thinking of making. I know Guillermo would have made something very, very interesting. But beyond Guillermo I didn’t really have another director I felt comfortable with. It was easier for me to jump in.
The irony was that once I jumped in I was incredibly happy. It was really the most fun I’ve had making a movie. It truly was. I also learned a lot. The Hobbit was the time when I felt I came of age as a filmmaker. So I’m really grateful for it. I’m raring to make other films. I’m in the zone now.
Stephen Fry wants to know: "When are we going to start on The Dam Busters?" Well, we have started on The Dam Busters. Stephen and I wrote a script for it a while ago. I love the 1950s British World War Two genre. That was one of the movies on the list that I was intending to get made while Guillermo del Toro was doing The Hobbit, so hopefully within the next year or so. If you wouldn’t mind just passing that on to Stephen, please? He can read it here! Evangeline Lilly, who plays the elf Tauriel, asks: "What’s the worst thing about wearing shoes?" Normally I don’t wear shoes. They’re just uncomfortable. I don’t like wearing them at all. But socially you’ve got to wear them, on red carpets and in restaurants. I’m not that much of a rebel. I also wear them on set because it’s too dangerous. If someone dropped a piece of equipment on my toe there would be all sorts of insurance complications. Evangeline doesn’t wear shoes when she’s off set. So that makes two of us.
She also wants to ask you "How do you grow the best earlobes on earth?" This needs explaining. Evangeline has a very strange tendency to want to massage your earlobes. You’ll have to ask her for further information as to why, but she used to like massaging my earlobes a lot. I’ve got to say, it felt quite nice.
Does it ever freak you out when you realize how many people are watching your films? Yep! I think it’s pretty exciting, hugely exciting! Thrilling. Especially having been brought up in the low-budget splatter genre, where you’re making films for a limited audience. When I go round the world now and I look up and there’s a poster for one of my films, I think: God, do these people actually go and see my movies? Wow. It’s hard to connect to that. And you can’t make a movie by committee—especially a committee of 25 million people or however many. You have to make it for yourself and hope other people trust your instincts.
Stephen Fry wants you to "tell everyone about the blood ’n’ gore days of Bad Taste (1987) and Braindead (1992). Do you miss that kind of kitchen-table filmmaking?" Maybe it’s not true, but the way I made The Hobbit is not that different from those films, so I don’t miss it so much. Stephen would be very surprised if he was a fly on the wall back in the old days—a lot of the conversations were very similar. The stakes go up a bit because the budgets get bigger and the responsibility gets larger, but if Stephen was on the set of Braindead he would recognize it in a second. The vibe on set was very similar to The Hobbit.
Didn’t someone try to ban you from the UK back then? Yeah, with Meet the Feebles (1989)! There were calls to ban me from the country. I think it was from a film critic, actually! Guess what, I snuck in anyway!
Andy Serkis (Gollum) asks: "If you could confront and defeat any tyrant in history, literature, cinema or popular culture who would it be?" It’s a very tricky thing, isn’t it? Obviously Hitler would be at the top of the list. If you could nip that in the bud, the world would be a much better place today. But it’s not something I really think about, I must say! That question tells you more about Andy than it does about me! It must be something that he dwells on quite a lot!
Do you think The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit changed what we expect from cinema? I don’t know, I can’t really answer that. I certainly hope one day some filmmaker, a reasonably well-known filmmaker will come up to me and say: Hey, I’m only doing this because I saw The Lord of the Rings or whatever when I was seven years old... I did get to meet Fay Wray, the actress from King Kong, when she was in her nineties just before she died. I was able to say to her I’m only doing what I’m doing because of seeing your film that you made in 1933. That was a pretty weird experience.
Some of the world’s biggest filmmakers—Steven Spielberg, James Cameron—come to you for advice or help. How does that feel? That’s one of the perks if you’re lucky: to collaborate with the people you grew up admiring. I said to Steven: I’m the perfect age, I’m the clichéd version of not wanting to go into the water when I was 12, 13 years old because of Jaws! I lived by the beach and every summer we used to go swimming for months. And in 1974 my Christmas was ruined because of bloody Jaws! When you meet people like Steven and Jim Cameron, you understand that they’re the same as I am. They’re not any different. They’re just big kids, big geeks. We’re all just geeks, that’s all we are.
The voice of Smaug, Benedict Cumberbatch, want to know: "Are you sick of being asked questions?" Well, to tell you the truth, right now I’m not. You’re just about the first person to interview me about this new The Hobbit movie. If you asked me in two weeks’ time, after the premiere and everything, the answer would definitely be yes! At the moment, truthfully, no!
Another question from Benedict: What are you most proud of? Oh god, I hate those sorts of questions! Well, I’m most proud of entertaining people. That’s ultimately what I do, it’s not like I make any bones about it. The business I’m in is the entertainment industry, and there’s nothing romantic about it. I have to entertain people, which I love doing anyway. But Warner Brothers expect me to entertain people, otherwise they’re going to lose their money!
But what I’m personally proud of is when people are clearly enjoying something you’ve made—when you’ve successfully taken people away from their normal lives and their stresses and you’ve let people have some escapism for an hour or two… Or three in my case! Ha!
You’ve made one of the most successful franchises ever and realized a lifelong ambition. What’s left? One of the things I’m thinking about now is the future of entertainment. One hundred years from now, what’s it going to be like? I haven’t a clue. What interests me is augmented reality and virtual reality. Not so much virtual reality like putting on headsets and entering another world. It’s more that you put on glasses, go out the door and there are zombies walking around. You’ve got a plastic gun and you’re chasing them around. That’s kind of interesting. Ten years from now it’ll be everywhere. It’s not gaming, it’s a form of entertainment that doesn’t exist yet. I’m interested in putting my brain into that—when my brain cells have recharged a bit. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is in theaters Wed Dec 17.