The Director's Chair Interviews

New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson is one spooky guy
By Jane Wollman Rusoff

Click here for Peter Jackson films, books, and soundtracks

DIRECTOR-SCREENWRITER Peter Jackson was born on Halloween--a birth date that may explain his attraction to the horror genre. Bad Taste, Jackson's first feature film, was notable for its blood-and-vomit humor. (Naturally, it became a cult classic.) Jackson followed up with Braindead (Dead Alive in the States), a gruesome 1992 comedy about zombies, and Heavenly Creatures, the true story of two teenage girls who bludgeon one of their mothers to death. His most recent offering, The Frighteners, which opened last Friday, stars Michael J. Fox as a con artist in cahoots with the ghosts he is paid to exterminate; the director describes it as a cross between Casper and Silence of the Lambs. Despite his résumé, Jackson refuses to be pigeonholed as a horror filmmaker. "I don't really like horror movies as such," he says, "especially ones that take themselves seriously. I'm more influenced by good direction--some of Martin Scorsese's or James Cameron's films--good directors who really know how to tell a story."

Jackson's own story begins thirty-four years ago in Wellington, New Zealand. He grew up the only child of a factory-worker mother and an accounting-clerk father, and was seduced by scary movies at an early age. One of his all-time favorites was The Premature Burial, a 1962 spooker directed by Roger Corman and starring Ray Milland. ("If you got buried alive, you could pull a string and a little bell rang on the top of the grave, telling people to dig you up," says Jackson.)

As a teenager, Jackson left school and went to work as an apprentice photo engraver; after-hours, he worked on Bad Taste. In between the four films he has since produced, directed, and co-written with his wife, Fran Walsh (Meet the Feebles, Braindead, Heavenly Creatures, The Frighteners), the versatile Jackson did time as an actor (in a 1993 Swedish comedy called The Last Dance), a production assistant (War of the Roses), and a stunt double (on Grampire, a 1992 New Zealand yukker about an American kid who discovers that gramps is a vampire). Though audiences haven't exactly been flocking to The Frighteners, it's doubtful that Jackson will be forced to fall back on those talents again.

The film's executive producer, Robert (Forrest Gump) Zemeckis, bought The Frighteners on the basis of a two-page outline. "We'd sent [the outline] to our agent saying this was something we would be interested in developing one day in the future," says Jackson. "Then, when Bob put out the word that he was looking for a Tales From the Crypt feature, the outline was sent to him. But he didn't want to use the story for Tales, because he thought it was unique and could stand on its own."

Michael J. Fox was the only actor Jackson considered for the lead. "There isn't a long list of actors that can play comedy and drama," he says. "This character is grappling with his demons, and I didn't want to lose the audience's sympathy when he does the dramatic stuff. I wanted someone who was likable, and Michael was one of those actors who had an inherent likability."

Inherent likability might also describe the horror/sci-fi genre in which, despite his protestations, Jackson seems most at home. "These things work in twenty- or thirty-year cycles," says Jackson. "In the eighties, it was all those Nightmare on Elm Street and slasher films. A few years ago, we had big-budget horror movies like Frankenstein and Interview With the Vampire, but those were not very good and not very successful. Now, we're at the very beginning of the aliens-from-space cycle that was actually big in the fifties."

What's next? Well, for Jackson, at least, it's a remake of King Kong. He and Walsh are working on the script now, and they hope to start filming next year. The 1933 classic, starring Fay Wray, stands as "one of the great films," says Jackson, who has seen the original forty or fifty times. (He dismisses the 1977 remake, with Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges, as "terrible.") "There's room for another Kong, because ninety-five percent of the new generation hasn't seen, or has no interest in seeing the original black-and-white film. So if we can try to recreate the sense of wonderment of the original, it's like passing the baton and making sure that King Kong doesn't fade away and die."

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