Peter Jackson: Kong & I

Peter Jackson has fantasised about remaking 'King Kong' since he was a child. He tells Lesley O'Toole how his boyhood dream came true
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The Independent Culture

It seems there is not much that Peter Jackson, 44, multi-Oscar-winning director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, cannot engineer. But even he couldn't have pulled this one off. One morning last week, in a room with a view at a suitably appointed Manhattan hotel, we see it's snowing quite heavily outside - which seems apposite, given that there are both snow and Christmas trees in his breathlessly anticipated remake of King Kong.

The snow is at its best in a scene featuring the protagonist, hours from death, and Ann Darrow enjoying a moonlit Central Park escapade on a frozen pond. These unlikely friends - a 25ft mountain gorilla and a struggling vaudeville actress - have the most exhilarating of times together. The scene would not have been out of place in When Harry Met Sally. Mercifully - and unlike the much-maligned 1976 version starring Jessica Lange as a slightly lascivious Kong's sex object - King Kong is not that sort of film. "It is a protective instinct, not a romantic thing at all," explains Jackson.

He bears virtually no resemblance to the rotund man who collected three Oscars in 2004 for writing, producing and directing the final part of the Tolkien trilogy, The Return of the King. Jackson has apparently lost 70lb since then, as well as the glasses to laser eye surgery.

The weight aged him, and Jackson now seems not only younger, but boyish too. At times when he talks, expansively and enthusiastically, he's like a precocious teenager describing his new toy. Made by a New Zealand entertainment business enclave, this "toy" is top of any film fan's list, and certainly Jackson's.

"I made this film for myself," he says with total equanimity. "I made the version of King Kong that I want to see. If someone else made it today, I'd go along with my popcorn and sit in the front row. I'd want to see a cool version of King Kong. I am confident I've made the film I'd want to see. I don't know if it's the movie you or anyone else wants to see."

King Kong holds a special place in Jackson's heart. He saw the 1933 original at nine and began filming stop-motion animation with a clay dinosaur the next day. "I didn't know I wanted to make movies, but I knew I wanted to make monsters. It was a little later that I started to dream of remaking King Kong."

The film had moved him in a way he was not expecting. "The thing that has always stuck in my mind since I was nine is the fact that I burst into tears at the end," he says. "I so badly didn't want Kong to fall off the Empire State Building and die. I wanted him to live and I cared so much about him, which is surprising."

He says there was absolutely no prospect of changing the ending. "But I've finally fulfilled my fantasy of not killing Kong in the Xbox game. If you earn enough points you get to save Kong so he goes on to live a happy life."

Jackson's determination to make precisely the film he wanted was never going to be challenged. "I guess because of the success of The Lord of the Rings, I could have done anything I wanted to do. I was in one of those dream positions that every film-maker fantasises about. And Kong was the only thing I wanted to do. I felt very, very upset when it got canned in 1996. All I wanted to do was finish it."

That was his second failed attempt to remake King Kong. "I made a model of Kong when I was 12. He was about 12in tall and I used wire and foam rubber. And I asked my mother for her fur coat. I didn't remember her wearing it in 12 years, and she said yes. It was one of those fox stoles that actually had a fox's face on it with eyeballs and a little mouth."

He says this with some glee, but he speaks warmly when discussing his mother. "She was always totally supportive of everything I did," he beams.

His own Kong does not share the awards shelf at home. "He's in a cardboard carton on a shelf. He's decomposing a little bit. He's 32, and foam rubber doesn't last too well. I look after him. I keep him out of the sunlight."

Such is the depth of Jackson's fondness for everything related to the classic film that, predictably, he also adored its leading lady Fay Wray. "She was my first crush. I think she probably was for a lot of boys who saw King Kong. She was 23 years old and absolutely extraordinary."

They met last year at the New York apartment of a friend of Wray's. Jackson's Ann Darrow, Naomi Watts - who was with Jackson - has been saying that Jackson "welled up" and got "teary" on meeting Wray.

Jackson's version is more revealing: "I cried. I had tears streaming down my face. She gave me a hug and was wiping the tears away and saying: 'You don't have to do this.' I didn't want to cry but I couldn't help myself.

"I wanted her to do a cameo in the film, just for one shot." She turned him down flat, probably in the same half-serious imperious tone she used to tell Watts: "You're not Ann Darrow. I'm Ann Darrow." But, as Jackson left, she whispered: "Never say never." He took it to mean that perhaps she would do the cameo, but she died a month or so later, a month shy of her 97th birthday.

Jackson's first production meeting for King Kong took place the morning after The Return of the King won its 11 Oscars. He needed to make one thing clear: he would only remake the film if it was still set in 1933. "There was no way on God's earth that I was going to think about remaking King Kong unless I could have the biplanes attacking the Empire State Building. That was the first thing I said to Universal."

That accomplished, Jackson pondered the bigger picture. The biggest challenge would not be special-effects-related but emotional. "It was the realisation of Kong as a character that you believe in. My biggest fear was that the relationship between Ann and Kong wouldn't work. And obviously that is the heart of this film." Strangely, his Kong may hold a greater allure for women, this one included, than did the Lord of the Rings trilogy (Viggo Mortensen excepted). If Jackson is gambling on Kong's heart, largely brought to life by Andy Serkis (who did the same for the Rings' Gollum), he appears to be on to a winner in every regard.

Inevitably, King Kong is going to make Jackson richer and even more successful. But he would happily dispense with the associated fame. "I am a little ambivalent about it. I am grateful to the fans, I have a good relationship with them most of the time. They're the audience for the film. What's the point of being a film-maker if you don't have an audience? It's an important relationship and I don't take it lightly at all.

"I just would like somehow to create a compartmentalised version of my life. There would be aspects that are for the fans, like if I go to a film festival or a premiere or an event. I have no problem signing autographs, posing for photos and being 'Peter Jackson, director of The Lord of the Rings and King Kong'."

Christmas shopping back home is not a cheery prospect. "I want to buy a Christmas present for my partner, and I am more than happy to be an anonymous shopper, not being hassled. There are times when I want to take my kids to the movies or go shopping. I don't like the idea of my kids having to wait while I sign autographs or talk to people because I don't like my kids seeing me in that way. Sometimes I just want to be a regular dad."

In New Zealand, his fame is all-encompassing. "What I've done has ended up creating a sense of pride in the country. I'm proud that we made these films in New Zealand, and we showed the world that this tiny country could make films as big as they make anywhere. But I think that pride somehow gives people there the idea that I am kind of public property."

If his children, nine and 10, have found dad a little preoccupied these past few years, they have a big thrill of their own in King Kong. Jack Black, who plays the film director Carl Denham, was hired, he surmises, because the Jackson-Walsh offspring are obsessed with his film School of Rock. Jackson insists he loved Black's work in High Fidelity.

So what did inspire the director's loss of weight? "It was a strategic decision I took before starting on King Kong. I was tired of being heavy and unwell."

At the moment, he says, he cannot say how he feels about his finished King Kong. "I can't sit in front of your tape recorder and say: 'It's the greatest film ever made, it's completely fantastic.' I never know how I feel until two or three years have passed. I have no objectivity."

Few of us fulfil our childhood dream. "I would have to say that I attribute it to fate and luck, really. I think they're related," Jackson says. "I didn't sit down when I was 12 and mark the calendar for 2005 'Release King Kong'. Obviously no one does. It's impossible. But you have ambitions and dreams and you follow them to the best of your responsibility."

It will be to his eternal regret that neither his mother nor Fay Wray lived to see the manifestation of this particular dream.

'King Kong' opens today