The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

The geeky genius of Peter Jackson

Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer


Peter Jackson, minus 1,000 Bryan Singers.

When the phone rings for director Bryan Singer at work, someone else takes a message.

But not when it’s Peter Jackson.

In a recent installment of “Bryan’s Video Journal,” direct from the Australian set of Superman Returns, Singer gets a call from Jackson from the nearby New Zealand set for King Kong. Jackson, who’s feeling tired, simply asks that Singer walk away from the reported $250,000,000 movie he’s directing that very second, arrange his own jet travel, and fly across the Tasman Sea to help Jackson shoot some scenes while he grabs a nap.

Which Singer unquestionably then does. And thanks Jackson for calling.

That a phone call from Jackson carries the kind of solemn weight a call from from Stanley Kubrick used to pretty much says it all about how astronomically high the Kiwi director’s stock has risen since he began work on the Lord of the Rings in 1999. It’s not surprising that a director with Jackson’s obvious skills at dynamic storytelling and mind-blowing spectacle has emerged as one of movie-dom’s leading directors; what is surprising is that the chubby, bearded New Zealander has become the most recognizable director since at least Quentin Tarantino — and he’s done it without the slightly seedy tactic of putting himself in major roles in his own films (a la QT).

Jackson has become a semi-celebrity on his own terms. “Bryan’s Video Journals” are part of a trend Jackson himself popularized: bypassing studio advertising departments and publicists and glossy magazines to build immediate director-to-audience contact through DVDs and the Internet. Jackson has taken the idea that behind-the-scenes access builds trust and pseudo-friendship between a director and an audience and taken it to its logical extreme. In the old model of hyping a movie, access to the set and the director were carefully controlled by studio publicists. Fans had to rely on on-set spies and rumor-mongering to hear about highly anticipated movies. Jackson recognized that this was alienating his core demographic — geeks — and put a premium on giving exclusives and interviews to the geekiest websites the world has ever seen (e.g. By the time he started working on Kong, he went so far as to make short weekly documentaries on production and provided them gratis to, a site run by fans, not the studio. Months before the Superman Returns video journals started appearing on-line, more than 80 King Kong “production diaries” serially appeared at, scrupulously detailing the enormous amount of work going on during the production and post-production of King Kong while the movie was still being made.

The saliva in the collective mouths of the Geek Nation — which, if you haven’t noticed, has become dominant of late, making sci-fi and comic- and fantasy- book adaptations into surefire hits — has been drooling down chins for so long now that Kong has all-but been crowned a classic before it’s even been finished. In true diva fashion, Jackson even dropped more than seventy pounds for his starring role in these behind-the-scenes diaries — the plump hobbit that made The Lord of the Rings is almost dashing now.

Of course, streaming Kong production diaries to capture the hearts and minds of geeks was a no-brainer after the massive popularity of the behind-the-scenes documentaries included in the special edition Lord of the Rings DVD trilogy. These six lovingly-made discs (or “Appendices”) are the La Comédie humaine of behind-the-scenes documentaries: 20 hours of well-constructed, informative featurettes on how the epic trilogy was made pitched at a level of detail Balzac himself would have blushed at. It’s impossible to watch a big-budget, special effects-driven picture the same way after seeing the “Appendices”: the mind-boggling complexity of bringing an immersive, sweeping fantasy world to life staggers the viewer’s mind, and the extras discs are almost as entertaining as the actual movies themselves.

By now, a narrative pattern has emerged for a behind-the-scenes documentary about a Peter Jackson picture. A cast of heroes struggles with the seemingly impossible task of completing the movie by the release date. These heroes emerge from humble obscurity — often New Zealand — to play crucial roles in pulling off this miracle — guys like Andy Serkis, a lowly voice actor who brought Gollum to life through his intense, shame-free dedication to the part (and who, if the on-line production diaries for Kong are any indication, did the same thing for that movie’s titular star); or Alan Lee, the soft-spoken Tolkien artist living a quiet, uncelebrated life in the English countryside, who was brought onto LOTR full-time to become the lead conceptual artist in the most ambitious fake world ever attempted by the Hollywood dream machine. Jackson, to whom everyone working on the project was eventually answerable to, emerges as another Gandalf, a bearded, wise, benevolent father-figure skilled at finding these unlikely heroes, organizing his armies as the clock ticks, and inspiring them with his energy, enthusiasm, and well-timed nuggets of wisdom.

Jackson has come as close to being an outright celebrity as any non-acting director ever has a right to expect. One of the great ironies of Jackson’s ascent to the pantheon of famous directors is that he’s done more to discredit the notion of the director as the sole auteur responsible for all the genius you see on-screen than anyone else. The LOTR Appendices and the Kong Production Diaries are essentially hours after hours of Jackson stepping aside and giving credit for the movie to the people you normally never get to see, from the concept artists to the department heads all the way down to the rotoscopers who clean up every single frame of the movie on Photoshop and the two guys who spent three years doing nothing but linking together links of plastic chain mail. Hence another part of his Gandalf-ian persona: the surprising humility of a god-like figure.

One of the quickest ways for an artist to assemble a rabid fan-base is to resemble your fans: Quentin Tarantino plays the part of the pop culture-inhaling hipster-doofus that flocks to his movies and has made him a cultural phenomenon better than his even his biggest slacker fans; likewise, Jackson (despite his massive weight loss) still manages to present himself as the lovable, self-aware geek that makes up his fanbase. Whether or not King Kong is a massive box office success — and by this point, it’s almost a foregone conclusion — the Production Diaries have ensured that Jackson has further ingratiated himself in the hearts of geeks everywhere.