By Ann Curry, Meghan Frank and Jessica Hopper
“The Hobbit” film director Peter Jackson said that the pressure to outdo his Academy Award-winning “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy initially made him hesitant to return to The Shire and tackle the prequel to the Rings.
“It’s the thing that made me hesitant to do ‘The Hobbit’ is that I didn’t want to find myself competing with a film I’ve made earlier,” said Jackson of the pressure. “What I ended up doing, I think, was embracing the fact that ‘The Hobbit’ is a very different tone of story. It was written for children. It has a whimsy and a charm and a humor that doesn’t exist really in ‘The Lord of the Rings.’”
Just a day before the world premiere of the highly anticipated film version of the J.R.R. Tolkien classic, Jackson talked to NBC News’ Ann Curry from his native Wellington, New Zealand where he made the film. Jackson took Rock Center behind the scenes of his visual effects company, Weta Digital, and also provided rare access to his movie studio, revealing secrets of the innovative moviemaking that's come to define his films. When Jackson talked to Curry in his first network television profile, he was still tinkering in the edit room despite the film’s premiere being hours away.
“I could happily work on ‘The Hobbit’ for another six months because you’re always thinking of things that you want to do and things to improve it,” Jackson said. “Because it’s never perfect and so, we just simply take every available minute, second, up until the time that the film has to be taken away from us.”
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” is the first film in what Jackson intends to make a trilogy and is already making waves for its use of groundbreaking moviemaking technology. The 51-year-old Jackson, known for his innovative visual techniques in performance capture with the character Gollum, is taking his pioneering filmmaking even further. "The Hobbit" is the first film to ever be shot at a higher frame rate of 48 frames per second versus the usual 24 frames. The film has a clarity that some say has never been seen on screen before, but Jackson’s decision has also sparked controversy with some filmgoers saying it left them feeling dizzy and sick. Jackson defended his choice.
“It’s more real. It gives you more of a sense of immersion in the story and, you know, the interesting thing about 24 frames a second is that’s the speed that movie cameras have been running at since 1927,” Jackson told Ann Curry in an exclusive interview airing Thursday, Dec. 6 on Rock Center with Brian Williams.
When asked how he might handle possible criticism of the new technique, Jackson replied, "If people don't like it, I guess they'll be very vocal."
Jackson said he chose to shoot the film at the higher frame rate, in part, to bring people back into the theater.
“We are in a climate now where there are too many reasons for people not to go to the cinema. You know, you’ve got cable, you’ve got high definition TVs, great home theaters, you’ve got iPads, iPhones,” Jackson said. “And so I think we have to do what we can to make that cinema experience the spectacle that it should be.”
The spectacle of cinema first captured Jackson as a 9-year-old boy when he saw "King Kong." As an adult, he remade the film classic in 2005.
“The film affected me to the point that it was the time that I had decided I want to do that,” said Jackson of seeing "King Kong" as a child.
Without any formal training, Jackson began making his own films in the small seaside community where he grew up called Pukerua Bay. He used a Super 8 camera that a neighbor gave his family. An only child, his parents supported his filmmaking. He’d cook foam latex monsters in the family’s oven and cut up his mother’s fur coat to turn it into King Kong.
His parents, English immigrants Joan and Bill Jackson, even allowed him to drop out of high school to take a job to pay for film equipment. As a young man, Jackson made a series of slasher movies including the cult classic, Bad Taste, which starred him and his friends.
“You feel a passion to do this, which in my case was rather odd. You know, make monsters and, you know, make little movies and cut them together and screen them on a sheet on my bedroom wall,” Jackson said. “If you have parents that don’t question it, that don’t regard it as being odd or strange, don’t make you feel like a weirdo, I think that’s really important.”
Some of the techniques Jackson honed in his slasher film days have transferred to the Rings trilogy and “The Hobbit.” For “The Hobbit,” Jackson has advanced the technology used to create the character of Gollum. Jackson uses a performance capture technique where actor Andy Serkis’ motions are translated into Gollum.
“What we’ve been able to do in the last intervening ten years is to build a lot more muscle systems for his face and so, basically, what you’re trying to do with performance capture is to allow every nuance of what Andy [Serkis] does to be accurately transferred to the Gollum puppet,” Jackson said. “It’s creating an emotional character who’s completely artificial.”
While Jackson’s films have grown grander in scale, his connection to home and family has never wavered. He’s been able to build an entire moviemaking industry five minutes from his home in Wellington complete with high-tech special effects facilities, giant sound stages and a state of the art production house. The town has been nicknamed Wellywood.
“It’s easy to make your films if you have your own little world, you know, I didn’t leave my parents’ house until I was 26-years-old and having done that, I don’t want to leave the country and if I can make films in New Zealand and continue living here, then I think I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” Jackson said.
Jackson’s filmmaking is still a family effort. Fran Walsh, Jackson’s partner and mother of his two children, Katie and Billy, is also part of his writing team. She directed one of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy’s most iconic scenes- Gollum’s schizophrenic conversation with himself.
“It’s probably the most famous scene in the film and so, she should direct more movies, but I don’t think she ever will,” Jackson laughed. “I trust Fran more than I trust anyone else in the world.”
He and his two kids frequently make cameos in his films. In the first of “The Hobbit” films, Jackson makes a cameo as a dwarf.
Having devoted a quarter of his life to bringing Tolkien classics to the screen, Jackson has been living in The Shire for most of his filmmaking career. His love for his films runs so deep, he can’t even part with pieces of the set.
“In films, you literally destroy the sets. I mean, they get smashed up and they get taken to the dump and they get burnt. Fran and I started to feel incredibly sentimentally attached to Bag End. So we approached the studio and we said, ‘Listen can we keep the set,’” Jackson said.
Perched on a hill on Jackson’s property is Bilbo Baggins' home, “Bag End,” with its green door. It serves as a guest house, hosting the very actors that brought it to life like Elijah Wood and Ian McKellen.