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King Kong - Peter Jackson interview

Peter Jackson, King Kong

Interview by Rob Carnevale

Q. This has been something of a lifetime ambition for you. Are you starting to enjoy the film now, after all the hoop-la of production and premieres?
A. As a filmmaker, you’re making films because you want people to enjoy them. There’s no other reason. I’m not a filmmaker with a message to tell, or something I want to impart upon the world. I just simply want to entertain people and I’m always pleased when a film I’ve made gets a reception and people enjoy it and seem to like it.
This particular film, as you say, is sort of a lifetime ambition of mine because I was inspired by the original King Kong when I saw it when I was nine years old on TV. Then three years later, when I thought I’d developed the necessary skills, I borrowed my parents’ super 8 movie camera, made a little model of Kong out of wire and rubber and my mum’s fur coat supplied the hair, and I started to do a remake of Kong when I was 12. I didn’t get very far. It was a little bit ambitious.
I actually switched from that to doing a remake of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and went through the years becoming a Ray Harryhausen fan. I loved creatures and monsters and eventually found out what directing was, but always harboured this desire to one day – if I was ever lucky enough – to remake King Kong.
That was what I really wanted to do.
I tried in 1996 for seven or eight months but it got canned by the studio, so we jumped sideways into The Lord of the Rings. But here we are, finally.

Q. You have included the scene in the spider pit that was cut from the original. Was that a deliberate effort on your part to make sure it remained this time?
A. Well in the 1933 movie they cut out the spider ravine sequence because of the pacing and I can understand why. I covered myself a little bit when we were scriptwriting because unlike the 1933 film I had several of our principal characters actually falling to the bottom of the ravine.
In the 1933 film, the key characters stayed at the top while the sailors fell to their doom at the bottom and got devoured by spiders. I pretty much sent our entire cast down to the bottom. So that was a little bit of future-proofing, so that a year later I wasn’t going to be tempted to cut the scene out. It also gave me the chance to finally give Andy Serkis a decent screen death!

Q. I heard you actually referred back to the original’s storyboards?
A. Well there’s actually a story to that. Warner Bros have just released a beautifully restored version of King Kong on DVD in the US. While we were making our King Kong, we also got our visual effects technicians to build stop-motion animation spiders and crabs and octopus creatures, copying photos that we had from the original film.
We re-created the spider scene using stop-motion animation, black and white film, travelling mattes, rear projection – all the old techniques – so that we provided a speculation on what that original spider scene could be like.
So when they released this DVD about three weeks ago we had this separate little chapter that we were involved in where we recreated the 1933 spider scene which we almost did concurrently when we were filming our own one. It was a little bit insane for a while!

Q. You seem to be specialising in big special effects driven movies at the moment, what with Rings and now Kong. Do you ever yearn to do something quieter and more intimate?
A. Well our plan is to take some time off for a while to recharge our batteries and recharge our brain cells, but certainly we have some scripts that we want to write in the future, and as far as I’m aware they’re all very, very small films.
We’ve got a project that we’re developing with Film Four actually. But for a while, it’s going to be a bit of a holiday and a bit of a rest. For the last ten years, because we did our first attempt to do Kong back in 1995/96 and the we did Lord of the Rings and then we did Kong again, it’s actually been ten years of my career just working on two projects.
I don’t know if I’ll be lucky enough to have a career that goes on a few more years, so ten years is still going to be a significant chunk of time to devote to two projects. So it’ll be fun to get to Christmas and just be able to wake up and think of a whole load of new ideas. It’ll be great.

Q. You play up the ‘Beauty & Beast’ relationship in the film. Was that deliberate?
A. It was not so much deliberate going in, but the relationships between Ann Darrow in the original movie and Jessica Lange in the second film and what Naomi does now – they’re actually three different relationships. It’s the same story, but three different types of things going on.
Certainly with Fay and her character it was a case of an unwilling kidnap victim. She never really felt comfortable being with Kong, was always terrified of him and always screaming. There was never really a sense, in the original movie, that she really connected or understood Kong.
The Jessica Lange one was kind of a weird 70s sexual innuendo. They camped up the sexuality of it more than anything, which we didn’t want to do. So we created our one with a foot in neither camp, really. To me, the most interesting thing about a story like King Kong when you’re thinking about it at the beginning, writing it before anything has really happened, the most interesting doorway to go through is the reality door.
It’s to say ‘okay, if you were on this island and you got kidnapped by this gorilla who is intent on killing you, how would you actually respond?’. There’s not a lot you can do. You’re in his hand, you can’t get out, your options are very few. How would you feel, and what would you do if a little window of opportunity came up where you may be able to survive – it’s not even surviving, it’s staying in his hand.
If you can keep him curious, if you can engage him on some level, that stops you getting squashed then you’ve got a little, minute opportunity of staying alive that you can work on and develop that.
Then you can flip that around, because the other interesting thing is if you’re a gorilla who has lived his entire life on this island, lonely, he has no parents, they’ve probably been killed by the dinosaurs, his siblings have been killed, he’s the last one of his species, he’s never empathised with a living creature, ever. His entire instincts are to kill and survive – to be the king of this jungle and to be the dominant species, which is what gorillas naturally want to be anyway.
Then suddenly Ann Darrow comes into his life, who he’s expecting to kill but doesn’t, he starts to become curious. To me, the relationship develops from Kong’s point of view to one where he wants to protect her. It’s a dangerous relationship for anybody else – for Adrien’s character or anyone else. It’s like an animal protecting its child. In a way, Kong’s relationship with Ann is like that.
I love the complexity of the story of Kong. We obviously come to learn a little bit about Kong’s heart. He’s pure, unspoilt – he doesn’t operate on the same moral values as humans do. It’s instinctive. He does what his heart tells him to do and he feels this empathy and this curiosity towards Ann. But if anybody comes anywhere close to taking Ann away from him he will kill them. He will kill them very quickly.
And that includes our guys that we’ve met and learnt are trying to save her. I love the complexity of that story. There’s no villains, there’s no monsters. It’s actually just this quite interestingly complex story of people doing what they need to do to survive and Kong behaving in a way which is perfectly natural and normal. You can’t judge him for it.

Q. I read that there were once some suggestions that Ray Harryhausen might become involved. Is this true?
A. The truth behind that was that we were doing some work on Return of the King in London. We started working on Kong while we were doing that film, actually animating the Empire State Building sequence, the climax of the film, at the time.
We’d also developed a huge amount of production design sketches. We had wonderful big colour drawings of Skull Island and the dinosaurs and the fighting, so I went round to visit Ray to show him the sketches and he was absolutely thrilled.
Ray’s amazing because within a second he can become 12-years-old again – which is amazing for someone who’s 85. He has that wonderful child within him, that I hope to God I keep as I grow old. It’s a very special thing to see. He was going through these drawings and he was saying, ‘I wish I could work on this film! I wish I could work on this film! Oh my God, this would be a dream come true!’. But there was never any serious intent or discussion.

I got to stand on the very top of the Empire State Building – which was a real big thrill for a King Kong fan

Q. You own some props from the original King Kong – did you stick any in the remake?
A. As a Kong fan, I’ve been keeping my eye out for stuff as it’s come up in auctions and various people have been selling stuff. I’ve ended up with a few bits and pieces and some of the stuff is in the film.
There’s a couple of the original gas bombs that they used in the first film to bring Kong down. They appear very briefly in this film. I tried to sneak some of my original props into this movie just for fun. Some of the shields that the natives used – papier mache shields – from the 1933 film appear on the walls of the cabin of the ship, and some spears.
I’ve got Willis O’Brien’s lightmeter that he used, which is the lightmeter that our cameraman uses in the film. And we paid homage in other ways as well with bits of dialogue and so on. I’ve got three or four of the original stop-motion dinosaurs as well, but I couldn’t think of a way of getting them into the film.

Q. And how about the airplanes?
A. I wanted to use the same aeroplanes that they used in 1933, which we found were a particular type of plane called The Curtis Helldiver. I thought we’d be able to find one in a museum that we could copy, because we’d obviously have to build our own, to put up in the studio.
But it’s a completely extinct plane. Of the numbers that were built in the 1930s for the American Naval Air Force they were all completely gone, there’s not a single existing one left. So we had to go to the Smithsonian Institute, get the factory drawings out and build the plane from scratch again.

Q. Were you ever tempted to add or change anything from the original? Or was it always your intention to do a straight re-make?
A. I didn’t really give an intellectual thought about what I should change around, it was more emotional. I really was a huge Kong fan, to be simple about it – and in a way simplicity is the most honest answer I can give you.
If somebody else made a remake of King Kong today I’d be first in line in the cinema with my bag of popcorn in the front row, excited as all hell, because it’s my favourite movie and I’d love to see what they could do today.
That movie is the one that I’ve tried to make. Film is a huge collaborative effort and as a filmmaker I absolutely believe in collaborating with people, getting the best suggestions from people, and having as free a set as we can so people be free to improvise. But at the end of the day, for me, it’s very selfish because all that I’m ultimately trying to achieve is to make the movie that I want to go see. And that’s what this film is.

Q. I gather that you got to indulge yourself in another of the original Kong’s finest moments by visiting the top of The Empire State Building?
A. I did. Naomi and I went to New York and went up the real Empire State Building. We thought we had to do it, to see what it felt like. Naomi’s fingernail marks are still on the side of the building today!
But we’re not talking about where the tourists go on the observation decks; it’s like in the movie where Naomi runs out of the doorway and she’s on that little circular balcony bit, that’s where we got to go. There is no safety rail, there’s a drainage grille off the floor, but it’s falling over height. Fall backwards and it’s all over.
But I asked the Empire State people if I could go up to the very top, as a King Kong fan, so they kindly unlocked these doors. There’s a step ladder up to the flat bit on the top of the dome which is about six foot in diameter, and you go up through this trapdoor. I got to stand on the very top of the Empire State Building – which was a real big thrill for a King Kong fan.