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Nothing to Be Afraid Of

Hollywood lets New Zealander Peter Jackson make a $38-million horror flick his way.

July 14, 1996|Erin Kennedy | Erin Kennedy covers entertainment for the Dominion, based in Wellington

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — When Universal's "The Frighteners" arrives in theaters Friday, studio executives will be paying close attention to see just how much high-tech frightening can be achieved on a mere $38 million.

The R-rated black comedy-thriller, starring Michael J. Fox as "psychic investigator" Frank Bannister, was made here by Kiwi director Peter Jackson, who co-wrote the movie with Fran Walsh, his partner on and off the job.

For years, Jackson was regarded as a talented eccentric with a penchant for low-budget gore fests, but that changed with the release of 1994's "Heavenly Creatures." The critically acclaimed film, based on true events, starred Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey as Christchurch schoolmates whose flight from reality leads them to kill one of their mothers. (Winslet's character, Juliet Hulme, changed her name to Anne Perry upon her release from prison in 1959 and now lives in Scotland writing best-selling crime novels.)

Wrote critic Geoff Brown of The Times of London: "The splatter-movie maestro of 'Bad Taste' and 'Brain Dead' has grown up and wedded his imagination to a script calling for something beyond toilet jokes and decapitated heads."

"Heavenly Creatures," which cost between $4 million and $5 million, grossed just $3.1 million in the United States but $12 million worldwide and earned a best original screenplay Oscar nomination for Jackson and Walsh, as well as the Venice Film Festival's Silver Lion and Toronto's Metro Media award for best film, putting the couple on Hollywood's radar screen.

So why are they still here, working out of a warehouse studio whose location is best described as the cheaper side of town--a town of 150,000 whose distance from the motion picture capital is more than simply the 6,852 air miles separating the two?

Because, with Universal's money and its blessing, they can.

"There's more to life than making movies and I don't want to be an expatriate," Jackson says shortly before departing for the United States to promote "The Frighteners." "I am comfortable and confident making things in New Zealand with New Zealand crews. In Los Angeles, I'd be a fish out of water, and it would make everything that much more difficult--I like things to be as sweet as they can."

Those sweet things include being able to choose whom he works with and to maintain a family atmosphere. On Jackson's sets, everyone sees the rushes, and crew members are encouraged to come up with ideas.

Still, when it came to the question of whether small-town Northern California could be re-created convincingly down under, Universal needed some proof. So Jackson sent a photographer around the country to capture images of buildings, towns and streets. Several hundred photos later, Jackson had a green light.

Filming took seven months, the longest shoot Universal has ever approved in advance, and proceeded with little interference. And having Robert Zemeckis ("Forrest Gump," the "Back to the Future" series) as executive producer, with his extraordinary track record, was another factor in letting Jackson go. "I think as long as Bob was assuring them everything was OK, they were happy," Jackson says.

Universal Pictures Chairman Casey Silver, while declining to predict box-office results, says he expects "The Frighteners" to be "very profitable." With the right script, director, cast and production plan, Silver adds, "you let the filmmakers make their film unless problems arise. And with this one, that didn't happen. New Zealand is only a plane ride away. But I can't say enough superlative things about Peter and Fran--they are really gifted."

While "The Frighteners" was brought in for about half what it would have cost in the United States, it nonetheless dwarfs the spending behind Jackson's debut film, "Bad Taste," the offbeat hit of the 1988 Cannes Film Festival. In those days, he would haunt butcher shops for the most revolting bits of innards he could find to use as gore.

"I don't miss things like going to the butcher shop," he says. "The scale of this film is very different from what I'm used to--it's a good experience having a lot of people doing the work for you."

"Bad Taste" was filmed on Sundays because Jackson, then employed full-time as a printing production worker for Wellington Newspapers, had to work overtime on Saturdays to pay for film. He baked foam latex alien body parts in his mother's oven, built his own camera cranes and tracks and, along with his unpaid work mates, turned the fields of Pukerua Bay and the homestead of some family friends into an intergalactic battlefield.

He grins as he agrees that a decent budget certainly takes the pressure off. "The Frighteners" contains 570 special-effects shots, or 51 minutes of screen time, the most effects shots ever put into a film. Given this complexity, he was able to film the equivalent of only about 45 seconds per day.

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