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Will 'Rings' Magic Last?

New Zealanders wonder what's next for Peter Jackson's film production empire

November 23, 2003|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

MIRAMAR, New Zealand — When director Peter Jackson was a boy, the neighbors enjoyed the Super8 films he shot in his backyard.

Now, with the rest of the world watching his movies, the backyard is bigger and surrounded by taller fences. Each Sunday, tourist buses trundle through this tiny coastal suburb of the country's capital, Wellington, the passengers eager for the slightest sign of their hero. Perched on the edge of threadbare seats, they press their noses against the windows and stare eagerly at clusters of industrial warehouses.

There, hidden from view, Jackson has created his own private Hollywood. Everything he needs is tucked along a two-mile stretch of hills rolling down to the rocky beaches of Evans Bay.

Jackson co-owns New Zealand's largest visual effects company, Weta Digital, as well as the nation's leading props and physical effects business, Weta Workshop. Both won Oscars for their work on the first two "Lord of the Rings" films.

The 42-year-old director controls the majority of the country's sound stages. His film laboratory, the Film Unit, is the biggest in New Zealand. And here in his hometown of Miramar, he is building the most technologically advanced sound-editing facilities in the world.

He painstakingly constructed his empire over the last five years, and he couldn't have done it if not for the trilogy that has grossed nearly $1.8 billion thus far.

As the New Zealand production team wrapped up "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" this month, there was one question on everyone's mind: Will the empire survive?

"It's a concern and fear that's been hanging over our heads since Day One," said Suzanne LaBrie, facilities manager for Weta Ltd., the parent company of Jackson's digital visual effects, physical effects and props shops.

In many ways, Jackson is following in the footsteps of "Star Wars" creator George Lucas, the only other director to establish his domain outside of Hollywood and have a lasting effect.

The development of Jackson's production power is a reflection of the Hollywood rebel. Friends describe him as focused and fiercely loyal, an iconoclast with a love-hate relationship with Tinseltown. His wit warms the film set, where his pockets typically are filled with lollipops.

Critics paint him as a ruthless businessman who has forgotten his roots. They say he manipulated the law to get as much as $200 million in tax breaks for his "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Jackson declined to comment for this story.

For people such as sound engineer Bo Borders, Jackson represents the future of filmmaking -- if the director can keep the empire thriving.

Over the last four months, Borders has been laboring over mixing boards and putting the final polish on "The Return of the King." As he studies a monstrous movie screen, he crouches over a mixing board, coaxing out the sound of horse hoofs.

Last year, Borders was sitting in another sound stage in California -- one belonging to George Lucas. It boasted the same expensive chairs, amazing 100-foot mixing board, and dark wood and clean lines inspired by the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright.

"It's like being back home at Skywalker Ranch," Borders said. "Sort of creepy, isn't it?"

Peter Jackson's dream began in a quiet suburban brick house, where he used his parents' Super8 film camera to create short movies in the 1970s.

As his interest in filmmaking grew, the family home morphed into an impromptu studio. The backyard became a stage. The kitchen counters were used to concoct masks, the stove to melt the monster miniatures into gruesome shapes. His cast and crew hailed from local theater.

By the early 1990s, after a stint studying film at nearby Kapiti College, Jackson began churning out a series of films that were light on budget and heavy on gore. Miniature demons and buckets of fake blood were crammed into one of the bedrooms of a small house in Wellington. Scanners and film printers filled another room.

Back then, Jackson's digital effects team consisted of one man and one computer.

"We only had the computer storage for five seconds of film," said George Port, the animator who went on to co-found Weta Digital with Jackson. "It took months to get the most simple explosion done."

That cozy culture changed a few years later, when Jackson signed up with Hollywood producer Robert Zemeckis to make the comic-horror film "The Frighteners." The estimated $30-million film project allowed Jackson to expand his effects team to 40 people.

It also introduced the New Zealand crew to a Hollywood reality.

"They come here because of cost," Port said.

When New Line executives decided to film the "Rings" trilogy in New Zealand, the main factor was a tax law.

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