Producers of the Year: The Jackson Hive

You don't have to be based in Hollywood to make powerful movies

Wingnut's effects house has become a global player
New Zealand's film industry is blossoming
Peter Jackson timeline

Five years ago, while Peter Jackson was immersed in directing his large-scale remake of "King Kong" for Universal, executive Mary Parent mentioned a project the studio was developing based on the wildly popular video game "Halo."

Jackson was intrigued. He loved to play "Halo" with his two teenage children; his special effects company, New Zealand-based WETA, seemed perfect to handle the FX; and a 15% tax rebate made a Kiwi shoot ideal for Universal and co-financier Fox. So Jackson agreed to produce, alongside his lifetime partner Fran Walsh and their colleague Carolynne Cunningham.

Jackson would not direct, but he would find a promising young helmer to work under his supervision. When Parent suggested Neill Blomkamp, based on a short film of his she'd seen, the South Africa-born filmmaker left his home in Vancouver and flew to meet the Jackson team.

"All of a sudden," Blomkamp recalls, "I went from being this lowly commercials director to doing a really high-profile film."

Then things went wrong. Five months after the producers started work on the script, doing digital previsualizations, manufacturing and designing sets, Fox and Universal pulled the plug.

"The studios were saying they had real concerns about a movie of this size in the hands of a first-time director--after they'd suggested it," says Ken Kamins, Jackson and Walsh's longtime rep. "Peter was really aggravated; he felt it was very unfair. So he and Fran said, 'Why don't we do something independent?' "

That was the beginning of "District 9," the South Africa-based sci-fi movie that is among the most acclaimed releases of the year, and a reminder of just how effective Jackson, Walsh and Cunningham are as producers. For this and their upcoming adaptation of Alice Sebold's novel "The Lovely Bones," The Hollywood Reporter has named them Producers of the Year.

Curiously, Jackson doesn't think of himself as a producer. Then again, he doesn't entirely think of himself as a director, either.

"If I have to fill out a passport form or something, in the space to list your occupation I always put 'filmmaker,' " he says by phone from New Zealand as he puts the final touches on "Bones." "I've always thought of myself making films, whether that's directing, producing or writing. It's all part of the same process."

Unlike many producers, the trio -- through Jackson and Walsh's Wellington, New Zealand-based Wingnut Films -- don't seek out projects from others. "We always develop our own," Jackson explains. "We don't regard our company or our activities as having any broader context than just making the films we want to make."

Nor do they have any particular vision for their company: no five-year plan, no detailed strategy for the future. They just take things on as they stumble upon them, as was the case when Walsh read "Lovely Bones."

"I was given the book by Philippa (Boyens), our co-writer," she recalls. "I read it in one day with no real expectations, and by the end of it, I thought it was incredibly visual and interesting and emotionally engaging."

Jackson and Walsh wrote their own check to control the rights. They then wrote the screenplay on spec with Boyens. A complete budget was prepared before the writer-producers sought a studio to finance and distribute the picture. There was immediate interest before DreamWorks and Paramount stepped in.

Jackson, Walsh and Cunningham worked closely with the studio throughout the production, discussing such thorny matters as the need to replace Ryan Gosling with Mark Wahlberg, when Gosling was deemed too young for the part. As Jackson, Walsh and Boyens continued rewriting throughout production, Cunningham handled logistics to keep them on time and on budget.

Paramount's Adam Goodman calls Jackson "incredibly inclusive" during production. "We visited them many times during the course of preproduction and production. From the first day, they were just very unassuming and open to the best ideas from everyone."

If Goodman was new to the team, the team itself was tried and true.

Jackson and Walsh have been together, professionally and personally, since the mid 1980s, when Jackson worked on a short that eventually became his first feature, 1987's "Bad Taste," while earning a living as an apprentice photo engraver. Walsh, who was already writing for theater and TV, helped out painting sets, then came onboard as a writer.

Since then, Jackson and Walsh have been inseparable. They share a company and a family, write scripts together (along with Boyens) and produce films.

Cunningham has worked with them since 1992; she was Jackson's first AD on "Heavenly Creatures" and the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, then became a full-fledged producer with "King Kong."

Jackson serves as a "creative producer" who focuses on script, special effects and the storytelling while Walsh continues to rewrite throughout production and is deeply involved with the musical score in postproduction. Cunningham is the equivalent of a line producer, overseeing everything from budgets to casting.

While the partners do not ultimately finance movies on their own, they do pay for early development to maintain creative control.

"When we've solved most of the obvious problems and have the budget where we think it should be, at that point we talk to the studio folk," Jackson explains. "That's really our little mode of operating. There's no pressure and no deadlines."

But there was pressure when it came to "District 9" -- pressure not to let Blomkamp down.

After leaving "Halo," for a year Jackson and Walsh financed the development of "District 9" out of their own pocket, while Blomkamp and his collaborator Terri Tatchell wrote the script. They paid WETA to do digital visualizations and financed two trips by Blomkamp to South Africa to shoot still pictures and video of possible scenes, locations and characters.

"It was Neill's first proper, big, grown-up movie and (Jackson) helped him," Cunningham says. "It was a different role, but it wasn't by any means micromanaging. It was advice and a lot of creative input, because that's Peter's role with anything he does."

"It was always my film," Blomkamp says. "But he would never hold back in terms of telling me what he thought."

Shortly before the American Film Market in 2007, Jackson paid to create a graphic novel that contained the movie treatment, digital designs of the spaceship and aliens and photos that Blomkamp had taken in South Africa. They rushed copies to Kamins.

Kamins presented it to QED International's Bill Block, with whom he had once worked as an agent at InterTalent and ICM.

"I told him this would be the first Peter Jackson 'produced-by' movie," Kamins says. "Bill and his partner, Paul Hanson, put together a financing package that included Comerica bank and Aramid hedge fund in London. Our agreement was, they could take the movie to AFM, but they were committed to funding the movie fully, regardless of what the sales looked like. So QED was on the hook for $30 million."

With only the graphic novel as bait, and with no script or stars attached, a bidding war broke out. Within 72 hours, Sony had acquired rights covering two-thirds of the world. Studio execs mounted a yearlong media blitz, though they didn't actually see the movie until four months before it was to bow in August.

The team in New Zealand has complete creative freedom. But that doesn't mean they run amok financially.

"(Jackson) is always fiscally responsible," Goodman says. "You can trust him with a very significant budget and, at the same time, you know he will bring good judgment."

A case in point: One scene in "District 9," when the central character (Sharlto Copley) chops off his thumb after being infected by an alien chemical, wasn't in the script when shooting commenced in Soweto, South Africa, in June 2008. It was not added until December, after Jackson suggested the self-mutilation and debated it with Blomkamp.

"When he told me we should do that, I totally argued about it," Blomkamp recalls. "I said, 'It's not going to work because we've already shot the scenes that come later and you can see his thumb. We'll have continuity issues and the audience is going to be pissed off.' And he was like, 'The audience won't care.' "

Jackson was right.

It is an example not just of Jackson's "cheeky humor" (Cunningham's words) but his team's strategy of scheduling a period for additional production months after principal photography has ended. "That's when you can really find the gaps in the storytelling or things you didn't anticipate," Walsh notes. "By scheduling a pickup shoot, you can go in and add those moments."

"It's the one place we butt heads with the studio," Jackson acknowledges. "The studio always has a policy of not having that in the budget: 'If we need pickups, we'll figure it out at the time.' We always say, 'No, it's part of the process.' "

Running their own company, and with their own effects house to boot, the three producers now have the freedom to make these kinds of decisions. They'll be making them on several more films in the near future.

The partners are relatively quiet when it comes to talking about the films they have yet to make, but projects include "Temeraire," based on a series of fantasy novels by Naomi Novik set in the Napoleonic Wars, that features flying dragons used in the battles.

They also are developing "Dambusters" (along with David Frost), a World War II action drama about young English bomber pilots who attack Germany, for which they have built a dozen replica bombers, though Jackson has placed the project on the back burner fearing it might be "too English." He plans to produce but not direct and wants to shoot in 3D.

In addition, they are producing "The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn," with Steven Spielberg directing.

"Steven was contemplating doing 'Tintin' himself, or maybe with another filmmaker," Kamins recalls. "He had reached out to Peter in 2005 and asked if WETA could do a visual effects test of Snowy the Dog. So Peter prepared that test -- and Peter himself played Capt. Haddock. He sent the test to Steven and Steven was very excited about it. In January 2006, Steven and Peter met. They agreed to become full and equal partners in the franchise, with an agreement that Peter would produce Steven along with Kathleen Kennedy, and reverse roles on the second film."

Jackson says he will spend the next year producing "Tintin" and two "Hobbit" movies adapted from J.R.R. Tolkien's novels, which means he won't direct again before the end of 2010 at the earliest.

Jackson had considered directing the "Hobbit" pictures himself. "He came to the conclusion that, if he directed, those two films were absolutely going to be compared to his three ('Rings') films," Kamins says. "And if they didn't gross what his three had grossed, somehow these movies would be less. He felt there was another way to maintain his relationship with the franchise and yet take a half-step back. That was to find another filmmaker who would add his signature."

He adds, "Peter's job is to make sure the five films together represent a single cannon of Middle Earth history."

Jackson, Walsh and Cunningham are now producing the two pictures and Guillermo del Toro ("Pan's Labyrinth," the "Hellboy" films) is helming the movies.

With projects like these, inevitably the moneymen have been circling. So far, the producers have resisted seeking the sort of financing that Spielberg himself obtained for DreamWorks.

A couple of years ago, when Wall Street was flying high, Kamins recalls that two investment banks offered the filmmakers a fund of more than $500 million to make whatever movies they chose. There was just one catch: "They said, 'We need four movies a year for the next five years,' " Kamins remembers. The meeting was over almost as soon as it had begun. "I said, 'Where do I get my parking validated?' "

He adds of Jackson, "He won't know how to do that. He makes what he wants to make and what he is excited about making. His movies are handmade, not off the rack."