‘Kong’ apes the original
WELLINGTON, New Zealand √≥ The weight of King Kong is bearing down on its creator.
“We are in the middle of cutting,” says Peter Jackson, 43, his voice raw and weary on the phone last week. “We won’t have a movie you can sit down and watch until the middle of July. We are battling on all fronts at the moment.”
Everyone is waiting to see the $150 million follow-up to the Kiwi director’s Oscar-sweeping triumph The Return of the King, the finale to his Lord of the Rings trilogy. The effects crew, the miniatures department, the world.
Also hanging over his head is the ongoing lawsuit against New Line Cinema over Rings profits.
And, if that’s not enough, company is coming.
“Universal will show up for the first time in any sort of mass arrival to look at scenes,” he says of the studio that paid him a cool $20 million in advance to direct, write and produce Kong, an unheard-of amount shared with work and life mate Fran Walsh and writer Philippa Boyens. “We have a million things to talk about, such as releasing strategy. In an ideal world, at this point, everyone would go away and have a nice holiday in Fiji. That would give us uninterrupted time and let us cut.”
Rewind to eight months ago. A cleansing rain has come and gone as the morning sunlight bounces off the turquoise waters of Lyall Bay. The mid-October air is brisk and the mood is buoyant.
It’s a perfect day to sprint away from imaginary brontosaurs.
After a month spent on stuffy soundstages, the cast and crew behind the remake of King Kong, the 1933 classic about a giant gorilla’s ill-fated fling with a fetching blonde, are shooting outdoors for the first time. With makeshift tents protecting valuable equipment, it feels more like a camping trip.
Besides, the Dec. 14, 2005 opening is more than a year away. And the first trailer, which premiered on TV Monday night, is a mere twinkle in Jackson’s eye.
The postcard-perfect landscapes of Jackson’s homeland that once stood in for Middle-earth are now doubling as the forbidding Skull Island, where a Depression-era team of filmmaking adventurers led by the indomitable Carl Denham, played by School of Rock wild man Jack Black, have landed. Today’s scene: Black’s impresario/director is hellbent on capturing footage of the extinction-defying dinos. Even if his cast and crew, including Adrien Brody of The Pianist as screenwriter Jack Driscoll, would rather run for their lives.
“Don’t they have a stand-in for this kind of thing?” inquires Kyle Chandler as Denham’s leading man Bruce Baxter, who quakes as he faces a huge blue screen where a digital herd of about-to-charge brontos will eventually be inserted. Black, his face crazed with excitement, keeps cranking the camera.
Principal shooting on Kong ended in mid-April, but with an effects-loaded project, the hard slog begins now, in post-production.
Not that Jackson is complaining. This is his payback for achieving Hollywood history with The Lord of the Rings. Doing his own King Kong is his childhood dream come true. Ever since he saw the classic 1933 version on TV at age 9, he knew he wanted to make movies. And ever since he crudely tried to re-create King Kong in his backyard with a cardboard Empire State Building at age 13, he knew he wanted to make THIS movie.
“The most honest form of filmmaking is to make a film for yourself,” says Jackson, who began work on a new Kong in 1996. But Universal pulled the plug when other studios announced similar remakes of Godzilla and Mighty Joe Young. “The worst type is dictated by demographics or what is hip or what kids are into. Kong isn’t driven by that. No way would a studio think this is the year that people want to see a big gorilla movie. I’ve come to realize that, as much as anything, I am making this for the 9-year-old Peter.”
At least one hurdle is over. The teaser trailer premiered on 10 NBC-owned outlets last night, featuring the first look at the film’s main attraction in action. The preview also will be attached to War of the Worlds when it opens Wednesday. “We’re pleased with how Kong is turning out,” Jackson says. Though he and his Weta Digital wizards continue to perfect the ape, “what you see in the trailer is pretty close to the finished Kong.”
You can practically hear the keyboards pounding away like jungle drums, with the Internet geek tribe delivering its verdict on whether Jackson’s computerized primate is primo or not. In other words, is he a Gollum (thumbs up) or a Hulk (thumbs down)?
Then there are the old-time Kong nuts, ready to roar in protest over any signs of desecration to their sacred fur-bearing idol, previously performed by a stop-motion puppet. After all, Hollywood already has done Kong wrong with a cheesy 1976 remake, in which Jessica Lange’s buxom disco-era starlet inquires of the lusty great ape, “What sign are you?”
But many believe that Jackson might be the only 21st-century filmmaker to pull off a Kong that could approach its predecessor.
“As far as beating the old film, no one ever will,” says Bob Burns, film historian and prop collector who owns the 18-inch armature used as the frame for 1933’s stop-motion Kong. “But if anyone could make it close, it’s Peter. It’s the film that got him into the business, and he will treat it with the utmost respect.”
“Let’s face it,” says Naomi Watts, who signed on to do her first real popcorn flick, in the actress role made famous by scream queen Fay Wray, because of Jackson. “Peter is at the top of his game with effects. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
One positive sign: The director would agree to do the remake only if he could set it in the same early-’30s time period as the original.
“I’m wanting the film to be deliberately old-fashioned,” he says. “An old-fashioned adventure, a mysterious escapist film like the ones I used to love as a kid. The Tarzan movies or the ones with a forgotten world full of dinosaurs. I’m sounding like an old man now. It’s all computers and modern and postmodern and post-apocalyptic. That is where fantasy and science fiction is today. I want a throwback to scary natives and island monsters.”
At the moment, it’s the Kong publicity push that is getting a critical drubbing. A similar mass unveiling of a movie trailer, a promotional ploy dubbed a roadblock, was used in early May by Disney when ABC networks premiered the preview for its Dec. 9 release, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Nary a negative word was heard. Yet the Kong campaign is being slammed as hype overkill.
Invoking 1998’s dismal Godzilla update, Peter Howell in The Toronto Sun wrote on Friday, “I’m starting to fear a similar misfire with King Kong, based on the overwhelming build-up and the underwhelming results we’ve seen to date.” His reaction was based on a mere 10-second snippet of the trailer online.
But can anyone really blame Universal for thumping its chest a bit over its best bet for massive success this year? Especially since one of its better hopes for Oscar attention, Cinderella Man, was knocked out of the box-office ring by the moviegoer malaise that has plagued Hollywood this summer.
Jackson, who is miles away and blissfully unaware of any box-office slump, doesn’t see Kong being a best-picture contender as his last three films were.
“It’s not an Oscar type of movie,” he says, although it could get mentioned in technical categories. “But from a writing, directing and producing point of view, I have no aspirations whatsoever. Voters will see it as a monster-on-the-loose movie.”
Given the year so far, Universal probably would prefer counting millions in green box-office bananas than holding a fistful of little gold men. “King Kong is the 800-pound gorilla of the holiday season,” declares studio vice chairman Marc Shmuger. “There’s immense anticipation in the media and within the industry about how Peter Jackson will follow up his epic Rings trilogy. King Kong is even more ambitious than those movies were.”
Jackson is employing the same philosophy he used in his Rings films. Keep it real, no matter what mythical creatures are chewing each other up onscreen. He and co-writers Walsh and Boyens are putting as much if not more effort in expanding upon the relationship between Kong and Watts’ Ann Darrow √≥ something hardly developed in the original √≥ as they are in the ape’s performance.
“You can’t ignore the sexual subtext, the huge hand and the screaming woman,” Boyens says. “But it’s so not about that. It is about contact. This is a creature who has been alone all his life, and so has she. This is the first creature he has had any connection to in ages. She reawakens something in him.”
However, some elements of the 1933 version just can’t be improved upon.
Take the scene where Kong is knocked out and captured. The much-depleted crew of the ship is supposed to somehow wrestle this gigantic animal aboard and sail away to the isle of Manhattan. But director Merian C. Cooper was no fool. He just cuts from the beach to a close-up of a Broadway marquee proclaiming Kong as “The Eighth Wonder of the World.”
What’s Jackson’s plan? The same.
“It’s one of the most audacious cuts in film history. I just couldn’t resist doing that. It’s unnecessary to show how they get him to New York.”
Besides, he giggles, “I figure they lift him by all gathering around, bending at the knees and keeping their backs straight.”
‘Kong’ apes the original