Monday Prescription – How To Be Peter Jackson

Hi Film Folk!

With the rapidly approaching release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Film Doctor Team have chosen to focus this week’s Monday Prescription on its director Peter Jackson, and more specifically how he became the Hollywood Powerhouse he is today.


Take Calculated Risks

Peter Jackson left school  at 16 to take up a full-time job as a photo-engraver. For the 7 years he worked there, Jackson lived at home with his parents so he could save as much money as possible to spend on film equipment. After two years of work Jackson bought a 16 mm camera, and began shooting a short film that later became Bad Taste.

Leaving school early sounds risky but Jackson went about accumulating equipment and skill methodically.


Start Your Own Engine

His debut feature Bad Taste  was not meant to be a feature-length project – it started as a short and grew haphazardly into a 90-minute film, a product of love and self-believe. The project involved a lot of Jackson’s friends, acting and working on it for free, with shooting taking place mostly over weekends, to accommodate everyone’s (Director included) full-time jobs.

We always say:  to learn or to succeed you have to do.

Nobody gives it to you on a plate. Jackson started his own career by making a film himself.

Bad Taste

Apply for Funding

That’s not to say you shouldn’t look for help!

Work on Bad Taste started in 1983 but it wasn’t until 1986 that the project received any backing from the New Zealand Film Commission. The financial injection came as a surprise to Jackson and his team. The executive director of NZFC, Jim Booth, was so impressed by Jackson, he later on left the board to become the filmmaker’s own producer.

Obviously this route doesn’t work for everyone but it’s interesting that a behemoth like Jackson initially sought out such a scheme.


Enter Festivals

Like many before and after him, Jackson got himself noticed on the festival circuit. Although it didn’t win any awards, his first film Bad Taste screened at Cannes in 1987, where it was noticed by the market and rights to the film were sold to 12 countries.


Start off with a Genre

Bad Taste and Jackson’s following films (Meet the Feebles, Braindead) were all splatter horror/comedies – including a proposal for a sequel to A Nightmare on Elm street (never made into a film).

Genre is SO important for connecting to markets early in your career. It easily identifies your product to untrusting buyers who might be cautious of unknowns.

Many greats – Tarantino, Kubrick, Nolan – started with tight genre movies.

(Read How To Be Christopher Nolan here).


Work Outside Your Comfort Zone/Don’t Pigeonhole Yourself

 Heavenly Creatures (1994)  marked a major change for Jackson in terms of both style and tone.  Jackson’s partner Fran Walsh persuaded him that recent news events had the makings of a movie; Jackson has been quoted saying that the film “only got made” because of her enthusiasm for the subject matter.

Heavenly Creatures

Heavenly Creatures received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay and attention from US company Miramax, who promoted the film vigorously in America and signed the director to a first-look deal.

Had Jackson not considered working outside of the style/subject matter he was used to then perhaps he would never have shot up quite so high in the movie world.


Build Upwards

Heavenly Creatures allowed Jackson to start working with bigger budgets. His first big budget film, The Frighteners starred Michael J. Fox, in 1996. The budget was $30m (six times the budget of Heavenly Creatures) but was a commercial failure.


Get Rights

Jackson bought the rights to Lord of the Rings, an acquisition that was clearly going to lead to a large scale film (or films as it turned out) if a studio picked it up.  The budget started at $75m for 2 films and after negotiations (and a studio) changed LOTR became what we all know it as today.

Funnily enough “nobody seemed to be doing anything about (Lord of the Rings)” according to Jackson. So what seems a surefire bet now was actually purely a result of Jackson’s passion for the project.

Lord of the Rings_poster

Make Films For Yourself

“The most honest form of filmmaking is to make a film for yourself. 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.”


It’s All About Team Work

Jackson has developed all his scripts with wife Fran Walsh. They were nominated for an Oscar as a team in 2003.

Despite the praise he receives, he clearly believes that film is a group effort:

“I don’t quite know what an auteur is. I’ve never quite understood that term, because filmmaking is such a huge team effort, you – I mean, I regard myself as being sort of the final filter, so everything that ends up in the movie is there, because it’s something that I’d think was cool if I saw the film that somebody else had made. I’m very much trying to make the film that I’ve enjoyed, but I’m open to ideas, I need a huge team of people to help me, everybody contributes and I try to encourage people to contribute as much as possible. I think that’s the job of a director really, is to sort of funnel all the creative into one centralized point of view. And the marketing is sort of something that really happens with other people, it’s not something that I’m at all an expert in, and I regard my job at the end of the day as to make the best possible film I can, and that’s really where my job stops and marketing people take over after that.”


‘Monday Prescription’ No. 42 – Start YOUR career YOURSELF. Use genre. Collaborate. Test yourself…Peter Jackson did.


FD - The Hobbit

The Hobbit is released internationally between the 12th-14th December (except Russia, Ukraine, Poland and Australia which is a week later).

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The Film Doctor Team
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