WELLINGTON, New Zealand—He's described locally as a "genius masquerading as an ordinary person," a creative whirlwind, finan-cial powerhouse and folk hero rolled into one. Yet even that can't quite measure the effect "The Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson has had on his native country.
Certainly, when one of the world's smaller countries, New Zealand (population 3.8 million), snags one of the biggest deals in cinema history, it's bound to stir things up. But Jackson's wildly ambitious film trilogy has shaken up his world the way Gandalf shook up Middle-earth; he's left no part of the kingdom untouched.
Los Angeles on Dec. 18).
To be sure, there have been success stories here before, from Mt. Everest conqueror Sir Edmund Hillary to the All Blacks rugby team to director Jane Campion, whose film "The Piano" became a worldwide sensation and won an Oscar for local actress Anna Paquin. But none comes close to the sweeping tide of popularity for Jackson, the country's latest and greatest hero.
After directing cult horror movies ("Bad Taste," "Braindead" and "Meet the Feebles") and the 1994 art-house hit "Heavenly Creatures," the 41-year-old Jackson has become an international celebrity with the "Rings" trilogy. Perhaps because of the nation's egalitarian pioneer roots, underdogs are championed here, highfliers cut down to size. But that's not the case with Jackson, who has elicited widespread approval from the locals. Kids think he's cool, grandmothers a godsend, and taxi drivers and tradesmen admire his work ethic and self-taught skills.
They regard with fondness his individual style, which is so incongruous with corporate success: the ungroomed, casual attire -- the trademark shorts,T-shirt, (ideally) bare feet, longish unkempt hair and spectacles. "Right from the start, Peter was different: gifted, fiercely independent, determinedly film-literate and very hands-on. He could put his personal stamp on a project yet work closely as a team player," says Tom Cardy, a journalist with the Dominion Post newspaper in Wellington.
At Wellington's Te Papa Museum, which is hosting a "Lord of the Rings" exhibit, a 14-year-old schoolboy offers his astute analysis of Jackson: "He's like a studious nerd, like Harry Potter grown up and fatter -- but still a kid at heart. And we like that."
"Lord of the Rings" has made the low-key Jackson a financial power -- as well as power broker -- in New Zealand. He's worked closely with the government, which has even created an unofficial "Lord of the Rings" minister to promote the films around the world.
Certainly "Rings" has made him wealthy; according to a conservative estimate by the New Zealand National Business Review, in excess of $20 million (in U.S. dollars). According to press reports, his share from "The Fellowship of the Ring," the first of the trilogy, was 5% of New Line Cinema's gross (the film took in $860 million worldwide at the box office and received 13 Academy Award nominations, winning four), so the real figure is likely to be much higher, and with the release of two additional films, fast increasing.
"There's more than one Peter," says Ruth Harley, chief executive of the New Zealand Film Commission. "There's the ordinary person next door, and also [the] extremely competent runner of a very large business, one of the sharpest deal makers in Hollywood, and an extraordinary filmmaker."
He owns several houses (his own quite unpretentious); Wingnut Productions; Three Foot Six, the company especially formed for the trilogy; the Film Unit, a production facility purchased from the government in 2000; and he is a partner in Weta Workshop, an Oscar-winning special-effects company he set up almost 10 years ago with friends and partners Richard Taylor, Jamie Selkirk and Tania Rodger.
Jackson's grandiose movie project (the three films cost more than $300 million and took 18 months to shoot) was financed by New Line Cinema. Jackson and New Line worked in close synergy with New Zealand's government, having created an unprecedented troika (of country, studio, production house) that has changed the way films are made here.
The prime minister, Helen Clark, who's also the arts minister, believes that the success of "Lord of the Rings" shows how creative industries can be used to boost the national economy. "Look at the place of Hollywood in the U.S. economy," she says, though she has clashed with Jackson over continuing tax breaks for studios and filmmakers who shoot in New Zealand. "The creative industries are the fastest-growing part of the international service sector. And we have to heed that and get our share of it."
The success of "The Lord of the Rings," Jackson hopes, will act as a catalyst for the New Zealand film industry. "There are obvious intangible benefits to national identity and awareness, but this has hit with such a massive scale that the New Zealand film industry has never experienced anything like it."
To Clark, "Peter is a new kind of hero, a brilliant guy who had enormous faith in his ability to make movies. New Zealanders respect that, rejoice in his success and have got the message that there can be a lot of spinoffs from this global phenomenon."
The 'Ring' treadmill
Jackson's office bears testimony to the colorful imagination of the cinéaste and the child within. Set well back off the street in a quiet beachside suburb of Wellington, the nation's capital, the Tudor house is filled with brightly painted model planes and a huge poster and sculpture from the original "King Kong," his favorite film.
Bright walls are offset by billowing curtains. Downstairs, glass cabinets display a wide range of collectibles from the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy; Weta bought a license from New Line to create a line of "Rings" products.
Jackson is still on the "Lord of the Rings" treadmill. The exhaustion, if not visible, is audible. He has recently overseen production of the special-edition DVD, released last month, of "Fellowship of the Ring" and 10,000 prints for the upcoming release of "The Two Towers." There are constant demands on his time. His mantra -- "One day at a time. Each day to perfection" -- is undergoing the kind of test Frodo and the Fellowship would understand.