But first, his interviewer wants to bring him down to Earth, with the memory of a December 2005 elevator ride at another New York hotel.
An exhausted Jackson had just finished a day of press duties for King Kong, his remake of the 1933 monster classic. By chance, I was jammed next to him on a lobby-bound elevator.
He takes a big sip from an ever-present mug of green tea. Jackson looks somewhat hobbitish himself on this day, as he relaxes on a couch in khaki trousers and track shoes that clash with his slightly more formal shirt and jacket.
“There were a lot of good reasons for me not making The Hobbit, but there wasn’t a good enough reason. I just got to the point where I literally didn’t want anyone else to do it.”
The film really turned into an unexpected journey for Jackson, too. He had fully intended to pass The Hobbit over to like-minded Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), the Mexican director who was going to make just two films out of the slim children’s book, the prequel to J.R.R. Tolkien’s three-volume LOTR series.
The plan was for Jackson to produce the two Hobbit movies, and to co-write the screenplays with his wife Fran Walsh and their pen partner Philippa Boyens. The three had previously co-written the LOTR trilogy.
But then movie studio MGM ran into financial troubles, production on The Hobbit was held up and del Toro had to move on to other things, after spending a year with Jackson’s team. By the time everything was sorted out — with no hard feelings on del Toro’s part, apparently — Jackson had decided to direct.
“I had worked on it for a couple of years at that point and I just thought, do I really want someone else to do it?” he tells the Toronto Star, in an exclusive interview for Canada conducted high above Manhattan in a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
“Is this fate telling me this is an opportunity I shouldn’t pass up? And I thought, yeah. And I’m glad I did, because I had a great deal of fun.”
The Hobbit reunites him with many LOTR stalwarts — including the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), ring-craver Gollum (Andy Serkis) and young hobbit Frodo (Elijah Wood).
The three are part of this New York press junket, along with such important new cast additions as Martin Freeman, who plays hobbit adventurer Bilbo Baggins, and Richard Armitage, who plays dwarf warrior chief Thorin Oakenshield.
Jackson found he was having so much fun, in fact, that earlier this year he decided to make a trilogy out of The Hobbit, rather than two films. The next two chapters, The Desolation of Smaug and There and Back Again, will roll out in 2013 and 2014 respectively, with Warner Bros. and New Line studios joining with MGM to bring them all out.
He’s taken quite a bit of stick over this decision, since many people have noted that the entirety of The Hobbit runs for considerably fewer pages than the shortest of the three LOTR novels. How can you make three movies out of so little material?
You do it by including incidents described in Tolkien’s highly descriptive LOTR appendices, Jackson says, and also by expanding on ideas in The Hobbit that author Tolkien barely mentions. For example, a scene involving thunder-causing stone giants gets about a paragraph’s mention in the book, first published in 1937, but it grows to five minutes of noisy adventure in the film.
Jackson, 51, sounds not the least bit defensive when he explains his rationale. He’s grown used to people doubting him. He’s also grown used to confounding expectations.
When he met the press at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2001 to describe his plans for The Lord of the Rings, back when his wild mass of hair was considerably darker than it is now, he spoke of the tough sales pitch he had to give the money people at New Line Cinema, a Warner Bros. subsidiary. He wanted to make three LOTR films, one for each book, at a combined cost of $ 300 million.
That was a risky proposition back then, especially with Jackson directing and co-writing all three films. At the time, Jackson was known as the director of low-budget splatter flicks in his native New Zealand, films with zombies and cannibals that went by such descriptive names as Bad Taste and Braindead.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy turned out to be a hit both with critics and regular moviegoers. The three films collectively grossed nearly $ 3 billion worldwide and earned 17 Oscars, among them Best Picture and Best Director for the 2003 finale, LOTR: The Return of the King.
“The Lord of the Rings was a hell of a gamble, especially to do three movies. No one had ever done that.
“The financial gamble this time around is less, but it’s still the challenge to make an enjoyable film. My feeling with The Hobbit was not to try and compete with myself too much. I had the benefit that Tolkien’s book was written for children, so it’s funnier, it’s lighter, it has a bit more whimsy.
“I tried to use that as a way of feeling a fresher tone to the story. LOTR is very apocalyptic and dark. The fate of the world hinges on every movement that Frodo does in LOTR. This time around, we were able to relax a bit more. There’s a lot of situational humour in Bilbo Baggins and his relationship with the dwarves, the fact that he doesn’t want to be on this adventure; it’s the last thing in the world that he wants. It made for a refreshing shoot.”
A cynic would suggest that three Hobbit films gives Jackson and his studio backers the chance to earn another $ 3 billion payday, an amount not to be sniffed at.
No lesser a figure than Gandalf the Wizard, actor McKellen, rose to Jackson’s defense when this topic was raised at a press conference earlier in the day.
“Anyone who thinks Peter Jackson would fall for market forces rather than the artistic imperative doesn’t know the guy. That’s about it. They don’t understand the body of his work,” McKellen said firmly.
“And you know, if we just made one movie of The Hobbit, the fact is that all the fans — and I’m thinking now of the 8, 9 and 10-year-old boys and girls — they would watch it a thousand times. Well, they’ve now got three films they can watch a thousand times . . . if you don’t quite plug into that, well, I’d sympathize with you, but these movies are not for you.”
He’s got a point, and Jackson’s big technological leap for The Hobbit trilogy is further proof of his sincerity in choosing art over cash. He could easily have made the films in conventional 2D, as he did the LOTR trilogy, or upsize to 3D, as is the current rage.
It allows for dramatically improved clarity and visual depth, but also opens the can of worms of projection issues and potential audience pushback against new ideas.
His answer reveals a very real concern for the future of film.
“A problem does exist,” he counters. “It’s the problem that at some point, what is cinema going to be?
“Movie audiences are dwindling. I’m not necessarily trying to be a saviour, because I think it takes more than just me, but we’re living in an age where kids are happy to watch films on their iPads. Anything we can do to make that experience in the theatre more immersive and more spectacular, so that there’s a reason to see a movie in the cinema, is a good thing.
“The Hobbit looks better in the cinema than it will on your iPad, and if you want to see it the right way, then you have to see it in a theatre. That’s the same for any film. That’s the problem that we have: We’ve got to try and get kids back into theatres again.”
Does he also perhaps think that he has something to prove again? He did okay with his King Kong remake, and with The Lovely Bones that followed, but nothing has yet come close to the phenomenon that was The Lord of the Rings.
“No, I don’t have to prove myself,” he insists.
“The challenge is to make an entertaining movie, nothing more complicated than that. You just want people to enjoy your movie, which is a challenge. It’s not easy. It’s easier to make a turkey than it is to make a film that people like.
“We’re in the entertainment business. I’m an entertainer. I don’t consider myself an artist of any sort. I know other directors, probably someone like (Stanley) Kubrick whom I would describe as an artist, but I’m not in that league. Entertaining is what I try and do. I don’t try and do anything else.”
He sounds a lot like Bilbo Baggins, the happy inhabitant of the Shire who is reluctantly dragged into adventure by Gandalf and the dwarves but ends up happy he went.
And when the interview concludes, Jackson once again finds himself in a hotel elevator, jammed next to me.
We both smile at the coincidence.
“This time, I won’t say that I’m never going to do The Hobbit!” he says, taking another sip of green tea.