Peter Jackson: How a no name director built the LOTR franchise!

He is the third most successful director when it comes to films making money. Behind James Cameron and Steven Spielberg stands Peter Jackson. The movies he has directed have made over $6.5 billion!

But how did an unknown director from New Zealand – not even from Hollywood – make it big? How did he get to make the Lord of the Rings Trilogy? And how did he do so well that it earned 17 Oscars!?

Peter Jackson: the genesis

At the age of 16, Peter Jackson left school and got himself a job at the local newspaper in Wellington, New Zealand. Most kids his age would stay with their parents as long as they could – to save money so that they could fund their college education or put a down payment towards their own home. 

Jackson stayed with his parents too – to save money. He stayed with his parents till he was 23 – but not to pay for education or a new home. But so that he could buy the most expensive cameras that came out!

Jackson always wanted to make movies!

At the age of 25, he released his first feature film: Bad Taste. It was a horror movie with human-eating aliens in it. He persuaded a lot of his friends to act in it for free. The absurdly gory special effects won Jackson a lot of praise. And the movie even made it to the Cannes film festival.

For his second movie, Jackson made “Meet the Feebles.” The movie was a puppet musical comedy. Yes – the whole movie had puppets as actors. And yet, it wasn’t made for kids. The comedy in it was dark and vulgar.

For his third movie, Jackson decided to make a comedy movie on zombies. “Braindead” surprisingly got good reviews. And got him a few invites from Hollywood studios.

But none of his movies were commercial hits. They were made by a small-time director from New Zealand. And they just didn’t reach a wider audience.

His fourth movie was a real life true crimes murder story. Making a biographical psychological thriller after an alien comedy made sense to Jackson. “Heavenly creatures” – which was also Kate Winslet’s first movie – surprisingly got an Oscar nomination for its screenplay as well! And while it didn’t do really well at the box office because of a very limited release, it got rave reviews from critics. And made Jackson reach a stage where any Hollywood studio would at least take his phone call.

After working on horror and comedy and a musical and a murder thriller – what could the genre be for his fifth movie? Jackson decided to make a fantasy movie – because why not? He began to write it with his life partner Fran Walsh. And realized that they were referring to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings a lot for inspiration.

Getting the rights to the Lord of the Rings

Out of the blue, Jackson reached out to Harvey Weinstein of Miramax. And asked him if Weinstein could help him get the rights to Lord of the Rings. Various Hollywood studios had owned the rights to LOTR since the 1960s. But none had made a movie on it – as it was just too difficult. The story was grand and epic and had multiple heroes.

Fortunately, the rights to LOTR at that time were owned by Saul Zaentz. Weinstein had helped bail Zaentz’s movie “The English Patient” when its funding had collapsed. And so, he could negotiate the rights to LOTR for a very low price.

Weinstein asked Peter Jackson to make a two part movie for the story and he would fund it. But at the last moment, he changed his mind. And asked Jackson to make it into a single 2 hour movie. When Jackson baulked at the request, Weinstein gave him 3 weeks to find another studio who could fund the project – or else to forget about the whole thing.

How did Jackson rescue the LOTR deal in 3 weeks?

Jackson didn’t lose hope. He gathered his friends who had helped him make his previous movies. And created a 30 minute sizzle reel. The trailer of sorts was of course not polished. But it showed Jackson’s vision. And more importantly, it showed his skill.

Working with elfs is not dissimilar to working with zombies. Working on puppet and horror movies had allowed Jackson to become super skilled with CGI. And working on a true crimes movie had allowed him to refine his signature skill: shooting the same scene from multiple angles. Going from close up to high angles for the same scene. This effect looked crazy for war scenes.

Because Jackson had never worked with a big budget before, he knew how to do crazy things at lower budgets. And that’s actually what convinced New Line Cinema to give him his funding: the CGI of Orcs. When they saw that Jackson had managed to make a digital army of orcs who all didn’t move in the same way – at a cost that was impossible for Hollywood to match – they gave him his funding.

And they did one better: they asked him to make it a trilogy instead of two movies. Because the books were a trilogy!

And Peter Jackson didn’t disappoint. Lord of the Rings is a visual delight – and the movies surpass the epicness that the books are famous for!

Beyond LOTR, Peter Jackson gave us similarly huge hits with King Kong and the Hobbit series as well! And while not as spectacular as LOTR, each of his movies have a couple of scenes that the audience just never forgets!

The Peter Jackson secret sauce

Dashun Wang is a professor at Kellogg’s University who has spent a lot of time trying to deconstruct genius. One of his papers became a huge hit in academic circles: Wang’s research showed that most successful people’s careers have hot streaks. A period in which everything they touch turns to gold. 

If a scientist has written 30 papers in 20 years, and 4 of them have become popular, chances are that the 4 of them would have been written very close to each other. For most people, their top 3-4 works cluster together!

But Wang didn’t really know how or why these hot streaks occurred. Until he visited a Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. At the museum, something clicked for Wang. He noticed that Van Gogh’s paintings narrowed in style and subject after he moved to the South of France.

And that’s when Wang realized: people get their hot streaks when they narrow their focus after a lot of exploration!

It is the exploration that allows them to build up their skills. But it is the narrowing of focus and exploitation of those skills that allow them to create their hot streaks!

And that’s what we see with Peter Jackson. Peter Jackson could make an epic high budget movie specifically because he had explored and made various genres of movies before. 

Action Summary:

  • Explore. Experiment. Try new things. And then narrow your focus on what works. 
  • Without exploring, you won’t build new skills. And without narrowing your focus, you won’t have a cluster of hits. Both are required in their own time.
  • Exploration may not always lead to success. Accept those failures because it’s the price you have to pay for greatness.