Originally a master of gross-out splatter films, New Zealand director Peter Jackson is the man behind some of the goriest footage ever captured on celluloid. He is also one of the few horror directors to have earned widespread mainstream critical respect, thanks to his direction of the ambitious Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the acclaimed Heavenly Creatures (1995), a terrifying, exuberant account of a real-life murder that scandalized 1950s New Zealand society.
Born in Wellington on October 31, 1961, Jackson was raised in Pukerua Bay, a small town just west of Wellington. An only child, he grew up nurturing a vivid imagination, something that was aided immeasurably when his parents received an 8 mm camera on Christmas Day, 1969. Jackson duly got his hands on the camera, and, with the complicity of a few school friends, he soon began making his own movies. He continued making movies after getting a job with a local newspaper, the salary of which allowed him to buy his own 16 mm camera.
In 1983, the fledgling director filmed a ten-minute short called Roast of the Day, which was eventually expanded into his feature-length debut, Bad Taste (1987). Made over the course of four years with a minimal budget and the collaboration of a group of willing friends, the film -- which eventually secured some degree of funding from a sympathetic member of the New Zealand Film Commission -- was a delightfully repulsive romp that truly lived up to its title. An alien horror comedy that offered up almost unprecedented servings of blood, gore, dismembered anatomy, and a degree of cannibalism not seen since the Donner Party's last family outing, Bad Taste became, surprisingly enough, an instant cult classic.
Jackson's next endeavor, 1989's Meet the Feebles, encountered roughly the same fate as his directorial debut. Best described as "The Muppet Show on crack," the film was the steadfastly disgusting, bodily fluid-soaked tale of a group of puppets who perform on a television variety show called "The Fabulous Feebles Variety Hour." Featuring all sorts of graphic debauchery and twisted violence, Meet the Feebles was undeniably a love-it-or-hate-it experience, and it went on to develop a devoted cult following. It didn't actually gain a theatrical release in the United States until 1995; in the meantime, Jackson continued on his trajectory of tastelessness with Dead Alive (1992). Dubbed as "the goriest fright film of all time" by the New York Daily News, the film easily outdid all of Jackson's previous efforts in terms of the sheer volume of blood and the number of severed limbs, and it summarily earned a place in the hearts of gore aficionados everywhere.
With his gore credibility then established beyond the shadow of a doubt, Jackson next went in a completely different direction, writing (with longtime collaborator and companion Frances Walsh) and directing Heavenly Creatures (1994). Based upon the real-life case of Juliet Hulme (played by Kate Winslet) and Pauline Parker (played by Melanie Lynskey), schoolgirl friends who murdered Pauline's mother, the film employed many of Jackson's signature flourishes, such as frenetic camerawork and dark, violent humor. Unlike the director's previous work, however, it was surprisingly humane, managing to make the two girls real, sympathetic characters without condemning or apologizing for their actions. Heavenly Creatures won a number of international honors, including the Venice Film Festival's Silver Lion and a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination for Jackson and Walsh. The film also launched the career of Kate Winslet, who in a few years time would become known as one of the leading actresses of her generation.
Jackson followed up Heavenly Creatures with a return to his native territory of the horror comedy. Unfortunately, The Frighteners (1996), which starred Michael J. Fox as an investigator of the supernatural, was as big a disappointment as Heavenly Creatures had been a success. Aside from writing and directing the acclaimed Forgotten Silver (1996), a pseudo-documentary about a fictitious historically neglected Kiwi filmmaker and inventor, Colin McKenzie, Jackson kept mum for a couple of years. His silence was broken in August of 1998, when he announced that his next project would be an adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein's beloved Lord of the Rings series. The first installment of the series -- which was to be filmed as a trilogy -- began shooting in May of 1999, and featured Elijah Wood, Liv Tyler, Ian Holm, Cate Blanchett, and Ian McKellen as part of its large and talented cast. An enormous success that pleased fans and critics alike, the sprawling first installment of the trilogy, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, was nominated for 13 Oscars, winning for Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, Best Makeup, and Best Score. The second installment, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, was an even greater box-office success, and was nominated for six more Oscars, winning for Best Sound Editing and Best Visual Effects.
The final installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy was relesed in 2003, striking box-office gold and gaining critical acclaim just as its predecessors had. But the best was yet to come for the trilogy's finale. In early 2004, the film won all 11 Academy Awards that it had been nominated for, tying a record with Ben-Hur and Titanic for most Oscars won by a single film and sending Jackson home with not only his first statuette, but his first three. Jackson used his now considerably hefty cred to tackle selective projects as the years rolled onward, like a remake of King Kong, an adaptation of the Lovely Bones, and a prequel to Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit.
Jackson would also be an active producer, helping bring to the screen films like District 9, The Adventures of Tintin, and West of Memphis. ~ Rebecca Flint Marx, Rovi