On a movie screen in a small theater outside Wellington, New Zealand, a pissed-off 24-foot silverback gorilla is doing the sort of things pissed-off 24-foot gorillas tend to do. He’s knocking over a packed streetcar with his ass. He’s flipping an automobile like a tiddlywink. He’s hurling people through the air and — bad monkey! — biting off some poor schmuck’s head.
Director Peter Jackson studies these clips closely, laser pointer in hand, while a select group of the 500 or so digital animators working on his epic remake of King Kong wait for his feedback. In most of the shots, the giant ape is still only roughly animated, a blobby, blurry beast somewhere between the Atari 2600 Donkey Kong and the fearsome, battle-scarred behemoth he’ll eventually become. The details will be filled in later, down to the finest nostril hair, but at this point Jackson just wants to make sure the basics are right. ”He looks awkwardly stiff in the wrists,” he says, as Kong rears up and beats his chest on an icy 1930s New York City street. ”Loosen his wrists up a bit.”
With just two months to go before King Kong hits theaters, Jackson and his team are facing a serious monster of a deadline. Yet, considering the amount of work still to be done — some 800 computer-generated shots out of a total of roughly 2,200, plus editing, scoring, and all the rest — the vibe is surprisingly laid-back. Step outside this building, which is just one of a number of Jackson-owned facilities that have sprouted in this sleepy suburb thanks to his blockbuster Lord of the Rings trilogy, and you’d have no idea that one of the most expensive and technologically ambitious movies in history is being made in your midst. Here in New Zealand, in what Jackson calls ”our little bubble,” Hollywood feels thousands of miles away. Which, of course, it is. And that’s just where he wants it.
Much as he’d like to, though, Jackson can’t keep the pressures of the outside world from intruding into his private filmmaking playground. King Kong is, in every possible sense, a huge film: huge in scale (three hours, nearly twice the length of the original), huge in expense ($207 million, a third more than its initial $150 million budget), and hugely important both to him and to Universal, which is writing all those zeros on the checks. The 1933 Merian C. Cooper classic about a monster ape who is discovered on a remote island by a movie crew, is brought to New York in chains, and eventually plunges to his death from atop the Empire State Building has been retold and spun off numerous times over the years, most notoriously in a campy 1976 remake. But with this version — starring Naomi Watts as Ann Darrow, the actress who beguiles Kong, Jack Black as the hard-charging filmmaker Carl Denham, and Adrien Brody as playwright-turned-reluctant hero Jack Driscoll — Jackson is attempting to wipe the slate clean, to recapture the initial shock and awe that Depression-era moviegoers felt seeing a giant gorilla clutching a screaming woman in his hand.