From an early age, Peter Jackson dreamed of remaking King Kong, the classic fantasy movie directed by Merian C Cooper and Ernest B Shoedsack in 1933. His first attempt, aged 12, was, unsurprisingly, a failure. When he tried again in the mid 90s, the studios pulled the plug. But then he hit box-office and studio paydirt with Lord Of The Rings and finally, Jackson was able to revive King Kong and fulfil the childhood dream he had stubbornly clung to for more than three decades. The results are astonishing.
How does it feel now the film has been screened and people are responding so positively to it?
I am not a filmmaker with a message to impart upon the world. I simply want to entertain people and I'm always pleased when people enjoy a film I've made. This particular film is sort of a lifetime ambition of mine. I was inspired by the original King Kong when I saw it, aged nine, on TV. Three years later, I borrowed my parents' Super 8 movie camera, made a little model of Kong out of wire and rubber, and some of my mum's fur coat, and started to do a remake of Kong. I didn't get very far. It was a little bit ambitious. I actually switched from that to doing a remake of Monty Python's Flying Circus, but I always harboured this desire to one day remake King Kong. In 1996 I tried to do it for seven or eight months and it got canned by the studio. So then we jumped sideways into Lord Of The Rings...
One of the most intense scenes in the film was at the bottom of the ravine, with the insects. That's a scene that was cut from the 1933 film. Did you refer back to original storyboards or was this all in your mind already?
In the 1933 movie they cut out the scene in the ravine because of the pacing, and I can understand why. I covered myself when we were scriptwriting because unlike the 1933 film, I had several of our principal characters actually falling to the bottom of the ravine. I sent our entire cast, pretty much, down to the bottom. That was a little bit of future-proofing so that, a year later, I wasn't going to be tempted to cut the scene out.
How did King Kong himself develop?
We set about wanting to make him a gorilla as opposed to a monster. Godzilla is a monster, Kong is not. A gorilla's characteristics and behaviour are actually very interesting and lead to lots of ideas that you can then incorporate in a scene. But, obviously, we are also filmmakers and we have to achieve certain results, so there's no doubt there's a little bit of cheating that you do here and there to make a moment work. If it's not something that a gorilla would not naturally do, we certainly tried to make it look as close as possible to something you could believe in.
The romantic motif is far stronger in this. Was that deliberate on your part?
Yes, although it was not so much deliberate going in. The relationships between Ann Darrow [played by Fay Wray] in the original movie and Jessica Lange in the second film, and what Naomi does now, they're actually three different relationships. It's the same story but there's three different types of things going on. Certainly with Fay and her character, it was very much a case of an unwilling kidnap victim and she never felt comfortable being with Kong, was always terrified of him, always screaming. There was never really a sense, in the original movie, that she really connected with or understood Kong. The Jessica Lange version was kind of a weird 70s sexual innuendo. They camped up the sexuality of it, I guess, more than anything, which we didn't want to do. So we created ours with one with a foot in either camp, really.
To me the most interesting doorway to go through with a story like King Kong was the reality door. You say, "OK, if you're really on this island and you got kidnapped by this gorilla that is intent on killing you, how would you actually respond?" It's not like there's a lot you could do. You're in his hand, you can't get out, your options are very few, but how would you feel and what would you do? He's going to kill you, but if you can keep him curious, if you can engage him on some level that stops your getting squashed, then you've got a minute opportunity of staying alive that you can work on.
What about the relationship as seen from Kong's perspective?
Kong's a gorilla who has lived his entire life on this island. He has no parents, they've probably been killed by the dinosaurs, and his siblings have been killed. He's the last one of his species, he's never empathised with another living creature, and his entire instincts are to be the king of this jungle and to be the dominant species, which is what gorillas naturally want to be anyway. Suddenly, when Ann Darrow comes into his life, whom he is expecting to kill and doesn't, he starts to become curious and the relationship develops, from Kong's point of view, to a point where he wants to protect her. And it's a dangerous relationship for anybody else.
What I like about the story of Kong is the complexity, because we obviously come to learn a little bit about Kong's heart, his pure heart. He's unspoilt. He doesn't operate on the same moral values as humans. He's instinctive, he does what his heart tells him to do, and he feels this empathy and this curiosity towards Ann. But, you know, anyone who comes close to taking Ann away from him, he will kill them. He will kill them very quickly. And that includes our guys that we've met and are now trying to save her. There are no villains. No monsters. It's this complex story of people doing what they need to do to survive, and Kong behaving in a way that is perfectly natural and normal, and you cannot judge him for it.
How did you create the scenes between Naomi Watts and Kong, which you obviously filmed using green screen?
The thing that affects an actor the most, and Naomi's performance especially, is reacting to a creature that is not there. That's where Andy [Serkis] was able to help. Every single scene where Naomi is looking at Kong, of which, obviously, there is many in the movie, she is looking at Andy's face. Andy is up in a cherry-picker or on a ladder; he's somewhere where he needs to be, so Naomi will always have Andy to look at.
The other side of green screen is creating the environment. So instead of being in a rain forest somewhere in the jungle, in the miserable cold, with the sun going down behind the hill, not having enough light, we decided to have our situation controlled. So our jungles were built in the studio, which means the actors were surrounded by green screens. But we had artwork and sketches that we were able to look at, so we could see what the environment - the invisible environment - would ultimately be like.
There are quite a few silent scenes between Ann and Kong.
We didn't want to have Ann talking to a gorilla because we wanted to make this as realistic as we possibly could. It's actually something that Jessica Lange did in 1976. She couldn't keep her mouth shut. She was continuously talking to Kong in that movie and I thought it was one of the weaker parts of the film. So it was a deliberate decision. Also, what do you say to a giant gorilla? I have no idea.
After Lord Of The Rings and King Kong, are you tempted to do a cosy drama in a drawing room?
Well, our plan is to take some time off for a while and recharge our batteries and our brain cells. But certainly we have some scripts we want to write for the future and as far as I'm aware, they're all very, very small, intimate films. We've got a project that we're developing with FilmFour, actually. But for a while it's going to be a little bit of a holiday and a rest. Because we first tried to do Kong back in 1995-96, and then we did Lord Of The Rings, and then we did Kong again, it's actually been 10 years of my career just working on two projects. Hopefully I'll be lucky enough to have a career that goes on for a few more years, but 10 years is still going to be a significant chunk to have devoted to two projects. So it would be fun to get to Christmas and wake up and just be able to think of a whole lot of new ideas. It will be great.
King Kong is released in UK cinemas on Thursday 15th December 2005.