Walk of Fame Honoree Peter Jackson Leaped From Micros to Major Hits

Peter Jackson
Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

Peter Jackson’s unexpected journey to the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Dec. 8 began with an exercise in “Bad Taste.”

That’s the title of Jackson’s ultra-low budget 1987 directorial debut, but unless you’re a hardcore fan, you’ve probably never seen the bizarre sci-fi gross-out comedy about aliens looking to turn humans into low-calorie delicacies for an intergalactic fast food chain.

In addition to directing, Jackson served as writer, producer, cinematographer, co-editor and the head of makeup and special effects. On top of all that, he cast himself in two leading roles: nasty alien Robert (who has a beard) and human extraterrestrial-buster Derek (sans facial hair). In one memorable sequence, Robert pushes Derek off a cliff. (He survives, but cracks his skull and tries to prevent his brain from leaking out for the rest of the film.)

Jackson made the film on weekends over a four-year period, while working a full-time job as an apprentice photo-engraver at the Evening Post in Wellington, New Zealand. The cast and crew was made up of friends and acquaintances, happy to work if it didn’t interfere with soccer schedules. Even after the New Zealand Film Commission agreed to provide finishing funds, the estimated budget barely crossed six figures in U.S. dollars.

In a 1988 review, Variety declared “Bad Taste” “an outstandingly awful, at times awfully brilliant, first feature.”

Sixteen years later, Jackson won three Oscars for writing, directing and producing his eighth feature — “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” — the grand finale in a groundbreaking fantasy trilogy that grossed nearly $3 billion at the global B.O. Not bad for a kid from coastal New Zealand who grew up worshipping “King Kong” and the members of Monty Python.

The route from “Bad Taste” to “The Lord of the Rings” isn’t exactly a direct one, but Jackson’s debut did attract the attention of young Republic Pictures exec Mark Ordesky, who wanted to acquire homevideo rights.

“I was so gobsmacked by the movie, I vowed to work with him,” says Ordesky, co-topper of Court Five, who executive produced the “Rings” trilogy at New Line.

By the time he got to New Line, Ordesky was keen to get Jackson a scripting gig for the studio’s fading “Nightmare on Elm Street” franchise.

“Whatever the question was, Peter Jackson was always the answer,” Ordesky says.

Sadly, Jackson’s script, which would have followed “The Dream Child,” was never produced.

Select fans like Ordesky excepted, Jackson spent several years as a cult movie icon generally invisible to the denizens of mainstream Hollywood. He followed “Bad Taste” with the ribald puppet satire “Meet the Feebles,” in which characters (lovingly) inspired by Jim Henson’s Muppets swear, do drugs, have sex and violently murder each other behind the scenes of a TV special.

The puppets were made by Richard Taylor and his partner Tania Rodger, who both became long-term collaborators with Jackson. Taylor co-founded and is co-director of Weta Workshop, just one of five New Zealand-based companies co-owned by Jackson that are dedicated to various aspects of film production.

“Bad Taste” had been a success story at the Cannes Market in 1988, recouping its meager budget with international sales. “Feebles” similarly scored with buyers at the now defunct Rome-based Mifed film fest and mart, and Jackson was earning a reputation in New Zealand as a filmmaker who could deliver massive ideas on minimal budgets.

But as he told Variety back in 1992: “I’m not in a desperate rush to direct in Hollywood. I know some people don’t take you seriously until you’ve made a Hollywood movie, but it doesn’t worry me what people over there think.

“I don’t like directing that much to want a career as a director for hire. I like to have as much creative control as possible. And working in NZ allows that.”

At the time he was enjoying increased acclaim for “Dead Alive” (released overseas with the original title “Braindead”), which cemented his status as a fanboy favorite. The ridiculously gory zombie comedy centers on a mild-mannered mama’s boy whose life turns upside down when his beloved mum transforms into a flesh-eating member of the undead.

Made in the era between the defining zombie sagas from George Romero (“Night of the Living Dead”) and Robert Kirkman (“The Walking Dead”), “Dead Alive” amassed a following of passionate advocates even as it repulsed watchdogs of good taste. The film’s giddily revolting piece de resistance is a climactic sequence in which the nerdy hero literally re-enters his mother’s womb. (The R-rated U.S. version excised a full 12 minutes of splatter — left intact in Jackson’s preferred unrated cut.)

What happened next was arguably even more shocking. Jackson went legit when “Heavenly Creatures” premiered in competition at the Venice Film Festival in 1994 to rapturous reviews. Starring then unknowns Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet, the film dramatized one of the most scandalous true crime stories in Kiwi history and all but decimated his Hollywood outsider status.

Distributed by Miramax in the U.S., “Heavenly Creatures” earned Jackson his first Oscar nomination — for original screenplay that he shared with his life partner, Fran Walsh (his co-writer on every film from “Feebles” ), and opened the doors for his first Hollywood production: 1996’s “The Frighteners.” Toplining Michael J. Fox, the horror-comedy was filmed in New Zealand, natch.

Though the Middle-earth films he’s best known for are very different from Jackson’s early splatter comedies, Ordesky says he sees a throughline: “He’s channeling the same aesthetic, but in a more assured and elegant way.”

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  1. stevenmillan says:

    Mighty Congrats to Peter Jackson on achieving this honor,for all he now needs to do is to return to the horror filmmaking genre to show the likes of Rob Zombie how it’s done(if Peter feels the need to return to horror,that is).

  2. Jeff Softley says:

    I can’t get into the grey, lumbering Tolkien films Jackson has been consumer with for 20 years but Heavenly Creatures is an absolutely perfect film

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