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Remaking 'King Kong' an honor for Jackson


Remaking 'King Kong' an honor for Jackson

Wellington, New Zealand -- Compared with his work as an Oscar- winning director and the filmmaker behind the most popular trilogy in movie history, Peter Jackson's first attempt to remake "King Kong" was pretty amateurish.

Jackson painted the Manhattan skyline on an old bedsheet, constructed the Empire State Building out of cardboard and stole his mother's shawl to craft the giant gorilla's fur. It didn't look like much, Jackson admitted, but then again he was 13 years old.

If filming "The Lord of the Rings" was Jackson's cinematic passion, remaking "King Kong" has been a lifelong obsession.

For as much resolve as the now-43-year-old Jackson exhibited in adapting J.R.R. Tolkien's books about Hobbits and elves, the director has shown even more perseverance in retelling the legendary beauty- and-the-beast story.

In fact, he owes his career to the 1933 original "King Kong": Had he not seen it, Jackson said, he might not have become a filmmaker.

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"In a sense, this is more important to him than 'The Lord of the Rings,' " said actor Andy Serkis, who played Smeagol/Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" films and in "King Kong" will play Lumpy the Cook and, with some digital assistance, the titular giant gorilla.

Besides Jackson's adolescent effort -- "I still have some of that footage, somewhere," he said -- the director came within weeks of filming "King Kong" for Universal Pictures in 1997.

The production was derailed by the studio's cold feet, an about- face that left Jackson devastated, his production team in tears and the director's future uncertain.

But a global blockbuster helps heal all wounds, and soon Universal -- with a new management team -- came to New Zealand and asked Jackson to please, please reconsider revisiting Skull Island.

What else could a director who owns the original film's brontosaur and pteranodon say?

This was the movie he believed he was born to rework and with the third and final "Lord of the Rings" film nearly behind him at the time, he was more equipped than ever to tackle it.

So in early 2003 it was agreed: Before he would film Alice Sebold's ghostly novel "The Lovely Bones," before he would film Ian Mackersey's biography "Jean Batten: The Garbo of the Skies," before he completed "The Return of the King," Jackson promised Universal that "King Kong" would be his next movie.

To clinch the deal, Universal said it would pay Jackson, his partner Fran Walsh and screenwriter Philippa Boyens a combined $20 million to direct, produce and write the remake, with Jackson and Walsh receiving a share of the film's gross revenue.

Blend of old, new

Written with Walsh and Boyens, "King Kong" is both a reverent tribute to the initial film and an energetic reworking of its main themes.

Rather than filming on location in jungles, Jackson is shooting almost all of "King Kong" inside, as his "Kong" predecessors did 72 years ago. In place of traveling to a real rain forest, Jackson and his crew manufactured a highly stylized one indoors.

"That's about wanting the look of the original 'Kong,' " Jackson said.

Even as it pays tribute to specific scenes in the original, Jackson's version will make numerous departures, adding spectacular chase sequences involving rampaging dinosaurs and emphasizing more of the love story between the big primate and the movie-within-the- movie's desperate actress Ann Darrow, played by Naomi Watts.

"What Peter and Fran and Philippa have been able to do is create all of these nuances that never existed," said Adrien Brody, who plays reluctant playwright Jack Driscoll. "It's not just a giant gorilla and a damsel in distress."

Jack Black, cast as hustling filmmaker Carl Denham, is reminiscent of Jackson without a beard.

The director discounts the resemblance, but when the production was announced in a New Zealand news conference, Jackson and Black were not seated beside each other because of their physical likeness.

And then there's Black's character. In Jackson's telling, Denham is a driven filmmaker who will stop at nothing to get his movie made. Defeat is only momentary and Denham must capture Kong on film above all else.

Sure, Denham has a lot less talent than Jackson, and yes, the character in fact is based more on a young Orson Welles.

"But he's got vision and he's got tremendous ambition. He wants to make the greatest film ever made," Black said. "You can't really ignore that I am playing the director of the film and I'm watching Peter all day on the set, watching the way he directs."

More ambitious than 'Rings'

Even with Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" know-how, making a movie of this scale at times resembles chain-saw juggling, especially since Jackson has relatively little time to finish all the film's complicated effects before its Dec. 14 debut.

As the cast prepares for another take, Jackson settles into the upholstered chair from which he directs and in rapid order examines computer tests of Kong's digital fur, offers notes on that day's production diary for "Kong's" Internet site (www.kongisking.net), and reviews a video feed from another stage, where Brody is running as fast as he can on a treadmill, to simulate Driscoll's escape from dinosaurs.

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