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King Kong

King Kong

Peter Jackson, Naomi Watts, Andy Serkis

Total Film

January 2006

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November 2004: Total Film is standing on Skull Island. Not the nice, green, jungly bit where you’d expect to bump into the cast of Lost or, perhaps, a couple of Vastatosaurus-rexes (voracious descendants of the T-rex) out trying to pull attractive blondes (into their gaping jaws). No, the nasty, black, desolate bit where about 100 or so twitchy, dark-skinned natives eke out a grim existence, terrified to venture beyond their craggy walls to the emerald paradise on the other side in case they end up as dinner for one of the resident monsters – including a towering gorilla named Kong. These chanting, bone-wearing primitives could invite him into their parlor through their very big gates, but instead they fear and worship Kong as a hairy, 25-feet-tall deity, sacrificing their women to him on a frequent enough basis that Skull Island crumpet is in short supply.

Today, however, the locals have made themselves scarce in their corpse-littered, crypt-filled home – a stunningly atmospheric and macabre creation that’s been constructed on the Miramar peninsula in suburban Wellington, New Zealand. After kidnapping and serving up prize lady specimen Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) to Kong in a cream-coloured negligee, she’s since been rescued by the crew of the SS Venture. And now all hell is breaking loose.

A man with a megaphone bellows, “Kong is breaking through the gates! He’s roaring! He makes eye contact with Ann!”

“What are you doing?” a panicky Watts shrieks as Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann) orders his men to chuck a few chloroform canisters Kong’s way. “Are you out of your mind?” Adrien Brody’s Jack Driscoll chimes in. “Kong!”

“The net is dropped on him,” resumes megaphone man. “He’s trying to break free, you can’t control him.” Brody dashes up to Watts, dragging her away from the gates, while Jack Black, wearing the demented expression of a man who won’t be denied, shouts at his crew, “Gas him! I need him alive!” Megaphone man: “Kong’s choking! He’s trying to push himself up! He’s breaking free!” “It’s over, you lunatic!” Brody bellows hoarsely at Black. “Everybody run!”

With three cameras capturing the action, Peter Jackson shoots five takes of this star-powered panic. But, of course, there’s no Kong being gassed or grappling with nets. Watts, Brody, Black and the Venture crewmen gaze up into the air at nothing, pretending it’s something big, scary and angry, conveying the full gamut of fear and anxiety Jackson wants for the scene. And we haven’t even seen Andy Serkis in his gorilla costume yet.

If Peter Jackson has the Freddie Mercury-David Bowie duet ‘Under Pressure’ churning through his brain on a constant loop, we wouldn’t be surprised. And who could blame him? Straight off the biggest trilogy of all time, with a pod of Oscars squatting in his Wellington mansion and enough cash to have bribed Sauron to forget about that damn ring, the newly slimline Kiwi only plunges straight into making the biggest ape movie the world has ever seen – a remake of the 1933 beauty-and-the-beast classic – and absorbing all the attendant pressure that comes with it. Pressure from Universal to spend their couple-hundred million dollars wisely; pressure from moviegoers fatigued by Hollywood spectacles showing off their digital seams like cheap back-alley tarts; and pressure to keep his entire country’s nascent film industry off the unemployment line. “Sure, there’s pressure,” shrugs the Rings-master-turned-ape-wrangler. “But it doesn’t worry me too much. The pressure is that I want people who respect the original film to think we did okay. And I just want to make a good film. That’s not easy.”

Indeed, with great power comes great expectations, and the weight now resting on Jackson’s shoulders would bring Atlas to his knees. Sure, he’s got $207 million to play with (a chunk of change that dwarfs the original’s $670,000 budget), which helps buy a lot of great stuff. But Jackson’s making no concessions to fashion, hewing rigidly to the original’s storyline about a megalomaniacal filmmaker-explorer Carl Denham (Black) leading a crew to an uncharted island near Sumatra to investigate an incredible legend, where a colossal gorilla falls in love with a beautiful woman. The 44-year-old filmmaker’s also clinging onto version number one’s Depression-era setting (“The last age in which there could be blank spots on the atlas,” Jackson explains), Kong’s many dinosaur enemies on Skull Island, and the tragic finale atop the Empire State Building, where Cutter Hell-Fire biplanes take the big ape down. “That’s the main reason I set it in 1933,” he says. “I wanted to have our climax up on the Empire State Building, with Kong fighting the biplanes. If you put Kong in a modern context, he’d have no chance, fighting against jet planes. It just doesn’t work.”

When composer Howard Shore, who scored the Rings trilogy, was nudged aside in favour of James Newton Howard (Batman Begins) seven weeks before Kong’s due date, and Universal declared a week later that they’d given their blessing to roll out Jackson’s three-hour version (although not before laundering most of the extra cash out of PJ’s own pockets), there was the slightest inkling that the film might be falling off its meticulously laid tracks. For one thing, where’s all that extra substance coming from? The original only runs at 100 minutes.

Well, it now takes an hour to get from Depression-era New York to Skull Island, the Kong-Darrow-Driscoll ménage à trois receives healthy expansion and a few more characters get air time. “We developed a lot of new characters because we wanted to humanise the ship’s crew,” says Jackson. “It’s always a good idea to do that when you’re going to kill them off. A lot of these people get eaten and die horrible deaths so it’s always more powerful if you get to know somebody before you bump them off.”

A brief lesson on the still-masterful and iconic 1933 version that Jackson’s redecorating with 21st century bells and whistles: it was also made by mavericks who lived and worked outside the Hollywood studio system. Merian C Cooper, the loud, flashy producer who dreamed up the idea, was an adventurer, filmmaker and decorated World War One bombardier; Kong’s effects mastermind Willis Harold O’Brien was a booze-bashing Irishman. Together they concocted a fantasy epic that smashed box-office records (a $90,000 opening weekend!), saved a studio (RKO) and stimulated Peter Jackson to follow his filmmaker’s destiny, from early puppet splatterfests (Bad Taste, Braindead, Meet The Feebles) through to the marathon Tolkien trilogy.

Cooper’s own inspiration came from real-life explorer W Douglas Burden’s trek to find the notorious Komodo dragon and he originally wanted to shoot Kong on location using a real gorilla. Fortunately he met O’Brien, who had been working on his own dinosaur epic, Creation, and was swayed by the effects wizard’s scheme to bring Kong, Skull Island and long-extinct reptiles to life using an 18-inch-high rabbit-fur-covered puppet, wee sets and wire-framed, Plasticine models. Creaky by today’s standards? Sure. But for something in its 70s, it’s still got a sprightly ability to thrill and chill – and get the tears streaming for the hirsute blighter’s bullet-riddled demise. (How much does Jackson love the original? He directed and edited a recreation of the missing six-minute “spider” sequence, which Cooper snipped for pacing reasons and which was then lost, while he was directing the remake. The scene, where a dinosaur chases crew members onto a log, with Kong then shaking them off into a pit where they’re eaten by spiders and crabs, will appear on the Region One DVD release.)

Tampering with classics is always a risky, and usually thankless, proposition. Fortunately, Jackson’s got the brains, balls and visionary talent for mixing the epic with the intimate to succeed where many before have failed – starting with the 1933 film’s dismal sequel Son Of Kong and leading up to the woeful 1976 version (turn to Lounge Archive on page 130 for the full story behind Dino De Laurentiis’ rehash). “The 1976 version has dated far worse than the 1933 film,” groans Jackson. “It’s so ’70s, it’s unbelievable.”

But Jackson also surrounds himself with talented collaborators, including Weta overlord Richard Taylor (special effects), Philippa Boyens (co-screenwriter; motion-capture director) and Fran Walsh (ditto; also producer and Jackson’s good wife), the latter two bringing a healthy dose of scepticism to temper Jackson’s occasionally off-the-chart fanboy enthusiasm, especially when it came to beefing up the characters. “King Kong changed my life,” he says. “It didn’t change Fran or Philippa’s life. They aren’t coming at it with the degree of respect and awe that I have.”

Together, the trio stockpiled a stellar cast that includes an Oscar-winner (Brody), an Oscar-winner’s son (Colin Hanks), a critically saluted Aussie (Watts), Hollywood’s sturdiest funnyman (Black), Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell) and Gollum (Serkis). “We cast the film with actors who can play reality,” shrugs Jackson of his arresting line-up, although clearly great depth of thought went into every choice the casting triumvirate made. “The better the actor, the more you believe in these people.” When he’s talking about actors who have to convincingly flee non-existent dinosaurs and react to a 25-foot-tall, log-shaking, car-tossing, bone-crushing simian as he manoeuvres, first, through Skull Island’s primordial environment and, after his capture and escape, through the imposing structures and sinewy ravines of New York City, you can understand why they were so picky.

“It was very important for Peter, Fran and Philippa that there was some chemistry between me and Naomi,” says Brody of his hiring as romantic lead Jack Driscoll, the New York playwright who bonds with Watts’ Darrow on the way to Skull Island. “There is a strange love triangle between King Kong, Ann and myself. I have to understand this incredible creature is competing for the same girl and that he suffers tremendously for that, while also wanting him out of the picture.”

Watts is the biggest beneficiary of Walsh and Boyens’ character improvement scheme, Ann granted an ample backstory plus extra grit and spikiness compared to Fay Wray’s original blonde screamer. “She’s a street kid and a survivor,” says Watts. As for Black, he’s an unusual but brave choice to play Denham, who the trio envisioned, says Jackson, “as Orson Welles circa Mercury Theatre/War Of The Worlds. He’s an obsessive-compulsive filmmaker who’s a genius on some levels but makes mistakes and bad decisions – just like Orson Welles did.”

“I never thought of Denham as reprehensible,” Black insists. “I thought of him as a guy who just wanted to capture something so astonishing that audiences would never forget it... I couldn’t think of him as a bad guy.”

Make no mistake, Jackson’s players are taking their jobs very seriously indeed – both when Total Film meets them on set in New Zealand and later, when we catch up with them in LA and New York. Their awe for their director, and what he’s attempting to achieve, is expressed with earnest, furrow-browed wonder, even though this is, essentially, a giant celluloid theme-park ride. Tears at the end, however, are hoped for by everyone, including Watts, who spends much of Kong sprinting, scrambling and screaming. Which isn’t to diminish her role – if we don’t buy her emotional meltdown for Kong, the film will fail. “These two beings connect,” sighs Watts. “They’re like kindred spirits – they’ve both existed alone for so long and have a negative outlook on life, a feeling of doom. Yet they find a way to exist together and take care of each other.”

Still, when you’re having to spend most of your scenes reacting to a monstrous creature that either isn’t there or is being represented by a man in a fake monkey costume (more on this later), was it ever difficult keeping a straight face?

“Never difficult to keep a straight face,” quoth Black, deadpan as you like. “For the most part, I had to pull it in. Because I have a tendency to go a little cartoony. Let the clown eyes go.” As for looking petrified while fleeing his fantasy foes, he had a trick up his sleeve. “In my head, I would imagine a shark and a tiger combined…” A shiger, Napoleon Dynamite fans. “It would be chasing me, but it’d have the mouth of a shark instead of a tiger. That would get my blood curdling.”


March 2005: Total Film’s back in Wellington, this time in an old warehouse where Jackson, who’s now shed 13 kilograms from his Lord Of The Rings fighting weight (“I got tired of being overweight and unfit so I changed my diet from hamburgers to yoghurt”) but still retains his distinctive dishevelled look (today’s attire? Mustard orange shirt and green trousers), is filming Ann’s barefoot flight through the jungle, weaving in and out of polystyrene trees, rubber plants and styrofoam rocks. A cameraman follows in handheld pursuit, capturing her movements. Suddenly she lurches to a stop at the edge of a cliff. Her face is flushed, her breathing fitful, her eyes locked on a figure perched on the other side of the gorge... Kong!

Well, it’s a five-foot-eight Englishman, actually – Andy Serkis. There he is, in his skintight blue Lycra jumpsuit, elevated high above the soundstage floor on a scissor lift. Darrow is attempting to communicate with Kong, utilising the international language of ocular expression since – typical English-speaker – she doesn’t speak gorilla. “It’s really a beautiful moment because we’re these two lost souls in this wild place and we both share this need to come together,” Watts explains later, referring to a practice that’s still illegal in most countries. “He’s the last of his species, so he has this unbelievably powerful urge to mate,” is Serkis’ blunter take on the mutual attraction. But Watts sees the bigger picture. “Kong is the ultimate man,” she smiles. “He might be lacking in social graces but he’s loving and protective and that’s why she chooses him. He makes her feel safe.”

But while emoting her newfound fascination, her onscreen companion is still locked in a Weta computer. When Jackson asks Watts to jump from the cliff into her admirer’s sweaty palm, she leaps off her perch to a mattress a few feet below, where an additional group of Lycra-clad stunt men pretend to be Kong’s waiting fingers.

Rendering the awesome ape in all his digital glory has been a strange and occasionally bumpy journey (the first teaser trailer met with grumbles from the web brigade). “It took us another couple of weeks after that teaser to really lock him down,” says visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri, whose team were instructed by Jackson to make Kong look older, reduce his snaggle tooth and narrow his face. “I wanted Kong to look old because he’s been around for a while,” says Jackson. “I wanted him to look battle-scarred, where dinosaurs have raked their claws into him; I wanted him to be frightening. When you start with the most terrifying, unpredictable, vicious-looking gorilla you can imagine and then you peel the layers away and start to see his soul and his heart – that’s the interesting approach. To see Kong’s soul through his eyes is the most important thing in the film. Everything depends on us achieving that.”

And Serkis, hired by Jackson after breathing rasping life into Gollum, has been there every step of the way, doing his bit to help Kong stand tall. Acting in scenes with the other actors, wearing a sculpted black-foam gorilla suit, complete with ape-fist extensions and a mic that broadcast his gorilla growls around the soundstages (called the “Kongalyzer”), before spending a further 10 weeks in the motion capture studio after the main shoot wrapped. Here he spent days covered in light-reflecting markers for 70-plus cameras to capture his every movement and expression.

“Gorillas are deeply savage if attacked. If they’re not intruded upon, they’re incredibly peaceful,” says Serkis. “It’s that hair switch between the two that I wanted to bring to Kong. That’s why it was so hard in motion capture. You were on set for the whole day on your own, for two months. There were moments where it wasn’t going right for me and I just sank into this despair. Luckily Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens were brilliant at storytelling, so they knew how to trigger things from me. They really mined me. When I was down, they could get me enraged.”

“As soon as Andy was in that suit he was a fucking gorilla,” says Jamie Bell, who plays the SS Venture’s youngest crew member. “He’s scratching his arse like a gorilla, playing with things as a gorilla would. He took acting to the next level.”

Jack Black claims he was literally terror-struck by Serkis in one scene, in which Kong breaks free of his chains and starts ripping apart the Manhattan theatre where Denham’s put him on display as the Eighth Wonder of the World. “Looking into his eyes, there was no Andy there, just this animal rage,” shivers Black. On the flipside, he also had to suppress his laughter the first time he saw Serkis arrive on set in his foam ape suit. “As brilliant as Andy is, he did look pretty ridiculous.”

“The pressure’s definitely on the ape!” hoots Black. “That’s what everyone wants to see!” If the 14 astonishing minutes of footage Total Film was shown recently are anything to go by – a literally jaw-on-floor sequence where Kong battles to save Ann from three marauding V-rexes, taking two of them over a cliff and through intertwining vines – Kong’s charisma is going to be a marvel to behold, and will enthral a new generation just as Jackson always dreamed.

And Jackson’s adding depth charges throughout the film. We know he’ll treat Kong with the utmost respect, but he wants the giant gorilla’s weary last stand atop the Empire State Building to pack a bigger emotional wallop than the dying moments of The Return Of The King. “The lesson we took from Lord Of The Rings is that fantasy is best told in a very realistic way,” says Jackson. “The best experience is one in which you utterly believe in what’s happening and in which the characters believe in what’s happening. And the relationship between Ann and Kong is told to be as believable as possible.”

Shore’s exit was an undeniable hiccup, but if Jackson’s feeling like he’s got a monkey on his back, he’s not showing it: “Howard and I had differing aspirations for the score, but rather than waste time arguing with a friend and trying to unify our points of view, we decided amicably to let another composer score the film.”

If someone could bottle and sell the unflappable air of serenity Jackson possesses at all times, they’d make a mint. Didn’t he ever roar in gorilla-like rage when a Weta computer boffin failed to execute the perfect Kong muscle ripple or hair billow? “I never saw him being grumpy the entire time I was there,” marvels Brody. “It was unbelievable.” “I also never felt any stress from him,” echoes Black. “I never saw him lose his temper. He’s very even-keel.”  Remaking Kong has been his dream since he was skipping through Wellington with an apple in his lunchbox… and now it’s become a reality, Kong looks likely to be a globe-stomping behemoth that everyone and their granny will go to see (that ’30s setting a canny nod to nostalgia).

A week before he chatted to Total Film, and a few days before his birthday, Jackson sat down to watch the 1933 original again. Warner Bros, who are releasing the digitally restored Region One DVD (with Jackson’s spider pit sequence), had sent a copy over, and despite being in full swing on the exhausting, bone-aching plunge to get Kong finished, he couldn’t resist sitting down with it again. “It was absolutely amazing,” he says. “I’d never seen it looking so pristine – I saw it in a way that I’ve never seen it before. It was like watching a whole new movie. I get into a groove whenever I watch it so I was able to experience it without really thinking about my own version. I’ve lived with the original for 30-odd years and I relate more to the nine-year-old who was inspired to make films when I watch it than I do as somebody remaking it now. That connection hasn’t cemented in my mind yet...”

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