News for Apr. 22, 1999
North and South Magazine - Lauren Quintance
4/22/99, 12:00 am EST - Xoanon
This is not what you"d expect. Miramar. Solidly working class, rows of compact, pre-World War II bungalows and a smattering of state houses on broad, flat streets that give way to knots of disused factories. Soccer Ñ not rugby Ñ is the game of choice and on winter Saturdays a thick fringe of supporters jostle at the edges of Miramar Park Ñ home of the Miramar Rangers Ñ as planes, climbing from the airport, roar overhead. There is none of the raw sectarian divisions described in Denis Edwards" just-published 1950"s memoir Miramar Dog, just a kind of suburban monotony. Perhaps it is the anonymity of Miramar that suits Peter Jackson. Secrecy surrounding The Lord Of The Rings has reached paranoid levels. Few interviews are granted with Jackson and those that are almost exclusively conducted over the telephone. Those privileged enough to gain entry to Jackson"s Miramar-based special effects company Weta Ñ where the lion"s share of the work on models for The Lord Of The Rings is being done are required to sign a two-page, legally binding non-disclosure agreement. (Which makes our job here a challenge Ð E.) When North & South sought access to those parts of Weta"s inner sanctum not involved in The Lord Of The Rings Ñ including Jackson"s lavish 200-seat private cinema built in the style of early screen palaces permission was refused. Jackson, who has earned a reputation for being difficult (not according to artist John Howe, who described him as quiet, un-pushy, unobstructive, willing to listen, but certain of his decisions.-E.) said that there were some things the public did not need to know about. Instead, to interview Weta"s directors we were ushered to a bare, dimly lit boardroom devoid of any interest. Jackson himself would only be interviewed over the phone, ostensibly to "save time", and when we protested the one-time photo engraver told us we were lucky to be granted an interview at all. Welcome to Hollywood, Miramar-style. Sequestered behind the tightly shut doors of Miramar"s shabby warehouses is Jackson"s multimillion-dollar film empire. In Para Street, hard up against the hills that divide Miramar from Seatoun, an old homestead that is the headquarters of Jackson"s small production company Wingnut Films can be glimpsed from the street. No sign marks its existence, just a blunt warning: Private Property, No Trespassing. Over the hill are the well-heeled seaside suburbs of Karaka Bay, and Seatoun, favoured residence of much of the film and television industry including Jackson. (So where did we get the idea he lived in Christchurch? Whoops. My money is on Seatoun.- E.) In Weka Street in the suburb"s north, Weta Ñ the crux of the industry spawned by his success Ñ and the Jackson-owned Camperdown Studios are housed in a 65,000 square foot former pharmaceuticals factory. In Stone Street, near the narrow cutting in the hill which shields the suburb from Wellington"s airport, the 1.7 hectare of the former Taubman's paint factory awaits transformation. The sprawling jumble of empty buildings is the latest addition to Jackson"s portfolio of property in Miramar. "It's a huge punt," admits Jamie Selkirk, Jackson"s genial partner and director of Weta and Camperdown Studios. A freelance producer and editor who has worked with Jackson since the 1987 spoof Bad Taste, Selkirk is also a shrewd businessman. He says the $3 to $4 million he estimates has been invested in buildings in Miramar (including the work required to convert them into concrete-lined, sound-proof studios) is unprecedented in Wellington. "Auckland has got no real big studios, it's got a whole lot of warehouses that Hercules and Xena use but we're trying to create a purpose-built facility." The Jackson camp are relying on other Wellington television producers and filmmakers to pick up the slack after filming on the last of The Lord Of The Rings is completed at the end of 2000. "We"re crossing our fingers really," says Selkirk, "We"re hoping that by doing The Lord Of The Rings it will say to the world that we can make movies down here." "Wellington, in my opinion, doesn"t have a magic formula about it which makes it the place that you have to make films, I just think it"s a great place to live," Jackson chirrups down the phone from across town. "This perception that if you"re really serious about making it in the movies you've got to go and chase work, you've got to go to LA, cos that's where it all happens Ñ if I"ve done anything it"s simply to say, "Surely you don"t have to do that, surely if I"ve got a good idea for a film and I want to make it then they"re going to be happy enough to come here and make it" and that"s proved to be the case. "You know there are advantages to being in the US," he continues. "You certainly get access to money and actors of star status and crews that have worked on 50 or 60 movies, you have alot of access to gimmicks and toys that you don"t get here, but the Kiwi attitude to filmmaking is something I prefer. The film industry here is all about working with people you"ve worked with before and it"s really like a group of friends getting together for a few months and making a movie." According to another local producer Ray Thompson, the depth of talent and "can do" attitude of actors, technicians and filmmakers here is reminiscent of Hollywood in the 1920s. While Jackson has been the lynchpin of Weta, the tenacity of his friends should not be underestimated. Weta was formed in 1993 with Selkirk, prosthetics specialist Richard Taylor, animator and computer technician George Port and the late Jim Booth, to buy a $100,000 computer used to create special effects for Heavenly Creatures. Weta creates puppet-like creatures and computer-generated special effects for films, as well as shows such as Xena and Hercules. In the lead-up to Lord Of The Rings, due to start filming in October, the company is employing 160 people. Weta"s success is rooted in its ability to overcome the tyranny of distance: technology has blurred the gulf between Miramar and Los Angeles.