The long and troubled road to Peter Jackson’s King Kong

Peter Jackson's King Kong.
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Peter Jackson made King Kong in 2005, but did you know it was meant to be made much earlier, and was cancelled? Here’s the story…

King Kong was a huge hit with audiences when released in 1933. Its effects were unlike anything seen before on screen, and it would become the most famous monster movie, with its story of a giant ape capturing the imagination of filmmakers and filmgoers for generations.

One such person was a New Zealand boy called Peter Jackson, who first saw the film on TV in the early ‘70s. The experience would stay with Jackson all his life, and start him on a path to cinema greatness.

Jackson had always had a love for movies, making short films with his parents’ Super 8 camera, but Kong inspired him to start trying out special effects of his own, hoping to one day become an effects master, like Ray Harryhausen, or Willis O’Brien, the man who animated the original Kong. This enthusiasm culminated in an attempt to remake King Kong using stop-motion puppets he’d built himself.

After shooting several scenes, however, Jackson realised it wasn’t going to be as good as he wanted it, and decided to abandon the project. One thing he didn’t abandon, however, was his wish to one day remake the ultimate monster movie.

Peter Jackson’s career took off in the 1980s with pictures such as Bad Taste and Meet the Feebles, which used his own practical and special effects, as well as the talents of long-term collaborators like Richard Taylor. While these movies had limited commercial success, their distinctive style attracted the attention of movie studios, who began to take an interest in the New Zealand director. While Jackson was working on the horror film The Frighteners, Universal called with the offer of two classic monster movies they were hoping to remake: The Creature From The Black Lagoon and King Kong. Jackson immediately seized the chance to work on a version of his favourite movie and began writing a Kong script with his partner Fran Walsh.

This wasn’t the first time Kong had been brought back to the big screen. There had been several remakes and spin-offs since the original, such as Son Of Kong and King Kong Lives, which met with mixed receptions on release. Most of these movies updated the setting to the present day, but Jackson and Walsh’s script kept the 1930s background of the original. The finished draft, however, was significantly different from any Kong movies that had come before it.

The movie opened with a dogfight in World War I, featuring the hero Jack Driscoll as a teenage pilot who carelessly plays baseball with another airman across the open cockpits of their biplanes, until German fighters show up, shooting down and killing Jack’s friend. This set up the hero as a veteran, scarred by the death of his friend in the war, who gives up flying for many years until he’s forced to take to the wing again to try and protect Kong from the US navy during his rampage through New York City.

Another character who was substantially different was the heroine, Ann Darrow. Instead of the American actor she is traditionally portrayed as, Jackson’s version had her as a British archaeologist engaged in a dig in Sumatra, alongside her father, Lord Darrow. After her father’s sudden death, she takes part in the voyage to Skull Island, hoping to make something from the discovery and create a legacy for her father’s name.Naomi Watts as the female lead in King Kong (2005)

The script did feature some elements that would be used in the 2005 movie, including the Brontosaur stampede and the deep chasm on the island that’s filled with giant insects. The movie also ended with the confrontation between Kong and the planes atop the Empire State Building, finishing with the classic line “It wasn’t the airplanes, it was beauty killed the beast.”

Aside from the script, production had been moving forward in other areas, too. A large amount of designs had been done for the movie, with concepts for Kong, the island and the various creatures that would inhabit it being submitted. There was also a significant amount of work done on digital design, with Jackson intending to use CGI to create some of Kong’s scenes. One of the largest pieces of work was a digital model of ‘30s New York, intended for the final rampage through the city.

With the pre-production process moving along swiftly, Peter Jackson began to get the feeling things weren’t looking too good. In early 1997, before any filming had begun, the production was shut down and the crew had to find a way to manage the situation. With so much new talent taken on by Weta Workshop to work on the movie, there were large numbers of contracts still under obligation. Not long after, however, the team was asked to start thinking up designs for a Middle Earth movie which would eventually lead to the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, and Jackson’s best-known work.

The reasons for the movie’s cancellation have never been fully explained. Many of the crew working on the film believed it was related to the upcoming releases of Godzilla and Mighty Joe Young reboots. With two monster movies on the horizon and Universal’s King Kong still only in pre-production, the studio could have been worried about a lack of support for their picture. As it turned out, both of the other movies underperformed at the box office when released in 1997.

Looking back, Jackson has managed to be philosophical about the unmade Kong, believing that the experience from working on Lord Of The Rings made the eventual movie that much better, both in terms of digital effects and in the way the story developed over the years. That it became less like an Indiana Jones movie, and more deeply involved with Kong as a character, focusing on the effects the story has upon him as he is used by the people around him.

Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong was a success, and his reputation as a filmmaker had increased thanks to his exploits in Middle Earth, allowing him greater freedom while making the movie. Considering this success, and how the termination of the 1996 project allowed him to make the Rings trilogy, perhaps the story has a happy ending after all.

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