When the first Evil Dead film broke out as a box office success against its minimal $375,000 budget, the floodgates were opened for up-and-coming filmmakers to cut their teeth on splattery exploitations made on the cheap. What’s a New Zealander reared on effects-based Hollywood spectacles like the original King Kong to do to get his foot in the door? Well, like so few who receive the adage “If you want to make films go out and make them”, Peter Jackson went and did just that, taking a cue from the successful micro-budget gore fests popping up worldwide.
His first feature was Bad Taste, where aliens invade the fictional New Zealand village of Kaihoro to harvest humans for their intergalactic fast food franchise, where they face off against a four-man paramilitary force. It’s said that the film provided Jackson with the leverage necessary to advance in the film industry, when he made Meet the Feebles, a vile “Muppets” parody filled with truly disgusting stuff, and thereby a massive undertaking of practical effects work. These are the features Jackson decided to shout out during his Best Director acceptance speech as “wisely overlooked by the Academy”, and Meet the Feebles was crucially the first of Jackson’s collaborations with his staunch writing partner (and life-partner) Fran Walsh, a key ingredient to any Jackson feature’s creative direction.
Next came Brain Dead (also known as Dead Alive), and with it an upgrade in budget, which seems to have been spent entirely on the gallons of fake blood and the obliteration of the house set at the film’s climax, but the bump up the ladder remained a learning experience. With its mix of effects, working with miniatures, puppets, forced-perspective, complexly blocking all of this out, Brain Dead’s scrappy professionalism was key to securing future projects for the director.
But for the time being, Jackson explored a rather different, prestige follow-up, which helped to confirm that as a writer and director, he was indeed capable of leaving a human touch, and not just viscera-stains. That film, pitched by Walsh, was Heavenly Creatures, a psychological drama based on real events, which shot from talented kid to sophisticated auteur in the minds of film aficionados, and a sure bet in the minds of studio execs.
As a production-minded writer with a passion for the material (and a fidelity-minded adaptation process) and a proven ability to work outside the field of smut, in 1998 Jackson was a swing, and a stratospheric home run for New Line Cinema, itself a company built on the back of a scrappy, fantastically effects-heavy genre film: A Nightmare on Elm Street. We see the pipeline of the garish to the exhalated reiterated today in the stories of Blumhouse and A24. Jackson would return to form with The Frighteners, before being tapped for the big one: The Lord of the Rings duology, which he successfully spun into a trilogy.
What we are not suggesting for prospective writers and filmmakers is that you follow Jackson’s lead by entering exploitation markets today. Things are not what they once were. However, any skills learnt and adapted on and from a film totally outside of what you plan on making for the remainder of your life still contribute to your talents broadly. Don’t worry about working in the opposite direction of what you’d like to be doing, so long as you fan creativity and put in the work. Filmmaking, writing, as professions they are always imposing lessons. Don’t forget to apply them, and then shout-out your underdog origins at the Oscars’ podium.