More work at Flying Lab today. I’m wrestling with the design for the strategic part of the Delta Green computer game. There’s a reasonably Cool New Feature I want to implement, and I haven’t yet figured it out. But I did figure out enough to recognize that I was putting some pointless busywork into the gameplay, and I stripped it out. Small steps. Today I found out that part of my job on the game is designing the actual game system–stats, skills, chance to hit, that sort of thing. Much of that stuff is invisible to the player, of course, since the program does all the crunching, and its needs are very different than those of a tabletop RPG. It’ll be interesting work, and there’s a heck of a lot of it.
One side benefit: Flying Lab rented a movie theater for Wednesday so we can watch Lord of the Rings free from the clamor of the public. I’ve got a wallet full of tickets that I’ve begun handing out, like Johnny Geekyseed. It’s going to be fun.
I’m really looking forward to LOTR, and it’s not because I love the book. I read it as a kid, a couple times, and enjoyed it. The book’s emphasis on melancholy and sacrifice stayed with me even as the details of the story and characters fell away. I haven’t cracked the cover in seventeen years. In that time, my appetite for swords & sorcery has vanished. Elves, longbows, dragons, all that stuff pretty much leaves me cold.
No, the reason I’ve been excited about LOTR is because it’s by Peter Jackson, a filmmaker who has never let me down. My first exposure to his work was in 1994, when I was visiting a friend in Scotland. He mentioned a film he’d seen called Meet the Feebles, and it sounded mind-blowing: an x-rated version of The Muppet Show. Lo and behold, his corner video store had a copy so we brought it back to his place and I watched it.
The damn thing was amazing. I mean, sure: it’s a gross-out parody of the muppets. It’s set backstage at a television variety show, rife with sex, drugs, and violence, and it’s an all-muppet cast. It’s very funny, very gross, often shocking in its complete over-the-top spectacle. There’s the lizard smack junkie, a Vietnam vet who flashes back to his capture by the Viet Cong (played by buck-toothed rabbits, of course), complete with a Deer Hunter scene of Russian roulette. There’s the lovestruck hippo, the gangster walrus, the star rabbit with VD, and on and on.
But it’s easy to just focus on the concept and ignore the execution. This guy, Peter Jackson, a low-budget indie filmmaker in New Zealand making slapstick-gore zombie movies, decides to make a film with an all-muppet cast. He’s not a puppeteer or anything. New Zealand isn’t a particular haven for puppetry. It’s just a funny idea for a film, a joke you make at a bar with friends. But he does it. He puts together a team, they figure out how to make the muppets, they build the sets, they shoot the whole thing, and it comes together beautifully. Strictly from a technical standpoint, it was an amazing exercise in logistics and craft.
From there he made Heavenly Creatures, an art-house hit here that could only have been made successfully by a director immersed in genre, someone not afraid to take a real-life story and imbue it with a layer of special-effects fantasy that told the story the way it needed to be told without alienating the art-film audience in the process. An amazing feat, and it showed storytelling with real emotion and empathy.
Then he did The Frighteners, a film I just loved. It’s a cheeseball horror comedy with Michael J. Fox as a guy who can interact with ghosts. But in its way, it’s breathtaking. There’s a fantastic fight scene at one point with two humans struggling and two ghosts struggling, all in the same location. The two fights are independent, and the humans don’t know the ghosts are there. But it’s all choreographed beautifully, and the effect is remarkable. It sticks with me because it’s a visionary portrayal of mortal and spiritual struggle. I know, it’s just a funny fight scene. But that notion of a simultaneous two-level conflict among the living and the dead was, at its core, a powerful idea. It’s even worked its way into some of my writing.
It’s also one of the few CGI-heavy films whose CGI really works for me. Just as with Feebles, Jackson built a team, learned the ropes, and did fantastic work. He created his own special-effects company in New Zealand, WETA, and their work on Frighteners was better than ILM would have done.
There’s a laserdisc edition of The Frighteners that has a four-hour making-of documentary. That’s right: four hours. Twice as long as the film itself. And it’s riveting. The only making-of film I’ve seen that’s better is Hearts of Darkness, for very different reasons.
To me, The Frighteners just confirmed what Meet the Feebles already proved: Peter Jackson is better at putting technical skill to the service of story than anyone else working, even those Matrix guys. He has the vision, the charisma, and the dedication to make incredible things happen on his own terms, and on top of all that he’s a gifted storyteller.
That’s why I’m looking forward to Lord of the Rings. Not for Tolkein half so much as for Jackson. If you’ve got the eyes to see it, you’ll realize that this guy is the real deal. Plenty of people have watched Feebles and laughed at the jokes. I think few appreciated the amazing accomplishment that film was, for all that the concept was a frat-house gag. I doubt they’ll miss it this time, though. LOTR should, by all rights, give Jackson the same blank check that Spielberg gets. He’s that good. And Spielberg never made a film with the maturity, intensity, and vision of Heavenly Creatures.
Watch this guy. He’s got some of the best films we’ll ever see still waiting inside him. I’m not saying that LOTR is going to be one of them–I dunno. But my faith in Jackson is substantial.