Part 4: Peter Jackson and Quint discuss THE DAMBUSTERS remake!!!
Published at: Sept. 16, 2006, 8:12 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with Part 4 of 5 of the interview I did last weekend with Peter Jackson. Part One focused on TEMERAIRE, the new fantasy series Jackson has optioned. Part Two focused on Jackson's next directorial film, THE LOVELY BONES. Part Three focused on Jackson's involvement bringing HALO to the big screen. To read any of those interviews, click on the links above.
Of all the topics we discussed, Jackson seemed to be most talkative about DAMBUSTERS, the remake of the British war film of the '50s. Fans will know that Jackson has an affinity for period aerial combat, which definitely shows in the chat below. You'll find Jackson talking about why this period of WW2 fascinates him, what he and director Christian Rivers will be able to bring to the remake that they could not do in the original, as well as his thoughts on the rather controversial aspect of Guy Gibson's dog's name. Enjoy!
QUINT: We should talk a little bit about DAMBUSTERS...
PETER JACKSON: Yeah, anything you'd like to talk about... DAMBUSTERS... It's one of those ones, without wanting to make it sound like a rerun of KONG because KONG is my favorite movie, but DAMBUSTERS was a movie that I... When I was a kid I saw a great double feature of DR. NO and DAMBUSTERS on a Sunday afternoon at a cinema here and both had a great affect on me. It was the first time I had ever seen a BOND film as well. DAMBUSTERS encapsulates a lot of things I really love. I am a big fan of the 1950s British war movies where they were made 10 years after the war, often made with complete access and cooperation with the real people that were involved, heard true life stories. There's a level of authenticity to them. There's a whole slew of them and, really, of all those true stories DAMBUSTERS is one of the most remarkable.
And it's a great melding of action/adventure with bureaucracy, which appeals to me. As well as the climactic act, which is obviously the raid itself, what I liked about the original film and the true life events, something that we won't be changing with our telling of the story, is the way that this scientist, Barnes Wallis, had to convince the government of this crazy idea to develop what seemed like an impossible thing; a bomb that weighed something like 9 tons, I think it was, that could bounce on the surface of a lake.
And the British government were being beset by crazy inventors all the time. There was a continual stream of people harassing the government, saying they've invented the ultimate death ray that will take out the Germans and everything. Times of war can bring out the best in people, but it's also a chance to make the nutcases shine and make themselves heard as well.
So, Barnes Wallis was regarded as being something of an eccentric really, when he first presented the case. He had this real uphill battle that took years to convince the government and the bureaucracy that this could work. Slowly, he chipped away at them and I loved that side of the story. It's got a slightly dry humor to it. It is something that the British do really well that no other country really excels in quite as much is the eccentric inventors just kind of tug away and tug away and they always get underestimated by other people, but they often come through at the end. The British actually invented a lot of things, radar being one of them, that helped them win the war, as well as the Americans getting involved, ultimately, which was the turning point.
But 1943 is also interesting, the year of DAMBUSTERS, because it is one of the dark years of the war. The war hadn't quite reached that point where it became obvious that the Nazis could be defeated. The Allies had suffered quite a few defeats. The way it happened in time, it was great for morale. There's a bit of political intrigue in it, too, because the Americans and the Russians were both on to Churchill thinking that the British were not actually doing enough in the war. The Russians were getting hammered on the Eastern Front and the Americans were in the Pacific and the English were seen as being sort of holed up on the island and what are they actually doing and contributing?
So, Churchill was extremely thankful of this raid because it did prove that the British were able to strike a fairly resounding blow against the Nazis, do their bit in the war.
It's also another one of those cinematic experiences that we haven't quite nailed yet with the technology that exists today. We haven't really seen a World War 2 low level bombing attack that has been done with all the power of CG that really make you feel like you're really participating in that raid. They were flying incredibly low, barely missing the treetops.
QUINT: That was a really great part of the original. I love seeing it in films when they set up something to be nearly impossible and then they make it really impossible. They had a tough time flying at 200 feet or whatever it was and then were told they had to be no higher than 60 feet off the ground...
PETER JACKSON: Yeah, they thought 150 feet was the level and then they kept dropping the bomb during the tests that would just sink. It didn't bounce because it was too high and had too much downward momentum, so they had to go lower and lower, made even more difficult because they had to fly at night.
They flew at that level right from Britain and into Germany to stay under the radar. They knew that if the German Night Fighters were able to track them that they would be absolute mince meat. They had no choice but to fly under the radar, which means they were flying at only 40 or 50 feet. Some of the pilots that we've spoken to were saying that they had a split second in the darkness to see that they were flying towards high tension power lines and they a split second to decide if to go over them or if they were going under them. They said they often just went under the power lines, these big 4 engine bombers.
It's also remarkable the way... This is the kind of story that I like. It's not just a flying story, but the fact that in addition to the bureaucracy and the hurdles and challenges that Barnes Wallis went through when building the bomb and designing the bomb, they realized that it was such a precision, such precise flying that was required that they were going to have to get a special squadron to do it because they couldn't rely upon an ordinary squadron, so they had to hand pick the best people they could find and form a new group. And they only had 7 weeks to find these guys, to build the modified aircraft, to train... and during that 7 week period, they couldn't even tell the guys what the target was.
They put a squadron together starting from nothing to basically employing and managing 700 people, with all the ground crew and support people and the office people. The first few days, when the clock was ticking, was spent getting envelopes and rubber bands and pads and pens and ink and everything because they didn't have anything in this squadron, but they had this incredible job to do in 7 weeks time.
Guy Gibson, who formed the squadron and was given the ultimate authority to get the guys together, train then and ultimately lead the raid... by the time he actually took off that night, by all accounts he was physically pretty wrecked. He could barely stand up. He'd seen the doctor the day before the raid, and obviously nobody knew about the raid because it was secret, but the doctor said to him that he should have a week in bed. He just sort of laughed. Then (the doctor) offered him pain killing pills because he had some really bad stress stuff... he could hardly walk. Of course, he couldn't take anything for the pain because it would dull his (reactions).
All that human part of the story would be great to do and makes it a helluva lot more than just a flying film.
QUINT: I know that in the original they changed the shape of the bomb for security/military purposes. I would assume that you're going to have the bomb as it was...
PETER JACKSON: We've already got out bomb built! We went over to England in May and we measured up all the original bombs there and Weta have just finished an exact copy of it. We're about to start building the mechanism to spin it under the plane now. It's one thing to be making movies, which is enjoyable, but I do love all the research and the history and I love building a copy of the bouncing bomb and building airplanes. Just that historical aspect of it is really one of my favorite things.
In this case it's particularly good because Christian (Rivers) gets the hard job of directing the movie and I get all the fun of just helping out with all the research and stuff. I'm having a great time!
Christian's started doing animatics. We haven't got a screenwriter yet. We're just in the process of choosing now that we have the rights squared away. It's a bit like the situation we had making both KONG and LORD OF THE RINGS, there's an aspect to the story that you know will be in the film regardless of how the script develops, so we've started to pre-vis the entire raid and Christian's been working on that for a couple of months now. We're actually able, at the moment, to sit down and watch about half the raid.
QUINT: Is there anything else that has been declassified by the British government that you're able to include?
PETER JACKSON: It's not so much... What's happened in the last 40 or 50 years, which wasn't really easy for the filmmakers in 1955, was that most of the people that were being portrayed were alive still. There's no one being a particularly bad person in this story, but the bureaucracy and the amount of antagonism towards Barnes Wallis when he was developing this bomb was slightly toned down in the original film because some of the people who were antagonistic towards him were obviously alive and they didn't want to embarrass people unnecessarily.
So, the truth about what he had to go through and the hoops he had to jump through and the people that tried to squash the development of the bomb... that story can be told in a way that's slightly more blunt now than it could be told in the '50s.
QUINT: While it's a minor point in the film, I think most people that have seen the original are going to want to know what you're going to call Gibson's dog in the new film.
PETER JACKSON: We're not sure. We haven't really thought about that yet, to be quite honest. We've just been working on the animatics and finding a writer. When we do find a writer, that's obviously going to be one of the topics of conversation. Christian and I haven't really given it much thought.
It's a situation where you're damed if you do and damned if you don't. If you go one way, people are going to say we've sold out to political correctness. If you go the other way then you're obviously going to be inadvertently offending people. So, it's a no-win scenario.
QUINT: I mean, I had always heard about the film and the use of the dog being called "Nigger." What was surprising to me was how integral the dog's name was to the actual raid.
PETER JACKSON: Right, right. It's not even just the name of his dog. It was used as a code word for when they breached the bomb.
QUINT: So, it's not just something you can right away dismiss. You can either be safe and ignore it or you can be historically accurate, you know?
PETER JACKSON: I know. That is the question. I guess it's a decision we don't have to make today. At some point we'll have to make the decision and whenever that happens we'll just see how we feel at the time.
You know, not just the name of the dog, but there is controversy in the whole bombing campaign. There's a lot of antagonism now, especially in the UK and Canada, as well, towards what (the British) did in the war. You know, the fire-bombings of the German's houses, which is absolutely horrific, but I just think it's important... I think there's a job documentary filmmakers should do and anybody is welcome to do a documentary about the Dambusters or the bombing campaign from the perspective of 2006, but we don't really feel it's our job, and I know that Christian feels pretty strongly about this, that we're not wanting to make a movie that tells the story of the Dambusters from the 2006 political perspective.
We want to ground the film in 1943. We want to ground the film in what was happening in England at that time. What were the pressures, what was happening, what the Nazis were doing in 1943, why they had to be stopped, why the war had to end somehow. The world of 1943 is very much where this film is going to be set, not the political world of 2006. That is the job of documentary filmmakers, not feature filmmakers.
QUINT: You said Weta's already build the bomb. I take it you're going to go for the Weta special, miniatures and model work combined with CGI?
PETER JACKSON: Yeah. Richard Taylor's been quietly building a Lancaster bomber, which has actually been a little difficult to hide in the Workshop! (laughs) The Lancaster bomber is a huge plane, so we've been building a Lancaster bomber over the last 2 to 4 months, which is our prototype to make molds from, then we're going to make about 10 more of them.
PETER JACKSON: Yeah, life-sized, yeah. We've got it at Weta Workship at the moment a fullsized Lancaster sitting in pieces and we're taking molds from it and from those molds we'll make fiberglass copies for the fullsized ones for the movie. We finished making a miniature of one of the dams and we've started on the next.
We've known we wanted to do DAMBUSTERS for quite a few months even though we didn't get the rights completely tied up until a few weeks ago, but I knew that HALO was coming up and we needed to devote a lot of the miniature resources... Richard's only got a certain amount of manpower and a certain amount of space and I know that when HALO finally kicked in big time it was going to dominate what they could do at the workshop. So, what I've been doing is getting some of the (work) for DAMBUSTERS to be done over the last few 2 or 3 months while its been quiet.
We've got the Lancaster made now, we've got a bomb made, we've got the first of the miniature dams made and we're just working on the 2nd dam. In terms of what Richard's doing, he's sort of got the bulk of the DAMBUSTERS work finished now, which obviously means he's got everybody free for HALO now.
I've had to just juggle the schedules around a little bit and get things made. I didn't have the luxury of being able to wait until DAMBUSTERS was greenlit to start work because I could see there would be a clash for the resources we've down here.
Anyway, it all worked out well and we're probably going to actually start shooting some of the miniatures for DAMBUSTERS in the next few weeks. One of the reasons we've been doing the animatics for the raid is to start to plan the shots so Christian knows what shots he wants to do. We've got the miniature damn built and we'll start shooting some of the shots. (laughs) This is shooting bits of the movie before we've even written a script for it or even thought about a cast for it. It's an interesting way of making a film.
QUINT: Well, there's no way you're making DAMBUSTERS and not busting a dam.
PETER JACKSON: Not busting a dam, no! And obviously we're not having to lock off what the characters are saying to each other in the plane. We're really just dealing with the wide shots of the planes attacking the dam, so however it's dealt with in the script we know we're going to be doing shots that will be needed for the movie. Alex Funke and the miniature guys are about to start work on the dam attack and Digi (Weta Digital) have been working on it as well. We've got a Lancaster bomber built in the computer, doing quite a bit of research...
It's still very difficult to find the accurate specifications of the bomb and the bomb release mechanism because they modified the bombers to be able to carry this big bomb under the belly, to be able to spin it and then release it. There is 2 or 3 photos that exist of the original, but the British never really kept accurate records of it because it was so secret. I guess if there were records they still haven't really been released.
What's ironic is that one of the planes that took off that night crashed in Germany, was shot down, and the bomb survived. Everybody expected that if a plane did get shot down that the bomb would explode. It was a top secret bomb and the English were actually terrified that if the Germans found the bomb that they would use it against English dams. The English were really terrified that it would give the Germans a way to strike back.
So, they always had the feeling that if a plane was lost, the bomb would explode, but there was actually a plane that did crash and the bomb survived intact. The Germans dismantled it, they drew it, they measured it, they did blueprints of it, which are accessible today. So, the best information about the bomb and how it was used is actually the German's drawings, which is kind of ironic.
QUINT: Has Christian always wanted to direct?
PETER JACKSON: Oh yeah. For sure. Yeah, yeah. He wrote to me when he was a school kid about 15 years ago. He sent me drawings and pictures that he'd done. He'd done sort of science fiction and comic book stuff. He was about 15 years old. I didn't really get any fan mail back then. This was about the time of MEET THE FEEBLES, I guess. I thought this kid was really, really clever and as soon as he left school I got him to come and do storyboards for BRAINDEAD for me.
He's done storyboards for every film. In recent times the storyboards have become computer animatics, they've sort of developed that way. He did some computer animation around the time of THE FRIGHTENERS. He actually spent some time being one of the animators doing the movie after he finished the storyboards and then he's done some second unit directing for us on LORD OF THE RINGS and KONG, some effects stuff. He did some directing of Andy Serkis on KONG, when I couldn't be on the mo-cap stage because I was in the cutting room. Christian was supervising the animation of KONG as a character and he directed Andy.
So, he's just been working his way up, wanting to direct films. You can feel it that it's time now. I was always keen to try to find something for him or something he wanted to do.
Independently of that, I've been tracking DAMBUSTERS for quite a few years. I'd asked my agent what was happening with it about 10 years ago and he said that Mel Gibson was doing it. For a while it disappeared and then a year or two ago I heard that it had resurfaced again and people were talking about a remake. I found out that neither Mel nor Icon was attached to it and Studio Canal inherited the rights. I talked to Christian about it because I just thought that that might be something that might be good for him to do and I was certainly keen to do it. He'd seen the original film and was a fan of the original film.
QUINT: Have you talked about casting at all?
PETER JACKSON: No, we haven't talked about names, but what we have talked about... Our casting conversations have really been about the pilots and flying crew and casting people that were the right age. A couple of the key pilots that night were 20 years old. One of them, an Australian, Les Knight, he couldn't drive a car and he couldn't ride a bike. He didn't know how to ride a bike yet and he didn't have a driver's permit, but he had learned how to fly a Lancaster bomber. He was 20 years old and there were a couple more of them that were 20.
I just think that actors playing those roles... the actors themselves should be 20. I think often in war movies, and you do see it all the time, and sometimes its because people need to cast established names that tend to be older, tend to be late 20s and early 30s... Even the leader of the attack, Guy Gibson, in the original film he was played really brilliantly well by Richard Todd, but I would guess, I'm not sure, but I would guess that Richard Todd was probably 32 or 33 when you see that film. The real Guy Gibson was 25. He was commanding this attack at the age of 25 and commanding 20 year old pilots. I find that remarkable. I just think back to what I was like when I was 20 and I couldn't imagine myself doing what they were doing.
So, our casting discussions have really been about being quite determined to not be putting 35 year olds in these roles, trying to find young actors. There are not many stars who are 20 years old, they just don't really exist, so I would imagine we'll be looking for unknown young actors. We can go with older actors for Barnes Wallis and some of the other characters. That'll be an interesting role to cast, too. Michael Redgrave did such a brilliant job in the original film. Nobody immediately springs to mind for Barnes Wallis...
There you have it, squirts. One last piece of the interview to go. Keep an eye peeled tomorrow night for the final chunk of my interview with Jackson. I'd like to thank everybody for bearing with us during these rather inconvenient growing pains the site has been having this week. Hopefully we'll have all the kinks out of the system soon.