Peter Jackson’s debut Bad Taste recently turned thirty. Here’s why every aspiring filmmaker should see it.
These days, Peter Jackson is something of a one-man film industry. Following The Lord of the Rings – one of the best and most successful big-budget Hollywood extravaganzas ever made – he has achieved a rare mogul status in mainstream cinema. He only makes films he wants to make, and he can make them as big as he likes, with the cast and crew he wants. It’s something of a filmmaker’s dream. More than that, he makes them at a remove. Elijah Wood described The Lord of the Rings as ‘the world’s biggest independent film’. A Hollywood budget, but with homespun spirit.
Most recently, Peter Jackson wrote and produced Mortal Engines, which has the unfortunate accolade of being 2018’s most spectacular bomb. Both financially and critically, the film is an uncommon disaster in Jackson’s career. But what might catch the aspiring filmmaker’s eye is less the film’s producer than its director. Christian Rivers, long-time collaborator and friend of Peter Jackson, has never made a feature film before. His first step out of the gate, as it were, is a $100 million+ mega-production with a degree of creative control unusual for even the loosest Hollywood arrangements.
“His career shows that by networking and taking a punt … you can get a foot in the door”
The first reaction might be something of envy. To be given the opportunity to jump from crew to captain would be the dream of many working throughout both the indie and Hollywood scenes. And Christian Rivers is perhaps a great example for some. His career shows that by networking and taking a punt – he was 15 when he first sent Jackson a letter asking for work – you can get a foot in the door and find yourself climbing the ladder. His route to director is not traditional, and shows there are many pathways to that estimable chair.
But more interesting for a budding indie filmmaker might be Peter Jackson himself. Though he entered the collective-consciousness fairly suddenly – a hitherto obscure filmmaker at the head of a multi-million-dollar franchise – his career is not marked by an instant rise to fame. His own debut, 1987’s Bad Taste, started on a $25,000 budget. Jackson and his co-filmmakers raised much of this by working day jobs, and the film itself was made on Sundays across a staggering four years. Far from the illustrious beginnings of a Hollywood darling, Jackson’s cinema was homemade in the most literal sense of the word. The props for his alien villains were baked in his mum’s oven.
“Jackson and his co-filmmakers raised much of [their budget] by working day jobs”
His project later attracted the attention of the New Zealand Film Commission, who offered him a significant sum to complete the film. But even then, Jackson remained a small and strictly independent filmmaker for many years afterward. Though luck cannot be underrated in the film industry, Jackson’s trajectory is just as much a result of years of hard-work and obscurity, a refusal to quit and a passion for the form. This is not an article trying to impart the quickest route to Hollywood stardom, but rather one encouraging aspiring filmmakers to make films despite their context. Have a watch of Bad Taste yourselves – it’s fun, yet far from great. The work of an amateur, but the first step toward both Jackson’s early hits (Braindead) and his later masterworks.
For your own films, it might be worth keeping Bad Taste in mind. A few filmmakers have the luck of a quick leap to fame, or a masterpiece early in their careers. This can be discouraging, even debilitating for a filmmaker looking to start strong. But for every Citizen Kane there are countless Bad Tastes, or otherwise, disasters like Kubrick’s Fear and Desire. Rather than starting strong, the best advice to would-be filmmakers is simply, and emphatically, to start. The strength will come later.