It’s no secret that Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson’s favorite movie of all time is 1933’s King Kong. When he was a boy, long before he changed the filmmaking landscape forever with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson was obsessed with the classic monster film. The scope, the scale, the drama. He even tried to mount his own stop-motion remake as a kid, but only got so far as a few seconds of footage of the climactic Empire State Building finale before he realized he didn’t have the tools (or knowledge) to translate what was in his head to reality.
So when Jackson was first asked if he’d be interested in directing an actual remake of King Kong, he couldn’t quite believe it. Jackson was in the midst of making his first Hollywood movie The Frighteners for Universal Pictures when the studio that owned the rights to King Kong broached the notion of having Jackson tackle a new version. A script was written, models were made, but then one day a few months into prep, it all fell apart. Jackson would immediately move on to Lord of the Rings and get another crack at King Kong in 2005, but this initial version of the monster classic was very different both in tone and story from the lengthy dramatic epic that Jackson would eventually make. This is the story of the Peter Jackson King Kong movie we never saw.
As a filmmaker, Jackson first made waves with his New Zealand creature feature films like Bad Taste and Meet the Feebles, but really gained notice in Hollywood with his 1994 drama Heavenly Creatures — for which he and his partner Fran Walsh were nominated for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. That led directly to Jackson being hired to make the supernatural horror film The Frighteners for Universal. The film starred Michael J. Fox as an architect with the ability to see and converse with ghosts – an ability he uses for financial gain until a malevolent ghost begins killing innocent people.
The success of The Frighteners relied on a blend of practical components and visual effects, and Jackson’s passion for this aspect of filmmaking shone through. During production, Universal was incredibly impressed with the dailies they were seeing, and approached Jackson about directing one of their classic properties they were hoping to revive. One was Creature from the Black Lagoon, which Jackson says he wasn’t interested in, and the other was King Kong. Jackson explained that King Kong was his favorite film of all time, and Universal began mounting a new adaptation under Jackson’s direction.
But given the heat on The Frighteners, at the same time Jackson was also meeting with 20th Century Fox about another ape movie: a Planet of the Apes sequel. The filmmaker had pitched a film called Renaissance of the Planet of the Apes that would be a direct sequel to the other Apes movies and would have seen the return of franchise star Roddy McDowell. As Jackson explains in the excellent Ian Nathan book Anything You Can Imagine, the story would have focused on the apes in a particularly affluent period: “Like Florence or Venice, the Ape World has gained artistic beauty… I was going to have a big, fat orangutan with all the jowls as the Pope. It was a satirical look at religion.” The twist in this version would be that it was all a façade – the apes had plastered over art made by humans and pawned it off as their own.
But Apes offered its own downsides, particularly a lack of creative freedom. James Cameron had signed on to produce and Arnold Schwarzenegger was set to star, and Jackson and Walsh worried about how much studio interference there’d be on such a big franchise.
At the same time, Jackson and Walsh were already deep in development on a two-film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings for Harvey Weinstein and Miramax, after initially being hired to adapt The Hobbit. So here Jackson was, in the middle of making The Frighteners, and he had offers on the table to direct The Lord of the Rings, King Kong, or Planet of the Apes as his next film.
As it came time to make a decision on what was next, it was actually Lord of the Rings that hit the backburner first. Even though Weinstein and Miramax hired Jackson and Walsh to adapt J.R.R. Tolkein’s epic, they were actually still waiting on Weinstein to get the rights to the books. Producer Saul Zaentz owned the rights to Lord of the Rings, but he owed Weinstein a favor – the Miramax head had rescued Zaentz’s The English Patient when the production was in trouble. But Weinstein insisted any part of a deal for Lord of the Rings contractually cut out Zaentz from taking a producer credit. This back and forth had no end in sight, so Jackson and Walsh told Weinstein that they wanted to make King Kong first, then after that they’d make The Lord of the Rings — at which point Weinstein would have hopefully hammered out a rights agreement.
The producer was, unsurprisingly, incensed, and Jackson felt guilty for bailing so he set up a deal for Miramax to partner with Universal on Kong. Weinstein, ever unsatisfied, pushed for a sweetener – he wanted Universal to give Miramax a project that had been languishing, a script called Shakespeare in Love. And so, indirectly, Peter Jackson is responsible for Miramax making Shakespeare in Love and dominating the 1998 Oscars.
So a decision was made: now the road was finally paved for Jackson to make King Kong. He and Walsh spent the second half of 1996 writing the script, which proved to be incredibly different in tone from the version audiences would eventually see in 2005.
“It was sort of flippant,” Jackson says in the making of documentary on the King Kong Blu-ray. “Very Hollywood. It had the same tone as The Mummy, I guess.”
Indeed, Jackson’s frequent collaborator Christian Rivers notes in the same documentary that the 1999 Universal Pictures release The Mummy bears a striking resemblance to Jackson’s original version of King Kong:
“When I saw The Mummy I was like, ‘Did they read the King Kong script?’ It was almost that classic Hollywood adventure-feeling film.”
In hindsight, Jackson saw the tone as too silly, as he explained in Anything You Can Imagine:
“We were desperately trying to write an Indiana Jones type of film. It was lightweight, a silly kind of Hollywood script.”
In Jackson and Walsh’s original version, Jack Driscoll (eventually played by Adrien Brody) is an ex-fighter pilot and World War I veteran suffering from PTSD after the loss of a fellow pilot. But he’s also steadfast and charismatic, not unlike Brendan Fraser’s character in The Mummy. “I remember initially the first time we come across Jack he’s a World War I fighter pilot,” recalls King Kong pre-production CG supervisor Matt Aitken in the making-of doc. “And he and his buddy are up in their biplanes doing baseball practice, chucking a ball and hitting it back to whoever was flying along.”
The comparisons don’t end there, as the story of this version of King Kong revolved around an archaeological dig in Sumatra, with the character of Ann Darrow (eventually played by Naomi Watts) now an archaeologist. “Ann was sort of an upper-class English kind of character,” Rivers explains. “She was the daughter of a lord who was a Bothany archeologist-type.” Ann, Jack, and the documentary filmmaker Carl Denham (eventually played by Jack Black) are on a dig in Sumatra when they uncover an ancient civilization and the idea of this “ape god.”
The character of Carl Denham in this version was more overtly villainous, whereas the Ann Darrow character is more curious – she actively seeks out Kong due to her archaeological interests. Jack, meanwhile, is the swashbuckling hero who in the finale commandeers an old plane and flies around the Empire State Building, trying to protect Kong from other fighter pilots attempting to bring him down.
All of this would change when Jackson finally made King Kong, but most of what did carry over into the 2005 version of King Kong was the set pieces. The Kong vs. Three T. rex fight was in this original version, as was the brontosaurus stampede. But whereas Jackson intended to use CG effects in 1996, he also planned on homaging the other two King Kong movies by bringing in a mechanical hand:
“We were gonna do the classic Kong’s mechanical hand like they had done in the previous versions. I know that Weta Workshop had gotten pretty far advanced with designing and building a mechanical hand rig. We also had a sequence with some crocodiles that attacked a sinking car at one stage, and we were gonna be building mechanical animatronic crocodiles that were gonna be busting in the windows of the slowly sinking vehicle.”
But in January 1997, six or seven months after Jackson and his production team at Weta Workshop began work on King Kong, Universal pulled the plug. There are a few reasons why. First, Universal got too bullish on The Frighteners and instead of sticking to the film’s planned October release date, made it a summer movie – where it subsequently bombed at the box office.
But more strikingly, it was announced that Disney would have the giant ape movie Mighty Joe Young in theaters by 1998, while Independence Day filmmaker Roland Emmerich was making a new Godzilla movie. As Jackson explained, Universal suddenly found itself in last place in a race it didn’t know it was running:
“So Universal were looking at being in third place out of three monster movies, and so at the beginning of 1997 it started to feel wrong. And within a few weeks it just spiraled downhill and it was sort of over.”
Jackson was gutted and had to break the news to his development team, who were hard at work on stop-motion animatics to map out the big set pieces. He knew he needed to find his next project fast to keep the team together, and when he called Weinstein to tell him the news about Kong, the producer bellowed, “We are going to do Rings.” And that they did. By the spring a deal was finally reached with Zaentz for Miramax to land the rights to Tolkein’s classic tome, and while many further battles would lie ahead (including Weinstein’s insistence that they shorten it to one movie), The Lord of the Rings began principal photography in October 1999.
Fast forward four years, a number of Oscar nominations, and billions of dollars in box office later and Universal re-approached Jackson and Walsh about King Kong. They were deep in post-production on The Return of the King at the time and were absolutely exhausted, but Jackson knew this was his chance. Not only to make King Kong, but to do it his way owing to the clout he now had from the Lord of the Rings franchise. And so instead of taking a break, in 2003 he told his team they’d be rolling right into King Kong after wrapping Return of the King, barreling towards a set 2005 release date.
Jackson and Walsh revisited their original script and didn’t like what they saw. They brought in their Lord of the Rings co-writer Fran Walsh to work on a new draft, and essentially reconceived all the characters. Jack went from WWI veteran to brilliant playwright; Ann transformed from an archaeologist into an aspiring actress; and Carl came further into focus as the plot more closely resembled the 1933 original – a film crew stumbles upon Skull Island. The tone, as well, shifted from a swashbuckling adventure movie into a more somber, serious tragedy – with dinosaur fights.
Love it or hate it, Peter Jackson’s final version of King Kong is incredibly reverential to the original film. And it benefitted tremendously from the advance in technology in the ensuing years, as Andy Serkis was able to use what he pioneered with Gollum and double down in his performance as Kong. The film hit its 2005 release date, and while some bemoaned the three-hour runtime, it was a box office hit pulling in over $560 million worldwide. It wasn’t quite the runaway Oscar success of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, but for him remaking King Kong was never about accolades or glory. It was about fulfilling a childhood dream:
“Hindsight’s a wonderful thing. We just learned so much on the Lord of the Rings experience that we were able to apply to Kong… But for me it was always unfinished business. It was a dream that I’d wanted since a kid that had been unfulfilled in a way that wasn’t particularly pleasant back in 1996. I’d always feel a little pang of disappointment that that was the film that I wish I had made that I never did get made.”
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