No right-thinking New Zealander would deny their country owes much to director Peter Jackson. The starring role he gave his homeland’s scenery in the blockbuster Lord of the Rings trilogy did more for its tourism industry than any marketing campaign could hope to achieve.
His decision to build a film empire in his hometown of Wellington, rather than be subsumed into the Hollywood machine, has seen companies such as his special effects studio Weta – an Oscar-winner earlier this month for its game-changing work on Avatar – form the backbone of an industry worth NZ$285m (€150m) to the capital’s economy each year. More tangible to the man on the street is the unlikely dash of glamour the scruffy director’s film-making has brought to a city better known for its gales and dowdy bureaucrats.
So whenever Jackson has sought to turn his hometown into a three-dimensional billboard for his work, he has encountered little resistance. Wellington’s city council, airport, railway station, library – even its newspaper-of-record – cheerily rebranded themselves as “Middle Earth” institutions for the local premiere of the Rings trilogy. Those who might have sensed something tacky in installing a colossal Gollum on the roof of an historic downtown theatre held their spoilsport tongues as more than 100,000 fellow Wellingtonians thronged to see Viggo Mortensen and Liv Tyler walk the red carpet.
But the latest project backed by the director may prove to be nine giant wooden letters too far. When Wellington airport announced this month that, with Jackson’s blessing, it planned to stagger 3.5m-high white letters spelling “WELLYWOOD” on a prominent hill, many hoped that Jackson, whose filmography includes at least one successful hoax on the public, was attempting an early April Fool’s wind-up. Jackson was serious, although the tone of the proposal was not. The sign, he contended, was an example of “Kiwi tongue-in-cheek humour at its very best”, a droll, satirical gesture which was the best way of acknowledging the city’s significance as “the birth place of Middle Earth and Pandora”.
Locals disagreed, vociferously. What worked as a throwaway, deprecatory reference to the city’s cinematic heritage translated to 28m of cultural cringe when inscribed on a hilltop, according to dissenters. They voiced their opposition through polls, social networking campaigns, and a wildly popular online sign generator which allowed critics, using their own take on the national humour, to mock up pointed alternatives to the offending moniker, many of them crudely defamatory of the scheme’s architects.
Despite the swift and unequivocal response, city mayor Kerry Prendergast refused to backtrack, deferring to the superior judgment of the film-maker she described as an epitome of “creativity and innovation”. A challenger to the mayoralty snitched to the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, which pointed out that the proposed sign infringed a protected trademark, and suggested that, if creativity and innovation were qualities the city sought to celebrate, then why not come up with something original?
Neither the dig nor the legal threats have swayed the airport, which, having blundered this far, says it intends to soldier ahead. The sign’s unveiling is scheduled for June. There are already threats to burn it down. For his part, though, Jackson appears to have been chastened by the flap. He has retreated to a media silence, leaving commentators to speculate that the subversive stunts on which he made his name were falling flat now that the one-time outsider had become the comfortable viceroy of his own Hollywood outpost.
“Peter’s said what he thinks, and so has the public of Wellington,” said his spokesman, Matt Dravitzki. For once, they are not in accord, but Jackson need not fret. His account with his townsfolk is very much in credit and, sign or no, all will be forgiven the next time the red carpet rolls down the streets of Wellywood.