Like any classic film worth its salt, the original 1933 "King Kong" has its little unsolved mysteries. Most notorious is the missing spider-pit sequence. Co-directors Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack's first cut of "Kong" featured a scene on Skull Island--the famous ape's jungle pied-a- terror--in which several men tumble into a chasm and get devoured by giant arachnids. It was screened for an audience only once. Cooper later said that he dropped the scene for "pacing" reasons; no one crucial to the plot falls into the pit and the directors wanted to get on with his story. According to legend, though, there was another reason: the scene made several people barf. In any case, Cooper dumped it, and no one has seen it since.
Before he won a raft of Oscars for "The Lord of the Rings," before he stunned the art-house crowd with the 1994 drama "Heavenly Creatures," Peter Jackson, New Zealand's favorite son, directed a series of demented, low-budget horror films that seemed designed to make people barf. Repeatedly. For Jackson, one of the biggest perks of re-creating "Kong," which turned him into a filmmaker for life at the age of 9, was the chance to do his own spider-pit scene--and this time show it to the world. He even came up with a way to make the scene relevant: he tossed his two leading men, played by Jack Black and Adrien Brody, into the pit. "I didn't want to be tempted to cut it if the movie got too long," he says. "This way, I couldn't cut it." Jackson's take on the scene is deliciously icky, though it might not make anyone retch. Then again, there is this one part where a guy gets his head bitten off by an eight-foot slug. "Well," says Jackson, "he doesn't so much get it bitten off. It's more like his head gets swallowed and digested by acidic juices and it slowly dissolves into a sort of creamy pulp."
Now is probably a good time to mention that Jackson's epic, $207 million remake of "King Kong," is a surprisingly tender, even heartbreaking, film. Like the original, it's a tragic tale of beauty and the beast. Unlike the original, which was 100 minutes long, Jackson's version is a Kong-size three hours. "A few people have already asked me why we're taking twice as long to tell essentially the same story," says the director. "And I don't really know. We've been asking that ourselves. I'm going to have to come up with a better answer." May we cut in? The best answer--the only answer, really--is the movie itself. Earlier this month, Jackson invited NEWSWEEK to New Zealand for an exclusive first look at the finished (OK, nearly finished) product, and he proved once again that he might be the only guy whose films are worth getting on a plane and flying halfway around the planet to see. If the 44-year-old Kiwi felt any pressure over following up "The Lord of the Rings," you won't find a hint of it on screen. Some critics will complain that the film's length is an act of Oscar-drunk hubris, but while "Kong" may be indulgent, it's not pretentious. And it's certainly never dull. Jackson has honored his favorite film in the best possible way: by recapturing its heart-pounding, escapist glee.
The movie's plot, which Jackson fleshed out with Fran Walsh, his life partner, and Philippa Boyens, his screenwriter and next-door neighbor, will sound familiar to "Kong" fans. Maverick filmmaker Carl Denham (Black) loses the lead actress in his new adventure flick at the last minute, so he plucks off the street a beauty named Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts, in the role made iconic by Fay Wray), then puts her on a boat with his devoted crew and sets sail for the mysterious Skull Island. (Denham tries to keep their destination a secret, but one crew member eventually demands to know. "It has a local name," Denham says. "I'm warning you, it doesn't sound good.") After a bumpy arrival, the crew runs into some trouble with the natives, and then some serious trouble with the island's resident alpha male: a 25-foot gorilla with a nasty temper and a weakness for blondes. There are only two differences from the original that are crucial to note. Ann's love interest, Jack Driscoll (Brody), was the ship's first mate in the 1933 version; this time around, he is Denham's screenwriter, an Arthur Miller type who learns that if you want to get the girl, actions speak louder than words--even for a writer. The other major difference is Kong.
Jackson's updated ape is still king of the jungle, but he's getting a bit long in the snaggletooth. In human terms, he's pushing 50. His jaw is offset and his right eyebrow droops from long-ago scrapes with dinosaurs. His fur is matted and mucky, with bald patches here and there from the scar tissue. And he's developing a potbelly. "Peter really wanted a sense that Kong is old and grizzled and scarred," says Boyens, "because it tells a story of being alone. And of having to survive in the most dangerous place on earth." Kong's existence is pure brutality--until Ann comes along. "She sparks his curiosity," says Jackson. "It's the first time he's ever empathized with another living creature." Ann, thinking the rest of her shipmates are dead, comes to depend on Kong for protection. Their relationship is poignantly drawn--although after Kong is dragged to New York City in chains, there's a scene on a frozen pond in Central Park that tilts toward the corny. It must have made Jackson impatient, too. He ends it abruptly with a giddy blast of artillery fire.
To create Kong, Jackson reassembled essentially the same team that produced Gollum--a group led by visual-effects supervisor Joe Letteri and creature captain Gino Acevedo, who finally got to make use of the scrapbook of gorilla photos he's been keeping since he was a kid. So it's no surprise that they've worked another miracle. Actor Andy Serkis, who "played" Gollum, is also back for more, taking on Kong this time. Once again, he puts a big, thumping heart inside a digital body. To prepare for the role, Serkis asked Jackson if he could fly to Rwanda and study gorillas in their natural habitat. Jackson, fearing for Serkis's safety, said no. "I told him, 'Just go to the zoo.' Then one day we got a phone call from Andy in Rwanda. I thought, 'Oh, the bastard's gone there without permission!' Andy was just unstoppable." Serkis spent three weeks in the mountains at a gorilla preserve and got tight with one of the animals there, a female named Zaire. "She fancied me," he says with pride. "She got very jealous when my wife came to visit. She actually threw a bottle of water at her." (Lesson one: if a gorilla fancies you, don't let her know you're seeing someone else.)
Jackson's talent with digital creatures tends to overshadow the fact that he's pretty deft with humans, too. Watts, with those honest eyes, is the soul of the film. "I think Naomi is a fantastic actress," says Walsh, "and if you have anything less than fantastic in that role, the film probably won't work. She has a kind of courage about finding something meaningful to her and bringing it into the film. And it never feels like she's drawing on a bag of tricks." She is also, as Jack Black helpfully points out, hot, and well paired with her romantic leading man. "Adrien and Naomi--I wanna see them get it on," he says.
Black, meanwhile, is the surprise pick. Jackson and Walsh first thought of him during the Christmas holiday of 2003, when their two young children watched "School of Rock" no fewer than 25 times. What caught their eye was Black's talent for playing "an obsessive, rascally character," says Jackson. That dovetailed with their take on Denham: a born adventurer, just like the guy in the 1933 film, but far more vainglorious and even a bit of a con man. Jackson's Denham is a blend of a 1930s expeditionary filmmaker (like Merian Cooper, the basis for the original Denham) and the young Orson Welles, who once accepted money to direct a film and then went off and shot a completely different one without telling his investors. Black seemed perfect. "But we didn't want to officially approach him until we figured out if he was a nice guy," says Jackson. So during the 2004 awards season, when Black was making the rounds for "School of Rock" and Jackson and Walsh were promoting "Return of the King," "we kept trying to engineer these little collisions with Jack at public events," he says. "We'd go, 'I think he's headed toward the door! Quick! Move!' We'd cut across his path and I'd go, 'Oh, Jack! Hi! I'm Peter, this is Fran. Loved 'School of Rock!' We were doing reconnaissance. Surveillance. Stalking."
Nearly two years later, on a crisp afternoon in Wellington, Jackson is curled up on a sofa with a cup of tea at his sprawling postproduction studio, built with some of the $3 billion spoils of "Lord of the Rings." He's barefoot as usual, and looks alarmingly tired. Just 14 days remain before he must deliver his finished film to Universal, and he still has miles to go. Since the world last saw him collecting Oscar after Oscar for "Return of the King," he's dieted and lost nearly 70 pounds. He still looks quite hobbity, but he's more Frodo now, less Sam Gamgee. "I was just tired of being heavy, tired of being unwell," he says. "I'm not unwell anymore, but I am still tired."
He's earned a rest. Jackson's "Kong" laps the 1933 movie in virtually every department yet still manages to leave you in awe of the pioneering original. Even when prodded, Jackson can't bring himself to criticize Cooper and Schoedsack's work. "I wouldn't use the word 'flaws'," he says, after a reporter does just that. Yes, the original's "oonga-boonga" depiction of the island natives is flat-out racist--but their presence is essential to the story. Jackson's solution is to throw logic at the problem: the natives have gone from laughably primitive to downright vicious. Which makes sense. If you were stuck on an island with killer dinosaurs and giant gorillas, you'd be edgy too.
At this juncture, not even "Kong," which opens on Dec. 14, will be able save Hollywood from a lame year at the box office, but it will ensure that 2005 wraps up with a few exclamation points. Of course, Walsh, the trio's mordantly funny voice of doom, isn't convinced yet. She chalks it up to being raised in New Zealand, where you are taught to disdain those who show too much pride in their work. She and Boyens are even a little embarrassed about all those Oscars. "Someone said to me, 'My god, it must feel amazing to have an Oscar in your house'," says Boyens. "And I said, 'Well, yeah, but my neighbors have six.' I couldn't help but undercut myself a little bit." Walsh got so self-conscious about those six statuettes in her and Jackson's home that she stuck Post-it notes on them and gave each one a name: Brent, Trevor, Neville, Muzza, Dion and Lysander. Of the three filmmakers, Boyens is the boastful one--but only on behalf of her friends. Over dinner and a few glasses of white wine at an Italian restaurant in downtown Wellington, she lavishes praise on her boss. "I know I shouldn't say this," she begins, "but when other directors see this movie, they're going to f---ing give up ." Forgive her. She's smitten. "Kong" may not drive any filmmakers into a career crisis, but one thing is for sure: they'll all be taking notes.