We celebrate Peter Jackson’s cheekiest movie, Forgotten Silver...
WORDS: NICK DE SEMLYEN
Ironically, Forgotten Silver is a film that seems to have been forgotten itself. Available via iTunes in Australia, here in the UK your only way of getting hold of a copy is to order one from www.costabotes.co.nz (or, if you still have a VHS player, Amazon). But this is no abstract curio. It’s a hilarious mockumentary, co-directed by one of the most successful filmmakers working today, Peter Jackson. A tongue-in-cheek celebration of the life of New Zealand auteur director Colin McKenzie (who never existed), it was put together by Jackson and co-conspirator Costa Botes (pictured, above left) with such precision and wit that it fooled almost everyone who saw it when it was released in 1995. To mark the film’s 20th anniversary, we spoke to Botes to get the whole crazy story…
The Making Of...
It begins with an image as innocent as could be: a cherubic Peter Jackson standing in a kempt garden, hands behind his back. He explains that he's in Pukerua Bay, four doors down from his parents' house, at the abode of his "Auntie Hannah". He then wanders towards a shed, where it transpires he's discovered a chest filled with film cans, the works of a forgotten Kiwi auteur by the name of Colin McKenzie.
It's fascinating stuff. Except every word Jackson has uttered is a lie. The film is Forgotten Silver, and the house in question belongs to the babysitter of co-director Costa Botes. We're not in Pukerua Bay. And neither Auntie Hannah nor Colin McKenzie actually exist. Jackson is literally leading us up the garden path.
"Peter was in full Alan Whicker mode there, which he's extremely good at," says Botes now, having driven Empire out to that self same Wellington lawn for a personal tour. "But we didn't expect anyone to really fall for it. So I was genuinely surprised about what happened when the film came out..."
The genesis of Forgotten Silver goes back to April Fool's Day, 1977, when a film called Alternative 3 aired on New Zealand TV. Botes was watching. "The gist of it was a reporter in a raincoat pursuing the mystery of all these rocket scientists who have disappeared," he says. "Gradually a vast conspiracy is uncovered, revealing they've been sent to the moon to work in a lab. By the end you were going, 'This is definitely crap', but it was so well done. It was all anyone at school was talking about the next day."
Years later, he'd see The Cinema Of Raymond Fark, a mockumentary by Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy) about a B-movie director responsible for such classics as CIA Swamp Virgins. Finally, Botes began toying with the notion of crafting a faux -doc of his own. He considered doing one about UFOs. Then a better idea struck: why not invent a brilliant filmmaker, a man who hopped from genre to genre, making cinematic history as he went? Colin McKenzie was born.
"It was just an amusing notion, really," says Botes. "I thought it would be incredible to tell the whole life of a man through the story of his films. I didn't think there was any serious likelihood of it getting made. But I had met Peter Jackson on the set of Worzel Gummidge Down Under, and mentioned the idea to him on the phone. And the thing about Peter is that he makes things seems possible."
Jackson, a Buster Keaton fanatic, was instantly hooked by the prospect of shooting some silent comedy of his own, in the form of McKenzie's collaborations with a horrid funnyman named Stan The Man. So despite the fact he was gearing up to make The Frighteners, when the New Zealand Film Commission and TVNZ abruptly greenlit Botes' treatment, the two joined forces.
Colin McKenzie, a sort of camera-wielding Zelig, is a hilarious creation. He accidentally invents the close-up. He makes film stock out of egg whites (requiring "2,000 dozen eggs" to make a single feature). He even releases the world's first picture with sound, 1908's The Warrior Season. Yet he's dogged at every turn by dumb decisions and stupendous ill luck. The actors in The Warrior Season, for instance, are Chinese, and McKenzie doesn't think to add subtitles. Cue a flop of Biblical proportions.
Speaking of which, McKenzie's grandest folly is Salome, a four-hour Old Testament epic that out-Intolerances Intolerance. "Colin is driven to build a lost city in the middle of the New Zealand wilderness," says Botes. "Which is a fun idea, but it seemed impossible: 'How the hell can we make anything this big?' Weta Digital is what really made it happen."
Clockwise from upper left: Peter Jackson has a wheely good time on set; Jackson goes all Cecil B. DeMille with a prop megaphone; Botes wonders what he's got himself into.
Jackson's newly founded effects house came to the rescue with a few cunningly placed and artfully degraded shots, a vast army of extras here, a towering temple there. The illusion is really sold, though, by a strand in which Jackson and Botes journey through the bush on a quest to uncover the colossal abandoned set. When they locate it and head inside like Indy at the beginning of Raiders, they find more McKenzie artifacts in a chest. Significantly, said chest is adorned with a giant bull.
The final touch was a trio of celebrity talking heads. Harvey Weinstein had picked up the US rights for Heavenly Creatures. Sam Neill had approached Jackson to interview him for a film called Cinema Of Unease. As for film critic Leonard Maltin, his wife was close friends with the wife of Rick Baker, a Jackson pal. All three lie to camera like absolute pros, though the film would no doubt have benefited from the addition of Quentin Tarantino, whom Weinstein suggested but Botes declined. "This was before Pulp Fiction and I said, 'Nobody will have heard of him...'"
QT or no, when Forgotten Silver finally aired on TV there was a powerful reaction. Only not the kind its directors had expected. "I'd thought there might be a bit of confusion, but that everyone would rapidly twig, given the absurdity of the events shown," says Botes. "Instead, a lot of people fell for it. I got a call that night from a highly regarded New Zealand educator, who said, 'That was the best programme I've ever seen. My wife and I were just enthralled.' And as the effusion went on, it suddenly dawned on me that we could be in some trouble here."
When the truth came out, many people felt foolish, not least the film-studies professor who told his students he'd known about McKenzie for a while. Botes and Jackson got complaints, hate mail, even death threats. Since then, Forgotten Silver has gone from hot potato to cult classic, difficult to get hold of but worth the hunt.
"We truly weren't trying to fuck people off," Botes reflects. "It never crossed our minds that anyone would take it so seriously. I mean, stealing 2,000 dozen eggs? A giant combine harvester running a projector? It really was just a mountain of bullshit!"
Some of the complaints that flooded in when Forgotten Silver aired (click to enlarge).
Thomas Robins: Q&A
He’s played Thorin’s dad, Gollum’s hand and the real-but-not-real hero of Forgotten Silver. We talk to Peter Jackson’s lucky charm…
How did you first meet Peter?
My first ever audition was for Heavenly Creatures. I was 17 or 18, and had never done anything. I was thrown into this scene with the gorgeous young Kate Winslet. I had to play this pimply teen, Kevin, and do this funny scene with her. It was Kevin’s birthday party and I had to try to woo her because her parents were worried she was falling in love with a girl. Kate was really cool and we got on really well for that one day. But I got cut from the film. A bit later, I was catching up with Richard Taylor about doing some Claymation or something, and I bumped into the editor. He went, "Oh, I know you!" And I proudly puffed out my chest and said, "I'm in the film you're cutting." And he went, "Oh yeah, yeah... your scene got cut!" It was terrible social skills and he obviously saw my face collapse. He took me into the edit suite, pulled rolls of film out of a bin, and showed me my scene. It's the only time I've ever seen it.
Thomas as Déagol in The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King
Obviously you’d done something right, because you bagged the lead role in Forgotten Silver a few years later…
I think it was out of a little guilt that Pete picked me to play Colin McKenzie. I suddenly got a call saying he wanted to cast me in this secret project. I doubt very much it was from my magnificent acting skills — if they were so magnificent I would still be acting! But I got that call and that's how it happened. Forgotten Silver was like one big photoshoot for me, really, so they could make the fake photographs for the film. The first scene I did was Colin McKenzie's death, when he gets shot. "Nice to meet you. Today we're shooting your death." (Laughs) It was all so surreal and hush-hush. But it was like being in this magical kingdom of props and fun old-fashioned sets and wardrobe. I remember the bendy swords for the big fights and people chained up for the John the Baptist scenes. That stuff was all so cool. Costa [Botes] and Peter were doing their thing and having a lot of laughs.
A lot of people got duped by Forgotten Silver when it came out. You must have been at the centre of that…
Yeah. I remember watching it in Napier, which is four hours north of Wellington, with my parents and a good friend of ours. And she was buying it, even though I was sitting there next to her! It's extraordinary; I couldn't quite figure it out. People got furious. I was driving around just after the film came out, with a talk radio station on. And it was hilarious, hearing people calling in to complain about the hoax. One guy said, "I'm paying my license with Monopoly money!" There was a lot of feedback from people who were upset. But it was funny, you know?
Since then, you haven’t acted much, but you have popped up in a lot of small roles in Peter Jackson films, including Gollum’s hand in The Fellowship Of The Ring…
Again, as much as I’d like to think it’s my stunning acting abilities, I think it’s just that Peter is a loyal guy. The most rewarding was playing Sméagol’s brother, Déagol, in The Return Of The King. It was originally going to be a very short scene, a 45-second flashback in the middle of Fellowship. Then it was going to be in Two Towers, and finally it moved to the final film. Luckily for me, I was not only doing that scene with Andy [Serkis], who as we all know is amazing, but it became the film’s opening sequence. It felt like every frame we shot was used. I honestly feel like I’m the one actor who was lucky enough to have his entire performance in the film. I went to the premiere with my wife Susan, and it was a real buzz to see that open the film. The fight was a painful thing to shoot – I remember being in agony in the shower afterwards. Andy and I just went for it!
You also have a tiny cameo in the Hobbit trilogy…
I did play the young Thráin for a few days. The other actor (Mike Mizrahi) wasn't available for the flashback scenes. And once again, no audition required! (Laughs) It was a really heavy prosthetic, so nobody recognised me doing that. The only thing showing of me was my right eye, which is my bad eye. I couldn't have glasses and to make things worse they put a blue contact lens in. So I was stumbling around — it was really full-on and claustrophobic. But I had fun. I came in right at the end, when everyone else was getting pretty tired, and was bouncing around because I was so excited.
Will there be more Thomas Robins cameos to come?
Right now I’m running a production company (KHF Media) with David Stubbs. We did a web series called Reservoir Hill, an interactive thriller where you can actually send a text message to the heroine, and we won an Emmy award for it, which was huge for us. Pete actually wished us luck on the night, which was really nice of him. But I don’t keep up with him. He’s in his own massive world and we’re doing local stuff. Hopefully there’s more to come. I haven’t had a lot of acting roles, but I’ve had really cool ones. And it’s nice to see Pete every seven years or so!