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Peter Jackson on directing ‘The Beatles: Get Back,’ and getting way, way back

A scene from "The Beatles: Get Back."Apple Corps Ltd.

Peter Jackson’s six-hour film, “The Beatles: Get Back,” premieres, in three parts, Nov. 25, 26, and 27, exclusively on Disney+. It’s a remake, of sorts, of the 81-minute 1970 documentary “Let It Be,” which chronicled the writing and recording of that album in January 1969, and ended with the celebrated rooftop concert.

No, a better way to put it is that “Get Back” is a fresh approach to assembling and shaping the 56 hours of film and 130 hours of audiotape that were shot and recorded for what became “Let It Be.”

But the fact that Jackson directed “Get Back” is kind of a fluke. Best known for the epic fantasy trilogies “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit,” he also has on his résumé the little-seen mockumentary “Forgotten Silver” (1995) and the 4½-hour “The Making of ‘The Frighteners” (1998), and he was still at work on his World War I documentary, “They Shall Not Grow Old,” when a right time/right place scenario developed.

Peter Jackson in 2018. Photographer: ANTHONY HARVEY/AFP

While in London in 2017, researching old footage for “They Shall Not Grow Old,” he was invited by Apple Corps executives to stop by for a chat about a proposed Beatles-related virtual reality museum show. The show never happened, but during their talk, Jackson — an avid Beatles and “Let It Be” fan — casually asked what had happened to the outtakes from that film. Short answer: They were all in a vault and ideas had been floated about doing something with it. Result: He got the gig.


Jackson, 60, recently spoke about “Get Back” on a Zoom call from his home in Wellington, New Zealand.

Q. Let’s get the record straight. Were you offered this job or did you go after it?

A. The meeting at Apple was with [CEO] Jeff Jones and [director of production] Jonathan Clyde. They were in the late stages of making “Eight Days a Week” with Ron Howard, and they said the next film they might look at making is a documentary based on the “Let It Be” outtakes. I said, “Well, if you’re looking for somebody, I’d like to volunteer.”


Q. “Let It Be” has never been available on DVD, and only had sporadic showings over the years, yet it has a reputation for being a real downer, of showing the Beatles in discord. Did the outtakes prove otherwise?

A. I’ve been a Beatles fan for 40 years, and all the books I’d read and all the interviews I’d seen make you believe that it was the most miserable period of time. I didn’t want to make that movie. So I asked to see the footage, which they had already transferred from 16mm film to video. I extended my stay in London for another week and I came to Apple and sat there in the office for nine hours every day, just watching it on a TV. I only got through half of it, and I kept waiting for all the nasty stuff to start happening, waiting for the arguments and the rows and the fights, but I never saw that. It was the opposite. It was really funny.

Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, and John Lennon in "The Beatles: Get Back."Linda McCartney

Q. The trailer makes it look like it’s about a race against time, trying to get the new album ready before doing the live show. Did you construct the film to tell a story?


A. Yes. We talked to Paul and Ringo; we talked to [”Let It Be” director] Michael Lindsay-Hogg, and to Glyn Johns, who was the sound engineer. We talked to cameramen and sound recorders, to as many people as we could find in order to get as accurate a record of what happened during that month. We decided the best and most obvious way to tell the story is just day by day, one at a time, consecutively. So, we experience it as they experience it. For a while they’ve got a plan to do this, and then the plan derails, and then they change their plans, and that derails. It’s pretty much the story of a band that sets out to appear for a live concert — a concert that never happens. And the film ends with a concert that does happen that was never planned. So, it certainly has a shape to it.

Q. What was the challenge of having to work within the constraints of footage someone else shot 50 years ago, as opposed to being able to pick your own shots?

A. You go into it knowing what that is, so there’s no point of me thinking why didn’t they shoot this, why didn’t they shoot that. And I was in constant contact with Michael Lindsay-Hogg. I would e-mail him and ask questions about certain things, like, “Is this what really happened?” or “What was the thought behind certain things?” He’s been very helpful, and he’s got a pretty good memory of it.


Q. What have Paul and Ringo had to say about all of this?

A. I would go to LA from time to time, and I would go to Ringo’s house with an iPad to show him some of the footage, and we would laugh and talk about it. I showed the full 45 minutes of the rooftop concert to [George Harrison’s widow] Olivia and [John Lennon’s son] Sean, and they were very happy to see that. Paul initially thought the whole rooftop concert would not be worth seeing, because they do some of the songs two or three times. They were trying to record tracks for an album, and they were playing live on the roof, with the 8-track [recording] machines in the basement. So, if they make a mistake, or they duff something up, they’d do a second or third take. He didn’t think anyone would want to watch that stuff, but it’s there and it’s great and really compelling.

Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and George Harrison in "The Beatles: Get Back."Apple Corps Ltd.

Q. Is it true that you haven’t used any footage from “Let It Be,” and what we see in “Get Back” is alternate takes?

A. There are several minutes in both films that are the same, but they’re sprinkled throughout, where the scene was critical and there were no other options. But I wanted “Let It Be” to exist as a film of its own, and I wanted this movie to be about the making of “Let It Be” without just repeating everything that Michael used. And there was so much other footage I could choose from, anyway. He has a sequence where they’re doing “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and we have a sequence of them doing “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” But our sequence is from Day Four, and he used Day Five.


Q. In the footage I saw, there’s a gag about Jimmie Nicol, Ringo’s temporary replacement when he got tonsillitis. But there’s no explanation about him. That’s a pretty obscure reference.

A. I had to decide on who am I making this movie for. I tried to make it enjoyable for people that were never interested in the Beatles, and I think they’ll still find it fascinating to watch. But there’s also a lot of insider Beatles stuff there that will go over most people’s heads. That’s for the Beatles fans.

Q. Were there any moments of self-doubt? Did you ever think: I’m making a documentary about the most iconic band in the world . . . what have I gotten myself into?

A. There was pressure on me the whole time. One of the things that I, as a fan, know very well about the Beatles is that they never wanted to release a project that was substandard. I was very much aware that it had to be as good as it could possibly be. This wasn’t a guy making just another documentary out of stock footage from Reuters or Pathé, without the Beatles’ approval. This is an official Beatles project that I’m shepherding. It wasn’t anything they told me. They didn’t put this pressure on me. I just knew, as a Beatles fan, that, boy, the Beatles never shortchanged anybody. They always delivered the goods, they always delivered something great. And that’s what I had to do.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.