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The Lovely Bones - Peter Jackson UK Press Conference interview

Peter Jackson directs The Lovely Bones

Interview by Rob Carnevale

PETER Jackson outlines some of the many challenges of adapting Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones for the big screen, including why he viewed it as more of a love story than a murder thriller. He also talks about why the book’s themes appealed to him and how The Hobbit is progressing…

Q. You’ve described this film as your biggest challenge yet – can you elaborate on this statement?
Peter Jackson: I don’t think we thought it would be as difficult as it was when we started, but it’s an incredible book that affects you emotionally when you read it but the book itself is not really structured like a film. So, it became a challenge to figure out how to re-organise the events in the book so that they were more film friendly, which you unfortunately need to do. So, adapting the book was, I think, the hardest thing that we’ve ever done in our lives. It was a difficult job to do it.

Q. What was the toughest element of it?
Peter Jackson: It was everything because the story is one of those wonderful stories that defies a genre. You can’t really label it as one particular thing or another, which is why it appealed but it also makes for a very difficult film because everybody likes movies to be packaged as a particular genre, this is a so-and-so film or a horror film or a thriller. This movie doesn’t really allow itself to be labelled in quite that way, the story itself. So, figuring out how you take the book which affected us emotionally, and how you try to preserve what it was that was so powerful about the book because it’s so easy to slip away in the process of making a film.

Q. What were the choices you had to make in depicting the terrible crime at the heart of this story?
Peter Jackson: It was always important to us really that the film should be a film about love, about Susie’s adventure and the way that people have to relate to the fact that she’s dead and re-adjust their lives. We didn’t really want the film to be defined as a murder film, and we also wanted it to be a PG-13 or 12A, so we set out with that in mind. We also didn’t want the film to be disturbing in that way. It was ultimately a pretty easy decision because to us the film wasn’t about a murder, it was about the events that happen after the murder really.

Q. How did young Saoirse Ronan and Stanley Tucci prepare for the shooting of the pivotal scene between them in the cornfield?
Peter Jackson: Obviously, the tension that’s in the scene wasn’t really on set, and in a way that’s how I prefer to work, I don’t really want to be shooting a tense scene and have the set full of anxiety because it doesn’t really help. So, we tried to keep it kind of light and professional and talk about the things we were trying to achieve and how best to achieve it and at the end of the day it’s great that the scene is powerful but ultimately it took us about a day and a half or two days to shoot and it’s very particular because you’re moving the camera round and getting different shots, so it becomes a very mechanical process really.

Q. Was Stanley quite accessible during that scene?
Peter Jackson: I know that it was very tough for him filming that scene. He did have some quiet time, to himself. To be having to act that character in any very truthful way he’s obviously got to live the moment because his eyes have to show what that character’s thinking and I think Stanley found that pretty hard.

Q. As a parent yourself, how do you deal with the darkness at the heart of this story? And has it changed your attitude to dealing with your own kids?
Peter Jackson: Yeah, it certainly makes you appreciate how fortunate we are. The thing with the movie, too, it does show you how quickly things can turn around and disaster can come upon you, which is how life works. We feel that the movie is a positive movie for young kids to see. We have a daughter who’s 12 and we’ve shown her the film and she said: “Dad, if it was me I would have gone down there with Mr Harvey too!” So, she is already thinking about if she found herself in that particular circumstance. I think it’s good that that particular aspect of things can be portrayed in a way. And, ultimately, we wanted to have the film feel sort of positive too. That was very important for us.

Q. How difficult was it, logistically, getting the cast together? And how easy was it casting the role of Mr Harvey?
Peter Jackson: It was a fantastic experience casting the film because we got to work with people that we’d been fans of for a long time. And Stanley [Tucci] was in that group. We’d seen Stanley in many, many films playing a whole range of characters, and he was an actor that we had our sights on and hoped to work with one day. So, when Mr Harvey came up we thought of him, and then it was a case of having to persuade him to do it. I think it was very close. He says that he almost turned it down but once he was able talk to us about the physicality of the character, and I think he felt that he could look at himself in the mirror, if he could not see himself but he could see Harvey I think it gave him a sense of comfort.

Q. How did you go about doing that?
Peter Jackson: He’s got the hair and the pale skin and the contacts and things, so I think creating the physicality of the character was important to Stanley but I know it was tight. We had to talk him into doing the film. It was pretty tough.

Q. Whose idea was the Zero Mostel hairstyle for the character?
Peter Jackson: It was pretty much Stanley. He talked to us but he had an image. Once he’d decided to play the character I think it was important to him to be able to look in the mirror and not see Stanley but see Mr Harvey, so he had the comb over hair thing which was his idea, and the moustache. And the teeth, he had a little set of false teeth.

Q. Can you talk us through the process of adapting the books, which subplots you chose to leave out and the characters you were prioritising for the film?
Peter Jackson: It’s a very difficult question, once you’re faced with adapting the book. It’s not a science, but if you’re going to take a novel and be faithful to every character and every sub plot a movie is going to be five hours long or six hours. So, it’s always a process of having to reduce it. Adapting is always reduction anyway, or it seems to be from our experience. It was a case really of just deciding on what the main momentum of the film was going to be and then making sure that all the characters that we had, and the subplots that we had, helped to support that main story thread.

Unfortunately, in a film there’s often not room for entire subplots that aren’t connected with the main story, so I guess that’s probably the main thing that we had to do, to adapt the book we had to make sure that the many characters that we had and their storylines were all related to the main central storyline.

Q. Could you talk about the choice of Brian Eno as your composer?
Peter Jackson: Sure, my partner Fran [Walsh] who I write the script and produce with, she’s a music person. My music tastes start with The Beatles and stop with The Beatles. But Fran has a much broader palate than me. We wanted, originally, to do a Scorsese style soundtrack where we didn’t have so much of a score but we had songs from that period of 1972-73. Brian Eno came up, because Fran had selected two or three of his songs, I think The Big Ship, Baby’s On Fire and one more. As part of the process of getting permission to use the songs, we contacted Brian to explain why we wanted to use the songs. He came back to us and said he liked the book, because I think he was curious about the project. He asked if we would consider him for the soundtrack.

Obviously, we were completely thrilled because he does occasional film scores, but very, very rarely. So, Brian basically worked on the film. We showed him cuts of the movie, we sent him cinema imagery. He didn’t really want to score the movie in a traditional way. The way that we’re used to working is you cut the movie and when you’ve got something approaching the final cut your composer comes in and he scores it precisely to every single beat of the film. It’s very much a precision job. But Brian wanted to do much more of a loose soundtrack, with more emotional themes and things. He wasn’t so much worried about scoring to the film cut itself, but he wanted to see imagery from the film itself to inspire thoughts and ideas. It was actually great, it was a really interesting way to work, and he gave us permission to chop his score around to make it fit the picture ultimately.

Q. Do you believe in the afterlife?
Peter Jackson: I think I do, that’s my answer, I think I do. I’m not certain. Whenever I doubt it and think that maybe there’s not anything else hear stories from people I believe who’ve had experiences with people that have passed on. Some of the stories that I’ve heard have been really compelling and really give you pause to think that there has to be something. Really, I guess where I land in the whole thing I don’t believe in religion particularly, but I think everybody should be free and able to believe in whatever they want. It’s very, very important, it’s a fundamental right that people should have. But I do think that there’s probably some scientific thing… I can’t believe that we’re who we are because of brain cells or whatever it is. I think that there’s some kind of energy that’s a spirit or a soul or whatever you want to call it that survives after we die. What it’s like I have no idea, there’s a version of it in the movie but I can’t swear that it’s 100% accurate. I saw a ghost once… actually. And it was a genuine, real experience. Whatever I saw was certainly something very interesting.

Q. Tell us more…
Peter Jackson: Very quickly, it was in New Zealand, and it was an apartment that Fran had. When I first met Fran about 20 years ago she was in this apartment and I spent the night there one night. I woke up in the morning and there was a figure in the room. She was really scary, she had a screaming face, like a silent scream. Very accusatory. She was a lady, about 50-years-old, and it was terrifying actually. She was at the end of the bed and she glided across the room and she disappeared into the wall. I sat in bed and wondered if I had really seen that. And then Fran came in. I said: “I think I’ve seen a ghost…” And I swear I had never spoken with her about this before, but the first thing she said was: “Was it the woman with the screaming face?” I said: “Yeah!”

And Fran had seen the same woman in the same room about two years earlier. And then about three or four years ago, and this is weird because that was 20 years ago, but three or four years ago there was a theatre called the St James Theatre which was being renovated across the street from the apartment. It was about 100 years old and it used to have vaudeville shows, and they talked about the legend of the woman who committed suicide in the theatre when she was booed off the stage after a bad vaudeville show.

The newspaper story said that this woman manifests herself… sometimes she’s seen in the dressing rooms of the theatre as a spectre with a screaming face. So, that was three different experiences all with the same ghost, in the same area over a period of about 17 years. It was something weird.

Q. So many of your films feature young female characters in turmoil – such as Heavenly Creatures – could you elaborate on where this fascination comes from?
Peter Jackson: It’s just really a coincidence I would say to some degree. Heavenly Creatures was a film that we made, based on a famous New Zealand murder story from 1954 I think it was, and The Lovely Bones is based on a book. So, they’re very different source materials, and they just happen to be the characters involved. I’m being very careful what I say. But really The Lovely Bones came out of a couple of things… it came out of reading the novel and being profoundly affected by it and thinking it could be a terrific movie, and starting to talk to Philippa and Fran, who I write with, and starting to figure out how I might do the film.

And also the other factor was coming out of Lord of the Rings – three movies – and King Kong, and just feeling like we had a pipeline in place that was reasonably well oiled and comfortable for doing big budget effects films and so we were certainly looking for something smaller and more drama based at that time, because it’s a challenge to do something that’s completely different.

Q. The book, and the film, depicts Heaven without any reference to a deity – did you ever think of putting any of that in there?
Peter Jackson: Well the way that we depicted it in the movie, yes, the answer is that we did try to accommodate anybody’s point of view. What you see in the movie is what’s called ‘the In-Between’, it’s a sort of Twilight Zone really that Susie finds herself in between Heaven and Earth. So, really all the experiences that are in the movie, that’s depicted in the movie are in this In-Between world, and it’s only in the climax of the film in the barley field where the other victims come and take her towards that golden light… the idea is that Heaven is in that light. So, what’s there, you’re welcome to put whatever you like into that particular golden light.

Q. Why do you feel the need to incorporate fantasy elements into your films, even those rooted in reality?
Peter Jackson: The plotline of this particular story had to involve the afterlife, obviously… that was part of the text of the book. Every time we make a film we’re making it because it’s a film we want to see, so it reflects my taste. I love Alfred Hitchcock’s quote, where he said: “Some people’s films are slices of life, mine are slices of cake!” I like escapism, the reason why I go to movies is to escape and so the reason that I make films is escapism, really.

Q. How is work on The Hobbit progressing, how much are you involved and how difficult is it for you to let go of the reins on a project?
Peter Jackson: The Hobbit… well it’s two movies, we’ve written the first script and delivered that to the studio and they seem to be happy with that, and we’re now halfway through the second script. Philippa, Fran, Guillermo [Del Toro] and myself – the four of us – are doing the scripts and we’re having great fun. It was an interesting experience because in the eight or nine years since we wrote any of the Lord of the Rings screenplays, I was worried that it would be weird or hard or uncomfortable to go back there, but as soon as we started writing the scripts it was fun actually, it was easy, it was like old friends.

I’m happy that Guillermo’s making the film, it’s our job to support him and to help him tell the story. Really, my favourite part of the whole process of filmmaking is the screenplay, that’s the part that is less pressured, it’s the most creative, it’s the most freedom and it’s fun. So, I get to do the script and that’s great, so I’m happy.

Q. How did you come to visualise the look of the In-Between world?
Peter Jackson: It was difficult… it was hard. It was one of those things where, as a filmmaker, you realise once you’re in it that it’s really tough to show an afterlife partly because it’s a personal thing. And it also has to serve the needs of the story and the character and the plot, so we based the concept of it on a sub-conscious imagery, so it’s almost Susie’s dream state of things that influenced her, of the pop culture of the time. I wanted to try to make it as intangible as possible, which is difficult in a film because obviously everything that you put in front of a camera – in one form or another – has to be completely solid and real in order to film it. We just tried very hard to make it a shifting landscape that was almost emotionally based, so whatever Susie’s emotions were at that particular time was dictating the look of the In-Between, and how it was changing and shifting. We tried to keep it very fragile and very dream like.

Q. Does the tremendous success you have had add pressure to each successive film you direct?
Peter Jackson: Not really, our movies are very personal films. I think if there’s anything that we do consciously it is to try as much as we can to make a film for ourselves. You’re part of an industry and you have to think of the audience because it is obviously part of the reality of how it all works. You’ve got to think of demographics, you’ve got to think of who you’re marketing the film to, so it’s not as idealistic as that. But we try not to let that dominate our decision making.

So, the films that we do are always very personal they always reflect our taste and what we’d like to see, because really at the end of the day you know we’re making a film that we’d enjoy watching really, that’s the bottom line. I guess the worst aspects of the film industry is where films are packaged and made by people for a so called audience, they’re not personal based. But as far as we’re concerned it’s important to keep every film we make – whether they’re big or small – to make them reflect our personal taste.

Read our interview with Saoirse Ronan