Peter Jackson on Lovely Bones: You Don’t Make a Movie For a Book’s Fans

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Alice Sebold’s Lovely Bones is a brutal and intense story – the tale of a teenager who is raped and murdered, who then must watch from heaven as those she loved attempt to move beyond their loss.

It’s a story that’s a little bit about death, a little about life, and not quite about heaven. Young Susie exists in the “in-between,” between the real world and the Pearly Gates, and it is here where the most magical scenes of the big-screen adaptation take place, brought to life by director Peter Jackson, who personally bought the rights to the story. (See Techland’s exclusive look at the first images from Lovely Bones) After Lord of the Rings, Heavenly Creatures and King Kong, there are a whole lot of sci-fi-fantasy buffs eager to see what he has molded next. So with Lovely Bones opening today in limited release, set to spread wider across the country in the coming weeks, we thought we’d pass along a few of Jackson’s recent comments from a Lovely Bones press conference that we found rather interesting – for what they say about his process, his love of this story, and the imagination behind all those bold Peter Jackson moments.

What were the changes that you were adapting to this? I understand there was a lot of stuff shot that was in the book, but didn’t make it into the final movie. Are you planning on re-inserting that footage into the DVD?  You know a lot of people have criticized some of the choices that you made, and I don’t know whether or not you’d like to respond to that?

We shot some scenes. I mean any film that I’ve done where you shoot scenes that don’t end up in the final cut but, you know, in my mind there’s no such thing as a perfect adaptation of a book. You know, the master work is the book.  Alice Sebold’s novel is The Lovely Bones. And that is the work that has got everything in it, every character, every subplot and that’s the way that you should experience the story in its most pure form. A film adaptation of any book, especially The Lovely Bones, you know, in this example it’s only ever be a souvenir. It’s going to be like an impression of aspects of the book. So, you know, to me to adapt a book is not a question of producing a carbon copy of the book. It’s impossible.

You know, to include everything, the film would be five or six hours long. It’s a personal impression that basically Philippa Boynes, Fran Walsh and myself, you know, the three of us wrote the screenplay.  And we read the book, we responded to aspects of the book, especially the emotional themes, and the comforting value of the book, and things it had to say about the after life.  And that aspect of it, which is very personal to anybody, and that’s what we responded to. And our adaptation is very much just elements of the book restructured following our instincts and our tastes. So, to me no adaptation can ever be perfect. It’s impossible. You don’t make a movie for the fans of the book. You just can’t do it.

Peter, one of the major changes I know you made from the book is that the book featured a rape and murder. I’m sure you had very artistic reasons for choosing to eliminate the rape part of it. So could you share your thought process for how you’d handle that in the film?

Yeah, I mean, they’re artistic and they’re moral reasons, they’re practical reasons. I mean, there’s a variety of reasons, which I should sort of just talk about. I mean, you know, we made … The film is about a teenager and her experiences of what happens. She’s murdered, she goes into an after life experience or in between. And we wanted to make a film that teenagers could watch.  We have a daughter, Fran and I have a daughter who’s very similar to Susie’s age, and we wanted Katie to be able to see this film. There’s a lot of positive aspects of this film, and it’s not something that I think I wanted to shield our daughter from.

And so, it was important for us to not go into an R-rated territory at all.  And also, you know, I never regarded the movie as being a film about a murder, and yet if we shot any aspect of that particular sequence in any way, then it would stigmatize the film. I mean, movies are such a powerful medium with the music and the effects and acting and performance, and the editing and the lighting and camera work that show a 14-year-old girl being murdered in anyway no matter how briefly, it would completely swing the balance of the movie. And it would frankly make it a film that I wouldn’t want to watch. I mean, I would have no interest in seeing that depicted on film, and I would not want to see the film.

You know, every movie that I make is a film that I want to see. It’s very important. I mean, I make movies that I know I would enjoy seeing in the cinema, and that would not be one of them. So the movie that we did make we wanted it to become something that was the … You know, it was almost like a mystery, a crime mystery of what happens when you’re in this world of the subconscious, the world of the after life and Susie has to deal with the mystery of what happened to her. And there’s a positive aspect to it in the sense that she’s immortal and saying that there is no such thing as death.

And all of those aspects and themes were what interested us, not the murder.  And also, you know, I just have no interest and I’ve shot some pretty extreme things in my time with Bad Taste and Meet the Feebles, and Brain Dead. And there’s a certain style and a sense of humor that I believe you can do to get away with that. But to do anything that depicted violence towards especially a young person in a way that was serious was to me I would have no interest in filming it at all. It would be repulsive. And so, there was a variety of reasons. But we felt very determined from the beginning that the film should be PG-13 because, you know, because to us it was important…I mean, how much murdering and killing do you need to see to be satisfied? You know, how much to make somebody happy? I mean, I just don’t know.

One of the things we did, which is different from the novel and the way we’ve restructured the screenplay is we have her fleeing from her murder. And we really like that aspect of, you know, sort of the way that that bit of the story was told in the sense that at the point that her body is … At the point that her spirit becomes disconnected from her body, she’s running. She’s running across that field. She’s running into the street. She’s running home and Susie doesn’t know what has happened to her.

She’s literally confused, and now she finds herself in the in between, which is essentially the world of dream of subconscious of this confused state. And she has to start to put the pieces together like a mystery. So, you know, that really dictated very strongly that even for all the other reasons seeing any form of murder was not something that we wanted to do because of the way that we restructured the story so that she herself is confused, and has to put the pieces of the puzzle together as the story goes on.

I was wondering what was it like, what drew you to, The Lovely Bones after doing four of the most epic science films probably ever pulled off. You have a lot of effects, of course, in this film and there’s a balance between the reality and the supernatural, but it is a really intimate story again. Kind of like back to the Heavenly Creatures I guess. What appealed to you about this, and was it a challenge getting back to, not that you didn’t have a great performances, it was getting back into a real kind of intimate everyday kind of realistic kind of acting from the remaining family members at least and the killer?

Well, I mean, it’s not a challenge to direct a different style of film in terms of the acting because, you know, you’re always dealing with a screenplay, and a screenplay has particular needs and a style that is appropriate. And it’s my job obviously to, you know, to attempt to shoot

the script that’s appropriate to that particular role. But to answer your question, you know, the only thing as a filmmaker that I am scared of or fear is repetition. You know, I have no interest at all in doing the same thing over and over again.  And that’s not to say that I wouldn’t do another fantasy film or I wouldn’t do another splatter film one day or another film with puppets. I mean, you know, but it would be different and certainly it’s great to  have a break, and it’s great to turn your mind to something different, and The Lovely Bones is a challenge. You know, one of the things like I’m sure most of the people in this room would appreciate that things are immediately much more interesting and enjoyable if they’re difficult. You know, if you’re attempting to do something or you decide that you’re going to take on a project for the next year or two years, if it’s easy and familiar … I shouldn’t say “easy” actually. It’s the wrong word, but if it’s familiar and it’s treading the same ground that you’ve gone before, it’s immediately going to be less interesting than taking on something that has new demands and fresh challenge and the Lovely Bones is a wonderful puzzle – it’s a terrific book that affects you emotionally. The book doesn’t have a structure that immediately makes the film obvious. In your mind, the book affects you on a emotional level – on a story level as such and you delve into it – and as a film maker you figure out a way in which you can tell the story on film as I said at the very beginning – not necessarily the perfect way – and not the way people would do it. You take 20 different filmmakers – give them a book like this and you know really.  And especially Lovely Bones and you have 20 completely different films which is interesting, and so the idea of certainly doing something that was a challenging new topic was absolutely of great interest to us. Yeah.

(Can you talk about the challenge of creating) Susie’s in-between world?

Sure, Susie’s world of the in-between. The key thing to us was just the concept that it wasn’t a physical place. We’re not saying when you die you will go into this after life and in this movie we’re going to show you what that after life is like. That is not what we attempted to do. We wanted to base it on Susie’s subconscious. At the point that she is no longer anchored to earth through her body, her mind is in the world of dreams. It’s like at night she dreams as we all do but now that she is no longer in a living body, she is permanently in this world of the subconscious, which is essentially a dream world. A lot of the imagery and metaphor we used was everything was a metaphor in a dream world. Everything means something else but it’s not a literal thing. We used image systems that the audience is not obviously supposed to understand all of it.

As scriptwriters, we put it into our screenplay and the overall impression that it creates hopefully gives the audience the idea of what is happening. So we have things like people say when you dream about a house that a house really represents a person. That’s sort of how you analyze dreams. The house that she imagines she sees in the empty field with the lighthouse sticking out of it, that house represents Mr. Harvey. She is using the metaphor of the house to represent the killer. As we said earlier, she flees from her own murder so she doesn’t know where her body is. The only person that does is Mr. Harvey. Mr. Harvey himself keeps a souvenir, the charm bracelet, which he throws most of it away because of the evidence. He rips off one charm, which happens to be the house. That house is Susie using the same image system. He’s now keeping control of Susie. It’s her fear of Mr. Harvey that he still has over her that prevents her from leaving this world of the in-between. She’s trying to get to heaven but she’s stuck. The concept of her finding out the answers to these questions of where her body is, she has to confront the man who killed her. She does that symbolically by going through the door of that house. In doing so, she enters his subconscious. I love the idea that she goes in there and sees his previous victims, which are images that only he has in his mind. Now her subconscious is entering Harvey’s subconscious. We used things like the blooming flower. That flower is really Susie and her life force. It’s withered and dead as far as her father sees this flower but then it blooms in his hand when she is trying to communicate with him and say that I’m here dad. He imagines in his mind’s eye that flower blooming. When she opens the safe, which we reveal later that is where her body actually is, but when Susie first opens the door of the safe what does she see there but the blooming flower, which is again supposed to be her. It’s the first clue as to where she is.

The gazebo was representing unfulfilled love. That first date that she was going to have with Ray, he said meet me in the shopping mall by the gazebo. That gazebo represents the date that she never had. She sees him in the distance when in the in-between, she tries to run there, and she can’t run because the ground turns to water, which is a very common dream image that we all have. We’re all trying to get to a place, the ground is turning to syrup or glue, and we can’t make it there. Everything that we did in that in-between world, again this is all working on the basis of the subconscious and not supposed to be particularly clear. It was designed as a way of working within the metaphor and the image system of dream. We like the idea that in those sequences we were inside Susie’s subconscious. It wasn’t a physical place that we were showing.

Your explanation about the subconscious notwithstanding, I think most people’s observation is its Susie looking on and her family from the afterlife. As a non-believer, I’ve always considered the afterlife sort of a cop out and a religious concoction to get people to look forward to some reward. I’m wondering in terms of putting the script together and trying to understand how people interpret this, what did you discover about the need that people seem to have to believe in the idea of souls living on or spirits being able to observe them from an afterlife?

It’s an interesting question. It’s one that I think everyone obviously has their own points of view about it. I’m not sure if I’m answering your question correctly. Certainly, what we felt very strongly with the movie is we didn’t want to make a film that cast judgment on people’s religious beliefs because that wasn’t at all the motivation for making the movie. We didn’t create the in-between being Susie’s subconscious for that reason. To us it wasn’t about her existing in a world that had some form of religious control around it. It was literally she had disconnected from her body for that period and she is in this weird hallucinogenic state.

(*Spoiler Alert*) Obviously if you’ve seen the movie, you realize the scene at the end with the field when Harvey’s victims come down to meet Susie, there is a golden light there, which is supposed to be wide heaven as Susie calls it and as Alice Sebold called it. That’s a golden light, which I shot in a deliberately cliché recognizable way that people get the idea that heaven is there. That is indeed the goal of which Susie has. To get out of this weird trapped place that she is and to actually move on. That golden light represents where she and everyone else moves on to. The idea is you can put whatever you choose into that golden light. If you are religious, then obviously that is what you put in there. If you are not religious, you can imagine something else. If you don’t believe there is anything there at all, then probably it’s not the movie you should go see I guess…I personally think that all religious things to one side, which is a completely different topic. I do think there is some energy that we have inside us. I have experienced a couple of people that have been very close to me dying. I have been there. I’ve held their hand.

There is a feeling that when somebody passes on that they leave. There is a sense of departure that is very strong. It’s so strong that it has made me believe in the fact thatthere is a form or energy inside us that continues to survive after death. Science, physics tells us that the energy cannot be destroyed. It has to go somewhere. It doesn’t evaporate.

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