Peter Jackson: That 70s Show

Since the mammoth undertaking and subsequent release of his King Kong remake in 2005, Oscar winning filmmaker Peter Jackson has mostly relegated himself to the role of producer these past few years, garnering critical acclaim with his work in bringing director Neill Blomkamp’s 2009 début feature District 9 to the screen after making headlines from a three-front protracted battle initiated by studio interference in his attempt to adapt the Xbox gaming franchise HALO.

However, 2009 also marks Jackson’s directorial return to the big screen with the introspective thriller, The Lovely Bones. Set in middle-America during the early 1970’s, The Lovely Bones is an adaptation of the international bestselling novel by Alice Sebold which chronicles the mystery surrounding the death of 14-year-old Susie Salmon, a curious and determined teen who watches over her grieving family from the afterlife. However, when the truth behind her sudden demise begins to surface, Susie must choose between helping her parents come to terms with her passing, or exacting retribution against the man who assaulted and murdered her.

I spoke with Peter Jackson from his office at Weta, located in Wellington New Zealand to discuss his return to the director’s chair, what it was about Alice Sebold’s fable-like revenge-thriller that sparked his interest, and how The Lovely Bones led to an unexpected musical collaboration with the brilliant Brian Eno.

Fletcher: While The Lovely Bones has gained some notoriety for its time spent on various best seller lists, it is essentially a female skewed crime thriller. How did the novel end up crossing your desk and what was it that inspired you to pursue it as a directorial project?

Peter Jackson: I write scripts with a couple of other writers, Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh. And Fran and I had been London in working on the music score for The Two Towers with Howard Shore. This was back in 2002, and Philippa was coming over from New Zealand to joins us and she literally bought the book at the airport to read on the flight. She read it purely as something to read, but she was really affected by the book.

So she started to talk to Fran about it, who then read it herself. And then I was the third one to do so. But by this stage Philippa and Fran were talking to each about how great this book was and so by the time I read it and was affected by it, the three of us had started talking about the challenges of how you’d adapt it as a film.

We weren’t even initially thinking of doing it, we were just simply talking about how on earth you’d turn this into a film, and how it would be pretty tricky to pull off. And eventually we kind of talked ourselves into doing it.

But when we inquired, we discovered the film rights weren’t available. They were actually being controlled by Tessa Ross at Film4 in London and she had another filmmaker already working on an adaptation. So a couple of years went by then Tessa called and told us that the other film had fallen over and wanted to know if we were we still interested.

So it sort of came back to us in a way that we weren’t expecting it to. We immediately said ‘Yep, sure we’re still interested’. At that point we were working on King Kong and we thought this would be a terrific film to do once we were done with Kong.

F: To date, your films have been anchored through rather complex intimate relationships between primary characters; from Sam and Frodo, Kong and Ann Darrow, and even Frank and Lucy in The Frighteners to Pauline and Juliet from Heavenly Creatures. The Lovely Bones also resonates with this kind of relationship as you have a dead girl remaining strongly connected to her grieving family. Was this dynamic part of your attraction to the story?

PJ: You know, not particularly in the sense that I was consciously thinking about it. The book was emotional and powerful, but at the end of the day it was good story. An interesting story in the sense that it confronts that topic which all of us have an unspoken fascination about; What happens after we die? What sort of continuation, if any, is there after your dead? What are the rules of this existence if there is one? Big question marks!

I think everyone quietly asks themselves these question at some time. And that’s what was interesting in the book. It wasn’t so much the story of Susie’s family coming to terms with the loss, although that is something you can relate to if you’ve ever had something like that happen to you. But the really fascinating thing is the way it boldly makes a statement about life after death.

The book offers some interesting observations and there’s a certain amount of wit and irony involved, and obviously some great thriller aspects as well. A part of what Susie has to do once she is dead is to see her killer bought to justice. But then how important is revenge? Is it revenge that she actually wants and is that a noble thing?

These are some interesting questions. And we just thought that all of this content, this combination of things that we could relate to, plus all these questions that will challenge the audience… It’s good for filmmakers to confront these things.

F: Obviously the book and Alice Sebold have garnered a good deal of attention and acclaim since its release, effectively becoming one and the same in the media landscape. Did you invite Alice to be involved with shaping the script or in the production of the film in anyway?

PJ: No, not really. She wasn’t involved in the creation of the movie, although we have certainly shared things with her at times. We met with Alice at the beginning before we started, just so she could have a sense of who was doing this film.

Then when we wrote the script, we sent her a copy to read and met up with her in Los Angeles to get her notes, which were very helpful. She wasn’t concerned at all about the changes that we made, instead it was about her looking at our script and saying ‘Well I think you have an opportunity to do this or that, and do you know if you included that scene, you could do this’. She was really helpful.

F: Based on her writing alone, it seems Alice has a very particular point-of-view, much in the way your films themselves have a strong narrative structure. Was there any apprehension from either yourselves or Alice that you might be stepping on each other’s creative toes?

PJ: You actually get to a point when you’ve written something, or made a film, that you really do value people’s input. Especially people you can trust. Merely because you reach a point where you can’t see the woods for the trees. 

Alice has seen a version of the film, not the totally finished version, but an early cut that we did, and she seemed to be happy with it. She really has had a very healthy attitude; she knows we’re the filmmakers, and she graciously wanted to leave us alone to make the film.

She has done her version of The Lovely Bones and she’s given us the room to adapt it and do our version on film. She has understood the process and hasn’t tried to force herself in, and we’ve been very happy to invite her to give us her thoughts at the appropriate time. It’s been a great relationship and she’ll be coming to the premiere in London with us.

F: Approaching the same question, but from another perspective, did you feel any pressure to ensure fans of the novel were considered in the way you approached or adapted what has become such a beloved story?

PJ: You have to do what’s best for the film. Even though there is a fan base you are still dealing with individuals who have individual opinions about the book. And the book is such that it invites you to put a lot of your own imagination to the story, so I imagine any two people reading the book will be imagining very different things at certain times, so I think it’s a hopeless exercise to cater to the so-called fans of the book, simply because at the end of the day they aren’t a common voice.

There comes time at the end of the process, that he most important thing is that it’s our personal interpretation of the book, and that’s where the best film is going to come from.

The best movies always come from a very personal place. We read the book, and by we I mean the screenwriters because we collectively created the screenplay; the blueprints for the film. We read the book. We were affected by it. And this is our experience from having read it. And this really is what we’re presenting to people.

F: And part of that presentation includes a superb soundtrack composed by the iconic Brian Eno. Can you offer a little insight into how that collaboration came to be?

PJ: He was a personal choice of Fran Walsh, my partner who writes with me. She is very interested in the music side of the film and knows much, much more than I do. My musical ability starts and stops with The Beatles. That’s all that I would listen to growing up.  

And of course we are contemporaries of Susie, the films main character. She was a young teenager in the early 70’s – the book is set in 1973 – and so she would be the same age as us now. So Fran knew exactly the music that Susie would have been listening to at that time, and we wanted the music to reflect the period in which its set. Fran knew much more than I did about who was hot at that time and who Susie would have been listening to; what the cool songs were.

And so what we did, which is something that we haven’t done since Heavenly Creatures, is that we actually selected some music tracks while we were writing the script and wrote them into the film. The script actually names some of the music tracks that are playing in the background of certain scenes.

Its great being able to do that from a production viewpoint because it means everyone, the cast and crew, have a common vision for what you’re trying to achieve. They understand that this song will be playing, that we will be shooting to the beat of the song and that the pacing of the scene, the lighting of the scene… all these things will be affected by the song.

So Fran selected about a dozen songs while we were writing the script, thinking that the soundtrack could be like what Marty Scorsese does with his movies, constructed from existing material rather than a score. Anyway, this list that Fran put together contained a couple of Brian Eno tracks, Baby’s on Fire and The Big Ship, so at the beginning of the process we started to get permission from the various composers or the copywrite holders of these various tracks. There was no point in us filming to a piece of music if we weren’t going to get the rights.

Then we get a call from Brian Eno. He had heard that we were trying to get the rights to these two tracks and so he rushed out and bought a copy of the book. He ploughed through the novel and became curious as to what we were doing. We were having a telephone conversation between London and New Zealand and basically, very quickly he asks out of the blue ‘Would you have any interest in me being more involved in the score. I’m really curious about the idea of scoring this film.

Honestly, we couldn’t believe it. It was like a dream come true. We had heard that Brian Eno had done a film score or two but that he wasn’t very interested in films. We never even considered asking him, but he volunteered; he offered up his services. Fran was beyond excited; he is a brilliant composer and I think she was a huge fan of his growing up. And so we got to work with him.

F: Brian Eno is something of an eccentric in the way he composes, often approaching his music from non-traditional methods. Having primarily worked with such composers like Howard Shore and Danny Elfman who are comfortable operating within the studio system, was there much of a contrast in how you worked with Brian?

PJ: Brian did an interesting thing… most film scores don’t get done until the film is cut together, and you’ve basically locked it off to the point where nothing changes. The composer then writes the music bit by bit, cut by cut to that particular cut of the film. But Brian didn’t work like that, he didn’t want to see the cut of the film, he said ‘Let me see the script. I’ve read the book, show me some art work, show me some photos and let me just write some music.

So he wrote these pieces, these long pieces of incredible moody emotional music. He asked us about the emotion of certain scenes and what’s appropriate, what certain scenes were about… He wrote from a place of inspiration just by talking and looking at pictures. And as it was, it was terrific because we ended up with this great library of original Brian Eno music and we were able to continue editing the movie and adjusting the film, trying out different cuts without being hampered by some locked off score. It worked out phenomenally well; there are some really beautiful tracks in the score.

F: It sounds as if there is a similar methodology between the way Brian interpreted the musical tones and the way you’ve interpreted the visuals relating to The Lovely Bones portrayal of the afterlife. Can you offer some insight into your design process and visualisation behind the film’s metaphysical locations?

PJ: I took my influence from the novel. We wanted Susie’s version of her after life to be based vey much on who she is, what she knows. She is a 14-year-old girl in 1973, so there’s nothing in there that wouldn’t be something that she hasn’t experienced, unless it’s an ambition, a dream of her future that can no longer happen, or of what she wanted to be. She had her own pop-culture references from what she watching on TV and the films she was seeing.

So we crated this melting pot of a very weird transcendental state that she finds herself in, this strange intangible world that’s shifting and changing around her all the time. One that’s based on her emotions but also emoting references to her life experiences.

If she is upset then the World she is in will reflect that; it’s windy, it’s blowing her hair around. If her killer is after her then she is suddenly in a dark creepy place or if she is happy and joyous she is in this weird whacky world. Everything is being emotionally driven almost as if it’s part of her subconscious. It was very hard, very tricky stuff to do and I’m not sure how successful we were, I guess people will have to judge for themselves when they see the movie.

F: You’ve mentioned a few times how essential it is to the story to create this 1970’s authenticity. One could argue that the most important elements in achieving that authenticity is in the casting of Susie. And while Saoirse is without a doubt brilliantly cast, was it a difficult process to find an actress who could relate and express the nuances and traits of a 1970’s teenager?

PJ: It’s weird actually. We auditioned for this role in America. After all Susie is a 14-year-old American girl and so we thought it would be relatively easy to find someone great.

But I tell you what, when you audition young American teenagers, you get these very contemporary kids who feel like they have stepped out of the Disney Channel. Their whole attitude, their language, the way they walk and talk and use their eyes, it’s so modern. It feels 2009. It feels like something out of Nickelodeon. It’s this whole sort of genre of film that’s dictating how these children behave. It’s really weird.

So we struggled. We were really struggling to find anyone in America who could play a 70’s character and be believable. These kids are so grown up and affected by pop-culture today that it influences their entire behaviour.

But then Saoirse, who’s Irish, comes along. Her dad films an audition of her in their back yard in Ireland and sends us a DVD. She’s doing this wonderful American accent and portraying Susie with freshness, vitality; with an authenticity that we never saw once in all of our auditioning in America.

It was kind of weird her being Irish, but hey, she’s perfect for the role. Although she is playing a young American teenager, she comes across as timeless, almost ageless. She is superb in the film, she really is. I can’t wait for everyone to see her.


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