Between his earliest low-budget films and later studio-sponsored efforts, New Zealand-born filmmaker Peter Jackson has blended inventive visual effects (sometimes hilariously over-the-top in nature) and photographic sleight of hand to portray apparitions, both ghastly and ghostly. These treatments have varied greatly down through the years: Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles and Braindead show grotesque horrors through a darkly-comedic glass and a “home movie” approach to filmmaking that is utterly unique. Heavenly Creatures, by contrast, captured the fantasies of teenaged girls in a delicate, even artful approach that was both giddy and ethereal. Jackson’s acclaimed The Lord of the Rings trilogy, along with King Kong (all shot by Andrew Lesnie, ACS, ASC), boldly reaffirmed his ability and inclination to depict fantastic realms within a deeply felt drama, human or otherwise. With his new adaptation of the Alice Sebold novel, The Lovely Bones, Jackson explores a much different “middle earth” than any J.R.R. Tolkien imagined; a Pennsylvania suburb in 1973, where the ghastly takes the form of a serial killer of young girls, and the ghostly the spirit of his most recent victim trapped between life and what lies beyond.
ICG: Originally, The Lovely Bones was scheduled for release earlier in the year, but then it was moved back to the holiday season. Did that allow you to do additional work on the film? Jackson: When the studio saw our first assembly late last year, they got very excited and wanted to hold back from March until December, for awards season. We agreed to that if they’d let us work on it some more. That provided a luxury I’ve never had previously – the movie went on the shelf for a few months. Usually during post, you’re rushed and become very jaded when viewing the film, but seeing it in a cinema with fresh eyes caused all sorts of things to jump out at us, so we did some recutting, which was all time very well spent.
Early glimpses of the film suggest a kind of less-is-more approach to visual effects, perhaps more akin to Heavenly Creatures than your recent films. Would this methodology have emerged as a reaction to some of the recent CG-overkill pictures? I don’t really find there’s much difference in approach to storytelling, outside of the obvious cosmetic ones. My process of shooting the film remains the same, regardless of the technology. Decisions made while shooting about what lens to use and the kinds of lighting are all about telling a story, regardless of whether it is Lord of the Rings or King Kong or The Lovely Bones.
You made a short film (Crossing the Line) using the RED camera (co-directed with Neill Blomkamp, director of District 9.) RED is also employed here, but selectively, not for the whole feature. Was this a matter of some discussion for you and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie? We used film for the most part, and this was because when shooting began, the RED camera was still in prototype stage. It didn’t yet have slow motion, which was something needed on The Lovely Bones. By the time we’d finished, these issues were mostly solved – so for me today, it would have been a different call – but during our shoot it was in flux. Andrew and I had in fact considered digital as an approach for King Kong. We’d gone through comparisons and testing of the various options before settling back on film, since I just wasn’t a fan of any of those digital camera systems. But I like the RED look; the aesthetic is not particularly electronic looking, instead it seems rather painterly to me. It is not quite film, but still nice.
Films such as Somewhere in Time have visually differentiated eras by going from Kodak for modern-day to Fuji stock for period scenes. Was the idea here to shoot the real world on film and the afterlife sequences digitally? We shot a lot of Susie’s world on the RED, but there was 35 mm there as well. I find the switching-stock approach a bit gimmicky; these days, you can now create a different look in the DI. Having the control in post is definitely preferable in my eyes. We were able to extensively manipulate footage shot with a little Iconix (Studio) 2K. This is the camera you put on a pole to get a shot from inside a lion’s mouth, because it is small enough that you just poke it in there, which wouldn’t be possible with a 35 mm camera. I bought one early on for experimentation, expecting the imagery would look pretty horrible and that I’d have to settle for 35 mm safety takes that weren’t as interesting visually. Instead, after playing with the image in post, we found intercutting between 35 mm and the Iconix presented no issue, so this tiny thing with its $1,500 plastic lens is featured in 50 or 60 shots in extremely tight spaces!
Were there other experimental approaches you investigated during prep? I did some previs myself on a Handycam. I shot script scenes on makeshift sets with New Zealand actors. Andrew shot some stuff with me, just to try out various styles. It was kind of home movie style, but cut together as HD footage.
How did you go about visualizing Susie’s afterlife world? Was Weta Digital involved in substantial previs? Weta didn’t do much in the way of digital previs, but they created lots of conceptual art with an eye toward coming up with a look for that environment Susie calls ‘the in-between.’ It isn’t Earth but it’s not heaven either, so that left a lot of room for development. One thing I did know was that it should include some wild, zany, pop culture visions that came from the mind of a teen in 1973.
So this wasn’t a matter of deriving an approach from classical paintings? We referenced The Brady Bunch! Really, we didn’t do anything arty or terribly surreal in that What Dreams May Come fashion. We did have a lot of fun with it, though, which I thought was important, since there has to be a sense of adventure and excitement or else it could become a very grim picture.
I’d think that would be nearly unavoidable, given the source novel. The in-between is not where she is supposed to be; Susie is supposed to move on. But her killer has control over her, even here, because he has hidden her body, so she becomes even more his victim and loses a sense of who she is. That’s pretty dark material. At one point she says she was a girl with her whole life in front of her, but now she is only a victim, a statistic. During his attack, she fled from her body in terror. So now she has to find the body and steer people to its location in order to solve this mystery and resolve her situation. When she orients herself toward this goal, it becomes something of a thriller.
Building up that cinematic aspect, away from the novel’s more internalized approach, sounds like a tough nut to crack in adaptation. It was a challenge, but mostly because we wanted to avoid being too heavy or weighed down with messages, it had to be fun – with a creepy edge. It was very important to me this be accessible to younger audience members, so PG-13 was what we always had in mind. We have a 12-year-old daughter and wanted to make something she’d be able to see. And we hoped she could relate to the character and situation, since life after death is something we all think about. The idea was to make a movie that could accommodate everybody’s spiritual beliefs, but without getting into any particular religious aspect.
With District 9 and the upcoming version of The Hobbit (to be directed by Guillermo del Toro), you’ve been wearing the hat of producer for other filmmakers. We had wanted to do Halo with Neill Blomkamp, but when that didn’t happen due to studio issues, we decided to expand Neill’s short Alive in Joburg, which we knew would make for an excellent film. We don’t have any other projects like that in development at the moment and we’re not chasing material; I don’t have a quota of films to be made, as it is strictly a matter of finding worthy projects with the right people attached.
And the qualities that you find most compelling in a project are …? Ideas are the important thing. If the idea is great, it is going to translate. But that notion seems to have escaped a lot of people in the film industry at the moment. There are fewer solid and exciting concepts being made into films these days, with more projects being sequels or derived from comic books. Hollywood seems to think it can’t afford to develop anything new right now, because everyone, in trying to reduce risk, targets identifiable franchises in the hope enough people will see it based on name recognition. I keep hoping we’ll get through this so original work can come back into vogue, but what I find a little bit depressing is that some of the real awful stuff makes a zillion dollars, which leads to another year or two of the same! It still just amazes me how much money those kinds of things can make after the marketing machine has set to work with $60 million to spend.
But with smaller projects, marketing could be inexpensive and focused, niche-oriented, to reach out directly for those who want to see challenging storylines. And technical limitations aren’t what they once were for zero-budget shoots. I agree. The amateur or low-budget feature is something anybody can make with reasonably good quality due to the technology, so it doesn’t matter about the camera. You don’t even need to shoot on the RED – 1080p HD cameras are enough, and from there cut it on iMovie or Final Cut. I’m hopeful that is where the next exciting trend is going to be. Perhaps as we are talking, the seeds of that ultra-low-budget film industry are being sown. That might bloom and blossom, and if so, $30,000 or $40,000-dollar feature films with really interesting content could be what turns things around. It could happen; I certainly hope to see it.