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December 14, 2009

Peter Jackson shows a knack for the supernatural

Whether Peter Jackson is tackling a story about a pair of real-life murderesses (Heavenly Creatures), or adapting novels to film (Lord of the Rings, The Lovely Bones), a thread of fantasy and horror connects all his films. Debuting with 1987’s Bad Taste, a low-budget aliens-invading-Earth splatter film which screened at Cannes, Jackson made an early name for himself with gross-out slapstick horror. In 1989 he released Meet the Feebles, an obscene precursor to Avenue Q, and then in 1992, Braindead, a zombie comedy known in the States as Dead Alive. Jackson then wowed critics in 1994 with a dramatic departure from his previous gore-fests with Heavenly Creatures, which he co-wrote and directed, based on the real-life diaries of Pauline Parker who conspired with her best friend Juliet Hulme to murder her mother. It is particularly notable for its imaginative sequences as it digs inside the minds of the two girls, as well as for being Kate Winslet’s first film.

While the Lord of the Rings trilogy has gone on to become one of the most celebrated achievements in the history of cinema, Jackson has continued to work in Hollywood, remaking his favorite film King Kong in 2005. He returns to theaters this December with The Lovely Bones, adapted from the popular novel by Alice Sebold, which is told from the point of a view of a recently murdered girl in the afterlife determined to see her killer brought to justice. Jackson co-wrote the screenplay with fellow Lord of the Rings veterans Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, who display an invested interested in the emotions the story evokes and the unsettling questions it raises. Peter Jackson woke up early in New Zealand for a college conference call the Chicago Maroon was invited to take part in. Here he talks about cinematic escapism, how Saoirse Ronan is the future Cate Blanchett, and the artistry of balancing reality with fantasy.

UCLA: Great. OK, so the actress Nikki SooHoo, who plays Holly in the movie, is actually a current student here at UCLA.

Peter Jackson: Oh.

UCLA: So I’d just like to know what it was like working with her, Mr. Jackson?

PJ: She was fantastic. She was incredibly—actually she was full of fun. I mean, she hadn’t made very many films, but she was full of enthusiasm and very excited to be involved. And you know having those sorts of people around, the film set was really great, because they’re always making jokes and doing practical jokes. She’s a great spirit to have around.

Riverside City College: Good morning, Mr. Jackson. I was wondering, since this is such an emotional story, and because you’re so famous for these epic blockbusters, do you ever have a desire to just throw people off and make like a wacky romantic comedy, or something like The Hangover, or something along those lines?

PJ: Well, it’s an interesting question. I make films that I feel comfortable making. And I also make films that I’m sort of interested in seeing. Because I often think that every movie I make is very personal, because the only reason I’m making it is because I want to see the finished film. And if I’m going to see the finished film, I’m going to have to make it myself. Otherwise if somebody else makes it, they’ll make a different film. So I always have a very personal reason for making films. And I guess I haven’t really got much of a brain for wacky comedy. Although I did do a zombie movie called Dead Alive a few years ago where it’s pretty crazy and wacky. And I don’t mind that kind of comedy, which is you know sort of gory zombie-horror type comedy. That’s fine.

But you know the emotion of The Lovely Bones is really the purpose of making the movie, because we read the book, found it to be a very emotional experience, just reading the book, because it touches on all sorts of themes and things that you know we recognize in our own lives. And once you’re emotionally affected like that, you try to hang on to that feeling, or that emotion, and get that into the finished film. It was a two-year process, so from the time we read the book to the time we finished the movie, we had to sort of try to hold on to these emotional themes and thoughts and not let them get tired or jaded, and sort of have them coming out fresh at the end of the two years. So it’s an interesting process. But the emotion that’s in The Lovely Bones is really one of the primary reasons why we wanted to make it.

Glendale Community College: Hi. I wanted to know, what is the movie you’ve enjoyed making the most?

PJ: Oh, that’s a difficult question. That’s like asking a mother which of your six children is your favorite. Honestly, you enjoy making the one that you’re working on at the time the most because it’s such an intense experience. But for anyone who sees a movie, it’s two hours of your time, and you go watch a movie, leave, sort of get on with your life, and do other things. If you’re making the movie, you are devoting, you know, the better part of two years to it and thinking about it 24/7. And so you always get swallowed up, and with the film that you’re making, you always feel very proud of it at the end.

What’s interesting, though, with the question, is that I never watch my movies after they’ve finished. Like I can go ten years without seeing an old film that I’ve made. I’ve got no desire to watch them again once I’ve actually finished the movie and handed it over and it’s into cinemas and people are going and seeing it. I’m done with the film. And I guess I’m, sort of—I’m spent, really. I saw the Lord of the Rings movies with Guillermo del Toro, because he’s directing The Hobbit for us, and I sat down and watched our three Lord of the Rings films with him earlier this year. And it was the first time I’ve seen them since they came out. So, you always enjoy the one that you’re working on the most.

Chicago Maroon: So my question is, a kind of behemoth like the Lord of the Rings has it own challenges for adaptation. So what sort of challenges or struggles presented themselves in adapting [The Lovely Bones] to film?

PJ: Well, one of the things that I’m beginning to learn, because you know I’m not hugely experienced at doing this, is that you’re learning all the time. Like every time you make a movie, it’s going to film school—you go to class at film school every day. But I’m realizing that when you adapt a book, you can only really put half the book into the film. So you know an average-length book, like The Lovely Bones, it would be a four- or five-hour-long movie if we were to include all of the characters that Alice wrote about and all the subplots that she wrote.

So, one of the challenges that we’re discovering now is that, when you’re adapting, you know you’ve got to realize that you’re only going to get half the book into the movie, and you’ve got to start making decisions about what the most important aspects of the book are.

And you quickly realize that you have those two or three main characters, whereas an author of a book can write subplots, they can have secondary characters, and they can delve into other story lines that aren’t connected to the main story, and it works very well in a novel. It doesn’t work so well in a film. And so you tend to focus on just two or three main characters and really stick to the central plot line of a film.

So, it’s making those decisions. And it’s seeing passages of the book that you really liked, that you assumed you’d put into the movie, but you suddenly haven’t got time for them. And it’s having to say goodbye to characters and to scenes that you were looking forward to doing. But when you start writing the script, you realize that there’s no room for it.

University of Maryland: Hi. So, it’s been four years since your last film. After doing Lord of the Rings and King Kong so closely together, how is the process different, being able to take your time a little bit more with The Lovely Bones?

PJ: Well, that’s a good question. I know it’s four years, but it’s been a very busy four years, because I’ve also produced District 9 for Neill Blomkamp, which came out earlier this year. And I’m producing a movie version of a storybook called Tintin as well. So I have other projects as well, so the four years has been spent sort of dividing my time up amongst different things. But it’s been good. Doing Lord of the Rings and King Kong so close together, I was very, very—I wouldn’t say I was tired of big-budget fantasy films—but I certainly felt that I had to have a break from those type of films.

And The Lovely Bones was a project that we partly chose because it was so different and it would keep us on our toes. Because there’s no doubt that the way you stay interested in what you’re doing is to keep trying new things and to do things you’ve never done before. That’s the challenge. And that’s what makes it interesting. So, that’s one of the reasons that we chose the project as well.

Arizona State: This is your fifth big-budget film and your fifth adaptation. What attracts you to bringing other people’s visions and stories alive? And in the future, do you see yourself working with more original material?

PJ: Well, I’m happy to do either. I’m happy to—well, I mean, we’re not really setting out to find novels to adapt. But you know what’s interesting, when you do read a book, and I read novels like anyone else, just for recreation and for fun, is that I often start imagining a movie in my head. So as I’m sure most people do this. As you read a well-written book, you start imagining what these people look like, and you imagine the locations and the action. And before too long, you’ve got this little movie playing in your head. And then it doesn’t take much for me to get excited about the little movie that’s being inspired by the words in the book. You think seriously about the idea of putting that little movie in my head onto film and showing it to other people, which is ultimately what we end up doing.

So, I guess novels have a tendency to do that with me, whereas an original idea is a whole different thing. Because an original idea, you’re sort of either waiting for a bit of inspiration to pop into your head, or you’re sitting down in front of a blank sheet of paper, thinking, “Now, what do I really want to make a film about, and let me think of some ideas.And that’s actually harder, I think. It would be fair to say that, unless you’ve got an incredibly inspired idea for something that no one has ever seen before, it’s difficult to come up with fresh and new, original ideas. Novels at least have a head start. So I found them a bit easier to make, because half the work is done for you at the beginning. But I don’t really have a plan. I don’t have a plan to do one or the other. I just follow my nose.

I literally don’t know what we’re going to be doing in two or three years. I will just wait and see. It’s part of the fun of being a filmmaker like this; that it’s pointless following a big, grand plan. You just go from one film to the next and wait and see what you get excited about.

University of Washington: My question is regarding your filmography. So, looking at your filmography, as you move from things like Bad Taste or Lord of the Rings to District 9, now The Lovely Bones, and on to Tintin, I noticed that a lot of the projects you worked on have a sort of fanciful or kind of horrific feel to them. What attracts you to this sort of sci-if/horror genre? Even The Lovely Bones is sort of a part of it with its heaven and its fantastical illusions?

PJ: Yes. That’s a good question. It’s not so much horror. You know, I’ve only made one horror movie, really, which is Dead Alive. Oh, The Frighteners, I suppose, with Michael J. Fox, was a horror movie. But they’re very comedic as well. I believe there was a great filmmaker that I’m sure you’ve heard of, called Alfred Hitchcock, and he came out with a quote, which I’ve always loved. Alfred Hitchcock made movies at a time when there was a whole new wave of European filmmakers after World War II. And during the ’60s especially, there was a lot of avant garde filmmaking, and very minimalistic kind of stuff that was coming out of Europe, and it was a big trend. And Alfred Hitchcock’s quote was referring to that, and he was saying that some people’s movies are slices of life, mine are slices of cake.And I’ve always thought that’s a really terrific quote. Which, because I like movies—I mean, I always make the movies that I’d want to watch. So whatever I make, it does reflect my personal taste.

And the movies that I like watching are escapist movies. I like going to the cinema and getting away from the real world. I have no interest in seeing movies about people like me or you or people that have regular jobs, or live a regular life. Those things don’t interest me. I like being swept away into an adventure that I know I’m never going to have in my real life, seeing and meeting characters that I’m never going to meet, because they’re so outrageous; or things that happen on screen, and they’re never going to be part of my real life.

So that really sort of takes me in the direction that’s more fantasy-orientated, you know, not so much sci-fi, but more fantasy-orientated. In a number of different ways. I mean, the films I’ve made have been very different to each other. But they have, as you correctly say, they have that sort of thread of the fantastic through them.

Western Washington University: Hi, Mr. Jackson. My question is, what is your favorite line or scene from the Lovely Bones movie?

PJ: Oh, that’s a very good question. Well, my favorite scene is one in which not a single line of dialog is spoken, actually. I’ll just describe it to you very quickly, without spoiling it. I wanted to have a scene where Susie, our main character, she’s just been murdered by this creepy guy who lives down the road, Mr. Harvey. And she actually runs away from her murder. We don’t see the murder in the film because she flees. And about the time that the murder would be happening, she runs away from it. Which is literally a metaphor for her spirit escaping her body and separating from her body. And we go with the spirit, we don’t stay with her body. And for a little while, we’re not sure whether we’ve actually seen her escape. It’s – I mean, it’s one of the things we did in the film to make people wonder whether or not she did actually escape from him. But we come to realize, slowly that she didn’t actually escape.

Anyway, her spirit escapes and it returns to her house, where she lives with her parents. Except it’s a weird version of her house. She can hear her parents’ voices, but she can’t see them or connect with them. And the lighting in the house is weird. And she goes into this room upstairs, and it’s this weird white room. And in the white room is the killer, the guy that killed her, Mr. Harvey. And she sort of has this confrontation where he doesn’t see her, and he’s not really in her house. Because we’re now in a very surreal sort of world of dream now, with Susie not knowing what’s real and what’s not, but we’re inside her head. And I shot this scene where—I won’t really go into detail about what happens, because it will spoil it— but I wanted her to confront the guy who killed her. There’s not a single line of dialog, but it’s in this very strange white environment. And I made it as creepy as I could without showing anything on screen, right. There’s no—you know there’s just her and him and she’s standing there, and what’s creepy is the lighting, the music, the sound, and so anyway I was really pleased with the way that that scene worked out. It won’t really mean much to you until you see the movie. So hopefully you’ll get a chance to see it.

Part 2 of the Interview