Macalester College: I am a big fan, and your films often focus on a blend between reality and fantasy. So I was wondering, how do you balance the two realms artistically in your films?
PJ: Well, within a movie, you follow what you think the movie needs. And so, The Lovely Bones was particularly interesting because it’s a very fascinating mix of reality and fantasy. I guess because of the fantasy segments referring to the afterlife, the sequences with Susie, because you know one of the attractive things about The Lovely Bones is it’s an opportunity for me to make a movie which says things about what happens to our soul after we die. And that’s obviously a question that we all wonder about. It’s on the back of everybody’s mind. And especially if you lose people who are close to you, you wonder what’s happened to them. Are they still around? Can they see you and hear you? All those sort of questions are fascinating questions. And they’re emotional questions.
And it’s that stuff that the movie really gets into. And so even calling it fantasy I guess is not really true, because we try to present a case of “This could be what happens to you,” and possibly, after you leave your body, your soul divides and lives on. And so the movie is fascinating in the sense that there’s a reality to the film, which is Susie’s parents and her sister and her murderer. There’s a storyline that’s about them, you know and they live a perfectly real life, and continue to do so. There’s nothing at all fantastic about that storyline, and in fact we tried to make that as real as we possibly could. And in the other half of the movie we’re following Susie’s point of view. And her point of view is being told from the point of view of her soul, which is living on after she dies. And how she reacts to that. How she wants to see her killer punished. And is it really punishment that she wants? Is punishment what she should be after? You know, we’ve asked those sorts of interesting questions.
And you know it’s not a ghost movie. So she doesn’t operate on the rules that you see in normal ghost movies. She can’t make doors slam, and she can’t do any harm to anybody, yet she wants to try to get the guy who killed her to court, because he’s getting away with it. And so, it was a fascinating mixture of the two. And that was one of the, I guess, challenges of the film, to be stepping in and out of both of those points of view, the real and the fantastic.
And the balance of it? You’ll have to see for yourself when you see the movie if we succeeded with the balance. That is the trick, though, getting that balance right, so that it’s not—it’s keeping the story told, keeping the momentum going, making sure that it’s delicate, not heavy-handed. All of that was the challenge of making this particular film.
University of Missouri-Kansas City: Hi. I was wondering, as far as the type of the audience that the film is intended for, how would you compare it to the book? Like, would you say you were trying to keep it pretty consistent, or were you trying to reach out to more of a larger audience?
PJ: That’s a very good question. We wanted it to be a PG-13. We didn’t want to make an R-rated movie. We’ve got a daughter who was 12 years old when we made the movie, she’s 13 now. And we wanted her to see this film. We really made the movie partly for our daughter. Because it revolves around, you know what happens to a 14-year-old when this creepy guy down the road lures her into a room and kills her. And you know we wanted some aspects of the movie be a lesson. And a lesson that our daughter should look at. Because this stuff does actually happen in real life, unfortunately. So we felt a responsibility, certainly on some aspects, to make it real. But nor did we want to make it gratuitous or explicit. The film’s about a murder, but we don’t show the murder on screen. We didn’t want to do that because we didn’t want that to be the defining moment of the film. Susie’s murder is the catalyst that starts our story going. But it’s not a film about her murder. It’s a film about what happens after her murder.
We did think very hard about our audience, and about content. And we didn’t want people to be put off going to see the movie by the thought that they’d be seeing horrible things on screen. I mean, I know I’d feel like that. So we didn’t show anything horrible on-screen because we were very careful. Even more so than just about any film that we’ve ever made before, we really did think very closely about our responsibilities as filmmakers to keep the film entertaining. To give it a message and purpose and not to alienate people.
University of Alberta: I was just wondering if you could talk a bit about Saoirse Ronan, who plays Susie Salmon in this film. She’s quite a young actress, and I just wanted to get your opinions on I guess her future.
PJ: Well, she is terrific. She’s an Irish actress, but she puts on a perfect American accent. She was 13 years old, I think, when we first met her, and cast her in the film. And she has the qualities that I think a great actor needs. There’s a couple of qualities that anybody who wants to act has got to have. They’ve got to be ferociously smart and bright. And you also have to be incredibly brave and courageous. And if you’re intelligent and brave then you can act. And you can act really, really well. Because, you know, you can get taught the techniques of acting, but you can’t be taught to be brave, nor can you be taught to be smart, really. It’s something you’re born with.
So, she is incredibly gifted, and natural—those natural gifts. And she’s courageous, because she’s not acting. The acting is never about pretending. It’s about making it real. And when she’s crying on screen, she’s really crying, because she’s thinking about things that are making her cry. I think she was thinking about a dog that she had that died when we needed her to have tears. And you know she had to go there for us and not feel self-conscious. And so she has this wonderful spirit, this wonderful courageous spirit. She’ll try anything that I asked her to do. And she did it perfectly well every time. And she’s fun to be around. She’s got a great sense of humor, too. She doesn’t take it seriously. Because the world of show business, and especially acting, can get out of control very quickly and can go to people’s heads very fast. And she has an incredible sense of humor, and she finds it all to be rather funny, and sends it up. Sends up the world of stardom and the world of paparazzi and celebrity. She sends it up in a very funny way all the time, which is good. I think she’s going to have a terrific career. Terrific career. She reminds me of a young Cate Blanchett, actually, I think. I can just see Saoirse going on to make many, many films in the future and have a long, long, long illustrious career.
University of New Mexico: Hi, Mr. Jackson. I wanted to ask you, we talked about how, when you’re making a movie from a book, about half of it gets cut out. But are there other things that need to be added necessarily? Like music cues and cuts and cinematography. How do you add these theatrical elements to the medium when it was originally just like printed on the page?
PJ: That’s an interesting question. I mean, because that is really when you do know it has become a film and it does, like you say, move away from the source material, the novel. I mean, every film would have its own different answers to those questions. So, if we’ll just talk about The Lovely Bones in this instance, that movie was set in 1973. The actual film is, the story of the film is in 1973. So, that dictated a lot of our music choices. We wanted the music track to reflect the time in which the film was made. So we used a lot of music that was around in the early ’70s. And there was some great stuff. So we’ve got a really good soundtrack. We also, rather than have a film composer compose the soundtrack score, which in addition to the songs, is the music that plays in the background, we actually had Brian Eno. He is a very famous composer from that era of the ’60s and ’70s, and still works now, but he was a well known name back in the ’70s. And Brian has composed the music for us. He’s done a few films in the past, but not very many. So the music we saw as being really important to help establish the tone of the film and to set the film in that period of time.
You know, when I write the script, which I write my scripts with two other people, we do usually put in descriptions of sound effects, or we put in descriptions of sound design, if it’s important to the scene. And so, as you’re writing the script, it’s more than just the characters and the dialog that goes in. We actually mention songs, too, if there’s a particular song we want playing over the sequence, then we’ll write that song into the screenplay. So a lot of those things are addressed at the very beginning. And sound design is important. It’s one of those things that not a lot of people think about the sound when they look at a movie. And I don’t mean the music, now. I mean, the actual sound effects. And it’s not even the sound effects meaning the big, loud sounds. It’s often, in the case of The Lovely Bones, we used sound design a lot when we are in the afterlife with Susie. We just have the atmospheric sounds playing in the background of this world that she’s in that are different sort of atmospheric sounds than we have here in our real world.
So, we did want to create a soundscape that is very subliminal, and it’s not something that you consciously think about when you’re looking at the movie. But you’re sitting there in that seat in the cinema, and your ears are just picking up the cues that we’re sending. And sometimes in very subtle ways, which is quite a potent whip the filmmaker has. It’s not one that people obviously concentrate on too much.
University of Buffalo: I know you’ve been tied down to the Halo project for a while, which kind of fell out recently and led on to District 9. Do you feel the project will eventually come through? And if it does, what do you hope to see with it?
PJ: I think—well, to answer your question, I think yes, there probably will be a Halo movie made. I don’t think we’ll be involved with it. That was a period of time— I was going to produce the movie, and Neill Blomkamp was going to direct it. And we were writing a screenplay, and the studios who were involved decided not to make it at that time. They were sort of having an argument with each other, and the whole thing fell apart. Since that’s happened, and it was probably about 18 months ago now, since that has happened, I know that for Halo, the film rights have expired, and Microsoft, who owns the Halo property, they’ve got the film rights back again now. So the film rights themselves don’t sit with any studios at all at the moment. Microsoft, I think, wanted to make a film, but they had a disappointing experience, like we did. So I think they’re wanting to make a film under their own terms and conditions and not see a repeat of what happened last time.
And I don’t think they’re in any hurry to make a film. But I think they will possibly do a movie when it makes sense for them to do it. Probably when there’s a future Halo game coming out. They’ll sort of tie it in with the game. But in terms of us being involved, I mean, I was involved mainly because I love the game. But also because Mary Parent, who was a producer I was working with on King Kong, she was going to be producing it. But she’s no longer involved with it. Neill Blomkamp was going to direct it, but he wouldn’t be involved in it anymore, because he’s now got his career—it was going to be his first film. But of course District 9 became his first movie. Now he’s got other projects that he’s working on.
So you know it was as much about the people that I was going to be working with as it was about the project. And those people have gone now, and you know it wouldn’t be as much fun to me anymore now to do it. So I think in terms of me and Halo, that was a moment in time which may or may not have happened. And as we know, it didn’t happen. But we did do District 9 instead, so you know something came out of it. But I don’t think I’ll be going back there again. I mean, I might be wrong. It’s certainly not in black and white. But I’d be surprised.
Michigan Tech: I was going to ask, was there any particular actor or actress that you worked with in this film that you found particularly enjoyable? Such as perhaps Stanley Tucci or Mark Wahlberg, or…?
PJ: Well, they were all great. I liked all of them. I mean, all actors are different. It’s interesting, and one of my jobs as a director is to very quickly learn how to direct an actor. Because I don’t say the same thing to everybody, because each actor requires a slightly different approach, depending on what their acting style is. So it’s always an interesting experience. Because I’ve got to fit in with their way of working and figure that out. And it’s quite daunting when you’ve never even met the people before, let alone worked with them. And suddenly you’re having to direct them, and usually I just talk to them. And it’s things like—this may sound silly, but you know when you’re making a movie, and you shoot several takes, you never shoot it in one take, you always shoot you know five or six or seven takes. There’s some actors who do their best work on take one and two. And then as you shoot takes four, five, six or seven, they aren’t as good. You know, they give everything to those early takes. They nail it. And after that, it becomes repetitive for them, and it’s never that fresh. And yet, there are other actors who keep getting better and better. And take six is better than take five. And you do take seven, which is the best one. And then take eight’s the best one. But it’s really difficult when you’ve got two actors in the same scene and one of them peaks on take two, and then one isn’t going to get good until take seven.
So you’re trying to actually balance all these things out. You know, it’s interesting. It’s fascinating. But in terms of personalities, I mean, they were all really terrific. I get nervous dealing with actors because you hear and read a lot of stories about people. But they were very normal, nice people, and they just appreciate. What I love doing with an actor is to include them in the process. I just like to talk to them about what we’re trying to achieve with the scene and ask them for ideas. And if you include people in the whole process and make them a partner, along with you, in making the movie, it’s a great experience. And it becomes a really fun thing to work on.
Interestingly enough, I worked with Mike Imperioli. We cast him because he did an audition for us and we thought he was terrific. He was a great actor, a really nice guy. And since working with him, I watched all The Sopranos, which I hadn’t seen a single episode of when I actually shot the film. And everyone was saying I should watch The Sopranos, and they were saying that he’s fantastic in it. So after I finished working with him and said goodbye, I’ve become a huge fan of his because I watched every single episode of The Sopranos in the space of about three weeks. And I really enjoyed it. So, I’m looking forward to seeing him again. He’s going to be at some premieres, and I can at least say that I’ve seen his great TV work now.