The Lovely Bones was (sales figures for teenage wizards apart) the literary sensation of 2002. But it was also a book that was widely perceived as 'unfilmable'. So it caused quite a stir when, on the back of his staggering success with the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson announced his attention to follow up those groundbreaking films with the cinematic version of Alice Sebold's gripping tale of a teenage girl who, after being raped and murdered, watches from Heaven as her family and friends struggle to move on with their lives while she comes to terms with her own death. Buzzine's Izumi Hasegawa sat down with the Kiwi director and his all-star cast in Hollywood, CA to find out how they acheived the unachievable...
Izumi Hasegawa: What were your biggest challenges in adapting The Lovely Bones? What hurt you the most of what you had to leave out?
Peter Jackson: Any film that I’ve done, you shoot scenes that don’t end up in the final cut. In my mind, there’s no such thing as a perfect adaptation of a book. The master work is the book. Alice Sebold’s novel is The Lovely Bones. That is the work that has got everything in it — every character, every subplot — and that’s the way you should experience the story, in its most pure form. A film adaptation of any book, especially The Lovely Bones, in this example, is only ever going to be a souvenir. It’s going to be an impression of aspects of the book. To me, to adapt a book is not a question of producing a carbon copy of the book. It’s impossible. To include everything, the film would be five or six hours long. It’s a personal impression that basically Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh and myself wrote the screenplay and we read the book. We responded to aspects of the book, especially emotional themes, the comforting value of the book and things it had to say about the afterlife, and that aspect of it, which is very personal to anybody. That’s what we responded to, and our adaptation is very much just elements of the book restructured, following our interests and our takes. 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 that.
IH: Rachel, since there was so much cut, do you get anything at all from the book or did you work just from the script?
Rachel Weisz: I think it’s really wonderful to have that. The script was very beautiful, but it’s a huge bonus to have a novel as well, which will give you the interior life of your character, give you their back-story, their biography. So for me, it was only a huge extra help — great fuel for your imagination — so I went back to the book many, many times to get a feeling of Abigail.
IH: Are there things missing?
RW: There are lots of things that we shot that couldn’t make it into the final movie because, as he said, it would have to be a miniseries, basically, if you wanted to get all of the character stories in. So yes, there were things for everybody’s characters that didn’t make it.
IH: Susan, does your character have a makeover as part of her coping with grief?
Susan Sarandon: Obviously, she’s been self-medicating for years and in anticipation of something bad. But yeah, I think maybe she mourns in another movie, but not in this movie, because that’s not my job. My job is to keep things moving forward. It’s a really great choice to have somebody that’s completely inept be the one that tries to keep the house going, because if I was a really seemingly solid knitting granny who you would expect to come forward, it’d be really boring. But the fact that she’s throwing ashes simultaneously everywhere she’s cleaning, I think it allows the audience to laugh in an appropriate place, as opposed to having some release some place you wouldn’t be welcomed.
I just love the fact that that’s the way life is. When something horrible happens, you do find yourself laughing in weird places in the midst of grief, and crying in the supermarket when you see a cereal that somebody used to eat. There’s just no way of guarding yourself one way or another. Everybody grieves differently, and there’s no right or wrong way. My function, in the bigger picture, was to be hilarious. It was great not having to do what this poor gal had to do or Mark had to do. I’ve been there in movies. I’ve lost many a child on celluloid, so I was happy that I was once removed, that my job was much more fun. I guess the big challenge, and I relied on Pete for this, is to make sure it’s not too over the top and to throw things away. The lines were so funny, you didn’t really have to hit them too hard. You have to believe the audience isn’t stupid. You can just keep going and do it. So I was counting on them to just make sure that I wasn’t doing a caricature and she seemed real. That would be the trap on this character.
IH: Mark, why did you want to do this, and where do you go to play every parent’s worst nightmare?
Mark Wahlberg: Well, my biggest reason for wanting to be a part of this was Peter Jackson. I’m a huge fan of Peter’s. Because of the way I approach work, I wasn’t all that thrilled about the subject matter because I have a beautiful little girl and two beautiful boys. I don’t have the God given talent that Rachel has to just snap into it and have these floods of emotion coming out and then turn it all off. So I basically had to live in that head-space for the entire time. I just thought it would be a beautiful movie, and it was too good to pass up the opportunity to be a part of it.
IH: Stanley, was this part hard to drop at the end of the day?
Stanley Tucci: It was hard in every respect. I was very reticent to take the part at first, for reasons Mark just explained. I have kids, and I can’t really read anything or watch anything with kids getting harmed. I don’t like things about serial killers. There’s so much serial killer information out there in documentaries constantly. A lot of it is just sort of gratuitous, or it’s almost like porn really. There’s no reason for it being shown. This was not that.
This was a beautiful story about an exploration of loss. Pete and Fran and Philippa, in the long conversations we had before we started working together — I felt very safe with them. I felt that there would be nothing here that would be gratuitous and that we were going to create a person together in Mr. Harvey that was a real person. The more real he is, the more subtle he is, the more terrifying he is. The more banal he is, the more terrifying he is.
At the very beginning, it was very hard to leave it at the end of the day, to drop it, particularly when you’re fresh off your research, and the research was repulsive. But eventually, once you understand who he is and you find him, then I could drop him at the end of the day. But I will say, without question, it was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done as an actor. I’d look forward to going into the makeup trailer taking everything off and having a martini at the end of every day…and the beginning of every day too, as a matter of fact.
IH: Peter, what drew you to The Lovely Bones? It is an intimate character study after doing four big effect-driven stories?
PJ: The only thing, as a filmmaker, that I fear is repetition. I have no interest at all in doing the same thing over and over again, and that’s not to say I wouldn’t do another fantasy film or I wouldn’t do another splatter film one day, or another film with puppets. 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 was a challenge. Things are immediately much more interesting and enjoyable if they’re difficult. If you’re attempting to do something, or if you decide that you’re going to take on a project for the next year or two years, if it’s familiar and if it’s treading on the same ground that you’ve gone before, immediately it’s going to be less interesting than taking on something that has new demands and a fresh challenge.
The Lovely Bones is a wonderful puzzle. It’s a terrific book that affects you emotionally, but the book doesn’t have a structure that immediately makes a film obvious in your mind. You take 20 different filmmakers and give them a book like this – any book, really, but especially Lovely Bones – and you’ll have 20 completely different films, which is interesting. So the idea of certainly doing something that was a challenging new topic was absolutely of great interest to us.
IH: Did all of you agree with how justice was carried out in the film, or about the ending — her decision between the boy and what’s in the box?
PJ: That was one of the things, really, that we loved about the climax — the fact that she has this moment through the use of Ruth, who is a girl with genuine psychic ability. Susie finds that she has a few seconds back on Earth again — a few seconds where she’s inhabiting a body rather than being this sort of free spirit, and in those few seconds, she could decide to say, “Call the police! That guy out the window is the man who murdered me. You’ll find my body inside that safe. Quickly, get to a phone and call the cops.” But she doesn’t do that. She has that choice, but in those few seconds, she decides to have the kiss that she wanted to have, and she makes that her choice. We just thought that was a beautiful way to end the story.
In terms of the very end, what I like about what happens to Mr. Harvey is that it confirms a hope that we all have that, even if the police or the legal authorities don’t ultimately do their work, there’s a form of natural justice that happens. That was very much the concept behind what happens to Mr. Harvey — that there’s an icicle that falls that’s just enough to throw him off balance, which is just enough to have him slip and fall down to his death, and that’s a form of natural justice. It’s not a person doing it; we don’t think it’s a person. Did the icicle fall, or was it pushed? Who knows? It’s one of the interesting questions. Nonetheless, it confirmed something that I think everybody hopes, which is that there is such a thing in the world as natural justice that also prevails.
IH: Susie’s limbo world – talk about the challenge of coming up with the right look and tone…
PJ: The key thing to us was just the concept that it wasn’t a physical place. We weren’t saying that when you die, you’re going to go into this afterlife and in this movie we’re going to show you what that afterlife is like — that’s not what we attempted to do. We wanted to base it on Susie’s subconscious, so at the point that she is no longer anchored to Earth through her body, her mind is in the world of dreams, like at night, she dreams as we all do, but now that she no longer has a living body, she’s permanently in this world of the subconscious, which is essentially a dream world. Everything is a metaphor in a dream world; everything means something else, but it’s not a literal thing, so we used image systems that the audience is not really supposed to understand, but 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.
IH: Talk about working with Brian Eno and what he brought to the film…
PJ: Brian Eno was a delightful surprise that happened. Interestingly enough, we had made a decision, earlier on, that we would possibly have no soundtrack composer on the movie, that we thought it would be interesting to do what Martin Scorsese does, very much inspired by him, and have a soundtrack that was composed of songs of that period and choose songs especially that would be suitable for particular sequences in the film. And when we were compiling a list of songs as we were writing the script, we would write them into the screenplay, so we would actually identify the names of songs in the script that we thought would be appropriate. It was two or three of Brian Eno’s existing tracks that made it onto our list – “Baby’s On Fire” was one that we always thought would be great to accompany the scene where Mark goes into the cornfield with the baseball bat. There was an instrumental that he did called “The Big Ship,” which was another beautiful piece of music that we had planned on using, in addition to a lot of other pieces by other composers.
So we got to the point, pretty much at the beginning of post-production, where we had to start to ask permission to use these tracks, and we contacted Brian and explained what we were doing and could we use these couple songs of his, and he asked us about the film. He rushed out and grabbed the book to read it – he was curious – and he said to us, “Have you got a composer to do the soundtrack?” We said well, no, not really. We didn’t think – we might not use one. And he said he would be really interested in doing it if we wanted to go that way – he sort of volunteered, which was amazing because we never even thought to ask him. He’s done a couple of movies, but it’s not something that he really devotes much of his time to, and he’s very busy doing all sorts of amazing projects.
So Brian was great to work with, and [it was] an incredibly different experience because we’re used to working with composers who take a final edit of the movie and they compose music to exactly the cut of the film you give them, to the final actual seconds and frames. It’s all perfectly lined up, and Brian didn’t want to see the rough cut of the film. He didn’t want to read the script. He wanted to see conceptual art, he wanted to see imagery, he wanted to be inspired by emotion, he wanted to see photographs of the set, and then he started to compose, and we were just communicating with him over iChat. We were in New Zealand and he was in the U.K., and he would send us these long pieces of music — beautiful, instrumental, emotional pieces which might be seven or eight minutes long and would have all sorts of interesting shapes to them. He just basically said that we should edit these pieces of music as we saw fit and combine them and blend them, and that’s how he worked. It was a completely different way to how we’ve ever worked with a composer before, but for this particular movie, both the sound and the style of working really ended up suiting the film greatly.
IH: Susan, how do you tap into joy in real life?
SS: I’m always trying to have a good time on set because it keeps me loose, and that’s when things happen. That’s when you’re playful. I was that way during Lorenzo’s Oil, so I’m irreverent because that’s just the way I work. I haven’t really been trained or anything, and I find that, just to keep myself open, I can’t be bogged down all the time, so it’s a habit I’ve formed. But certainly, Peter wants to work in a non-anxious set. I think everybody that was in this project were people who didn’t have to be miserable to get to a place where they could create, which sometimes people spend a lot of energy doing things in a completely opposite way of working, where they’re antagonistic to get to a creative place. But none of these people that you see up here or that were even on the crew … everybody was just trying to do their job and do the best they could. Everyone was supportive of each other.
There were dogs, there were families around. I was close to my family, so it wasn’t difficult to try to find a place of…not joy necessarily, but just where you felt secure and where people were having nice conversations, even when things weren’t going on in the midst of everything else, because I think, for me, if you get yourself in a state, you try to hold onto that state, you just get numb. You can’t really feel anything anymore, at least I can’t. So even when I have to, in the movies where I’ve had to be really upset, sometimes the crew tries to cheer you up, which isn’t helpful right before. Sometimes they’ll tell you a joke or something. You’re like, “I just need a minute.” But on this one, I think what’s beautiful about the movie is that it tells you to live your life and be joyful when you can and when you have it, because the scary thing about this tale is that it happens in such a haphazard way, and that’s how bad things happen sometimes, and that’s the way good things happen too.
Everything’s serendipitous, and there’s no way of knowing who’s going to get sick or who’s going to get hit by a bus or who’s going to fall in love and who’s going to get pregnant. All the things that happen are up for grabs, so it’s kind of an exercise in surrender, in a way. So I kind of just surrendered to the atmosphere of what was going on, and the words were there, and the cigarette and booze. It’s always more fun to have lots of props and find a way to never let them go.
'The Lovely Bones' is in theaters now from Paramount Pictures