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Peter Jackson Talks 'Lovely Bones'

Peter Jackson tells us what it was like creating the In-Between world with Weta.

Check out The Lovely Bones trailer at AWNtv!

The In-Between world is a surreal, dreamlike state of limbo for Susie to work out the mystery of what happened to her. All images courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

After The Lord of the Rings and King Kong, Peter Jackson shifts gears with The Lovely Bones, the ethereal yet disturbing story about a 14-year-old teenager (Saoirse Ronan) brutally raped and murdered in 1973 by her mild-mannered neighbor (Stanley Tucci). Based on the best-selling novel by Alice Sebold, Jackson was particularly drawn to Susie's state of limbo, which he calls the In-Between world. He discusses the challenges of conjuring this imaginative state of being.

Bill Desowitz: How did you come up with the look of the In-Between world?

Peter Jackson:

We started out by addressing a lot of this in the screenplay and we used the imagery of dream and dream analysis, because the great thing with dream is all about metaphors: nothing is ever direct; nothing ever means one thing or another. A house is really a person, so the house that she sees in the middle of the dead cornfield represents Mr. Harvey and she knows that ultimately to confront the man that killed her, she has to re-enter the door of the house, and she enters Harvey's mind and sees his previous victims, which only he has images of in his mind, and so her subconscious is entering his subconscious.

But it was certainly open to interpretation and we wanted to very much explore the surrealism and the way that Dali and Magritte and some of these artists were masters of where you don't understand literally what you're seeing but it evokes an emotional response, which hints you in the right direction to what we want.

BD: And Weta's work?

PJ: We started out by meeting with the Weta artists, of which Michael [Pangrazio, vfx art director] was one of the lead artists. And several of the Weta Workshop conceptual artists were involved. And we started very much with an open brief of just completing dream imagery that were not initially so plot oriented, but had more to do with just landscape that was within the subconscious. And we came up with ideas like she would wake up in a forest like Little Red Riding Hood, which is always used as a great way, especially for a child, who's lost and needs to find a way out. We explored interesting ideas for how the forest could look: some of them using trees, some of them using other stylized musical instruments from the school that formed the trunks of trees. We threw all sorts of interesting explorations there. Water played a part in it because the transition from life to death is very traditional with the River Styx and that whole concept of using the boat, and rebirth as well, as she sinks.

Weta's challenge was to mix up physics in an unnatural way using the artwork as a template.

And there was an image that we really liked of her floating down past her house. We recognize her house but she's now floating underwater and is passing from the world of consciousness to the world of dream state. So we had these notions and ideas and the guys started drawing up this art and we literally, as they produced pieces that we liked, started to narrow the choices down. One piece of art might have an element that we really liked combined with another and it was a question of putting a lot of this together. And some artists felt it more than others, and Michael ended up being a terrifically wonderful surrealist artist, which is interesting for a guy with a history of matte painting where you are actually creating total reality. I'm sure he was unleashing all sorts of creative things inside himself.

BD: In terms of the CG imagery, what was most challenging?

PJ: The art was definitely used as the template for the CG imagery. But the things that were difficult sort of required the world to behave in a way that was not following the laws of physics. One idea that I had that came from a piece of art was Susie running across the cornfield towards the Gazebo and she doesn't even quite understand that she's dead at this stage of the story, but she had her first date with Ray [Reece Ritchie] and they were going to meet at the Gazebo on Saturday night. And she sees this Gazebo in the field and she's running towards it and the field has corn and one of the very familiar dream images is, as you start running towards something, your feet get glued down or you start running through tree trunk syrup -- we've all had those dreams where we can't reach where we want to. So, we all had the idea of this wheat field becoming a sea of water, so the wheat starts to undulate like following the waves of the ocean and it splashes stuff that come out of the wheat so the tops of the wheat start throwing drops of water off, and she slowly starts sinking in it and then the water takes over from the wheat and she sinks further. So that stuff was difficult because you're applying the physics of oceans and water to a field of wheat and I think technically that presented the biggest challenge because of the way we were mixing up physics in a way that's not really natural.

BD: And what about heaven?

The landscape reflects Susie's subconscious state as much as the symbols she encounters.

PJ: There's only one moment in the film where we get a glimpse of heaven. We experimented for a long time with how much of it we should show because I didn't really want to see heaven and wanted to keep that intangible and to the audiences' imagination. So it did take us a while -- which was more of an artistic challenge than a technical one -- to figure out how much we should show and, if you don't show much, how do people actually realize what they're seeing?

BD: It forced you to be iconic.

PJ: The iconic helped us in a way, as you say, because that's where the cliché of heaven allowed us to use reasonably simple imagery and communicate that this was heaven without needing to show anything complicated. I didn't want anyone to actually, really understand what was in there. That was something for the characters to find out, not for the audience.

BD: What's it like being on the cutting edge of technological change?

A flickering candle connects the living with the dead, reminding us that technology is only a tool for conveying human drama.

PJ: I don't think that Avatar or Tintin-style motion capture or any of these things are going to change the industry radically. I think the media enjoy writing about that and a lot of the media is creating drama because, as you know, the world of drama and the world of news have combined now. So people like to talk about the way that the industry is changing with all of this technology. But technology is only ever a tool. It's a good thing because it gives us another brush to paint with and gives filmmakers more of an opportunity to present anything that they imagine.

BD: But aren't you better able to shoot what's in your head?

PJ: Yeah, but that situation's existed for maybe three or four years now. I see 3-D as a wonderful tool and a great experience for an audience. But I liken it to CinemaScope. When CinemaScope came out, people loved watching The Robe and [other large format films such as] Ben-Hur. You know, these movies in this great widescreen format were suited to a particular type of film. But eventually lots of filmmakers started to use CinemaScope and it gets used now for small dramas because as a format it has possibilities for a director. So, like CinemaScope, I think in the beginning 3-D will be associated with a particular type of film but eventually can be used at a filmmaker's discretion for all sorts of films.

And motion capture's terrific because it allows actors to be in control of the performance of a digital character rather than an animator, really, because, in a way, motion capture seems to be replacing an animator with an actor. But that's interesting to have these talented actors who are bringing these digital characters to life. And that's a gain. But that's a particular type of film. But at the end of the day, none of this is going to replace the idea that people will want to watch human beings on screen because that's who we relate to. We like stories about non-humans, but most of our entertainment is going to be about people being transported.

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.

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Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.