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Peter Jackson's brave new world: the grief-stricken dreamscape of 'The Lovely Bones'

Colin Covert
Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

MINNEAPOLIS — After four flamboyant epics — the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and a remake of "King Kong" — Peter Jackson has moved to a film that's both smaller and bigger.

"The Lovely Bones" brings Alice Sebold's acclaimed novel to the screen on terms that are personal one moment and universal the next. It follows murdered 14-year-old Susie Salmon into the afterlife, where she watches her family struggle with its shock and grief, and observes her killer, who lives undetected in their neighborhood. Scenes grounded in the mundane reality of 1970s suburban Pennsylvania alternate with vibrant, candy-colored dreamscapes in which tall ships in giant glass bottles shatter against rocky shores and day coexists with night.

Even for a director with a rare aptitude for building compelling fantasy worlds, it's a serious challenge. In a phone interview, Jackson discussed the appeal of Sebold's novel, how he creates female characters and his cameo in the movie. (Spoiler alert: Plot details are discussed below.)

Q. This is in one sense an intimate personal story and in another an almost infinite story of life after death. Which of those aspects was most appealing to you, or was it the combination?

A. It was the combination, definitely. We work in an industry that loves to have simple definitions, simple boxes to put projects into. I like the provocative nature of this project. It was a dramatic story told from a perspective I'd never seen before — "the in-between" as Susie calls it. We regarded that as not a place so much as a state of mind. So when she's murdered and her spirit and life force is not connected to Earth anymore through her body, she's in this sort of subconscious state of dream. I thought that was a fascinating perspective to tell a mystery story from, a crime story combined with the more drama-based story of the survivors who were grieving her. So it was the mix of the genres, the fact that it didn't define itself one way or another.

Q. We're used to seeing stories about the death of loved ones as the mainspring for stories about criminal investigations or revenge, but we rarely see the emotional repercussions.

A. No, and it often doesn't focus on the victim, or the afterlife, either (laughs). What I like about it is the mystery that's at the heart of the story is not the usual one. We know who killed her early on. Susie's story is playing itself out as a murder mystery where the victim doesn't even know they're dead. And she slowly gets these clues that come in this weird, dreamlike language of metaphor and she slowly pieces together what's happening.

Q. Susie is not a classic, passive ghost. She flees from her own murder.

A. She "runs away" at the time she's being killed; as soon as her spirit is disconnected and free, she's running, she's racing across the field, racing towards her house to the comfort of her home and protection of her parents. Later, what happened to her body no one knows but the killer, and she has to confront him through entering his subconscious, seeing his other victims and realizing what a monster he really is. That whole side of it I'd never seen before and I thought, "Wow, this is interesting."

Q. She's remarkable in that she's taken from life at a point where she's young, innocent, optimistic about her future and she retains that well-adjusted optimism even after she's killed.

A. That was a very important thing for us, her lack of self-pity made for a really good character. I just don't like films about grief and the somber reality of the world and mourning and angst and tears. Those are not my type of films. So all that sense of optimism and life and humor that Susie has, and the overall degree of comfort the movie gives you, that was very important.

Q. In this film and "Heavenly Creatures," a story about an intense female friendship, you display a remarkable sensitivity for the mind-set of young girls. How much do you rely on input from your co-creators in that regard?

A. They're very important right across the board, not just in writing characters like Susie. We write as a team, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens and I. My producer is a woman and I've had a woman first assistant director for 20 years. I like women more than men in a funny kind of way, to where I'd rather work with them as collaborators. They're more refreshing, they're funnier and I find with women, there's no ego involved, none of that blokey kind of macho nonsense.

In terms of writing Susie, it helped that she was an exact contemporary of ours. We were 13, 14 in 1973 when Susie was. That was also good because it was a time when I was engaged in the same sort of pop culture, though I didn't have David Cassidy posters on my wall.

Q. Is that why you pop up for a cameo appearance as a camera bug at the shopping mall?

A. Yeah, by accident. I wasn't planning on doing that. It was a nostalgic trip to walk around this abandoned mall that we'd dressed out as a 1973 mall, and there was a photo shop in there with a bunch of Super-8 cameras put in the window by the props department. I recognized one of the Super-8 cameras as the one I made home movies with when I was 13 years old. Suddenly there was this incredible connection. That seemed a natural moment to have a cameo playing around with this camera.

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