Director Peter Jackson has had one of the most unusual journeys in contemporary film history, going from frantic micro-budgeted shock-horror-comedy grossouts shot in his native New Zealand in the mid-80s to helming some of the biggest-budgeted and highest-grossing screen fantasies ever, notably the once-deemed impossible-to-film Lord of the Rings trilogy. His latest picture is an adaptation of the horrific and hopeful afterlife saga The Lovely Bones, based on Alice Sebold’s best-selling novel about a young girl’s quest for peace and resolution in the wake of her brutal rape and murder.
Jackson graciously consented to entertain questions from The Auteurs community members for a brief interview, which was conducted by Notebook contributor and former Premiere film critic Glenn Kenny. We were able to successfully pitch five questions; they, and their answers, follow.
KYLE ST-AMOUR-BRENNAN asks: What are your thoughts on the current economic climate in relation to film production? Does the continual integration of digital technology in Hollywood (you being a heavy supporter of the RED digital cinema camera), make it actually cheaper to make a film, or has it just allowed more money to be allocated more so on postproduction elements (special effects, etc..) ?
PETER JACKSON: Interesting. The main problem with the current climate is not so much to do with the advent of new technologies as it has to do with the changing face of distribution, and the changing nature of the audience demographics as well. The studios are finding it harder to make sense of the film industry, partly that has to do with the fact that studios are now part of these large corporations for which film is just a part of the conglomerate’s larger business. So there’s this particularly weird way in which Wall St. is controlling the production of movies, leading to quite a depressed time, where there doesn’t seem to be a market for medium or small budget films. Some of it’s the change in distribution, some of it’s a little bit to do with piracy; it’s all more complex than I could ever go into and I’m not an expert.
However, I think it’s a cycle. And eventually I think we’re going to arrive at a place where the internet and that type of technology settles down, and the film industry figures out a way to live with it. I’m looking forward to that particular conflict coming to an end within two or three years.
I don’t think any of it has much to do with digital cameras. I think there’s a whole economic thing going on that’s quite serious. We’re also talking about the audience, too, the fact that young people today have a multitude of different things to do, ways to occupy themselves during the weekend, and that going to the movies has a lot more to compete with.
But I do feel optimism. And where I do feel optimism, that’s where digital technology comes in. When I think my depressive thoughts of how hard it is to make interesting movies, I remind myself, “Hang on, there’s a generation of young people with access to movie equipment that’s cheaper and of higher quality than ever before.” Cameras like the RED camera. It makes me feel like saying, “If you’re out there reading this, go and get to making movies!” I really feel like it could lead to as exciting a creative explosion in filmmaking as what happened in the 70s.
The thing that excites me most about the RED, incidentally, is the image quality. I like the fact that is was designed by a camera buff. Jim Jannard’s passion is to create a digital camera available to everybody. Each generation of the RED is just going get better and better.
DIMITRA LAINA asks: How did musician Brian Eno get involved in this project? Was he your first choice to score the film?
JACKSON: Our first choice was to have no soundtrack composer, but to do as Martin Scorsese often does and create a soundtrack of a multitude of songs from the period in which the film takes place, the early 70s, knowing that the style of a Hollywood score seemed inappropriate for the material. Fran Walsh, my partner and a screenwriter on the film, is much more of a music expert than I am, and loves that period of music, and she compiled a list of about twenty songs to put in the film. We wrote a lot of the songs into the script, to give us the feel of how thing went here, how there, and so on. And during the beginning of post-production, we were contacting the copyright holders of the various songs and among them were Brian Eno’s “The Big Ship,” an instrumental he did, and the other was “Baby’s On Fire.” We contacted Brian, and he was curious about the project, he had read the book, and we started talking on iChat. And he was a big childhood hero of Fran’s, so she was just beside herself with joy that he was communicating with us; and during the course of our discussions, he asked who was doing the score. And we said, “Well, we don’t really have anybody doing a score.” And he asked, “How would you feel about my volunteering my services?” And we said, “Yup, we would feel pretty damn good!” And that’s how it happened. He had a real enthusiasm for the project that kept up the entire time.
GEORGE ZAVER asks: Where did your inspiration come for your depiction of Heaven in The Lovely Bones?
JACKSON: Well, that’s really something that came about in the script-writing phase, and it’s good to talk about it, because it seems to be something of a common misconception: Heaven is not depicted in The Lovely Bones, the book or the film. It’s a common mistake that people make, even reviewers. Heaven is really a place that Susie Salmon, our heroine who is murdered, is trying to get to. The problem is, during her time in the book and the film, she is trapped in this limbo state called “the in-between.” Which is why this part of her after-life is not depicted as a fixed physical location, which is what she’s trying to get to. We’re not saying, “When you die, this is what it’s going to look like.” We conceived it as a dream-like state. Here we’re seeing her life force, or spirit, no longer anchored to earth and existing in world of subconscious, a world of dream, seeing images based on dream imagery, metaphor, it’s like surrealist art. Dali, that sort of thing. The audience is not supposed to fully understand everything; it’s more about an overall effect we want to present to you. And of course the emotion of the story. That dictated everything we tried to do in that realm.
JOHN KEEFER asks: Would you consider going back to low budget horror filmmaking an interesting challenge? Is there anything that appeals to you about that idea? Or since your massive, and deserved, success could you not shake what you've learned to make a truly small film, as Hitchcock did with Psycho?
JACKSON: The answer is yes to all those questions! Very much so. I do have a lot of different ideas for films I’d like to make and definitely, going back to low budget movies interests me greatly. Having made expensive movies, they have a pressure about them and expectations around them that are okay it, you know, those are the movies you want to make at that time and those means are the only way you can make them.
In the last year I produced a science-fiction film called District 9 for 30 million dollars, which is still a good deal of money but it’s relatively low budget, and I would love to do some films in that range. That was a very enjoyable experience. I’m still the same guy who made Dead Alive, I haven’t changed, and I’d love to do another film, a few other films, in that mode.
AUSTIN DALE asks: Many, many, many of your films appear to be heavily influenced by avant-garde cinema. How have films from the margins of mainstream taste changed the way you view filmmaking and expression through the cinema, and which films or aesthetic ideas have influenced you the most?
JACKSON: My God! What a question!
I have reasonably broad film taste. I don’t regard myself as at all unusual; I’m a regular guy. I’m a fan of a bunch of different directors, a bunch of different styles, but I like to think that I’m a regular guy. I like to think that I like good movies and I don’t like bad movies! I like a lot of James Cameron, a lot of Steven Spielberg
To get inspired, while I’m directing, if I’m tired and I feel my imaginations seizing up, I put Scorsese’s Goodfellas or Casino on DVD and either of those films reminds me what great filmmaking is, and they serve as a tonic, and an inspiration.
I’m a huge James Bond fan, and whenever a new Bond picture’s about to come out, I feel as if I’m ten years old again, and I’m hoping to see the greatest action film ever made.
So I don’t have particularly unusual taste, then!