Peter Jackson: Grilled on ‘Bones,’ ‘Hobbit’

“The book had made all us cry, and we wanted to find out why we’d reacted that way. It was like decoding the book”

After two epic blockbusters, “The Lord of the Rings” and “King Kong,” Peter Jackson gets a bit smaller (well, $70 million) with “The Lovely Bones.” Based on the 2002 best-seller by Alice Sebold, it’s the harrowing story of a raped and murdered 14-year-old girl (played by “Atonement’s” Oscar-nominated Saoirse Ronan) who watches from her heavenly vantage point of “the in-between world” while her family on earth mourns her loss and tries to find her killer.

Jackson talked with TheWrap about Oscars, adapting an unadaptable book and dealing with Ryan Gosling’s age.
There’s already quite an Oscar buzz around “The Lovely Bones.” How important are Oscars to you?
Well, they used to be far more important to sell movies, as they used to take an average-performing film and really give it a big box office boost. I think there’s far less impact on the box office now. But winning and even being nominated is still an enormous privilege and big thrill. The great thing about having won is that you do feel, no matter what happens in your career, you’ve always got that Oscar and it’s a nice thing to wake up to in the morning and go to the office and see them sitting there on the shelf.
How did “The Lovely Bones” happen?
It took quite a while. I write scripts with my co-producers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens and we all read the book while doing “Lord of the Rings.” We all found it very powerful and began inquiring about the rights. At that point the rights were with Film Four, with the film already in pre-production, the script was being written and Lynn Ramsey directing. We registered our interest and left it that if it didn’t work out, to please get in touch with us.
We didn’t really expect anything to come of it, and a year or so went by — just as we were about to start on “King Kong” — and we suddenly got a call. It turned out that it’d fallen apart.
It seems like it would be a hard book to adapt.
It’s definitely been the hardest adaptation that we’ve ever worked on – much harder than “Lord of the Rings.” The tough thing was finding the essence of the story that Alice Sebold is telling, and then figuring out how to put that into a three-act structure of a film — we’re big believers in structured screenplays.
The book had made all us cry when we read it, and we wanted to find out why we’d reacted that way. It was like decoding the book – it was a big puzzle, but a very enjoyable one, to have to figure out.
So while it’s based on the same story, there was a lot of the book that we couldn’t put in — and we restructured it a lot. Most of it will be familiar to readers of the book, but they’re not in the same order
And with us it’s always a work in progress. The thing with our screenwriting partnership is that we don’t have a traditional screenplay deal with the studio. We don’t have two drafts and a bunch of revisions. We refuse to put that into our contracts, as we continually rewrite and refine the scripts as we go. We never, ever believe that a script is perfect – there is no such thing. If you do another pass, you usually find something you can improve on
So you never really ever finish a script or film — you just abandon it at some point?
(Laughs) Well, it gets taken away from you. There’s a knock at the door and someone’s there wearing a black leather coat and sunglasses and they just take it out of your hands and walk away with it, leaving you sobbing on the doorstep.
The role of Susie is crucial. How did you end up casting the then-unknown Ronan?
We’d met a few actresses in L.A. and seen some quite good young ladies, and then we moved on to London and did more auditions. Then the casting director gave us a DVD that Saoirse’s father, Paul Ronan, had made. He’s an Irish actor, and he’d filmed her audition in their garden and she’d taken the book and created a couple of monologues as Susie, and had taken some dialogue straight out of the book. She talked straight to the camera and Paul filmed her in a really interesting way — and she was very powerful and very engaging.
We went, “My God, who is this girl?” I think she was still just 13 at the time, and we heard she was in “Atonement,” but it was still in the middle of post-production, so we contacted [director] Joe Wright’s office in London where he was cutting it, and asked if there was any way we could look at any of the footage. He very kindly sent around a DVD of some of her scenes, and we were just knocked out by her work.
So then she came to London to meet with us and we did another audition with her in our hotel room, and we instantly knew she was the right person. There was absolutely no reason to look any further.
So it worked out…
She’s truthful, brave, courageous — everything that a good actor needs to be. She’s also able to tap into this raw emotional power and put that on screen without any gimmicks or tricks.
Is it true that you cast Ryan Gosling as her father but that he dropped out right before filming started?
Ryan had always said to us that he was just too young to play the role of a 14-year-old’s father — I think he was 26 at the time. And then the film also spans seven years, so by the time it ends, Susie’s sister is about 20, and he’d have to play the father of a 20-year-old. Ryan’s a terrific actor, and we felt that he could act his way around this problem, and we’d help him with make-up and so on. So our attitude was, “Don’t worry, there’s a way we can fix this and you’ll be great!” But he wasn’t so sure.
And the thing that was the catalyst was that we cast Rose McIver as Susie’s sister, and while Saoirse was 14, Rose was already about 19. Ryan just couldn’t make himself believe he could be her father when he was only six years older. He just couldn’t do it. Ryan needs more reality than that in order to do his best work. So when he told me, I was like, “Well, OK,” and it was very amicable. Luckily we got Mark Wahlberg to step in.
What did Mark bring to the role?
First off, he’s a father in real life. He knows what it means to be a dad. And he’s also that much older — I think he was 36 at the time — so that was easier, too. He came straight in and did a great job.
So, let’s talk “The Hobbit” for a minute. What’s going on with it?
That’s the main project we’re all concentrating on. We’ve already delivered the first script to the studio, and they really liked it, so now we’re working hard on the second script and that’s going to keep us pretty busy.
How involved will you be?
Well, I’m not intending to be on the set every day looking over his shoulder. It’s Guillermo del Toro’s movie, and he’ll be filming it, not me. I’m not quite sure what else I’ll be working on, as I want to make completely sure that I’ll be there to help Guillermo. But I’m hoping to direct something myself at the same time. I’ve got a couple of smaller projects I’m considering, but I can’t really talk about them yet.