‘You are invited to join Peter Jackson for a cocktail reception’

12.07.09 8 years ago 2 Comments

Matt Mueller/Paramount Pictures

I don’t care how long I do this for a living or how long I work in Los Angeles.  I’m never going to get cynical about time spent talking to people I respect about the art form and the technical craft that I love. I still think it’s a gift every time I get an invitation to some event that offers me a unique opportunity like the one that presented itself last Friday night.

“Paramount Pictures invites you to join director Peter Jackson and the cast of ‘The Lovely Bones’ for a private cocktail reception.”

That’s what the invite said when it showed up, and you never really know what that means. Private? Is that 20 people? 40? 100?  All it really means is that it’s not open to the general public, right?

I already had reason to be at the Four Seasons, since I had TV interviews scheduled with Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon upstairs as part of the “Invictus” junket. You’ll see that here later this week, and it’s good.  I was the last person of the day, after a long day of one after another, and the fact that both guys gave me such sincere and thoughtful answers was nice of them.  It’s brief, as all of those TV spots are, and not much of an actual in-depth interview.  Those are more like you ask one or two good questions, and you’re out.  Something simple and fun that lets them show a little personality or tell a good story.

They’re not really conversations, though, are they?

That’s where you learn something about somebody.  When you have a real conversation with someone, where the clock’s not ticking, and you can follow the stream of consciousness without worrying about a sound bite… that’s valuable.  And rare.  

The last time I saw Peter Jackson, it was at Butt-Numb-A-Thon, the year he brought “Return of the King.”  For the first two films in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, he had sent filmed introductions, but on the last year, he came in person to introduce the film and to talk afterwards.  It was a powerful screening experience, and the Q&A was incredibly emotional.  And then we had a surprise for him… a screening of “The General,” with a live musical accompaniment, a treat for any film fan, but a real gift for someone like Jackson who reveres Buster Keaton and that film in particular  

I didn’t see him once during the “King Kong” press process.  At AICN, I was looooooowwww man on the Peter Jackson totem pole.  Harry and Peter have known each other forever.  Quint has spent ridiculous amounts of time in New Zealand at this point, for “Kong” and “Return Of The King” and “The Lovely Bones.”  There was literally no reason for anyone to do any further coverage of Peter’s films, aside from reviews I wrote when they came out.  Maybe that’s why it bugged me recently when Jeff Wells accused me in print of being “in the tank” for Jackson.  I certainly admire the guy, and I have mad respect for both his early indie roots and his constant evolution, commercially and artistically.  He is not the filmmaker today that he was when he started, yet when you look at his early films, all the things that are important to who he is as a director are still fundamentally true. There’s an energy, a willingness to push, a very specific vision that may not be down-the-middle pleasing.. and those are all things I like.  Those are all things that were true in “Bad Taste” and “Meet The Feebles” and “The Frighteners” and “Heavenly Creatures” alike.  

They’re still true today, but what he’s doing as a filmmaker is different.  He’s like Robert Zemeckis in that he’s making very different things now than when he started, and his fanbase isn’t necessarily interested in the same things he is anymore.  Or at least, in this one case, they’re not.  I would argue that with Peter Jackson, there are a whooooooole lot of people who are “Lord Of The Rings” fans whose knowledge of/interest in Peter starts and ends there.  Those people are not automatically going to be the same crowd that goes to see a long, surreal, effects-heavy fantasia about a murdered girl and the man who killed her.  My review for the film was published long before I opened the e-mail with the invite to the cocktail reception, so I know Paramount was well aware that I liked the film, but I certainly didn’t write it expecting this.  Even when I showed up a bit early, done with my interview and not really wanting to kill time at the bar, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

At the most, there were 30 people in that room, including wait staff and publicists and managers and parents.  Mainly, it was about eight or nine other film writers at any given moment, some of them leaving early or arriving a little later.  It was Stanley Tucci.  It was Saoirse Ronan and Rose McIver. And it was Peter Jackson.  And the conversation, which was not recorded because it really wasn’t the time or place, was both casual in pace and direction and more in-depth than I would have expected. Particularly with Peter, who was more than forthcoming in answering even the nerdiest of tech questions for me as the evening wore on.  

The first part of the evening was spent sitting with other film writers at first.  Kris Tapley from InContention and Mr. Beaks nee Jeremy Smith from Ain’t It Cool spent the majority of the evening chatting with me, with other people rotating in at the table.  First up was Ken Kamins, one of the major behind the scenes players in making “Lord Of The Rings” happen, first in his capacity as executive vice president head of international operations for ICM, and also as the point person in the deal-making moment when “LOTR” when into turnaround from Miramax and Peter Jackson was trying to set it up somewhere else.  Kamins helped make that happen.  He kept it alive at the moment it had to be kept alive.  And he’s been with Jackson long enough to tell us stories about the making of “Heavenly Creatures” and “The Frighteners,” which started life as a quick knock-off writing job for Peter and Fran to make some money while they were trying to set up “Heavenly Creatures”. They were hired to write a treatment for a “Tales From The Crypt” movie, and when Robert Zemeckis read the three-page treatment, he didn’t realize that Peter was also a director.  He just read a treatment and had no real idea where it came from.  And dug it.  So Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh wrote what they thought was a “Tales From The Crypt” film, while Zemeckis went off to make “Gump” and then they went off to make “Heavenly Creatures,” and by the time they were done, Zemeckis didn’t want to make “Tales From The Crypt” movies anymore and decided to take it with him to Universal instead.  And Peter wasn’t just a writer for hire anymore… he and Fran were Oscar nominees.  I talked to him about an adaptation of “Concrete,” the Paul Chadwick comic book, which Fran and Peter wrote for Disney.  I loved that script when I read it years ago, and it seemed to me to be way ahead of the curve in terms of what a comic book movie could be.  It also read at the time like a film that would have cost $600 million, but which would be much cheaper and more possible now.  

As we were chatting with Kamins, Stanley Tucci walked up and sat down at our table. I’ve been a fan since the first season of “Murder One,” where his portrayal of Richard Cross, the possibly villainous billionaire at the heart of the show’s mystery, was so interesting and unexpected and multi-faceted that I immediately became obsessed with this guy in the way that all film fans gets obsessed with character actors.  You suddenly notice someone and you think, “Why isn’t that guy in every film ever made?  Why doesn’t everyone know that he’s the best actor ever?”  Tucci’d been working for a while already by the time I suddenly sat up and took notice, and over the years, it feels like a lot of people have caught up and they get it.  There have been movies like “Big Night” and “Joe Gould’s Secret” and lots of great work in less-great films like “Shall We Dance?” and “The Terminal.”  This is a hell of a role, though, Mr. Harvey in “The Lovely Bones,” and any actor would no doubt have some pause at the idea of playing someone who rapes and murders little girls, especially when the idea of justice and punishment is as perverse as it is in this film.  This is not a simple cartoon bad guy role, and Tucci’s performance is strong and sad and nuanced.  It seemed to me that part of why he took the film is because he understood just how theatrical and surreal and impressionistic Peter Jackson’s take on the material was going to be, and he realized he was going to be despicable, but not graphically depicted doing certain things.  The thing that is monstrous about Mr. Harvey, as Tucci plays him, is the emptiness that fills him up between killings, and the yawning void he lives with as his own center.  He’s not happy being who he is.  He’s not taking pleasure from it in any conventional sense.  It’s relief.  It’s the only way he knows to scratch his itch, and it’s an uncomfortably authentic look behind the mask of one of these men, these habitual hunters.  Even when cornered, Harvey’s fight or flight instinct is so skewed, so deranged, that it works for him.  It keeps him unpredictable.

After Tucci left, Saoirse Ronan and Rose McIver came to the table together to sit down.  This suddenly felt far more like a press event, and the dynamic was interesting.  Saoirse was very outgoing, very silly, but also very guarded in a natural way.  Of course she was.  She’s young, and she’s not someone who spends her every waking moment immersed in the industry, particularly in this part of it, and so she seemed perfectly happy to let the older Rose McIver drive the conversation. They were both charming, very sweet, very young, and obviously more interested in executing an escape than hanging out with a bunch of older guys who write about movies.  Can’t say I blame either of them.

Peter’s arrival at the table was unannounced, no big deal.  He was just suddenly sitting there with us. The publicist went to introduce him, leading to Saoirse introducing herself to Peter and asking him what he does for a living before she and Rose made their retreat.  He had his mostly-ginger ale with him.  He seemed happy to be off his feet and just sitting for a while, and as we started chatting, it was obvious that the early divisive reviews are being read and considered by Jackson, and equally obvious that he feels like there are some real divides in the way people parse certain things when they’re sitting in a movie theater,  As a guy who co-owns a company (WETA) known for special effects both practical and digital, he’s got to be paying attention to the conversation out there, and how their work impacts the culture at large… and if it does at all. You add that to the simple pressures of making a good film, and it’s a miracle anyone wants to make films after a certain point in their career.  Coming off of “LOTR” and “Kong,” there’s a lot of expectation on Jackson, both with filmgoers and within the business.  People want to see what his commercial instincts are like away from those recognizable things.  The success of “District 9” was just as important to Jackson as it was to Neil Blomkamp.  It further cements Jackson’s reputation as a tastemaker, someone who can help launch other directors and properties into the commercial landscape.  It also spoke well of him paying attention to where he came from, and helping others up. I like that “District 9” was largely independent.  I like that the film came out of nowhere, starred no one you’ve ever heard of, had a very strange campaign, and still connected with audiences based largely on word-of-mouth.  I think that’s exactly what the early Peter Jackson movies promised, and “District 9” feels like a fulfillment of that. 

A big part of the conversation turned hyper-nerdy as we discussed special effects, both in practice and in theory, and here’s where the event went from “nice informal conversation” to “wow, I’m glad I went to that.”  As I’ve stated here in the past, I’m fascinated by performance capture as a tool.  I even performed a motion-capture character once for the Ain’t It Cool News Comedy Central pilot, where I played an all-digital Moriarty.  When I talk to actors, I hear more often than not that they love the process, and I think we’re going to see a real shake-up in what makes a “movie star” as performance capture gets bigger and bigger.  One of the things I’m most excited about in terms of seeing “Avatar”  is looking at Zoe Saldana’s work in particular.  It looks to me like she gets it the same way Andy Serkis gets it, and not every actor will automatically make the jump and be great at performance-capture.  We got to chat about “Tintin,” and about how closely they’re going to reproduce the texture and the visual design of Herge’s original work, and how so far, we’ve only seen one or two filmmakers really push the technology.  What they’re doing on “Tintin” won’t look like what we see on “Avatar” or the Robert Zemeckis films.  At all.  It’s going to look like “Tintin.”

Part of what makes WETA Digital’s character work so great, and this was absolutely true of both Gollum and Kong, is that they have amazing eyes.  Eyes you can look into and see a soul.  These totally unreal creatures live and breathe in Jackson’s films in no small part because WETA Digital can do eyes better than anyone in the business.  It’s proprietary software, and it’s on full display in “Avatar” this Christmas. It’s all about the physical modeling of the eye, and it’s one of those things that only a nerd would really get excited about in conversation, but that can make all the difference in the world to an audience member emotionally, even if they don’t realize it.  We spent as much time discussing eyes as we did cameras, and Jackson waxed enthusiastically about the RED camera, and the new update that’s coming out very soon.  Ken Kamins told us that Jackson had discovered this one small lipstick camera that he loves recently, and he used it for all sorts of specific effects in “The Lovely Bones.”  After Kamins showed the film to Steven Spielberg for the first time, Spielberg’s first comment with a smile was, “There were 28 lipstick camera shots in that film!”  And sure enough, he had pretty much picked out every one.  At heart, many of these directors are kids who love it when they get a new toy that makes telling the story even cooler.  I love that Jackson, like Guillermo Del Toro, is about as “outsider” as you can get, but he’s been welcomed into that club of ’70s USC/UCLA titans who completely ruled the genre landscape.  Jackson’s as much a part of the club as Spielberg or Lucas now.  Hell, he’s co-directing a “Tintin” film with Spielberg. You can’t get much more “in the club” than that.  And like those guys, Jackson’s in a position now to fulfill all of his own desires and interests, and he’s able to chase them as he’s working on films.  It affects which material he chooses now, and it affects how he tells the stories.  I can’t tell you why he wanted to make “The Lovely Bones,” but I can tell you that he absolutely had a vision for the film, and that what he’s created probably won’t leave you indifferent.  You might hate his film, but it’s the reasoning why that I find interesting, and Jackson was a little confounded by it as we spoke.  He feels a bit like people are rejecting the InBetween, the major visual conceit of his movie, simply because they’re rejecting CGI in general.  That’s obviously not true in every case, but that is how some of the reviews read.  People are either offended by that or they’re upset with the adaptation, and many people have grilled Jackson about his decision to shy away from a graphic onscreen depiction of the rape and murder of Susie Salmon.

“I feel like I want to ask those people, ‘Okay, then, how about you tell me exactly what percentage of rape is enough?  What is it that you’d like to see?'”  I’m with him.  He makes a decision in the film about how to show Susie’s death that Kris Tapley astutely compared to the classic short film, “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge,” which Jackson later referenced again when we were talking about the sequence.  He chose to go as impressionistic as possible for that scene, and he stages much of it in a hauning white bathroom set.  As he talked about shooting that scene, Jackson laughed. “Originally, that whole set was painted black.”  That was his first instinct, and it wasn’t until he showed up on the set that he realized he’d made a horrible mistake. “I told them, ‘Look, I need to start shooting by 10:00, and I’m dreadfully sorry about this, but can you make everything completely white instead of completely black?”  

We talked about family.  About how you raise children with the tidal wave of media that’s available today, and about how we didn’t have video when we were kids.  We talked about the idea of holding off and showing them films when they’re “ready,” and how much fun it is to be involved in that process with them instead of using movies as a babysitter.  He explained his take on what the InBetween represents in his film, and how he built the symbology of the sequences that take place after Susie’s death.  I think it’s best if that sort of thing isn’t spelled out for the audience.  Listening to him, he obviously thought it through carefully, but I liked “The Lovely Bones” more as an experience than as a literal series of events, and I think the more you decide for yourself what you think it all means, or if you even believe it all has meaning, then the more you’ll have your own genuine reaction instead of being told what it means.

In the end, it was me who had to get up and leave, facing a long drive back to Northridge to meet my wife, and as I said goodbye to Peter, it was, for once, without feeling like there was so much more I wanted to ask or say.  I felt like we’d had a good chat, a satisfying chat, and the only sad part is I’m not sure how many years it’ll be until the next opportunity arises.

“The Lovely Bones”  opens in limited release on December 11th, and then goes wide on Christmas Day. 

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