Last week while in San Diego I had an incredible opportunity to take part in a very casual press event with Peter Jackson. A number of journalists crowded into a small (extraordinarily hot) room, sitting on ottomans and little couches. Sitting before us on a puffy chair (which wasn’t puffy enough for his now-thin frame; the director asked for an extra cushion) was Jackson. It felt more like story time than a press conference.

While the main thrust of the evening was District 9 (and, of course, The Hobbit. Read my report on that here), Jackson surprised everyone by showing a four minute sizzle reel for his next feature, The Lovely Bones. What we saw was essentially an extended trailer, but it offered a serious look into the world Jackson had created – not just the main reality of the book but also the afterlife which main character Susie Salmon visits after being brutally murdered.

The footage was simply sumptious. Jackson’s eye for period detail was right on (the story is set in 1973); he successfully evokes the era without ever rubbing your face in the 70s aspect of it. The real world was filled with rich, dark hues while the afterlife was brighter, often candy colored. We saw moments in the afterlife without context, and the scenes were fantastical, including a shot where huge ships sail into giant bottles. Susie walks across a lake to come to a lavishly lit floating gazebo. She stands in the middle of speeding traffic on a busy night road. A hippy girl dances gaily at the very curvature of the green Earth.

“The idea, which is in the book, is each person experiences it based on
what their life experience is,”
Jackson said. “What Susie experiences in her
afterlife is based on being a 14-year-old in 1973 and … the pop
culture that she’s grown up with and the life experiences she’s had. For our research in the afterlife, we actually looked at episodes of
The Partridge Family. Which is not where you normally go for the afterlife.”

While the afterlife material was visually intriguing, I was most interested in the real world scenes. This will be where the meat of the film happens. 14-year old Susie (played by Saoirse Ronan), is lured into an underground room by neighbor George Harvey, who rapes, murders and dismembers her. Susie’s family must deal with the loss of the daughter and the open-ended nature of the case, all while Susie watches – and tries to communicate – from beyond.
Stanley Tucci plays Harvey, and he was almost unrecognizable. It took me a minute to figure out who the guy was under the make-up.

“Stanley liked the idea of playing the part, but I think he was terribly
worried about being spat on in malls
because he’s a very, very evil character,”
Jackson said. Luckily for the actor his direcor envisioned a very different appearance for him. “Stanley also liked the idea of looking the least like Stanley Tucci as he possibly could.”

It was Tucci who really stood out; in just a couple of snippets he was utterly convincing playing a cold-hearted evil man, and also a guy who was hiding in plain site, just out of the reach of the law. There’s a scene where Tucci sits on his couch being interviewed by a police detective that will, I think, be electric in the final film. What I saw was impressive, and if voters can get past the evil of the character, I think Tucci could be looking at an Oscar nomination.

The big question mark for me remains Mark Wahlberg, who came in at the last minute (Ryan Gosling had originally held the role) and who seems to be wearing a cheesy wig. He plays Susie’s dad, a role requiring lots of pain, grief and anger. We didn’t see enough to really get an idea of how Wahlberg plays it, but Jackson did tell us what surprising film won the actor the role.

“We really liked his comedy that was in I Heart Huckabees, and
one of the things with the character of Jack Salmon is he’s an
obsessive. I mean, he’s kind of an obsessive in a gentle, comedic way,
and he’s an obsessive in his relationship with his daughter. And then
when she dies and he’s wracked with guilt, but he’s also thinking, ‘Who
did this? Who did this?’ And he becomes obsessed with finding the
killer. So we wanted somebody, but we didn’t again want to play that
heavy and make it maudlin.”

The entire project is a tricky one; Jackson himself said that the book doesn’t lend itself to a cinematic structure, and the tone of the story is tough to nail. One moment we’re in a strange afterlife with Susie and the next we’re with her grieving, destroyed family. And in the end the film is the story of the brutal slaying of a teenage girl, not the easiest subject. I don’t think that the visuals of the film were ever in doubt, and if they were the four minute extended trailer removed all of it. But how will the film itself play?

You’ll be able to get a look at footage from The Lovely Bones this Friday, when the trailer debuts in front of Julia & Julie; the film itself is still marked as a December release.