"Vanity Fair Magazine" hails Peter Jackson as the director who "has had Hollywood at his feet" and as "one of the very few working directors who can get virtually any project greenlit." The three-time Academy Award-winning director of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy (2001-2003) and his newest star, Oscar nominee Saorise Ronan, sat down with ABC News Now's "Popcorn with Peter Travers" to promote their new movie "The Lovely Bones."
Based on the haunting bestseller by Alice Sebold, "The Lovely Bones" revolves around a young girl called Susie Salmon (played by Ronan) who lives in Norristown, Pa. On Dec. 6, 1973, while taking a shortcut home from school, she is stopped by her neighbor, George Harvey (portrayed by Stanley Tucci) who ultimately rapes, murders and hides her body.
"The thing about this movie is that the murder is at the beginning … you hear Suzie's narration and immediately know she's in a safe environment and she's OK. The film is about love and hope – Suzie's love for her family and their hope for her," said Ronan.
"The movie is not about the murder, it's what happens after," explains Jackson, "She's stuck in this limbo between Earth and heaven. It's not a physical place … she tells her story in her dreamlike state and in dream imagery. She has to make sense of it and find out where her body is. At the point when she is being killed, we show her spirit running away from it. A lot of the film is mystery. It is a thriller told in the world or dreams or the subconscious."
The movie has a critically acclaimed cast including Oscar winners Rachel Weisz and Susan Sarandon, who play Suzie's mother Abigail and Grandma Lynn, respectively, as well as Oscar nominee Mark Wahlberg, who portrays her father Jack. Ronan held her own among her distinguished cast members as one of the youngest actresses nominated for best supporting actress for her role as Keira Knightley's young sister Briony Tallis in 2007's "Atonement."
Jackson even credits 15-year-old Ronan with playing a maternal figure off screen with Tucci, who struggled, as a father of three, with his role as a serial-killing pedophile.
"I could see how upsetting it was for Stanley. He was giving everything to the movie. At the end of each take, Saorise would go up to him to give him a hug. We all knew how tough it was for him," noted Jackson.
"He is such a kind and gentle man who is a father himself. It was tough to play a role like that – very brave of him," affirmed Ronan.
Both Jackson and Ronan grew up without siblings and, in a sense, found their larger family in film.
"It is different and always great to become part of a bigger family when working on a movie," reflected Ronan, adding, "I have wonderful parents. I got a lot of attention but the right kind of attention, I had a great childhood."
In fact, growing up as an only child helped her acting career because she was able to retreat to her room on her own, make up scenes and act them. "This sounds nerdy and sad, but from a very early age, I would perform scenes in my bedroom. I would do both parts. Mom would pass by my room and hear me talking to myself."
This solitary childhood is also reflected in Jackson's upbringing in New Zealand and in a way, also helped launch his career as a filmmaker. He was a loner growing up and was, therefore, drawn to stop motion animation because it was something he could do on his own.
"I would build, animate, click frame and movie it. It was a totally solitary activity and yet, I was making a film," recalled the director. Despite his love for film, his parents – while extremely supportive of Jackson – harbored a secret wish for him to become an architect as they thought "it was a good solid career," according to the director.
His inspirations, on the other hand, were the BBC TV series "Monty Python's Flying Circus" – "I was 10 or 11 years old and it was the funniest thing I had ever seen in my life" -- and George A. Romero's zombie movies. The latter influenced Jackson's gory horror "Braindead" (1992), which was released as "Dead Alive" in the U.S.
Ronan and Jackson also have in common their love for New York. "I was born in New York, so I'm a tiny bit American," said the Irish actress, "but I moved back when I was 3. When I come back to New York, I feel like I'm at home."
Jackson, on the other hand, likes New York because "it's got the Empire State Building that King Kong climbed." Jackson's childhood fascination with the 1933 movie resulted in his directing the blockbuster remake of "King Kong" in 2005 starring Naomi Watts, Jack Black and Adrien Brody.
They also both chose a certain scene in "The Lovely Bones" as their favorite. Before Suzie Salmon died, she had a crush on a boy in her school and was looking forward to their first kiss, which her murder pre-empted. In the movie, she is given a choice to either experience that moment before she goes to heaven or to see her family. "The way it plays out is heartbreaking and makes me cry when I see it," admitted Jackson.
Like all great directors, movies are intensely personal experiences. For Jackson, it's something which he hopes to impart to his audience. "There is nothing more pleasing than having someone say, 'I saw your film and haven't been able to get it out of my head.' It doesn't happen that often. I'm always happy when I hear that," he said.
Like another famous director, Alfred Hitchcock, Jackson makes cameos in his movies. His Wikipedia page has a section devoted to them. "The Lovely Bones" is no exception. "I do a little cameo because we made a 1970s mall and in it there was a camera shop, which props outfitted. I noticed one of the cameras was one I had as a 12-year-old in 1973 so I did a cameo as a buyer."
Jackson's upcoming projects include making two prequels to "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, both based on J. R. R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit," which will be released in 2011 and 2012. Guillermo del Toro, the director of "Pan's Labyrinth" and the "Hellboy" franchise, will take the helm while Jackson is co-writing the script.
"I had the opportunity to direct it but what I fear as a filmmaker is repetition and doing something when I'm not pushing myself. I thought with "The Hobbit," I had done three "Lord of the Rings" movies and nearly killed myself doing them, and competing against yourself is not much fun," explained Jackson. "I do like script writing and so we (as a team) are writing the script for "The Hobbit." I'm looking forward to it handing it over to Guillermo and see what he'll do with it."
"The Lovely Bones" will be in theaters Dec. 11, 2009.