When Peter Jackson started to do early test screenings of his eagerly awaited new film, The Lovely Bones, which opens Friday, he says he was "shocked and surprised" to get a lot of complaints about the level of violence in the PG-13 film. (Big spoilers ahead!)
"All the complaints were to do with the death of the villain, played by Stanley Tucci," he explains. "So we had to go back in the editing room and fix it, so audiences would be happier."
It's understandable, as the film, based on the 2002 best-seller by Alice Sebold and with a reported budget of $70 million, tells the harrowing and intensely emotional story of a 14-year-old girl (played by Atonement's Oscar-nominated Saoirse Ronan) who is brutally raped and then murdered by her neighbor, George Harvey, played by Tucci.
But here's the twist: The Oscar-winning director found that he'd "totally misjudged" audiences' reactions to Tucci's death scene. "They actually wanted MORE violence!" he admits. "And I was quite taken aback—audiences were simply not satisfied with the killer's death scene—they wanted far more violence and suffering."
Jackson points out that the fact that it's the neighbor who rapes and kills Susie "is no secret or mystery, as it's not a whodunit. The mystery is, what's going to happen to him, as the police never catch him. I won't spill all the beans and go into great detail, but we do have a sequence where Stanley's character dies, and he dies an accidental death, but not quite. You'll have to see the whole film to understand why."
"But I really wanted the film to have a PG-13 rating," Jackson stresses. "That was very important to us, because we wanted the film to be very accessible, and we wanted it to have a very positive message and tone, so we were very scrupulous about how we shot it, to make sure we would get a PG-13. So when Stanley's character dies, he tumbles down a cliff, and I had simply filmed it by having him disappear off the edge of the cliff. But when we screened the film for Paramount and DreamWorks in November last year, they decided that instead of releasing it in March they'd hold it till this December instead, which was great for us, because all of our films have always been down to the wire in terms of post [-production]."
"But what happened is that everyone who saw early screenings of the film ended up hating this guy with a passion—far more than I'd expected," Jackson says. "They really hated him! And we got a lot of people telling us that they were disappointed with his death scene, as they wanted him to see him in agony and suffer a lot more. It sounds terrible, but they really wanted him to suffer and be punished for what he'd done, and they just weren't satisfied. So we thought, what on earth can we do to fix this? Especially as it had been a long time since we'd finished shooting the film."
The obvious solution—re-shooting the death scene—wasn't an option, "as we couldn't get Stanley back for more filming, and we couldn't be too graphic," says Jackson. "So we came up with the idea of doing a digital fix on it, and as he falls down the cliff, I threw in two or three shots in where he bounces against the cliff face on the way down and then breaks bones against trees as he falls and then cracks his head against a rock. So, within the realms of PG-13, I tried to make him suffer more. So we had to create a whole 'suffering death' scene just to give people the satisfaction they needed at his demise."