Ugly truth of ‘Lovely Bones': Tough to film for Tucci, Ronan
Some characters, Stanley Tucci will tell you, you take home as an actor. Others you can leave on the set.
Then there’s George Harvey, the child rapist and murderer at the center of The Lovely Bones, which opens Friday.
That guy, Tucci says, “you try to go home, take a shower to wash him off you and have a drink. That was the hardest character I’ve ever had to play. I think because it was such a departure from anything I am or believe in.”
Based on the 2002 best seller, Bones was a departure for many involved with the $64 million film.
For director Peter Jackson, Bones marked an exodus from the fantasy worlds of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong. Set in 1973 small-town Pennsylvania, Bones takes an unblinking look at a family dissolved by a murder (though Jackson concedes he gets a little trippy with his heaven sequences).
For Saoirse Ronan, a knowing 15-year-old Irish girl already drawn to adult dramas, the movie is her grimmest yet – and she was in Atonement. “This was the first time I felt like a grown-up and really absorbed the material,” she says.
And for Tucci, the 49-year-old who lost his wife, Kate, to breast cancer in April, Bones was a test of how dark he could take a character and not let it invade a personal life already set on its ear. “I’ve seen the finished movie,” Tucci says. “But to tell you the truth, I’m not sure how many times I’ll be able to see it again.”
That likely won’t be an issue for the legions of fans of Alice Sebold’s novel about a 14-year-old girl who is raped and murdered by a neighbor (Tucci) on her way home from school.
From a heaven-like perch she calls the “in-between,” Susie narrates as her family, including her father (Mark Wahlberg), mother (Rachel Weisz) and grandmother (Susan Sarandon), mourn her death and try to find her killer.
Though the movie, like the book, examines unimaginable loss, Jackson and his stars find something uplifting in the story. There is a passage in the book in which Susie reflects on the strengthened relationships forged from her death, “the lovely bones that had grown around my absence.”
“It was the first time I looked at heaven as a possibly real place,” Ronan says.
And for all the violence that acts as the film’s linchpin, Bones backs away from some key scenes of brutality, a departure that could irk die-hard fans of the novel.
Tucci doesn’t care.
“I couldn’t have done this movie – I don’t think any of us could have done it – if the story weren’t still beautiful,” he says. “People relate to this book in a very personal way. That is what you have to get right, not the violence. That was the key for all of us, even if it meant going someplace we don’t always like to go.”
Not the Susie anyone expected
In truth, Bones was exactly where Ronan wanted to go. After filming the atmospheric fairy taleCity of Ember (2008), Ronan sought roles that reflected her maturing taste in novels and scripts.
She figured – correctly so – that Jackson would be seeking an American actress who could capture the mannerisms and flat accent of a suburban Philly girl. Still, she had her father videotape a few scenes of her acting dialogue from the book and sent a DVD to Jackson.
Jackson says he was leery before putting in the disc and done casting Susie Salmon by the time he took it out.
“We honestly assumed it would be an American actress,” he says. “Then we get this beautifully shot DVD of a girl with a perfect American accent, doing dialogue from the book. There wasn’t much point” in continuing the search.
Jackson says he finds many young American actresses “have a Nickelodeon quality to their acting, like they’re goofing. We needed a girl who looked like she was from 1973 and who got the reality of the story. Saoirse is fiercely courageous. In a way, I like to think that Susie Salmon found us.”
Finding George Harvey, though, proved difficult. While Jackson had long wanted Tucci, who impressed the director with turns in The Devil Wears Prada, Big Night and particularly his portrayal of Adolf Eichmann in 2001’s Conspiracy, the actor was hesitant.
“Kate had read me parts of the book when I was thinking about taking it,” he says. “I couldn’t even listen to the whole book, just the parts about Harvey. I was intrigued, but I wasn’t going to do the part. I just have a real problem trying to watch kids and families suffering, even in movies.”
Then Tucci had a call with Jackson and his partner, Fran Walsh. “It became clear the smart choice would be to take the part,” Tucci says. “They were telling an important story. It was nice to be part of an important story.”
‘More terrifying than a body part’
Still, stories in Hollywood have to be commercially viable. So the director, Walsh and collaborator Philippa Boyens set out to turn a brutal novel into a PG-13 film.
The territory wasn’t unfamiliar for the trio, who won a raft of Oscars tackling J.R.R. Tolkien. Still, Bones’ subject matter was so personal that they struggled with which relationships to kill (such as the affair between grieving mother and cop) and, more important, what graphic violence could be scaled back.
Much debate focused on, of all things, an elbow. In the book, Susie is raped, murdered and dismembered, leaving behind only that body piece and a bloodstained hat. To Tucci’s relief, the trio left only the bloody hat in the film.
“In any book adaptation, you’re only going to get 40% to 50% in,” Jackson says. “And we didn’t want to portray Susie as a victim in that kind of graphic way, with a dog carrying her elbow.”
The tougher decision, the three say, was whether to excise the book’s rape scene from the film. Ultimately, they did, deciding instead to focus on Tucci’s next-door-neighbor killer. “It’s much more effective if you can show someone who seems normal but is in no way relatable,” Walsh says. “He needed to be grotesque, but innocuous. That’s much more terrifying than a body part.”
And a lot easier on the conscience, Tucci says. “You’re already trying to play someone who would hurt a child. Gratuitous violence isn’t going to add anything to that.”
If the violence against children created challenges for the filmmakers, Susie Salmon’s personal heaven was giving Jackson headaches.
It’s one thing to create the fires of Mordor or an Empire State Building adorned with an oversized gorilla. Quite another, Jackson says, to create an afterlife that doesn’t look hokey, particularly to fans of Jackson’s digital wizardry.
“That was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done as a filmmaker,” Jackson says. “As a filmmaker, you want heaven to be subconscious and intangible. But you still have to put something on the screen.”
Instead of painting heaven in concrete colors, Jackson’s afterlife is a shape-shifting realm that responds to Susie’s thoughts and emotions. “We wanted it to speak in the language of dreams,” Walsh says.
Ironically, Ronan says the toughest days of shooting Bones involved her days in heaven. “It was all green screen,” she says. “I liked the scenes where it was me and Stanley alone better. Even when we were doing the tough scenes, we were close but respectful. It was uplifting in a weird way.”
So is Bones, Tucci says. “It’s not really about tragedy; it’s about all of the good that can come from it,” he says. “That’s what makes the story worth telling.”
© USA Today