Behind the Scenes of 'The Lovely Bones' with Saoirse Ronan

And Susan Sarandon, Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Rachel Weisz and Rose McIver

Mark Wahlberg and Saoirse Ronan in 'The Lovely Bones'
Mark Wahlberg and Saoirse Ronan in 'The Lovely Bones'. © DreamWorks Pictures

The feature film adaptation of Alice Sebold's bestselling book The Lovely Bones is one of the most anticipated movies of 2009, even among those who haven't read the critically acclaimed novel. Peter Jackson directs (and also adapted the book along with his writing partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) and Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Saoirse Ronan, Stanley Tucci, Susan Sarandon, and Rose McIver star in the touching family drama which took a lot out of the actors emotionally.

Together for the LA press conference in support of the DreamWorks Pictures film, the actors admitted this wasn't an easy film to be a part of due to the subject matter.

The Lovely Bones follows the murder of an innocent 14 year old girl, Susie Salmon (Ronan), and the devasting affect her death has on every member of her family. Weisz and Wahlberg play her loving parents, McIver's her brave younger sister, and Sarandon takes on the part of her boozy grandmother who moves in to help the family out. But it's Stanley Tucci who has the most difficult part of all. Tucci plays Mr. Harvey, the creepy neighbor who takes Susie's life and then watches the family's pain from his house across the street.

The Lovely Bones Press Conference – Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci, Susan Sarandon and Rose McIver

How did you meet and bond as sisters?

Saoirse Ronan: "Well, we met in Pennsylvania and I had just come off another movie so I was straight over to meet everyone.

I think we met the first day."

Rose McIver: "Yeah, we spent a lot of time at the Salmon house where we would shoot. We did a little kind of getting to know each other as a family and getting to know the dog that would play Holiday."

Saoirse Ronan: "We just sort of bonded for those two weeks. And I think because Rose and I are pretty close in age…well, there’s six years of a difference but we feel like we’re very close, we bonded from the off, really.

We get on very, very well. She’s one of our best friends."

Rose McIver: "And neither of us have sisters so we kind of took each other."

Saoirse Ronan: "But yeah, it’s great though because even though we didn’t really have that many scenes together in the movie, we got to hang out when I was in New Zealand. And we still keep in touch and everything."

Since there was so much cut, do you get anything from the book or just the script?

Rachel Weisz: "I think it’s really wonderful to have that. I mean, the script was very beautiful but it’s a huge bonus to have a novel as well which will give you the interior life of your character, give you their backstory, their biography. So for me, it was only a huge extra help, great fuel for your imagination. So I went back to the book many, many times to get a feeling of Abigail."

Are there things missing?

Rachel Weisz: "There are lots of things that we shot that couldn’t make it into the final movie because, as [Peter Jackson] said, it would have to be a miniseries basically if you wanted to get all of the character stories in. So yes, there were things for everybody’s characters that didn’t make it."

Did Peter jazz the grandmother character up to give the audience a chance to breathe?

Susan Sarandon: "That’s just a great period and the designers and everything, it was very collaborative. It was such a really good old time, in terms of style and everything else. I remember those eyelashes and snapping those in. The fun part was working out how do you clean your house with a drink and a cigarette. That was a new area for me."

Is it all part of her coping with grief?

Susan Sarandon: "Well, obviously she’s been self-medicating for years and in anticipation of something bad. But yeah, I think she’s the one, maybe she mourns in another movie but not in this movie because that’s not my job. My job is to keep things moving forward. It’s a really great choice to have somebody that’s completely inept be the one that tries to keep the house going, because if I was a really seemingly solid knitting granny who you would expect to come forward and play, it’d be really boring.

But the fact that she’s throwing ashes simultaneously everywhere she’s cleaning, I think it allows the audience to [laugh] in an appropriate way."

"I just love the fact that that’s the way life is. When something horrible happens, you do find yourself laughing in weird places in the midst of grief and crying in the supermarket when you see a cereal that somebody used to eat. There’s just no way of guarding yourself one way or another. Everybody grieves differently, and there’s no right or wrong way. My function in the bigger picture was to be hilarious. It was great not having to do what this poor gal [Rachel Weisz] had to do or Mark had to do. I’ve been there in movies. I’ve lost many a child on celluloid so I was happy that I was once removed, that my job was much more fun. I guess the big challenge - and I relied on Pete for this - is to make sure it’s not too over the top and to throw things away. The lines were so funny, you didn’t really have to hit them too hard. You have to believe the audience isn’t stupid. You can just keep going and do it. So I was counting on them to really make just sure that I wasn’t doing a caricature and she seemed real. That would be the trap on this character."

Why did you want to do this and where do you go to play every parent’s worst nightmare?

Mark Wahlberg: "Well, my biggest reason for wanting to be a part of this was Peter Jackson. I’m a huge fan of Peter’s. Because of the way I approach work, I wasn’t all that thrilled about the subject matter because I have a beautiful little girl and two beautiful boys.

I don’t have the God given talent that Rachel has to just snap into it and have these floods of emotion coming out and then turn it all off. So I basically had to live in that headspace for the entire time. I just thought it would be a beautiful movie and it was too good to pass up the opportunity to be a part of it."

The Lovely Bones Press Conference – Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci, Susan Sarandon and Rose McIver

Stanley, was this part difficult to do and hard to drop at the end of the day?

Stanley Tucci: "It was hard in every respect. I was very reticent to take the part at first for reasons that Mark just explained. I have kids and I can’t really read anything or watch anything with kids getting harmed.

I don’t like things about serial killers. There’s so much serial killer information out there in documentaries constantly. A lot of it’s just sort of gratuitous or it’s almost like pornographic, really. There’s no reason for it being shown. This was not that. This was a beautiful story about an exploration of loss."

"Pete and Fran [Walsh] and Philippa [Boyens], in the long conversations we had before we started working together, I felt very safe with them. I felt that there would be nothing here that would be gratuitous and that we were going to create a person together in Mr. Harvey that was a real person. The more real he was, the more subtle he is, the more terrifying he is. The more banal he is, the more terrifying he is."

"At the very beginning, it was very hard to leave it at the end of the day, to drop it, particularly when you’re fresh off your research and the research was repulsive.

But eventually, once you understand who he is and you find him, for me, then I could drop him at the end of the day. But there’s no doubt, I will say without question it was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done as an actor. I’d look forward to going into the makeup trailer, taking everything off and having a martini at the end of every day…and the beginning of every day too as a matter of fact."

Rose, what attracted you to the role of Lindsey?

Rose McIver: "Well, I’m a New Zealander so we’re pretty proud of Pete, and the opportunity to work with him was obviously very exciting and a real honor. Lindsey, I read the book when I was 13 and I was a huge fan of the novel myself. I was Lindsey and Susie’s age, really, going into high school. I guess it just was really resonant with me and I never thought I’d have the opportunity to play Lindsey. But when I read her in the script - and I felt like she was very much that character that she was in the book - I don't think I’m hugely similar to her necessarily but I really respect and admire her, so that makes her a character that I would love to play. And she got to age from 11 to 19, which was always going to be kind of interesting and a wonderful challenge to do."

Was it tough to tap into those emotions when Lindsey's figures out what Mr Harvey has done?

Rose McIver: "I didn’t know it was going to be as easy as it was because when I met Stanley, I thought, ‘This man’s too nice. He’s not going to be Mr. Harvey and how am I even going to be scared of him?’ But when we were shooting that, it was in New Zealand and it was very contained fear.

It was all [scary] and it was fine and whenever we’d cut, it would go back to normal. But I certainly was actually really terrified, I think. The idea of Lindsay putting herself in that position and having already lost her sister, putting herself at stake and being so vulnerable, I mean it’s brave but it’s dangerous. I think the nature of that, the nature of the script made it a very easy kind of emotion to tap into."

Were there any moments on set where your character’s feelings overtook you and you had to come back to reality?

Saoirse Ronan: "Well, for me there was always one scene that stuck out and that I got very emotional and I kind of did sort of just…I was drowned in the scene for quite a long time. It was the barley field scene near the end of the movie where Mr. Harvey’s victims come to take Susie to heaven.

I mean, that’s one of my favorite scenes in the film and definitely my favorite to shoot as well. It was so emotional and touching, and I think we did it for a day or maybe even more. I think everyone on set felt the same way. We were all touched and very emotional, so I always remember shooting that."

Rachel, what was it like for you as a mother to deal with this subject matter? And Mark, were there any emotional ramifications once the filming was done?

Rachel Weisz: "Well, as an actor you have to imagine all sorts of things. I imagined I was a young woman in the 1970s. I imagined I was an American - neither of those are bad things. You know, you imagine beautiful things, you imagine lovely things, that’s my job. And I don’t know – I don’t think in that way that something’s too dark or problematic to go to. I don’t know why, but I just don’t think that way. I mean, I immerse myself in something, but I’ve learned to come out of it. I’m a mother in real life so I can’t go home to my kids in a state of despair and tears. So it’s a skill you learn, like one might learn to juggle, but you learn to turn things on and off, and I sort of have to do that."

"I mean, stories since the beginning of time, bad things happened in stories. Oedipus kills his dad and has sex with his mom. Bad stuff has happened in stories since the beginning of time, and I think it’s [not] a new thing to be a storyteller and be in a story where there are bad things. It’s also there are very beautiful, uplifting things about this film and the book, and I knew that going into it, so I didn’t have a hesitation of the sort that you mean.

You know what? I guess the uplifting theme of the book and the film, which is to me that life is a treasure and precious and a miracle, and I guess the thing that made me feel as if I wanted to go hug my son tighter when I got home. You know, it’s hard to remember that life is a miracle. We’re just living it and we forget that. So it gave me a kind of positive feeling rather than a depressed one."

Mark Wahlberg: "I’m still learning to juggle. I would go home and just grab my daughter and hold her and I would start crying and she’d be like, 'Daddy, what’s wrong with you?' because she just wanted to play. I would try to talk to her about taking care of herself and not talk to strangers – she was three at the time. But thankfully I had another movie to go into that was completely different and so I was able to kind of shake it after a while."

The Lovely Bones Press Conference - Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci, Susan Sarandon and Rose McIver

Saoirse, can you talk about doing those scenes by yourself?

Saoirse Ronan: "Yeah, there were quite a few scenes on my own in the in-between, and we actually did go on location as well in New Zealand, which was beautiful. It was a great experience to do something like that. Bu when we used bluescreen, we used different things that they figured out would help me.

And, of course, how well-written the script was. Really, everything I needed, or most of it, was in the script already. We would also play music during the [shots], music that would reflect the mood of the scene, so that would help me so much. We would do that all of the time, and Peter would talk to me during the takes as well, and describe what was going on around me. So I was able to react to that. It was nice because I never really felt like I was on my own because I felt like I had my little guardian angel there. But no, lots of things like that - the music especially helped me."

Saoirse, did you read the book beforehand, and what was your reaction to it?

Saoirse Ronan: "I waited to read the book. I hadn't heard about the book before I heard about the film because when it came out I was quite young anyway. But when I did get the role, I waited to read the book after I'd made the film because, well, I was just a bit too young to read it.

I heard it was a tough read, especially the first chapter, and after reading it now I realize that it is quite tough. But I eventually did read it and it was beautiful and I thought that Pete and Fran and Philippa did a great job adapting it."

Saoirse, did you find Ireland and New Zealand similar?

Saoirse Ronan: "Oh yeah, completely, completely."

[Peter Jackson interjects: "Well, New Zealand is full of Irish convicts that got sent over there."]

Saoirse Ronan: "Anyway! So I did find New Zealand similar to Ireland. The people, obviously. I found that, ironically, although these two countries were very far away from each other, their humor was so similar and their outlook on things was quite similar as well. When I went over there, I felt very comfortable. I'd always felt comfortable with Pete anyway, but especially when we went over there. I think [Pete] felt more relaxed and then so did I, so I mean I'd move there. I love New Zealand. It's my favorite place to shoot. It's one of my favorite countries to visit. The people, the food, the landscape, everything about it I love."

Could you give us a little insight into the acting process for the murder scene. What kind of conversations did you have with one another?

Stanley Tucci: "I have no recollection of it, so…"

Saoirse Ronan: "We didn't talk about it that much, really, beforehand. I don't think Stanley would have wanted to. It was quite a few months into shooting before we did the scene, and so I don't know about the crew, but both Stanley and I were quite anxious to get the scene out of the way.

And so we went in on the day and as I've said before, everything I needed was already written for me, and Pete was there so I felt very safe. Luckily, Stanley and I were very comfortable with each other and we get on well and I think that was essential to get that intensity on screen. That we were comfortable with each other, that we could bounce off each other and sort of freak each other out, in a way. Especially him."

Stanley Tucci: "Yeah, I couldn't wait to finish the scene, I'll be honest with you. You know, you are concerned, certainly as a parent or just as a person you are concerned when you are working with a younger person with this subject matter. You know that you have to behave a certain way in order to get what you need or get what you need across to fulfill the needs of the screenplay.

But after every take, I would say to Saoirse, 'Are you okay?' because it just made me uncomfortable. [Laughing] But Saoirse would also ask me if I'm okay, and it turns out that she's the one who really, I think, in some ways made us all feel comfortable. Because she's so mature."

"I did ask Pete, 'Can we just get this done in one day?' And he said, 'I'll try,' and we weren't able to. We shot another half day the next day, and then it was over. I kind of breathed a sigh of relief. It was one of the last things I did in the movie, and I was very happy when it was over. But you also in between takes, you joke around, you have to. Like Rachel said before, it's your job to go and do that thing and then take it off and go home to your kids or go and have dinner. That's your job."

Saoirse Ronan: "I know I wouldn't have been able to stay in that place for the whole time, because when the cameras started to roll, it was extremely intense. It was interesting to see, I think Rose mentioned this earlier, first of all Stanley is such a great guy and to see how he changes is frightening. And for someone who certainly gets on well with him, it feeds whatever performance you need to get out. But I enjoyed it. I enjoyed doing the scene."

What was the reasoning behind Mr Harvey's peculiar contact lenses?

Stanley Tucci: "What contact lenses? No, it was not to make him look slightly inhuman. […]I didn't think that my eyes were the eyes that should be the eyes of this guy. And also, he needed to be more of, I suppose, quintessentially American, so the skin tone was changed and hair was added.

The eyes seemed to be appropriate for him. I think that if you look at the scenes, let's see the scene with Mike Imperioli, when he comes in and starts asking questions. I think that the eyes there, what I'm hoping is that they looked sort of normal. I think in those close-ups, in certain close-ups - like the reflection in the mirror when he's sitting in his car - I think then the eyes take on a different quality because of the way it's lit and because of my horrible thoughts behind them."

The Lovely Bones Press Conference – Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci, Susan Sarandon and Rose McIver

Can you talk about the makeover scene?

Rose McIver: "Well, I think Susan just pushed me to see how far it could possibly go. We rolled and rolled and I think Pete and everybody was just having a laugh at me because I think there were about six eggs, seven eggs in the end and a whole pack of oatmeal.

She just kind of went to town on it. I think I got some ash in my face, a drink spilled on me. It was a really humbling experience."

Susan Sarandon: "I’m going for like an exercise video/makeup advice videos. My beauty regiment will be [fun]: 'The Susan Sarandon Eggs on your Face.' Then there’ll be a cooking part as you saw. I was also very good at cooking. But I think at that point, I don't know if I’m right or not, but it would seem to me like he really liked physical business and it was a nice respite from all the dialogue. We just had a lot of fun kind of coming up with as many different things as we could."

Susan, how do you tap into joy in real life?

Susan Sarandon: "I mean, I’m always trying to have a good time on set because that’s when things happen. That’s when you’re playful. I was that way during Lorenzo’s Oil, so I’m irreverent because that’s just the way I work. I haven’t really been trained or anything and I find that just to keep myself open and I can’t be bogged down all the time, so it’s a habit I’ve formed.

But certainly Peter creates, if I may speak for [him], Peter wants to work in a non-anxious set. I think that everybody that was in this project were people who didn’t have to be miserable to get to a place where they could create, which sometimes people spend a lot of energy doing things in a completely opposite way of working, where they’re antagonistic to get to a creative place.

But none of these people that you see up here or that were even on the crew, at least in the United States, I didn’t have the privilege of going to New Zealand, but it was a good crew. I’d worked with a lot of the crew on various projects."

"Everybody was just trying to do their job and do the best they could. Everyone was supportive of each other. There were dogs, there were families around. I was close to my family so it wasn’t difficult to try to find a place of not joy necessarily but just where you felt secure and where people were having nice conversations, even when things weren’t going on in the midst of everything else. Because I think, for me, if you get yourself in a state, you try to hold onto that state, you just get numb. You can’t really feel anything anymore. At least I can’t. So even when I have to, in the movies where I’ve had to be really upset, I mean sometimes the crew tries to cheer you up, which isn’t helpful right before. Sometimes they’ll tell you a joke or something. You’re like, 'I just need a minute,' because they want to make you feel better but it’s right before a take and that doesn’t work for me."

"But on this one, I think what’s beautiful about the movie is that it tells you to live your life and be joyful when you can and when you have it because the scary thing about this tale is that it happens in such a haphazard way.

And that’s how bad things happen sometimes and that’s the way good things happen too. Everything’s serendipitous and there’s no way of knowing who’s going to get sick or who’s going to get hit by a bus or who’s going to fall in love and who’s going to get pregnant. All the things that happen, it’s up for grabs so it’s kind of an exercise in surrender in a way. So I kind of just surrendered to the atmosphere of what was going on and the words were there, and the cigarette and booze. It’s always more fun to have lots of props and find a way to never let them go."