Directing Heavenly Creatures
A Talk with Frances Walsh and
Peter Jackson and Frances Walsh were both
born and raised in Wellington, New Zealand. Jackson's first film, Bad
Taste 1988), was made by the director over a period of several
years while he was working as a photo apprentice at a local newspaper.
Jackson's two following films, Meet the Feebles (1990) and Braindead (1992),
were co-written with Walsh and Stephen Sinclair; the latter was a hit on
the film festival circuit, winning 16 international prizes including a
best picture award from the Academy of Fantasy, Science Fiction and
Jackson and Walsh (who had previously
written for episodic television in New Zealand) co-authored the
screenplay for Heavenly Creatures, which went on to garner nominations
for both an Academy Award and a Writers Guild Award. Their latest
collaboration is The Frighteners, executive-produced by
Robert Zemeckis and starring Michael J. Fox; it will be released in
1996. Jackson and Walsh live in Wellington with their son, Billy.
Fran, my understanding is that you
were the first to become interested in the Parker/Hulme murder case as a
film subject. It seems to be a popular topic in New Zealand.
Frances Walsh: Well,
popular topic—I'm not sure about that. But it's certainly a piece of
New Zealand criminal history that has entered into the realm of myth.
And as a young girl growing up, I knew about it, and had read lurid
"Lesbian killers' rampage"?
FW: Yes, yes. And I also
got my hands on a novel called Obsession, which I read when I was about
14. I thought at the time that it was extremely good. [laughs] It takes
a very damning view of the girls—it's written by two English
journalists who came out here to cover the trial. It was something of a
hack job that set out to sensationalize the case.
And there was also a play, wasn't
FW: Yeah, there's been a
play, and there have been nonfiction books written about it. There's
also been a great deal of coverage over the years in newspapers and
magazines, so it's always had a profile here.
Since it had already been treated in
all of these different ways, what compelled you both to explore the
Peter Jackson: Well, we
didn't really think it had been treated that well. Nothing that we had
read did we particularly like. And also, the other various treatments
all seemed to have a specific agenda, which attempted to make
political statements about the murder. What interested us was to show
these two 15-year-old girls with no other agenda than to be as
accurate as we possibly could, and to somehow imagine what was going on
inside their minds.
I know that all of Pauline's
voiceovers from the film are from actual diary entries. You made an
interesting comment a while back about how they actually informed the
structure of the film. Could you elaborate on that?
PJ: Well, the structure
was fairly apparent once we started to do research. It wasn't just the
diaries themselves, it was the general research. We read as much of the diaries
as we could—we haven't actually ever seen the full, unedited
diary—but we gathered as many of the excerpts that were released at
the time of the trial as we could, which amounted to quite a few pages.
And we read the newspapers, and interviewed people, and then the three
acts sort of materialized quite neatly. You know, act one is when
the two girls meet and become friends, and the turning point is at the
end of the first act when you realize that they are now bonded.
FW: It's when they have
their first delusional experience together at Port Levy, where they go
into the Fourth World. You know these two girls have an imagination that's
going to lead to something interesting happening. The second turning
point comes with the decision to murder Mother, which tips the
story into the third act.
Whom did you interview to cull
together all of this information?
PJ: Well, we went
through about 35 or 40 people. We wanted to interview as many people as
we could find. Several refused. We talk to about 15 or 16 of their classmates,
which was experience. These were 55-year-old women spread out around the
country, and they all had changed their names because they'd gotten married.
It was quite a detective job to find them.
I read somewhere that the school was
not particularly enthusiastic about this; did they help you locate the
PJ: No, the school
didn't want anything to do with it. Christchurch Girls' School had
erased these two girls from their history. The yearbook that had the
class photograph with Pauline is no longer available. If you go to
the school library, they have all the yearbooks available apart from
1953's, which has her photo in it. It sort of cleansing of the
books. The school didn't recognize what it was we were trying to do,
which was to redress the issue. Why wipe these girls off the school records?
I mean, they were human beings.
FW: Peter and Jim Booth,
the producer of the movie, went to see the headmistress of the school,
and after they explained what we wanted to do, and allowed her to
read the script, her only comment was, "Why can't you make a film
about pupils of whom we are proud?"
PJ: We also heard from
several sources we interviewed that on the day after the murder
happened, the headmistress at the time stood up in front of the assembly and
said, "No girl is to discuss a certain matter." This was,
like, the day after two of their pupils had murdered somebody, and they
couldn't even refer to it directly. Forty years later, we got the
sense that the school was exactly the same. And that really gave us all
the more reason to make the movie, because we felt that these people
were still living in the 1950s. We found that with a lot of the
people we interviewed—that even though 40 years had gone by, they were
still presenting attitudes of the '50s: this was some dark, sordid
little thing that was best kept quiet and should never be
mentioned. Many times we got, "Why on earth would you want to make
a film about this?" We should just forget about it, and hope
it will somehow disappear."
And we actually thought about doing that. But within 20 or 30 years most
of the people connected with it will be dead, and at that point in time
we'll never know anything about it. We felt it was a good time now,
while there were still quite a few people alive, to do the interviews
and try to get something accurate, for the record. We were also
aware of the responsibility we had, because film is such a persuasive
medium, and we knew that, unlike any other medium—the newspaper accounts,
the play—it can give an audience visual images, which, in a way,
almost replace the real event, especially if you weren't born at that
time. So we thought if we made a film now, perhaps people in New
Zealand would look upon this case in a different way. That was a
responsibility we felt that we didn't want to take lightly.
Pertaining to that quest for
accuracy, how does one go about reconstructing, for instance,
conversations between Pauline and her mother, or other scenes for which
there is no direct documentation?
FW: Well, all you can do is attempt to
find out as much as you can about the people involved—the type of
people they were, their class background, etc. So to that degree,
we spoke to people who knew the Riepers, for example, who had good
knowledge of the girls.
Did you interview any of the boarders
in the Rieper house?
PJ: Yeah, I did, very
briefly. We found one of the boarders, who spoke to me on the telephone.
I did the interview, and then the following day I called him back to ask
him some more questions and he clammed up; he didn't want to talk to me
anymore. He'd obviously gone home to his wife, and she'd wound him
up about the whole thing and told him he shouldn't be involved with it.
FW: I think our
understanding when we set out to write this was that we would never be
able to re-create the right interiors, with characters who precisely
reflect the people who were really there. Our intention was to be
true to what we understood of the girls' friendship, and the nature of
that friendship and the nature of those families from which those
two girls came. It was never an attempt to re-create reality. We could
never do that, obviously. So we went into those things with the
spirit of trying to reflect the situation, rather than reality.
PJ: The Hulme family
were a lot easier to research than Pauline's family, because the Hulmes
were public figures at the time. Henry Hulme being the rector of the local
university, there were obviously a lot of university people we could
talk to professors, students—who worked with him. Hilda Hulme was also
quite a public figure. They were, in some respects, the royalty of
Christchurch, because the English class system was and still does exist
down there, and they all take these things quite seriously.
There used to be garden and tennis parties at Ilam, and there were a lot
of people who had social contact with the parents and Juliet at the
The research actually carried on through the shooting of the film. I
remember when we were in England, auditioning actresses for the part of
Juliet before we found Kate Winslet, and we found out that [the
late] Anthony Quayle, the English actor, had actually visited the Hulmes
in Christchurch in the '50s, so we tracked down his wife and spoke
with her. The research just kept on going all the time. We had trips to
Christchurch to do our research, but once we started working on the
film, we moved there for nearly five months, so it was an
ideal opportunity to find others. We'd hear things about this person who
had sat next to Pauline in typing class, and we'd rush around to
I'm sure the production got a certain
amount of notice in the local media, so people probably approached you.
PJ: To an extent, but
not as much as what we had hoped. Pauline's people were actually quite
difficult to research, because they just weren't public; they were quite
FW: We have heard,
subsequently, that Pauline's sister, Wendy, has seen the film. She still
lives in Christchurch. Her con meets were that the film managed to capture
the atmosphere of her home at that time, but her criticism was that the
family was "better" than that, we had portrayed them in too
shabby a light. And that
really touched me.
PJ: She thought that the
portrayal of the tension between Pauline and her mother was very
accurate. It was nice, because Wendy is one of the few key people alive who
refuses to talk about it. She absolutely refuses to have anything to do
with journalists, with anyone, so it was actually very sweet of her to
get the message back to us. It was quite amazing to us that she had
even gone to see this film. She thought it was good, but incredibly
difficult to watch.
In gathering all of this material, I'm sure there were certain
things that didn't "fit" dramatically. Was there anything you
were tempted to use but didn't, because it was either too
sensationalistic or too ethically questionable?
PJ: There was one area
we deliberately steered clear of that we felt ultimately didn't have a
relation to what we were wanting to tell, and that was that in the Rieper
household there was actually a younger sister, named Rosemary, who had
Down's syndrome, who is still alive; Wendy still looks after her. At the
time of the murder, Rosemary was only 8 years old. This made
Honora's life all the more difficult: the daughter lived in a special
home, and would come home on the weekends. Pauline writes about
Rosemary a lot in her diaries; she was very fond of her. But it was one
area where we felt that we were being too invasive into the privacy
of this family.
As you say, there was quite a bit of stuff we had to leave out for
structural reasons. Pauline's diaries are very, very funny. We ended up
using a lot of the more dramatic material in the movie, in the
scenes in which she's talking about murder and suicide, but
unfortunately we had to leave a lot of the funny things out. She records
hilarious conversations that she and Juliet had, and it's all very
Sometimes we used diary entries and just dramatized them, as opposed to
using a voiceover. Like the sequence where they go into the Fourth
World, where the hilltop changes into a magical landscape. That is
described in detail in the diary. So it was a case of having to be very
selective, and at the end of the day, it was the more dramatic
selections that made it through to the movie rather than the funnier
The girls ' sense of humor does
manage to come through in the film, though. I'm thinking, for instance,
of the last scene in the Rieper house, when the family is having
lunch with Juliet before the two girls and Honora go to Victoria Park.
Were their snide comments about Sir Edmund Hillary in the diary, or were
they invented by the two of you?
FW: That was out of our
imagination. We were told that they were extremely jolly at that last
meal—it was actually in the court records—and that they were
cracking jokes, and saying silly, outrageous things, on a sort of
giggly high. And we knew that Wendy had worked at Farmer's, the local
department store, and also what had been very big in the news that year
was Sir Edmund Hillary, a New Zealander, climbing Mt. Everest. He had
been knighted, and became a huge national hero; he still is.
Because he'd also spent time in Christchurch, we felt that this was an
appropriate thing for them to send up, because whatever they did,
they were terribly irreverent. If the Queen was visiting, for example,
they wouldn't bother to go out unless it was to take note of the
decorations, the pomp and ceremony, to enrich one of their own royal
celebrations. They really had no respect for the icons of the day; their
interior world was much more important to them.
The film critic for Time, Richard
Corliss, likened you to a "physician who assumes a patients fever
in order to understand her illness." At what point did you two decide
that this was going to have to be presented from the girls' point of
PJ: I think from the
beginning. That was one of the motivations for doing it. None of the
accounts we came across were from the girls' point of view. Like we'd
said before, they all had other agendas, so we felt that telling
the girls' story was important. It did take us a long time to be able to
do that, because it took us a long time to learn who they were, and
what was driving them. We were a bit confused—there was a bit of
mystery at the beginning—but the more we read, the more we talked to
people, we gradually began to formulate who these people were.
Ultimately, there was a lot of Pauline that I could recognize in myself,
which was very useful.
You, too, Fran?
FW: I felt that the
diary: offered the first insight into the friendship, and into Pauline
in particular. It was an extremely interesting account of her life,
documenting both dramatic and mundane events with a great deal of
literary flair. She was a very imaginative, funny and clever young woman
who had some quite pretentious ideas, as teenagers do, and I warmed
toward her immediately. Reading the diary made me wonder about the huge
discrepancies between this young woman and the monster who was
portrayed in the newspaper accounts and everything else. And I thought
it would be great to take that journey to find out who she was.
Because no diary of Juliet's survived—we have heard from people that
she did keep a diary, but it was destroyed—I thought it would be
harder to get to know her, but that really wasn't the case, because
she appeared to be someone who more readily shared her life with people;
she was much more of a social creature than Pauline. So it was a
combination of the private world that they shared and the understanding
that we got from talking to their school friends, in particular,
that gave us insight into the nature of these two girls and the way they
appeared to the rest of the world.
I think it's fair to say that both Peter and I felt hugely sympathetic
toward Pauline and Juliet, and we did start to identify and empathize
with them, all the while trying to keep in balance the knowledge of
this terrible act. It was that dynamic, of really liking them, but
feeling abhorrence at what they'd done, that kept the thing alive
for so long in our minds, and gave the film inner life.
Peter, your camera work, in all of
the films you've directed, is extremely dynamic. In 'Heavenly
Creatures,' the almost hyperactive camera seems to have an organic relationship
to the girls' euphoric state. I've noticed in this script that a lot of
these camera directions are written in, with more detail than most other
screenplays I've read. Do all of your scripts read like this?
PJ: In this particular
screenplay, camera movement came quite readily during the writing
stages. At the end of the day, the script is not the document we want to
go out and sell; it's the document that the cast and crew have to
read. When we write a script intended for me to direct, it's right from
the beginning a shooting script; a document for technicians to use.
You know, the grips put a circle around the word "DOLLY" so
they remember on that particular day of shooting they're going to have
to have it on the truck. With this movie, probably more than any other
I've done, the camera moves were integral to the scriptwriting. I'll
tell you where that came from: the music. We read very early in our
research that Pauline and Juliet were both obsessed with Mario Lanza.
Neither of us were familiar with his music, so we went out and got
some of his records, and before we started writing we played through
them and came across several songs that we really liked. One of the very
first ones we heard was "The Donkey Serenade"—
FW: Well, we knew that
was important to them because Pauline had named one of her novels
"The Donkey Serenade."
PJ: When we heard it,
just the life and vitality in the song immediately indicated Steadicam.
[laughs] It immediately told you you had to have a moving camera.
We chose all the songs that were in the movie, and, in the case of
"The Donkey Serenade," wrote scenes around them. I found it a
great visual tool. It's never happened before in anything I've done—I
mean, I've never had the music in advance. We had these songs playing
while we were working to get ourselves psyched up to write a scene.
At the same time, the music helped me visualize, so that visualization
ended up going down on the page. Of course, once you actually arrive on
the set, and you have the actors and the camera people there, things can
change. I don't regard anything that's written into a script in terms of
a camera direction as being locked in stone.
How long did it take the two of you
to finish a first draft?
PJ: Not really long. I
think the first draft was written in probably 10 or 12 weeks. But we
didn't start to write until we'd uncovered several months' worth of
And the draft we're publishing is the shooting script?
PJ: Yeah. I think that's
about draft number five. We did an interesting thing. We did a certain
amount of research first, while we were still working on Braindead [Dead
Alive in U.S.], and then we wrote the first draft from the position
where we felt we knew some of the facts, but there were a lot of gaps.
We thought if we wrote a draft we would know where the holes were, and
we would know what we had to pursue in terms of research. For instance,
Fran and I had never been down to Christchurch when we wrote this first
draft, and Christchurch is such an integral part of the story. Then
we made the trip down there before the second draft and were able to
modify a lot of things, interview lot
more people. We actually did that on purpose, because we wanted to nail
the story before overlaying it with a lot of historical detail.
How do the two of you handle writing
PJ: Well, it depends.
You know, if Fran's working on some re-writes while we're shooting, and
I'm on the set, she'll show me some work that she's done when I come home
and we'll revise it together, but generally, when we're actually writing
the initial drafts of the script, it's always together. I think
that we both have a good understanding of structure, which helps, and
I'm obviously very visually oriented, and Fran is very good on dialogue
and character, so we complement each other quite well. I think the
best advantage that we have in writing scripts together is that we write
a script that I go and make, which is, I think, a wonderful thing.
It would be a strange experience for us to write a script that someone
else was going to make, because we've never actually experienced that
loss of control that so many other writers have. So right from the very
beginning, it's a movie. It's not a piece of writing that's going to go
out to the marketplace and may or may not sell. Just one
little thing. Even though Heavenly Creatures was very much written by
the two of us, my favorite scene in the movie was written by Fran by
Which one is that?
PJ: Well, it was late
one night, and we were hoping to finish the first draft of the
script—it was, like, ten o'clock already—and we had arrived at the
sequence in the tearooms where they're having their last cup of tea
before they walk down the track. We sat there wondering how on earth we
were going to write this scene. We knew they'd actually gone there
to have tea because we'd spoken to this very elderly woman who had
served them. She said they were talking quite calmly to one another.
But what dialogue do you put in their mouths at this particular moment,
when this woman's about to be murdered? Well, the phone rang, and I got
up to answer it and ended up stuck on this call for about 45
minutes, and I came back and Fran had written something. She asked me to
check it out, and it was never revised: it's where she slides the
plate with the last cake over to Honora, and says, "Go on, Mother,
treat yourself." It was perfect.
I know you found Kate Winslet at an
audition in England. How did you come across Melanie Lynskey, who played
Pauline? I understand she was not a professional actress.
PJ: Well, it's one of
those stories that sounds like it's not true. We wanted to cast someone
in New Zealand, and we'd auditioned a lot of people—five or six hundred—who
were either videotaped or photographed. I wanted to find someone who was
young, around 15 or 16 years old; I didn't want a 23-year-old in a school
uniform. And we wanted someone who was physically very much like the
original Pauline; I have a thing about being as accurate as possible. So
we quickly exhausted the professional actors in New Zealand who
happened to look like Pauline—there's only about one or two. [laughs]
We knew we were looking for someone with no experience, but we just
had to find them. We kept saying, "Somewhere in New Zealand there's
somebody who's perfect for this role." We were actually
about four weeks away from beginning shooting, and we had one or two
people on the short list, neither of whom we were happy with, but we
were coming under enormous pressure to cast one of them, because, you
know, the wardrobe department needed to make costumes, and so on,
and Fran said to me, "You're not really happy with the choices, are
you?" And I said, "No." And she said, "This is
crazy; we've spent all this time and energy on this film and we
haven't found Pauline. This is something close to a major tragedy."
I was in Christchurch, so Fran decided to drive with a casting person
around the lower half of the North Island of New Zealand—she was
prepared to drive as far as she had to. They'd visit every small town,
go to the local school, visit the principal's office and show a
photo of Pauline Parker. She'd say, "We're making a movie about
Pauline Parker; do you have any pupils in your school who resemble her
who might be interested in this?"
FW: We were in a rusting
Ford Cortina, and we had no official I.D. We'd roll up to these
provincial schools, and we'd be greeted by some curious teacher.
Although no one ever once questioned our authenticity, we would
always get asked about the car: "If you're in films, why aren't you
driving a Porsche?" [both laugh] So then I would pitch the
story to the entire classroom, scanning the room the whole time, looking
for sullen, brooding school girls, all the while thinking,
"What would she look like with her hair dyed black?"
PJ: I guess that went on
for about a week. Every night I'd get a call from Fran. Anyone that was
vaguely appropriate was videotaped, and I got a couple of tapes in Christchurch,
and it was a bit depressing. Finally, Fran called from a small town
called New Plymouth, and said, "I think I've found someone very
interesting. ' And this was Mel. We flew her down to Christchurch
and gave her an audition and a screen test, and we cast her two weeks
before the film started shooting. I called her mother up on a
Friday night and said, "I'd really like Melanie to do the
film." And she said, "When does she have to start?" And I
said, "Well, she's got to come down here on Sunday." The
poor girl didn't even get a chance to go back to school to clean out her
Do you think there was any
correspondence between the two actresses and their backgrounds and those
of the characters they were playing?
PJ: One of the things
that we knew about Pauline was that she was incredibly witty and
intelligent, and Melanie was very similar—she was the top student in
her province in many subjects. And we knew if we cast an
intelligent person, then they were going to hit it. Melanie's also very
enigmatic. The character of Pauline doesn't have an enormous amount
of dialogue. In a sense, the real Pauline Parker speaks for her, through
the diaries. So what we were looking for was an actress who has
that kind of aspect to her that's a real movie-star thing: where you can
film somebody sitting in a room, doing nothing, and they're still
fascinating to watch. We found that in Mel.
I've read that you used actual
locations for some of this.
PJ: As much as we could.
The only location we couldn't use was Pauline's house, which had been
torn down. Fortunately, the school is now a community center; the
actual school moved to a different location, so they no longer had
control over the buildings; otherwise we'd have definitely been refused permission.
The school buildings are now owned by the Christchurch City Council,
which has done nothing to them; they're as they were 40 years ago. They
just rent out the various rooms to community groups. We found out
what classroom Pauline and Juliet actually were in, and it was the
Canterbury Women's Embroidery Guild—it sounds like something out
of Monty Python—and we went into the room and right down one length of
the wall was this huge tapestry that had been stretched out on this
massive frame. I thought they would never want to take it down, but we
managed to get them to do it. So that was the actual classroom where
they were, down to the seating.
The Ilam house, where Juliet lived, is still there. It's owned by the
university, and they were very happy for us to use it. As for the
doctor's surgery, where Pauline is interviewed by the doctor, we
found out the address, and—you know, this is 40 years later, so you
have no idea what to expect—it was just, like, a suburban house. We
thought that was strange, in that it didn't seem like a doctor's office.
Anyway, we knocked on the door, and the woman who answered happened to
be the doctor's daughter—the doctor's long since dead—and we
asked her where her father's office had been, and she said, "Oh, he
had rooms out the back of the house here; we've never really
touched them." We went into this doctor's surgery which was almost
exactly the same as it had been 40 years before. So we ended up filming
those sequences in the actual room where Pauline was interviewed by the
We also spoke to the woman who was working at the tearooms at Victoria
Park and found out exactly where they sitting, and filmed that scene
there. Actually, about two months later, that building was
And what about the murder scene?
PJ: Well, we went to the
murder site, and we just felt uncomfortable about filming there. It was
very strange, and maybe it was just our imagination, but it was very quiet,
very tranquil. I mean, all the way down the path you hear the wind and
the birds, and suddenly, when you arrive at the spot, you hear nothing.
So we filmed the murder scene at Victoria Park, but it was on a
different track, about a hundred yards away.
There is one sequence of scenes in
this script which didn't appear in the film. it begins with the tennis
party at Ilam, in which Pauline and Juliet are watching from
behind some shrubbery as Walter Perry and Hilda Hulme play tennis.
PJ: Well, that sequence
was actually shot, and exists in the version of the film that was
screened here in New Zealand. When Miramax released the film in the
U.S., they had screenings and felt that the film was too long. We
had final control over the film, but they pleaded with us to take out
about 10 minutes' worth of footage, convinced that it would be
tighter. We looked at it, and we actually, ultimately, agreed with them
in a funny sort of way. That sequence slows the momentum down.
It's quite a fun one to read—and it's fun in the film as
well—but it does slow things down at a point where we didn't think
things should be slowing down. Although we've had control over the
film's release all over the world, we've requested that the sequence be
cut out of the versions screened in every other country. When you're
writing a script, a part of you thinks, "Oh, this is perfect,
we mustn't change a word of it," but once it's finished it takes a
life of its own. We felt that the sequence wasn't telling us anything we didn't
already know about the characters, and at a time where the tension in
Pauline's house was really growing, going over to Juliet's house to
watch a tennis game was not necessary.
FW: I think when we
wrote the script we felt it was very much Pauline and Juliet's story.
After the edit, however, it became very evident to us that it was
Pauline's story which was the through line and the audience's focal
point. Whenever we veered too much into telling the Hulme story and
Pauline wasn't on the screen, the pace started to flag. That was
something we had to look at after the first assembly—we had to trim
and cut Hulme scenes because they weren't as fundamentally interesting
as the Rieper scenes.
Although this film is very different
from Braindead, both take place in the New Zealand of the 1950s. I'm not
that familiar with your country, but from watching these two films
I would have to assume that it was, at least in that period, a fairly
repressive kind of society, acting almost as a breeding ground for
transgression, for explosive kinds of behavior.
PJ: Well, the script for
Braindead was set in the modern day up until the very last minute. I was
worried going into the movie that the hero of the film, named Lionel,
acted in a fairly nerdy kind of way—he doesn't socialize, he takes
care of his mother—and yet we wanted him to be the empathetic
character in the film. I was afraid that if it was set in the
modern day, the audience—especially a young audience—would really
jeer at this character, and not be able to relate to him at all. If
we set it in the '50s, people might actually feel more sympathy for
him, because they would think, "Well, that sort of thing happened
then." With Heavenly Creatures, it was really just a
coincidence that the actual event had taken place then.
FW: But that repression
is still very much in evidence here: we're not expressive, we're not
demonstrative, we're scared of showing, saying too much. When you go to
New York, for instance, and people are yelling and the horns are
blaring—if that happened here, someone would get out of their car,
rip open your door and bash you up. There's a level of violence, a
subtext of violence, running through New Zealand society that comes out
in our movies. We have a veneer of being easygoing, but underneath,
we're full of rage. It's an interesting social dynamic. and it makes for
interesting art, but it's not so pleasant to actually live in it.
It's very much to do with a link with England—
PJ: Christchurch in
FW: Christchurch suffers
from it more than any other city in New Zealand. It's always been
described as "a little piece England"; it's considered to be
more English than England. It's always aspired to be that, and it
still is in some ways.
PJ: The thing with this
murder, too, is that the sense you when you talk to the older generation
in Christchurch is that it was an embarrassment to the city, that it was somehow
shameful and somehow humiliating. Which is ridiculous, because the story
is ultimately a family tragedy.
FW: It's been said that
Christchurch was more appalled by revelation that Pauline's parents were
not married than by the murder itself. And some uncharitable souls even
suggested that one sinful act led on to the other.
Speaking generally about your films,
you both seem to have a certain love of campiness, which is apparent in
the use of caricatures for many characters, as well as in an
overall sort of extremism reminiscent of the work of someone like John
Waters here in the U.S. What's interesting about Heavenly Creatures is
that while it remains a fundamentally "realistic"
docudrama, some of the figures of authority, like the doctor, the vicar
and the headmistress, are hilariously overplayed.
PJ: Well, I like movies
to be entertaining, to be a little larger than life. With something like
Braindead, obviously there's no problem doing that. But with 'Heavenly Creatures,'
we were telling what we hoped would be a fairly accurate story. At the
same time, however, I still wanted to make a movie; I didn't want
something totally tied to real life, and totally dull. So we did
have a little bit of fun with some of those characters. I guess if you
were trying to justify it you could say we were presenting them
from the girls' point of view, but that's not strictly true. I just
think that there were really only two people who we needed to be
realistic with, and they were Juliet and Pauline, both of whom were
slightly larger than life anyway. That's something that came across in
the interviews with their classmates. They were remembered as being
sort of terrifying: Juliet was so confident and loud, and Pauline was
brooding and dark. So, in a sense, the film was a perfect one for us. I
don't Like doing stuff that's totally naturalistic. I just like having a
little bit of fun.
The fantasy sequences are written
pretty much as they appeared on film. Were you aware of how,
technically, you were going to handle these special effects as you
PJ: Pretty much. We
hadn't used any optical or digital effects in Braindead, and with
Heavenly Creatures, I knew that if I actually wrote digital effects into
the script, then it was a great excuse to go out and get this
new equipment—I have my own special effects company. So right at the
beginning we wrote stuff that could only be done with morphing. We
got one computer and hired someone to figure out how it all worked.
What about your use of the Plasticine
figures? Was that something you'd heard the girls were interested in?
PJ: Yeah, we interviewed
several people who remembered that they used to model figures in
Plasticine, and I think Herbert Rieper refers to it in his court
We also interviewed an old guy who had been round to the Hulme's place
and had seen Juliet's Plasticine horses on the mantelpiece. And,
of course, there are endless passages in the diaries about Borovnia, and
Diello, the murderous prince and all of that. When we thought it would
be fun right at the beginning to go into some of these fantasy
sequences, the last thing I wanted to do was dress up actors in medieval
costumes and crowns and have them looking like something out of a
school play. So we decided it would be really fun to tie the Plasticine
figures and Borovnia together. And we knew they'd sculpted figures
like Diello, so we just thought, why not have those figures come to
life, as it were.
What about the linking of certain
actors to certain figures, like Orson Welles to Diello?
PJ: Well, that was
something that we devised ourselves. But again, that springs from the
fact that the girls used to give pet names to people. Like one of the boarders
in the diary, for instance, is referred to as John for a while, and then
his name changed to Nicholas.
That's referred to in the scene in
PJ: Yeah, and for some
reason, Pauline refers to him as Nicholas in the rest of her diary. That
happened with a lot of people. They were clearly using real, live people
as prototypes for some of their fantasy characters. We figured that
Diello had a lot of qualities that they seemed to fear in Orson Welles.
He seemed to represent some sort of dark, sexual force, so we figured
that giving his features to the figure of Diello was appropriate.
Could you talk about the fact that,
during production, Anne Perry, the mystery writer, was "outed
" as being Juliet Hulme?
FW: Well, where do you
start? We knew that would be a possible outcome of making this
film—that someone might try and track down either Pauline or Juliet. Which
was a very good reason not to make the movie. We had more compelling
reasons to make the film, however, because if we didn't, another one
was going to get made anyway. There were, at the time the film was being
funded, five competing projects in various states of preparation.
Didn't Dustin Hoffman have something
in the works?
FW: His company, Punch
Productions, I believe, had a script written by an American writer;
Peter had, in fact, been very tentatively approached to read it, that
was how we found out about it. At that point we were about a week
away from starting to shoot. And then someone was trying to do a film
version of the play we've already spoken of, and other people were
developing a very politicized lesbian version of the story. Then there'd
been a screenplay written by the late English novelist, Angela
Carter, that was with a production company in Auckland, and there was
someone in Australia developing a screenplay. So we knew that this story was
going to come to the screen, soon—there was no doubt someone was going
to make it. And we felt that, in that climate, we would proceed, despite
the possibility that these women might be exposed.
We knew that in Pauline's case it was less likely. We'd heard a lot of
rumor and gossip about Juliet, but we'd heard nothing about Pauline, and
I think she has very carefully hidden her identity. Juliet went to
no such trouble: she took her stepfather's name—Hilda Hulme ended up
marrying Walter Perry—as a novelist, and proceeded to write a
series of crime novels. You can look up any contemporary author index in
any library, and there is Anne Perry, and her birthdate is the same as Juliet
Hulme's, her mother's maiden name is the same, etc. There is a gap in
her personal history, where she leaves out New Zealand, but it picks up
again after she left the country. So it didn't take a huge amount
of detective work from the journalist here in New Zealand who had heard
that Anne Perry and Juliet Hulme were one and the same.
That rumor sprang from a production of
the play that had gone on here a year before we started shooting, where
a friend of Juliet's, who was still writing to her, confided in one
of the actors that Juliet Hulme was now writing murder mysteries as Anne
Perry. That rumor hew around the acting community here in New Zealand,
and it reached our ears on the set, and it was something that we wanted
to entirely disassociate ourselves from, because we knew it would damage
the film, and we knew it would damage us. It was inevitable that we
would be accused of exploiting this woman's situation in order to
promote the movie. When this journalist rang Peter and asked what
comment he had about the story, he just begged her not to print it. Of
course that was a hopeless situation, because she was a tabloid
hack who was going to go ahead and make her name, and she has dined off
it ever since. We felt an enormous amount of dread, because the movie
hadn't had a chance to stand on its own before this was made known,
and it's now been inextricably linked with this revelation. So we've
been battling that ever since. But given that it's happened, we've
had to deal with it, as she has.
PJ: I mean, we were
absolutely disgusted by some of the ads Miramax ran. On the day that
this was released in America, I rang Miramax and said, "For
heaven's sake, don't associate this film with any of this because
we don't approve of this publicity." And a couple of months later,
lo and behold, we get sent by a friend in the States clippings with
these ads saying, "Murder, She Wrote," and these other
references to Anne Perry that Miramax had been running, and we were
just very, very angry.
Did you fever consider using the
coordinates of the actual event, but changing enough of the particulars
to push it into the fictional realm?
PJ: No, because the case
is so well-known in New Zealand; it would be like—
FW: Fictionalizing the
O.J. Simpson case.
PJ: It's unnecessary. I
mean, sure, if it was just a movie for international consumption, then,
yeah. But the fact is that we weren't actually making this film for an international
audience. We were very much making it to try and rectify 40 years
of misunderstanding about this case within New Zealand. In a way that
was our main motivation for making the film, and in doing that, we
obviously had to use their real names. But having said that,
"Pauline Parker" and "Juliet Hulme" ceased to exist
as people in 1959, because they both took different names. In a
sense, I don't think there was any moral problem with using those names,
because they themselves stopped using them some 30-odd years ago.
Were there any other films you looked
at as inspiration before writing this?
FW: Well, we looked at
movies like Let Him Have It, which was based on the Craig/Bentley murder
case in England [Bentley was an 18-year-old with a low I.Q. who was
hanged for murder]. Although I think that film has quite a lot of merit,
in the end it comes across as a grim, dark, true-life murder story,
and similarly Dance with a Stranger, which was about Ruth Ellis [the
last woman to be hanged in England]. We felt that if there was one thing
we didn't want to do, it was to make a depressing murder film. We
really wanted to tell a tale of a friendship, rather than a murder
story. Sure, the movie ends with a murder, but for the most part,
it celebrates friendship.
PJ: We wanted to make it
a lot funnier than those films. And people have said, "It's such a
serious subject; why did you try to make it funny?" Well, obviously
the murder wasn't funny, and we never attempted to make it funny,
but the friendship was funny. Life is funny: generally, human beings like
to enjoy themselves, and there was no doubt that Pauline and Juliet had
a hell of a good time, most of the time.
FW: But the other reason
why it was important that we tell this as a true story is that it has a
kind of universal truth for anybody growing up. When you're at that age, you
become very focused on things in an extreme way. And I don't think
Pauline and Juliet are so very different from anybody else; I think
several things went wrong in their lives—Juliet's parents broke
up, and Pauline became very alienated from her family (she was an
obsessional manic-depressive character)—and I think it was this
terrible combination of things that led to this extraordinarily
horrible act. But it's not something that can be precluded from
anybody's experience in growing up. Adolescence is such a crazy
PJ: A lot of women have
come up to us and said, "I was Pauline. That was me. That was my
childhood." I don't think it's that unusual. I think what is
unusual about the whole thing is that these aspects of Pauline's
character led to the murder, and I don't think the sort of person she
was was particularly unusual or freakish or weird. When we hear
things like that, it's the best possible endorsement we could get.
(Tod Lippy conducted this
interview over the telephone with Frances Walsh and Peter Jackson, who
were at their home in Wellington, New Zealand.)