“I found it to be a tremendously powerful and evocative story...about every parent’s darkest fear – the loss of a child. Yet, ultimately, it grows into a story about the redeeming power of love…”
—Director Peter Jackson
“Although THE LOVELY BONES is lit with magical, surreal elements,” the film’s director Peter Jackson says, “At heart, it’s a simple and starkly real story of a family grappling with how to love each other in the face of loss and a completely unpredictable world.”
This would be the first time the mega-pics [LORD OF THE RINGS, KING KONG] director shot a film on location in the United States, so he turned to the highly-skilled and experienced team of Production Designer Naomi Shohan, Set Decorator George DeTitta Jr SDSA and their crews.
DeTitta gives SETDECORonline a personal glimpse into the making of the film…
“I was 14 years old when I was murdered on December 6, 1973."
These are the chilling words that begin the story of a young girl's murder, its haunting aftermath and the eventual healing power of love. Over two years ago, Production Designer Naomi Shohan asked me to join her on this project. We headed down to the suburbs of Philadelphia to re-create the world that Alice Sebold wrote about in her best-selling book, THE LOVELY BONES.
Salmon House & Neighborhood
Naomi and our location team set out to find the perfect neighborhood that would act as Susie [Saoirse Ronan] Salmon's street. The proximity of the houses was important, as there were scenes where the Salmon House and the killer’s house are seen in the same frame. The neighborhood selected was the perfect choice: a development built in the late 1950s made up of split-level homes, a design prominent in the Northeast from the mid-’50s until the 1970s. Cosmetic changes (paint/window/door) were made, along with additions of lawn furniture, fences, greenery and landscaping.
The interior of the Salmon House was built on stage in a warehouse space in Hatfield, PA. The floor plan followed the actual location house, allowing for small design changes. We had two periods to establish on the main floor: 1962, when Susie was a young child, and 1973, the year in which a majority of the film unfolds.
Naomi pointed out, “The interior of the house is very reflective of Susie’s mother Abigail [Rachel Weisz], her personality and relationships. There are loads of tiny details packed in there, and we spent a long time sort of squeezing the life of the house into being. It was the hardest set to create because of its simplicity and familiarity.”
Color, wallpaper and linoleum reflected typical palettes and design patterns of the period. Assistant Set Decorator Chuck Potter and I shopped locally, making use of the abundant flea markets and second-hand furniture shops. Northeast Pennsylvania is a treasure trove for this period. I found a few people who were renovating kitchens from similar style houses, so I was able to go into these homes and remove the kitchen cabinetry, along with some original kitchen appliances. We found one vendor who had patterned linoleum from the ’60s-’70s, which was a great find.
Most graphics, especially posters, were shopped on the Internet. We, of course, then had the chore of clearing these many pieces. This show probably contained more legal clearance issues than most—when you try to re-create a somewhat recent period you undoubtedly want those images that people relate to, i.e. in the teenage girls’ bedrooms, in slightly different time periods:
Susie’s Room: bright pinks & blues, purple shag carpeting, with walls adorned by pictures of David Cassidy and a Snoopy poster, as well as a haunting print of Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World”
Lindsey’s Room: [more contemplative, after Susie’s death] portraits of her heroes: Joan Baez, Neil Armstrong, Mark Spitz and Billie Jean King; a LOVE STORY poster; a poster of John Lennon’s face emblazoned with the words “Give Peace A Chance”
1970s Shopping Mall
The other very large and significant set was the Fairfax Shopping Mall. We moved into what was basically an empty mall and dressed 18 stores for the period. The work was extensive, changing every storefront, adding lighting in the mall along with seating, the gazebo, etc —plus a seasonal change in the mall itself for Christmas scenes!
All stores were accurate period-wise down to the smallest details and large: a prototype microwave almost the size of a refrigerator! I think my crew had the most fun with the toy store, for which they built an electric train set with all the miniature houses, lampposts and tiny exterior details. The prep alone in the Shopping Mall set took almost 2 months.
We used a few of our longtime vendors for period stuff: Eclectic Encore, Props For Today, The Prop Company/ Kaplan & Associates and City Knickerbocker, all in New York, and History For Hire from LA. These are venerable vendors we can always count on. Most were used for the Shopping Mall set as there was endless dressing; although some items appeared in the Salmon House, like lamps and a few of the small props.
Other locations shot in Pennsylvania were the Sinkhole set, the Cornfield, the School, and the exteriors of the Town. All needed set dressing to turn the clock back 40 years, and our crews worked hard to bring these locations in line with our period.
New Zealand sets
Our last effort was to shop the sets that were to be shot in New Zealand, namely Mr. Harvey's House and the Police Precinct. Most of the dressing was shopped in Pennsylvania, and then my crew meticulously prepared every item for shipment overseas, which can be a detailed undertaking. Foreign shipping requires many different concerns that we wouldn't think twice about for across the states. Delineating types of wood and materials, and affixing values are just part of the overseas shipment process—all handled by my crew quite spectacularly.
Director Jackson concludes “I always like to think we handcraft our movies. We move through this pipeline…and try to keep things very organic, very flowing and always open to exploration. We work away at our stories, chip away at each element, and most of all we put a lot of care and love into them.”