Heavenly Creatures (1994): Interview with Director Peter Jackson

Toronto Film Festival 1994–Up until now, Peter Jackson, the brilliant New Zealand director, was mostly known to the film festival and arthouse circuits for his offbeat sci-fi and horror flicks (Bad Taste, Braindead), some of which have achieved cult status internationally.

That should change, however, with the release of his new, breakthrough film, Heavenly Creatures, a powerful dramatization of a real 1954 murder case, in which two innocent girls committed a terrible crime. The film has won two prestigious international citations: the Venice Festival Silver Lion and the Toronto Festival Metro Media Award.

The high-profile case that inspired the film, has fascinated New Zealanders for 40 years, but in all this time, Jackson says, “the story has never been told sympathetically.” “Mad or Bad,” was the way the media portrayed it. “At the time of the arrests and trial, the tabloid press wrote sensationalistic, titillating accounts of the brutal murder.

Since 1954, the case, known as “New Zealand’s most famous crime,” has continued to fascinate journalists–and the public. There have been a stage play, a book, and rumors of various works-in-progress, including an interest from Dustin Hoffman’s production company. All this made Jackson realize that his film should be made and shown as soon as possible.

Writer Frances Walsh, who has collaborated with Jackson on all of his screenplays and has been his personal companion for years, suggested to him that they do a picture about the notorious Parker-Hulme affair. It didn’t take much persuasion. “I immediately fell in love with this unusual tale,” Jackson says, “I actually became obsessed with it.”

The director decided that his film should focus on the incredibly rich friendship between the two girls, rather than the end result, a gory murder that sent both girls to prison for five years. Explains Jackson: “The relationship was for the most part a rich and rewarding one, and we tried to honor that in our film. Our intention was to make a film about an intense relationship that went terribly wrong.”

Jackson and Walsh began researching the story by reading newspaper accounts of the case and trial, but they quickly realized that the lurid tabloid articles contained little useful information. Says Jackson: “In the 1950s, Pauline and Juliet were branded as the most evil people. What they had done seemed without rational explanation, and people could only assume that there was something terribly wrong with their psyches.”

The press labeled them the “Lesbian Schoolgirls Killers,” says Jackson,” adding that “criminal psychology was at its most primate state in New Zealand in the early 1950s. “The public believed it was a case of insanity and that homosexuality was a mental illness one could recover from–with the right treatment.”

As for the lesbian overtones of the friendship, Jackson says that it was natural for girls of that age to “take baths and sleep together.” In her dairies, Pauline talks about how they enacted how saints would make love.” In the movie, the two girls establish a subversive nuclear family, with Pauline as father, Juliet as mother and their baby. Jackson also points out that their idols were all male romantic stars, like James Mason and Mario Lanza.

Jackson sees his movie as non-judgmental–“These two girls were innocent and naive outcasts before they met and they became more outcasts once they forge a friendship.” The friendship was perceived as “scary and intense” by their classmates, who felt Juliet was arrogant. Neglected and misunderstood by their parents, the two girls found for the first time in their lives someone to love, someone to praise them.” They evolve their own secret code, their own fantasy, utopian milieu, which they called “the Fourth World.”

To achieve a more compassionate and authentic version of the story, they undertook a massive research for people who have met the girls some forty years ago. This included tracing and interviewing of some former classmates and teachers from Christchurch Girls High School. They also spoke with neighbors, family friends, policemen, psychologists, and even Juliet’s lawyer, all of whom shed a light on the background and context of the case.

But the main sources were the court records and especially Pauline’s diaries, in which she recorded daily entries about her intense friendship with Juliet. Based on these diaries, they constructed Pauline and Juliette as two extremely intelligent and imaginative women who possessed a wicked and irreverent sense of humor. Jacksonn claims that “100% of the voice-over is based on Pauline’s dairies, which was never published; the originals, in fact, were destroyed by Pauline’s father.”

“We complemet each other well,” says Jackson about the collaboration, “I have strength in visualizing the story in terms of narrative structure and momentum, and Frances is strong in characterization and dialogue.” Indeed, it’s rare for a male director to write so well about girls. “Frances gave the words a measure of authenticity, entering into the minds’ girls and using the kind of language they would use.”

Both women spent about five years in jail, separately. Before they were released on pardon, the condition was that they they would never meet again. They never did. “It was clear to the authorities that they won’t offend again,” says Jackson.

Pauline was kept on parole until 1965, when she left New Zealand, after studying French and getting a degree in English. Her traces are unknown. Juliet, who’s now 56 and lives in a Scottish island, has published many mystery novels under the pseudonym of Anne Parey.

About three years ago, a sensationalistic stage play called “Daughters of Heaven” was produced in New Zealand. Juliet broke her mysterious anonymity, when she gave an interview in the “Daily Telegraph” a couple of years ago.

Jackson has not tried to contact the women. “We respect them, we didn’t want to invade their privacy.” “If it was me,” the director says, “I wouldn’t want to see the movie.” Yet, with the possible exception of Juliet and Pauline, Heavenly Creatures is so powerful, so provocative and so innovative in its visual style that it deserves to be seen by the large public.

The director points out that up to the murder, his film unabashedly takes the girls’ point of view, “because we wanted the audience not just to observe, but to participate.” However, in the last segment, the camera backs off and the film becomes more detached and more stylized (the murder was shot with a hand-held camera), which reflects the filmmakers’ attitude.

The film premiered at the New Zealand Film Festival last summer. At that time, a reporter familiar with the case wrote a story for the “Wellington Sunday News,” mentioning the film and her connection to the whereabouts of the real Juliet Hulme. Until then Juliet, who left the country in 1959, has been living a quiet but successful life in the Scottish Highlands as “Anne Perry,” a pseudonym she adopted when she began a successful literary career as a murder-mystery writer.

A Scottish newspaper, “Daily Record,” picked up the story and, as soon as it leaked, other newspapers in New Zealand and Britain began telling this incredible story. Under pressure, Juliet decided to speak out and tell her story. Pauline Parker’s location and identity remain unknown.