Jackson going into his own pockets

Peter Jackson and partner Fran Walsh have put up their own coin to option film rights to the Alice Sebold novel “The Lovely Bones” in an unusual development plan that will exclude studio financing until the script is finished.

Rights were acquired from FilmFour, the movie arm of British broadcaster Channel 4, which will still serve as Jackson and Walsh’s partner in developing the project.

Project is the follow-up to Jackson’s “King Kong.”

Jackson, Walsh and Philippa Boyens will begin next January adapting the book as a spec script for a movie that likely won’t be ready for release until fall 2007.

Jackson’s manager Ken Kamins and FilmFour won’t entertain distribution or financing possibilities until the script is done and the movie is budgeted, a process that should be complete around May 2006.

Jackson will produce the pic with Jan Blenkin, Caro Cunningham and Aimee Peyronnet.

The spec strategy will allow Jackson and Walsh to operate without a studio deadline, something they said they’ve labored under for as long as they can remember.

“We’ve woken up every single morning for the past six years with people at studios awaiting a script or a cut of a film,” Jackson said. “We want time to discover what this film is. Writing on spec, budgeting and getting ourselves organized before we go to studios was preferable to finishing ‘Kong’ and then facing another deadline 12 weeks later.” “King Kong” opens Dec. 14.

Though “The Lovely Bones” is not on the order of a major fantasy trilogy, Jackson said the book has its own complexities. It was passed on by studios when first shopped; the book opens with the revelation that 14-year old narrator and main character Susie Salmon was raped and murdered. From heaven, she watches how the people left behind handle her tragedy.

Jackson and Walsh, eager to make a small-canvas movie like his early hit “Heavenly Creatures,” sparked to it immediately.

“It’s the best kind of fantasy in that it has a lot to say about the real world,” Jackson said. “You have an experience when you read the book that is unlike any other. I don’t want the tone or the mood to be different or lost in the film.”

The most perplexing problem, said Jackson, is how to convey Susie in heaven.

“It’s cleverly not described that well in the book, because Alice wanted your imagination to do the work and decide what Susie’s heaven looks and feels like,” Jackson said. “We will have to show something on film. It has to be somehow ethereal and emotional, but it can’t be hokey.”

When Jackson’s interest was first revealed (Daily Variety, April 23), the book became a hot property. Kamins said Jackson and FilmFour’s Tessa Ross agreed early on not to take any of the ensuing offers that were made. (Lynne Ramsay had done an earlier script and had been attached to direct for FilmFour.)

“We have heard from every major studio and American independent, every major independent in every significant territory throughout the world — and every fund,” Kamins said.

Aside from creative control, the strategy alleviates any worry that studio management might have changed by the time the picture is released, almost three years from now.

“We didn’t want to be in the position where we set up the project and ended up with different executives who might not feel as passionate about the material as those who bought it,” Kamins said. “Writing and budgeting on spec really gives Peter, Fran and FilmFour a great chance to survey the distribution marketplace and decide what is best, closer to the time of actual production.”

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