Heavenly Creatures locations 20 years on

Twenty years after the release of Heavenly Creatures, Charlie Gates looks at how director Peter Jackson created his masterpiece in the shadow of the Parker-Hulme murder.

Twenty years ago, Peter Jackson was not the Oscar-laden, box office titan we know today.

Bad Taste introduced his immense talent to the world, Meet the Feebles confirmed his skills and Braindead proved there might be more to the director than just gore.

But the prestige and box office of The Lord of the Rings trilogy was still ahead of him.

So, when he embarked on Heavenly Creatures, Jackson was sensitive to how people might perceive a director known for splatter taking on one of the most famous, real-life murder cases in New Zealand history.

In 1954, Christchurch woman Honorah Rieper was murdered by her teenage daughter, Pauline Parker, and her daughter's school friend, Juliet Hulme. The pair murdered her on a footpath in Victoria Park, taking turns to beat her with half a brick in a stocking.

Even in the early 1990s, when Jackson started preparing for Heavenly Creatures, the murder still cast a shadow over Christchurch.

Jackson was intensely aware that a director with his pedigree taking on the case could be perceived as exploiting a real life tragedy.

"You can't help but feel that you are exploiting those people who were affected by that murder and especially those who are still alive," he told his writer, Brian Sibley, for the 2006 authorised biography.

"I guess we justified it by saying to ourselves that if we are going to do this film we had to make it as real and truthful as possible; that, after 40 years of this killing being described as inexplicable and the girls as being evil, if we could somehow show what happened and what was in their minds.

"We didn't want to make anything up or put anything in the movie just because it suited us."

This vow of fidelity ran through the pre-production and shooting of the film.

Jackson visited Christchurch in 1992 to research the murder with his wife and screenwriting partner, Fran Walsh. They interviewed former neighbours of the girls, teachers, classmates and even the caretaker at Victoria Park who first discovered the body.

Jackson also decided, in order to stay true to the historic events, that "as far as possible, the film should be shot at the actual places where the events occurred".

That decision means a slice of Christchurch has been captured forever on film. It is a Christchurch now largely lost to the 2011 earthquakes, although some locations still remain.

Christchurch Girls' High School, where Parker and Hulme met, features prominently in the opening scenes and was demolished in May 2011. The Isaac Theatre Royal, which is currently being restored, was dressed up as a cinema for the scene where the girls see The Third Man.

A dairy used in the film still stands on the corner of Worcester St and Fitzgerald Ave. The Ilam homestead where the Hulme family lived has perhaps fared the best of all the Christchurch locations. The building has been fully restored and strengthened since the 2011 earthquakes.

But there was one real- life location Jackson did not use: The spot where the murder took place in Victoria Park.

"We walked down the path and knew exactly where the murder had taken place. We had read the police files and we were able to identify the precise location. As Fran and I stood on the murder site we knew that there was no way that we could recreate the murder on the spot where it happened. The place had a weird vibe and energy, and I just couldn't face the idea of staging the scene there.

"It was enough that we were recreating the murder on film: To do that in the place where it had really happened would have been going too far."

The Christchurch shoot was a closed set, with no journalists invited to the locations, for fear of the public reaction to shooting the film in Christchurch.

"We were very much aware that what we were doing could prove very sensitive to Christchurch people and we didn't want to turn it into a media circus," Jackson told The Press in 1993,

"It was still 15 months before the film's release and we did not want to stir up any ill feeling or upset people. Our aim was just to make the film and quietly get out again."

There were even tensions at the Christchurch premiere at the Regent Theatre in July, 1994. New Zealand International Film Festival director Bill Gosden said it was a "very memorable night".

"There were quite a few people at the movie that had a personal connection to the film. There was a lot of debate about the film after the screening.

"There were people who had been in the same class as the girls and people who had some association with the trial. It wasn't universally popular in Christchurch or anywhere else for that matter. There are a lot of people, and I am not one of them, that think some things are best left alone."

But, the film Jackson created transcended these tensions. It is Jackson's masterpiece and was voted this year as one of the best New Zealand films ever made.

It went on to win strong reviews around the world, an armful of festival awards and an Oscar nomination for Walsh and Jackson's script.

It also catapulted Jackson to the big time. His next film, The Frighteners, had Lyttelton posing as a small American town and, later, his The Lord of the Rings trilogy had New Zealand posing as Middle Earth.

But Heavenly Creatures starred Christchurch as itself at a key moment in its social history.

We are lucky that one of New Zealand's most talented film- makers captured our city and brought to life one of the most intriguing periods in Christchurch history.

The Press