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Nothing stirs the soul of a tabloid journalist more than a lesbian schoolgirl killer—with the possible exception of two lesbian schoolgirl killers. So when 15-year-old friends Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme beat Parker’s mother to death with a brick one day in 1954, and when the authorities subsequently discovered certain sexually ambiguous passages in Parker’s diary, scribes rejoiced from one end of New Zealand to the other.

Parker and Hulme’s strange and obsessive relationship, and its murderous culmination, filled many a hysterical column inch. Copy-starved newspapers commemorated the incident’s anniversaries, enshrining the tale in New Zealand lore. As if that didn’t constitute media overkill, director Peter Jackson has come along four decades later to make the Kiwi Menendezes the subject of his latest film, Heavenly Creatures.

“[The murder] is still regarded in New Zealand in very tabloid kinds of terms,” Jackson says. “I wanted the film to hopefully change the perceptions of this case.” Outside New Zealand, he hopes to remind viewers that behind every tabloid story lurks a human story, often tragic and always more complex than the 3-inch headlines would have it.

As he wolfs down a BLT and a Coke in his Madison Hotel room, Jackson looks like a computer nerd on a snack break. Unruly masses of black hair and beard surround his chubby, intelligent, bespectacled face, and his rumpled, drab attire seems to drive home the idea that making films is hard work—really. Heavenly Creatures is his fourth feature and, at $7 million-ish, his most expensive. The budget for his debut, a sci-fi comedy titled Bad Taste, came from his wages as a newspaper photo engraver. Next came a feature-length puppet spectacular called Meet the Feebles. His last effort, Dead Alive, was populated largely by zombies, which is an appropriate sort of project for someone who turned 33 last Halloween.

In its own way, Heavenly Creatures is as fantastic and wacky as Jackson’s earlier work, but every bit of it—even the fantastic, wacky, digitally enhanced bits—is based on a true story. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely intentional.

“We really wanted to go back to the facts as much as possible,” he says, “and to re- examine the case, and to tell it very much from the point of view of the friendship of the two girls”: plain Pauline Parker (“Packer,” in his Down Under accent) and haughty, beautiful Juliet Hulme. Jackson reconstructs their relationship and their morbidly imaginative fantasy world, cribbing dialogue from Parker’s diary, and using a bit of digital conjuring to morph their humdrum New Zealand reality into the fabulous castles and gardens of their daydreams.

The popular portrayal of Hulme and Parker as mad killers was not borne out by research done by Jackson and co-writer Frances Walsh. The pair tracked down and interviewed more than 15 of the girls’ classmates, now in their mid-50s. They spoke with the waitress who served tea to the girls and Mrs. Parker on the fateful day, and with the lawyer who defended Hulme. From the depths of the official files, Jackson and Walsh unearthed interviews with psychologists, which yielded insight into the girls’ characters as well as some choice lines. When a shrink asked her whether she thought the murder was justified, the real Hulme had replied with a line used in the film: “The best people fight against all obstacles in the pursuit of happiness.”

In New Zealand, the case has long been used by gay activists as a tale of lesbian martyrdom, and it has become a staple of angry plays and manifestoes of liberation. The girls’ apparent lesbianism was used in court as evidence of their insanity, but Jackson and Walsh began to doubt that diagnosis. “In one of the interviews after the murder, Hulme was asked, “Did you have a sexual relationship?’ ” he says. “She said, “How could we? We’re both women.’ ”

Parker’s diary was hardly an objective source, Jackson admits. Hulme had kept a diary as well, but her parents had burned it on the night of the murder, to keep it from the police—and future filmmakers. “We were told that by a very good friend of theirs,” he says. “It would have been amazing to have seen Juliet’s diaries, to see the exact same story from her point of view.”

The film reflects his and Walsh’s verdict, based on the jury-of-two’s examination of the evidence: “They obviously weren’t insane,” he declares. “I think there are a lot of murder cases where the murder is committed by a person or people that really are not evil, not psychopathic. They’re not, kind of, killers. They’re people like you or I who are forced into a situation where their emotions are sufficiently twisted up and confused” to do the deed. “But it doesn’t make them villainous or psychopathic.”

“I read a really dumb quote by Oliver Stone in an English paper,” Jackson says. “He was talking about Natural Born Killers, and it was, “Oh, the line between thinking about murder and actually committing murder is so fine, that’s really what my film is about.’ ”

“It’s not fine!” Jackson explodes. “The line between thinking about murder and committing it is huge! And most people think about murder, but the step to actually doing it is an enormous jump that very, very few people ever make.” He pauses. “What a stupid thing to say.”

Whether Hulme or Parker considered the line thick or thin is anyone’s guess; the filmmakers didn’t speak, or even attempt to speak, to either woman. “I mean, there was no point in talking to either of them, because they have made it clear to various people over the years that they don’t want to talk about it, don’t want to have anything to do with it.”

The film’s where-are-they-now epilogue notes that Juliet Hulme left the country shortly after her release from prison in 1959, while Pauline Parker remained in New Zealand after her parole expired in 1965. Parker does indeed live in anonymity, but Hulme remains very much in the public spotlight, under a new identity: Anne Perry, author of nearly two dozen Victorian murder mysteries. Writing what she knows, perhaps.

While Jackson carefully avoided identifying Perry as Hulme, the cat somehow got out of the bag. In a recent spate of interviews, Perry has sought to justify her past, while only obliquely acknowledging the film’s existence—a tricky feat. By more or less exposing her identity as a murderess, albeit a reformed one, the film lends a certain cachet to her work. “We’re in this strange business relationship that neither of us wants to be in, at the moment,” says Jackson. “Probably the film is going to benefit from her books and identity, and the books are going to benefit from the film.”

While Hulme certainly does not come across as an appealing character, Jackson insists that he has not served up the hatchet job for which Hulme-Perry seems to have braced herself. “It could have been a lot worse than this,” he sighs.