It's a story of murder, hidden identity and, of course, public relations.
In a New York Times story that appeared on Valentine's Day, Anne Perry, a best-selling murder-mystery writer (with a new book called "Traitor's Gate" to promote), lashed out against the New Zealand screenwriters of "Heavenly Creatures," based on the true story of how she and her friend murdered one of their mothers.
Perry was identified last July as Juliet Hulme, one of two teen-agers at the center of New Zealand's infamous 1954 Parker-Hulme murder. In the Times article, written by John Darnton, Perry insists the film is a "grotesque and distorted portrait of herself," and quotes her as calling Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson (who are nominated for an Oscar for their "Heavenly" screenplay) "idiotic movie-makers."
She now denies making those accusations, but Walsh and Jackson, as one might imagine, have a problem with the high-profile attacks from a woman who has never seen the film.
Walsh bristles at the name-calling in the press. "We don't appreciate being referred to as 'idiotic movie-makers.' In all the interviews we've done for the movie, we've treated her with absolute respect."
When asked how she could criticize the filmmakers without seeing the movie, Perry backpedals. "That was an unfortunate quote and I don't remember saying it--it must have been the heat of the moment." Perry also denies having called the movie "grotesque." "From what I've been told, I don't feel the movie was grotesque and distorted at all--as the Times said." Alex Ward, deputy culture editor at the Times, said, "We stand by John Darnton's story."
The screenwriting duo spent a year-and-a-half poring through 40-year-old court documents and psychological reports, even interviewing classmates of the girls in Christchurch, where the murder and ensuing media frenzy took place.
"It's too bad this has deteriorated to cross-fire in the press," said Walsh, speaking from her home in New Zealand. "But we do feel compelled to defend our work. We tried so hard to get the research right. Fiction was our enemy. We wanted to tell their story from a humanitarian perspective to New Zealanders who've seen the girls as monsters all this time."
The movie explores an intense friendship that was threatened when Parker's mother wouldn't let her daughter move with Hulme to South Africa. Killing Parker's mother seemed the only way for the girls to stay together, and amazingly, the adolescent fantasy turned real when they bludgeoned Honora Parker to death with a half-brick slung in a stocking. The girls each served 5 1/2 years in prison and were released with new names under the agreement that they never see each other again.
Their identities had remained secret until a New Zealand journalist, Lin Ferguson of the Sunday News, put together the pieces and found Perry (who had taken her stepfather's last name and listed Juliet Hulme's birth date in a book on contemporary authors) as the movie was playing at festivals last July. Since then, Perry has been profiled in numerous stories, including in People magazine and on TV's "20/20."
She has used the media attention to own up to her past, criticize the movie and of course, pitch her books.
Among Perry's complaints with the movie: Her friendship with Parker was far less intense than "Heavenly Creatures" makes it out to be. "It was a schoolgirl friendship," she says now, explaining she felt indebted to the only friend who wrote her while she was hospitalized for three months. Perry also blames a TB drug she was taking at the time for clouding her judgment.
Walsh said: "I can understand why Perry has taken a sort of revisionist approach. Forty years on, she has a career to protect. She's rebuilt her life and the last thing she wants to do is justify her actions as a 15-year-old."
Perry's criticisms might carry more weight if she would see the movie. But she has no plans to do so, despite a publicity move by the film's distributor, Miramax Films, to offer a free ticket for her at every movie theater on her upcoming 23-city U.S. book tour. "It is all extremely painful," says Perry of the film she's yet to see. "What others see as fair and objective is not the way you see yourself."