Filmmaker Peter Weir.
PETER WEIR ON:
MOVIES, MADNESS AND MONTY
Editor’s Note: The following article originally appeared in the June 1998 issue of Venice Magazine.
It's 1978 and I'm a frustrated 11 year-old film geek living in the all-American, traditional confines of Tempe, Arizona. With Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind recently having come out, UFO's were on everyone's mind, mine especially, since I was dying to take Richard Dreyfuss' place on the alien craft in said film and fly off into space with the gentle little aliens, to whose tribe I most certainly belonged. Since that wasn't an option and my mom tended to get paranoid if I even wandered away from our street for too long at a time, I settled on escape at the movies. I read about this new "Australian UFO movie" called Picnic at Hanging Rock, that was making a buzz with the critics nationwide. I convinced my mom and dad to make the trek to Scottsdale where it was playing and, needless to say, didn't get what I expected. No E.T.s, no Jedi warriors, not even a Death Star in sight, just a lot of haunting shots of the Australian outback, backdropping a story about a group of schoolgirls who, legend has it, disappeared during a school picnic, one sunny day in the year 1901. The UFO's, it turned out, were just one possible explanation of their vanishing into thin air. It was an important lesson for me in my film education. It taught me what you don't see on-screen can be even more important than what you do. It also taught me that whenever I saw it's director, Peter Weir's name in the credits of a film, I knew I was in for a cinematic treat.
Peter Weir was born August 8, 1944 in Sydney, Australia. The son of a real estate broker, Weir abandoned school and a stint at his father's business to travel to Europe and eventually return home to work with the Commonwealth Film Unit in Australia. Through his work there behind the camera and in production, he began to direct. His early efforts were the horror satire The Cars That Ate Paris (1974) and the aforementioned Picnic at Hanging Rock in 1975 (which is being rereleased later this year. Watch for it!). The Last Wave (1977), a supernatural/spiritual mystery with Richard Chamberlain, introduced the wonder and respect for the power of nature that would infuse many of his later films, as well as the theme of clashing cultures, which he would also revisit in films like Gallipoli, in 1981. This is the film that really put Weir on the international film map. A stirring anti-war drama starring Mel Gibson that echoed the finest films of the genre, such as Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957), Gallipoli told the tragic tale of two Australian lads who sign up to fight in Turkey during WW I. He re-teamed with Gibson the following year for The Year of Living Dangerously, a riveting romantic drama and political thriller set in Indonesia just before Sukarno's fall in 1965. His first Hollywood film, the modern Oscar-winning classic Witness in 1985, starred Harrison Ford in a tale of culture clash involving a wounded Philadelphia cop hiding out with an Amish enclave in the Pennsylvania countryside. The commercial success generated by both films established Weir as an important Hollywood director who could command big budgets for intelligent, adult-oriented films that stimulated the eye, the brain and the heart in equal measure. He followed Witness with The Mosquito Coast in 1986, also starring Ford as one of the most unlikable protagonists in recent film history (which made the story all the more riveting); the Oscar-winning Robin Williams hit Dead Poet's Society in 1989; Green Card in 1990; and the vastly underseen masterpiece Fearless in 1993, boasting Jeff Bridges' Oscar-caliber performance (which was ignored) as the survivor of a cataclysmic plane crash.
Weir's latest stands up to his best work. The Truman Show is the brainchild of screenwriter Andrew Niccol (Gattaca), one of the most exciting and intelligent screenwriters working today, and stars Jim Carrey in the story of one Truman Burbank, a man whose life has been a continuous, 24 hour, seven day a week TV show since his birth. The only catch is, Truman's the only one who doesn't know it's all make-believe and he starts to figure it out, much to the chagrin of the show's Messianic creator, played by the always superb Ed Harris. The Truman Show is not your typical summer popcorn fare (or typical Jim Carrey film, for that matter). Like all of Weir's films, it demands that the audience think while it's being entertained. It does both in spades. The Truman Show is one of the best films of 1998, and could well mark a new beginning in the career of Carey, one that will transform him from wacky, crazy, goofball comic to a fine, serious actor who happens to be funny, much like Dead Poet's did for Robin Williams ten years ago.
Peter Weir in person displays the layed-back unpretentiousness that most Australians are known for. He is obviously a man who is very serious and passionate about his work, but doesn't let that feeling pass over to himself. What follows are his thoughts on movies, politics, actors, and the unparalleled genius of Monty Python.
How did you become interested in the arts?
Peter Weir: Well, there wasn't a lot of (artistic) outlets in Australia when I was growing up in the 1950's. Just a lot of swimming (laughs). So there was a sort of tradition in Australia then for anyone who was artistically inclined to go to London and paint, write...which is what I did when I was 20. I went by ship in 1965...I dropped out of university. I was a real 60's kind of guy.
How did you support yourself in London?
Odd jobs, you know. I think that tradition sort of carries on. You go away for a year or two, take the grand tour, get that out of your system, then come back and settle down. But for me, there was no settling down. It was about unsettling. I wanted a job that involved lots of travel. There was a famous Australian comedian who used to say that staying all year in Australia is like dancing all night at a party with your mother (laughs)!
How did you fall in love with film?
Well it wasn't film initially. Film was just part of it. It was really show business (in general). It really all started on that ship to England. There was no entertainment, so a couple other guys and I decided that we'd be the entertainment on the ship. So we did the ship's revue and found that the ship also had a close circuit television system, with a studio, running to all the bars. So we convinced them to let us do some shows...and did our own version of The Tonight Show. We were the only channel, got great ratings! (laughs) It was all very Monty Python-esque...in fact, when I got back to Australia, I teamed up with another guy and formed a team. We worked in television there and our stuff was very would-be Python. It was essentially skit revues with rock and roll and film clips mixed in. I would shoot and direct those sketches, act in them as well, and that's where I got my taste for directing. Then I began to make short films. I'd borrow the money or steal the film, anything I could do.
Were they experimental films?
They were sort of little black comedies...and I finally sold all my scripts to my partner in the company, and decided to pursue film. By the way, what changed my mind and made me pursue film directing was seeing the Pythons perform in England. I took one look and said 'That's it, I'm out (of TV).' That was probably 1970, or so. (The Pythons) were so much better than we could ever hope to be.
Your first feature was The Cars That Ate Paris. Tell us about that.
It was a black comedy about a town called Paris, Australia that had hit hard times economically. There was a very dangerous bend going into the town which they had put there that caused accidents and then they'd take the wrecked cars into town and pirate them for their parts...The film's got a sad history, really, in this country, because it was bought by an American distributor and completely re-cut and re-voiced and we didn't have enough money to sue them...a sad thing. I tried to buy it back later and they said 'You don't have enough money in the world (to buy it back).' I can still remember stumbling out of a screening room on Sunset one sunny afternoon after seeing (the American cut). They said they were just going to 'tighten it a little.' I felt like just vomiting in the street. It was the worst feeling.
After that you did Picnic at Hanging Rock. Was it based on a true story?
Supposedly, but no one could ever find any newspaper accounts. I think it was an invention on the part of the novelist (on whose book the film was based), but why she should make up such a story I don't know. She would never answer the question about whether it was true or not, which didn't bother me. I used the device that it was probably true. What interested me was the fact that people disappear every day, seemingly into thin air sometimes, and they're never heard from again. And it's very important in many cultures to bury the body and have a feeling of closure when someone dies. With disappearance, you never have that.
We all thought that they were taken by a UFO.
(laughs) Was that the popular opinion here?
What do you think happened to them?
I don't really know. I'm of the kind of mind that accepts that there are no answers to every question. I went across a number of theories...and the most plausible one is that the rock formation that they disappeared around has unplumbed depths...filled with holes and cave-like areas that they haven't been able to reach the bottom of with the most sophisticated measuring equipment. So it's conceivable that they could've fallen into one of these caves. The other interesting thing is the notion of time itself. Sort of a Bermuda Triangle type of thing involving another dimension...every explanation you can give winds up being sort of banal. I loved Sherlock Holmes as a kid, but I remember being disappointed when he'd come up with these simple explanations for these complex mysteries. I always was fascinated by the mystery itself, as opposed to the answer behind it.
Were you influenced by Antonioni at all? Your films have a similar style to many of his in that the dialogue is often expository and what's really moves the story is the images on-screen. You seem to be primarily a visual filmmaker.
Oh yeah, I love Antonioni's work. I think to a large extent I (tend to rely on visuals) because in the early days of the Australian film business, nobody could write good dialogue. Also, many of the actors of that period were either older actors who were classically trained and came off as being hammy on film, or younger actors with no training who were just plain awful. So the phrase 'Drop the line' became a familiar one on sets during those early days. So then you had to figure out how to convey visually what was said in the cut dialogue.
Tell us about the genesis of Gallipoli.
I wanted to make a film about the first World War...The remembrance of the battle of Gallipoli was a very stuffy, almost religious sort of ceremony that would occur every year in school, and we really didn't know what it was all about. So I did some research, actually went to Gallipoli, which is one of the only battlefields in the world that's still intact because it's still a military zone. There were bullets and knives and forks and bottles...There was no one else there, so I went down to the beach, stripped down and had a swim, and the first thing I thought when I was underwater was, 'This is where you would want to be if you were being shelled,' and I wrote a scene based on that...then I walked up shrapnel alley on to the battlefield and thought 'I've got to make this!' You know it's one thing to read about the moon and going to the moon, but it's another thing entirely to go to the moon yourself...It gave me a sense of time and reality in a very eerie way. Later, I went to Egypt and went inside one of the pyramids, and there saw graffiti written by Australians who were there during the war: 'A.I.F., Australia, 1915,' you know.
Your next film, The Year of Living Dangerously...
As Monty Python would say: 'And now for something completely different!' (laughs)
But it dealt with the theme of culture clash, which most of your films seem to do.
It's not surprising, growing up in a post-colonial period. Growing up as a kid, we all came from different backgrounds, Scotch, Irish, English...but no one knew and no one cared. In our society because it was started by some 150,000 convicts, you didn't talk a lot about yourself or what you did or where you were from. What the British did was very clever, instead of having prisons, they exported their convicts, the idea being that you don't want them when they get out, and you don't want them having kids and breeding more convicts. It was terrible, very racist, really...only 5% ever went back to England, because when you got out of jail, you were offered land for free. So you might get married, you might buy a pig...and when you went to a place of work or to a neighbor's, you wouldn't ask what you did to get sent there, or where you came from and would just take you on face value. So a kind of agreement grew in our country of not asking questions of people. So the whole notion of what town you came from and what your European roots were went largely undiscussed. And that's true of all my friends. And that's one of the sharp differences between our colonial experience and yours...that so many Americans are still very conscious of where their ancestors came from. I'll never forget riding in a cab during one of my first visits here, and the cab driver saying, with a very American accent, "Well, I'm really Irish, you know." To me, I think the great experiment is to leave the past behind and all the past hatreds behind.
What do you think of the parallels between Indonesia in '65 and what's happening now?
I think it's terribly sad. I saw some photos in the newspapers that reminded me of scenes I'd staged for the film, burning buildings, riots and so on.
With Witness did you have any contact with the actual Amish community for research?
No. We rented buggies and some other props from them, so we dealt with them on a business level...but the fascinating thing about that piece was that it was a genre film on the one hand, but also an examination of one of the last subcultures that has stayed frozen in time, so to speak. By looking at the Amish, we're really looking at ourselves through a prism, how our ancestors most likely were 150-200 years ago.
What was it that drew you to Dead Poet's Society?
A couple things. First it was the theme of standing up to authority, because there have been many times during my childhood and also as an adult when I wanted to stand up and speak my mind, but I didn't, and I've regretted most of those times. Second, just the idea of the boys running into that cave in the forest and the cave itself...I remember saying to my first A.D., 'You better allow a couple days for the cave sequence to be shot,' because I wanted that sort of shift into something more mythic and significant and in a way play with the time.
Fearless is one of my favorite films. It was the first time I realized what it was like to look death in the face. How did you capture that?
By talking with survivors of a plane crash. I got six names of people who'd survived the crash on which the film is based, United 262, or 232, which went down in Sioux City, Iowa. Half the people survived...and I spoke to four of the six on the telephone and they told me about the feeling of living 45 minutes with the knowledge that the plane might crash and that they could die, then the experience of the crash itself. As a result of those conversations, I completely reshaped the crash and the scenes on the plane, dropped all exterior shots, took very much the passengers' point of view...They all said it was unreal, really, especially the actual impact and the reactions of the people on board. Jeff (Bridges) was just incredible. He went places that were well beyond the realm of conventional acting...there was absolutely no projection about what the character was going through or feeling. It was all very honest and somehow captured an essence that was just...Jeff.
Now we come to The Truman Show, another culture clash movie, with the culture of fantasy colliding with that of the culture of reality.
Yeah, that's true I guess. To me, the real center of the film is the loss of reality. I think now (in the media) there's so much acting and re-enacting and dramatized news broadcasts and cops with cameras, and society viewing it all second hand. As Bill Gates recently said "We may soon never need to leave our armchairs," as if that were a good thing! And that's what I liked and what I tried to apply to the audience (in the film). They applaud, they laugh, they cry...
Any advice for first-time directors?
Don't give your big ideas up because of budget, try and do the same idea another way. Second of all, write down anything you want to do, no matter how outrageous it might sound. Say you've got a 747 crash you have to shoot, and someone's reading saying 'How the hell are we going to do this?!' Maybe later you can come up with another way to do it, like just having the sound of it, instead of having to cut it altogether just to keep it within budget. You never have enough time or money, whether it's a big film, or a little film. Third, have great parties! (laughs) Have a good time on it. Also, when you've lit a scene and you're running out of time, always ask your cameraman if there's anything else you can do, any other way you can shoot it. What else can happen in this scene? Also keep dialogue constantly going between yourself, your actors, your crew. Keep the collaboration alive throughout. Think it all through because thoughts are free. And after all, it's just film.