A Tribute to Peter Weir
Coverage by Nobuhiro Hosoki
Q&A with Peter Weir
(Q): When we were talking last night about your very excellent new film “The Way Back” you talked a little bit about the idea of the journey as this sort of fundamental story in so many cultures and this is a journey film. I think the goal tonight is to sort of go on the journey of Peter Weir and how we go from Peter Lindsay Weir, born August 21, 1944 in Sydney to Peter Weird, six time Oscar nominated A-list Hollywood director. And I thought maybe a very simple place to start that journey would be to talk about your own earliest memories of movies and how you were drawn to cinema.
(Peter Weir): I went to the movies, to the Saturday afternoon flicks as we call them, as a kid and I think I shared that with probably those contemporaneous with me here in the United States. Because when I first came over to make a film here and even before that met filmmakers of my generation we shared a lot in common, and I think it was that Saturday afternoon serials, which were terribly important obviously for Lucas and Spielberg and others, and that was the first introduction. You just went to whatever was on in the afternoon as a kid in the voluminous old movie theater that they always were then in your suburb. And from then I sort of began to get a taste I suppose.
Nothing surprising there. It was Westerns initially, gangster pictures, and then quite early on the horror film. Again, young people are often drawn to horror; I don’t know if it’s still the same thing but it’s probably a first emotion. As for singular, particular pictures, then I think I’d mention an Australian film first, which was “Jedda,” by Charles Chauvel, which was kind of shocking, partly because in that story it was a tribal woman who had been raised by white people, an aboriginal who was kidnapped by a fully tribal man. A journey type picture; a chase picture that ended tragically. But it was sort of astonishing to know that it was our own country.
I saw it as the city, Sydney, where I grew up, but really saw my own country for the first time on the screen. The Outback and the great red earth and cliffs and learned about aboriginals really more from that than from anything. So I pull that out really more than anything as a young man. Then also my first foreign film was also striking and exhausting. I don’t know how old I was, “The Wages of Fear,” and it was just that you were reading and looking and reading and looking and kind of exhausted but stimulated, which was also a lengthy picture.
Then I’ll just jump to one that surprises me because in thinking about it I’ve realized how influential in my early years Jacques Tati was with “Holidays of Monsieur Hulot” and his “Play Time.” And then I’d end probably that period as I matured with “The Kon-Tiki Expedition,” which has got no director credit, but as a documentary I was profoundly affected by it. It was a very kind of big event in Sydney at the time when it was shown. And then I’d end this period with “Z". Now somewhere mixed up in this was Hitchcock and “Psycho.” That picture everybody went to and if you were late you weren’t admitted and things like that. Now I’m one of those directors that did not think I would enter this field. I just saw it was an audience member.
(Q): But of course we’re talking about a time period, the ‘50s and ‘60s, where the Australian film industry, so to speak was basically moribund. I’m wondering if the thought probably wouldn’t have occurred to you that you could have a career in cinema, at least in your part of the world.
(Peter Weir): No, not at all. I didn’t have any particular idea about career. I went to a university following a very poor showing at school. I twice did my final year and I think my parents were despairing. Then I went into an arts course because I kind of just put off. It’s like your junior college I think that you can postpone the final decision. I did arts more because I thought maybe I’ll be a lawyer; that was the first thought. But I went to a couple of trials and I think the only kind of lawyer job I wanted was defending an innocent person. At university I sort of walked out at my second year. Again, I’d limped into the second year of this arts course, having cut the law part off without any plan of what I was going to do even if I continued.
And there was a particular lecture on the poetry of Blake and we were asked to read this poem and then come in and talk about it the next day. It was in a theater of maybe about 20 or 30 people and the lecturer wrote up on the blackboard wrote the poem out, dusted his hands off, turned to us and said “This is a particularly poor poem of Blake’s,” and I felt my cheeks burning because I’d loved it. And he said “Here’s why,” and he then with the chalk went and cut it apart and showed us the bad analogies and the poor rhyming scheme or whatever it was. All the other students were writing it down for exams and I thought do I have no taste? Is it me or is it him? I turned round and walked out and went to the pub and met these guys who were in the pub who were other students, and that was the end of university.
(Q): And then, speaking of journeys, you made a couple of films over the years that are sea-faring films; “The Mosquito Coast” and “Master and Commander,” and there’s an ocean journey in your own history that was very formative for you around this time.
(Peter Weir): Yes, I was lucky enough to live by Sydney Harbor. Again, I think very lucky to grow up with just movies and no television. Television came when I was about 12, ’56, and we didn’t get a set for a couple of years, so my imagination was highly stimulated by just filling in time during the week after school. You were always in those days ordered outside, it’s incredible to think about it, and I’ve come to believe that boredom is critical for a child to stimulate the imagination. That’s when you play with a couple of sticks or stones and water and just dream.
So there I was by the water and in a period where it was safe to be outside so I’d go down a lot of time in the water, a lot of swimming and watching the big ships sailing out there at the great ocean liners and thinking I’m going to be on one of those and off to adventure. And at 20 I was on one and it was pretty much the last period of that being the cheapest way to get to Europe. That was ’65 and we went up through the Suez Canal. It was a Greek ship, 5 week voyage, 700 passengers, and mainly Greek, about a hundred young Australians, going for a working holiday as we did then and I think probably still do. And I got involved in the entertainment on board. Both the ship’s review, which they hadn’t planned.
The ship was do for a refit and I realized when a ship’s due for refit in that period the crew don’t put a lot into their work. So the entertainment officer had nothing much except crossing the line sermon, so with a couple of other guys we put on the ship’s review, then found up on the top deck was a little tiny cabin with a camera in it on a stand. We said “What is that?” we asked the officer and he said “It’s a videotape we never use.” And I said “What’s it for?” and he said “Well if the captain wants to make announcements.” And I said “Does it go to the bars where they have those television sets?” “Yes, of course.” I said – it’s like Andy Harding or Mickey Rooney – “Hey! We could put on a show!” which we did. We did six shows to a captive audience. A smash hit; in the Indian Ocean there was nothing to look at.
And we did based around the “Tonight Show” thing and kind of acted the part of passengers. It was such a success they said “We want Greek content” so I read the news in Greek and we kept going and eventually got banned because we did a report on the state of the lifeboats, which weren’t great, and that was the end of the show. Talk of rite of passage. I mean one, what I had, apart from a kind of feeling I wanted to work in show business, not go back to my father’s real estate firm, which was the plan, but I wanted to go back and so something; writing, acting, I didn’t think of directing. But it gave me a sense of distance and I think without that, you know 24 hours from anywhere in the world by plane, I had this understanding of where we lived without migration, transplanting, everything that’s very recent. It never left me; it probably left me restless I think for many, many decades.
(Q): I know when you got back to Australia you were working in television. It feels like 1970 to ’71 is sort of the moment when things really start to happen for what becomes known as the Australian film revival or the new Australian cinema. 1971 you had two foreign pictures made in Australia, “Awake in Fright” and “Walkabout” that are shown in Cannes. It was also really the year that you started making films. Maybe you can talk a little bit about that next step and the “Three to Go” project and also the film I’m quite fond of, maybe more than you actually, called “Homesdale.”
(Peter Weir): I came back from that year and a half away determined to pursue a show business career; television, making short films at night and on the weekends. But mainly the review career was my focus. Then I went back to England, to Europe in ’71 having had some success with the short films, but still pursuing the idea of an actor/performer with this review group. It wasn’t satire so much as the absurd; it was very much integration of Monty Python. In England I say the Pythons – we hadn’t yet in Australia had their program – and I was stunned by their work. They were so superior to what we were doing I thought that’s the end of it.
They’d done it, they were doing it. So when I got back I backed out of all of that and said I’m going to concentrate on film, sold all my sketches to my writing partner who just got a show up. Then I had a very difficult year where I watched this show that I would have been in become a hit on the ABC. Anyway, I moved on to film, made those short films, then was lucky enough to be in a period where everything was stirring the older generation, those 10, 12 years ahead of us. And by the way about my generation, we were the first who came back home. Before us if you had artistic kind of leanings to went to England, you went to London.
Painters and writers and performers; that was where you went because our country didn’t have a kind of artistic interest. It just wasn’t the way it was. And we were the first ones that came back and the film revival, if you like, was part of people like myself who had come home. It was happening in other areas. The Vietnam War tremendously stimulated. It’s like that incredibly photograph I think from the London blitz where you see rubble and ruins and there’s a flower growing symbolically. And so out of all the chaos of that period and the tensions between families…it was a difficult time. We had troops there but it strangely was stimulating.
The camera became probably disproportionately symbolic, the 16mm camera. It was something that would record the march, the demonstration, the police brutality. It was the sort of AK47 of peaceful people. So cameras were around and the idea of shooting stuff and a kind of façade and an energy and I was part of that. And out of it came from the older generation people who were moving behind the scenes in government to back these people. It was promising people we should have a feature film industry; let’s stimulate this. And I was caught up in that and there were government funds available that helped me get my first film up and going.
(Q): How did you come to make your first feature length film, “The Cars That Ate Paris,” which is about a small out of the way Australian town where the local residents stage car accidents because the whole community thrives on the salvage industry.
(Peter Weir): Where somewhere I must have read about the Cornish Pirates who were people who moved their light beam at night in order to cause wrecks and salvage. I mentioned going back to Europe the second time, ’71, and deciding that I wasn’t going to go into reviews. But on that trip it was just a very sparky period where ideas were occurring to me for films. So two incidents happened in Europe; there was one driving down a French road and there were some men stopped in DayGlo jackets and they had some shovels and stuff. Detour, and yet nothing on the road, nothing. So I turned round and did the detour but I thought what did I obey? Was it the jacket? What is the symbol? What makes someone a doctor, a stethoscope?
So I thought it was interesting that I had done that when the road was clear; I obeyed them. Got to England months later and read in the newspaper of a kind of terrible shotgun shooting, which was news in England, obviously, but on the same page it was a pileup in which eight people had died, but it was only like a two inch column. And I thought if you’re going to kill somebody, kill them and stage an accident. So the two led to the thought of a town that was living off motorcar accidents. But at the same time I went to holiday in Tunisia and I found this Roman head just when we were driving to an inland city.
We stopped by the road for a little walk and everyone’s picking bits of marble up, but I was seized with the idea that I was going to find a Roman head. I looked down, I’m picking up stones, and then I saw three parallel lines and pulled it up and there was a fist attached to it. I thought what was that? Smuggled it out of the country – I’m sorry if anyone’s here tonight from Tunisia – and then also over dinner heard the story about a doctor and his wife having trouble with a plumber. So I came back with three different stories and later made them into films.
(Q): Can you talk a little bit about the producers of your early films and the role that they played in making those films? The McElroy brothers.
(Peter Weir): Hal and Jim, yes. We were always talking about what we’d do. I met them and they seemed to be twin brothers and they were very energetic and had what I didn’t have, which was how to go about raising money other than government funds. So we unofficially formed a partnership and for several films they got me the money, including putting their own house up for a mortgage and going to great lengths. That worked as long as it was in a more European tradition where they supported my creative ideas. Where we came apart was when I think they went in a more American model of wanting to shape those ideas into something commercial, and that’s when we parted company.
(Q): Of course one of the films that you made with them was the marvelous “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” from the novel by Joan Lindsay. That’s actually the first clip that we’re going to look at is a bit of that film and we’ll talk about that film.
(Q)It’s funny because in the Q&A last night a woman said that the death scene of the Saoirse Ronan character in "The Way Back" reminded her of Botticelli’s “Venus.” And of course also, curiously the novel that this film is based on sort of had this similar kind of is it real, did it really happen, did it not really happen? What attracted you to this story by Joan Lindsay? I think looking at that clip we already feel there are so many things in that scene that are kind of signature Peter Weird qualities. This other worldly feel, time slowing down, and as she says, “We might be the only people on earth.”
(Peter Weir): It was the book by Joan Lindsay, a woman married to a very famous Australian painter, and it was the only fiction that she wrote. Herself rather a curious woman who did have this ability to watches would stop, elevators that she rode in. She was a gardener. Rather mysterious people sometimes; gardeners. But what attracted me was what presented the greatest challenge. There was no solution to this story, to this mystery, and that was the power. But the challenge to the film, the kind of who done it, which is really what its genre is, is the worst and most difficult kind of film to make; it’s always disappointing.
We know the Sherlock Holmes series made it work, but even as a kid when you finally knew the answer for me it was always less interesting than what led up to it, so quick let’s read the next one. So with this I knew that the audience could be terribly frustrated, so I had to create a style in which they didn’t want a solution. There certainly wasn’t going to be one, and so the whole challenge in it was to find ways of playing with time and creating a mood in the cinema. And I went to great lengths with soundtracks and I put slowed down volcanic eruptions and things on the soundtrack that were barely audible so that even on a good sound system you would feel some unease. I thought that way I will be able to make it a satisfying experience.
(Q): And I think much more so than “The Cars That Ate Paris,” which had some international distribution, this was really the first film of yours that went out into the world and got a lot of international attention and was shown in festivals and so forth. What did that do in terms of your profile in terms of your ability to make subsequent films and so forth?
(Peter Weir): I’m sure it changed things but it changed me, and that was the important thing. “The Cars That Ate Paris” didn’t work and it didn’t in Australia, it didn’t work anywhere. It was a complete failure at the box office. After the figures came in in Australia, its first market, despite good reviews in Cannes, I just went to bed for the whole weekend. I just slept. I felt like everything that I thought was going to happen was not going to happen. I was wrong. All of those feelings that I’d had, that I had a life in this business. And it took some time to come back to the world in a way. But I think when I started this I was almost kind of dangerous in a way.
I think I was so determined to make it work I’d have done anything. I wouldn’t have cared if I died. I was like a fire. And by that I don’t mean I was difficult with people; this was just the way I felt inside. I would do anything to make it work so I just put my whole being into it. It’s uncomfortable almost to look at for me because it is that younger self, in a way so on fire and yet so destructive. It amazes me to this day what is inside the creative person that is such a killer when it comes to pursuing a project. Not all of them at the same intensity.
I’ve reduced it to a banal phrase, which is you’re treading on my toes. Whenever I’ve had a studio exec or anyone come too close to that fire, to what I’m doing I’ll say “You’re treading on my toes,” and they just step back a bit. So that film was a crucible for me because I would rather be dead than not making films. And I had my own life; I had a wife and a child, and it’s awful to think just how strong that inner thing can be sometimes. So it come be enough, it got me back on the road, got me back in the swing of things so I was getting scripts or I could think of other movies. But mainly not what others could do for me but that I was able to continue.
(Q): This is still quite a few years before you eventually came and began making films in America. Was there at this time from the international attention that the film got any interest from Hollywood?
(Peter Weir): Oh yes, in the way it was then, but it was very significant for me. I was in Los Angeles with Jim McEvoy looking for money for “The Last Wave,” which was to be my next film, when I was approached by the head of production at Warner Brothers, who offered me a film and it was “Salem’s Lot,” a Stephen King novel, and now he said the most important thing. He said “Stanley Kubrick suggested you for the job.” I just had to sit down because he was for me a kind of unmet mentor. He was someone who demonstrated that you could pursue your own artistic direction while reaching out to a larger audience. He spanned the art house and the commercial cinema.
And for many I think of my generation he was like that and many of us made the journey to meet him, which was a sort of ambition. Anyway, he suggested this and so I read the screenplay while there and met with the writer I was working with, Peter Popescu, on “The Last Wave,” was a Romanian defector and a novelist. He said “Peter, we can do this. You know where I’m from.” So at the Chateau Marmont we holed up there for a month working on “Salem’s Lot.” But it was such an uncomfortable month. Just penetrating into that material I found it so unpleasant and just so not me that I pulled out of it.
I also don’t think I was ready really for the whole system. It was all very flattering but too early and I wasn’t ready, so I said no and I went home, to the astonishment of people I was meeting with. They said “What an offer.” The guy who wanted to be my agent who said “You know Peter, there are guys who cut their right arm off here for an opportunity like this.” Since then I’ve noticed a lot of one armed people.
(Q): So in stead you did go back to Australia and you made “The Last Wave,” which is quite a fascinating story, another story of the unexplained about a tax lawyer, played by Richard Chamberlain, who ends up defending these four aboriginal men who are accused of murdering another aboriginal during a freak hail storm in Sydney.
(Peter Weir): The frustration of the film, and I remember particularly that night we were filming the exterior of the house, was what Nandjiwarra would tell me occasionally. I mean English was his second language, they were tribal people, I don’t know, something you probably couldn’t do today. But then we could negotiate to get them to come to the city and do this picture. But Nandji would occasionally tell me things but I would provoke it by asking odd questions. I found a way to ask him a question and he would maybe tell me an answer and it was like tuning in on a shortwave radio. You were picking up a very obscure, distant channel. I’d say things about tribal life, about how things work in those ceremonies, and then I’d try and cram them into the film, anything he told me as we went along.
But it became more interesting what he was telling me than what I was shooting. Finally it was a film and it had a form and a length and a story and so on, but I never felt I got as far as I would have liked to have gone. And I got further than academics or anthropologists because I was taking shortcuts they’d never take, asking questions they would never ask, they were too respectful. ”Nandji, could you change shape? Do you know people who could?” To David, “How do you communicate with each other?” and he says “My brother calls me through my arm.” Nandjiwarra tells me the law is more important than the man, that’s why he’s doing the film, and that fascinates me because I’m dealing with a lawyer where for us we are more important than laws, we must change laws. So I was right up against this different perception, a different culture. So I squeezed as much in as I could but never for me enough. So the film always remains for me something that fell short of knowing more.
(Q): I think we should mention that up until not too long before this film was made you still had white actors appearing in black face as aboriginals in Australian cinema. How difficult was it to convince the aboriginal community to cooperate with you on the film in the first place?
(Peter Weir): Well I went through obviously an intermediary with the Aboriginal Affairs Department, the government setup of the day. Lance was aboriginal, but as it were not tribal, which is a separate group. Tribal people, we don’t make the distinction anymore, it is the aboriginal people whether they’re urban or tribal, and there are very few tribal people anymore. But he got me through, there’s only one group that could possibly do this, and that’s Nandjiwarra’s people up on Groote Eylandt, which is in the Gulf of Carpentaria. So the fact that we’re already an island off an island and had been protected by missionaries for so long until they went and then the island was in more enlightened times as it were passed on to them. Nandji was a magistrate, for example, in a way of our law system. He said “He might do it if you talk to him.”
So I went up to meet him and we sat like this on the beach in Darwin and he was rehearsing a group of dancers who were going to Africa. I had a lot to ask him, apparently the script, which had been told to him, he didn’t read it, would he come to sit in through this film and bring that group of men we see which were part of his family? But I sensed not to ask anything for too long so a couple of hours passed, we had a cup of tea, just sitting with the dancers, and I thought when should I talk? And then I began to feel he was actually checking me out anyway in some non-verbal way. So toward the end of the day I thought I’ve either missed my opportunity or done the right thing, and I had done the right thing because he just turned to me and said “Can I bring my wife?” And I said “Yes,” and that was it. So I had passed the first test; don’t talk too much, if at all.
(Q): That scene that we saw is a kind of dream sequence and I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about the relationship with dreams to your work because I think a lot of your films seem to progress according to a kind of dream logic rather than what we think of as a strict narrative logic. In “Fearless” the Jeff Bridges character sort of goes through the whole film in a sort of waking dream where he can eat food that he’s allergic to and seems invincible and impervious to danger. And obviously “Picnic at Hanging Rock” and “The Last Wave” are very much dream films.
(Peter Weir): Well you change. I mean I was more interested in the specifics in that era than I am now. I think where it’s kind of merged or perhaps I’ve come to some terms with, as one does thinking about how you see the world, I think it’s film itself that is the dream. So I did my Jungian reading and interest in tribal versions of the dream time or whatever, so now it’s just purely bad. And that lead me back to silent films and I have returns every three or four years to silent movies where I’ll sit at home, I have a lovely setup there, a very, very good dvd projection like a little screening room, and I’ll go back into what I’ve collected and look at silent film again as being the great, great clue to filmmaking.
Because the silent movies, and Jean Renoir put it so well I think in his book that silent films were very different to sound films. Different in the way we think, we just think sound films were silent films with dialog, but he said it was a different art form, and I think he’s right. I have to take his word for it because I wasn’t alive in that period where you did sit and watch. He said I think something hypnotic happened with particularly the close up. With the close up he said particularly with certain stars, which is why there were stars, and he chose Greta Garbo, he said now we look back and the plots are rather sometimes fantastical and absurd, but he said the power is still in them, that was what did it, and there was some hypnotic fit from screen to audience with this sort of moving face. I think the pixilation of the grain of the film plays its part. Even the crackles and pop on the soundtracks of films that have been screened a few times. So I think that’s where my interest lies now is to a degree in the close up, funnily enough. For me the great discovery of film is close up.
Not dvd, not sound, not color, not widescreen, none of it. It is that we do see that other part of the person. When you cast a film bringing a persona, you’re hiring a persona of that individual. Yes, they’re playing a character and the persona’s filtering through the character that they are portraying, but you do hire them too. So it’s got varied interestingly greatly in actors and the other side of who they are really. Someone as complex and interesting as Ed Harris and the planes of his face and his eyes, particularly the eyes; that’s what I suppose a close up is all about. Are they windows to a soul? Can you see something in somebody’s eye?
I remember Gerard Depardieu who has a kind of peasant background saying to me about someone “I don’t like him.” I said “Why, Gerard?” “He has the bad eye.” And I sort of knew what he meant. And so I’d like to think that the idea that good direction if you’re lucky enough to have a long career used towards simplification, to finding essences of things. Don’t you admire that saying of Matisse of such a long career: ‘Very interesting for me at the beginning, less so in the middle, and at the end fantastic.” As he said in a rare interview “When I got younger my moods were more expressive, more appealing immediately looking at them. Now, I do with just the gestures, just a few strokes is not immediately as seductive but is more profound. So that’s where I’m working, that’s where I want to go.
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