Peter Weir: Dialogue On Film

This interview was done after the release of "Witness" for the March 1986 Issue of "American Film".

From the aborigine to the Amish, the Australian director uses film to cross boundaries between peoples and cultures.

One of the Australian New Wave's most lauded directors, Peter Weir sees himself as a classic product of the sixties. After rejecting his father's real estate business and hitchhiking through Europe, he returned to work with a group of friends who shared his fascination with Australia's energy and potential, its self-consciousness and rootlessness. The black humor and surreal images of his early work in short features and documentaries blended with his sense of magical quality of Australia's aboriginal culture to produce the haunting and hypnotic atmosphere of Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave

 In international terms, Weir's breakthrough came with Gallipoli, the first Australian film to be picked up by a major U.S. studio. A film whose challenge was "to kill just one man in a war movie," Gallipoli made Weir's name and also focused attention on many other Australian filmmakers. With his recent films, The Year of Living Dangerously and Witness, Weir drew again on the tensions arising from a clash of cultures, and on the poetry under the sound of gunshots and the swirl of action.

Something spiritual or mystical always seems to be a layer in your films. Is that intentional?

No, I would never start out with that in mind. I start out to tell a story. All the tools at one's command, including mood, atmosphere, and design, are just there to serve the story and the idea within each scene. But given one individual making a number of films, there is bound to be parts of yourself, unconscious drives, that come into the films. I find it unnerving, but I do think that you begin to see something of yourself in your work and it can make you uncomfortable. And self-conscious.

There are a lot of anthropological symbols and images in many of your films. Why is that?

I think probably just living in Australia, which has such a recent history. It's really a trauma that the country's still going through, this dislocation from Europe, with a complete severing of roots. There's no real consciousness of where you came from. And that's an interesting experiment, to take people and chop off their roots and put them down in Asia, and, not only that, but in a country that was inhabited, as your country was with Indians, with aborigines. It was only recently that anthropologists said that the aborigines have an entirely different perception of life., which is very sophisticated in its own way. So I guess these things have been reflected in my films.

The Last Wave obviously draws on these issues - how did you approach dealing with the different cultural and belief systems of the aborigines?

That's one of those fascinating things about a film: When you're thrown into a world you would not normally go into - given the intensity, given the energy that's coming off you - people can often open doors that they can never normally do, and talk to you, and that happened to me on The Last Wave with the aborigines. The really fascinating experience was sitting on the set during breaks and talking to Gulpilil, the aborigine in the film. My hair was curling. This was incredible stuff and I think it was only in the no-man's-land of the film that one could talk those things. I'd say, "Have you ever told anybody this?" "No." "Why not?" "No one ever asked me." As a filmmaker you come in and just ask the most outrageous questions, you know: "Can you turn into a bird or something?" "Well, it depends. I can't personally do it but my uncle can."

Picnic at Hanging Rock had a different kind of mystery to it, both in terms of the plot - the girls who disappear - and the general atmosphere - the magical intrusions into a middle-class boarding school setting. What drew you to the material?

I knew I was going against the rules to have a mystery without a solution, but, of course, that's what interested me about it. Curiously, the picture was a big hit in Europe, but it was not a success in the U.S. The reaction here was, How can there possibly not be a solution? In a country that puts people on the moon, what are you talking about? I had to take the audience past that point. I just pulled every trick in the book - and other ones that I made up. I had earthquakes on the sound track, slowed right down so they'd just register on the optical to create an uncomfortable feeling in the theater; I shot at different camera speeds within ordinary dialogue scenes; I asked the actors not to blink while listening. You know, these are tiny things, but I got the reaction I wanted, which was people saying there were moments that were really - what can I say - sort of strange.

Witness, a cop thriller set in the Amish country, seems to have a very different look from your other films.

I think it's a case of using one's talents to serve the idea rather than imposing a style overall. The challenge was really to deal with the melodrama with as much grace and style as I could, but not drift too far from it. That's where the producer and I were a good team. Ed Feldman is an old-time show-biz man, and when I started to become too Amish he would remind me that this was a Western we were making, and to get some more shotguns in there!
But the visual look comes very much from Flemish and German paintings. A big Dutch exhibition called "Dutch Masters" arrived in Philadelphia when we were on location, so we took the department heads down to see it. We were really sort of a funny group wandering about among those great paintings - and enjoying them.

You seem to spend a great deal of time on preproduction. What is the status of Mosquito Coast, your film of Paul Theroux's book about one man's attempt to establish a utopia in the jungle?

I do like to prepare as much as possible, particularly for difficult locations. It helps me to feel more part of the story, and seems to keep the surprises and choices more under control. For some reason, I seem to find stories that have taken quite a while to finance as well. But if you believe in something, you have to stick it out. I've been with Mosquito Coast since 1983, even before Witness. We start shooting in Belize in February, with Saul Zaentz providing all the financial backing. I've got another strong producer in Jerry Hellman, and Harrison Ford and I will get a chance to get right into another picture together. We should have it ready in time for Christmas - we hope.

Filming The Year of Living Dangerously on location must have been a very different atmosphere from Witness. Instead of the peace of Pennsylvania, you were dealing with the upheavals at the end of Sukarno's rule in Indonesia.

There's a tiny Moslem ghetto of a couple of thousand people in Manila that we got permission to enter and shoot. One afternoon we were shooting a scene when I crossed the canal to check the setup from the other side in the Catholic area. As I looked back, I saw amongst the extreme squalor and poverty, our film crew, in "I love New York" T-shirts, laughing, white teeth flashing, styrofoam coffee cups, and so forth. And surrounding us, these silent crowds, watching. There was this Panavision camera looking so expensive, like a Western insect, the eye of the West peeping in at the Third World, and I thought, My God. Two nights later, when I had the camera out on a little barge on the canal, I heard the unmistakable sound of "chuck chuck", the cocking of an automatic weapon, and I turned to my operator and said, "This couldn't be, could it?" He had heard it as well, out of the dark. So whenever I travel in these places, I think you have to be really aware of the complexity of the image created by your appearance, your clothing, your briefcase. These are all statements, conflicts, threats.

Can you go into detail on the problems of adaptation and writing scripts?

I think originals are preferable anytime because you have the freedom to include anything and it's your own. The benefit of a book is obvious. You know you're starting way ahead. I find it's best to film dead people's books because you don't have any trouble. I'm only joking! If you're dealing with live authors, I feel that their approval is something I want. I need them to trust me, and to understand that I have to consume the book. It has to become part of me.
Take the situation with Paul Theroux. I warned him when we first met to watch out, that I had a trail of writers behind me who won't speak to me and I won't speak to them. His attitude is totally different. He said that I had to take it away, make it mine, and that he'd be happy to comment on any drafts. We've done just that, he's continuing to contribute, and we're quite friendly. Paul Schrader wrote the first drafts, but then went off to do Mishima and I did most of the later drafts.
I need somebody who will accept me on my own terms and be prepared to play second fiddle in a sense. Because even if my ideas are not well written, I can still do it, because I can film it. I can see the scene. Let's not worry about this piece of paper. Scripts often irritate me, frankly. They're really awkward to read. I never read one for pleasure, that's for sure.

How do you work with your cameraman? What kind of angles do you give them, what kind of freedom and input do they have, what is the relationship?

Hitchcock said that he makes cinema, not photography, and I agree with that. The camera is a tool to get the thing; the power behind the image is what counts. I'm working with John Seale again on Mosquito Coast, who has a very different sensibility than mine, which I think is important around the camera. You don't really want two people who think the same way; you need a collision. John approaches things from a different angle. but he has a far better eye than I do for framing. You know, we look at the angle that is the most expressive of the idea, and I think that's right. Don't give too much respect to equipment, just concentrate on the idea of the scene, the mood, and the camera placement will then follow. I'm always looking, that's why sets to me are alive with ideas and possibilities. I've slept on them, I'll go out early sometimes, I'll buy props for them myself, touch them as much as I can, get to know them, because they've got ideas in them and it's a case of will they come to you on the day of need. If you're open, they will.

Could you talk about your use of music?

I work with it all the time. I carry tapes all the time, favorite tapes that I've had for several films, that are like soundtracks from films never made. They somehow inspire me and I can drift off with them and get ideas out of them. I play them on planes, I play them on the way to work, and on a shoot as well to psych myself up like a football player. Because there's so much chaos on the set, you've got to keep yourself up there, and if you succeed, you'll send out electricity and everyone will pick up on it. I love music. I think it's a kind of fountainhead for me of all creativity, something uncorrupted by politics.

If you had to define what you're trying to do in your work, what would you say?

I think a sense of wonder is really what I attempt to create. Now how you do it is really stone by stone, step by step. Practice the craft. Tell the story. Narrative storytelling is extremely difficult. a lifetime's apprenticeship. For me it is. And you know, that's what's so great about it - you're never quite there. But you've got to remain open to chance. It's like some Asian philosophy - that great filmmaker seer on top of the mountain that you finally get to see says, "Care and don't care."