Excerpt from an interview with Peter Weir
from Cinema Papers, August 1990
In what way will Green Card qualify as a co-production?
The two things that aren't Australian are the subject matter and the
fact there are no Australian actors. But I'm the director-writer-producer;
my wife, Wendy, is the production designer; and the cameraman [Geoff Simpson]
and the editor are Australian. So we gain on the points system there.
Why have you chosen to do this film without the involvement of a major
Green Card is a test case, actually. It's an auteur film,
made overseas by an Australian director, with the involvement of French
It seemed very logical this time, given it's my own screenplay and
a very low-budget film. I have more control working outside the studio
system. It is the same way I used to work in the early days.
What was the inspiration for the script?
I don't always want to be Hollywood based. In fact, I've been wanting
to do this film for a long time before Dead Poets. It just got delayed.
It's an original screenplay by me for Gerard Depardieu. A number of
the character details are actually taken from his life. I admire him, and
it seems and awful loss that he is largely unknown to English-speaking
audiences, apart from real filmgoers. Most people just don't go to foreign
Hasn't Depardieu attempted an English-language film before?
Gerard is approaching 40 and I wanted to bring him something he could
do in English. So, I tailored it. I knew he spoke English, though not fluently,
and I tried to combine those elements of talents that I'd seen on screen
in various French movies - from the comedic sense to his edge of mystery,
his romantic side.
The right situation hadn't come along. He likes to work with auteurs,
with writer-directors, and be part of the process of developing the screenplay.
He doesn't just take a job; he likes to have a complete involvement. He's
not interested in just turning up and being paid. He would never go to
Hollywood and make a James Bond film.
Have you always wanted to make Hollywood films?
Gerard came to Sydney for a couple of weeks last November so that we
could work together. We have been building up this collaboration since
before Dead Poets.
Like most people, I grew up going to commercial cinema, and Hollywood
was its primary source.
Did you grow up with an ambition for directing?
I always thought it would be great to make movies in Hollywood, but
under my terms. They have to come from me, even if I have not written them.
I have to feel passionate about them, or feel they are part of me in some
way. I have never wanted to go over there as a hired gun and say, "Get
me a job."
When I started in film I tried everything - a bit of acting, writing,
directing. But after a while I felt I had more talent beside the camera
than in front of it. It was an evolution; I had no grand plan, no feelings
of certainty. There wasn't even an industry when I started in the 1960s.
Do you have a favorite film?
The films are like children in my family: there are things you like
and dislike about each of them. They all have their own personalities.
Dead Poets I'm very fond of.
Were you disappointed by the reception to The Mosquito Coast?
It was very disappointing for all involved. It was not a success anywhere,
and it had vicious reviews in New York. But I have no regrets: I loved
making it. It was simply a story people didn't want to see. From early
market tests we realized that they didn't like the concept. They did not
like the very thing that had moved me to make it.
How do you feel about Picnic at Hanging Rock and Gallipoli
being re-released in Australia? Is it premature to have a retrospective?
They are trying to make them work again commercially, and it's wonderful
if the films do have another life. It remains to be seen, though, with
Compared to films like Born on the Fourth of July, Gallipoli
is much subtler in its anti-war approach.
With the 75th anniversary of Gallipoli, they are hoping that a generation
which hadn't seen the film before will come.
I think that all people who make a war film are really anti-war. That
goes without saying. We've all come to realize there are no victors or
defeats in war; there's only destruction.
It has always seemed strange that Australians applaud a battle that
was essentially a failure.
With Gallipoli I wanted to make a film about life and about death,
a tragedy which just happened to be set in a war. I wanted you to get to
know a generation of Australians who gave their lives in that war.
Frank Dunne [Mel Gibson] was a new European man, shaped by the outback
and the hard and difficult experiences that living in Australia meant in
those times. Australians like him were all of the things we probably turn
into caricature now, but they were very real then.
I had the same reaction growing up as a kid. We are raised with the
concept that winning is everything, so I couldn't understand it. I didn't
realize that Australians, through that action, were identified as a nation
for the first time. I only understood that much later, and going to Gallipoli
brought it home to me very sharply.
Gallipoli was the first Australian film to be distributed by a major
American studio. It must have signalled for you an acceptance by the international
At the time, it was a milestone, but subsequently I came to think we
would have done better with a smaller distributor. It had a very modest
success in America. We were with Paramount, which at the time also had
coming out. That's where their interests were; they had so much money invested
Elsewhere you have compared Dead Poets Society with Gallipoli.
did you mean by that?
Paramount lost interest in us after a couple of weeks, just when we
should have been nurtured like Chariots of Fire had been. But it
did do well on television and rental. Of course, we should have changed
the name: they could hardly pronounce it.
In the sense of youth and spirit, and the fragility of physical and
moral danger - moral in the sense that you knew that the Frank Dunne who
comes back to Australia is very different to the one who went. A new type
of cynicism had entered society.
Why do you think Dead Poets was so embraced by Americans when
it seems more European in its intent?
The kids in Dead Poets are the same age as Frank, at that critical
point where their lives can open up or be closed down by the education
process. It can narrow their outlook and potential.
Apart from having that in common, there is an incredible energy that
comes off kids at that age: the potential is just fantastic. You wonder
where it all goes, as Keating [Robin Williams] does in Dead Poets.
The officer in the trench in Gallipoli knows it's about to be extinguished
- all for nothing.
I was in that kind of school, in that kind of classroom, in that year,
1959, at that age. But I didn't have any caves or poetry. And I didn't
exactly have a Keating, though everyone has somebody they remember as having
given them something.
People are hungry. Dead Poets and films like My Left Foot
and Henry V are showing that people want more rich and thoughtful
movies. It's that famous dilemma: Are the people getting what they want
or are they just accepting what they're given?
How would you explain that reaction to the film?
When we conducted marketing tests on Dead Poets, we kept going
into tougher and tougher territories. We started in the cities, then moved
to the blue-collar areas. After that we went to the deep south and the
ghettos. And every time we test minorities; we had a very strong response.
Given my kind of filmmaking, that was very exciting.
I don't know, really. People rarely tell me if they don't like a film.
They only say something if they like it, and you can get a very false picture.
You tend to think that everyone who goes will like it, that they will be
champions of the film.
Were you pleased with the Academy-Award nominations?
We didn't count on them. Most films which are thought to have a chance
are held back and released just before Christmas. But we went out much
earlier and finished our run early in the year. That we were remembered
was quite terrific.
Were you surprised at Bruce Beresford's omission?
But I'm not a big one for prize nights. I think any creative person
would say the same thing. It's uncomfortable for artistic people to be
competing against each other.
I attended the Directors Guild Award, for which I had been nominated.
It was won by Oliver Stone. I sat in the audience feeling strange and awkward.
It's just not part of what we do. It's a lottery and has nothing to do
with the film I made.
It was pretty hard to understand; absurd. He hired all those [Award-winning]
people, and was involved in everything they did. That's what a director
Australians seem to be able to portray American life extremely well.
Is that because we are so imbued with American culture?
All people in Western society have been touched by American culture.
The less discussed side is the shared colonial experience. Our forebearers
started far away in another country.
Americans have always been willing to open their doors to foreigners.
Are Australians yet another example?
The other key is that we speak the same language as the Americans. If
they had been settled by Sweden, no one would wonder why an Ingmar Bergman
was doing well here.
Hollywood will take and pay anyone who can do the job. Talent is something
they don't have any reserve in acknowledging, in the best and worst ways.
That is something you come to appreciate when you come over here and work.
Are Australians too egalitarian?
You also feel embarrassed when our own unions in the entertainment field
get hypersensitive about some situations. In the past few years there have
been occasions where we [overseas-working] Australians - actors, technicians
and directors - have been embarrassed by the lack of generosity shown by
our counterparts back home.
It's a cultural difference; each has its pros and cons. The good side
of the tall-poppy syndrome is that we have a healthy attitude to pomposity
and a good, hard eye on the reality of situations. That's the positive
side. But it can lean over to suspecting anyone who's been successful.
Americans, on the other hand, can be excessive in idolizing minor successes
or people who have simply made money.
There seems to be a lot of sour grapes in the Australian film industry
at the moment.
I think "industry" is a bad word. Artists aren't part of an industry.
Industries give you the impression of highly designed systems that produce
product. And the only place in the world like that is Hollywood, and there
will never be another one. There is only room for one Hollywood.
Do you spend much time in Australia, or are you always overseas?
As for the situation in Australia, I'm not that much in touch. All I
do is look for the movies. Maybe they are fewer than before, but just recently
Jane Campion's Sweetie had enormous success on the art-house circuit
in New York.
I guess it's a case of keeping fingers crossed that there is a generation
of Australian's out there who will cut through the bureaucracy and find
their own voice. Money is a part of it, but not the cause of new people
coming through. Artists will be there regardless of the times.
There's no question that it's hard to get started in Australia now.
It was easier when I was there in the late 1960s and early '70s. There
was no generation before us, unless you looked back to the time of Ken
Hall and Chauvel, and they seemed so remote. We were writing the rule book,
looking at films from other countries and then going out and shooting stuff
ourselves, with no one to compare us to. It's harder now, with younger
filmmakers being pressured by producers to make films based on past hits.
Financial underwriting of filmmaking can be very dangerous because people
focus on getting their application through the system rather than on working
in a tougher free market. Steven Soderbergh somehow got the money for Sex,
Lies, and Videotape. Nothing stopped Kenneth Branagh doing a new version
of Henry V, which must have caused a few blank stares when he first
said he wanted to do it.
I always feel that the money will come if the idea is deep inside you
and can't be stopped. When you're on fire, you somehow make it happen.
That's what's important, not government bodies, meetings, and lawyers.
People always think that. No, I live in Sydney and during any twelve
months I spend about half my time in Australia. I cut all my films there.
Do you ever feel that you lead the life of a gypsy?
Anyone who makes a living out of the arts has a gypsy spirit: you're
at home with your own kind wherever they are. There's nothing better than
talking with a bunch of film people in England or Australia or the U.S.:
you immediately have so much in common.