Peter Weir at the Seattle Film Festival

DISCLAIMER: As I did not bring a tape recorder with me and I do not have a perfect memory, some of the statements attributed to Weir will undoubtedly not be completely accurate. I have tried to keep the spirit of what Weir said, even if the words themselves are not perfect.


Saturday, June 3rd, 2000: 4pm

        The room the "scene by scene" took place in was basically a reasonably sized lecture hall with a raised stage at the front and a film screen. Two chairs were sat off to the right side of the stage. After a quick introduction, Richard Jameson and Peter Weir came out and sat down.

        After a brief standing ovation from much of the crowd, the lights were dimmed and the first few minutes of Picnic at Hanging Rock were played. Unfortunately, we did not see a film projection of the movie but a digital "blow-up" from the DVD. This had the unfortunate effect of making it look like a Real Video movie off the internet, very badly distorted and pixelated. (A real travesty for such a beautiful film.) Weir spoke a bit during the opening credits and it confirmed just how wonderful it would be to have him doing commentary for his various films on DVD.

        Here is a run-down on what I can remember from what he said:

        He spoke about how at the time it was very hard to find good writers or actors in Australia. Most actors worked in the theater or radio and often used very exaggerated British accents. Because Australians were mostly accustomed to American and European films, it was often awkward hearing their own voices in film. Weir had problems finding girls for the film that could convey the kind of innocence necessary and ended up casting most girls from outside the cities, looking in areas that hadn't caught up with the present. With the exception of the girl who played Miranda, he said the rest were pretty much amateurs in both senses of the word, that they couldn't perform dialog well and that he had to often cut dialog out for that reason.

        He joked about how he would often inform actors of their cut scenes of dialog and they would say (in a stuffy British accent) "Oh, another line lost..." Weir said he would console them by saying he had given them a great close up instead, but they always seemed to prefer the lines over the close-ups.

        He had cast a different girl for the role of Miranda but she didn't work out and he had to replace her. He gave her the choice of being annoyed and leaving the film or being annoyed and playing one of the other girls. She ended up playing one of the smaller roles (not among the main group of girls). He mentioned her name but I can't remember it.

        Someone on the film had given him a piece of Zamfir music they had heard on television and he was captivated by it. They approached Zamfir to score the film but Zamfir flatly refused and they ended up having to simply buy the rights to use existing pieces of his works. This caused legal problems with releasing a soundtrack. Weir seemed rather unhappy with the way Zamfir had dealt with them and he made a comment about how the film really boosted Zamfir's popularity in Australia.

        I can't remember if Weir originated the thought or if Richard Jameson did but they talked about how Picnic was almost like a shipwreck movie. This big ship filled with girls called the Appleyard which got washed up on the Australian shores. The British managed to invade this far and could progress no further. This little pocket of conformity in the midst of the "untamed".

        There was originally supposed to be a different actress for the headmistress but she had taken ill weeks before her scenes were to start shooting and she eventually died. Rachel Roberts was hired at the last minute. Weir said the girls did not require acting regarding their relationship with the headmistress as the relationship proved to be very much like in the film. When Rachel was filming her side of the scenes, she preferred acting to a piece of tape on the wall than to have the girl standing there.

        Weir talked about some of the special techniques he used when filming: slow motion close-ups of the girls which were not supposed to be obvious, but simply conveyed a sense of something wrong. The rumbling sounds of a slowed down earthquake in the background of some scenes. In theaters that had their sound systems right, it was supposed to be just out of hearing range, something you would feel in your bones instead of hearing. He joked that at certain screenings, if he saw someone jerk their arm or something in the middle of certain scenes then they must have had just the right seat in the theater.

        Regarding the director's cut, he mentioned that he had initially included scenes of a budding romance between Michael and the girl he rescued. (Including a scene out on the lake... I only saw the original once, many years ago, so I can't remember what was cut.) He included the scenes as a way of breaking the tension that had been mounting all along. As he watched the film in screenings, he felt that he had made the wrong decision, that they did not need a tension-breaker. He wanted to cut the scene but the studio did not want him to touch something which was already working. As he phrased it: "What if you take out the very thing that is making it work?" He mentioned that in the restoration, he did not want to change anything that he had not wanted changed back then.

        While talking about the Criterion release, he mentioned that he is working on getting a re-release of "The Last Wave" through them in the very near future. There was also talk of making "The Plumber" available at some point.

        Since they only had an hour and a half set aside for the event, they only showed a small number of clips from the film. The opening, the arrival at the rock, first heading up the rock, the girls disappearing... As well as hearing Weir's comments on the various scenes, they also opened the floor for people to ask questions. Though most of the questions were about Picnic, some did veer off in other directions, including one person who talked about how he had been mesmerized by the Billy Kwan character in The Year of Living Dangerously and watched the credits to see who this brilliant actor was, only to be stunned by the name Linda Hunt. Weir talked a bit about how everyone's first question to her casting was "why?" His reponse: "There was no one else". He considers it one of the scariest things he's ever done for a film. He says one of the greatest compliments (and perhaps insults) for Linda Hunt came when one of the hotel staff came to her room and addressed her as sir, despite the fact that she was no longer in costume or makeup.

        Someone else asked him about how he got started and he mentioned his early days of doing revues. He said how he and Grahame Bond would sit at a table with a tape recorder and just start up skits off the top of their heads: "So, I hear she's a real looker" "How would you know?" - and they would go from there. Sometimes they would use different props to start off their routines. (Sounds very much like "Whose Line is it Anyway".) He said that they would end up throwing a lot out but that it was great for allowing them to think on their feet. He attributed that in part to being able to make good decisions on the fly while directing.

        One example he gave was for the opening of Witness. They planned on having a beautiful sunny day with the fields of wheat glowing gold. But it was overcast and windy that day. They contemplated postponing the shot for another day, but then Weir noticed how the wind was making the fields look like waves on the water and they shot it anyway. He mentioned how various scenes came out of the blue. Looking for an extra scene (can't remember why) they asked "what do you do on a farm?" "Milk cows." And so the milking scene came about, along with the early morning breakfast scene. Ford had once auditioned for a Folger's coffee commercial and been turned down and so he threw in the "Honey, that's great coffee" line.

        When talking about The Plumber, Weir mentioned that not long ago he had a plumber working at his house. The plumber returned one day and said "I rented that filmof yours the other night. So that's what you think of us eh?"

        Someone asked about film grants and such and Weir said they had been lucky when he began because there were such things in Australia. He says he was in one country when he heard of some government that was offering film grants. Weir said that was fine as long as they didn't tell anyone. He said that the problem with many places is that they simply say "we have money for you" and they attract all the wrong kinds of people. You look out and see where the talent lies and then you support them. It doesn't work the other way around.

        After one of the scenes in Picnic at Hanging Rock, Weir talked about how he always enjoyed horror films. He thought that fear was probably the first emotion he had felt at the movies and made reference to the Hammer films in particular.

        I'm sure there was much more, but those were the main points that I can remember from the scene by scene. The thing had run perhaps 15 minutes late and a lady from the festival had to keep tugging at Jameson's arm to remind him that there was another event using this room immediately afterward. Despite that, Weir
managed to stay long enough to sign a few autographs and hear a few people beam about his films. Then he was off, quickly whisked out the side of the stage.


Sunday, June 4rd, 2000: 7pm

        The tribute took place in the very large Cinerama theater. The same fellow who introduced Weir the day before came out and said a few words praising Weir's works, mentioning  various  awards his films had won or been nominated for. They then showed the tribute whichsimply consisted of showing a cluip from each of Weir's films in order (with The Cars That Ate Paris, Green Card, and Fearless conspicuously absent) in the same blown-up digital form as before. The person who introduced each clip beforehand got his cue cards mixed up so that he introduced The Year of Living Dangerously as Witness.

        The clips they showed for each film were:

Picnic at Hanging Rock: The last scene of the girls on the rocks as they wake up and silently walk upwards, and the remaining girl screams.

The Last Wave: The raining frogs and the dream of the aborigine holding the stone.

The Plumber: The scene with the plumber singing "Cuz I'm free babe" and Jill running off to the manager to report him, only to find him right behind her.

Gallipoli: Archy and Frank racing to the pyramid and carving their names afterwards.

The Year of Living Dangerously: Billy treating Guy's wounded leg and Guy finding the dossier. Jill walking in the rain after getting the telegram and meeting Guy afterwards.

Witness: The scene of John and Rachel dancing in the barn to "What a Wonderful World".

The Mosquito Coast: The scene where Allie dives in the river after the propellor and towing the boys behind the boat afterwards.

Dead Poets Society: The sweaty toothed madman scene, of course, followed by the soccer game.

The Truman Show: The entire end sequence as Christof speaks to Truman.

Then the lights came up and Weir emerged and sat down with the other fellow and they talked. Once again, here is a basic rundown of what was said. (NOTE: Some of the things I mention from this evening may have actually been from the previous day's event or vice versa.)

        As soon as Weir came out he made a comment as he came out regarding the magic of the close-up. Even in the "distressed state" the images were in from the
digital projection, he said that the close-up is something completely unique to theater. Where else can you see someone's face that large?

        Earlier, someone asked for all those in the audience who had been given cards to pass them forward. It seems that instead of having an open question and answer, random people were given a card to write down possible questions for Weir and many of them were asked throughout the evening.

        Weir talked some about his various influences, which films / filmmakers inspired him. In particular he mentioned Stanley Kubrick, who he thought was one of the first filmmakers to blur the line between the artistic and the commercial. He also mentioned Krzystof Kieslowski and referred to his "Decalogue" in particular.

        He said that earlier on in his career many were appalled by his lack of film knowledge. He had seen none of the classics. (never seen any Jean Renoir was the example he used) Initially this was simply because he had grown up with the popular cinema but later, as he began making films, he was wary about seeing them, partially because he feared they would scare him away from making his own films because they were so good. After perhaps The Last Wave he took some time off and felt that he was ready and began to watch some of the classics. He mentioned Chaplin in particular. He also referred to Russian films, saying "not so much Eisenstein, but..." and I did not recognize the director he mentioned.

        He was asked about how, aside from Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson, he has not worked with the same lead actor more than once. Weir said that often
the actor completely becomes the role they are playing and so it is difficult for him to think of them as anyone but that character for quite some time. He figured you almost need a certain amount of time before you can see that character in a different light.

        There was some talk about how he kept Robin Williams and Jim Carrey under such tight reins and he said that so much of it is about trust. As he has said before, with Williams he would often let him go full speed with multiple cameras placed to allow plenty of flexibility for the actor. They would simply come up with various English topics (Shakespeare, Dickens...) and Robin would go off and Weir would simply let him know when he was straying too far.

        He talked about how there is no ego involved in his filmmaking. He tries to let everyone know that he is always open to suggestion and will be more than willing to drop his own ideas if someone else has something better. He talked about how he considers the screenplay to be simply a vague guideline and that you build on that.

        He spoke about his relationship to screenwriters. He does not believe in bringing in additional writers to "touch up" scripts. He likes to have a single writer because he believes they are closest to the nature of the story and the gem that drew him in the first place. He warns writers than he is going to "devour" their scripts and make them part of his own blood. He has to live and breathe a script to be able to film it.

        When asked whether he has ever later regretted scripts he has turned down. He said no. Often he would see such films done by a different director and he would believe that they had been the right person for the film. When given scripts, sometimes the ones he ends up doing are ones he initially discarded. He would say no to a particular script and then find himself thinking about it at dinner or when he went to bed.

        He doesn't believe in rehearsals. He does believe in readings but likes to save rehearsals for in front of the camera. He likes when he films on location and they are able to have a little community of the cast and crew. They can all sit around at meals and read their lines, talk about the story, etc.

        He only believes in using story boards for action scenes, specifying the crash scenes in Fearless in particular. For Fearless he mentioned that he and the others got in a training flight simulator and at one point the pilot said "and now we are going to simulate the hydraulic failure that happens in the film and we're going to try and land it."

        Weir personally talked with many of the survivors of the real life crash they based the accident on. None of the people who actually lost someone in the crash were willing to speak, but there were many others. And the first thing many of them said was how movies always got it wrong. So Weir told them, "then let's get it right." He said that the actual crash scenes were taken almost completely from the interviews with survivors. Many of the things they remembered were completely surreal. One fellow remembered a piece of metal sheering off the plane and coming right at him, grazing over his scalp. He distinctly remembered the metal coming at him in slow motion, seeing every moment as it approached him.

        Weir said it was difficult for Jeff Bridges in that there was no one they could interview who really experienced what Max Klein experienced in the crash. Instead, they did talk with various other people who experienced post traumatic stress disorder.

        Weir said he likes to get personally involved in a lot of the minute aspects of the film. He mentioned as an example that he had bought the tartan suitcase that Truman carries in The Truman Show.

        When asked about a certain anti-establishment theme in many of his earlier films, Weir mentioned that that is not as prevalent in his recent films because the world itself is so anti-establishment.

        There was plenty of talk of Weir's use of music in his films and on the set. He mentioned how he often makes CDs of the music he used on the shoot and gives them to the cast members. For The Year of Living Dangerously, Linda Hunt was having a problem getting into her character and Weir gave her a piece by Strauss which he thought perfectly summed up her character. She listened to it and said it was exactly right. She said she wanted Mel to listen to it as well and Weir thought they should incorporate it into the film, with Kwan telling Guy he should listen to that piece of music.

        Weir says he loves storytelling and related his experience with Witness. He met with the studio bigwigs, among them Michael Eisner, and they had sealed the deal and were all ready to leave when Weir said "wait a minute, you haven't heard the story yet." They thought this was extremely odd, the idea of pitching a story that had already been sold, but Weir figured they didn't know the way he wanted to make the film and some probably hadn't even read the script. So he stood at the table for ten or twenty minutes and told them the story of Witness.

        Towards the end of the shooting, Weir wanted to cut out two pages of dialog when Rachel and John go their separate ways. There was all sorts of opposition to this and Eisner came and asked Weir why he wanted to do this. Weir gave his explanations about how the dialog was unnecessary if he had done his job properly. Eisner said "tell me how the scene will be then, like you told us the story before."

        Years later, Eisner was at Disney when Weir was set to make Dead Poets Society. This time Eisner asked Weir to join him and others at a dinner for Weir to tell them all the story of the film.

        Weir talked about how he thinks that boredom is an essential part of life. How we need to just shut everything off at times, get rid of every bit of artificial stimuli and let our mind soar.

        Someone asked him if he found his films exhausting at times. He compared them to going through a family crisis or something similar, where it is not until the entire thing is over that you suddenly feel completely drained. After a film he likes to just escape to an island for a few weeks, go swimming, and unwind. He did mention that Fearless was perhaps one of the most draining of his films.

        There was talk of why Fearless had done nothing at the box office. (Weir himself referred to it as a flop.) It was highly praised by the fellow interviewing Weir. Weir talked about how he knew the film was doomed when the initial critics raved about it but said "Don't see this if you have a fear of flying". He said another factor was that the studio didn't do much to promote the film, but he said he understood that.

        The crowd gave Weir a standing ovation when the interview was over. They gave him an award and as he looked at it one of the fellows joked that he shouldn't look at it too closely. They explained that his had not arrived and so it wasn't his name on the award. They assured him that they would mail the real one to Australia.

        As Weir got up, the crowd poured in around him, mostly trying to get autographs or thank Weir. Someone from the festival finally whisked him away after a few minutes. There was then a short break before the showing of Fearless. Just before the lights dimmed, there was some talk that Weir may have decided to stay for the screening.

        And that was it. The film played and then the evening came to an end.