Peter Weir
from 35 mm Dreams
Conversations with Five Directors about the Australian film revival
by Sue Mathews
'Gallipoli was my graduation film,' says Peter Weir. It was then, he believes, that his technique caught up with his inspiration. Inspiration is central to Peter Weir's filmmaking: his approach is intuitive rather than cerebral. It is almost a point of honour with him.

Weir's first two films, Homesdale (1971) and The Cars that Ate Paris (1974), were quirky black comedies, developments of the amateur revues he had been staging in his spare time. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and The Last Wave (1977) were more conscious attempts to deal with the fragility of commonsense reality, with the recognition that 'within the ordinary lies the extraordinary'. Picnic at Hanging Rock, based on the Joan Lindsay novel about the unexplained disappearance of a group of schoolgirls in the last century, was a turning point in the development of the new cinema in Australia: it was the first Australian film that was clearly a 'quality film'. Weir became the first Australian 'auteur' as Picnic legitimated Australian movies for the middle-class audience still ready to believe in the inferiority of Australian culture.

Picnic and especially The Last Wave, about a lawyer who finds himself psychically drawn to a group of Aboriginals he is defending, reflect Weir's interest in theories of myths and dreams. A concern with ideas and experiences that were outside the realm of commonsense everyday understanding was shared by many people in the sixties. Like many young people at the time, Weir was very influenced by the new ways of thinking, and was a strong opponent of the war in Vietnam. Weir's award-winning Three To Go, produced by the Commonwealth Film Unit, is a classic statement of some of those values.

A lapsed radical - 'I detest dogma' - Weir nonetheless remains faithful to some of the attitudes of the era. 'Just because the decade ends doesn't mean we stop wondering about the enormous gap between the Third World and our world; we don't stop thinking about love or about how to construct some sort of moral system' he says. He is profoundly individualistic: 'I always marched in the non-aligned section of the anti-war marches,' he affirms, and he is emphatic that his interest in mysticism does not extend to cults that demand abandoning independent thought and action.

Though they came to the conclusion by different routes, Weir shares with George Miller the opinion that 'greater detachment is ultimately a freedom' for a director. Aside from making you more vulnerable to the sting of critical rejection, working to intuition rather than to plan can threaten the coherence of a film, as the director risks losing control. After some experimentation Weir has moved away from the 'exhilaration' of extreme openness and spontaneity on the set. There is the danger too of 'the filmmaker as god', in Weir's phrase: in placing him or herself at the centre of the work the director can grow self-obsessed, and the audience's view can also become unbalanced, the director being seen as some kind of guru.

In Gallipoli (1981) Weir employed a more structured approach than before, but his distinctive sensibility did not disappear. The luminous shots of the pyramids under which the Australian soldiers camp on their way to the Turkish battlefield are arguably more potent evocations of the dislocation of past and present, the eternal and the everyday, than the more pointed mysteries of Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave. In The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), adapted from Christopher Koch's novel about the coup of the Indonesian generals that toppled Sukarno in 1965, there is a harmonious integration of the imagery of the traditional wayang puppets into the substance of the story. The Year of Living Dangerously sets a fine romance in the authentically turbulent Indonesian setting, the great events of the time moving just beyond the grasp of the Westerners who are the film's subjects. As in Gallipoli Weir's interest is in the people rather than the events; his concern is with personal rather than political morality. For some it is his most successful film yet; others are frustrated by the diversity of its concerns and the absence of a clear political stance.

Financed by the giant American MGM movie corporation but produced in Australia by long-time Weir associates Hal and Jim McElroy, Living Dangerously represents one way for a director to work with the American film industry without having to move to foreign territory. The 1980 Gallipoli also represented a new approach to financing, being funded entirely by expatriate moguls Robert Murdoch and Robert Stigwood through their Associated R & R Films.

Weir's personality is clearly stamped on his films, yet he appears to be less engaged in the construction of individual shots than some directors; he prefers to collaborate with a trusted camera operator and director of photography. An important contribution to the look of Weir's films has also come from Wendy Weir, the director's wife, who was credited as production designer on the 1979 telemovie The Plumber, and as design consultant on Gallipoli and The Year of Living Dangerously.

In conversation Weir has a youthful intensity, choosing allusive literary phrases to capture nuances of feeling as he recalls the past. He is more comfortable talking publicly about events and stages in his life than reflecting on more general issues and approaches, either to his own work or to the Australian cinema in general. This interview reflects that: in checking the transcript Weir excised many of the analytical and interpretive comments. His lucid, evocative grasp of language make him 'excellent copy', but Weir clearly finds public discussion of his work an ordeal. Though relaxed, direct and professional in the recording of this interview, agreement in the final transcript was difficult to reach and the published version is the last of several proposed revisions.

Weir lives just north of Sydney in an old house overlooking a remarkable tree-framed view of sand and water. 'I don't really feel as if we own this,' he says, and you know what he means: it is a view almost too beautiful to be private property. The house has a comfortable yet slightly exotic air. Furnished with timber, bamboo and Asian fabrics its large windows make the interior seem continuous with the surrounding garden. Weir's study, apart from the house and past a small rock garden and waterfall he built himself, has a similar atmosphere. Volumes of war history and a collection of World War One helmets and weaponry are ranged a little incongruously alongside the novels on which his films have been based, and diverse works of fact, place and theory from Montezuma to the Australian Stony Desert.

Weir is one of the most successful of Australia's directors, both at home and overseas. He is polite and quietly spoken with a boyish look. A man of strong attractions and dislikes, he vehemently defends his films against criticism from those writers he labels 'academic' who expect a different sort of clarity from him, demanding that conclusions be drawn and answers be given. Such critics have, he says, a view of art and life so remote from his own that he doubts he will ever satisfy them: 'I can only wave across a distance,' he says, 'as the person heads in another direction.'



Sue Mathews: Where did you grow up?

This was before television was introduced in Australia - did you have much contact with other areas of popular culture? Did your parents mind you collecting comics - did they feel you should be interested in other sorts of pursuits? Do you think that constructing those games was a precursor to an interest in making films? Did you read novels? Biggles and the Famous Five are English books - did you have a sense of England as home or where we really belonged? How long ago did your family come to Australia? Were you aware of things from America and things from England as two separate sets of influences on Australia? Were you aware of a tradition of Australian filmmaking? What about Australian literature? You've described your experience of literature at school as a fairly unhappy one - what was school like overall? Rites of Passage: Uni and OS

It sounds like that was a more or less automatic transition?

Working with other agents, not your father? How did it feel to be on a boat sailing out? You've said that the trip itself was quite a formative experience? On the TV? Did being in Europe alter your perspective on Australia significantly? Were you working in England? Television and Vietnam

Did you come back with a clear plan of working in films?

What was Channel Seven like at the time? What sort of movies were you watching? Did you do any writing for the Bramston show? Were you developing an interest in making films through going to the movies? Was this through a rejection of American culture because of opposition to US foreign policy? Had you become aware of Vietnam in England? How were the effects of the war and the film industry connected? Were you aware of this lobbying for a film industry? Why did you decide to leave Channel Seven? The Commonwealth Film Unit

Was there a sense of a community working towards a film industry at the Commonwealth Film Unit then?

Michael opens with a newsreel-style scene of tanks and soldiers in the Streets of Sydney, then switches to the conservative young man Michael, in his everyday office job, and follows his attraction to a group of young people who represent freedom, anti-authority, humour - all those things that got called 'liberation'. How did you see the connection between that aspect of counter-culture and the armed struggle you show at the start? It is interesting to see it now because it says so much about the times. The critique of conformity, for instance - you have some really funny things, like the line of businessmen waiting for the bus, all wearing the same suits and reading the same newspapers. Another interesting thing in that film is the way you use rock music to tell the story. In terms of technique, it's very much a montage approach with lots of fast editing and juxtaposing of images. MAKING THE MOVIES


Homesdale was a haunted house story, about a mysterious hotel or mental home. Where did the idea come from?

Homesdale was your first film made outside the Commonwealth Film Unit. Was it a very chaotic experience? Interlude

There was a four year interval between Homesdale and The Cars That Ate Paris, what were you doing in that time?

Scripts? The Cars That Ate Paris

Was it very hard to raise the money for The Cars That Ate Paris, which had a much bigger budget than Homesdale?

That's surprising. The Last Wave came straight after the success of Picnic at Hanging Rock - I'd have expected finance to be easy. Cars was shown at the Melbourne Film Festival, wasn't it? You were working with very experienced actors this time. You cast some comic actors from the Melbourne theatre scene. I Were you aware of differences in the style of comedy coming from Melbourne and Sydney? I was struck by the strong kitsch sensibility in Cars, in the depiction of the Mayor's house and the character of the Mayor's wife. In those early films, parody and satire are an important part of your humour, yet in Gallipoli the humour is of a very different kind. Why did that change? The character of the mayor is rather similar to the manager of the guest house in Homesdale His pretence of concern and sincerity. The grotesque violence and blood in Cars is also very different from your treatment of violence in Gallipoli. Picnic at Hanging Rock

The way the rock is photographed is an important part of Picnic - how did you decide on all the locations and angles and so on?

Did you shoot that on the spot? The artist Martin Sharpe gets a credit on the film - he's called artistic assistant to the director - what was his role? How important are painters and paintings to you in conceiving the look of a film? What about Australian paintings? A lot of Picnic does seem quite muted and softened. A lot of people remark on a pre-Raphaelite look about Picnic. Was that something that you were conscious of at the time in the way you made the girls appear? I've been surprised to hear of classes of schoolgirls today dressing up and going on Picnic at Hanging Rock picnics: I had the feeling that the film's point of view was that of an outside observer - almost a voyeur - looking at schoolgirls, rather than coming in any way out of a schoolgirl's sense of herself. There is a scene during the picnic where Miranda cuts the St.Valentine's cake with a huge butcher's knife. Were they things that were added in as you were going or that you conceived in advance? The image of the swan that appears towards the end, representing the vanished Miranda, is that from the book?

I think it is - it was pretty outrageous. I was always in two minds about whether to leave it in. I think it's like a lot of things - you make a decision and gamble on it.

The Last Wave

The Last Wave was the film that followed Picnic. You've said that the origins of that film lay partly in a conversation with the actor Gulpilil, who plays a lead role in the film.

How did you find working with Nandjiwara? When you flew up to Darwin to meet him did you find him willing to talk to you about such things? Anything that you can remember specifically? What was it like for the white actors and for you as a director working with the Aboriginal actors? Did you change much from the written script? How important was spontaneity in what we see looking at the picture? Because it was your own script were you more open to making changes than if you were working with something written by another person? It did well in America. The Plumber

The next film you made was the TV movie The Plumber. Do you see that as a transition?

I suppose what seems transitional is that while there are mythical elements, as in your earlier films, you seem much more distanced from them. I suppose it seems fairly obvious, but the water motif and the idea of water going berserk is something that has recurred in your films... Gallipoli

There is an important underwater shot in Gallipoli, which followed The Plumber.

Did you know when you visited Gallipoli that you were going to make the film? Did being there give you a different sense of Gallipoli and what it means for us as Australians? Are there remnants of the trenches still there? Why do you think Gallipoli has become so important as a theme in Australian culture and ideas? The relationship between the two boys is the central experience of the film - was that emphasis something you got from talking to the returned soldiers? How important to the concept of mateship is the fact that it's exclusive of women? Why did you choose to set the early scenes in Western Australia? Why was the desert so important as a setting for part of the lead up to the departure for Gallipoli? The Year of Living Dangerously

Your next film The Year of Living Dangerously, was set in Asia. For many people in Australia an interest in Asia and in Eastern ways of thinking began in the sixties. Was that the case for you too?

How did you make the decision to make The Year of Living Dangerously? One of the most interesting aspects of The Year of Living Dangerously is that it is set very much in an Asian context and yet the sensibility of Billy Kwan, which is so central to the film, is essentially a Christian sensibility. Do you identify with his attitudes? Making the Chinese-Australian dwarf, Billy Kwan, an androgynous sort of character represents a real change from Christopher Koch's book where I gather he is a much more unequivocally masculine figure. Certainly many people who don't know that Linda Hunt is a woman read the character as a man. The image of the wayang is carried through in the love story and the interaction between the characters. How happy do you feel with the translation of that imagery in the political sphere. Were you trying to develop it in the same way? So the specifics of the coup in Indonesia were not of primary concern for you? You were asked some years ago about the similarity between your work and Nicholas Roeg's and you observed that Roeg uses sexuality as part of the tension in his films where you use other systems. But in Living Dangerously you decided to deal with sex directly. The character of Guy Hamilton in The Year of Living Dangerously makes a decision that is fairly unconventional in movie terms in that he chooses to join Jill Bryant and leave Indonesia, abandoning the chance of reporting the biggest story of his career. The character of Jill Bryant herself is fairly unconventional - less passive and mindless than many female film roles. In the book she is pregnant when she gets on the plane. It makes a very big difference that she is not pregnant in the film. The filming of the last sequence seems to get a mixed reaction from people who watch it. Had you always had that ending in mind? Mel Gisbon's walk across the tarmac... REFLECTING ON DIRECTING

Watching Movies

How do you want your films to affect people?

Do you enjoy going to the movies? Are there filmmakers who have been particularly influential for you? Are there any of your own films you don't like later? Working on the Set: Democracy and Intuition

Do you consciously do things to engender an atmosphere on a set? Do you have established approaches at the start of a film?

Is your approach to directing actors in comedy very different from directing drama? Shooting on location must make a difference to the atmosphere of the film, as opposed to being in a town. Francis O'Brien, the American executive producer on Gallipoli, commented on the degree of democracy in that production, and as a general characteristic of the Australian film industry as opposed to the American. Is that something you're aware of? Do you prefer in general to be completely prepared before you get onto the set? The Last Wave sounds like an example of considerable spontaneity. When threats were made by a Muslim extremist group during the shooting of The Year of Living Dangerously in the Philippines, you moved the shoot back to Australia, saying 'life first, movie second'. Earlier you might have been tempted to stay and explore the possibilities created by that tension. Constructing the Pictures

The relationship between the director and director of photography seems to be a very key one. You've worked a lot with Russell Boyd - have you developed a special way of working together?

Where are the decisions about the composition and framing of a shot made? Do you look through the camera much yourself? Music, Philosophy, Success

You've mentioned the importance of music. I take it you weren't talking about music on the soundtrack, but about music as a source for you?

You will actually play music on the set while a scene is shot? There has been a continuing current of interest in mysticism in your films. Are you attracted to any major thinkers or groups? How do you measure the success of a film for yourself? How important is it that a film does well at the box office?