A Weir View: A Peter Weir Profile (Part 1)

Trevor Hogg profiles the career of director Peter Weir in the first of a two-part feature…

From a land, the ancestral dream of its Aboriginal people, comes an Australian filmmaker known for producing cinematic tales with an ethereal quality – Peter Weir.

The transformation of the Sydney native into a Hollywood director occurred on a cruise ship headed to England. To entertain themselves and the other passengers, Weir and his friends wrote and performed various satirical skits. The experience proved to be so enjoyable and successful that the young traveler found himself a vocation and a wife all at the same time.

Four years later the married couple returned to London with the intention of settling there, but they quickly abandoned the idea. “I couldn’t get back to Australia quick enough,” reflected Weir, “to a more barren cultural environment. I had become part of the process of making something: I will make something in this barrenness. Scripts and films would be my way of reinventing the escape that the ship was in ’65.”

After working briefly at Sydney television station ATN 7, Weir joined the Commonwealth Film Unit (now Film Australia) in 1967 as an assistant cameraman and production assistant. He would soon graduate into writing and directing a series of short films as well as a T.V. episode of Three To Go. Entitled Michael, the 1970 small screen tale depicts the title character being befriended by a student radical, while riots unfold in the city; unfortunately, the personal encounter leaves him feeling even more disenfranchised from the world.

As in Hollywood, the Australian film industry experienced a new wave of independent minded talent determined to reshape the theatrical landscape during the 1970s. In the middle of this homegrown Cultural Revolution, which included the likes of George Miller, Phillip Noyce, Gillian Armstrong and Bruce Beresford, was Peter Weir.

1971 saw the release of the macabre short film, Homesdale, which was Peter Weir’s first independently funded directorial effort. The movie was named after a guesthouse located on a secluded island run by a sadistic manager. He entertains his convalescing guests by having them participate in a series of bizarre activities, some of which have deadly consequences.

After Homesdale the budding artist received a film school grant for an apprenticeship at the legendary English film studios at Pinewood and Elstree where he worked in the special effects department. While touring France an unexpected traffic detour provided him with the inspiration for his first feature length film. “Weeks later in England,” He began. “I saw a front page story in the paper about a shooting, some crime of passion, while down in a very small column was that in Britain that weekend 23 people had lost their lives on the road. I put it together with the French thing and thought, if you were going to kill someone, you’d do it with a motor car accident – it’s accepted as an act of God. I wrote a short story that became The Cars That Ate Paris.

The 1974 movie takes place in a mysterious Outback town of Paris where residents redirect passing traffic with the intention of creating automobile accidents. The wrecked vehicles are then sold for their parts and the mentally incapacitated outsiders are subjected to medical experiments; further mayhem ensues when the close-knit community decides to adopt an unscathed survivor.

An adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s novel Picnic at Hanging Rock became the director’s next project in 1975. In filming the strange period tale about a group of schoolgirls who vanish upon entering a mysterious rock formation, Peter Weir had to address a fundamental narrative problem. “With much of Picnic at Hanging Rock it was clearly dangerous ground I was treading on, given the audience’s preconditioning, with a mystery that had no solution. I had to supply an ambience so powerful that it would turn the audience’s attention from following the steps of the police investigation into another kind of film.” So Weir created an otherworldly atmosphere by experimenting with camera speeds as well as various types of recorded sounds such as white noise and earthquakes.

The roving Australian encountered his creative muse again while on holiday in Tunisia. “I found a buried Roman head, a beautiful piece of marble which I somehow knew I was going to find. It was an extraordinary experience.” Peter Weir remarked upon recalling his moment of premonition. “I wondered what if a lawyer had found it, someone whom it was harder to assimilate, the rational man rather than the filmmaker who deals with the imagination.” The idea percolated to the point that it became the starting point for Weir’s follow-up movie The Last Wave. In this 1977 film, an Australian lawyer (Richard Chamberlain) defends a group of aborigines who are charged with killing one of their own for violating a tribal taboo. As the murder case progresses he becomes plagued by apocalyptic visions of water that entwine him with the prophetical beliefs of his clients.

Having not completely abandoned television, Weir returned to the medium in 1978 with The Plumber. The T.V thriller deals with an annoying handyman who psychologically torments his employer. Weir acknowledged that the motivation for creating the small screen tale came out of necessity. “It was written because I needed the money, which is sometimes the good way of doing things.” He also revealed that the story was based on a true life event. “The couple were friends of mine and the plumber was based on someone I had given a lift to once, hitchhiking, and except for the singing in the bathroom and the ending it was pretty much as it happened. In reality, the plumber did leave, but my friend told me, ‘The strange thing was that it brought out in me a kind of deviousness, a desire for the survival of my mental state that led me to consider doing really drastic things.’”

Aroused by his European adventures Peter Weir decided to direct a film about an epic event in his country’s history. “I went to Istanbul, hired a car and drove to the battlefield, an extraordinary experience.” recalled the Australian director of his 1976 trip to Turkey. “I saw no one in two days of climbing up and down slopes and wandering through the trenches, finding all sorts of scraps left by the armies: buttons and bits of old leather, belts, bones of donkeys, even an unbroken Enos fruit salts bottle. I felt somehow I was really touching history, that’s really what it was, and it totally altered my perception of Gallipoli. I decided right then and there that I’d make the film.”

Gallipoli (1981) evolves around the growing relationship between two runners, portrayed by Mel Gibson and Mark Lee, whose destiny with death takes them to the infamous Turkish battlefield; there thousands of Australian soldiers were senselessly slaughtered during WWI. Picnic at Hanging Rock may well have provided Weir with international exposure but Gallipoli cemented his global reputation by winning him eight of twelve Australian Film Institute nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor (Gibson) at the nation’s equivalent of the Academy Awards.

Working on another book adaptation, this time by author Christopher Koch, Weir went about assembling what would literally become The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) for the director as well as his cast and crew. Death threats claiming the movie production to be imperialist and anti-Muslim resulted in the filmmaker abandoning the Philippines and completing the remaining principal photography back home in Australia.

Part love story and part thriller The Year of Living Dangerously is set in 1965 midst the civil and political unrest of Indonesia. Mel Gibson plays the role of newly arrived Australian correspondent Guy Hamilton who is befriended by the enigmatic freelance cameraman and photographer Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt). Hamilton is bewitched by British embassy officer Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver) whose trust he eventually betrays to further his career.

Weir explained why he chose to have Linda Hunt portray a central male character. “I needed to equal the originality of Koch’s creation in the novel. It was an accident or rather sheer desperation that led me to Linda.” Weir remarked. “I was dealing with an almost mythical character – something like a Grimm’s fairy tale character who had been transformed by a witch into a hunchback or a frog. I got very excited when I began to think of the implications of casting Linda. So I built the film around that and embraced that casting. A risky decision but it paid off.”

And did the director’s gutsy casting decision ever payoff. When Linda Hunt received the Best Supporting Actress award she was the first and remains the only actor to win an Oscar for portraying a person of the opposite gender. However, the accolades where not confined to Hunt; both her director Peter Weir and costar Mel Gibson were now on their way to make their mark in Hollywood.

Click here to read the second part of this feature…

Visit the Peter Weir Cave.

For more on the director be sure to check out our special Peter Weir blogathon, which you can access here.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.