Trevor Hogg begins his Peter Weir retrospective with a look at the Australian film-maker’s debut feature…
The Cars That Ate Paris, 1974.
Directed by Peter Weir.
Starring John Meillon, Terry Camilleri, Kevin Miles, Rick Scully, Max Gillies and Bruce Spence.
Residents in the mysterious Australian Outback town of Paris redirect passing traffic with the intention of creating automobile accidents. The wrecked vehicles are then sold for their parts, and the injured travelers are subjected to medical experiments; further mayhem ensues when the close-knit community decides to adopt an unscathed survivor.
While touring France an unexpected traffic detour provided internationally respected director Peter Weir 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 and 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.”
Securing the necessary financing for the 1974 film, shot over 27 days, proved to be as challenging as for his subsequent projects, revealed Weir. “At the time it was enormously difficult, but it happened in the great excitement of the time and it certainly was as difficult as the experience the producers, Hal and Jim McElroy, had with The Last Wave which was very hard to finance, as well as The Year of Living Dangerously.”
The Cars That Ate Paris, the Australian filmmaker remarked, is a further progression of his 1971 short film where a sadistic manager of a secluded guesthouse has his convalescing clients participate in bizarre activities with violent consequences. “It ties in with Homesdale, and is very much part of that post-Vietnam period,” he stated. “I never took it as far as I wanted to, the feeling of a country in some sort of economic chaos. There were to be troops in the countryside, anarchy in the air, odd radio reports of massive road accidents, politicians being attacked, and so on – there was a whole subplot there. It’s interesting when you look at Mad Max and Mad Max 2, because George Miller said the same thing: that in the first film he got done what he could, but in the second he was able to put in all the texture he’d wanted to in the first.”
In the movie Arthur Waldo, played by Terry Camilleri, survives a fatal car accident which kills his brother. Traumatized by the event, Arthur is taken into the home of the Mayor where he becomes a member of the local leader’s dysfunctional family.
As the community orchestrates the death of outsiders, the youths of the town escalate violence even further by murdering their elders. The final confrontation between the feuding generations has the newly adopted resident kill a rebellious youth at the bequest of the Mayor. The shock of the murder enables Arthur to overcome his neurosis about operating motorized vehicles, thereby, providing him with the courage to drive out of town.
Peter Weir acknowledged that the character of the Mayor had a habit of appearing in his stories. “It was a constant figure in those early days – the bully, the teacher, the lecturer.” There were also other factors involved in shaping the tale, he remarked. “I was dealing with the overwhelming normality of things, the ordinariness that sometimes could choke you. And one of the reactions in those days was to satirize. But in Cars it was also part of the plot; here is this nice old mayor and his wife – who look like anybody’s uncle or aunty, with the ticking of the clocks and the tea cosies – and by night these people were killers.”
When asked about the grotesque violence in the film, Weir responded. “Sometimes when you don’t know what to do you just make a lot of noise combined with shocking images. There are more subtle things in the film, like the scene after the minister has disappeared and Bruce Spence comes up and just puts his hand in the bloody collar he’s wearing and the Mayor looks up. You’re constantly trying to hold your audience and it’s tempting to lead them to a shock image. But unless it’s very carefully arranged, you trigger such strong reactions that you lose the audience for a while. You may want them to do that while something else happens, but generally you get that ‘ah’ or ‘wow’ or ‘God’ and the echoes last up to minutes before they rejoin the picture. And you ask what they thought of the scene and they say ‘oh, the scene with the head off’ or ‘the scene when the lady stands up starkers’ and that’s all they remember.”
Shown at the Melbourne Film Festival, the audience’s response to The Cars That Ate Paris would become a familiar one for the Sydney native. “At the end of the picture it was both booed and clapped.” Weir stated. “That’s been the pattern of my films ever since in one way or another.”
B-Movie guru Roger Corman was impressed enough with the movie to give The Cars That Ate Paris (which he renamed The Cars That Ate People) a small U.S. release and borrowed some of the aspects from the story for Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000.
The Cars That Ate Paris trailer:
Peter Weir Blogathon
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.