Continuing our Peter Weir Blogathon, Trevor Hogg chats with film editor Lee Smith and cinematographer Russell Boyd about their experiences working with the acclaimed director...
Although he had not made a film since the seafaring Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), internationally acclaimed director Peter Weir had no trouble recruiting willing collaborators for his latest effort The Way Back (2010). “Since 1975 I have shot more than thirty movies,” states Oscar-winning Australian cinematographer Russell Boyd from his home in Sydney. “I enjoy the work and I enjoy making films but I would have to say having done six films with Peter he does spoil you a little bit more than other projects [do].” The feeling of admiration felt by Russell is mutually expressed when I talk to two-time Academy Award-nominated film editor Lee Smith who is currently working on a project in London, England. When I bring up the subject of The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) and the casting of Linda Hunt as the dwarf cameraman Billy Kwan, I get a glimpse of the youthful enthusiasm he would have displayed three decades ago as a twenty-year old movie industry rookie. “Genius piece of casting,” declares Lee without hesitation. “I was a first year editor on that one also did the sound, working in the Philippines on location. I was a young guy and it spurred me to work with him as many times as I could. It was a fantastic experience.”
Russell Boyd agrees with Lee’s assessment of the daring decision made by Peter Weir to cast Linda Hunt who received an Oscar for her performance. “It was an extraordinary bit of casting by Peter. He actually had somebody else picked out for the role but for some reason he didn’t think it was going to work out. It was quite a last minute thing. He disappeared and flew to Hollywood. We were about four or five weeks out of shooting which is a very intense time… A few days later they had recast that role and Linda was going to play it; a woman playing a man but it certainly worked out well.” The political thriller which stars Mel Gibson as an ambitious Australian journalist in 1960s Jakarta, Indonesia, and Sigourney Weaver as a British intelligent agent left a lasting impression on the film’s leading lady. “I worked with Sigourney on a small film in New York called Company Man ; she said to me, ‘Peter was the reason I continued acting.’ She felt in such good directorial hands with him...I thought that was a great mark of respect she paid Peter.” Explaining Weaver’s comment further to me, Russell says, “I think when actors work with Peter they respond to the fact they are working with somebody really great who can steer their characters.” The cinematographer goes on to give an example of the subtle and crafty approach employed by the director. “Peter will often leave his video village and come over to an actor and just say, ‘Look try this. Just think that. Just put that little thing in there or do something or the other.’ He just speaks gently to the actors and they respond. He is probably one of the great masters of getting a good performance from an actor… There is a great ambience on the set and Peter exploits it; he talks to his actors as one professional to another.”
The two pictures of which Russell Boyd is really proud are Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and Gallipoli (1981) for they put early Australia on the cinematic map. The strange period tale about a group of schoolgirls who vanish upon entering a mysterious rock formation served as the first collaboration between the director and the cinematographer. “Peter has always liked to experiment, using different lenses and heights in getting a shot, and with the speed of the camera,” remarks Russell. “He likes [to use] slow motion a lot just to heighten one little mannerism or a little movement. In Picnic at Hanging Rock when the girls were crossing the river we shot in thirty-two frames which gives it that slight motion effect.” Gallipoli is a World War I drama which stars Mel Gibson and Mark Lee as two friends who tragically end up on a Turkish battlefield. “I don’t think Peter set out to make a war film but of course it is about war. He was very clever in the way where the characters told the story instead of it being a big battle epic… Essentially, it was also a story about Australia coming of age, which it did. A lot of the young guys went off to wars in some of those early scenes thinking it is going to be a picnic, it is going to be a great time over there but of course the way it was they were getting fired upon with real bullets and a lot of them lost their lives. I think it woke Australia up from a slumber from the Victorian-era life and that is certainly part of Peter’s story as well.” A particular sequence that stands out to the both of us is when the stranded Gibson and Lee have to cross alien landscape of the Outback. “That was Lake Torrens in South Australia which is a salt lake and it hadn’t rain out there for years and years; it is one of my favourite scenes in that film. Those scenes really set Peter up as a masterful storyteller. Just the way he used that eerie, odd, strange location – got some great visuals to enhance the story of the two guys crossing the desert.” As for the dramatic concluding shot, the native of Victoria, Australia informs me, “Peter may have been inspired by [war photographer] Robert Capa but we didn’t actually talk about it. I know he wanted to finish the film with that freeze frame and it is a great ending.”
“Peter likes to do a lot of research and loves to share it with the necessary people so usually six to eight months before, we start on the prep,” says Russell Boyd. “In fact with Master and Commander because it took so long to get going, I think I was talking to him for eighteen months before it started.” The Napoleonic war epic provided film editor Lee Smith with the opportunity to take over the reins from his mentor William Anderson for the first time. “In Master and Commander we always stayed on The Surprise,” remarks Lee. “We never ever jumped to the French boat until we actually boarded [the vessel]. I thought that was really cool. A different film, for example, would have had you suddenly in a scene in the French boat with the French captain getting the news about spotting The Surprise on the horizon in subtitles, and they would have all run up and looked through their telescopes but Peter said he wanted to stay with the guys on the boat.” In comparing the film with Peter Weir’s latest effort which takes place out in the Siberian wilderness, Lee observes, “I would say The Way Back was somewhat more challenging because… there are only so many glorious vistas you can cut into a movie and you need to make sure you can keep the audience with you as you’re going through that journey. Whereas Master and Commander was probably more dialogue driven, and held in the confines of the ship, which is still a very interesting visual place to be.” The Sydney-born film editor adds, “Each film has its own unique way of coming together… With Peter’s they are always a visual feast.”
“If I’m involved I can throw in my ten cents worth as to why shoot morning or night in that location or maybe not use that location but another one for another reason,” says Russell Boyd. “It’s not a collaboration, it’s probably a gentlemen’s agreement when we settle on something. But Peter always has great ideas about why a particular location is going to be useful for his stories. I would have to have a damn good reason to get him to change it but he’ll certainly listen if I pipe up well enough.” Weir is not adverse to the idea of seeking advice from those around him. “Peter does like to get some feedback because he doesn’t feel that he’s the auteur filmmaker, he’s not doing it on his own.” Russell amends his comment by saying, “Nevertheless, I for one and I think most of the people who work with him, trust his judgment so completely that nobody would ever argue with him and say, ‘No, no, no! We can’t do it that way! This is the way we have to do it.’ You just wouldn’t do it to Peter.”
“Peter is always incredibly conscious of his story and he does change it frequently,” reveals Russell Boyd. “One of his approaches when shooting a scene is not to do many takes but to do more different setups which gives him a lot more flexibility in the cutting room.” Lee Smith generally finds himself left alone in the edit suite while the principle photography is taking place. “Mainly Peter would only watch sequences if I had any concerns about them,” states Lee. “On The Way Back he did watch a couple of chunks of the film but sometimes that’s just if time permits. Generally speaking he concentrates on keeping focused on what is coming and what he is going to do next.” Weir’s tendency to experiment with a movie soundtrack by incorporating noises such as earthquake tremors and submarine sonar pings appeals to the film editor who is also a sound designer. “He has a lot of ideas and is very interested in creating moods through sounds which makes him a very exciting director to work with.”
“I think a director owes it to his audience to entertain them but also to observe the honesty of the story,” believes Russell Boyd. “He can’t treat the audience with disdain. He has to respect them all the time. One thing I know about Peter is he does think a lot about the audience and how they might react to a particular scene, which has helped me in my approach to cinematography.” Boyd goes on to make a startling revelation, “For a short time he thought The Way Back may not have gotten a big theatrical release… We were going through the laboratory looking at a print and he said it may go straight to DVD. I was horrified. Fortunately, it has gathered a lot more interest since then. I think the [world premiere at the] Telluride Festival gave it a boost.” The cinematographer recognizes, however, that the climate in the movie industry has changed. “There is now a huge sway to ultra visual effects films with spaceships and aliens from different planets; all sorts of visual trickery which will get eighteen to twenty-four year olds into the cinema. I think what he feels, I don’t know if he is right or wrong, is that the studios are banking on those types of films more and more… There is always a market for very small market films – five to ten million dollars… The Way Back is not really a huge audience film therefore it was hard for him to get $30 million out of somebody to make it.” Russell Boyd is very quick to point out, “Peter is not in it for the glory… He would never take a film if he is not convinced that it is something he should do.”
Many thanks to both Russell Boyd and Lee Smith for taking time out of their busy schedules for these interviews. Read more here...
Picture Perfect: A conversation with cinematographer Russell Boyd
Cutting Edge: A conversation with film editor Lee Smith
Peter Weir Blogathon
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.