Novel Thoughts: A conversation with author Serena Formica

Trevor Hogg chats with author Serena Formica about her debut book, Peter Weir: A Creative Journey From Australia To Hollywood…

“I am originally from Italy [Rome], where I attended a BA and MA in Media Studies at the Università Pontificia Salesiana, with a specialization in television production,” states Italian academic Serena Formica. “The Master’s covered a variety of subjects, including cinema. I have always been fascinated by the cinema; and I had a particular interest for Classic Hollywood cinema and Italian Neorealism. When the opportunity came to researching film at an academic level, I decided to investigate my favourite director at the time, Alfred Hitchcock. My approach to study Hitchcock was auter-orientated, and I carried out a textual analysis of his most suspenseful films. Researching Hitchcock shifted my interest from television production to film studies, and I was encouraged by my Master’s supervisor, Dr. Tadeusz Lewicki, to do a PhD in Film Studies. I was awarded a PhD by the University of Nottingham in 2009, with a thesis on… Peter Weir. While doing the PhD, I started lecturing on Film and Television Studies at the University of Derby, where I currently work.” In recounting her initiation into the world of cinema, Formica says, “At a very early age, I stated watching film noirs with my parents, and I remember asking all sorts of questions to them. Rightly or wrongly, in Italy they have always dubbed films in Italian, and I remember asking a question about a particular character. It must have been The Third Man [1949], or maybe The Big Sleep [1946], and the answer I had was, ‘He is the one with the trench’. I finally said, ‘Okay but what is a trench?’ I was about six years old, and the Italian word for a trench it is very different. In a way, unveiling the mystery of the trench brought me closer to wanting to unveil the ‘mystery’ of film noir and cinema.”

An Australian filmmaker captured the attention of the young movie enthusiast. “My first memory of a Peter Weir film is The Year of Living Dangerously, which I watched on the television, probably in the late 1980s [the film came out in 1982, but back then it took a while for films to get from the big to the small screen, especially in Italy],” says Serena Formica who chose the six-time Academy Award-nominee to be the topic of her debut book, Peter Weir: A Creative Journey From Australia To Hollywood. “I remember that it left a very deep impression on me at an emotional level. The character I felt closer to was the photographer, Billy Kwan, who, in introducing Guy Hamilton [Mel Gibson’s character] to life in Indonesia, was at the same time introducing me to that[cinematic] reality. I was not conscious, back then, of the mechanisms of identification, but I still remember feeling the sadness and the shock of his death, which I had not foreseen. This is probably why I have dedicated a few pages to Billy in the book, in particular in relation to the type of music and sound effects that are associated with him, such as the sound produced by the wind shaken bamboos, the sound of Arjuna. The second Peter Weir film I saw, this time at the cinema, Dead Poets Society [1989] was at the time and has remained one of my favourite films… if not the favourite film I had ever watched. There are two scenes that work beautifully in the film; Robin Williams ‘directing’ the football training on the notes of Beethoven Piano Concerto n.5, and the ending, with Maurice Jarre’s piece that accompanies the students’ tribute to their captain. When I interviewed Peter Weir, he was very keen to stress the role that music has in his films, and my first memories of his movies are, indeed, aural as much as visual.”

“At first, I had been more exposed to the films he directed in Hollywood [I do consider The Year of Living Dangerously partly a Hollywood film], then I gradually became aware of his Australian production,which opened for me the doors to a fascinating national cinema,” states Serena Formica who admits that her attitude towards the movies helmed by Weir has changed over time. “I began to watch and study his Hollywood works in the light of his Australian work; I became aware that there were many more similarities than differences between the two periods, in terms of cinematography in particular, a fact that I had not expected. As I argue in the book, Weir was already ‘a Hollywood director’ before he moved to America. In 1985, Weir made the move together with a close collaborator, director of photography John Seale; on the one hand, this brought an ‘Australian sensibility’ to the photography of his films. On the other hand, Weir, Seale and Russell Boyd were formed cinematically during the years of the Revival, which put Australian cinema on the map and attracted Hollywood money; with the money came a stylistic influence and expertise too, hence the similarities between his two periods.”

There is a scene in Gallipoli (1981) that fascinates the author; it involves the nighttime arrival of the Australian contingent on the Turkish battlefield by sea. “The camera indulges on the faces of the soldiers, which the audience has by now followed for two thirds of the film… there is very low-key lighting, and the only on-screen source of light is the reverberation of the shells and bombs on the faces of these soldiers. You see their faces, and in their eyes appears the desperation for what lies ahead. I believe that this scene has been singled out before as one of Weir’s most effective cinematic moments, and I believe that it is, once more, the accompaniment of Albinoni’s music that makes it so powerful.” Serena Formica was impressed by Weir’s feature debut. “I believe that one of the visually most powerful movies is The Cars That Ate Paris [1974]; there are many striking scenes, such as the sequence(s) of the deliberately caused car crashes. A truck is parked at the side of the road, with its rear mirrors facing forward. We see a car approaching in a medium close up. A powerful source of light hits the mirrors at a close up, and the light’s reflection dazzles the upcoming driver, who loses control of the car. The moment the light hits mirror is accompanied by a very high-pitched sound, almost animal-like… that moment stays in your mind. In my view, Cars was a bold film to make, and indeed did not do too well at the box office; the Americans changed it by re-editing and marketing it as a horror film, set in the U.S. but this is another story.”

With interviews conducted back in 2005 and 2006 involving Peter Weir, cinematographer Russell Boyd,and producer Philip Steuer, the book has been a long in development project. “My biggest challenge was gradually changing the perspective and approach to the study of a director’s work,” reveals Serena Formica. “As aforementioned, I was an auteur-oriented scholar, because that had been my initial formation. As I continued to study film at an academic level, I gradually became aware that auterism is not a given, and that, as Alan Lovell,and Gianluca Sergi [to whom I owe a thank you] state, ‘It is a matter of the degree of control that a director has on his films.’ I began to realise that Weir always worked with a close group of collaborators [not only cinematographers, but also producers, editors and composers] and that the final look and sound of his films was a result of this collaboration. The book stems from my PhD research,and it has evolved from there.” Getting the opportunity to talk to the filmmaker did not alter the conception of the book for Formica. “This project had always been designed with the opportunity of interviewing Weir and his collaborators in mind. I would rather say that not having the interviews would have changed the project. I was keen on including in my critical analysis the perspective of the film professionals who were directly involved in making the films. I then had to put their response into context, but I firmly believe that cinema should be collaboration between those who make it and those who study it. Weir and his collaborators’ availability to being interviewed showed that there are film professionals who share this opinion, and this is very important.”

After interviewing Weir I strongly believe that he is genuinely driven by the story he wants to tell,” remarks Serena Formica. “At this stage of his career, in my opinion,he would not mind where the funding is coming from as long as he can continue to work with his closer collaborators [after his reunion with Russell Boyd in Master and Commander he has asked Boyd to work on The Way Back] and is allowed to post-produce his film in Australia. Let us not forget that Weir has never gone to live in the United States, he is a transnational director. I consider Master and Commander [2003], which I do not cover in the book because I have concentrated on the period of his move to Hollywood, to be Weir’s blockbuster. In a sense, one could also see Witness [1985] as a film made for a wider audience; Paramount, in fact, asked Weir to add the final action sequence to attract a wider audience, making the film more accessible.” Questioned as to how she sees Peter Weir adjusting to the present day cinematic environment, Formica answers, “Weir is not a director like Hitchcock was, making and producing a film [or more] every year; I believe that he would not mind, given the opportunity, directing another film in Australia. I did actually ask him a question on working in Europe, and he has not ruled out the possibility. I believe that Weir is not solely a Hollywood or an Australian filmmaker, but he is a transnational one. In this respect I believe that he would adapt to different production contexts. What makes it easier for him is that he already had to adapt when he first move to Hollywood, by directing Witness, which was not his original project, nor was Dead Poets Society. The Way Back [2010] was his project, and by getting the money from outside the studio system Weir has demonstrated that he can adapt.”

“I would like to take this opportunity to thank Peter Weir, Russell Boyd, Philip Steuer and James McElroy for their availability to being interviewed by a then PhD candidate,”remarks Serena Formica. “It has made a big difference for me at both a personal and a professional level.” As for what she hopes to achieve with the publication of Peter Weir: A Creative Journey From Australia To Hollywood, Formica says, “You have to bear in mind that this is my first book, which is exciting per se. I hope that the book will help to circulate my name and my research more widely, and let me thank you for this opportunity [to be interviewed]; professionally, I consider it as a step to becoming a better lecturer and researcher. Ultimately, it is about transmitting knowledge; it would be rewarding if my book got one student or one film scholar more interested in Weir and Australian cinema.”

Many thanks to Serena Formica for taking the time for this interview and for providing the opening photograph.

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