Trevor Hogg profiles the career of director Peter Weir in the second of a two-part feature… read the first part of the article here.
“I start out to tell a story,” Peter Weir responded when the acclaimed director was asked about his signature cinematic style. “All the tools at one’s command, including mood, atmosphere, and design, are just there to serve the story, and the idea within each scene. But given one individual making a number of films there is bound to be parts of your unconscious drive that comes into the films.” Weir went on to add, “Hitchcock said he makes cinema, not photography, and I agree with that. The camera is a tool to get the thing; the power behind the image is what counts.”
Originally The Mosquito Coast was to be Peter Weir’s Hollywood directorial debut but a production delay led him to make a fortuitous career choice. Witness released in 1985 established the Australian filmmaker as an A-List director.
Harrison Ford tossed aside his trusty bullwhip and battled corrupt cops rather than renegade androids. Ford’s transformation into a dramatic actor was so convincing he went on to receive his only Oscar nomination. In the movie, the box office star plays Internal Affairs Det. John Book whose perfectly defined world of right and wrong is turned dangerously upside down when a young Amish boy identifies a fellow police officer as the murderer of his undercover protégé.
As his leading man was redefining himself, Weir focused on telling the story. “I think it’s a case of using one’s creative talents to serve the idea rather than imposing a style overall. The challenge was really to deal with the melodrama with as much grace and style as I could, but not drift too far from it. That’s were the producer and I were a good team. Ed Feldman is an old-time showbiz man, and when I started to become too Amish he would remind me that this was a Western we were making, and to get some shotguns in there!”
Academy Award members were so impressed with Witness that the movie was nominated for eight Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director; it went on to win Best Film Editing and Best Original Screenplay.
With production complications resolved Peter Weir reunited with his Witness star to shoot his 1986 film adaptation of Paul Theroux’s book The Mosquito Coast. In the movie inventor Allie Fox (Ford) uproots his wife and children from the comfort of their New England home to start anew in the vast jungle wilderness of Honduras. Fox’s dream of getting away from civilization turns into a very real nightmare for him and his family.
Weir had high hopes for his second Hollywood picture. “There’s a tremendous amount of emotion in the story.” He explained. “Unless it is harnessed into some sort of framework for me, I’ll be stirring the audience up and they’ll wander out feeling uncomfortable because they were moved, but without understanding what to do with their emotion. I think I’ve got the framework in this operatic feeling. In opera, many times you start with everything wonderful, the songs bright and positive, and then the complexities arise and you end with tragedy.”
Sadly, Harrison Ford’s character proved to be so unlikable that film was universally panned by critics and moviegoers from the test screenings onwards.
From this cinematic misfire, the Australian rebounded in 1989 with one of his favourite, and commercially successful films Dead Poets Society. The inspirational drama takes place in 1959 Vermont at a prestigious prep school where a recently appointed English Literature teacher, John Keating (Robin Williams), runs afoul of conservative-minded administrators and parents when he encourages his pupils to “Seize the day!”
After he read Tom Schulman’s script, Weir could not pass on the project for a couple of reasons. “First it was the theme of standing up to authority, because there have been many times during my childhood and also as an adult when I wanted to stand up and speak my mind, but I didn’t, and I’ve regretted most of those times. Secondly, just the idea of those boys running into a cave in the forest and the cave itself.” The visual potential of the scene caused the filmmaker’s imagination to go into overdrive. “I remember saying to my A.D. [assistant director], ‘You better allow a couple of days for the cave sequence to be shot.’ because I wanted that sort of shift into something more mythic and significant.”
John Keating’s rallying cry: “Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” was voted as the 95th most popular movie line by the American Film Institute. And in a way, Dead Poets Society did “Seize the day.” The film secured for Peter Weir his second Best Director nomination, and the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay; across the Atlantic at the BAFTAS it was presented with the awards for Best Picture and Best Original Score.
Outside of making movies, another great love of the renowned storyteller is music. “I carry tapes all the time.” He revealed. “They somehow inspire me and I can drift off with them and get ideas out of them. I play them on planes, I play them on the way to work, and on a shoot as well to psych myself up like a football player. Because there’s so much chaos on set, you’ve got to keep yourself up there, and if you succeed, you’ll send out electricity, and everyone will pick up on it. I love music. I think it’s a kind of a fountainhead for me of all the creativity, something uncorrupted by politics.”
From the well of creativity sprung an Oscar-nominated script which Weir directed in 1990. A romantic comedy about a marriage of convenience that transforms into one of mutual love, Green Card, was not only inspired by music but also by his desire to work with a French acting legend. “It’s an original screenplay by me for Gerard Depardieu. A number of the character details are actually taken from his life. I admire him, and it seems an awful loss that he is largely unknown to English speaking audiences, apart from real filmgoers. Most people just don’t go to foreign films.”
Fearless (1993), adapted from the book by Rafael Yglesias, focuses on the relationship between two airplane crash survivors who react very differently to the traumatic event. Carla Rodrigo (Rosie Perez) is catatonic over the lost of her son while Max Klein (Jeff Bridges) continuously pushes the boundaries between life and death. Through each other they are able to reconnect with the world.
To ensure a realistic reenactment of the tragedy, Peter Weir went to Sioux City, Iowa to interview six people who survived the actual plane crash. Their first hand information proved to be indispensable to him. “They told me about the feeling of living 45 minutes with the knowledge that the plane might crash and that they could die, then the experience of the crash itself. As a result of those conversations I completely reshaped the crash and the scenes on the plane, dropped all exterior shots, took very much the passengers’ point of view.”
In regards to Jeff Bridges’ performance, the acclaimed director had nothing but praise. “Jeff was just incredible. He went places that were well beyond the realm of conventional acting.” Interestingly, at the Academy Awards that year, the sole Oscar nomination for the movie went to Bridge’s female costar, Rosie Perez.
Next on the filmmaker’s to-do list was a cautionary tale about the power of media to shape and dictate an individual’s existence. The Truman Show, unleashed in 1998, has Jim Carrey playing a man who discovers that his life is being staged by a global television network.
Critics and audiences embraced the media satire which provided Weir with a few creative challenges. To solve one of them he turned to a much loved movie classic. “I think probably the single film that occurred to me was Dr. Strangelove, in terms of tone – humour mixed with major drama. Kubrick pulled it off. He walked the line.”
There was an unconventional issue that needed to be addressed. “In normal films we’re suppose to forget that there’s a camera,” stated the Sydney native. “But in this case I had to be very conscious of where the camera was. I had to imagine where [the show’s producers] placed it – in a duct, in a button, up his nose or whatever. I turned my head inside out sometimes.”
With three Oscar nominations Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor (Ed Harris), Peter Weir went on to the BAFTAS where the British film industry handed him the David Lean Award for Direction.
Half a decade later, Peter Weir reemerged inspired by the nautical adventure novels of author Patrick O’Brian. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World had the Australian director collaborate with fellow countryman and acting juggernaut Russell Crowe. Constructed from several books in the Napoleonic Audrey-Maturin series, the high seas tale features British Naval Captain Jack Audrey (Crowe) seeking revenge against an enemy French frigate. His friend, Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), the Chief Medical Officer of the H.M.S. Surprise, views the pursuit to be reckless and he nearly proves to be right.
To better prepare himself, Peter Weir did some preproduction research. “I read all the books about making movies at sea, particularly informative the book on the making of John Huston’s Moby Dick, Jaws by Stephen Spielberg, and you come only to one conclusion, which was don’t film at sea.” Peter Weir heeded the advice. “I made a critical decision, despite having this ship, fully rigged, ready to go to sea, that I would only risk her for second unit shots, and some main unit shooting, but we would replicate it and put it in the tank in Baja, in Mexico.”
Despite not generating enough box office success to warrant a sequel, Master and Commander had a dominating presence at the Oscars with ten nominations which included Best Picture and Best Director. Not entirely shutout, the action adventure was awarded for Best Cinematography and Best Sound Editing.
In regards to his attitudes toward producing a blockbuster, Weir stated: “I am not usually sent them. And if I am, I’m just not drawn to them. Sometimes you sweat it out,” This attitude has resulted in large time gaps between his theatrical endeavors, however, Weir remains steadfast to his creative ideals. “I have to be patient to find that particular kind of project. Occasionally, I’ll write one myself if I can summon up the energy.”
Even when a script is finalized the story continues to evolve stated Peter Weir, “There is a lot of overemphasis on the original screenplay. What your really want is the conception, the clarity and the beauty of the initial idea. Then the middle period, the actual shooting, is the struggle to realize the idea, given the enormous problem of logistics. The third period, the cutting, is the last chance to write the movie into decent shape. Few outside the cutting room understand that film editing is part of the writing process. It’s always assumed to be a mechanical function, but it is, in fact, writing using pieces of celluloid.”
January 21, 2010, brings forth the worldwide release of Peter Weir’s thirteenth feature length film, The Way Back, ending a seven year hiatus which did not leave him entirely out of the Hollywood spotlight. The six-time Oscar nominated filmmaker was linked to four different projects that did not materialize. Then in July of 2008 word was announced that Weir was adapting and directing Slavomir Rawicz’s memoir The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom. Premiering at the 2010 Telluride Film Festival and given a limited December theatrical run, the epic World War II survival tale stars Colin Farrell (In Burges), Ed Harris (The Truman Show), and Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe) as three prisoners who escape a Siberian labour camp in 1940, and befriend a young Polish girl portrayed by Saoirse Ronan (Atonement).
When asked what he hopes to achieve with each of his films, Peter Weir answered. “I like to think that people get their money’s worth, that I’ve entertained them, because I belong to that tradition of entertainer and storyteller. There’s this cartoon upon my wall of an old lady at a ticket booth saying ‘I want my sense of wonder back.’ I like that idea. It’s a desire to feel that sense of not knowing, that sense of danger and potential interlocked. It’s very difficult to achieve, but the screen is one of the few places where it is possible.”
Whether The Way Back finally awards the Australian filmmaker with the Oscar for Best Director remains to be seen, however, what is for certain is that the man behind the camera will have been focusing on producing a story that will entertain us all.
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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.