Trevor Hogg continues his Peter Weir retrospective with a look at the director’s tenth feature…
Directed by Peter Weir.
Starring Jeff Bridges, Isabella Rossellini, Rosie Perez, Tom Hulce, Benicio del Toro, John Turturro and Deirdre O’Connell.
Two airplane crash survivors react very differently to the traumatic event. Carla Rodrigo is catatonic over the lost of her baby, while Max Klein continuously pushes the boundaries between life and death. Through each other they are able to reconnect with the world.
Australian filmmaker Peter Weir brought Rafeal Yglesias’ novel Fearless to the big screen in 1993. To ensure a realistic reenactment of the tragedy, Weir went to Sioux City, Iowa to interview six people who survived the actual plane crash depicted in the film. Their first hand knowledge 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, and took very much the passengers’ point of view.”
After a test screening of Fearless, a chuckling Weir recalled a comment by his lead actor. “Jeff leaned over to me and said, ‘It’s like you put acid in the popcorn, man.” In regards to Jeff Bridges’ performance as Max, the acclaimed director had nothing but praise for the veteran thespian. “Jeff was just incredible. He went places that were well beyond the realm of conventional acting.”
“I was looking for a script,” stated Weir, “and I couldn’t believe that what I was reading was A-list, so I came over to meet with a couple of writers I’d thought were interesting, and to meet with studio heads – and no one in-between – to find out what was wrong. The only producer who got by the requirement was Mark Rosenberg, and I gave him the same speech I gave the studio heads, which was ‘Give me things that are unusual or difficult,’ what are called broken scripts. Mark and Paula Weinstein gave me the script that Rafeal Yglesias had adapted, on spec, from his own novel that was waiting to be published. I was delighted it hadn’t had the usual input where they round the corners and put in all the things that are in books about scriptwriting.”
A couple of things made Fearless a “broken script”, revealed the Sydney native. “It was good writing,” he explained, “daring writing. But I thought it was two movies. The first 25 pages were a film about how you’d cope with the knowledge that you were going to die, taking the point of view of a man who knew about aircraft and knew that the hydraulics were gone and so there was no steering and no braking even if the plane got on the ground. Then there was the second film, which was about how you live once you survive. I couldn’t see a way to do it as one film.”
“I was just driving around listening to music,” he said remembering when the revelation came to him on how to fix the script, “and I realized I could do anything I liked, as long as the story remained about life and death, or rather, love and fear, which was more to the point – you can’t say anything about death because you don’t know about death. You could certainly talk about fear. I used parts of the crash as flashbacks to show what the characters were still working out, the way one does after any trauma.”
Filming a movie featuring a plane crash presented a certain pratfall that Peter Weir wanted to avoid. “My true challenge was to not make a film about the perils of flying. That was just a metaphor,” he stated. “One day your number will be up. I do think that in our modern life, when you’re in a plane it’s the one time you think you might die. Most people, regardless of what they’ve learned in school, don’t have any idea how anything so heavy stays up in the air. One of the studio executives said, ‘I love the movie but I won’t let my wife see it. She hates to fly.’ But I would think this film might be a cure for that.”
Fearless opens in a cornfield where Max Klein (Jeff Bridges) walks away from a plane crash unscathed while Carla Rodrigo (Rosie Perez) desperately searches for her lost son as an explosion erupts from the fallen aircraft. Max becomes so psychologically disassociated from his family that he moves away. To help him confront his depression an aircraft psychiatrist recommends Max befriend the emotionally withdrawn Carla. As he escalates his death-defying activities, Max jolts Carla back to reality. After experiencing another near fatal experience Max is slowly able to begin his own recovery.
“When I started this film it occurred to me how interesting it would be to attempt to ‘photograph souls’. You know, with the barrier between the subject and the camera removed.” To accomplish this effect Weir improvised. “The great discovery of the cinema, this new art form, is the close-up. No one has yet come up with anything more extraordinary. With a great screen 30 feet across, to see a face, every line, every movement of every muscle, and wonder who is inside that face? That’s what I was getting into in Fearless, thinking ah, this is the frontier.”
The casting of Rosie Perez was not an obvious one to Peter Weir. “Rosie’s character in the book was Italian-American, but that just doesn’t have the same right in San Francisco, where I set the film.” He explained. “I decided she should be Latina and Rosie was on a very short list of actresses for the part. I’d seen her in Do The Right Thing. But I didn’t recall her. Then I watched White Men Can’t Jump, but that didn’t tell me very much, so it was a case of a screen test and a meeting which went very well, though she didn’t think so. She was looking for a change. She’s extremely intelligent and she wants to be, you know, a proper actress.” Perez made the best of the opportunity and received the sole Oscar nomination for Fearless.
“Fearless is an unusual arrangement of familiar events,” Weir stated. “I chose it because the screenplay just struck me.” The director went on to clarify his attraction to the movie further. “And the great challenge for a filmmaker is to take that initial moment of being struck – it really is like a light bulb to me – and transmit that feeling to an anonymous group of people in any city in the Western World. The important thing is how close you got to the original inspiration. In this case, it’s extremely close.”
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Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.