Filmmaking still joyous for Australian director Peter Weir
Maria Giovanna Vagenas
It is hard to think of a more emblematic Australian filmmaker than Peter Weir. With their dreamlike atmosphere and sense of mystery, his early films Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), The Last Wave (1977) and Gallipoli (1981) reflected some of the essential concerns of his nation and contributed to the Australian New Wave in the 1970s and '80s.
Like many of his fellow Australians, Weir later headed to Hollywood. In the US, he continued to make a series of distinctive movies, among them Witness (1985), Dead Poets Society (1989), Green Card (1990), The Truman Show (1998) and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003).
He's been nominated for six Oscars and garnered a number of prestigious awards, including the Australian Screen Directors' Association's Outstanding Achievement Award in 2001, and two of Baftas' David Lean Awards for Direction (for The Truman Show and then Master and Commander).
Invited to the Istanbul Film Festival to head its International Golden Tulip Competition jury this year, the 68-year-old Weir gave a memorable masterclass while in the Turkish city. Good humoured and unassuming, the soft-spoken filmmaker captivated his audience for almost two hours with a beguiling mix of profound insight and amusing anecdotes.
In an interview at the festival, he reveals that: "I was just an ordinary kid, but I had one advantage: boredom. I grew up in Sydney, full of dreams. My influences were books - Robert Louis Stevenson, Enid Blyton - and war stories. I used to love rummaging in people's garages: there you could find hidden things, artefacts, even weapons that people had brought back from the war. Saturday afternoon we went to the movies. We had no television yet. My mother would say: 'Go, go outside, don't hang out here.' So I could wander in the city's harbour, go down and watch the crabs, throw rocks, and make up games. For the imagination, it is kind of essential to be bored."
"I really didn't know what to do until I was 20," he also reveals. "I was a very lazy student at school, and I was bad at university too."
But a trip to Europe by sea in the '60s turned out to be a life-changing experience: "On the ship there was no entertainment so we put on a multiple show, with comedy characters. By the time I got off, I knew I was going to spend my life as an entertainer." After so many years in the entertainment industry, Weir has a very clear idea about what directing films means for him. "There are directors who are, in a sense, 'the film'; for them the topic, the plot is somehow irrelevant. In my case, I am the one who serves the story. I am a professional storyteller," he says.
"In the Western world, the individual claims to be at the origin of a work of art. I like to think more in an Eastern way. A Japanese potter once said to me: 'We just make pots and, every now and then, the gods choose to touch our hands, and that's what's worthwhile, but it is not in your control.' I have kept on working like that potter ever since."
Having written the screenplays for almost all his films himself, Weir considers inspiration to be essential.
"Dream before you write," he says, quoting French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière. The core idea of the film has to be a strong one, but, "you have to protect yourself", he adds. "The inspiration flame is very small and it can easily be extinguished."
The time spent shooting a film are moments that Weir also enjoys. "I love it when a film is alive. In a film things are really happening, it is not just a film; what we are recording is a real experience."
And he is enthusiastic about the editing process, saying that: "When editing, you are writing again - but you produce such amazing things." A slight variation in the take or angle when cutting from one person to another and, "Suddenly the scene starts to come alive. I always shake my head at the mystery of the collision of the images."
Weir actually considers a film's release as the hardest part in the whole process.
"Interviews and festivals are so difficult," he says, explaining that it's "because, once the film is finished, it's no longer yours, it's gone and you have lost the radiating power which you accessed while doing it. To some degree you make a film in a kind of trance, afterwards that's you again and everything is just banal."
As for the essence of his output, Weir explains the deeper roots of his constant fascination with mystery, the uncanny, and the supernatural in his films. A person's first cinema-related experiences are, according to him, profoundly related to this.
"When you first meet cinema as a child, this world is scary but exciting: the big screen, the actors moving around, all this is full of wonder, it looks like a dream," he says. "I have retained this feeling. This is why I like films that are unsettling, unpredictable, and have tension.
"Using this contact to the child that is still inside me, I can detour cynicism and the blots of life, feeling, once again, in that strange land: that is what some of my films are reflecting."
As an example, his source of inspiration for Gallipoli (1981), the anti-war drama depicting the tragic fate of a group of young Australian volunteers in Turkey during the first world war, was, according to Weir, an uncanny experience he had had at the site of the battlefield in Gallipoli some years before. It involved a kind of daydream, or vision in which he saw a soldier seemingly discovering some of his belongings on the ground: a bottle, a boot, a knife. "If you are sensitive to a place, you can feel there has been a tragedy; a lot of young men died, on both sides, in this spot before their time, leaving this kind of energy behind," he says.
For Fearless (1993), Weir recalls, the mysterious experience took place during the shooting itself. The story is about the post-traumatic syndromes of a group of people who survive a plane crash, and centres on a character, played by Jeff Bridges, who thinks he has become invulnerable.
"One day in a close up, I got a perfectly empty look from him, a look not projecting anything at all, like the look of a child. I still remember that shot: for an actor it is like reaching the Holy Grail. I feel honoured to have been able to photograph it. After this take, Jeff Bridges was ill for five days. He must have lowered, unconsciously, his immune system to create that look, I guess."
Although he is happy to talk about his films when asked to do so, Weir tends to not dwell on his own past works. Only sometimes, he confesses, while sitting quietly watching TV or reading, one or two films suddenly return to haunt him with the question: what could I have done better?
In the meantime, Weir shows no signs of flagging. His last directorial credit may have been three years ago for The Way Back (2010) - a historical adventure drama about a group of Siberian gulag escapees who marched 6,400 kilometres to freedom in India - but the Australian director is still considering future options.
Weir doesn't want to talk specifically about planned films. Still, it was announced a year ago that he'd be on board for the adaptation of Jennifer Egan's 2006 gothic thriller The Keep as director and screenwriter. Like his most recent film, this movie too will be produced outside the big Hollywood studios by BSB, an independent Paris-based company.
In any event, it's clear retirement is not yet on Weir's agenda. After all, he adds, with a twinkle in his eye: "Inside himself, a director never ages."