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From Hitchcock and Hanging Rock to Hollywood: Peter Weir reflects on his brilliant career

By Garry Maddox

It’s not exactly easy tracking down Peter Weir. Twelve years after his last film, the epic escape-from-a-Siberian-gulag drama The Way Back, the celebrated Australian director seems to be living quite happily out of the spotlight on Sydney’s northern beaches.

While his filmmaking friends are keen to protect his privacy, one suggests the best way to contact Weir is via the Palm Beach post office. So I write a letter requesting an interview, buy a stamp and post it off.

Peter Weir directs Master and Commander: The Far Side Of The World, the 2003 seafaring drama that saw him nominated for best picture and director at the Oscars.Credit:Twentieth Century Fox

The occasion is the honorary Oscar that the director of such classics as Picnic At Hanging Rock, Gallipoli, Witness, Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show and Master and Commander: The Far Side Of The World will receive at the Governors Awards in Los Angeles on Sunday Australian time.

Weir, who has been nominated for Oscars six times, is being recognised as “a director of consummate skill and artistry whose work reminds us of the power of film to reveal the full range of human experience”.

A few days after posting the letter, Weir emails to say he is happy to be interviewed. But he would like it to be via email and, he later adds, “I don’t do posed photos any more”.

Even so, it’s a rare chance to have Weir, 78, reflect on an exceptional career that took him from a leading role in the Australian New Wave in the 1970s and early ’80s to the heights of Hollywood. So I begin emailing questions and his answers are sometimes surprising …

Firstly, how did you hear you’d be joining some of the world’s great directors with an honorary Oscar?

I got a surprise call from the president of the Academy. I was aware of the award and some of the heavyweight filmmakers who’d received it. Quite a moment!

How much have awards mattered to you over the years?

Awards are certainly gratifying and, if from a major festival, they can raise awareness of your film. But they’re not something to think about during the lengthy production process. During that time, the best and rarest moments would have to be pure inspiration – that mysterious, unknowable muse who sends you a bolt of lightning and suddenly you see your way forward.

“Truman probably talked to himself in the bathroom mirror”: Jim Carrey as Truman Burbank in the The Truman Show.Credit:Melinda Sue Gordon

Was there ever a time when you went to the Oscars and felt you should have won?

It’s great to be nominated, that’s true, but not an entirely comfortable feeling waiting for the result. I think you accept the vote of the Academy and, in some ways, you’re glad when it’s all over.

Do you still have any desire to make films?

For film directors, like volcanoes, there are three major stages: active, dormant and extinct. I think I’ve reached the latter! Another generation is out there calling “action” and “cut” and good luck to them.

“Carpe diem. Seize the day”: Peter Weir had met Robin Williams socially in New York then bumped into him at a Sydney beach just before taking on Dead Poets Society. Credit:Touchstone

Ethan Hawke, who starred in Dead Poets Society, said earlier this year that you’d lost interest in movies because Russell Crowe and Johnny Depp “broke” you. Is that true?

This quote of Ethan’s must have been taken out of context. I find it puzzling.

What have you enjoyed creatively and personally away from filmmaking?

I love visiting ancient ruins or battlefields from long ago. I might have been an archaeologist in another life. The most memorable of many expeditions would have to be diving on the sunken World War II Japanese fleet lying beneath Truk Lagoon [in the central Pacific].

Is there something you’ve found as satisfying as telling a great story in a movie?

Watching someone else’s great movie!

“There was a heightened atmosphere on the set”: Mel Gibson and Mark Lee on the set of Gallipoli.Credit:Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Can we expect a memoir or autobiography at some stage?

No.

Is there one of your films – or a line – that people keep bringing up as a favourite?

Not surprisingly, it’s usually the hits people remember. I see the odd tattoo on the odd arm saying “carpe diem” [from Dead Poets Society].

How often do you hear “What are your legs? Steel springs” from Gallipoli or “Cue the sun” and “In case I don’t see you …” from The Truman Show?

I’ve had those lines quoted to me or seen them in print. My favourite would be “Cue the sun”. What director hasn’t wanted to cue the sun when the sky closes over during a scene? When I was a young would-be director, I was lucky enough to spend a week on the set of Hitchcock’s Frenzy. One morning we were standing on the pavement at Covent Garden, the camera set but nothing happening. Hitch sat impassively in his chair like a great film Buddha. Suddenly he spoke, which was rare, saying: “Why are we waiting?” A nervous assistant pointed to the overcast sky: “For the sun Mr Hitchcock”. Even Alfred Hitchcock couldn’t cue the sun.

After studying arts and law at Sydney University and working as a production assistant at Channel 7, you made documentaries at what became Film Australia. At what point did you decide to direct movies?

From the age of 20 on, I wanted to work in “showbiz”. Acting? Writing? Directing didn’t occur to me as there was no film industry. I worked in sketch comedy with Grahame Bond, who went on do The Aunty Jack Show. I’d loved directing the filmed sketches for our shows together and decided to concentrate on that. I applied for a grant for a short film from the then government Experimental Film Fund and was on my way.

“A whodunnit without that final scene where all is explained and the villain exposed”: Picnic at Hanging Rock.Credit:B.E.F.

Many of your early films are just as potent now. Why do you think Picnic at Hanging Rock still resonates?

I think it’s because the film has no resolution. It’s a whodunnit without that final scene where all is explained and the villain exposed. I’d loved Sherlock Holmes as a boy, thrilled and chilled by the mystery, but always felt a slight letdown with the explanation at the end. Some viewers of the film felt cheated for the same reason. For others that’s what they loved: not knowing.

Do you ever watch your films back?

Sometimes I’ll check in when one screens on television – to see how it’s ageing, see if it has any whiskers on it. Films, like most wines, are meant to be consumed in the year of their release. It’s a small miracle when they endure.

Peter Weir with Gerard Depardieu who starred opposite Andie MacDowell in the romantic comedy Green Card.Credit:Tina Haynes

Is there a film of yours you’d like to have endured more than it has done?

I’m not one for wishful thinking. I accept the verdict of time.

Whose films do you enjoy watching now?

I recently revisited Fred Zinnemann’s The Day of the Jackal. It’s a fine film. Then I took another look at Rashomon. How did Kurosawa pull it off? Why is it still so compelling? How could he make something so ethereal, so otherworldly and, in 1950, with Japan still a smoking ruin? It’s outside time. A work of art.

Gallipoli is another film that has really endured and had a remarkable impact – substantially defining the conflict for Australians for generations and helping revive interest in Anzac Day. Did you have any sense making it that it would hit such a nerve culturally?

There was a heightened atmosphere on the set making that film. It was a different experience to any other film of mine. Not better, just different. I think we all felt it, cast and crew. Of course I hoped the film would find an audience but it was seen by many in the industry as a risk commercially. In 1980 the country was still recovering from the Vietnam War and many young people were suspicious of any kind of patriotic feeling. So the way the film was received was a delightful surprise.

“Once you walk onto the set it’s the same anywhere”: Lukas Haas, Kelly McGillis and Harrison Ford in Witness.Credit:Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Steven Spielberg’s new film, The Fabelmans, dramatises how important cinema was for him as a boy. As a director who’s always been an artist, what has film meant to you?

Movies were a major part of childhood. Television didn’t arrive until I was 12 so the Saturday arvo pictures were the highlight of the week. Westerns were my favourite and with kids in the street we played out scenes from those films. I ran the games until some of the gang began to complain that I was “bossing them around”. I guess I was directing them! You saw so few images, compared to today, that what you did see was burned into the memory.

There has always been so much subtlety to your casting. In the Indonesian-set drama The Year Of Living Dangerously, for example, you cast Linda Hunt as a cameraman and Sigourney Weaver, then only known as Ripley in Alien, as a British embassy officer. What made you think these bold choices would work?

Casting a woman as a man was certainly a gamble. The character was described as under five feet tall and AsianAustralian. I tested actors of various nationalities and ethnicities but no-one was right. At a casting session in New York, in walked Linda Hunt. It was a kind of mistake that she’d been called to the session but she was tiny and she was charming. I got her to read for the part and she was wonderful. She understood this little man. What to do? Could she play a man? It was dangerous and exciting and won her an Oscar. As for Sigourney, she was just perfect from our first meeting.

“Casting a woman as a man was certainly a gamble”: Linda Hunt in The Year of Living Dangerously.Credit:Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Your first movie in the US was Witness, directing Harrison Ford when he was already a star and Kelly McGillis. How did you find the transition to Hollywood?

My agent introduced me to studio heads he thought would be a good fit. Jeff Katzenberg at Paramount was one and he offered me Witness. After he moved to Disney, we did Dead Poets Society and Green Card. As for the actual physical production, once you walk onto the set it’s the same anywhere. Film is its own country, as someone said.

Another inspired piece of casting was Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. What made you think a brilliant comic would be such a strong dramatic actor? And how did you get such a memorable performance from him?

I’d met Robin socially in New York then, a couple of years later, bumped into him at a local beach in Sydney incredibly enough. He was on holiday with his family and came up for coffee. It was a very entertaining couple of hours and we agreed to stay in touch. A few months later I was offered Dead Poets Society and they told me Robin was interested. I don’t know if I would have seen him in the role if we hadn’t had that coffee. We talked a lot about his moving away from his familiar comic base with the character but didn’t want to lose the humour and charm that was part of his persona. I built into the schedule half a day for improvisation. We talked over a couple of ideas – he could talk about Shakespeare, Dickens maybe. Nothing was written down, nothing rehearsed. I had no idea what he was going to do I then pulled the cameras way back to the edge of the classroom and let Robin loose. Several moments of that improvisation remain in the film.

Peter Weir was nominated for both directing and producing at the Oscars: Russell Crowe in Master And Commander: The Far Side of the World.Credit:20th Century Fox

Has it surprised you how prophetic The Truman Show has been about the rise of reality TV and the way cameras document so much of our lives?

Yes! It read as satire or a fable but I didn’t know that a tidal wave of reality television was just below the horizon. A critic said on its release that it was entertaining but implausible: “Who would sit around watching reality TV 24 hours a day?”

Like Robin Williams, Jim Carrey was really only known for wild comedy when you cast him. What made you think he could play the role so well?

I thought Jim was such an original when I saw Ace Ventura. And knowing he was interested in The Truman Show, it was just a case of our meeting. I went up to his house in LA and the coffee was still too hot to drink before we were imagining scenes for the film.“Truman probably talked to himself in the bathroom mirror,” I suggested. With that, Jim was up and off to the bathroom, calling for me to follow. He grabbed the soap and drew on the mirror, talking to his image all the while. We were in business.

Many of your films are about people who find themselves isolated from mainstream society. How did that reflect your own life?

I don’t think the films are about me but a film policeman would say my fingerprints are all over them.

You shot The Mosquito Coast in Belize, Master and Commander in the Galapagos Islands and Mexico, and The Way Back in Bulgarian forests, the Sahara Desert and the Himalayas. Why was it important to shoot in these remote locations or was the adventure part of the attraction?

Adventure always attracts me and foreign locations introduce a reality into the experience. But you can always fake it. That can be fun, too, and challenging. After all, Master and Commander was shot in a bathtub [actually a water tank at Baja Studios in Mexico] And for nearly half of The Year of Living Dangerously, the slums of Jakarta were doubled by a park in Glebe.

There’s one vivid shot I love in Master and Commander that makes you realise a sea voyage in the early 1800s was like a space mission now. At what stage does an idea for a memorable image like this come to you?

While working on a film script I often make a promotional trailer in my mind. I’ve always loved trailers: the key scenes picked from anywhere in the film, rammed together. These mental dream-trailers sometimes provoked unexpected imagery.

An under-rated film in the Peter Weir canon: Jeff Bridges in Fearless.Credit:Warner Bros

The Jeff Bridges drama Fearless is your most under-rated film. And the romcom Green Card and The Way Back both deserved much more success. What’s your feeling about why they didn’t connect as much as hoped with audiences?

I don’t spend too much time thinking about why a film didn’t connect to a wider public. Of course, you can look back and see the signs, or you can think you do. I knew Fearless was in trouble when the first major review came through. It was favourable but issued a warning not to see the film if you planned to fly. In other words, “I admire the film but don’t go see it”. Ouch.

If you were starting your career now, would it still be in film or has television overtaken it creatively?

I think I’d try a different racket. Underwater archaeology possibly. But then I think I’d want to film any discoveries of interest so there you go! No escaping fate.

What’s your view of the many Hollywood superhero movies made every year? Do you agree with Martin Scorsese that they’re not really cinema?

I collected comics as a boy. Batman was a favourite. That’s the superhero time of life. But adults continue to watch them now. Perhaps Martin is wondering about that. You might call it the infantilisation of cinema.

You’ve never directed a sequel. Why did you keep making one-of-a-kind films throughout your career, moving into a new genre every time?

I needed to surprise myself. Repetition can inhibit originality.

Peter Weir when he was nominated at the Oscars for Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World in 2004.Credit:REUTERS/Fred Prouser

Why do you think Australian filmmaking only rarely has the energy and vitality of the New Wave now and is there a way to get that vibrancy back?

You can’t leave out the background to that highly creative time. That energy and vitality was in the very air. Anything seemed possible, including making movies and exporting them to the world. I met a Singaporean cultural official some years ago who told me they wanted to kickstart a local film industry like Australia, and what kind of budget did I think was needed? “Oh, money can’t buy it”, I said. You can fan the flames with money but you can’t start the fire. That has to be up to the young filmmaker who shoots something startling and original on their phone or pens a script that demands to be made. If you’re good enough, money will find you. I can’t say how it is out there now, or where that vital energy lies, but it’s out there somewhere, waiting to be tapped into.

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Email Garry Maddox at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @gmaddox.

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