This article/interview was done shortly before the release of "The Mosquito
Coast" and was written by Pat McGilligan.
Tell me about growing up in Australia, and how you were influenced by movies.
It was a postwar baby boom experience fairly similar to that of kids anywhere
in the Western world, in a sense that the excitement was to earn enough
pocket money, or to be treated by your parents, to the Saturday afternoon
movies. First, my father used to take me, then I went with the kids in
the street. I rarely missed a Saturday, so I grew up with American film
Because the Australian film industry was in eclipse at the point?
That's right - with the exception of the Australian newsreel, and the work
of Charles Chauvell and Ken G. Hall. Of course, it was mainly western serials.
It was interesting to see Lucas and Spielberg, in various films, revive
Were movies the dominant aspect of your youth?
No. It was just part of the fabric of life, as much as the beach and swimming.
I grew up in a very middle-class neighborhood near the sea in Sydney harbor.
A lot of people grew up with the matinee series, but not every filmmaker
chooses to escape into that sort of fantasy and, in a sense, back into
It's a very rich line; perhaps it's nearly exhausted. Certainly it is in
the hands of lesser talents. Comics were the other factor in my upbringing,
rather interestingly, without making too much of it. I don't know if there
is an equivalent today, but you collected comics, you swapped and sold
them. Perhaps it was just a craze, but it seemed to go on for years. American
comics would specialize in one character or another. I liked the Disney
comics, the Scrooge McDuck stories- he was so mean -and Gladstone Gander,
because he was less goody two-shoes. And comics like "The Phantom" and
"Blackhawk", the pilot. Then television hit in '56- let's see, I was born
in '44 -and I became very interested in America. It was so new, you just
sat there fascinated, no matter what was happening.
As much as I try, I cannot see the influence of comics in your work. It
is difficult to categorize your films, except as "Peter Weir films". You
avoid genres, save "Witness", which really transcends genre.
Yes, I don't tend to think in categories, really. I think of myself as
a storyteller, and I would have chosen another medium if films hadn't been
available, presumably writing.
When I was a kid, my father used to tell me serials. He'd make them
up. It was a great treat for about three or four years. Because of the
active, outdoor life, naturally they'd have trouble getting me in bed.
One of the temptations was that my father would give me an episode of his
serial. If I really had to single out an influence, I'd choose that experience-
the pleasure of telling the tale.
His longest running one, which went over 12 months at five minutes
a night, was called "Black Bart Lamey's Treasure." Which was pretty clearly
a pirate title, set in the Caribbean. I think he borrowed some from Rafael
Sabatini, and God knows who else, but it was a great title, and I can still
recall certain passages. He was a very good storyteller- it had nothing
to do with his occupation; he was a real estate agent- but he had the knack
of spinning a yarn. He would always leave is as a cliffhanger. And "Black
Bart" was such a success that it went on and on, until finally it did come
to an end. He just ran out of inspiration, I suppose. When I begged him
for another one, he started a whole story about witchcraft, which my mother
banned because it was so frightening I couldn't get to sleep.
Did your father have any artistic aspirations?
During the war, when he was very short of money, doing odd selling jobs
and whatever, he wrote for radio. They were always advertising for scripts
for the long-running serials. I found one of his once in a cupboard with
a whole batch of radio plays that he'd written for a series called Dr.
Max, a human interest series about a country GP, each one centered around
a specific case. He had two produced, I think.
It was a tremendous discovery. In my whole family background I couldn't
find anybody with an interest in culture. Nor any real records of who we
were before we came to Australia. Which is quite typical of the immigration
pattern. There's a kind of veil dropped over the past.
Could this be one reason why, so often in your movies- as in Gallipoli,
or Witness, or The Mosquito Coast- the movie is observed through a boy's
eyes? A boy in the shadow of a father?
I think that's coincidence. Pure chance.
Does this draw you to a story?
Hmmm. No. Not that I'm aware of.
When did you first become aware that films could be art?
That's interesting. I guess with Stanley Kubrick. I was not exposed to
any film culture in my late teens. The Sydney Film Festival had started
in the late fifties, but I was not aware of it, not until much later. I
might have been in my early twenties when I first saw Dr. Strangelove,
and that led me to see early Kubrick films, and to watch out for him. He
struck me particularly as being different because, up to that point, I
had thought of movies, the way most of the public does, as being entertainments.
I was quite unconscious of any greater resonance.
I had seen the odd bits of Charlie Chaplin and thought they were quaint-
he didn't move at the correct speed- and at the time I thought they were
a little bit inflated. My father took me to see a couple of Chaplin pictures
that were revived in the late Fifties. He sat there, falling all about,
while I sat there feeling rather curious. It must be like the music of
your parents that you can't quite plug into.
Of course, later in the Seventies, I saw virtually all of Chaplin's
work I could get hold of, in some sort of chronology, and I was flabbergasted-
and laughing! It has always interested me that you can see something one
time and it doesn't work for you, and later on it will. And vice versa.
In fact, the reverse is really painful. I got out a Visconti film recently
that so inspired and excited me at one period, and I found I couldn't get
into it at all. I'll always appreciate it as the work of an artist, but
where was the fire? It's a most unpleasant sense of loss. It happens with
books, too- and music sometimes. I'm sure it happens with people too.
Did this realization about films push you further toward directing?
No, it was really through theater. I went to London and Europe when I was
20, in 1965. On board ship, going over, I got involved with a couple of
other characters doing a shipboard revue. It's a very long trip- five weeks.
The days passed very slowly, and there wasn't much entertainment on board.
Somehow or other, these other characters and I got permission to take over
the entertainment on board, and we did a little television satire on a
I got terribly excited by that experience. We met again in London,
and various things happened out of that. We became collaborators. We didn't
know what we were doing really, but we did manage to appear as a comedy
act on an amateur night in a folk club in London. We wrote a book based
on one of the characters we invented on board the ship. I later made it
into a film, actually- it's called "The Life and Flight of the Reverend
Buckshotte." It belongs to a series of short black-and-white films I made
prior to my first feature film.
Prior to this, had you any involvement in show business?
No, I had dropped out of university. I was a pretty hopeless student. I
has some "Student Prince" idea of it all that we'd be laughing and talking
and there'd be girls...
I got to my first lecture, there were 900 of us, and there was an ant
down in front with a microphone talking about James Joyce. I looked at
the fellow next to me, who became a very good friend, and said, "I can't
believe this!" Afterward, we went for a beer, the beginning of many beers
and many skipped lectures...
So I went into real estate. My father was glad to see me get out of
that time-wasting process; he was looking forward to me joining him. He
had a small one-man business, quite successful, and he looked forward to
"Weir & Son" on the window. I sold real estate for a year and a half,
and I was very successful at it too, especially when I was selling land.
I was only a kid of 19. I saved up enough to buy a ticket to Europe, which
is really what I wanted to do.
I don't know. Just to get out. Something was building up. Some pressure.
It's a rather uncomfortable period to remember. I felt like I was playing
a part. I didn't feel like I fit into that lovely world I was growing up
in. It was part of a whole unrest that was happening all around the Western
Were you influenced at all by the Sixties?
I was very much on the edges of it. I went through all the various fashions
of the day and the fashionable ideas and ways of seeing the world, which
brings a faint embarrassment when you think back on it. A lot of it was
just youthful naivete and arrogance of the times that I find myself uncomfortable
with when I reflect. Perhaps all we're left with is some good music.
Certainly you distrust politics, politicians, and ideologies. That comes
through strongly in your films.
Yes. All of them. I've never been a joiner.
Is that partly a result of your experience in the Sixties?
Yes, that really confirmed me. I think I burned myself; I don't think anyone
did it to me. I'm astounded when I think back on how I allowed myself to
be susceptible to the fairly cheap propaganda put out by my peers and comrade-in-arms
at the time. But I'm not angry about it, just realistic.
Did what happened then prompt the explosion of filmmaking in Australia
in the late Sixties and early Seventies?
In my view, very much so. It had to do with the [Vietnam] war first. Not
only war, but great social upheaval, if one looks back through history,
has always caused great movements in the arts, immediately after or during.
Post-World War I France. Post-revolutionary Russia. This country [the United
States], after and during the Vietnam War, particularly in movies. A whole
generation of filmmakers came out of that period. It was very true in Australia,
particularly for a country that had been so conservative in all areas up
until the Vietnam War.
There was the debate in the streets- father against son, brother against
sister -about the rights and wrongs of the war. That's the only conversation
you heard anywhere- buses, trains, lifts. But people were talking to each
other, and these conservative people would hardly say hello to each other
in a doctor's waiting room. There is a certain sort of social stiffness
that exists in our country- not so during that period.
Add to that the youth upheaval, the rock 'n' roll, the long hair, the
dope, the whole swirling cauldron of change.... The excitement and the
thrill of chaos produced by all sorts of interesting things, some of them
short-term, some of them significant. Restaurants for alternative ways
of eating, clothes, leaving your father's business to become a...
Exactly. I was caught up in it and did all those things, and to my family's
amazement and horror, when I came back from Europe in '66, I was radicalized,
as they used to say in those times. I came back long-haired, antiwar, married,
with no money, and determined to go into theater or television. They couldn't
believe or understand that. I went away one person and came back another.
So I dug ditches and delivered bread and all sorts of odd jobs until
I got a job in television as a stagehand and floorsweeper. Meanwhile, I
was working with two or three friends doing off-off-Broadway-type theater,
almost the next stage out of university revue, as a writer-performer. We
wrote our own stuff and directed each other. It was not a commune, as such,
but there were five or six of us, eventually, and we worked as a group
and had a great time.
I began to make little films to put on in shows. It was a period of
multimedia, and I used to enjoy taking some of our more complex sketches
that we couldn't do on stage and shooting little 16mm black-and-white films.
Sometimes I was in them and sometimes I wrote them, but I always directed
them. I didn't realize I was directing them. In fact, the first long film
I did ("Count Vim"), 15 minutes long, I put on "produced by Peter Weir".
Was it painful for you to leave the Sixties behind? Is there any residue
in your work?
I'm very much another person from who I was then. It was just like you
were a pilot in the Air Force, and suddenly your application was selected
for not just an astronaut program but for really deep space probe. You
were one of six, eight, ten individuals who were going to go to Saturn.
That's what happened to me....
It all became irrelevant....
Now, over coffee, I can just smile at these things....
When and why did you decide to become a film director?
I went back to Europe in '71 for six months on a study grant from the government
film commission. I was studying British feature film production. I saw
the Monty Python series and knew it was all over for me as a writer-performer.
They were just so good. And we were just beginning to break through- at
that point we had been commissioned to do a half hour comedy series for
the Australian Broadcasting Company. I pulled out at the last minute. I
sold my sketches to them and left the group. It was a bitter thing between
But I had an instinctive feeling about film. Partly it was my ignorance
of film culture and film history that allowed me to have so few inhibitions,
to see a future for myself as a director.
I would guess- especially on the basis of "Picnic at Hanging Rock", "The
Last Wave", and "The Plumber" -that you were reading and heavily influenced
by sociological, anthropological, and psychological texts throughout the
Yes, yes, yes.
You seem to wince at that. Why?
Because I have moved on. I was reading Carl Jung, Carlos Castaneda, Emmanuel
Vellokovsky- I can still dip into them- and the Old Testament, among other
things. Not so much Freud, whom I am just now starting to read. And not
political texts either.
I had concerns then, and though other things besides books influenced
me, it was just like finishing with an author: I moved on. but they became
part of what I was rather than my current state of thinking. Incidentally,
a lot of the reading and investigation cleared up my mind on certain points;
and if the mysteries were not cleared up, for me their importance receded.
Though I remain fascinated by religious philosophy, by spiritual inquiry,
by the human condition.
Your films have a preoccupation with dreams and illusions, with the subcurrents
of reason, with ancient, forgotten beliefs.
I must say that is abundantly apparent now, but I can't say that I was
aware of it at the time. I'm somewhat uncomfortable with that pattern.
It gives me no particular pleasure. I don't think there is anything significant
These are just things I got very interested in ten years ago and began
to investigate in myself, and to think, read, and talk about. While I did
so, I was least in touch with these things. Fortunately, I realized this
after some years- that it was best not to talk about them and then they
will come back with all of their richness.
Of course we all have our dreams as part of our psychic makeup. There
are simply unmeasured abilities we have, forms of communication, or ancient
influences that have come through the very genes that make us what we are.
It's a subject with no boundaries. But I've explored it consciously enough
to decide it's best to leave it alone and to concentrate on craft.
Did the Aborigines become a source of concern or guilt for you?
Yes, sure, though I don't know about guilt. It became personal for me by
meeting an Aborigine and getting to know him slightly- [actor] David Gulpilil,
who was in "The Last Wave" -and who, as you may know, is a tribal man and
a very curious case, because he would go between the two worlds and do
his acting in the city, with an agent and a fee, reading scripts and turning
up for makeup calls; then he would disappear for six months, during which
time he might as well have been on another planet or in another time. He
goes back in his time machine to his tribal lands, where all the ancient
laws apply to him. I met Gulpilil when I was shooting an episode in a television
series for a British company, a colonial tale of 13 episodes, in 1973.
he made me realize that everything I had been taught in school about the
Aborigines was total hogwash. Through long conversations with him, I realized
the absurdity of the history books, which teach that the Aborigines were
a kind of Stone Age people in the dawn of time, nomadic, without any culture
of significant or enduring qualities, that they collapsed in contact with
a more advanced, superior, and complex culture.
Talking with David, I realized the Aborigine culture was very much
alive, if underground, so to speak. It was simply a different culture,
and we had been looking at it with our own definition of culture. The Aborigines
use the same word, culture, to mean something far richer than what we have
come to mean by it. Here was a most interesting case where we had lost
something since contact with the Aborigines- something they still had.
They lost something too- the land and a lot of tribes.
That began a period of years of reading and talking and eventually
film, an effort that to me was always a failure, because I captured so
little of what I got to know over that period. It remains, to this day,
a real frustrating memory for me.
That means you are not satisfied with "The Last Wave" as an exploration
of those themes.
No. It's only two or three percent of what I knew. Maybe what I discovered
was meant to be personal. Maybe it wasn't something I was meant to put
in a film. It was something that interested me, that's all.
One thing about these films of the Seventies- leading up to Gallipoli -they
are intensely "serious" and surprisingly humorless for someone whose professed
background was comedy shtick.
"Picnic at Hanging Rock" and "The Last Wave" seemed to go together. It
was a pretty unfunny time, this tale end of the Sixties, with all its excesses.
One of the unfortunate things about conversation of this kind is that the
serious side of me tends to come out whereas in life I like to think I
am a good jokester and that there's a lot of humor on my sets. In "Witness",
for example, Harrison and I cooked up some of the comedy while shooting-
it's there in the dance in the barn and in the breakfast scene, which was
Harrison's idea and comes from an audition he once failed.
Comedy is bloody hard to do, incidentally. But I have not given up
on comedy. For the moment, for me, the best comedy springs out of genuine
drama. But the type of comedy I would like to is "Lolita" -very black,
tense humor; that's the type that thrills me.
The end of that period of speculation in the Seventies came about in
a very sharp, particular way. I was making a documentary in Sydney, which
I really did as a favor for a friend, a potter- highly regarded, charming,
much loved -who was retiring from teaching pottery after many years at
a technical college in Sydney. An arts foundation wanted this filmed record
of his work, so I said, "All right, if I can make it my own way." I found
his story very interesting. He had been a prisoner of war of the Japanese
captured in the fall of Singapore; he had endured the hardships and horrors
in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, and yet, after he came out, he had
become a potter. Of course, anyone who becomes a potter has to go to Japan
and immerse himself in the history of the great masters of pottery. I found
this very interesting- that a man who had experienced prisoner-of-war trauma
ended up having this kind of Oriental aspect to his personality, apart
from his pots.
Part of this film involved meeting a Japanese potter called Shiga,
a master who was living and working in Australia. I filmed him one night
when he opened his kiln and brought some pots out, It was very exciting
for me. And over many glasses of sake that night he talked about pottery-
about art and about craft. That conversation that evening came to change
my view about filmmaking, and it remains unchanged to this day.
Putting it simply, for him there was no art, it was all craft. He talked
about how the great potters didn't sign their pots because it was considered
a vanity to do so; how their pots were utilitarian objects rather than
something just to be stuck on the wall, like paintings; how you make these
vessels to be used, for eating and drinking; how you make each one to the
best of your ability- using Head, Heart, and Hand -which is what I called
the documentary -in perfect balance. How you should never think about making
a work of art because you would be punished if you did. That the gods choose
when to touch your hands, and you will never know when that may be. You
must keep working, and every now and again, when the gods do touch your
hands, out will come this wonderful creation. It was so fundamentally opposed
to the European idea of, simplistically speaking, the artist-as-God.
I loved his approach. Here were movies- which were items to be used
and consumed in your daily life and then thrown away. When I returned to
feature filmmaking, the emphasis for me was clearly on craft, and to forget
about the artistic propaganda trip that I felt had been perpetuated.
Of course, inspiration is still part of the process- head, heart, and
hand. The area of the heart, or presumably, the soul, the unknown area,
provides that leap of imagination that touches the fires to the brain.
But after talking with Shiga, I found I had a kind of pocket philosophy
that would get me through some ups and downs, and threw me back into the
fray, trying to understand this wonderful craft I was involved in. And
I was free of the curse of thinking of it as an art form.
Were you experiencing some crisis as regards filmmaking?
I really had been growing up under the crossfire of Hollywood and the films
of the great European directors. I sensed a great deal of pretension coming
from the European cinema, but even so for a while that was very influential
in my personal cinema. Apart from rare, isolated figures in the American
tradition, it seemed as if there were fewer "serious" directors in Hollywood.
But one changes and one's personality changes. For me, it wasn't the
influence of films or directors, though someone like Kubrick, who is artistic
and mainstream, was a model. I don't spend much time in the cinema. It's
a cliche- but I was never satisfied, I was always changing, and that is
what kept me going. It was frustrating for me, trying to get certain subjects
right. For me, it was a question of new territory.
For a long time I had been asking myself: Is film a craft, or is it
an art? Should I be making small, serious pictures for art houses or big,
expensive ones for large numbers of people? The result of these conflicting
thoughts over the years was that craft was the correct emphasis for me.
Because I found myself happiest in the Hollywood tradition, and I needed
to find a healthy attitude toward what I was doing.
I had to teach myself how to make movies. I had made three features- but
in some ways, the more I went on, the harder it became, the less I knew.
I was like a primitive filmmaker.
I stopped filmmaking in 1978 and put myself through a course I was
sorely lacking. For 12 months I watched movies; I was in touch with a library
with a very good collection of world film culture. I started with Griffith;
then I moved from him to the Russians; then I moved to England and looked
at Hitchcock's films; then I shot back to the States for Chaplin; then
I went across and dipped into France, then Germany, working my way forward
up to the period of the Forties movies, which is where I'd begun, through
television, to see the great filmmakers.
I was astounded, astonished, and fascinated with the great gift of
these films and so glad that I hadn't looked at them earlier. If I had,
I don't think I would have made films. Because I was at the bottom of the
Who were the paragons for-then and now?
I don't have any one, I have a sort of rogue's gallery, my own Madame Tussaud's
of living and dead who inspire me. Of the current filmmakers, I will watch
anything by Andrzej Wajda. I was particularly struck, recently, by "Danton",
and I'm fascinated by the controversy surrounding it in France, which is
as interesting a story as the story of the movie. From this country, there
is always Woody Allen and Marty Scorsese to watch- and Spielberg. From
the past, I suppose, from one's much-thumbed book of filmmakers in the
back pocket, there is always Jean Renoir.
What was your own breakthrough film?
Gallipoli - which came after that film course. It was the first time I
think I had real confidence in what I was doing, some understanding of
craft, while still being an apprentice. I think my least personal film,
and favorite film, is Gallipoli. It has the least to do with me, really.
There is still a transcendental quality in the later films as well, "The
Year of Living Dangerously" and "Witness". There are soaring passages.
Are you familiar with Van Morrison?
These moments remind me of some incomprehensible Van Morrison lyric which
he sings over and over again in some rhapsody. On some level it is gibberish,
or just words, but he is striking something deeper, soulful, spiritual,
something at once articulate and inarticulate, moving himself and his listener.
But one couldn't say what is being said precisely or-sometimes-what it
is you are saying.
Maybe this is some essence of art. You really can stare at a painting,
can't you? Particularly when it is landscape, or some 18th-century English
gentleman whose name is not known. You have to sit down and stare at it.
You can't put your finger on it.
That's what I've loved to discover for myself in opera in the last
ten years. Some I don't like and have propelled me out of the theater.
But those I have loved have always been in a foreign language. I'm always
disappointed when they announce it will be sung in English or with subtitles.
Because I love to not know what they're saying, and to just go with the
Music is the fountainhead, the source of all my inspiration, in a way,
if you can generalize. It certainly doesn't have anything to do with words
and such. Storytelling is my trade, my craft. But music is my inspiration;
and my goal, my metaphor, to affect people like music. The images should
float over you like music, and the experience should be beyond words.
In the middle of some scenes, the camera becomes sensuous, carrying emotion
and subtext, and really transporting the audience to another level.
I think that true of a lot of films I've done, but I've become so aware
of it that I've tried to strip it out of "The Mosquito Coast". I've attempted
to eliminate my own style as much as possible, like some sort of personal
cultural revolution. I think style can become inhibiting to a long career.
I have consciously eliminated it from the picture and made it plainer,
more straightforward. For other reasons, too- the material and essential
ideas of this film are so contradictory to mainstream American filmmaking,
are so deeply unconventional, that I felt the form and shape of it should
be very conventional, in order not to repel the viewer.
In fact, the opening sequence has some of the plainest opening images
I've ever had, even bland. I shot another opening at the same time because
I was aware of this problem. Originally, I shot a very mysterious, Peter
Weir-style opening with dark figures on the horizon and all sorts of weird
things going on, then I very cleverly revealed what it was. I thought it
might be too close to "Witness", but I decided it was just my style. At
the dailies everybody was impressed. "Wow. This is really you at your best.
That music you played over those images - wow! It blew me away." I thought
about it and thought about it and dropped it all. It was a symbolic gesture,
but it did echo on throughout the film.
Though you have been involved for quite some time, Paul Schrader's script
existed before your commitment.Originally, the project belonged to [producer]
Jerome Hellman. He loved the book, bought it, and brought in Paul Schrader
to do the screenplay. If you look at "Mishima" and then read "Mosquito
Coast", you'll see the connection. I met the two of them in Sydney and
we talked, because I wasn't sure I could bring it off. Paul's draft was
a classic example of an adaptation: it was simple, it was true to the material,
while transmuting it into the film form. The script was a great attraction.
Though I revised the script, Paul and I never really worked together. We
had long talks by phone. In the end we were going to have the credit arbitrated,
because I felt I had contributed my share of the screenplay. But in the
editing room, ironically I ended up cutting more of my scenes and my dialogue.
SO the cut that you will see ends up being fairly close to Paul, which
is pretty faithful to Theroux.
What attracted you to the story, per se?
the challenge of the story was, for me, that it was a tragedy and very
particularly an American tragedy. It's in the great tradition of the tragic
form. It reminded me of certain operas, of Shakespeare certainly- of "Macbeth",
which I have always loved, and of "Othello". My favorite productions of
both those plays always held me in deep thrall. I've always enjoyed watching
this great soldier, Macbeth, watching this ambition awaken within him and
consume him, and with Othello, the same with jealousy.
I saw Allie Fox like that and wanted to present a story where you understood
what happened to the man and felt something, not necessarily for him, but
felt something at the end other than anger toward him, which people who
read the book felt. It should be as if you are imagining your own father
somehow, whom you believe in, and whose weaknesses you begin to see; this
giant of a man only gets smaller and smaller as you grow. You have to find
a new way to see this person. Then you see the weaknesses in yourself,
and it's all wonderfully difficult.
To add to that, the final excitement of the charge: Could one present
this form in the American cinema, in the Hollywood narrative tradition?
To my knowledge, it has not been done.
The American tradition- and "Witness" served that tradition -is to
have the hero, the leading man, particularly these rare people like Harrison
Ford with his great strength and integrity - these people like John Wayne
and Steve McQueen, who are part of the fiber of the culture - to have the
hero start off with a flaw that is healed or cleansed. At the end, he walks
off into the sunset, and he's a better man for the experience. It is as
much a part of the American myth as the poor kid selling newspapers on
the streetcorner who grows up to become president of the United States.
It's all part of the winning turbine that drives this country to succeed,
to triumph, to overcome the odds. But it's left untouched the whole tradition
of drama that goes back to the Greeks and beyond - of failure - and of
visions that are too limited. Of great men who collapse.
There was the excitement, the challenge, the feeling of fresh ground
with the story, to take such a man and see if I could hold an audience.
Is "Mosquito Coast" a way of commenting on America?
No. God, no. I'd cringe at the thought.
That is the school of propaganda, of sociology, of teachers who feel they
need to change society through film. That is just not my approach, which
is definitely storytelling. As is Theroux's.
But I think the story is an obvious-
I think Theroux placed it very correctly as the subtext and didn't moralize
in an obvious way about it. I put it out of my mind and I refused to ever
think about it. Because it would always be there and it had to find its
rightful balance, and so I never went for a cheap shot in that area, though
of course, it's there and it's what's driving the whole thing.
Are you a little tentative, in general, about filming stories about America
or Americans? Bruce Beresford seemed at home with "Tender Mercies", and
Fred Schepsi does westerns like "Barbarosa", but you seem a little more
Being from a colony like Australia, it's that much easier to find your
way into certain aspects of life here, and to feel quite at home. Then
again, every now and then, you strike an area in which you people are as
foreign as Frenchmen, or as any other country where you don't have language
as an apparent way of understanding the culture.
It's certainly easier for us to come here than the English, perhaps
because they come here with such a highly defined culture, a known past.
Whereas with a colonial people, the dispossessed of the world, the whole
country is built on that starting-again notion.
You have a very keen sense of being "displaced", of being a colonial descendant,
an uneasiness about what it means to be Australian.
Most Australians don't think about it and they feel very comfortable about
being Australian. I guess I'm just one of that group that has a particularly
It's a very fascinating subject for me, as a European really, whose
family was transported, pulled up roots, and moved to Southeast Asia. Australia
was built on a series of failures, horrible experiments, and the results
of those experiments are still in progress. In recent years there's been
quite an accelerated attempt- artificial, almost -to create the Australian
character in a hothouse and to get it blooming, so that we can say, "Look,
we've got an identity." But that's a very recent acceleration as a result
of advances in the media.
This is obviously the empathy you bring to "The Year of Living Dangerously"
or to the Amish colony in "Witness". I see "Mosquito Coast" in the same
vein, with Allie Fox as a kind of one-man colonizer with no regard for
the native peoples....
I hadn't particularly thought of him that way, but it's very interesting
to see him as setting off to start a new colony....
You seem so resistant to any definition. I bring to you examples of motifs
in your work: of intuition and madness, of "lost" individuals transforming
themselves in a clash of cultures - and you say "Partly accidental, partly
Totally, I was thinking the other day, "Gee, that would make an interesting
film...," some short story I was reading, then I thought, "Oh no, it's
another thing of a person going into a foreign culture...." So I decided
I can't do that.
Why do you frown at it?
It's too obvious. Also, I like to feel I'm more private than that. I don't
take any pleasure in interviews because, like a lot of public entertainers,
professional entertainers, absurdly this contradiction exists for me of
wanting to stand up and get applause while at the same time wanting to
But as the number of pictures build up, someone with a head on his
shoulders can fairly easily sit down and form a portrait of the person
who made them. That's not unreasonable.
I talked earlier about altering style, but I think that's something
like the clothing you wear. That's something you can change. The deeper
aspects - you don't really choose those courses, you are just drawn in
certain directions. I'm doing what is natural to me.
But I am looking for ways to force change on myself. I am trying to
drop stylistic aspects, to remove myself further from the film, to allow
other influences to come in, to find a fresher approach, and to not become
too predictable. I'm looking for a way to eliminate, to simplify, to rely
on fewer tricks and gimmicks, and in a way I've been trying to do that
The word I would choose to describe my work, which we haven't fooled
around with, is wonder. What an interesting word that is! It's certainly
a word I would apply to my first viewing of the first film that left me
in a state of wonder, as a kid, which was "The Wizard of Oz". That stays
with me, the experience of seeing that picture, probably in re-release,
when I was ten or 12.
It was a world I didn't fully understand, which is a part of wonder,
and without question I have attempted to do that in my films and I still
do. Because of the pleasure of that wonder. To be made like a child again,
really, when you see a film. [Laughs] Not in the sense, of course, that
a lot of the committees down the road mean it, "We're all kids at heart...."
It's just ...not knowing...and to come out of the theater into the
street and you don't know if it's night or day, or raining, and you bump
into people and you get into the wrong car and you go down a one-way street
the wrong way. Those are the kinds of experiences in the movies that I
Are you wary of losing yourself in Hollywood?
No. The only person you have to be wary of, really, is yourself. Being
a filmmaker, I have this image in my mind as an analogy. There is a movie
I can't remember the title of, a World War II story, an American or British
picture, about the captain of a small destroyer dueling with a U-boat commander,
and the entire picture is this cat-and-mouse between the two vessels. The
captain of the ship and the U-boat commander spend the entire movie plotting
to kill each other. That's my current analogy. I am both skippers, trying
to outmaneuver myself, avoid sinking myself, playing chess with myself.
Hollywood is just irrelevant. They just provide the room you play in.