Love, Fear and Peter Weir

This article/interview was done for the September 1993 issue of Movieline magazine for the release of "Fearless" and was written by Virginia Campbell.

When I saw "Fearless", the friend I was with leaned over to me about 20 minutes into it and said exactly what I was thinking, which was: "I feel like I'm tripping".

[Laughs] After that test screening, which was the only test screening - I didn't want previews because I felt it would be at least 24 hours later before a viewer would wholly endorse the experience - Jeff [Bridges] leaned over to me and said, "It's like you put acid in the popcorn, man."

How did you come to make "Fearless"?

I was looking for a script, 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 that 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 Rafael Yglesias had adapted, on spec, from his own novel that was waiting to be published. I was delighted, because it hadn't had the usual input where they round the corners and put in all the things that are in books about scriptwriting.

What was "broken" about it?

It was good writing, 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.

So, you just decided to start the film as Bridges walks away from the crash?

I was just driving around listening to music, 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 kind of trauma.

You once said that the most important thing about making a film is to know the end of the story before you begin, and that you failed to do that once. What was that film?

"The Last Wave". It did have an ending, but... I was working with tribal Aboriginals under unique circumstances. I'd arranged with great difficulty to bring these people down from the extreme north of Australia, and having them there in the city with what they were telling me... I mean especially Nanjiwarra, the tribal elder who played the old man in the film. He would tell me certain things at odd moments, late at night. We'd talk, and it was like having a shortwave radio tuned to some mysterious signal from a long way away. And what I was hearing was more interesting than what I was shooting. So it became the tyranny of narrative form versus the experience of talking with Nanji. I would take some of the conversations and feed them into parts of the film, but finally it was a film that had to end and a conversation that didn't end.

In some ways, "Fearless" shares some thematic similarities with "The Year of Living Dangerously". A man has a strange, life-threatening experience and learns to see the world in a new way. Did you feel you were returning at all to earlier themes?

I don't think anyone can return. You can only go on. But I did feel with this film, for whatever reason, a wonderful freedom that I felt in those early days. I felt extremely loose and liberated. It was like being young again, but with your craft, all the little tricks in your bag. I always loved that quote from a contemporary of Mozart's who wrote, sadly, toward the end of his life that "in mastering the craft I lost the art." It's a terrifying thought that your first film was your best. But that's why we love young filmmakers. There's a certain recklessness. For whatever reasons, I felt that reckless feeling back again, and I approached this film in that spirit.

Did you see the plane crash in "Alive"?

Only in the trailer. I heard it was spectacular. My true challenge was to not make a film about the perils of flying. That was just a metaphor. 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 loved 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.

I heard that the studio didn't want Jeff Bridges because they thought he couldn't open the picture.

I think that's been the common view of all the studios, that he's had plenty of opportunities and he's never gone into the marquee area, the hallowed half-dozen names. It's not untrue in terms of statistics. I think all of the actors who are in that group would say that they admire Jeff as an actor, but that doesn't count for much. But he was my choice.

Was he your first choice?

I wondered about Mel Gibson. You mentioned earlier about "Living Dangerously", which curiously ended with Mel getting on a plane [laughs]. Mel and I talked over the years about doing something else. I called him and asked him. He said, "Look, I'm about to direct my first film, I can't believe the timing." He talked about moving his film, or possibly shooting this film while he was cutting his - but it was an impossible thing. And he asked "Who else would you use?" and I said, "Jeff Bridges." And he said "Dammit, that's who I wanted to have in 'The Man Without a Face'." The thing that puzzled the studio was, if Mel was unavailable, why would I move immediately to Jeff Bridges? Why wouldn't I look for someone else of Mel's stature? Of course it's difficult for me to look at Mel in that way because I worked with him before he became a superstar. I think of him the same way I think of Jeff, as someone who could do this film. The studio heard me out and said, "Fine, but if Jeff plays it you'll have to limit the budget."

How did you do that?

[Laughs] It was just a stroke of the pen. Deferment [of partial salary], it's called.

Mel Gibson's career is an odd one, if you look where it started with you.

You could understand it up until "Hamlet." And then that was such an interesting choice, he did such startling things in it.

Actually, I understand his doing "Hamlet". What I don't understand is his doing "Air America" and "Forever Young", and a few others.

That's because neither you nor I are in his position. It's like a corporation. I'm think of Harrison [Ford] too. It's very hard to understand how you must feel when you have that kind of authority if you respect the public, if you're a democratic kind of artist and get involved in the mass vote. That's one of the difficulties for an artist in America, in this great democracy - that you have to respond to that applause. To some it's "box office", but to me those cash registers ringing up are really just all those people trying to get through life saying thank you, clap, clap, clap. When you choose your next piece of material you're drawn toward giving that feeling to them again. It's very difficult to go against the roar of the crowd. This is a peculiarly "colonial" problem [i.e., the problem of transplanted Europeans]. The Europeans themselves don't have it - for good and ill. On the ill side there's the terrifying elitism that European artists have, a scorn for popular appeal that is repellent to me.

While we're talking about the problems of megastars, is it true that, back when "The Mosquito Coast" was first being put together and Jack Nicholson was going to be the lead, Nicholson backed out of the deal because he didn't want to go to Belize, where he couldn't watch the Lakers?

[Laughs] The truth was that it was mentioned to me that if Jack did the picture, he would want to either fly back to see the Lakers or have a satellite dish. He was not going to be out of contact with the Lakers and we were going to have to factor that into our schedule - which we would have.

So he didn't cause the deal to fall apart?

No, by the time the deal was made, Nicholson was no longer available, and I'd worked with Harrison on "Witness" in the meantime.

Speaking of "Witness", that film contains one of the most erotic scenes in the movies - the sequence when Ford dances with Kelly McGillis in the barn. In fact, all of the romantic scenes in your movies have an unusual intensity to them. How do you approach scenes like this?

Whenever anyone says to me, "You should read that script - it's very erotic," I say, "Well, then the film won't be." If anyone sets out to do it, they almost always fail. It's something that happens. I don't think I've ever planned it. It's a matter of taking advantage of a situation that seems the right way to go, and then you become aware that this will probably be what is called "erotic". Which is simply another word for tension, a rare form of it. It's not just sexual tension. You begin and end with Hitchcock, it's all through his films. You come to the obvious conclusion that Hitchcock was a very handsome man artistically, a Cary Grant of the spirit imprisoned in a rotund body. From the secret cave this Cary Grant existed in, Hitchcock lived his other lives. By looking at his key pictures you learn a great deal about how a man and a woman move around together on-screen.

Of all the films you've made, "Green Card" is the one I responded to the least, and since it's a good script - you got an Oscar nomination for it - and it's well directed, and Gerard Depardieu is good, I've always blamed my response on Andie MacDowell. Are you happy with her performance now?

I'd have to say I'm happy with that performance. And with the film as a whole. It's what I wanted to do. I wanted something completely different from "Mosquito Coast". I'd loved making that movie and it was a complete flop in all ways, with the public and the press, and I thought, well, I'll do something that's accessible. Really I was just reviving something Frank Capra had perfected, the romantic comedy. It's a film that should be seen around five in the afternoon. A light snack. And yet it's 18 months of hands-on work, 12 months full time to make something "in the manner of" another filmmaker. At first I didn't want to do it because there are no more Cary Grants, no more Katherine Hepburns, no more Irene Dunnes. But when I saw a film Gerard was in, I thought, well, if Gerard played it, that would work. So I rewrote it for him. But he was unavailable for a year. I ended up with Disney because I thought it was their sort of material and I did "Dead Poets Society" because it was something to do while I was waiting.

After I saw "1492: Conquest of Paradise" - in which I couldn't understand a word Depardieu said - I wondered how on earth you got him to speak English.

Well, first, I think that Ridley Scott had a difficult deadline to get that film ready for Columbus Day, and the postproduction suffered. But on "Green Card", it was just a matter of spending time together and adapting the way Gerard spoke English to the screenplay and translating everything back into French so that every line he spoke he understood.

Did you use a dialogue coach?

No. And we didn't lean on looping. Working with Gerard was a wonderful experience. I had a deep kinship with him, and I felt it before I met him. To a degree, given your reaction to the film, which others have had [laughs], including my own son, this was, as with Nanjiwarra on "The Last Wave", a case in which the experienceof making the film was where my audience should have been.

I heard that "Dead Poets Society" did phenomenally well in France. Did the French critics like it?

No, the people liked it. The young people.

Did it do well all over Europe?

Yes, but it did spectacularly in France.

Do you have a theory about that?

Oh yeah. It fell into a particular political climate. It's "post-'68." In its broad conception, "Dead Poets" supports the individual. Nineteen sixty-eight was all about the community, the group, particularly leftists. Young people who saw "Dead Poets Society" hadn't heard very often in their lifetimes the individual point of view put in a poetic way. I believe that the artistic kind of personality is intrinsically individual, by definition. I'm always uneasy with artists who join any kind of cause, because I think, what a shame, because very shortly their talent will fade. Once you put talent to the service of any cause, it's diminished, because you inhibit the unconscious from sending its strange and bizarre impulses as to what you should do, and begin to operate from a conscious concern about what will best serve the interests of the group or party. The leftist artists are a graveyard of failed careers or spectacular one-time novels, films or whatever. The artistic personality belongs deeply nowhere. It's the person who goes from court to court and plays before the king but never signs up to any particular group and remains a comment on society. Within France, in Paris, and also to a degree in New York, in contemporary times, the artist joined forces with what was seen as the politically correct way. "Dead Poets" was not politically correct. Particularly being in an exclusive boys school. But I didn't care if it was a school for WASPs or ants.

Someone related an anecdote to me about a contretemps that supposedly took place between you and the critic David Denby at a press conference. He allegedly asked you why, since the two male friends in "Gallipoli" were - as far as he was concerned - obviously homosexually involved, you hadn't just made that plain. And you suggested he might be projecting. In any case, Denby's reviews of your films have been pretty savage.

I don't remember the incident. But I do remember there were other voices that said that. But while making "Gallipoli" I had talked with war veterans and gotten closer than those critics to an understanding of what it's like being in combat, of how it gives you a view of love that is beyond the terrestrial and material concerns of ordinary life. Sexuality wasn't what I was dealing with in the film. As for Denby himself, I don't recall his individual reviews, but I know he's antagonistic to my kind of work, as a number of New Yorkers are. It's a unique and particular island, a very parochial place, as most islands are.

Do you feel that Los Angeles is parochial?

No. This is the world. But not Manhattan. At least in the arts. There are second- and third-generation people who are more tolerant. The true natives I don't think care about anybody. But the most intolerant group are those who escaped the suburbs of the Midwest, or somewhere ordinary, and they have a vested interest in making New York something elite, an exclusive club. Parisians are a little like Manhattanites. In Paris, you would find the same as in Manhattan, there are many people from "Frogville" who went to Paris to be sophisticated.

Getting back to "Fearless", what did you do to make my friend and me feel like we were in some altered state? Was it something from your bag of tricks?

Well, the tricks can only get you so far - they're a cul-de-sac. Look at MTV. The real issue was how I worked with the cast - what they allowed me to photograph. When I started this film, it occurred to me how interesting it would be to attempt to "photograph souls". And I thought, why did that phrase "photograph souls" come to mind? Where have I seen souls photographed? You know, with the barrier between the subject and the camera removed. Well, with children under a certain age - but that age gets younger and younger. Tribal people, the first time they're photographed. You can see faces where there is no projection of what they would like you to see. In the world we live in, everybody tries to project image. So I tried to create an atmosphere with my cast where they, without knowing it, would allow me to photograph them without any barrier. I'm not talking about every scene - after all, these are professional craftspeople. But each cast member, in one or two or three moments, allowed me to photograph them that way.
The great discovery of the cinema, this new art form, is the closeup. 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 it inside that face? That's what I was getting into in "Fearless", thinking, ah, this is the frontier.

You think that's what made the movie feel so strange?

Yes, I think that's part of it. It sounds so pretentious saying you're "photographing souls". But I don't know how else to put into words what was really mostly an intuition. It's really just looking for [those times] when acting is not acting. And looking at the film, I think I did touch that, just occasionally. Only because you ask would I say that.

I found the casting of John Turturro as a psychotherapist rather interesting, given that he usually plays characters very much in need of therapy.

That was my casting director, Howard Feuer. When he mentioned both Tom Hulce and John Turturro, I thought, these are both actors who've carried great films on their backs. I thought it was unlikely that they'd take these smaller parts, and I wasn't sure I wanted them to. I didn't want to lose control if they came through the door as people doing me a favor. But it wasn't the case with either of them. John based his characterization on the psychiatrist who had worked with a number of the survivors of the DC-10 that crashed at Sioux City a few years ago. The film's not based on that accident, but it's the closest to it in experience - they knew for a time that they were going to crash. I spoke to about six of those survivors. These accidents are generally made into TV movies, and the survivors told me nobody's gotten it right. So I told them, "Well, correct anything you want to correct."

What about the casting of Rosie Perez? Again, this is counter-intuitive, having her play a woman who's deeply depressed by the loss of her baby.

The novel was set in New York, and having just done a film there and knowing I was shooting in summer, I didn't want to go there. Rosie's character in the book was Italian-American, but that just doesn't have the same ring in San Francisco, where I set the film. I decided she should be Latina, and Rosie was on a very short list of actresses for that 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 change. She's extremely intelligent and she wants to be, you know, a proper actress.

You're known as one of the directors who is most sensitive to the use of music in his films. What about "Fearless"?

There's a curious Polish influence on this film. There's a director who has just struck me and inspired me, Krzysztof Kieslowski. I saw "The Decalogue" on TV in Australia and "The Double Life of Veronique". I found myself playing various Polish composers on the set, as I do, and at dailies. Most noticeably, Heinrich Gorecki.

Symphony No. 3?

Yes, I tried to buy it for the film but they said, "Oh no, it's become a hit, sold more copies that any contemporary classical record." They said they wouldn't sell it to us without seeing the movie. And I'm certainly not going to audition for a record company at this stage of my life. And they said, "Would you mind if an executive went to the test screening?" And I said, "As long as I don't know he's there." He came up to me after the film and said, "I think Mr. Gorecki would be happy to hear you use his music in your film." So we bought it.

You've made only three films in the last seven years. What do you do during the time when you're not working on film?

I have my family and I live in Sydney and it's a full life. It takes a while to unhook from this kind of activity. It's been a balancing act working for the last 10 years in America. Things will change when my son leaves school and my wife and I are free to travel as we wish to. But it's been a good thing to come from the intense Hollywood atmosphere to where the media have less power, where you're less in the win-or-lose ambiance of the American film community. That atmosphere is not healthy for creativity, and everybody finds their way of diffusing it.

Do you isolate yourself from the media?

I go through binges of movies, magazines, newspapers and gossip. The media always make you feel as if you should know about everything. When I need to switch them off, I do. It's amazing how much the village drums beat - you pretty well pick everything up. But at least you can avoid all the anticipatory "news" about everything that might go badly - you know: "If things go worse, then this might happen. Let's speak to our expert about that." You end up crawling to bed. I'm content to buy my CDs of the world's beautiful music and stay with that.

What's your next project?

It's called "The Playmaker", based on a book by Thomas Keneally, who wrote [the novel] "Schindler's List". It's about the first play ever performed in Australia, in 1789, the year after the colony was founded. It's about my profession and the early days of the country. It's wonderful to contemplate. I can't do anything else about it now but contemplate. I'll start it as soon as I get a signal that my engines have been refueled. This picture wasn't physically tiring, but emotionally... I feel wonderful, but when I went to work on the second draft of the screenplay I was mute. I sat there like somebody else. Fit and well and able to go to lunch, but I got no voltage off my creative batteries.

Are you happy with the results of what ran your batteries down?

"Fearless" is an unusual arrangement of familiar events. I chose it because the screenplay just struck me. And the great challenge for a filmmaker is to take that initial moment of being struck - it really is like a light bulb for 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.