PETER WEIR: TOWARDS THE CENTRE
Interview by Tom Ryan and Peter McFarlaine, Cinema Papers
(September-October, 1981)


Central to most of Peter Weir's films is the attempt to move beyond the surface strata of behaviour, beyond what is readily percieved, to a realm of experience that is equally 'real' but less tangible. In this sense his work reveals a strong impulse towards the abstract, towards the collapse of the forms of the everyday into a stream of "sights and sounds and colors...closer to music". This impulse generally belongs to the practitioners of a particular kind of experimental film, yet here it is firmly rooted in the methods of traditional narrative cinema. The sense of the strange which is evoked in 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' or 'The Last Wave' is initially a creation of a narrative arrangement that refuses to explain itself, that denies its viewers access to ready-made explanations. Like Tom (Tony Llewellyn-Jones) in the former film, the viewer might dwell on the old way: "There's a solution somewhere. There's gotta be!" But part of the pleasure of these films lies in the way in which they refuse such expectations of an easy satisfaction.

The apparent realism of their fictions is insistently challenged, and enriched, by the intrusion of incidents which disturb a familiar order. Like his characters, the viewers of Weir's films are repeatedly faced with the mysteries of the moment, experiences that refuse to succumb to the kinds of patterns imposed by conventional understanding. The films seems to hover as if on the edge of a dream-world, or a place of nightmares, and while Weir's work since 'The Cars that Ate Paris' certainly cannot be classified in the realm of 'horror' film, at least according to the customary use of the label, nonetheless they share this element in common with them. They are pervaded by the inexplicable, by the sense of awe imbedded in a fleeting glimpse of an unknown terrain, an incursion beyond the looking-glass.

The look which guides the viewer is often that of a character - Michael (Dominic Gurad) as he gazes in wonderment at the "Botticelli angels" in 'Picnic at Hanging Rock', David Burton (Richard Chamberlain), fearful of his vision of 'the last wave', or Archy (Mark Lee) and Frank (Mel Gibson) faced by the floating funfair of the threatening shore in Gallipoli. But the starting point is always the everyday, for without that, the films' 'other' dimension would have no context, no point of entrance for the viewer. The characters who inhabit this territory of the familiar seem to exist outside of psychology, archetypes of the common person, their individual features serving as particular aspects of "the greater whole". Their path through the films leads them towards a confrontation with nothing less than their destiny (the rock, the wave, gallipoli via the pyramids), beyond the repressions of a Victorian education, beyond the comforts of middle-class Sydney, beyond the constraints of an Australia isolated from all but an impression of the rest of the world.

- Tom Ryan
Through your films it is possible to get a sense of somebody who is particularly aware of the expectations of his audience and able to play around with those expectations. When you are making a film, how conscious are you of the audience? What you say has echoes of what Alfred Hitchcock used to say about the audience. Do you share his black humour? Would you like to make comedy? To what extent do you see yourself as an Ďauteurí, as the controlling influence over your films? In a sense, the most anonymous work you would have done would have been, probably, the earlier work you did for television. How did you get involved in ďLukeís KingdomĒ? Much is made of the landscape as a powerful force in the series... Several ideas seem to run through your work, like the one of the ordinary man constantly being under the threat of the extraordinary or the one of the rational man being pushed into areas where rationality wonít serve him any more. Are they ideas that interest you? One issue you rarely tackle is the question of sex. Why is that? ďPicnic at Hanging RockĒ is a film which is very interesting in its exploration of a sort of smothered sexuality in an environment which represses it... Itís interesting that you donít feel it to be more important, because it does seem very intelligently worked out through the film. For instance, there are kinds of contrasts you set up between the attitudes of those influenced by Victorian education - the girls and the teachers - and those of the servant, Minnie, and her boyfriend, Tom. Also, there is the contrast between Albert the groom, who makes fairly crude comments about the girls as they go up the rock, and the inhibited, more Ďchivalrousí response of Michael. I think you can trace that sort of thing through the film... The scenes that seemed to matter in the film were not the ones of the girls going up the rock so much as those of earthy, more human behaviour - like those ones between Minnie and Tom, which give a context to the rest. Here are people behaving like people, and not like those who have been victims of a certain kind of education... One of the things that is said about your films, and you say it too, is that they avoid politics in the broad sense of the term. Yet in ďPicnic at Hanging RockĒ, you have a very political situation: there is a certain sort of education, a certain class structure, that the film seems to deal with directly. David Hare, the British dramatist, has talked about why he thinks it is important to deal with historical subjects rather than contemporary ones, arguing that by looking back, you can see a process of change. You can identify shifts in a way you canít if you look at the present, where you are submerged in this mass of apparently contradictory information... From ďThe Cars That Ate ParisĒ onwards, almost all your films, at least as far as your comments are reported, are conceived from a personal incident, and you seem to have rejected ďThe Thorn BirdsĒ because you couldnít get involved. How important is that personal incident as a starting point? One of the credits for "The Last Wave" reads "based on an idea by Peter Weir". Does this idea come from the stone head you picked up in Tunisia? To what extent is this notion of the irrational essential for you as a starting point for a film? In "The Last Wave", was your point of interest the details of the Aboriginal culture? Was it important to you that the audience received those, or that it received the experience of a white Anglo-Saxon man, faced with the area of mystery, the unknown? You seem to share many things with Nicolas Roeg. Not only through 'Walkabout", but also "Don't Look Now", where it seems there is a more or less comparable situation of the rational man being forced to surrender his rationality to come to terms with his situation. Have you ever considered any kind of similarity between your work and his? A comparison of "Don't Look now" and "The Last Wave" raises two points of disappointment for me in those films and that is when the mysteries are actually unravelled. In "The Last Wave" it's when one sees the wave with David Burton (Richard Chamberlain) in the last shot. I have always wished that film had ended with his look... In David Stratton's book, 'The Last New Wave', he says you wanted to do the ending in a much more lavish way: perhaps streets being flooded and so on. Was the decision to end the film as you did just forced on you by economics or was there an artistic choice? Looking at the film now, do you have an idea of how you might end it? Do you have a special interest in myths? It seems to be the case in "The Last Wave" and indeed in "The Plumber", where the Judy Morris character is very interested in New Guinea tribal habits... Would you suggest that is the case because myths tend to be a way of coming to terms with things otherwise unexplainable? You say "coming close to something". Is it possible to be more precise? Is "The Plumber", then, a return to something much safer? Your intention was to write the screenplay for "The Plumber", but not to direct it... Yet, in the context of your work, it looks very much like a Peter Weir film... Was it frustrating making it for television? In some ways, it seemed like a return structurally to "The Cars That Ate Paris", that is probably more tightly put together... And again, though you may not agree, a sort of black comedy idea seems to go right through these three films particularly... In the period after "The Plumber", there seems to be a large gap which I gather is taken up with your time in the U.S. and the abandoned "The Thorn Birds". Do you still want to work there? Is it that there are a lot of constraints in the U.S., like what happened to "Cars", that seem to be constantly holding you back? Would you agree that the title "Gallipoli" refers not so much to a place or a battle as to an idea... In the desert sequence in "Gallipoli", Frank makes reference to Burke and Wills. It makes some kind of contact between their enterprise and the idea of "Gallipoli"... Your collaboration with David Williamson seems to have been a very productive meeting of different interests. Is he happy with the film? There seems to a be a striking similarity between: "Gallipoli" and "Chariots of Fire". They are both set in the early years of the 20th Century and deal with athletes going off to represent the Empire but not really understanding the implications of what they are doing... Would you agree that "Gallipoli" is a change of direction for you? It seems to be a very relaxed film without being loose, as if it's in no hurry to get where it's going although it knows where that is... You obviously make a choice not to show very much blood. You showed bodies, but thereís none of that Sam Pekinpah-style stuff, which would have made the impact of the actual process of dying pretty powerful and bloody. Were you concerned dramatically to work away from that? How do you feel about Frank? In a sense his destiny remains unsolved... Do you agree that the film is less the dramatisation of an anti-war viewpoint than a study of the idea of adventure with one's mates and of their competitive urge? The choice of music for your films seems to be just right. Do you add music after the final cut or do you have some piece of music in mind en route to the final cut? Is the choice of Mozart in the garden party sequence by the lake in "Picnic" deliberately there to point the oddness of the European culture in this very alien landscape? In "Gallipoli", you manage to create an atmosphere that seems just right. A good example is that extraordinary sense of a "ghostly funfair", as I think Evan Williams in 'The Australian' described it, when soldiers arrive at Gallipoli... But it's not just the images. You seem to spend a lot of time preparing the soundtrack...
BACK