Peter Weir: Why I Direct the Way I Do

Guest Blog: I felt that I became confident with what I was doing on my third feature, “The Last Wave,” which in my own private university was some sort of graduation film

I grew up going to the movies as a kid on Saturday afternoons, but unlike many of my American contemporaries who knew that film was going to be their world, I had no idea what I was going to do.

Then, when I was 20, I went to Europe in the way many young Australians did and still do. When I went, it was more of an adventure because we went by ship, and that journey — five weeks at sea — set me on this path because I got involved in the ship’s revue.

There was a closed-circuit TV on the ship, which had never been used, and we asked the entertainment officer if we could use that to do a comedy show. So by the time I got off the ship at Athens, I knew that I wanted to do something in the area of acting or writing.

I got to London planning to get a job in theater, and I did — selling tickets. I kept on writing and did a little sketch comedy on amateur night at The Troubadour Club with friends from the ship. Back in Australia, I carried on working with my friends on revue shows and made a couple of short films funded by the government short-film fund.

On my second trip to London in 1970, on a study grant from the government film fund, I decided to concentrate on film and settle in Australia. My generation was the first that decided to come back as opposed to remaining in London. My first script, “The Cars That Ate Paris,” was accepted by the government feature-film fund, and I was very fortunate to be synchronous with the emergence of this fund.

My first feature was an overwhelming experience. I had set myself the goal of making a feature before I was 30, as I felt that if I didn’t get going before that age I wouldn’t have that chance again. The film opens with what looks like an advertisement for cigarettes, with a good-looking couple in a sports car out in the countryside, and they have an accident and are killed. So you can see the sketch comedy influence. I’d grown up with the Hammer horror films, and the town of secrets in the film fits in with that kind of tradition.

Having been a performer on stage and in my short films, I had a great rapport with actors. I thought that acting and writing would be my career for a period. The directing really came quite late, and because we had no industry in Australia at the time, you didn’t grow up at the feet of giants. While on the one hand that was hard because we had no one to inspire us, at the same time we had nothing to beat or overcome. We were the first.

It was a lucky period for a young filmmaker in Australia. We were all on the starting blocks together, and I could think of 20 other promising directors who didn’t come through. I think some people ran out of steam; they didn’t have a feel for it. I think it was just natural to me somehow. I must have absorbed it through the pores of my skin from going to those Saturday afternoon movies as a child. You learned the grammar like a child learns a foreign language — very quickly.

I always think of the audience. I think it goes back to performing when we did those live shows. My co-writer and I would write the sketches together and if the audience was with you, we’d expand the sketch, and conversely if the audience wasn’t responding, you’d tighten it up or lean more toward the slapstick. I think I got to really feel an audience and, as difficult as it is for a filmmaker, preview audiences can help you with the film. I can feel them through that old mechanism of being on stage and I can make a lot of adjustments in the cutting room as a result of those feelings.

I felt that I became confident with what I was doing on my third feature, “The Last Wave,” which in my own private university was some sort of graduation film. Before that, I could analyze why something hadn’t worked, but I found it very difficult to work out why something had worked that I’d not planned. Why did the audience get caught up in that particular part of the film? Sometimes it’s a collision of elements that you can pick apart and try to understand. That is part of learning on the job, I guess.

To an extent, I think I know what will work and what won’t now. There are always moments where a film won’t connect with the public and you thought it would. You may never know why it has failed. But then again, it’s quite fascinating how a film takes on a life of its own.

This brings me to a well-used analogy, which is that the film is the child and you give birth to it and raise it, but you have to let it go. And as with a child, it takes on its own particular personality and at a certain point, you have to serve that. You have to drop that scene or do more of those scenes because the film needs it. A lot of this comes in the cutting room.

The cutting room is like the final writing stage, although you do it in a different way and you’ve got a finite amount of material, but an infinite number of ways to combine that material. I think if it’s got a spark, the spark’s always going to be there, but it’s a case of making it as bright as you can. There is no way you can add that spark if it’s not in the material.

Perhaps I achieve a sense of ‘scale’ in my films for a number of reasons: one was the tremendous impact of traveling to Europe in 1965, getting a sense of distance by traveling by ship, which was a gift I didn’t realize at the time. Nowadays, of course, you can get anywhere within 24 hours. I think that trip gave me a feeling for adventure, for setting off on a journey, which is reflected in many of my films.

In some of my films, I attempt to show how vast, unknowable and interesting the world is because it’s the way it used to feel to me. From living at the bottom of the world in 1965, the world felt huge, and you would only see Paris in movies.

The other, quite different circumstance, was that in the early 1970s, very few of our actors in Australia could say dialogue and very few of us could write it. So I tended to delete dialogue and let the camera tell the story.

Here’s an example: you have two people in a café, and the scene opens with the waitress bringing over coffee — she slops the coffee down, it spills into the saucer and she asks, “You want something else?” That sets the scene into a bad mood. But when the actress couldn’t say the lines because they just sound hopeless and amateurish, I told her not to say anything, just to put the coffee down. But I still want to show that this woman is very sloppy, so I ask the wardrobe people to get a pair of rotten old slippers, and we put a bandage with blood on it around her finger.

So then I do a close-up of her feet flip-flopping across the floor, a close-up of the two people having coffee turning to see her approaching. One of them looks at her hand and I do a close-up on the bandage. She slops the coffee down, and the two people move the coffees to one side.

In the early days, that was the kind of survival technique I would apply. I also loved silent movies, and even to this day, I watch a couple of favorites before I make a movie just to reeducate myself in storytelling without synchronous sound.

Whenever I’ve written a script for an American studio or financier, or rewritten a script which already has accredited writers, I’ll drop dialogue. Executives in the U.S. often find this puzzling because the story isn’t explicable without the dialogue, and that’s how they read a script — they read the dialogue and scan the descriptions, which are usually pretty basic. I tend to expand the descriptions and cut the dialogue.

I got into a tricky spot with my first American film, “Witness.” At the end of that movie, the police detective, played by Harrison Ford, is leaving the farm to go back to his life in Philadelphia, and he goes to say goodbye to the Amish woman. Their romance is clearly not going to go anywhere. You see him driving away and passing the Amish man coming down the hill, and you realize that she is going to have a life with him.

Originally there were two pages of dialogue in which Harrison explained why he was leaving and she gave her feelings to him. It was very literal, and I cut it all because we didn’t need it. The producer told me that the studio would never accept it because we need to know what they are feeling. I knew that if I had done my job properly, you would know exactly how they were feeling by the time it was all cut together.

They just look at each other. It’s hopeless; it’s beyond words.

The executive from the studio, Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was at Paramount at the time, flew out to talk to me and suggested I shoot it both ways just in case. That seemed a waste of time to me, so Jeff asked me to paint a picture in words for him and tell it like a story. So, over coffee in a restaurant in Lancaster Pennsylvania, I told him. He thought it sounded fine.

Casting is interesting. You think you know what kind of actor you want to play a part and then you meet somebody who completely alters that perception. I did a TV movie in 1979 in Australia called “The Plumber,” and there was the part of the plumber, who was a working-class guy, and a couple who were university graduates. The wife had been set, so I auditioned husbands and plumbers, and I finished one audition with a very good actor for the husband, and he said he always gets the husband parts and would love to play the plumber. He auditioned, and he was wonderful.

I realized that I was casting in a clichéd way by casting actors who always play working-class types. By taking somebody who usually plays the middle-class type and putting them in the plumber’s shoes, it brought something else. And he got the part. It was a wonderful lesson for me in the 1970s, and I keep that slight recklessness in the casting period, as I think I do when I am shooting. I like the idea of a controlled situation, but you have to leave room for the wild or unexpected.

I pass that onto my casting directors so they don’t become too conservative, and that resulted in casting director Dianne Crittenden coming up with the idea of Alexander Godunov to play the Amish rival for the young woman’s affections in “Witness.” I knew of him slightly from the press but didn’t think he was an actor. She said she had met him and he had charm and a wonderful smile. So we had him in, and he couldn’t really say dialogue very well, but he did have this charm that you could photograph.

You have to trust the actors, and they have to trust you. I think that’s what the first meetings are all about, whether they are casting meetings or meeting a star for lunch or dinner. The verbal part of it is the least important aspect of the meeting. I think you sense somebody and they sense you. You have to see if there is a connection between your sensibilities. If there isn’t that kind of unseen handshake, I don’t think you will ever work well together.

When I was preparing “The Last Wave,” I wanted tribal Aboriginals in the film, and in particular, I wanted Nandjiwarra Amagula to play the tribal elder. I went to see him in Darwin where he was rehearsing some dances, and my advisor said that I should just go up and sit with him and talk.

He hadn’t agreed to do the film yet, but he had been told the story broadly. So I went up and sat with him on a beach for four hours while he rehearsed, and we didn’t say a word, but I began to feel like he was checking me out somehow. At the end of the day, he asked if he could bring his wife to the shoot. That was it. I had passed the audition, and it was a good lesson for me.

I think the most difficult times for me fall into two areas. As every filmmaker knows, time is the enemy during shooting because there just isn’t enough time in the day and you’ve got to get the sequence today and the weather might not be what you want. But the practical side of it is dwarfed by the creative challenges, when you know something is not working or you’re not reaching far enough for something. The challenges are always fundamentally creative.

From "FilmCraft: Directing" by Mike Goodridge, published by Focal Press