Keeping a Sense of Wonder – Interview
Australian filmmaker Peter Weir’s work has received attention before, but not even Weir could have foreseen the response that greeted the release of his latest film, The Truman Show, which was ballyhooed as one of 1998’s major media events, a rather ironic situation for a film suggesting that one should be suspicious of the media’s potential for manipulation. Yet irony is nothing new for Weir, who has built his reputation on films dealing with the slippage between appearance and so-called reality. One of The Truman Show’s themes–that our view of reality is a result of the influence of outside forces–is also nothing new for Weir, who has been pursuing similar notions since his first widely screened film, 1974’s The Cars That Ate Paris. Weir subsequently confounded audience expectations with films dealing with a solutionless mystery (the recently re-released 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock), white anxiety (1977’s The Last Wave), and fears about sexuality (the 1980 tele-film The Plumber). By this point in his career, Weir was arguably the most important director in Australia. He solidified this status with Gallipoli in 1981, a film about an incident close to many of his countrymen’s heart: Australia’s participation in a devastating military campaign during World War I.
In 1982, The Year of Living Dangerously brought Weir to the attention of producers in the United States. Weir’s first American film, Witness (1985), proved that he could blend his interest in culture clash and religion with what was also (in Witness producer Edward Feldman’s terms) a shoot-em-up. Despite an overwhelmingly negative reception, 1986’s The Mosquito Coast (scripted by Paul Schrader and headed by Witness star Harrison Ford) remains one of the director’s favorite films. Weir’s most demanding, and risky, film is Fearless (1993), which deals with the aftereffects on survivors of a plane crash, a notion playfully referred to via a travel poster in The Truman Show.
Peter Weir is an engaging and interesting man. He’s also quite protective of his private reactions and feelings. Often reluctant to grant interviews, he is wary, careful to measure his responses. I spoke to him a week after The Truman Show premiered.
MICHAEL BLISS: You came to prominence during a period referred to as the New Australian Cinema. What’s your sense of the current state of the Australian film-making industry?
PETER WEIR: National film industries tend to move in cycles. In Australia right now, we’re on a high, a feeling of potential, which as yet shows no sign of flagging. But the word “industry” is misleading. A small national cinema has no industry in the Hollywood sense. It depends for its reputation on a highly talented group of individuals–writer/directors, essentially.
What prompted you to begin working in the States?
I was ready for a change after The Year of Living Dangerously, and looked for an American subject to film. I’d made five features, a tele-movie, and numerous short films over a 16-year period and felt in need of fresh stimulation. The first American film was to have been The Mosquito Coast, from the Paul Theroux novel, but we couldn’t get the financing together, which was very disappointing at the time–1984. I felt so frustrated that I asked my American agent to only send me scripts that had been “green lit,” in other words, financed and ready to go. He sent me three such scripts, one of which was Witness. Witness’s success revived The Mosquito Coast, and I went ahead and did that. There was no plan on my part to continue working in the United States. Projects just came along in seemingly random ways.
Is there any difference between making films in Australia and working within the demands of the Hollywood system?
There’s certainly no difference when that troublesome scene is staring you in the face! You could be standing in the outback or on Sunset Boulevard. The creative struggle remains the same: to get the scene right. As for Hollywood, the system hasn’t bothered me, and no one has ever dictated how I should make my films. All of my mistakes are my own.
You tend to repudiate the influence on your work of your extensive reading of Freud and Jung. Do you really think their ideas have no bearing on your films?
It’s hard to know what influences are working on you when you make a film, or engage in any creative endeavor for that matter. You may see years later, perhaps when looking at an earlier film, that it seems remarkably under the sway of the work of some director you’ve admired. I saw Mon Oncle recently and was surprised at how influenced by Jacques Tati I’d been in my early short films of the 1960s. As for Freud and Jung, nobody working in a creative field can help but admire their pioneering work in mapping the unconscious. Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections had a powerful impact on me and I still find myself going back to it on occasion.
There seems to be a consistency of concerns in your films: unusual states of mind, exaggerated actions, dream or near-death experiences that cause radical shifts in consciousness. Yet you often express a resistance to being typed as a certain kind of director. How do you reconcile this apparent contradiction?
So much of the work is intuitive. The resistance you detect is just that, a kind of evasion, a sense that too much analysis will inhibit creativity. I’ve become wary of interviews in which you’re forced to go back over the reasons why you made certain decisions. You tend to rationalize what you’ve done, to intellectually review a process that is often intuitive. I also find interviews uncomfortable because in one sense, you don’t want to know why you made certain decisions. There’s almost a fear that if you understood too deeply the way you arrived at choices, you could become self-conscious. In any case, many ideas which are full of personal meaning seem rather banal when you put words to them. Apart from that I don’t want to repeat myself. I’d get bored! I want to be open to new ideas, to new ways of seeing things.
Let’s talk about The Truman Show. Did the script appeal to you immediately?
I admired it, but I didn’t know whether it was possible to make it work. The original version of the screenplay was much darker, and portrayed the central character as more of an Everyman. It was also set in Manhattan. It was good science fiction, but the first thing I thought was, you couldn’t do it in New York. Why build New York? Why build something that’s known instead of having an idealized setting? Nevertheless, the script absolutely intrigued me. It was most untypical of Hollywood. It’s just not the province of Hollywood to make a film of ideas, which is what The Truman Show is. The film was also on a knife edge. If you removed Jim Carrey from the equation, it probably wouldn’t have been made.
Was he involved in the film from its inception?
No. While I was thinking about whether or not to accept the project, the producer, Scott Rudin, called to say that Jim was interested. I’d seen Ace Ventura and The Mask and had been impressed by Jim’s originality, but he never would have occurred to me, given the tone of the script. Naturally, I’d been thinking about the casting of Truman and had come to the conclusion that he had to be a movie star. This would be necessary for the logic of the story–in other words, why did the world watch this man 24 hours a day? The answer had to be that he was a natural star. I also felt that having grown up in such a weird, unnatural atmosphere, the character would in some way be a little strange. I don’t know but there’s something a little “alien” about Jim. He’s not the guy-next-door-type.
What was your collaboration with him like?
One aspect Jim and I discussed was the expectation for Truman to perform. I told Jim that I think we have to assume that Truman knows in a sense that he’s a performer, that he’s always been one. I said, Let’s discuss his reality, because consider: as he grew up, he had all of these faces leaning toward him with great smiles. There was a lot of touching, a lot of false bonhomie, because people around him were actors and they wanted to get in the shot with him. These people knew that if Truman made friends with them, they’d become part of the regular cast. So first, I think he’s learned that behavior. Second, he’s unconsciously felt that he needed to help other people, to make them feel better. Without realizing it, he’s responding to the pressure to perform.
When Christof tells him what it’s all about, his being on a TV show, it would have been impractical, and perhaps problematical, for Truman to have said, “What do you mean? How could that be?,” especially since the audience was well ahead of him and knew all about it. We want him to say, “Ah, so that was it.” When he nods his head, then, everything falls into place, everything from his childhood onward. I think that what’s kept him all along from questioning his world is that he unconsciously sensed that he had a very important job to do–to give love and good cheer through the smiles; to keep people’s spirits up. In certain respects, this isn’t dissimilar to a lot of Jim’s life; there was some borrowing.
You feel that behind Truman’s smiles there’s a great melancholy operating.
Well, extremes always lie together. There’s the cliche, that all comics are sad or angry people. The clown is often quite a malevolent figure, as in horror films. Underneath, you sense there’s a kind of rage. You certainly see that rage in Truman when he begins to suspect that his wife is in on the conspiracy. It comes out in that cruel, mocking humor as he’s driving her around in circles.
The notion of cruelty naturally brings up the character of Christof, who seems incredibly manipulative and unfeeling.
When we were in the shooting script stage, he was the character I knew the least about. In some respects he was a kind of stock villain, dressed up by scriptwriter Andrew Niccol in an interesting, new way, but nonetheless not terribly different from the sort of controlling character you’d see in a James Bond movie. It was just the idea of Christof that was smart and original. I thought, Well, I’ll deal with that down the line. I had enough to think about getting Truman and everything else right.
We shot all of the Truman Show material first, and then did the control room, so by the time I came to that I had a very strong idea of what I wanted, which was influenced by all sorts of things, among which were certain politicians I’ve known on both sides of the political spectrum, people who are not that different from Christof in the sense that they feel that the end justifies the means. Christof also sees himself as an artist, with Truman–“True Man”–as his greatest creation. Terrifying. A kind of Dr. Frankenstein of the airwaves.
I’m also intrigued by the phenomenon of the post-war couturier, especially in the last 20 years or so, people whose persona is that of an artist, yet in actual fact they’re producing commercial products. People like this have a vast and powerful empire, yet they have an aura of sensitivity, and they generally wear black, like Christof.
An additional idea is that of the artist manque a person born with all of the attributes and personality traits of an artist, what you might call an artistic personality, but with no metier. That type of person is often very difficult, because they just don’t have a way of expressing themselves, of calming themselves through creativity. I folded all of these notions into the Christof character. And then, of course, Ed Harris came along at just the fight time and understood all of this on some profound level.
Some reviewers have commented that your films often leave the audience hanging, with no satisfactory resolution being achieved.
It took some time for the right ending [for The Truman Show] to become apparent. Andrew and I did something like 10 drafts. In the latter stage of this process we dropped all of the scenes exterior to the dome. There were all sorts of scenes that we tried outside, but eventually the ending emerged, with Truman just walking through the studio door. It struck me that ending the film that way would allow the film to keep making itself for the viewer. I do love to walk away from a movie that keeps making itself in your mind, and I thought this one in particular would, because when you leave the enclosed world of the cinema and walk out into the reality of your world, you would, in a way, step into Truman’s shoes.
Your reliance on ideas and images associated with the unconscious opens up your work to a lot of criticism. One critic has accused you of a particular kind of intellectual vagueness that he refers to as “New Age,” saying that this might have been fine in the late 60s and early 70s, but we’re living in the real world now.
The “real” world? I’m as impatient with this kind of critic as they are with me. There’s not much to say here. I see mysteries, ambiguities, contradictions all around me. Moreover, the term New Age is often used as a derogatory expression, often with justification. Yet this shouldn’t for a minute stop us from thinking about who we are and what we believe in and what’s real, and from discussions about religion. Yet you do increasingly strike people who agitate against any incursions into the area of what we agree is the material world and what they see as the correct ways of thinking.
There’s often a kind of anger in response to this form of expression. At its most successful, it’s akin to the effect that music can have on us: to induce a kind of wakeful dreaming. It certainly bypasses the intellect, which plods along afterward trying to decode the experience. With some critics, my kind of filmmaking is often the antithesis of their occupation, which is to remain objective, detached, analytical. It’s like asking the wine taster to swallow the wine. You could end up drunk on the job!
What’s also involved here is one of the themes in The Truman Show: the nature of reality.
Yes. Interestingly, the idea of what constitutes this agreed-upon reality is often spread via the medium of television.
That’s rather frightening, don’t you think?
Very much so, because of its stultifying quality, the power to brainwash people into beliefs.
Yet in The Truman Show, there is a part of Truman that the media can’t touch. It’s hidden in his basement, a very symbolic place that suggests the unconscious.
Well, I’d always loved that part from Memories, Dreams, Reflections when Jung talks at length about the basement, where he had some of his epiphanies and breakthroughs in thinking with regard to the symbolism of the basement, its underground aspect, and that attribute’s connection with the archetypal aspect of human experience. Initially, in The Truman Show screenplay, what takes place in Truman’s basement occurred in his garage. I said, I want to make it his basement where, rather pathetically, he has his secrets, his boxes within boxes, the box inside the trunk. In that basement scene we see his darker side. He’s less the friendly guy in his basement; he snaps at his wife when she comes down there, into that somewhat creepy, infantile place.
There seems to be a connection between the reality/unreality theme of The Truman Show and such films as Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave.
Yes, but The Truman Show deals with the concept of reality/unreality from another angle. In the case of the earlier two films there was, at least, an agreement on what “reality” is. In the media age (and remember, The Truman Show is set in the near future), this is not necessarily the case. The media, specifically television, has blurred the line between reality and unreality. We’ve even coined the phrase “virtual reality.” So The Truman Show is really quite another story.
Looking at your films, I tend to concentrate more on deciphering the pattern of thought in and behind them, rather than on attempting to reduce them to details.
This is, after all, the point. There is this area in some of my films, some more than others, that has to do with the spontaneous, the unconscious. This is a very important aspect because it’s quintessentially a part of my way of thinking, and part of the way that many of my films operate–Picnic at Hanging Rock for example. Acknowledging the importance of the unconscious relates to the way I’ve seen the world through my life; it’s how I express myself.
Picnic was re-released recently. How did you approach that film?
I was aware from the start that I would have to do a lot of thinking about how I was going to make the film because it didn’t have an ending. The whodunit has always been a rather difficult genre. That’s why it was interesting reading that part of Truffaut’s interview with Hitchcock in which Hitchcock talked about his impatience with a whodunit. I think that generally, the ending is a bit of a letdown in mysteries–you know, the butler did it, or whatever. This genre has waned; people require much more of a visceral reaction to what they see in films. In Picnic, which involves a mystery without a solution, I knew that I had to, in a sense, mesmerize the audience, to induce in them a kind of dream state in order that they wouldn’t have the expectation of a conventional ending.
Isn’t a dream-like effect present from the film’s very beginning, in those irresolvable dissolves that begin the film?
I also did it with sound.
Are you referring to the slowed-down earthquake sounds you used?
That’s right. I wanted through this method to access the audience’s unconscious, since this sound is supposedly part of those collective memories that we all have with respect to sounds or vibrations. I used this sound in both Picnic and The Last Wave. We did experiments to make sure that we got it onto the optical track, even though you’d have to be in a theater with a good sound system to hear it. Under optimum conditions there is at times a slight vibration in the theater itself, as well as in the viewer’s breastbone! I think I was more successful with this effect in The Last Wave. But in both films, this attempt was really part of experimenting with how far cinema can go in the sense of getting past the guardians of logic and freeing up and gaining access to unconscious areas and bringing the viewer into the film, having them join in its making. That’s what I wanted to have happen right from Picnic’s opening credits.
What about the theory that a work of art is just a vehicle, an intermediate object between artist and viewer that facilitates unconscious transmission of thought? In this view, artists don’t create information so much as channel it.
That reminds me of a Japanese potter I knew at one time. He explained to me how pottery to the Japanese is as highly regarded as painting in our Western tradition. The potter serves a long apprenticeship, working under a master, turning out plates, cups, bowls, that kind of thing. Every now and then the gods will touch the potter’s hands, and that object will be a work of art. That’s another way of expressing the theory you mention.
Do you still want to achieve the “invisible” style of filmmaking, modeled on the work of journeyman directors from the 40s and 50s, who simply, in your words, “took the projects given them and got on with the job”?
I’d prefer to be like the early Japanese potters who regularly changed their names, presumably to efface themselves and let the work stand on its own. I try to be “invisible” because only the story counts. The idea. I’m the servant of that idea. The film, whatever it is, is not about me.
But how can you ever escape the influences that have made you who you are, even if one of the effects of these influences has been to abjure them?
That’s why the favorite moments in my own films are those I had the least to do with.
I understand that, as with the new cut of Picnic at Hanging Rock, there are certain changes you’d like to make to some of your previous films.
Let me answer that parenthetically. I find my own films hard to look at again. You’ll often hear filmmakers say this. You move on, your viewpoint changes, you don’t like to be reminded of a younger self–whatever it is.
Of late, I’ve been affected by a quote of Matisse’s, from a collection of his interviews. (It was Matisse who said that painters should have their tongues cut out, and he was right. The same could be said of directors!) He felt that his early paintings had too much emotion in them. He found them agitating, and had to take them down off the wall of his studio. He said that what he’d learned over the years is that once you’ve found the emotion, experienced it, and begun painting it, the feeling will never go away. You don’t have to make a great deal of it; it’s better to simplify it and put it in its fundamental form. The emotion may be a little less charming, in the sense of being immediately accessible, but it will never go away. In fact, it will have more power due to the simplicity because as a result of that restraint, the viewer will join in with the painter in creating the emotion. In other words, the viewer brings more to the work when the work is less emphatic.
Matisse used the example of a particular nude that he’d painted in his youth; he contrasted it with one of his dancing shapes from his later period, during which he was using cutouts. The cutout didn’t have the literal lines of a female nude but still possessed the suggestive lines of one. Yet in viewing the cutout and staring at it, looking at it longer and living with it, you find a great richness of emotion in the latter work.
Fearless didn’t do well here in the States. Did its poor financial showing upset you?
I was disappointed, but I knew that the film involved a roll of the dice. I had to make Fearless–I became infatuated with it. I knew that it was highly risky material, because its success would depend exclusively on the audience’s desire to go and see a film about a plane crash. I wanted to make that crash incredibly effective without being shocking. But I also knew that the film’s main chance, the only way that it was going to work, was if the plane crash became a metaphor. I wanted to widen the story’s scope instead of narrowing it down, as do many films about illnesses or accidents in which you may feel pity or sorrow for the victim, but in a distanced way. The best case is the reverse, in which the calamity carries a wider meaning.
When the first review came in, it said, “I loved this film, but I must warn you right off before I go into details that if you’re thinking of flying tomorrow, don’t go see it.” Well, there it was. The majority of the good reviews had little jokes like that and I thought, I’m finished, I’m done–a good review that says, “Don’t go see it!”
Did those kinds of reviews make you feel that the film should have been altered in some way?
Well, there’s nothing that I’d change, nothing that I’d do differently. Afterwards, though, you start to think, well, now, do I take on something commercial after that? But I decided quite the reverse. I was looking for something as interesting and difficult as Fearless. I told producer Scott Rudin, I don’t want safe material; I’m looking for something challenging because that’s what keeps me interested, keeps me alive. He sent me The Truman Show, which certainly fulfilled the brief I’d given Scott.
Was that script “broken” in the same sense as the one you looked at for Fearless?
“Broken” was really a word I was using to communicate the idea that a script was interesting but didn’t quite work. All scripts need work on them. The curse of getting on the “A” list in Hollywood is that you’re often not sent that kind of difficult material.
You know, it’s really not that hard to direct a movie when you have good components: good script, good cast and crew. That kind of film can look pretty good. That’s why a lot of actors who turn to directing make quite reasonable first films. It is hard, though, to add the X factor, to make a film luminous or have a strange power, to have it get a grip on you.
My concern is mostly with finding things that I want to do. To some extent there’s a childish aspect to filmmaking. You could lose your enjoyment of it and lose interest. Keeping that interest alive is the important thing, which has a lot to do with the material you choose and the ideas inherently in it. As long as filmmaking is a way of reflecting on your life and your times, it remains very interesting.
So you have to work hard to keep that childish aspect, not in a pejorative sense, but in the form of an undiluted response to stimuli?
Yes, to keep your sense of wonder.
Michael Bliss teaches English and film criticism at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Among his books are Justified Lives: Morality and Narrative in the Films of Sam Peckinpah, What Goes Around Comes Around: The Films of Jonathan Demme (co-authored with Christina Banks), and (forthcoming
from Southern Illinois University Press) Dreams Within a Dream: The Films of Peter Weir.
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