Peter Weir Interview:
Up Close and Personal
By Beverly Cohn
eter Weir's directorial credits are legendary and include some of
the most memorable films ever made - "Witness," "The Year of Living
Dangerously," Gallipoli," Dead Poets Society," "Picnic at Hanging Rock,"
"The Mosquito Coast," "The Last Wave," "The Truman Show," and "Master
and Commander: The Far Side of the World." His most recent directorial
endeavor is "The Way Back," a war drama starring Ed Harris, Colin Farrell,
Jim Sturgess, and Saoirse Ronan. This compelling, beautifully shot film,
inspired by "The Long Walk," a book by Slawomir Rawicz, a Polish POW
in the Soviet Gulag, is the story of a group of prisoners who escaped
from a Siberian Gulag during World War II.
The following interview, which has been edited for
print purposes, originally appeared in a recent edition of the Santa
Monica Mirror, and is being reprinted as a courtesy of that publication.
The conditions for the actors were rugged.
Photo Credit: EPK.TV
Q: The actors in this film faced
some pretty rugged physical demands. How tough was it for you as the
Weir: It was tough, but the best thing you can do is
to control the circumstances. In this particular film, I think the realism
helped the actors a great deal, which was my plan. I think being in
the real locations made them feel they were part of what likely had
happened to the escaped prisoners on which this story is based. I personally
wasn't bothered too much by the physical side, but I did injure my knee.
Weir working with his crew to set up a shot.
Photo Credit: EPK.TV
Q: How much rehearsal did you do before filming a
Weir: I don't rehearse before the production begins.
I'm not from a theatrical background where scenes are worked out in
some stage space. On the shoot itself, because we were moving so fast,
I pretty much had to have a blocked out plan as to how each scene would
work. However, with more time, I like to see the actors find something
on their own so I get their ideas before I put mine in because often
enough they have better ideas. But in this case, because the clock was
ticking away, we had to jump out of those vehicles like some sort of
SWAT team - ready to shoot and go. Invariably we had to move to another
location some distance away the next day and it wasn't possible to return
to a location. But the actors had done their work privately and had
gotten into their characters, for which I was very grateful.
Photo Credit: EPK.TV
Q: You shot some of the earlier scenes on a sound
stage, but how important was it to shoot on multiple locations?
Weir: Your question, almost word for word, was asked
by my First Assistant Director when we started the planning. He said
'very important, right?' And I said, 'yes, very important.' He said
from his own planning point of view, apart from the actors, the makeup
and wardrobe people, are going to be driven crazy if we jump. For example,
how different would the characters look three weeks hence?
Q: How long was the shoot?
Weir: 65 days.
The trek continues over challenging terrain.
Photo Credit: EPK.TV
Q: Some of your films seem to have the theme of man's
struggle with nature such as in "Master and Commander: The Far
Side of the World." Is that something you consciously think about
when deciding on a project?
Weir: I'm only beginning to realize that is a recurring
theme since we're talking about it today. I don't normally think about
it, as each film is a fresh start - each different from the other. Inevitably
a director has to leave his fingerprints over the years. It's curious
though as I do see this landscape question come up and I wonder sometimes
if it's something to do with being Australian. We huddle around the
coasts of this vast continent. I remember an incident from 30 years
ago where I rented a car in Broken Hill, (New South Wales Outback) and
was heading out to the desert highway. There weren't any other vehicles
around and I got a sense of the curvature of the earth. I remember pulling
the car off to the side of the road on this beautiful desert day and
lying down on my back on the center of the highway as if I was at a
beach resort. I'll never forget experiencing that great, vast emptiness.
Q: Are you partial to a particular genre of films?
I've given this some thought. For example, I don't think
I would have done "Social Network" if it were given to me,
as I don't believe I would have been the right man for it. It was a
well-made dialogue-driven picture and I enjoyed it very much. I don't
have a particular prejudice. On the other hand, I am fascinated with
silent films, which were more different from sound films than we realized.
People think we just added dialogue, but actually it was an entirely
different art form. To borrow Jean Renoir's words who said there was
something hypnotic between a close-up of a star on screen and the audience,
who he felt were hypnotized by the images and accompanying music. So
I am drawn to that.
Colin Farrell being made-up. Photo
Q: Was that idea reflected in "The Way Back?"
Weir: I certainly explored that idea where there were
just faces and no music, shooting almost like I was shooting landscapes
because that seems to be the DNA of the film - landscapes and the human
face and human nature and nature. So I did enjoy sitting on a shot of
a person allowing us to dream the film for a short period.
Q: So many films are like having a Chinese meal.
You see one and need another film an hour later. (laughter) Your films
are unforgettable. I saw "Picnic at Hanging Rock" in 1975
and to this day it haunts me. What is your philosophy regarding filmmaking?
Weir: Back in the 90s, I was struck by the tragic Mt.
Everest climbing accidents when in one particular season, several highly
experienced guides made fundamental errors. I don't mean to diminish
real tragedy by what I'm going say, but it's almost as if a director
is a guide, and even though you've learned a great deal over the years,
each film is a mountain that is liable to bring you down. You can make
a fatal error and lose the whole thing creatively. That stops me from
taking a broad perspective and having any benefit from films other people
have enjoyed. You start over each time.
Q: What is the distinction between "based on
the book" and "inspired by the book?" (Referring to Slavomir
Rawiez's novel, "The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom.")
The grueling trek continues. Photo
Weir: I loved the book but there was some controversy
about whether the author was actually on the walk and unless I was satisfied
that the walk actually took place, I could not do the film. So we got
evidence that the walk actually happened and I was happy. I decided
to dedicate the film to the unknown people who did the walk from a Russian
gulag in Siberia to India. "Inspired by the book," allowed
me to change the title and introduce other characters, particularly
the Colin Farrell character of Valka. I was drawn to the truth and wanted
everything to be first-hand accounts. I did interviews with survivors
in Moscow, Siberia and London and incorporated some of those experiences
into the script.
Mr. Smith (Ed Harris) mourns the death of Irena
(Saoirse Ronan.) Photo Credit: EPK.TV
Q: The film touches on death. Have you ever been
close to death?
Weir: Yes once. It was during the filming of "The
Year of Living Dangerously." One weekend five or six of us went
off to get some second unit shots in a light aircraft. We got into trouble
up in the mountains, which were fogged in, and guided by radio we had
to fly into a small mountain airport. It was one of those classic potential
accidents that you read about. The pilot was agitated and now again
we would hear a steady beeping sound in the middle of a white out and
you knew you were close to land. We were lucky.
Irena rests under a tree. Photo Credit:
Q: Why did you decide to include the female character
of Irena played by Saoirse Ronan?
Weir: She was one of the characters in the book, but
a very different type of character. She was more innocent and a refugee.
I was interested in reading backgrounds of young Communists who were
arrested at the Hotel Luxe in Moscow. They were put into orphanages
and had their names changed. I made that background up for the Irena
character. There was never a doubt in my mind that it was potentially
a great idea and maybe it really happened. The author was not on the
walk, but certainly got a lot of information about the walk so maybe
there was a girl. It was important that she not be of an age where there
was a sexual question so I had to find the right actress and Saoirse
("The Lovely Bones") was it.
Q: What effect did her presence have?
The change happened with the actors' characters. These
macho guys softened up. Irena's feminine sensibility civilized them
and made them nostalgic provoking memories of their own mothers, sisters,
daughters, lovers, etc. But, it was very interesting to film and to
wonder about what the feminine presence does to men. Saoirse is not
a typical young actress. I mean she has fun and all that, but she's
not a show business type. I think of her as an old soul and everybody
found their relationship with her on and off camera.
Q: Did you seek studio financing?
Weir: The studios were not interested. They said they
weren't in that kind of business anymore and frankly, I was rather surprised.
I think also that our timing was bad because changes were taking place
in the industry. We have to remind ourselves that first of all there
was "Titanic," then "Lord of the Rings" and the
potential to make billions was there if you could get one of these franchises.
So it was like a gold rush and the studios didn't want to just make
a nice tidy profit of $20 million.
Studios or not, we look forward to your next masterpiece.