Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one covers the filmmaking advice of Peter Weir.
Peter Weir has a career whose many twists and turns that, individually, would on their own fill other filmmakers’ entire careers. He started off as a force to be reckoned with in the burgeoning 1970s Australian New Wave, and his second, feature, Picnic at Hanging Rock, placed him on the international arthouse map. His investment in Australian national cinema continued with bigger, bolder productions in the early 1980s including Gallipoli and The Year of Living Dangerously.
Then Weir mastered a special kind of prestige, adult-geared Hollywood drama that today seems dwindling outside a kind of Oscar bait. Films including Witness, Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show and Master and Commander combined populist appeal with a delicate, patient, layered filmmaking sensibility that intricately constructed the unique worlds in which these characters resided, bringing some of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars to the best performances of their careers in the process.
Along the way, he made several still-underrated gems that deserve recognition amongst the most highly regarded of his work, like The Mosquito Coast and Fearless. And finally, with 2010’s The Way Back, Weir moved from prestige Hollywood to independent, transnational filmmaking when Hollywood all but gave up interest in the types of dramas Weir chooses.
So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a director whose many career phases resemble the epic globe-trotting journeys of his lead characters.
The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Peter Weir
1. Don’t Propagandize What You’re Doing with Film; Work Musically
Weir repeatedly asserts in interviews the importance of intuition in filmmaking. He doesn’t see filmmaking as a medium for telegraphing a theme, nor does he believe directors should (in interviews, commentaries, or elsewhere) explain their intentions or messages with their films at length. Instead, Weir practices artistic instinct as a mode of cinematic honesty. Even the filmmaker may not fully comprehend what the film is about, but being true to where the imagination leads and what the mind’s eye sees is, for Weir, the one genuine mode of filmmaking as an artistic venture.
Weir expanded on this point in a 1994 interview wherein he urged filmmakers to avoid being polemical in their craft:
“There’s no conclusions, no polemic. And really the viewer finally makes the film, there is room, for you to join in, to allow your own unconscious to play with the film and become a part of it.”
2. Make Room for Improvising with Actors
“I sneak in a secret half-day from the eyes of the assistants for ad-libbing”
In a recent interview with Weir during a retrospective of his work at the Indiana University Cinema, the director expounded upon how he would organize (even in high-profile studio productions) a half-day shoot that would allow his lead actors to improvise and ad-lib ‐- basically an agreement between him and his lead, which the rest of the cast and crew would only know about after the improvisation had already commenced.
While shooting Dead Poets Society, Weir had Robin Williams teach an entire class of his own choosing, not based directly on anything mandated of his character by the script. His half-day of improvisation with Jim Carrey for The Truman Show resulted in the sequence where his Truman plays with soap on a bathroom mirror, which became one of the film’s signature images.
Even with economic constrains or studio pressure, Weir creates an atmosphere of freedom, play, and exploration on set. Why? In his words, “When there’s an atmosphere on the set, actors can’t help but act.”
3. Know the Right Questions
Weir: On the way to visit [Joan Lindsay, author of Picnic at Hanging Rock] at Mulberry Hill, her farmhouse where she lived with her husband, the literary agent who had set up the meeting warned me not to ask her about the truth of the novel. Of course I knew I would. I wanted to get it out of the way fairly early. I said, looking at the literary agent, ‘Forgive me’, turned to her and said, ‘I’m not supposed to ask this, but is it true?’ She looked very tense and looked at the agent as if ‘didn’t you tell him?’; then said, ‘I really don’t want to discuss that, please don’t ask me again’
…I saw her after the film had come out and she was besieged by the press, and she said to me, ‘Oh, the press keep asking me about the truth of the matter and I don’t know what to do. I don’t know whether I should tell them or not.’ And I said, keep your secret. It was never of interest to me whether it had happened literally or not. Fairly clearly it hadn’t happened literally, otherwise there would have been some mention in the newspapers of the day, a scandal like that! It was a metaphor of some kind, for Joan Lindsay. People disappear. And what is it to be ‘disappeared’?; to be neither alive nor dead. Why is it so important to bury people, why do we need to see their bodies? It led me to do research in that area, particularly the great numbers of grieving people, widows and mothers after the first World War, whose sons and lovers and husbands disappeared, in enormous explosions. Possibly they were in a hospital with a loss of memory, which was written about ‐ shell-shocked, and they may wake up one day and say who they are. And they lived in this twilight between life and death. So that was enough of a mystery for me.
Tabula Rasa: Mysteries aren’t necessarily there to be solved
The right questions might not lead to direct answers, but they could guide one to the truly important questions, to the heart of the matter. Because the enigmatic Picnic at Hanging Rock is not, ultimately, interested in the most obvious question at its center, other questions serve as the core of the film, questions that the director does not necessarily have answers to, but is more than interested in posing and exploring.
4. See Through the Eyes of Others
In this interview about The Last Wave, Weir expresses that he treats very seriously the fact that other perspectives on reality are equally legitimate to one’s own, even if they might seem outright contradictory. This means of thinking is essential to the empathy required to be a filmmaker, for one of the most enlivening, challenging, and important things cinema provides is a lens into the lives and subjectivities of others whose life experiences may not share the viewer’s. Cinema might be globalized, but its content is hardly universal. For Weir, a desire to see through the eyes of others helps structure an intuitive, un-didactic, and always-questioning mode of filmmaking.
5. Art is Right Outside Your Door
“Australia did not have the robber barons that endowed the country with great art…You go outside. [The outdoors] was my art gallery…That’s what Australia had, this darkness and this beauty.”
In the aforementioned Indiana University Cinema interview, Weir talks about Australian filmmaking in the 1960s and 1970s as a national film culture that arose from an absent film culture. Weir attests that, historically, the type of art that adorned the West was largely absent in Australia ‐ it was not part of the English diaspora. Inspiration, then, came not from existing forms of art, but by a close attention to a sense of place, a realization that art can be made through a keen assessment of the present environment.
6. “I Wish You a Fantastic Failure”
What we’ve learned about filmmaking
During the IU Cinema interview, Weir admitted that he writes his movies in prose. Given the filmmaker’s valuation of intuition and spontaneity as part of the filmmaking process, it should come as no surprise that Weir chooses to write in a style that ostensibly allows more flow and depth than the blueprint-like mandates of conventional Hollywood screenwriting.
But this choice speaks to a larger takeaway from Weir’s methods. Intuition isn’t something that is a given on set. It can’t come with a lack of preparedness. Instead, with all of the clamor and claustrophobia of a film set, one’s sensibility must be carefully placed in tune ‐ and in alignment with one’s co-workers in front of or behind the camera ‐ in order to achieve the sublime alchemy of applying intuition into a mechanical, industrial art form.
Weir drove this point home when he later iterated his emphasis on the unconscious ‐ and the necessary difficult of finding the unconscious ‐ in filmmaking. There are many methods and routes for achieving this sensibility on set, including music: “The great ally that you have is the unconscious…Music jams the radar of that unconscious yapping.”
Weir then paused for a moment before adding, “Wine is good, too.”