By Drew Taylor | The Playlist January 25, 2011 at 8:42AM
As our recent look at his filmography can attest, Peter Weir is one of the most versatile and fascinating directors currently working. And even if you aren't totally gripped by one of his films, it's hard not to be impressed by the artful craftsmanship that Weir brings to each project. We were thrilled to be able to talk to the director, especially since his output is so infrequent (he is much funnier and warmer than you would expect, given his cultivated aura of a prickly and demanding auteur). Over the course of our conversation, we talked about some of the movies that fell by the wayside while "The Way Back" succeeded, including confirmation that "Pattern Recognition," based on the trippy William Gibson novel, was a nut that Weir just couldn't crack. We also talked about his take on the Stephen King opus "Salem's Lot," which Stanley Kubrick championed him for, and why, if you see some avant-garde, documentary-style trifle from the filmmaker, well, we're to blame.
The Playlist: You had talked about developing other projects when you were working on "The Way Back." What were those other projects?
Peter Weir: "Avatar" was one of them. [Pregnant pause.] Just kidding. I rejected that. I didn't see anything in that one. I don't really want to say what they were, because someone might make them, or might never make them, I'm not sure. I once read an interview who said all of the things and films that he turned down or didn't do, and they were more interesting than the films he made.
Can we assume "Pattern Recognition" was one of those films?
It was one, yes. It's a book I still admire very much. You've got me there. Nothing's secret anymore. I couldn't get the script right and pulled back out of it. I don't know.
What about those other projects made them fall through or what about "The Way Back" made it succeed where those others failed?
I am tempted to say, I know it sounds kind of pseudo-something but, I think it was meant to be. I think I was meant to make it. If I look back at the other three, I don't have any regrets. There's not one that I feel I should have pursued further. I think they were all sort of aborted naturally. And I was meant to do this particular film. I don't mean by some higher power, I just mean that it had all of the elements - it was a chair with four legs and so somehow, it was right for me to do it. And there was a way to do it. And I found a way to do it. Now that phrase is a real professional phrase for me - a way to make a film. You can also look at a piece of material like "Pattern Recognition." You can admire the book immensely and [William] Gibson's work, but you can't see how to do it, how to get it right. If you don't know, then you can't go forward with it. You have to understand how to make it into a film. So I understood how to make this into a film, definitely.
You said in your talk at the Film Society of Lincoln Center that you were attracted to "broken scripts."
What about "The Way Back" was broken? And how did you fix it?
Well, "broken" was just a kind of joke word. When I used the word it was more that they considered it, the studios considered it, broken. In other words, the studios were always sending me scripts that had passed all of their tests and they wanted to make. So I was always asking them: what do you consider a broken, busted-up script, because I might see something in it. So that's where that phrase came from. But I sometimes, I'm attracted to things that are difficult. It keeps me interested. So when I read this story, that became "The Way Back," I thought, "Now how do you do that?" It's very linear - they're either going to survive or they'll all die or some of them will die. It's very predictable. So how do you hold that tension without making it a chase movie, which I didn't want to do? Where does the tension lie? So it became an interesting subject matter for a director who is as experienced as I am. You want to challenge yourself.
What is the appeal of such an extreme challenge?
I mean, firstly, I don't mean it just as an exercise. It's not just something to do. I was drawn to the emotional aspects of the story, very much. I think all the scripts I've done or every script I've done has an emotional appeal more than an intellectual appeal. So I was drawn to look at this question of survival, and what is in the human experience that can cause you to rise above what would otherwise kill you. And what reservoirs do we have in us. What would I do? Would I have escaped? Could I have made it? So I suppose those questions were on my mind. And I figured it would be a fascinating experience and one that I could impart on the audience.
Was there any trepidation on your part mounting such a huge movie on such a small budget?
Yes. There were some nervous phone calls from me. Because the first thing I did was work on the script and get it right. And as I was working I'd call Duncan Henderson, who became a co-producer. Duncan was co-producer on "Master and Commander" and we had worked way back on one of my early films in America. And he is highly experienced in terms of organizing a complex shoot, so I was just waiting to hand in the script to know that he would do it. Because I didn't know if it would be somebody else who I didn't know. And he said yes and I felt reassured because of his planning abilities and his knowledge of crew and how to work in a foreign country and get the most out of your money and how to get out of it without going over budget. And he and I look very well together. So once he was in I relaxed a bit about that and like "Master and Commander," which he brought in on time and budget, that we would make it... with a little bit of luck.
Were you worried at all that audiences weren't going to respond to such an arduous journey?
Well, there's plenty of alternatives for them. There's plenty of lightweight material out there. There's plenty of fun and fantasy, plenty of cartoon characters. But there's not much like this. They have that hideous phrase "counter programming." I don't know. I apply that thing - would I like to make this film or would I go to this film if someone else made it? So it was the type of film I would have gone to if someone else had made it. I would have said, "Well that's different, I think I'll go and see it." I, you know, want to be involved. I don't want to just be tickled on my toes by a film. I like to be hurled into it. It's like do you like Tabasco sauce on your burger? I don't know it. It's a strong brew. I'm mangling my metaphors.
Were you surprised at all that it had such difficulty finding a distributor in the States?
Well, I think it was pretty clear as we were working on this, the recession hit and that, combined with an already severe caution on the part of distributors, studios, producers generally, so I figured we'd be putting this film out to distributors at a time when they were in a very conservative state of mind. And, you know, had it been vampires walking or something we probably would have gotten instant distribution from one of the bigger studios. Walking back to Transylvania!
Now, you bring up vampires and for a time Stanley Kubrick had suggested you to Warner Bros. to helm an adaptation of Stephen King's "'Salem's Lot" [the eventual film was made by "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" auteur Tobe Hooper]. What was your take on the material?
I was, you know, immensely flattered. Then I spent a month with, as it happens, a Romanian writer Petru Popescu, trying to come up with, at least an outline, or a front draft. I was staying at the Chateau Marmont, which has a kind of vampire-type atmosphere. And I just couldn't get into it and I said no.
Is that something you'd ever want to return to, that kind of Gothic Horror?
Vampires, you know, for me, have always been a metaphor for something. I never responded to them, as a kind, it's symbolic of something. Evil, evil. Well, I thought, you've got two approaches - do it as a comedy or do it seriously. I thought, do it seriously, since the Stephen King book had taken that approach. It was just a world I found difficult to live in. I started to not sleep well at the Chateau Marmont. It started stimulating the imagination but in the wrong direction.
Now, Stanley Kubrick was your mentor in a lot of ways. Is there anything he taught or told you that you still apply today?
I don't know if mentor is the right word, he was just incredibly inspiring. But, no, I don't think so. It was just the one great thing that he instilled in me - that you can make a large, commercial film and not compromise your artistic values.
Which you've obviously achieved since then.
Well, I've tried to achieve it.
Is there anything specific you want to tackle next?
No. No. Just, once again, looking for something that's interesting enough to spend a couple of years on. There's nothing to do but read. At my age they obviously know the sort of things I like, so it's just putting in crazy hours reading.
Do you anticipate putting in a lot of time on your next project or is there something you're looking to do quickly?
No, I'm thinking about bringing back the Mack Sennett school of thinking - there's a fire down the street, grab your camera and make up a story around it, that kind of thing. That might be the way to go.
Would you ever do anything like that?
Well, no! [laughs] It's tempting. I wouldn't want to light the fire, but it's tempting to take off on a wing and a prayer, you might say.
We talked to Ed Harris and the told us about scene where they hid themselves in the snow. Are we going to see these scenes?
No. I like to leave scenes that I cut out, they weren't right and should probably stay home. Otherwise, I would have to mix them and we don't have the money, I would want them to be perfect and to [color] grade them. There are some nice little moments, that I'd like, if I had time to show them.
But the movie is your director's cut?
Thanks a lot, Peter. And we implore you - please make another movie sooner rather than later; these years are tough between movies for us!
Inspire me! I'm going to go home and get the camera and wait for a fire.
But if it doesn't work, I'll blame you.