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Director Peter Weir on Directing, 'Witness,' the Birth of the Australian Film Industry and More

Photo of Beth Hanna By Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood June 15, 2012 at 3:22PM

Australian Peter Weir is one of our great living directors, having given us such primal and unsettling classics as "Picnic at Hanging Rock," "The Last Wave," "Witness," "The Truman Show" and "Master and Commander," to name only a few. In this excerpt from ex-Screen editor Mike Goodridge's book FilmCraft: Directing, Weir discusses his methods and stresses that the hardest challenges in directing a film are always "fundamentally creative."
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"Witness"
"Witness"

Australian Peter Weir is one of our great living directors, having given us such primal and unsettling classics as "Picnic at Hanging Rock," "The Last Wave," "Witness," "The Truman Show" and "Master and Commander," to name only a few. In this excerpt from ex-Screen editor Mike Goodridge's book FilmCraft: Directing, Weir discusses his methods and stresses that the hardest challenges in directing a film are always "fundamentally creative."

Snippets from the illuminating piece are below; parts of Goodridge's interviews with Clint Eastwood and Guillermo del Toro are posted at Indiewire and Movieline, respectively. (Here's Anne Thompson's Q & A with Weir for "The Way Back.")

Raising a film and then letting it go:

"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."

"We had no industry in Australia at the time":

"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."

Showing and not telling in "Witness":

"Originally there were two pages of dialogue in which Harrison [Ford] explained why he was leaving and the Amish woman 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."

On having the audition process reversed in "The Last Wave":

"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."


 

This article is related to: Peter Weir, Interviews, Interviews , Books


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.