More to Digest than Popcorn:
An Interview with Peter Weir
June 4, 1998
by Dan Lybarger
Originally appeared in the June 4-10, 1998 issue of Pitch Weekly. ........................................................................................................
"I heard someone say the other day, 'What a bizarre movie,'" recalls Australian director Peter Weir. "I don't think so. I think life is outrageous right now, and the film is reflecting that."
The movie in question is Weir's most recent effort, The Truman Show, and it is certainly unconventional. The film stars rubber-faced comic Jim Carrey (Liar Liar) as an insurance salesman whose entire life has been televised internationally without his knowledge. Speaking by phone from Chicago, Weir says, "Some have said to me that they looked at things differently after they came out and made jokes about whether they were on-camera or not."
Probably the strangest aspect of The Truman Show is the fact that Weir cast the frequently hyperactive Carrey in an everyman role. Weir claims that putting Carrey in such a position is hardly a stretch. "The ability to make people laugh is unique and something you're born with or not. It's possible for someone who has this gift to make the transition to drama, but not the other way around," he says. "You don't think of Larry Olivier as good at light comedy. When he tried it, I wouldn't say that's what we remember him for."
The Truman Show has several offbeat touches (strange camera angles and a shot of the moon being used as a spotlight). Weir remembers several of the ideas that he and his collaborators had were left out so the storytelling would not be sacrificed. "I even had a crazy idea at one time, which was impossible technically. I would have loved to have had a video camera installed in every theater the film was to be seen. At one point, the projectionist would cut power and could cut to the viewers in the cinema and then back to the movie. But I thought it was best to leave that idea untested," he says.
If The Truman Show does poke fun at the absurdities of media voyeurism, Weir doesn't directly condemn it. He declares, "I think, as we saw with the whole Lady Diana business, the very people who were outraged at the perceived cause of her death, which were the paparazzi chasing the car, were the same people who bought the magazines and the sensational tabloid papers. That's a complex situation, and you can't blame them. They loved her, but they wanted to watch every moment of her life. If they'd had a camera in her house, they would have had the viewership of The Truman Show or more."
In fact, the 53-year-old filmmaker recalls that television, particularly classic American shows like I Love Lucy and The Twilight Zone, was an important influence when he was growing up in Sydney. "I was 12 years old when television came, and I couldn't believe it," he recalls. "I just was transfixed by it. I used to darken the room down like a theater at night, like a movie house. My father used to always get annoyed and said, 'You've got to leave a lamp on, or you'll lose your eyesight.' I said, 'It'll be worth it.' No one was allowed to talk. At one stage, I wouldn't let anyone go to the bathroom. That didn't last long."
Weir says he and other Australian directors of his generation, such as Bruce Beresford (Tender Mercies) and Gillian Armstrong (Little Women), benefited from their exposure to imported culture from the United States and Europe. He says seeing American movies helped him and others adapt to Hollywood moviemaking and to create an Australian brand of cinema. "We had a culturally similar diet to Americans of the same generation. (Australians) had no culture. We were a simple people until recent times. We were Europeans in the bottom end of the world. As with any new colony, the arts are the last thing to be developed. I think my generation was the first to not withdraw and go to London, like the generation before us did. We stayed. We were determined to make our mark, like the kid who's been the short kid in school and been bullied," he says.
Before his crossover success in America (he received Oscar nominations for directing Witness and Dead Poets Society and for writing Green Card), Weir first gained notoriety for his eerie 1975 Australian drama Picnic at Hanging Rock. The movie is loosely based on a real but undocumented disappearance of students and a teacher from a girls school at the turn of the century. Previously unavailable in the U.S. (except for bootleg copies), the film is being rereleased and is scheduled to play in Kansas City in July. "I remastered the soundtrack and made some cuts in the movie itself." He laughs and adds, "I think it's going to go in the Guinness Book of World Records as the only director's cut that's shorter than the original."
In the films that Weir has in current release, and with his previous movies, he often sidesteps the obvious. For example, Witness and The Year of Living Dangerously are remarkably steamy even though neither shows much skin. "When the Hays Code (which governed Hollywood movies from 1930 through 1966) operated, directors were far more inventive with the way they showed strong attraction between male and female, love and lust. With the Hays Code gone--and who would argue it should be there--I tried to use the lessons I learned from those directors, that less is more. You allow the viewers to join in making the film and apply their imagination," Weir explains.
His approach does have its drawbacks. "Of course, that implies the presumption the audience will join you and has that imagination. It can get harder these days because films are so didactic, and they so present everything to the viewer," Weir says. "All (the audience) has to do is sit
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