Love, Fear, and Peter Weir

The director of the new film Fearless talks about what you do when you can't get Mel Gibson, reveals the problems in photographing actors' souls, and explains his theory that Alfred Hitchcock was really "a Cary Grant of the spirit imprisoned in a rotund body".

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Here are just some of Peter Weir's accomplishments. He set a virtually unknown Mel Gibson on the path to stardom in 1981 in Gallipoli. He starred Gibson again, this time with Sigourney Weaver, in 1983's The Year of Living Dangerously, the best film either actor has ever done. He completely changed Hollywood's perception of Harrison Ford with 1985's Witness, and in the same movie, drew out one of the most moving performances ever given by a child (Lukas Haas). He introduced both Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard in Dead Poets Society, and got a genuine, non-shtick performance from Robin Williams. He brought the nearly intransigently French thespian Gerard Depardieu successfully before American audiences in Green Card. It is not for nothing that Weir has the reputation of being absolutely inspired in his work with actors.

But the most inspired aspect of Peter Weir's work is the coherence of his point of view.

Through a series of movies that are quite different from one another on the surface, he has consistently explored the theme of transcendent experience. Whether in a cop thriller or a love story, the typical Weir protagonist journeys from a reality grounded in logic and materialism toward confrontation with the less knowable forces of a foreign world. "The unseen is all around us," says the self-styled mystic Billy Kwan of the vibrations in Java in The Year of Living Dangerously. That is Weir's point exactly. And so: in Picnic at Hanging Rock, schoolgirls who go off to picnic in the primordial crevices of a mysterious mountain are never seen again; in The Last Wave, a brilliant legal mind misses every clue given to him by otherworldly Aborigines about the coming apocalypse; in Gallipoli, young men from the edge of the British empire come to be slaughtered at the Dardanelles in World War I by the Bungling of tunnel-visioned English strategists; in The Year of Living Dangerously, an ambitious, fact-oriented Australian journalist encounters the ambiguities of Asia; in Witness, a big-city cop is forced to hide among the slyly gentle Amish; in The Mosquito Coast, an American individualist loses his mind in a Central American jungle; in Dead Poets Society, ultraconservative prep school boys are introduced to the poetic imagination; and in Green Card, an emotionally constrained young woman is forced to live with a free-spirited bear of a Frenchman.

Weir's new film, Fearless, stars Jeff Bridges as a man who, when the movie starts, has just survived a catastrophic plane crash, and who, as the story proceeds, weaves his way through a personal twilight zone. It is perfect Weir territory.

MOVIELINE: When I saw Fearless, the friend I was with leaned over to me about 20 minutes into it and said exactly what I was thinking, which was: "I feel like I'm tripping."

PETER WEIR: [Laughs] After that test screening, which was the only test screening--I didn't want previews because I felt it would be at least 24 hours later before a viewer would wholly endorse the experience--Jeff [Bridges] leaned over to me and said, "It's like you put acid in the popcorn, man."

Q: How did you come to make Fearless?

A: I was looking for a script, and I couldn't believe that what I was reading was A list, so I came over to meet with a couple of writers I'd thought were interesting, and to meet with studio heads--and no one in-between--to find out what was wrong. The only producer who got by that requirement was Mark Rosenberg, and I gave him the same speech 1 gave studio heads, which was, "Give me things that are unusual or difficult," what are called "broken scripts." Mark and Paula Weinstein gave me the script that Rafael Yglesias had adapted, on spec, from his own novel that was waiting to be published. I was delighted, because it hadn't had the usual input where they round the corners and put in all the things that are in books about scriptwriting.

Q: What was "broken" about it?

A: It was good writing, daring writing. But I thought it was two movies. The first 25 pages were a film about how you'd cope with the knowledge that you were going to die, taking the point of view of a man who knew about aircraft and knew that the hydraulics were gone and so there was no steering and no braking even if the plane got on the ground. Then there was the second film, which was about how you live once you survive. I couldn't see a way to do it as one film.

Q: So you just decided to start the film as Bridges walks away from the crash?

A: I was just driving around listening to music, and I realized I could do anything I liked, as long as the story remained about life and death, or rather, love and fear, which was more to the point--you can't say anything about death because you don't know what death is. You could certainly talk about fear. I used parts of the crash as flashbacks to show what the characters were still working out, the way one does after any kind of trauma.

Q: You once said that the most important thing about making a film is to know the end of the story before you begin, and that you'd failed to do that once. What was that film?

A: The Last Wave. It did have an ending, but... I was working with tribal Aboriginals under unique circumstances. I'd arranged with great difficulty to bring these people down from the extreme north of Australia, and having them there in the city with what they were telling me... I mean especially Nanjiwarra, the tribal elder who played the old man in the film. He would tell me certain things at odd moments, late at night. We'd talk, and it was like having a shortwave radio tuned to some mysterious signal from a long way away. And what I was hearing was more interesting than what I was shooting. So it became the tyranny of narrative form versus the experience of talking with Nanji. I would take some of the conversations and feed them into parts of the film, but finally it was a film that had to end and a conversation that didn't end.

Q: In some ways, Fearless shares some thematic similarities with The Year of Living Dangerously. A man has a strange, life-threatening experience and learns to see the world in a new way. Did you feel you were returning at all to earlier themes?

A: I don't think anyone can return. You can only go on. But I did feel with this film, for whatever reason, a wonderful freedom that I felt in those early days. I felt extremely loose and liberated. It was like being young again, but with the craft, all the little tricks in your bag. I always loved that quote from a contemporary of Mozart's who wrote, sadly, toward the end of his life that "in mastering the craft I lost the art." It's a terrifying thought that your first film was your best. But that's why we love young filmmakers. There's a certain recklessness. For whatever reasons, I felt the reckless feeling back again, and I approached this film in that spirit.

Q: Did you see the plane crash in Alive?

A: Only in the trailer. I heard it was spectacular. My true challenge was to not make a film about the perils of flying. That was just a metaphor. One day your number will be up. I do think that in our modern life, when you're in a plane it's the one time you think you might die. Most people, regardless of what they've learned about physics in school, don't have any idea how anything so heavy stays up in the air. One of the studio executives said, "I loved the movie, but I won't let my wife see it. She hates to fly." But I would think this film might be a cure for that.

Q: I heard that the studio didn't want Jeff Bridges because they thought he couldn't open the picture.

A: I think that's been the common view of all the studios, that he's had plenty of opportunities and he's never gone into the marquee area, the hallowed half-dozen names. It's not untrue in terms of statistics. I think all of the actors who are in that group would say that they admire Jeff as an actor, but that doesn't count for much. But he was my choice.

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