LOS ANGELES (Back Stage) - It’s difficult to find a common thread among Peter Weir’s films.
The Australian native’s first feature, 1974’s “The Cars That Ate Paris,” was a gritty black comedy about residents of a small town who deliberately cause car crashes. But he followed that cult classic a year later with the lyrical and haunting “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” which tells the “true” story of the disappearance of three schoolgirls and their teacher in 1900.
Weir eventually began making films in America, and it was just as difficult to ascribe him to a particular genre. After heavy dramas like “Witness” and “The Mosquito Coast,” Weir proved impressive at comedy with the lighthearted romance “Green Card.” His last film was 2003’s high seas epic “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.”
But there is at least one thing a viewer can expect from a Peter Weir film: The 66-year-old director is known for drawing terrific performances from actors, be it Mel Gibson verging on stardom in “Gallipoli,” discovering a cast of young unknowns for “Dead Poets Society,” or Jim Carrey transitioning to a more dramatic role in “The Truman Show.” He coaxed Oscar-nominated performances out of Harrison Ford as a cop undercover in Amish country in “Witness” and Rosie Perez in “Fearless,” a movie about the aftermath of a plane crash for its survivors.
His latest project, “The Way Back,” is no exception. Based on the book “The Long Walk” by Slavomir Rawicz, the film tells the true story of a group of prisoners who escape from a Soviet gulag during World War II and must walk more than 4,000 miles to freedom. Led by Janusz, played by Jim Sturgess, the film boasts a cast of actors including Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, and Saoirse Ronan.
BACK STAGE: YOU WORKED WITH ACTORS LIKE MEL GIBSON AND RIVER PHOENIX EARLY IN THEIR CAREERS. HOW ARE YOU ABLE TO SPOT TALENT EARLY ON?
Peter Weir: Well, I think they were sort of on their way when I saw them. With Mel Gibson, it was really George Miller who spotted him and put him in the first “Mad Max,” which I saw at a preview. Same with River Phoenix; it was there to be seen. He’d done “Stand by Me.” So I can’t really claim it. You could see it as a filmmaker, the way the public did.
BACK STAGE: WHAT ABOUT THE YOUNG ACTORS YOU CAST IN “DEAD POETS SOCIETY,” LIKE ETHAN HAWKE AND ROBERT SEAN LEONARD? YOU HAVE TO ACCEPT SOME RESPONSIBILITY FOR SPOTTING THEM EARLY ON.
Weir: That’s true, they were largely unknown. I think Ethan had done one feature, more than the others. It was a case of seeing a lot of young actors and they really stood out. There was something, a spark, you could see in the screen test.
BACK STAGE: I KNOW JIM STURGESS HAS DONE SEVERAL FILMS, BUT HE’S STILL A BIT OF A NEWCOMER. HOW DID YOU KNOW HE WAS THE RIGHT ACTOR AND COULD CARRY THIS FILM?
Weir: It was a combination of things. First, I saw him in Julie Taymor’s “Across the Universe” and I thought he had a quality in it that was really quite unique and I could see why she’d chosen him. Then in meeting him, he had a very interesting manner. He doesn’t project cool or seem involved in image. He’s got a real kindness to him, which was part of this character I wanted to create. I was so keen not to have the typical hero or the guy who, the minute he steps on camera, you know is going to take charge and all will be well. I wanted somebody who had some vulnerability to him. And Jim has that.
BACK STAGE: TRYING TO FIND A RECURRING THEME THROUGHOUT YOUR FILMS IS DIFFICULT. JUST WHEN I THINK I HAVE YOU PEGGED AS A DRAMA GUY, YOU TURN AROUND AND DO SOMETHING LIKE “GREEN CARD.” WHAT DRAWS YOU TO PROJECTS?
Weir: A story I haven’t told before. I don’t want to repeat myself, so I’m always looking for a new subject. In this case, “The Way Back” was unlike anything else I had done and I was very interested in studying this group of mostly young people and what it was in the human spirit they would draw on to get through something so difficult. It fascinated me. And when I read the book, it stayed with me; I couldn’t get it off my mind.
BACK STAGE: WORKING WITH A LARGE CAST, I IMAGINE YOU MUST HAVE MANY DIFFERENT ACTING STYLES AT WORK. HOW DO YOU, AS A DIRECTOR, COMBINE ALL THESE DIFFERENT STYLES TO MAKE SUCH A SOLID ENSEMBLE?
Weir: I think you accept that human beings have their own way. The uniqueness of cinema, unlike stage, is that the persona of the human being playing the part is melded with the character. On stage, you get the character more than the aspect of that person’s personality. It’s because of the close-up; we can come in close. In other words, actors bring baggage, and some of it is very interesting and informs that character they’re playing. So those differences in personality seem to become part of the story, in that a disparate group of people get together and have to find a common will in order to survive. They have to join as one.
BACK STAGE: WAS IT A DIFFICULT SHOOT? BECAUSE YOUR CHARACTERS ARE GOING THROUGH HELL ON SCREEN.
Weir: I’m not the kind of director that thinks you need to experience things to portray them. It’s all fakery; they’re actors. In fact, they need to be as comfortable as possible to do their best work. But in this particular case, it was physically hard; there was just no way out of it. We were often a long way from base and had a little camp where you could get basics, but there were long, hard days in extreme climates. But the actors relished it, really. They told me they got a chance to feel the reality of what it might have been like for these characters.
BACK STAGE: YOU’VE MADE SEVERAL CHALLENGING MOVIES. WHAT WAS YOUR TOUGHEST SHOOT?
Weir: They’re all tough, just different versions of toughness. Sometimes you can be having a script problem, and that’s tough. Other times, it’s physical, like this film. “Master and Commander” was probably one of the most difficult because of its sheer scale and the fact we were working in a ship, even if in a tank. It was very complex. Plus we had a very large cast that was constantly on standby. I might swing a camera one way and you’d see the 30 or 40 seamen or officers in that direction and they had to be dressed and ready. It was very hard to be precise about the upcoming day’s shooting. If the question was, “Will you be looking toward the bow?” the answer was, “Possibly.”
BACK STAGE: SOME OF YOUR FILMS — IN PARTICULAR, “FEARLESS” — WERE SORT OF UNAPPRECIATED IN THEIR TIME BUT HAVE HELD UP REALLY WELL AND ARE APPRECIATED MORE NOW THAN THEY WERE WHEN ORIGINALLY RELEASED. DO YOU FEEL SORT OF VINDICATED BY THAT?
Weir: No, I don’t think I thought of it in those terms. I completely accept that some things work with the public or with critics and some don’t. But I am glad the DVD does exist. I think all filmmakers must be, so that it can be available if you wanted to explore more of that filmmaker’s work. And I loved the experience, it was a very interesting film to work on and to work with Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez. I’ll think of it occasionally ... sometimes ... when I’m flying!