Weir, Peter

views updated May 08 2018

WEIR, Peter

Nationality: Australian. Born: Peter Lindsay Weir in Sydney, 8 August 1944. Education: Arts/Law coursework at University of Sydney. Family: Married Wendy Stiles, 1966, two children. Career: Worked for family real estate business, then joined television station ATN 7, Sydney, 1967; worked as assistant cameraman and production assistant, Commonwealth Film Unit (now Film Australia), 1969; directed his first internationally distributed feature, The Cars That Ate Paris, 1974; had his first international success, Picnic at Hanging Rock, 1975; signed multi-film contract with Warner Bros., 1980; directed Witness, his first Hollywood film, 1985. Awards: Australian Film Institute Grand Prix, for Homesdale, 1971; Australian Film Institute Best Director, for Gallipoli, 1981; Neville Wran Award for excellence in filmmaking, 1988; Best Film British Academy Award, Best Foreign Film Cesar Award, for Dead Poets Society, 1989; Australian Film Institute Raymond Longford Award, 1990; British Academy Award David Lean Award for Best Director, London Critics Circle Director of the Year, European Film Award Five Continents Award, Robert Festival Best American Film, for The Truman Show, 1998; FilmFest Hamburg Douglas Sirk Award, 1998. Address: Post Office, Palm Beach 2108, Australia.

Films as Director and Scriptwriter:


Count Vim's Last Exercise (short)


The Life and Times of the Reverend Buck Shotte (short)


"Michael" episode of Three to Go


Homesdale (+ ro)


Incredible Floridas (short)


Whatever Happened to Green Valley? (short)


The Cars That Ate Paris (The Cars That Ate People)


Picnic at Hanging Rock (d only)


The Last Wave


The Plumber (for TV)




The Year of Living Dangerously (+ co-pr)


Witness (d only)


The Mosquito Coast (d only)


Dead Poets Society


Green Card (+ pr)


Fearless (d only)


The Truman Show (co-sc, uncredited)

Other Films:


La Memoire retrouvée (Meny) (doc) (as himself)


By WEIR: articles—

Interview with D. Castell, in Films Illustrated (London), November 1976.

Interviews with H. Béhar, in Image et Son (Paris), January and February 1978.

Interview with P. Childs, in Millimeter (New York), March 1979.

Interview with Brian McFarlane and T. Ryan, in Cinema Papers (Melbourne), September/October 1981.

Interview with Michael Dempsey, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Summer 1982.

Interview with M. Bygrave, in Stills (London), May 1985.

"Dialogue on Film: Peter Weir," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), March 1986.

Interview with Patrick McGilligan, in Film Comment (New York), November/December 1986.

Interview with C. Viviani and others, in Positif (Paris), April 1987.

Interview, in Cinema Papers (Melbourne), August 1990.

"L'aurore boreale," interview with D. Parra and P. Ross, in Revue duCinéma (Cretail Cedex, France), November 1991.

"Love, fear and Peter Weir," interview with Virginia Campbell, in Movieline (Los Angeles) September 1993.

"The Filmmaker Series: Peter Weir," interview with Christine Spines, in Premiere (New York), June 1998.

"Weir's World," interview with Virginia Campbell, in Movieline (Los Angeles), June 1998.

"Keeping a Sense of Wonder," interview with Michael Bliss, in FilmQuarterly (Berkeley), Fall 1999.

On WEIR: books—

Tulloch, John, Australian Cinema: Industry, Narrative, and Meaning, Sydney, 1982.

Peeters, Theo, Peter Weir and His Films: A Critical Biography, Melbourne, 1983.

Mathews, Sue, 35mm Dreams: Conversations with Five Directorsabout the Australian Film Revival, Ringwood, Victoria, 1984.

Hall, Sandra, Critical Business: The New Australian Cinema inReview, Adelaide, 1985.

Moran, Albert, and Tom O'Regan, editors, An Australian FilmReader, Sydney, 1985.

McFarlane, Brian, Australian Cinema 1970–1985, London, 1987.

On WEIR: articles—

Nicholls, R., "Peter Weir," in Lumière (Melbourne), March 1973.

Brennan, R., "Peter Weir," in Cinema Papers (Melbourne), January 1974.

"Director of the Year," International Film Guide (London, New York), 1980.

McFarlane, Brian, "The Films of Peter Weir," in Cinema Papers (Melbourne), April/May 1980.

Magill, M., "Peter Weir," in Films in Review (New York), October 1981.

Poulle, F., "Bienvenu au héros conradien," in Jeune Cinéma (Paris), October 1983.

Sesti, M., "Peter Weir e il vuoto della ragione," in Bianco e Nero (Rome), October/December 1985.

Griffin, N., "Poetry Man," in Premiere (New York), July 1989.

Sesti, M., article, in Cineforum (Bergamo), July/August 1989.

Hentzi, G., "Peter Weir and the Cinema of New Age Humanism," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Winter 1990/91.

Koetsenruijter, B., "Peter Weir," in Skrien (Amsterdam), August/September 1991.

Giavarini, L., "Horreurs australes," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), September 1991.

Alion, Y., "Peter Weir," in Revue du Cinéma (Cretail Cedux, France), September 1991.

Clark, John, "Peter Weir," in Premiere (New York), February 1991.

Giavarini, L., "Peter Weir," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), December 1992.

Mazierska, E., "Pitnik pod Wiszaca Skala," in Filmowy SerwisPrasowy (Warsaw), no. 2, 1993.

Smit, C., "Is There an Australian Look?," in Metro Magazine (St. Kilda West, Victoria, Australia), Summer 1993.

Weinraub, Bernard, "A Director Asks for Odd and Gets It," in NewYork Times, 13 October 1993.

Caruso, G., "Filmografie," in Segnocinema (Vicenza, Italy), May/June 1994.

Golebiewska, M., "Smierc Wedlug Weira," in Kino (Warsaw), July/August 1995.

* * *

If, as Yugoslav director Dusan Makavajev contends, "Australia is Switzerland, but it wants to be Texas," then it's to the Swiss side that Peter Weir belongs. Even his apprentice shorts show an attraction to international concerns and fantasy that is alien to Australia's documentary-based cinema. Incredible Floridas is a hommage to Rimbaud, Michael a vision of a future Australia gripped by revolution, while the macabre Homesdale evokes evil in the unlikely setting of an isolated retirement home.

Weir dropped out of university to travel to Europe, an experience that profoundly affected him: "It struck me very strongly that I was a European, that this was where we had come from and where I belonged." An ancient sculpture found on a Tunisian beach prompted The Last Wave, and he conceived The Cars That Ate Paris when a French autoroute detour triggered the idea of a tiny village where, he surmised, anything might happen—including local hoodlums customising cars into killing machines.

The absurdist vision of The Cars That Ate Paris puzzled Australian audiences but interested Hollywood. Roger Corman gave the film a small U.S. release while also borrowing some of its concepts for Paul Bartel's Death Race 2000. Universal acclaim, however, greeted Picnic at Hanging Rock, a Victorian fantasy with drowsy, cryptic, and sensual qualities. Weir filmed Joan Lindsay's novel with such skill that most audiences believe the feature's tale of the disappearance of three schoolgirls on a rocky monolith on St. Valentine's Day, 1900, to be based on fact.

Weir chose Richard Chamberlain to star in The Last Wave as a lawyer who uncovers aboriginal cults which foretell the world's end in a new flood, but Australian audiences greeted the film's obscure theme and American star with suspicion. In reaction, Weir made The Plumber, a TV feature recognizable as his work only by its faintly surrealistic premise, in which an unsummoned tradesman invades a baffled housewife's cosy suburban environment.

With Gallipoli, which he calls his "graduation film," Weir shook off his reputation as an occult specialist and a director of essentially local concerns. Though set against Australia's first military adventure—the disastrous 1916 Dardenelles campaign—its scale, style, and outlook, all broadly international, won Gallipoli mass American release, and both director and star Mel Gibson were given Hollywood contracts.

Weir's first fully funded studio project, The Year of Living Dangerously, marked him as an artist capable of handling both big stars and bigger emergencies. When threats of violence from Muslim extremists drove the production out of Manila, he recreated Djakarta in Sydney suburbia. The film turned Mel Gibson into an international romantic lead, and also remade another career when Weir, unsatisfied with the actor playing dwarf Chinese cameraman Billy Kwan, recast the role with Linda Hunt, who delivered an Oscar-winning performance.

When plans to film The Mosquito Coast with Jack Nicholson collapsed, Weir stepped up at short notice to direct a thriller that featured Harrison Ford as a city cop finding affinities with the Amish religious fundamentalists who hide him from danger. Witness, an unexpected hit, decisively freed Ford from his Indiana Jones image, and the revived The Mosquito Coast starred not Nicholson but Ford as Paul Theroux's dizzy technocrat, a man who drags his family to South America in a doomed celebration of American mechanical genius. The film's relative failure in no way harmed Weir's reputation as a director who could change careers and remake images. He went on to direct Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, a film wherein a schoolteacher bucks a version of McCarthyism in the 1950s. Its critical and financial success powered Weir into Green Card, his first original screenplay, about an emigre musician marrying an American girl to get a work permit. The story attracted Gérard Depardieu, anxious to penetrate the English-language market. "I have the impression of having discovered a brother," the actor said, "like with Truffaut." Such statements suggest that Weir, while mastering Hollywood, has not lost touch with his early European concerns.

Those same concerns were evidenced yet again in Fearless, an unusual film for the 1990s: a mainstream project with deeply serious and sobering overtones. Its scenario examines the after-effects of a deadly plane crash. Unlike other Hollywood films dealing with air crashes which might focus on the superficial fireworks involved in the accident—complete with eye-popping special effectsFearless explores the psychological impact the experience has on two of its survivors (played by Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez). All too often, contemporary movies make no attempt to dramatize the effect of violence on its victims. Fearless, though dramatically flawed in its second half, is a refreshing change-of-pace in that it faces up to issues surrounding mortality and spirituality.

After a five-year absence from the screen, Weir returned triumphantly with yet another solemn exploration of contemporary life: The Truman Show, a keenly knowing expose of the all-encompassing power of modern technology. In particular, The Truman Show is an exploration of the ability of television to numb the brains of viewers and transform them into mindless robots who think, feel, and consume according to what they are told by their boob tubes. In this regard the film, like Fearless, is downright subversive for a contemporary Hollywood film.

The title character is Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), a happy-go-lucky insurance salesman who resides in the idyllic, antiseptic town of Seahaven, a planned community on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Truman's life is perfect. His always-chipper wife (Laura Linney) is perfect. His hometown (which he has never left) is perfect. And every day is a beautiful day. Yet little does Truman suspect that, since birth, he has been the star of his own television series. Wherever he goes, hidden cameras record his every movement. Everything in his life is artificial, from Seahaven (which is a massive set) to the weather, from his friends and neighbors to his family and wife (who all are actors). His entire existence is the creation of a fascist television director (Ed Harris) who has controlled all that happens around Truman since the day he was born. Indeed, for nearly three decades, billions of viewers have tuned in to catch each chronicle of the life and times of Truman Burbank (which airs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even as Truman sleeps). At the core of the story is the manner in which Truman responds upon becoming aware of the sham that is his life, and his growing curiosity with regard to what exists beyond his made-up world.

In The Truman Show, Weir deals with such heady subjects as philosophy, religion, principles and ethics, and, in particular, the manner in which technology and the media affect practically everything in our lives. In addition, Weir accomplishes for Jim Carrey what he did for Robin Williams a decade earlier in Dead Poets Society: take a wacky, wildly popular comedy star and reinvent him as a serious dramatic actor.

—John Baxter, updated by Rob Edelman