Master Class with Peter Weir

Going into the home stretch of the 20th Edition of the Guanajuato International Film Festival, yesterday, Saturday July 29, Australian director Peter Weir’s Master Class at the Cervantes Theater in Guanajuato City took place.

The lauded director entered the stage, smiling as usual. The talk began with his childhood and youth; he said that in Australia he lived by the sea, where the environment was peaceful and pleasant, and then came the war and it became even more peaceful. Peter always had a free and artistic personality. He admires horror movies, especially those from England and he decided from a very young age that what he wanted to do was travel.

He initially didn’t know if he wanted to write or act. He began to study Law in the 1960’s, but he dropped out and made enough money working in real estate with his father to buy a one-way ticket on a cruise to London: “That trip changed my life, I became the entertainment for the passengers”, said Peter. There was a small TV studio on the ship that no one used unless they wanted to announce something and Peter made an interview show, discovering that he wanted to be behind a camera and not go back into real estate. When he returned to Australia he tried to do theater, he was married and he got a job on production sets; this is where he got the opportunity to do a television show.

Peter Weir mentioned that his generation travelled a lot to America as much as Europe: “Everything was England and so we started making films. Before us there were very few interested in making art and at that moment, Sydney was very exciting. Thanks to the Sydney Film Festival we had the best of European cinema and I was in an incredible creative atmosphere. I didn’t think about current events, everything surrounded the movies”.

“I wasn’t a fish out of water, I was a fish in a travelling tank”. Peter said he was always accompanied by an artistic personality and if you have the talent, you can always move around; putting Vincent Van Gogh as an example as someone who needed to travel after a certain period, that’s how he always felt. “I think it took me a long time to feel comfortable in Australia, I became European after the cruise, being there with your loaf of bread, your bottle of wine and a sleeping bag looking at the stars… I said; ¡eureka, I’m European! My father was a Scotchman from two generation back but I always felt like I belonged in England. Now I feel very different and very comfortable with my work in Australia”.

One of Peter Weir’s greatest influences, and one of the greatest filmmakers that he has always greatly admired, is Stanley Kubrick. He shared that he was fascinated by what he did, without bargaining away his work, always with very simple topics; “he was my light in the darkness”.

Weir, who is a part of the so-called “New Australian Wave” once rejected a script offered by Warner Brothers, which Stanley Kubrick was going to work on but then recommended Peter Weir to do it. Weir expressed that he couldn’t connect to this story about vampires that was filled with evil, so he returned to Australia eager for fresh stories and landscapes.

Commenting on the experience that all filmmakers are eventually dragged to Hollywood, he added that it’s interesting to break into that industry on one’s own terms, which he did when he finally sat with them to discuss Witness, starring Harrison Ford. “I was ready to do it and I wasn’t afraid of having a big star.”

“When I met Harrison Ford, I wanted to tell him and the producers who sought me out the story in my own words. Harrison was taking a risk because he hadn’t been famous outside of Star Wars and the Indiana Jones movie… when I work with a big star, I know immediately if they’re going to take a risk without the fear of losing what they already have. It’s a relationship in which we depend on one another. Something similar happened with Robin Williams and Jim Carrey. Robin was particularly unique. It’s a tragedy how he died, he was a very curious man, always a comedian; very funny and charming.”

In terms of his stories, Peter Weir has always been the one in charge. Even with the big Hollywood studios that sought him out, he would first tell them the story, how he sees it and looks to give the script another angle. If the screenplay doesn’t excite him, he won’t take it. He tries to work with a lot of the same people, including his wife Wendy Stites, who is costume and production designer, while his daughter is also a designer. Both have worked with him.

Peter’s advice to young filmmakers in the audience is that opportunities are created; “It’s not that difficult to make a film. When you have a good writer, a good camera and good actors, all you do is say Action! and Cut!, or as Hitchcock said; the most important word is Cut!”

Near the end, Weir was asked about the genres he liked and he said the following: “My wife has this theory that 9/11 killed fiction for a time. It was horrible that no one had anything else to make up, and everyone wanted to tell true stories. Having your film be based on a true story is a hook that most studios believe will take them to the Academy Awards. I like to talk about historical facts, I am intrigued by true stories.”

“To be a director is to have imagination, to tell yourself a different story every day. This is something you exercise, like your body in the gym. You have to read and read and read, as well as watch movies and above all, try to keep your conscience open, without the Internet or text messaging. You must find a time to be bored because then you dream and you start to imagine, to pay attention to things, to the world, keep the soor open for the unconscious”, was the message Peter Weir gave to the new generation of filmmakers.

Finally, he was asked about Mexico and how he sees the current situation in the country, to which he answered: “I want to come back to Mexico. I know what’s going on, I know there’s a lot of blood, but there’s also a lot of fruitful art that life truffles grow how they want, you can’t manufacture them. There are remarkable filmmakers here and I enjoy visiting Mexico. We need to let the clichés of the world aside and get to know it”.

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