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Tuesday, August 30, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movies

What hath Peter Weir wrought?

Seattle Times DVD writer

Even if you don't think Peter Weir got robbed for best director in 2004 for "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," you'd be lashed for denying he's on the short list of the world's best.

I chatted by phone with the Aussie auteur, 60, about the new special collector's edition DVDs of two other classics for which he was nominated: 1985's "Witness" and 1998's "The Truman Show" (Paramount, $19.99 each) — as well as what those films wrought. And killer mules.

Q: Do Americans have the director of "The Truman Show" to blame for reality TV?

A: I'm sure it was rumbling away under the surface at the time. I've never read anybody say that they got the idea from that. I'm sure it was in the air. It perhaps explains some resistance here and there. You know, I picked up quite early on in Hollywood at a couple of early industry previews that there were people who didn't like the film. I said, "Oh, what's the objection?" And it was never specified. They just didn't like it. Now that's fair enough, that happens with every film. But I thought it was curious that it was in the community, and I've often wondered whether these shows were being worked on and ["Truman"] was seen therefore in a negative light for that reason: that it was critical of the very idea.

Q: It was either a prescient warning or it opened the floodgates.

A: Yeah, I mean I must say, at the time it really didn't occur to me that it would break out in the way it did. There was a review that said the problem with the show is the premise — you know, "People would not sit around and watch paint dry. Drama is what television's about, and scripted drama."

Q: How did you put your own stamp on "Truman"?

A: Initially it was set in New York. It was a much darker piece. The central character was alcoholic and it had a lot of the scenes that are in the film, but I felt it needed to be grounded more in logic and reality. So I thought, "Well, they can't build New York." I mean it's crazy. So why don't we go to not a dark, grim city, but everyone's holiday resort?

Q: Ambiguity and mystery are great aspects of films of yours, such as "Picnic at Hanging Rock" and "The Last Wave." Do you ever have any concerns about explaining too much with DVD extras?

A: (Deep breath.) Yeah. Firstly, I don't do a commentary. That would just really be too much for me. It would disturb the viewing of the film and, you know, I can't remember exactly why things were done, and if I did they'd seem banal or pretentious. I just do an interview.

Q: Your stamp on "Witness" was to refocus from Kelly McGillis' character to Harrison Ford's John Book.

A: I did a pass on it, that's what I did — which upset [the screenwriters] very much. It was a normal process for me. But I cut and pasted sections of it, wrote some scenes out, and shifted the focus and emphasis — particularly in the Amish areas — deleted some action scenes, deleted some sex scenes, and gave it back to them. And they were appalled.

Q: Why'd you make the deletions?

A: They were just begging to be made. The concept was great, the structure was excellent in their draft. But then they pulled back from it. They didn't go all the way with it. You didn't get enough Amish and about their world. There was more fun to be had with Harrison isolated on that farm. So I put in the dancing in the barn. Harrison threw a lot of ideas in. We had a big breakfast where he's kind of talking about a TV show after he'd been milking the cow. I added a scene where we learned what the punishment would be if she went off with him. But there was also a big sex scene, and a donkey that kicked one of them to death at the end. There was a sort of mule that had been trained to kick with its back legs and kicked one of the villains to death.

Q: Even with the cuts you made, Ford and McGillis share some of the hottest scenes in film history. In an Amish movie. With no sex. How'd you make that work?

A: Well, I think as a filmmaker you learn so much of that period of the Hays Code, where they weren't even permitted to have a kiss longer than X seconds, and separate beds. It made filmmakers incredibly inventive. The touch of her hand on his. The passing of a key between a couple. It was the anticipation that they emphasized, those filmmakers. And as is often the case in life, the anticipation is the greater experience. And so I learned from those people: Don't show it, because the viewer will supply something you could never realize, that each in the audience will have their version of what might have happened.

And it was very much that with Harrison and Kelly — in the case of the two of them where she offers herself to him in a way, when she's bathing in one scene and he accidentally interrupts her, and they stare at each other and she's sort of half-naked staring wonderfully at him, proudly more or less. Yes, I am a woman and yes, I have feelings for you, and yes, I will give myself to you. All of that's implicit in the look.

Q: I can't prove this, but I think putting Harrison Ford as a cop into Amish society may have led to the hilarious "Stranger Among Us" in 1992, with Melanie Griffith as a cop undercover with Hasidic Jews. Are you willing to accept responsibility?

A: (Laughs.) No! I claim whatever amendment in your Constitution — the film amendment! Right to remain silent!

Q: We'll accept that. You have a talent for wrangling alpha male actors: Harrison Ford twice, Mel Gibson twice, Russell Crowe. What's your technique?

A: Violence, I think, is probably — you know, I'm a martial arts expert and I just generally start the association off by flattening them. ... I think the only thing that makes everything work is very strong material. You know, if you've both come together not for the check or not for the kudos or because you're bored, but if you've got material that's fissionable, let's call it — so it's going to blow you up or it's going to take you somewhere, propel you, and they think I know what I'm doing, and I only choose something that really fits. Then it makes for a really exciting collaboration, I think.

Q: Will you do a sequel to "Master and Commander"?

A: No, it's, I think, most unlikely. Somebody said to me the other day that they'd seen something on the Net. The way the Net is now, it's like a kind of rumor mill. But I think they would have contacted me. I think that while it did well ... ish at the box office, it didn't generate that kind of monstrous, rapid income that provokes a sequel.

Q: Now, "Fearless" ...

A: Ah, now of course we're making a sequel to "Fearless" — on a train!

Q: I always step off planes if I suspect that'll be the in-flight movie.

A: (Laughing.) Somebody told me it was on one plane! Can you imagine? God.

Q: Fans complain about its DVD presentation. Will there ever be a definitive edition?

A: Ah, look, I wish. I was shocked, too, when I saw it. And they didn't contact me. They generally do. But they just threw it out. I believe it's formatted for television; they didn't do a widescreen version and certainly no extras — and no care. But I'm afraid it's economics. That's generated so little income, it seems it not only didn't get people, but people warned others not to go, that it was too upsetting. That therefore translates to: Let's not spend money on the DVD.

Q: Thank you for making movies for grown-ups.

A: That's a very nice thing to say. I appreciate movies for grown-ups.

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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