Peter Weir/Jane Campion: Directors cut to the chase

Sheila Johnston listens in as two of cinema's most successful film-makers open up about their methods - including how to deal with difficult Hollywood stars
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The Independent Culture

Peter Weir removes the panama hat he'd been wearing to shield his skin against the harsh Sicilian sun, and settles down to share an intimate personal fantasy with several hundred listeners. "At an early point in my career I found myself a prisoner of success," he says. "And I had a curious daydream. I was in Asia to meet the guru of directors. He lived on top of a mountain and he had never made a film. He didn't need to. He was a genius." Weir climbed the mountain, waited patiently at the mentor's feet, then asked his single permitted question. "How must I be as a director?" Came the reply, "You must care, and not care, both at the same time."

Weir was one of the directors and actors holding half-day masterclasses at the Taormina Film Festival. Would he offer us enlightenment? Would he explain his punchline? Are such "cinema lessons" more than a gimmicky pretext for an unemployed film-maker to ramble on incoherently for an hour or two?

What's certain is that festivals are wising up fast to the concept. And with good reason. The smaller events in the calendar can only expect to attract the most minor films to their competitive sections: the Irish movie Freeze Frame took the top prize in Taormina, just one week after being roundly thrashed by critics on its UK release. And what's the point of jetting in celebrities and expensively dining them, only for them to snooze through screenings as members of the jury, or to stumble briefly on to a podium to accept some Lifetime Achievement bauble? They might as well sing for their supper.

And so every little festival or film course boasts its masterclass these days, some more magisterial than others. It strikes one that some tutors haven't made a hit - or any movie come to that - in decades. Has Robert McKee's writing career extended far beyond his self-help manuals and pricey screenwriting seminars? In Taormina, the sessions were free, and local fans and students from Italy's National Film School seized the opportunity. The festival also managed to muster a powerful line-up to mark its 50th year, including Weir, Michael Douglas, Francesco Rosi, Margarethe von Trotta and Jane Campion.

"I'm taking this opportunity somewhat seriously," announces Campion before launching into a 45-minute tutorial on the rehearsal process. "Most directors begin our careers by loving film, not actors; in fact we're frightened they may run away with their story. And, when you think about how actors have to reveal themselves, it's no wonder they're neurotic too. Every time they take on a new project, they also take on the risk of being humiliated, so much so that many actors don't want to rehearse at all.

"Sometimes they will arrive saying, 'I've got a wonderful accent I want to use.' Harvey Keitel did it for The Piano and so did Barbara Hershey for The Portrait of a Lady. But a lot of elaborate preparation is also often the sign of deep anxiety." So, too, Campion notes, are various forms of obsessive-compulsive behaviour. "Barbara would stall about the water. 'I need some water.' 'Oh, this water's too warm.' 'No, it should be fizzy.' 'It's too cold.' She joked herself about it. Being driven to the set, she would say, 'The air in the car is wrong. Yesterday it was better. Give me the air from yesterday.'

"In rehearsals, she was very awkward. I remember John Malkovich thinking she was hopeless. So you have to have faith. You know they're fantastic, otherwise why would you cast them? Barbara was very determined and that was part of the problem. Later on, it would become part of her strength." Hershey was eventually Oscar-nominated for her steely performance, while Campion's previous film, The Piano, also bagged Academy Awards for its two female stars, Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin, then aged 11.

More tales of insecurity unravelled in the course of the week. Weir told of how Mel Gibson freaked out on The Year of Living Dangerously (1982). "Halfway through, he said, 'I don't know what I'm doing. I'm lost. I don't understand this guy. He's too old for me.' I was shocked." The actor Mark Ruffalo was spooked by Kevin Bacon on Campion's In the Cut. "He knew Kevin had been considered for his own part," the director says. "And the day Kevin [who eventually played a supporting role] was on set, suddenly all the machismo left Mark. He was frightened by the sight of him." Douglas describes flunking a scene in one of his earliest films, Coma (1977). "This speech had a number of medical terms which I could not get exactly right. And [the director] Michael Crichton was a doctor in real life. I did that shot 68 times. I was on my knees. It was the low point of my career. But, boy, was it a lesson."

These are not the sort of stories journalists hear much on the promotional circuit. But all the speakers here were off duty. Campion and Douglas are taking sabbaticals to be with their children; Rosi, one of the most senior figures in Italian cinema, has been working in the theatre; Weir is catching his breath after Master and Commander. They have no new film to sell, no publicist keeping everything on the right spin. None of the relentless efficiency of the studio junket. Instead, the luxury of hindsight and the time to reflect on work at exceptional length and leisure.

In some cases, the prospect was intimidating. Experienced performers, such as Douglas or Von Trotta - formerly an actress - relaxed into informal off-the-cuff Q&A sessions. Rosi headed off all questions at the pass by delivering a seamless stream of reflections on Salvatore Giuliano, his still-astonishing 1961 film about the Sicilian bandit and the island's independence movement. Weir and Campion, by contrast, arrived with sheaves of notes. He was visibly, rather endearingly, anxious, shaking with nerves at some points; she kept erupting into fits of maniacal chuckles at some secret joke.

Like any teaching faculty, they offered clashing opinions. "The most important thing is to say you're going to have three weeks' rehearsal," declares Campion." I don't like rehearsals," says Weir. "I find that everything becomes too logical. Instead, I like to spend time with the actors, go for dinner, go for a walk, talk about anything except the story." Rosi regretted directors' reluctance today to tackle the kind of political subjects he has addressed in his own work. Douglas later said he was developing several political thrillers, including one set against the background of the oil crisis. And for Weir, "The artistic spirit is not comfortable with politics. It's a cul-de-sac."

Weir begins his talk with an apology. "I probably have nothing but banalities to say. So I will quote Matisse: 'All painters should have their tongues cut out'." Then, of course, he spoke fascinatingly for the next hour. "Sometimes on a Friday night, you find yourself in a multiplex. The swirling crowds, the garish colours, the popcorn. The shrill trailers. The vulgarity of it all. And you think, 'How can I make films for these people?'

"Then I remember a cartoon I saw once in a magazine. There was a tired, worn-out old lady at the box-office looking up at the movie poster and saying to the ticket-sales clerk, 'Will it give me back my sense of wonder?'. The audience is hungry for something. They don't know what it is. It's probably art. How do you get to them? I see myself fail, I see myself succeed. But you need failure to drive you on. It's a little miracle when a movie works and it's meant to be like that. A good film is like a truffle. You can't grow it. It just occurs where it will.

"On an American studio picture, a dangerous climate develops. And the major question is how to retain your individuality under pressure. Many executives are lawyers and used to arguing the case for the murderer. So you have to be strong. I remember a crisis on Master and Commander. The studio wanted me to * * go this way and I wanted to go that way. They said, 'Why don't you try both ways?' And I said, 'Gentlemen, think of me as a doctor. You have cancer. I am a specialist. If I do it your way, you will die'." Alas, as the students listening must have been only too aware, it's a riposte which only cuts ice when said by an A-list director.

Of all the presentations in Taormina, Weir's approach was the most cryptic. Laced with references to poetry, music and painting, majoring heavily on intuition, meditation and the mystical interplay between the left and right sides of the brain, it might have been subtitled "Zen and the Art of Film Directing". For example: "There are two Peters. The first Peter thinks, 'Here's a good script, with an interesting star attached.' My agent rings me. I say, 'It's beautiful, beautiful.' 'So it's yes?' 'It's no.' 'Why?' 'Because the other Peter doesn't want to do it.' It has to match some shadow in my being. I've seen others get into trouble because they took on a film for ambition or a famous actor. You must never do it unless it is deeply part of your creative DNA."

Vague as it was, many students found such comments inspirational. And some of the advice was more specific. "When I'm editing," says Weir, "I often get what I call the rough-cut blues. All those dreams, all that work - where has it gone? So I get in all the video-assist tapes, hundreds of hours of material, including the takes we didn't print. And I become a detective looking for clues, little magic moments that I can use. I screen each cut twice a week, once on the big screen, once on a video monitor. I also play it a lot silent, or with music over, to see whether the story is coming across just in the images. And at nights I come home, put on the headset and play music for an hour or two. A little wine. Tobacco. I'm jamming the conscious mind. Allowing the unconscious to come through."

That was what Weir's swami had meant, then. Naturally, you care about your work. "But if you care too much, it blocks the unconscious. It's the not caring that frees that part of the mind." This most unassuming of gurus was likely speaking for most of his audience, when he adds, "I've thought about what he told me ever since."

THE RULES: Jane Campion's 10-point guide to working with actors

1 I take a lot of care in choosing the rehearsal room. I like old church halls: they have a beautiful atmosphere that's kind of an invitation to the divine, but also a bit ramshackle. If you go into a modern, fabulously designed room, you feel you can't take your own roughness in there.

2 That room is sacrosanct. Nobody watches rehearsals. Nobody interrupts them, only my assistant with coffee or tea.

3 Check your watch after each scene. It's part of convincing the actors that you've worked out a schedule and are going to take them through the material on time. Don't manipulate or dominate them. But you can show leadership, which is a different quality.

4 Sometimes, young actors want to tell each other how to do things: "Oh, man, that's really hopeless, try this." Never let them advise each other.

5 Read the scene through, not for expression, just to understand the meaning. Then discuss it, but not for long, because this is a technique actors use to delay standing up and doing it. Read it again, put the script down and have them improvise the scene, making up new lines for themselves. It brings them into the characters' motives. Then do it with the actual words.

6 Make a basic floor plan showing where the actors went and the props they needed. It can take forever to work out how to do this, but someone showed me once and now I'll show you. Mark each person as a circle, with a nose to show the direction of movement, and map their positions as A1, A2, etc. Just remember the little circles and little noses.

7 Never judge the actors, and don't let the crew judge them later on set. Sometimes a crew member will complain and say, "Oh so-and-so is so fussy, or so unpleasant. They never say hello to me." There are a hundred people in the crew. The actors need to feel they can ignore them. This isn't a celebrity session.

8 If an actor is really out of sorts, I have subtle manoeuvres. I pretend that the lighting is a problem and, once they've stepped off the set, I'll strike up a conversation. But you can't say, "this isn't working", because it will take you the whole day to get them back.

9 A casting director gave me some very good advice about working with children: "Don't take the child who's the most precocious. Take the child who is most true. They will come out once they are not so shy. But the precocious ones will become unbearable."

10 I do yoga every day. It's been one of my best tools because only when you're relaxed can you see what's really going on. And you may be the only relaxed person on the set. Then you can create an atmosphere where no one can make mistakes, and it's all play.