It was a small-town Australian critic who first noted the cunning use that Peter Weir makes of glances--capturing on film the way a man and woman look at each other when they're attracted but still unsure of each other. It's a courtship of the eyes that's been ignored by most contemporary film makers in their rush to get the camera into the bedroom.
Weir used it effectively in "The Year of Living Dangerously," subtly suggesting the build-up of passion between Sigourney Weaver and Mel Gibson long before their first embrace. Now he does it again in "Witness"--his first American movie--and this time the looks flash between Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis (from "Reuben, Reuben"). It works even better this time, since the story is about a Philadelphia cop (Ford) and an Amish widow (McGillis) for whom no real relationship is possible.
"What I've tried to do is go back to the days of the Hays Office (which administered the Production Code of the 1930s and '40s)," said Australian-born Weir on a visit to Los Angeles the other day.
"In those days, there was considerable film censorship, so movie makers had to be very inventive in the way they showed sexual attraction. It resulted in some wonderfully romantic films. What I've done is reimpose the Hays Code on myself."
This marks the first time the 40-year-old director, who made his name with films like "Picnic at Hanging Rock" "The Last Wave" and "Gallipoli," has directed a project he did not personally originate. "Witness" was already a go at Paramount Pictures with Harrison Ford attached when Weir was approached.
Weir had been in Central America with producer Jerome Hellman scouting locations for a film version of Paul Theroux's novel "The Mosquito Coast." When that project collapsed, "Witness" producer Edward S. Feldman got in touch immediately. He felt Weir would be the ideal director for his story about a cop investigating a murder who discovers that the murderers are some of his own colleagues who are trying to squash an investigation. On the run from them, he winds up hiding among an Amish community.
Weir liked the idea--although he sensed the piece could easily turn into a high-class TV movie if it were not well handled and cast.
"To be honest, I took the assignment because I decided it was a good idea not just to make films which obsessed me," he said. "I wanted to be like those directors in the '40s who took assignments from their studios and got on with them.
"And 'Witness' was halfway good, it seemed to me. What it needed was the right approach. Fortunately, Harrison Ford and I agreed about everything. So the first thing we did was build up the Amish aspect of the story.
"It was such a great chance to show a collision between the two worlds--a 20th-Century man for whom violence was a fact of life forced to take refuge amid a pacific society unchanged since the 18th Century. See, I didn't want to use the Amish as a film maker might use Chinatown--as an exotic background. I wanted them to be an essential part of the story. . . ."
After assembling the rest of his cast--Lukas Haas (from "Testament"), Danny Glover (so good in "Places in the Heart," in this a cold-blooded killer) and Soviet dancer Alexander Godunov--Weir had just seven weeks' preparation before shooting began.
And he found himself more and more intrigued by the Amish setting of the story.
"The very fact that there's a group of people living here much as they lived, farmed and thought when they first arrived more than 200 years ago fascinated me," he said. "So depicting them in our film was a bit like venturing back in a time capsule. . . ."
But about one thing he was determined. The Amish used in the film would all be played by actors, even though the film was being shot in Amish territory: Lancaster County, Pa.
"Sometimes we'd see an Amish team working in the fields and it was tempting to use them as a background," Weir said. "But I resisted that. But we did hire some former members of the Amish church as advisers."
Due to open Feb. 8, "Witness" is an important movie for him, in part because it is his first American picture, but also because his last movie, "The Year of Living Dangerously," wasn't a box office success.
That film, rich in atmosphere and featuring an extraordinary Oscar-winning performance by actress Linda Hunt as a Eurasian dwarf photographer, was set in Indonesia in 1965 during the final days of the Sukarno regime.
And this, Weir thinks, was the main stumbling block.
"It put people off," he said. "Almost everything written about the film dealt right away with the setting--and I think that made people suspicious. It didn't sound like a movie they wanted to see; they weren't interested in a political story against an Indonesian background.
"Funnily enough, before it went to Metro (MGM), one company suggested I reset the story in Iran during the collapse of the shah's regime because they said that would be an easier 'sell' for Americans. But that wasn't the story I'd optioned, so I said no. As an Australian, Southeast Asia was my main interest, so I kept it as it was."
Devotees of Weir's work supposed that "The Year of Living Dangerously" was his first setback.
"I had one before that," Weir said. "It was my very first film: 'The Cars That Ate Paris' (made in 1974). That was a terrible flop. It was a crushing blow for me.
"The independent American company which bought it for the U.S. decided to recut it for release here, and I thought they were going to show me how to make the film more commercial. It was the greatest disappointment of my life. Not only did they recut it, but they dubbed the central character, an Australian, into an American from the Bronx. Then they added a voice-over. The final film made absolutely no sense and when it was shown here, nobody went near it. . . ."
Last year, Weir contacted the company and offered to buy back their print, but he said they would not sell. "I think there was some tax thing involved. So I let it go. But I did send them my original version in case anyone ever asks for it."
Two years later, buoyant and full of optimism, Weir bounced back with "Picnic at Hanging Rock," which earned him high praise. And the fate of "Cars" was forgotten.
"Of course, I was crushed by what had happened to 'Cars,' " he said, "but I truly believe you're more likely to be thrown off track by having your first film turn out to be a great success than by having the kind of experience I had. A flop makes you more determined than ever--and you've got nothing to live up to.
"But if you look at the careers of many Hollywood directors who had success with their first films, you'll realize how much more inventive and original they were when they first started. You get to the point when you're afraid to take chances. I don't want that to happen to me. . . ."