MOVIES : Staring Death in the Face : Director Peter Weir has made a career exploring the mysteries of life. His latest film, 'Fearless,' deals with the aftermath of a plane crash and its effect on those who--can we say miraculously?--survived

Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar

For nearly 20 years, Australian director Peter Weir has been the resident mystic of mainstream movies. Weir is far too unassuming to make such claims for himself, but a quick perusal of his filmography reveals that he's turned time and again to the metaphysical realm for raw material for his films.

Exploring mythology and ancient knowledge in collision with the modern world, the persistence of the primitive despite all attempts to tame it, memory, magic, the relentless wanderings of the imagination and the undeniable presence of all that is absent to the human eye, his films are at once poetic and rigorously intelligent in their depiction of the most intangible extremes of experience. With his 1975 film "Picnic at Hanging Rock," for instance, Weir recounted the haunting story of a group of adolescent schoolgirls who disappeared at a sacred Aboriginal site in 1900. Weir's film made no attempt to explain this baffling occurrence, and he explored issues of a similar enigmatic nature two years later with "The Last Wave," a meditation on Aboriginal magic and prophesy.

With his new film, "Fearless," which stars Jeff Bridges, Rosie Perez and Isabella Rossellini, Weir pushes the envelope even further. The story of a successful San Francisco architect who survives the crash of a commercial airliner that kills his best friend, "Fearless" moves from that traumatic launching point into a complex inquiry into death and how the fear of death functions in life. The film--written by Rafael Yglesias from his novel and shot on location last year in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Bakersfield--is shocking not so much for its graphic depiction of a crash as for its head-on investigation of a subject that's pretty much taboo.

"In the modern Western world most people die out of sight--we really have shoved old age and death under the rug in this culture," the 49-year-old director observes during an interview. "It wasn't so long ago that there were no old-folks' homes, and most deaths occurred at home, and the scene around the deathbed was the subject of countless paintings. Today death is quite remote. Accidents occur around us every day but they're cleaned up quickly, and it's never indicated that on a particular corner several people may have died.

"One might speculate that this aversion to death has something to do with the diminished role of any kind of spirituality in modern society. I just came from Bali, where you have a Hindu culture laid on top of an old animus culture, so everything there is infused with religion. Mixed in with that are things we'd reject as incredibly superstitious, but nevertheless, in Bali the material side of life is viewed as unreal and is the shadow, and the substance is what we can't see. This belief may play a role in the fact that the Balinese are able to accept death in a way that we in the West really can't."

The struggle to come to grips with this most disturbing of nature's whims is at the heart of Weir's film. For Max Klein, the fictional crash survivor played by Bridges, his brush with death is a transcendental experience that leaves him unable to re-engage with daily life, and deeply conflicted over the fact that he survived while his friend did not. Cast as his wife, Rossellini plays a woman tormented with grief and rage as she watches her husband slipping away from the life they once led as he is engulfed by the philosophical crisis engendered by the crash. Perez plays a young mother who loses her child in the crash and is tortured by her belief that the child's death was somehow her fault. Tom Hulce is an ambulance-chasing lawyer eager to put a dollar amount on the lives of the crash victims, and John Turturro portrays an ineffectual psychologist who attempts to rationally explain an event that defies all logic. These diverse characters allow Weir to explore the subject at hand from five very different vantage points.

"Essentially, this is a detective story and the mystery at hand is this: What happened to these people psychologically in the moments leading up to the crash?" says Weir, a boyishly handsome man with impeccable manners and boundless curiosity.

"In researching the film I repeatedly came across references to a particular mystical state poets often allude to wherein the body and the soul separate and one is able to contemplate one's existence with a degree of detachment. I think this is something of what Max experiences during the crash, and it erases his fear of death. That may be an enviable state, but it's also a state that separates you from other people because it can take you into the realm of having no feelings at all--and this too is something he has to deal with. Having no fear of death, he has to consciously choose to be in life, and we see him struggling with this choice."

In preparation for the film, Weir and his cast met with several crash survivors, most of whom were "incredibly generous," Rossellini says. "I sensed they had an intense need to share their pain. We watched film of a plane crash with one of the survivors who described what happened second by second, and though I could see how painful this was, I felt that this person was grateful that we were going to try to illuminate their feelings. And oddly enough, I got the sense with many of these people that their lives were somehow enhanced by this experience they'd had."

Says Weir: "In talking with these people I noticed many consistencies in their experience--they all remained calm during the crash, for instance, because they didn't want panic to spread. Some people prayed, others held hands, some were knocked unconscious, and they all described the experience as surreal. They no longer felt rage by the time I spoke with them, but lawyers who deal with this sort of thing say that rage is one of the first reactions. Rage is then replaced by the very huge question: Why was I spared?

"In my musings about death and the notion of God, I've never questioned why the world isn't a perfect place and why people die horrible deaths. This isn't to suggest I accept these realities without flinching--I find them terrifying--but I don't think such things are up to God and can't imagine a god who would intervene. If God were to intervene, on what basis would he do so? Would we therefore say the Germans didn't have God on their side and we did? Was God on our side when we bombed Dresden? Obviously such questions are unanswerable, and I'm certainly not attempting to answer them with this film. The mere raising of such questions is enough."

Weir has been preoccupied with such questions for as long as he can remember and has no idea why.

"It's just something that's been with me since childhood, this feeling of wondering," he says. "My parents were a fairly conventional postwar couple trying to make a go of it, and they didn't encourage me to be particularly interested in such things. Nonetheless, I've always thought about these things."

Born in Sydney, Australia, one of three children of a prosperous real estate broker, Weir was reared in what he describes as "a classic middle-class home" in a seacoast suburb.

"I grew up just in the shadow of World War II and was obsessed with war as a child," he recalls. "All the garages in our neighborhood had war souvenirs in them, and we used to play with gas masks in the street.

"It was during those years--I guess I was about 9 at the time--that I remember getting my first glimpse of death. I can recall saying to my mother, 'What do you mean, we die? You mean you're going to die?' Obviously, the enormity of this is difficult to take in on first encounter," he says, laughing.

"Not having television was very important for me as far as developing my own creative sensibility. TV didn't come to Australia until 1956, when I was 12, so those early formative years were spent with books and idle hours. A child needs to be bored for the imagination to develop, and I spent long afternoons in the yard with sticks and a patch of dirt. Prior to the arrival of TV, Saturday afternoons were reserved for movies--usually Westerns or gangster pictures--and though we were all obsessed with movies, I wouldn't say I was a film buff. The first film that made an impression on me was a bug horror movie called 'Tarantula,' and shortly after that TV arrived and completely gripped my imagination."

After graduating from high school, Weir enrolled at the University of Sydney, planning to become a criminal lawyer, but he didn't enjoy school and quit after a few semesters.

"All I got out of school was a bit of French, a love of history and a love of Charles Dickens--I still reread his books often and continue to be dazzled by the freedom with which he constructs characters," Weir says. "He's a vividly cinematic writer, and I'm sure he'd be making movies if he were alive today."

His school career terminated, Weir went to work for his father, and by the time he was 21 he had saved enough money to finance a trip to Europe. During the five-week ocean voyage he met Wendy Stites, whom he married in 1976 (Stites has worked as a visual consultant on nearly all her husband's films, including "Fearless").

This auspicious trip also found Weir participating in a shipboard comedy revue, an experience that convinced him he was destined for a life in show business. Toward that end he took a job as a stagehand at a Sydney television station and appeared in several satiric stage revues.

In 1967 Weir made his first film, a comedy short titled "Count Vim's Last Exercise," after which he worked as a production assistant. A series of film-related jobs followed, and in 1973 he began shooting his feature film debut, "The Cars That Ate Paris," a darkly funny psychological drama that was released in 1974 to favorable reviews.

Weir was catapulted to international renown two years later with the release of "Picnic at Hanging Rock," which was followed two years later by "The Last Wave." In 1981 he completed "Gallipoli," an indictment on the senselessness of war, which was followed in 1983 by "The Year of Living Dangerously," a love story set against the political upheaval in Indonesia.

His 1985 film "Witness" examined cultures in collision; "The Mosquito Coast" (1986) explored the thin line between idealism and fanaticism; "Dead Poets Society" (1989)--the biggest box-office success of his career--celebrated the quest to find one's authentic and original voice in life. In 1990 Weir directed his only comedy, "Green Card."

Explaining how he approaches his work, Weir says: "Many creative people--and this is particularly true of writers--struggle to resolve key episodes from their childhood through their work, but I've never approached filmmaking that way. My childhood was fairly idyllic. Moreover, I've sort of blocked out all my memories prior to the age of 20. Instead of investigating my past, I experience the making of a film as a journey that puts the past behind me. The great thing about filmmaking is that each film is a new experience that you live through in real time. Unlike the reflective life of a writer, you move at a great rate when you make a film because there's a clock ticking, and there's no time for speculation until it's over."

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of Weir's working method is the integral role music plays in his process.

"If Peter has an idea for a way he wants to take a scene, he'll often play a piece of music that might suggest that idea, and not say another word about it," Jeff Bridges says. "He has an extremely subtle manner on the set and creates an atmosphere of real joy and relaxation."

Says Weir: "I couldn't conceive of making a film without music. As I'm packing to go make a film, I always go to my enormous collection of tapes and intuitively know what to take. To give you an idea of how important music and sound are for me in relation to film, I came to L.A. in 1979 to make what was to be a very big film, 'The Thorn Birds.' I wasn't sure I was right for it, but I thought, 'I can fudge it and I'll do it'--that was the only time in my life I took on a project I didn't feel fully connected to.

"So one night I was in a bar waiting for the writer to join me, and I had a drink with a plastic swizzle stick in it. I put the stick in my mouth and clenched it between my teeth and the end of it vibrated and made this buzzing noise. I thought, 'What an interesting sound--that's the sound of tension.' It's one of the fundamental sounds of film for me, and that's exactly the sound that's not in 'The Thorn Birds.' My next thought was 'I always make films that have this sound in it--I cannot make this film.' And I didn't."

Weir's "sound of tension" was by all accounts very much present on the set of "Fearless," despite the fact that the cast loved working with him.

"I had a hard time shaking this serious character after the film wrapped," says Rosie Perez. "What I did was completely immerse myself in the world of hip-hop and produced an HBO special of a live hip-hop concert, and that helped me get back into life."

Says Isabella Rossellini: "Generally one doesn't think about life and death on a film set, but these were the things we discussed every day. Having immersed myself in the subject, as we all did, I still find it hard to imagine that one day I'll be dead, and still see no rhyme or reason in the way it happens.

"My brother was in a car accident that left him severely injured and killed his wife, and one day he looked at me and said, 'Why?' I said I don't have an answer for you, but I have a joke. The joke is about an alcoholic who finally goes to AA and gets the courage to stand up and say, 'I'm an alcoholic. He then bursts into tears, looks up and says, 'God, why me?' And a voice from above replies, 'I don't know why, there was just something about you. . . .' "

Weir sums it up: "We're brought up to believe we can somehow control what goes on around us. It's a belief that probably starts with reassurances from mother that all is well, and it's furthered by the democratic idea that we're protected by law and everything is in its place. Obviously, this isn't true, yet it's an idea we cling to, and it's very difficult to reconcile this idea with death.

"A friend of mine recently said to me with a trace of anger in his voice, 'Did you hear about so-and-so? He died and he was only 48! He was a jogger, he didn't smoke or drink, and he went to bed early--what's going on here?' The answer is we all die, and it might be tomorrow for any of us."

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