John Schlesinger Award for Artistic Excellence
Whether it’s the endless wheat fields in “Witness,” or the high seas in the upcoming “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” Peter Weir excels at giving his movies a sense of place.
“I enjoy taking people on a journey,” says the director. “Like a painter who travels to find fresh landscapes and new inspiration, I try to do that in my filmmaking.”
Ever since the haunting “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” where prim schoolgirls ventured into the wild woods, the writer and director of “Master and Commander” has blended powerful landscapes with the cultural and sexual tensions of his characters in 14-plus films.
He also given pigeonholed actors a chance to stretch their talents, most notably Harrison Ford in “Witness” and “The Mosquito Coast,” Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society” and Jim Carrey in “The Truman Show.”
Weir says fellow Aussie Russell Crowe was the only actor to play Captain Jack Aubrey, the dynamic naval leader of “Master and Commander,” which is based on Patrick O’Brian’s Napoleonic Wars adventure novels.
Even though Weir had read several books in O’Brian’s 20-volume series, he was surprised to be offered a chance to direct a film version only six months after the author died in 2000.
He turned down the offer twice before signing on.
“While I wanted to borrow elements from the first book and others, the film I wanted to make would encapsulate the friendship of Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany) during their long voyage on a British warship,” he says.
Weir has great respect for O’Brian, saying the author’s ability to evoke the past makes him seem like a time traveler.
To prepare, Weir surrounded himself with period artifacts, consulted with historians, ship captains and drew from a mountain of research and other period novels.
It took two years for John Collee and him to write the screenplay and be ready to shoot it.
“Sometimes I felt like giving up,” he says. “It seemed too difficult to condense a life’s work of great literary merit into a few hours plus. But the next morning I’d wake up with an image in my mind that I had to explore. I really was drawn to create this society confined together on a war ship on the great oceans of the world.”
Weir chose the Rose, a replica of a British frigate from the Revolutionary War, to stand in for Aubrey’s HMS Surprise, and much of the filming took place in the waters off Baja California and in the same studio tank James Cameron used to sink the Titanic.
“I came out of this production stimulated by the enterprise,” he said. “These men had so much courage in this confined and brutal world, and yet their humanity still flourishes. I have great respect for the men who served on those ships and an even greater interest in that period of our history.”
His own history, however, is one he prefers not to reflect on too much.
“I have a distaste for looking back at my work and I’m also not nostalgic and that’s freeing in a way,” he said.
“I look at each story as a new experience and it’s my job as a craftsman to service that story and make appropriate choices for the art and trade of filmmaking.”
While he prefers to view his filmmaking less as a career and more as a way of life, Weir has earned four Oscar noms, three Golden Globe noms and numerous others from the DGA, AFI, WGA and the Cannes Film Festival for his efforts.
He’s also been nominated for other BAFTA awards tied to many of his films and won the David Lean Award for Best Direction for “The Truman Show.”
Now BAFTA/LA’s Britannia Awards are honoring his life’s work with the John Schlesinger Award for Artistic Excellence.
“I remember watching ‘Midnight Cowboy’ and ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ and they shocked and startled me. You never really get over that,” he said. “When you’re young, you hardly think you breathe the same air as directors like Schlesinger do. I’m very honored to receive this award in the name of such a giant in filmmaking.”