By Koraljka Suton
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? 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. —Peter Weir
Peter Weir, one of the leading directors in the Australian New Wave cinema movement, gained much-deserved popularity and acclaim with pictures such as Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), The Last Wave (1977) and Gallipoli (1981), before reaching the peak of his early career with the romantic drama The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) starring Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver. Thanks to the movie’s success, Weir went on to make a variety of praised films, both American and international, that largely differed in genre and garnered Academy Award nominations—the 1985 thriller Witness, the 1989 drama Dead Poets Society starring the late Robin Williams, the 1990 romantic comedy Green Card, the 1998 science-fiction drama The Truman Show and the 2003 period war-drama Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, with his last film being the critically acclaimed The Way Back in 2010. But there is one Peter Weir film that, although well-reviewed upon its initial release in 1993 and having scored an Oscar nomination for Rosie Perez in the Best Supporting Actress category, flopped at the box office and ended up never quite getting the recognition it truly deserved. That movie was Fearless, a 122-minute-long drama about a man who, after having survived a plane crash, starts living his life with reckless abandon. The script was based on a book of the same name, and both were written by novelist Rafael Yglesias who drew from personal experience—he had been in a car accident whereby his car had been flipped over, and even though he remained unhurt, his state of mind was altered. In 1988, the author started to search for newspaper reports about people who had a brush with death and successfully managed to evade it. He also had a self-proclaimed “morbid interest” in plane crashes due to his own fear of flying, as is mentioned in the notes from the Press Kit for Fearless: “And always, I would imagine what the passengers and crew must have been feeling between the time they realized the flight was in trouble and the moment the aircraft actually hit the ground.”
It was a year later that the inspiration for his two main characters ultimately came, when the United Airlines flight 232 crashed into an Iowa cornfield. Yglesias claimed to have read a single sentence in the very first newspaper report, pertaining to two of the survivors and the circumstances surrounding their survival, leading to him immediately imagining what their lives must have been like both before and after the crash. And so his seventh novel entitled Fearless came to be. But the writer sensed that it had the potential of transcending its literary form, so he started contacting producers in the attempt to sell the story as a movie. In his own words, that was not an easy thing to do, considering the fact that he was broke and the producers he came in touch with were not buying what he was selling, claiming that studio executives considered the contemplative novel unsuitable for adaptation. Surprisingly unfazed by the unanticipated turn of events, the author sat down and wrote the screenplay of his own accord in merely six weeks-time. In 1991, he sent the script to his friends of over twenty years, producers Paula Weinstein and Mark Rosenberg who decided to option it, taking the project to Warner Bros. Knowing that they had a powerful and moving project on their hands, the duo decided they wanted none other than Peter Weir directing it.
After having finished Green Card, Weir took a much-deserved year off. When he decided to come back to work, it was under the condition that he meet only with writers and studio heads, thereby eliminating the middleman. “I wanted to go to the people who paid for scripts, and the people who wrote them. Mark Rosenberg, whom I had met years before when he was an executive at Warner Bros., was the only producer who got through my ‘only a writer or studio head’ decree,” it states in the notes from the press kit. Weir told Rosenberg he wanted so-called “broken scripts,” meaning screenplays that were difficult or unusual in some way or another. And so, Rosenberg gave him Yglesias’ Fearless. When asked what exactly was broken about it, the filmmaker retorted that, even though the writing was really good, he had the feeling that the script was, in fact, two movies. The first twenty-five pages were about a man coming to terms with the fact that he was about to die, and the remainder of the script focused on the aftermath of surviving. He could not see how it could end up being one movie, but then he realized that he had the freedom to play with it, as he stated in an interview with Movieline’s Virginia Campbell in 1993: “I was just driving around listening to music, and I realized I could do anything I liked, as long as the story remained about life and death, or rather, love and fear, which was more to the point—you can’t say anything about death because you don’t know about death. You could certainly talk about fear. I used parts of the crash as flashbacks to show what the characters were still working out, the way one does after any kind of trauma.”
And what a wonderful cinematic gem exploring the various shapes and sizes trauma can take on Weir’s movie turned out to be. We meet the main character Max (played by the amazing Jeff Bridges) as he emerges from a cornfield, simultaneously carrying an infant and holding a small boy’s hand. After returning the children to their respective caregivers, we follow this curious man as he drives off in a cab from the scene of the plane crash he had just been in. Although we have no inkling as to what Max was like before the terrible accident took place, the way the other characters respond to him is indicative enough of how the traumatic experience has altered his perception and behavior. The flashbacks of the moments preceding the crash also hold the key to understanding who Max was—in Yglesias’ words, “a very phobic guy” who dealt with fear by “learning everything he could about how things work—what is safe and what isn’t safe.” But the Max that emerged from the rubble of the airplane was one who seemingly knows no fear. He daredevilishly eats strawberries he is presumably allergic to, he crosses a busy street without being hit by a vehicle, he balances on the ledge of a skyscraper, ecstatic about the fact that he is indestructible. But most of all, he cannot stand to live inauthentically and out of alignment with what he perceives to be the truth. This leads to him being incapable of lying, even when a lie could possibly bring the grieving widow of his deceased business partner money without causing harm to anyone else. This also results in him being frank with his wife (Isabella Rossellini) in regards to the lack of connection he feels between them, due to the difference in their experiences. She was not on the plane. She could, therefore, not possibly understand the fearlessness and feeling of infinite possibility that permeate her husband’s perception of reality. He evaded death. And the high that accompanies that achievement is incomprehensible to those who had not stared the grim reaper in the face and turned their backs on him.
But this high cannot be felt by Carla (Rosie Perez), a fellow passenger who lost her baby in the crash. A psychiatrist assigned to Max decides to bring the two together, thinking that they could help each other—for he is incapable of getting through to either. Carla, understandably, finds herself on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, for the trauma of the loss she has experienced leaves her completely and utterly paralyzed. Max finds his purpose in trying to bring her closer to the feeling of indestructibleness that replaced his once panic-ridden MO. During the time that Max and Carla spend together, it turns out that she is not the only one in need of help. And while he assists her with getting in touch with the joys of living, she, in turn, enables him to eventually recognize the trauma he himself has been running away from.
Although seemingly indestructible, Max is, in fact, also, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Carla’s experience manifests as complete and utter emotional paralysis, for she cannot endure the overwhelming amount of pain the death of her only child left in its wake. It is a coping mechanism that enables her to live through another day. Max’s defense strategy, on the other hand, is a diametrically opposite one and starts going into effect even before the plane crashes. In order to mitigate the trauma that will inevitably ensue, Max goes into savior mode moments before the fall. By helping another person come to terms with their fear and ensuring them that everything is going to be okay, Max blocks his phobia and grants himself the opportunity to stay out of touch with his own emotions. This does not mean that his grand carpe-diem-like awakening is in any way false, only that it is a double-edged sword. The prospect of almost dying indeed opens his eyes to the paralyzing effect that fear has on people’s lives and to the liberating impact of living in accordance with one’s true thoughts, feelings, wants, needs and desires—he has, after all, come so close to experiencing the unknown that people fear the most (dying) and has lived to tell the tale. In his altered state of consciousness, fear becomes just a remnant that prevents human beings from truly living. Max, therefore, feels free to question the life he had lived thus far and the choices he had made—he no longer feels required to live the status quo, afraid of what might happen if he were to challenge it. Unfortunately, he does so without any regard towards the people around him. In his eyes, they do not, they cannot understand, and he does not intend on making them.
Apart from hurting those nearest to him, what Max does not realize is that the state of fearlessness he desperately wants to cling to and reinforce every time something happens that opposes his new sense of self, is, in fact, a coping mechanism. Its function is to prevent the pain and shock of the traumatic event that he had not allowed himself to work through from kicking in. Therefore, he is also not truly living, because he wishes to shut down pain as a reality of life—a reality that needs to be allowed, experienced and accepted so as to be transcended, if one is to become truly fearless. One aspect of this coping mechanism is his need to save Carla, because in helping her work through her pain, he is indirectly saving that very aspect within himself. Or at least getting in touch with it. The two of them are inextricably linked by their shared experience and are thus the only ones who can help each other truly heal. And for Max, healing implies giving himself permission to be the one in need of saving, to be in pain that someone else can help relieve by being unconditionally present. In Max’s case, the pain in question must be the one experienced when the fear of dying is triggered, meaning that the only way for him to be metaphorically saved, is by allowing someone to quite literally save his life.
There is true poetry in Fearless, a movie that does not shy away from probing into the very heart of what makes human beings tick. And Weir does so not only by using flashbacks that put us in Max and Carla’s shoes and bring us closer to understanding the shock, horror, chaos and fear that are inherent in one such life-altering and potentially life-shattering experience, but also by resorting to close-ups as a means of capturing the essence of the human soul. As Weir said in an interview with Virginia Campbell: “When I started this film, it occurred to me how interesting it would be to attempt to ‘photograph souls.’ And I thought, why did that phrase ‘photograph souls’ come to mind? Where have I seen souls photographed? You know, with the barrier between the subject and the camera removed. Well, with children under a certain age—but that age gets younger and younger. Tribal people, the first time they’re photographed. You can see faces where there is no projection of what they would like you to see. In the world we live in, everybody tries to project image.” Therefore, the director strived to create one such atmosphere, where the cast members would allow him to photograph them without any built-up walls. Talking about the power of the close-up, Weir added: “With a great screen 30 feet across, to see a face, every line, every movement of every muscle, and wonder who is it inside that face? That’s what I was getting into in Fearless, thinking, ah, this is the frontier.”
Director of photography Allen Daviau, who had worked with filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg, John Schlesinger and George Miller, recalled how he and Weir had never even conversed prior to making Fearless. But Daviau claimed to have “known” the director through his former movies, a knowing that made him feel as if they were old friends. So, when Weir wanted to talk to him about the screenplay, the cinematographer asked no questions about it whatsoever. He just wanted to be the one to film it. It should come as no surprise then that his preparation process for Fearless involved revisiting and delving into the mesmerizing imagery of Weir’s motion pictures. When the two started discussing the screenplay in 1992, they both agreed that image clarity was of the utmost importance, with clarity implying not the sharpness of an image, but rather the technique necessary to make the audience look at the exact spot they want them to see. Calling Fearless a study of faces and eyes, Daviau recalls how they oftentimes went in tighter than is normally seen on close-ups, using the actors’ eyes to draw the audience into the scenes in question. Lighting was also a key factor when it came to conveying subtle emotional nuances Weir wanted captured on film. As Daviau remembers, they used two lighting strategies for shooting Bridges, depending on the atmosphere that the scene demanded. When Bridges’ character was cheerful, a softer light was used and when he was sad, lighting was utilized to stress the shadows under his eyes.
But no amount of lighting could convey the exuberance of joy and the depths of sorrow were it not for the volumes that the eyes of Jeff Bridges speak. Weir was already familiar with Bridges’ work and “saw sparks that were way above simply good craft,” as he once put it. But before turning to the actor, Weir’s first choice was Mel Gibson, who could not take the part because he was about to make his directorial debut with The Man Without a Face. After offering Bridges the role, the actor was skeptical because he was in dire need of a break, exhausted from his work on American Heart and The Vanishing. Luckily for Bridges, Weir’s first bit of direction was that he should take as much time as he needed to relax and reload, without paying the movie any mind. After six weeks, the director started sending him material he thought could be helpful in his process and Bridges later on expressed the excitement he felt due to working with such an inclusive and collaborative director, who never patronized his actors and who always incorporated their input into his work.
Bridges was also happy to have Yglesias on set at certain times, for that meant talking to the writer about his character and getting his blessing when needed. All of this led to the actor delivering a truly remarkable performance, seamlessly conveying all the emotional subtleties of a man who has, in the words of Joni Mitchell, “looked at life from both sides now, from win and lose”—and still somehow it’s life’s illusions he recalls, he really doesn’t know life at all. Bridges’ Max might have spent the entirety of the movie harboring under the illusion that he has finally come to understand life, only to realize to what extent he does not know what he does not know. Weir, on the other hand, is well aware of that fact, for his aim is not to know, but to explore. In beautifully exploring the various shades of pain, love, loss, grief, ecstasy and joy, he presented the world with a soulful slice of life that deserves to be rediscovered time and time again.
Koraljka Suton is a member of the Croatian Society of Film Critics and has a master’s degree in German and English. For her thesis, she did a comparative analysis of Spielberg’s ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘The Pacific’. Koraljka trained at a Zagreb-based acting studio for six years and fell in love with Michael Chekhov and Lee Strasberg’s acting techniques. She is also a contemporary dancer and a Reiki master who believes in the transformative quality of art. Read more »
“Because of my fear, I had a morbid interest in plane crashes and found myself reading all the news accounts when there had been an air disaster. And always, I would imagine what the passengers and crew must have been feeling between the time they first realized the flight was in trouble and the moment the aircraft actually hit the ground. Death is random and arbitrary and that’s a very difficult fact to live with when you’re confronted with it. So in that sense, Fearless is about the syndrome of survival, about guilt and trying to make sense of something that doesn’t make sense: ‘why did I live why did they die?’ Max was a very phobic guy. He tried to deal with fear by learning everything he could about how things work—what is safe and what isn’t safe. And that is the way he has dealt with his fear of flying. Then the worst thing that could happen to him actually happens—he is actually in a plane crash. The result of his walking away from that crash with hardly a scratch is that he is turned inside out. Instead of being phobic, he is now completely without fear and is suffering from a kind of post-traumatic stress. He is thrilled by the fact that he survived death and he keeps trying to recreate that thrill by putting his life in jeopardy. The irony, the paradox, of the story is that, although he is not well, he feels better than he ever has and he doesn’t want to give that up.” —Rafael Yglesias
Screenwriter must-read: Rafael Yglesias’ screenplay for Fearless [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
‘FEARLESS’: THE POETRY OF APOCALYPSE
Fearless: The Poetry of Apocalypse, by John C. Tibbetts. Interview conducted October 10, 1993.
Let’s begin with an image from Fearless. When we first see Jeff Bridges, he appears to be emerging from a tropical jungle. But in a moment we see it’s only a cornfield. Right away, viewers are caught off balance.
We wanted to create a certain mood at the outset, that’s true. I could have stayed in that cornfield for several days! We had planted eighty-five acres and had lots of smoke and wind machines to create that odd kind of look to it. You may have noticed we didn’t have the title and credits here, which is the usual thing to do, but moved them back until after the picture had started. I wanted to throw the audience into the situation, into the images, immediately; and not distract viewers with printing on the screen.
Do you grow crops on your own ranch back in Australia?
I have a property north of Sydney, quite a bit of land, but not a farm. My wife and I do keep a tropical garden, though, and we call it our “little piece of Bali.”
I’d like to imagine some pretty exotic plants growing on that land! It would fit. Anyway, your films seem to be driven more by images than by words, now that I think of it. And I’m thinking of the Botticelli angels in Picnic at Hanging Rock, for example, and now the Bosch painting in Fearless. There’s an unworldly kind of implication, something rather menacing, each time, isn’t it? I mean, the girls disappear mysteriously in Hanging Rock and now the character of Max in Fearless withdraws after the plane crash into his own trauma. Or are we talking about some kind of ecstatic state or condition in each case?
It hadn’t occurred to me to match them up until now! But it’s interesting that you pointed them out. When I look back into my screenplays I’ll find images I’ve saved at the time—things torn out of magazines, art books, whatever—that have been inspirational to me. And one of those images I kept for this movie was the Bosch picture, The Ascent into the Empyrean, which depicts figures coming up to Heaven to some kind of tunnel of light. I found it in a Life Magazine article about near-death experiences. I loved that picture. So much so, I thought I had to get it into the film, somehow. And so it got into the series of paintings that Max keeps on his desk. That’s a scene, incidentally, that’s not in the script. You know, I’ve just come back from a fantastic pilgrimage to see that picture. It was about three weeks ago and I was in Venice at the Film Festival and had been told that it was hanging in the Ducal Palace (which seemed odd to me!). Initially, when I asked people, they said they knew nothing about it; but later they admitted, yes, I was right, it is here, but it’s off limits. I would have to get special permission to see it. Which I got and then I was taken into the Palace through a series of rooms that had been the Inquisitors’ chambers. It looked as if the Chief Inquisitor had just left the day before! Which is what had happened, in a way, after Napoleon arrived and the place was turned rather quickly into a Museum. So I was led through the Inquisition and Torture rooms, where I saw a device where a prisoner was pulled up and held above the ground while he was questioned. Finally, in the room beyond were these seven or eight panels of the Bosch “Heaven and Hell” series, including the one I used in the film. It looked as if it had been painted yesterday. Bosch had worked so hard to get that light right—an effect more powerful than you saw in the print used in the movie.
It’s been two years since you made Green Card. Where have you been?
I had done two films back to back. Dead Poets was wrapping up and I was also rewriting the script for Green Card, which involved a lot of work with Gerard Depardieu. I needed a rest. I’ll be taking a rest this year, too, after Fearless. Don’t forget, as a film director you can lose that fresh stimulation. For example, you stop reading. Everything you read could be a film, you know? Or already is about to be one! So you get reading back—especially the reading that may have nothing to do with your work. Last year I started reading about Greece and I got everything I could about the “Golden Age.” Fascinating.
What led you to decide to make Fearless?
I had been sent a bunch of so-called “A-List” scripts from Hollywood, and what I saw made me want to see another list! These were all green-lighted pictures, finished and polished and just waiting for a big director and name star. What I wanted was something not so far along, something that had not been through that process already, something I could help develop myself. I wrote the studio heads and said, “What have you got in the bottom drawer, what have you got that you wouldn’t send me? What have you got that’s broken?” I think I used that term. Not long after that I got a script from producer Mark Rosenberg for Fearless. The novel by Rafael Yglesias had only just been published and he had already written on spec a screenplay. I got the first draft, liked it, and was on a plane to Hollywood within two weeks.
What kinds of changes were made after you took on the story?
For one thing, I didn’t want the story to take place in New York City. That would have meant shooting in New York in August, and I didn’t want to do that! Besides, I had already shot Green Card there and I needed a change. We decided on San Francisco—which meant that we would have to change the Italian characters in the novel to Latinos and Little Italy to the Mission district. Still, people were surprised at first when I chose Rosie Perez for the part. I guess they were puzzled because there didn’t seem to be any precedent in her work that indicated she could do a role like this. It seems like everybody wanted that part, by the way. It was “Cinderella Slipper” time, you know, people coming in and trying to squash their foot into the part. For another thing, I didn’t want to follow the book and have the plane crash at the beginning with the rest of the film serving as just an anticlimax. So I decided to start the film in the moments just after the crash. Then, in a series of Max’s flashbacks, we go back to the minutes just before the wreck. Gradually, we lead up to the actual moment of impact. It’s not until the very end of the film that we see the crash.
That scene, like so many other apocalyptic scenes in your films, seems savage and unreal, yet strangely beautiful.
I spoke to six survivors of Flight 232, which crashed and broke apart in 1989. They kept telling me that nobody ever gets this sort of thing right, and I said, “Well, tell me and I will get it right.” What they were saying was it all was unreal, something beyond description. They talked of blinding lights, a sense of slow motion, strange sounds everywhere. Right then I knew I couldn’t use a conventional soundtrack! And I decided to keep the cameras inside—no exterior shots. Plus, the FAA had shown me an excellent film where they had crashed a plane with cameras inside. I had felt something of these sensations myself, when I flew with some 747 pilots. They took me in a simulator to “experience” the kind of crash in Fearless. First, they took out the hydraulics—switch- switch—and said, “Now feel the wheel.” There was nothing. No control at all. Now the only way we were staying in the air was with the throttle. No flaps, no way to keep the nose up. You had to accelerate either the right engines or the left engines, and each time the wings would tilt sharply, like this, first one way, then the other. So you had to sort of corkscrew your way along. We crashed from 400 feet—just dropped out of the sky. A great thudding noise. I freaked. Then I sent Jeff and Rosie to experience the same thing! Funny thing, though, I’ve lost my own fear of flying. When I was young, flying a lot in and out of Sydney, I never thought of it. But during the last ten years or so, it was a problem. I’d be unable to sleep. I would sit there and listen to all the noises—the engine noises. Any change and I would sit up and think, What was that? I had researched near-death experiences before, you know. During the preparations for Gallipoli I had read all about the experiences of soldiers who in combat would be cut off from the rest of their units. They knew they were going to die. But then, miraculously, they would find themselves alive, like Lazarus, back from the dead.
Fearless is your tenth film. I don’t know anymore whether to think of you as an Australian filmmaker or a Hollywood filmmaker—or does it make a difference to you?
I think of myself as a character in “Jack and the Beanstalk.” I’m Jack and I have my farm in Australia and we have a cow, so to speak, and there’s this beanstalk, my career, which I’ve climbed and which has taken me to the land where the Giant lives, which is Hollywood. And I go there every now and then, am given the Golden Goose, play the Golden Harp to amuse the Giant at dinner. And the Giant always says, why don’t you stay? Why do you want to go home? You’ve got your own room here! But no, I keep returning to the farm. I like to be a foreigner here in Hollywood! To remain a foreigner! I have an agreement with Immigration about this. If I had lived back in the thirties, though, I might have come out here as one of those émigré fellows—come out here and stayed. But this is a Global Village now, and I can be in either place within twenty-four hours. But seriously, Hollywood’s just a state of mind, anyway. It’s everywhere. Anytime I want I can find as many “Hollywood types” in Sydney as here!
Still, Australia is where you got your start. Do you find that we overdo our enthusiasm about the “Australian Renaissance” in the late 1960s? Was it really that wonderful? What were things really like then?
No, it was fantastic. It was a wonderful time. I was in the thick of it. I was making short films from 1969 on until my first feature in 1973. What’s most important (and not usually mentioned) is the exact context of it all. We were at war in Vietnam, too. We were involved in our own student demonstrations. It was the long hair, father against son, the music, the dope, the whole upheaval. In some ways, the conflicts were maybe sharper than in some parts of America. Australia was a very sleepy country that was very homogenous in every way, and the war was therefore more shocking. There was this incredible contradiction: in a period of social upheaval it was exciting, too. Out of control, this excitement is a dangerous thing; but with a direction, it can be very positive. So, we had lots of theater, clothes shops, restaurants, the film industry—people shooting film. It was an era where you filmed that policeman backing into the crowd. This is evidence. The camera became the AK-47 of young people during that period. The truthful eye. So, cameras were about and people were making films; and I was caught up in this tremendously exciting period. And I’d come back from London in 1966 not sure if I’d made the right decision, although “Swinging London” was just about swung out. My family wrote me off as a complete disaster: Married, no money, sort of just gone off the rails, really; wanting to make films. And out of this sort of ferment came the films we made. We made them by hook and by crook. And the government people saw what we were doing and said, “Look, let’s back these guys and get the industry going again.” The money was really needed to finance the features we wanted to do. My god, it was great! That feeling for me lasted until the late seventies. By that time, I was needing new stimulation and I came here to do Witness in 1984. Much as a painter will change location to get fresh stimulation.
You work in a business with a lot of hype about directors being artists and working for creative control and all that sort of thing. But you’ve said before that you don’t see yourself as an artist at all. What do you mean by that?
It’s like the tale told about the Japanese potter. The potter is content to work as a craftsman. If the gods choose to touch his hands, that is the action of art—not that the artist decides to make a work of art.
But you do make conscious decisions about some things, like the use of certain kinds of music in your pictures, a wild mix ranging from Beethoven and Grieg to Penderecki, Gorecki, and African tribal drums.
On the set I always have music with me. I always carry about a boom box with music that seems appropriate to what we’re doing. I guess I’m a sort of “director deejay.” I find music can say things that words can’t. As a director I have to be careful not to talk too much. It’s really not about talking. Sometimes you’ll see a director at work and he’s talking and talking and explaining this and that and something or other. I find that sort of thing is just inhibiting.
But can you pin down how you see yourself in this regard? In your earlier years as a filmmaker in the mid-1970s, for example, with Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave, how did you regard yourself—as a craftsman or an artist?
I hesitate to go too deeply into questions like that. All I can say is that I think I was just trying to find my place in the scheme of things at that time. I grew up with the twin influences of the European cinema, through the film festivals, and American cinema and television. I loved both and wasn’t sure yet where I fit into that scheme. Picnic has a European look to it; The Last Wave seems like an American picture made by a Frenchman.
Do you take a secret delight in the sometimes baffling ambiguity of your pictures, particularly in the endings to Hanging Rock and Last Wave? While we’re all racing around for meanings, do you sit back, snickering through your fingers?
No, I’ve probably got my fingers firmly on my brow, thinking is this the right ending?
Are you going to take to your grave the truth about Hanging Rock—whether or not it’s really based on a true story?
I guess so. Or maybe I should leave behind a letter or something…?
Finally, back to the cornfield in Fearless. What are we supposed to think—are you giving us a message—that the exotic jungle is only just a commonplace wheat field; or that the wheat field can be a pretty terrible jungle, after all?
As long as you enter my world, or allow me to throw you into that world, which begins in that cornfield, it’s where nothing is quite as it seems. Therefore, even a cornfield could be threatening.
ALLEN DAVIAU, ASC
Two master stylists, Peter Weir and Allen Daviau, express in images an internal struggle to live with tragedy. Fearless Explores Emotional Aftermath of Fateful Flight, by Bob Fisher, from American Cinematographer, November 1993.
In an untested working relationship between a director and a cinematographer, participants hope to feel an elusive “click.” According to Allen Daviau, ASC, “you simply know it.” “Peter and I had never had a conversation before this film,” says Daviau of his most recent collaborator, director Peter Weir. “But I knew him like an old friend through his films. When I heard he wanted to talk about a script, I didn’t ask what it was about. I just said I wanted to shoot it.” Daviau has worked with some of the industry’s top visual stylists, including Steven Spielberg, Barry Levinson, John Schlesinger and George Miller. In 1982, for E.T.-The Extraterrestrial, Daviau earned his first Oscar nomination, and has since been nominated for Avalon, The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun and Bugsy. In addition, Daviau became the first cinematographer to win the ASC Outstanding Achievement Award for features twice (for Empire of the Sun and Bugsy). Empire also earned Daviau a BAFTA Award. With Fearless, Daviau adds to the list Peter Weir, another director with a reputation for creating memorable images.
Weir’s credits include The Year of Living Dangerously, Gallipoli, Witness, The Mosquito Coast and Dead Poets Society. Like his other films, these pictures all strive to examine the human condition via graphic and unforgettable visuals. Fearless fits the same mold. The movie is based on a book authored by Rafael Yglesias, who also wrote the script. Set in contemporary times, the tale begins at the site of a plane crash, where Max (Jeff Bridges) and Carla (Rosie Perez) are among the handful of survivors. Max is an upscale architect with a beautiful wife (Isabella Rossellini) and an 11 year-old son. Carla and her handy-man husband, meanwhile, live on the outer fringes of the lower middle class. Despite these differences in social strata, Max and Carla find their lives becoming inextricably intertwined in the days and weeks after the crash.
Daviau says that one of his joys in preparing for Fearless was exploring Weir’s body of work. Images from many of Weir’s films were buried in the recesses of his visual memory, but he watched them again, seeking insights into the director’s unique way of thinking. Daviau was particularly intrigued by Weir’s ’70s output, including The Last Wave and Picnic at Hanging Rock; he marvelled at how well the characters suited the landscapes. Daviau and Weir screened a number of other films together, including Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura. “I wanted Peter to see it on a big screen, because we talked a lot about placing actors in proper environments,” Daviau says. “This is a very good example of a film that builds its strength with an accumulation of details over a period of time. Antonioni put his main characters into a remarkable variety of backgrounds, which helps the audience understand the deterioration of their relationships.”
Like every film Daviau has photographed since E.T., Fearless is composed in the Academy standard 1:85:1 aspect ratio, with a hard matte used to protect the image for the 1.66:1 format typically used in Europe. “We discussed my preference for shooting this way, and Peter agreed,” Daviau says. “I know there are excellent cinematographers who don’t feel the same way, and I concede that you can record crisp pictures with today’s anamorphic lenses. But I still have serious doubts about the sharpness of the projected anamorphic images in many theaters.” In simple terms, he wants the audience to see the movie the way it is captured on film. Daviau and Weir even discussed the pros and cons of shooting certain sequences seen through Max’s eyes on 65mm film, but eventually rejected the idea after a series of tests indicated that because of the optical steps involved in reducing to 35mm, there wasn’t enough difference in image quality to justify the cost and trouble. Nonetheless, Daviau was pleased with Weir’s willingness to experiment. He instead managed to set the scenes apart by “lighting objects to give them more texture, shooting in more extreme crosslight so that image contrast heightened the impact.”
The director and cinematographer had their first discussions about the script during the spring of 1992. “We agreed that image clarity was the critical issue,” Daviau says. “I like images that are open and that speak very clearly photographically. This film is often a study of faces and eyes. Peter is very respectful of the power of close-ups. He speaks about that topic very eloquently, stating that even painters can’t equal the power of the motion picture close-up. We often came in a lot tighter than you normally see on close-ups, often using Jeff’s eyes to pull the audience into scenes.” Daviau is quick to note that the clarity of which he speaks is not the same as mere image sharpness: “By clarity, I mean that the audience can read the pictures immediately; we draw their eyes to exactly where we want them to look. The longer I shoot, the more I understand the range of subtleties you can build into close-ups. There are so many techniques; you can make the actors attractive or compelling. By putting an eye highlight in a certain spot, you pull the audience right to that spot on the screen.
“I borrowed something from every film I ever shot on this project,” he adds. “I used a lot of hard light on Bugsy, particularly for shading parts of faces. For the most part, we worked with softer sources on this film, but my gaffer, Larry Wallace, and my key grip Michael Kenner, controlled light in ways that allowed us to do some very subtle shadowing on faces.” Daviau notes that Weir is the first feature film director he has worked with who likes using the zoom lens. “He sees it as a legitimate tool,” says Daviau. “Sometimes we disguised it. At other times it was blatant, depending on what felt right. Maybe we’d do a little subtle movement with dolly grip Jim Shelton, and then we would blend a zoom into it at the end. I noticed that Peter used that technique on The Last Wave and other films. But I was never conscious of it until we did it ourselves.”
Daviau points out that there was a period in film history when zooms were used commonly and very effectively, citing John Alcott’s work on Barry Lyndon. “But it was often overused in television, and people backed off,” he says. “If a zoom is used tastefully, it can be a powerful emotional tool.” Fearless didn’t start shooting until September 1992, and completed production in early December. Initially, New York was going to be the venue, but Weir decided the settings weren’t right and shifted production to San Francisco. “I scouted locations with [production designer] John Stoddart, Rafeal (Yglesias), Peter and Wendy (Weir’s wife, who served as a visual consultant),” Daviau says. “Peter made it clear that he wanted to avoid visual cliches typical of ‘postcard photography’ of the city. There aren’t any cable cars or scenes shot from the bottoms of steep hills. He wanted to shoot in the highest parts of the city, looking down. The landscape is obviously San Francisco, but we showed it in a different way. Peter wanted the aura of a Mediterranean seaside community.”
The crew shot in San Francisco for six weeks, almost entirely at practical locations, including restaurants, office buildings, and a ferry. Despite the emphasis on close-ups, Daviau points out that the use of environments to help establish characters is a patented visual signature for Weir. The basic imaging tools used by Daviau were non-exotic. He did most of his filming with a Panaflex Platinum camera, often with the new 11:124-275mm Primo zoom lens. He added a Tiffen ProMist filter and an occasional net to soften the image. Almost all exteriors were recorded on the EXR 250T film 5293, and interiors were shot with the 500T 5296. He filmed the crash site with 5248 to set it apart visually. As is his normal practice, Daviau shot a series of film tests. His preference for using the EXR 5293 for most exteriors had more to do with the rich saturation of colors than with relative speed (compared to the 100-speed 5248 film). “I felt it was right for the San Francisco exterior look, and after viewing the tests, Peter agreed,” he comments.
Conversely, he opted for the 5296 film for interiors, mainly because he wanted a little less saturation—in addition to the extra stop—in those scenes. Occasionally, he used the 93 stock on interiors and pushed a little more light into the scene, especially when he wanted certain colors to stand out. Basically, the look in San Francisco was more saturated than the crash scene, filmed in Bakersfield, or sequences shot in Los Angeles. “Actually, there wasn’t much exterior Los Angeles footage,” he says, “and that included some night exteriors which were actually set in San Francisco.” Of their approach to camera movement, Daviau says, “Our operator, Paul Babin, worked carefully to keep camera movement organic with that of the cast, whether he was working with dollies, cranes or the remote head. He was a constant source of ideas that kept the images fresh and compelling.”
The visual inspiration for the film’s post-crash scenario came from the stark TV news coverage of a real-life plane crash in an Iowa cornfield several years ago. The movie appropriates the cornfield setting for its dreamlike first shots, which track a group of people wandering through the maze of stalks. “It’s a magnificent location around an actual farm,” says Daviau. “John Stoddart, the designer, had a greensman plant and raise the corn, so it was exactly what he envisioned. He also decorated the site with actual sections of wrecked planes. With the smoke, dust, debris and sirens, we all felt as though we were present at an actual crash.” The audience views the scene through the eyes of a dispassionate spectator wandering effortlessly through the cornfield. The camera comes upon a highway, where a jagged and twisted piece of the airplane’s tail blocks the road. We see Max, carrying an infant, wandering out of the wreckage as a dazed young boy follows in his wake. After leaving the boy with a rescue team, Max searches for the child’s mother. Carla is first seen being carried out of the ruins, screaming for her missing baby. A violent explosion interrupts her cries, and the plane section is quickly consumed by flames. Larry McConkey’s Steadicam captures telling details of inanimate objects hurled from the wreckage.
Cut back to Max, who still appears neat and surrealistically untouched. Max eventually locates the baby’s mother; unexpectedly, it is not Carla . Afterwards, he taxis to a hotel, where he showers and dresses as if it’s an ordinary day. As he peers into the bathroom mirror, however, it is clear that Max is beginning to ask why he survived. The moment is a point of departure for a journey into the souls of Max and Carla and the nexus of the story. Through a series of events, it becomes evident that their previous lives have become a kind of nether world, where their former values have no meaning. Both of them see the world differently, and the only way to understand their feelings would be to get inside their skins.
Weir and Daviau achieved the effect through the inclusion of vivid flashbacks. In a recreation of the moments leading up to the crash, for example, the plane suddenly begins making a fearsome rattling noise. Max leaves his business partner to comfort the boy who later follows him off the plane, perhaps saving himself in the process. Editor William Anderson pieced together a montage of images of Max comforting the boy and getting him positioned to survive the crash. Those images are blended with visions of the plane crumpling, burning and falling apart on impact. To shoot that scene, the airplane set was on special effects supervisor Ken Pepio’s gimballed rig 20 feet above the stage floor. “The crash happens between 10 and 11 a.m„ when the sun is high in the sky,” Daviau recounts. “I checked it out on flights between Los Angeles and San Francisco at that time of day. Purist that I am, I wanted virtually all of the light to come through small windows. Banks of nine lights above, below, and straight into the windows gave us that realistic look. Also, subtle use of streams of liquid nitrogen propelled past the windows by air movers mottled the light source, adding to the feeling of movement.
The main camera was placed on a Chapman Lenny arm or key grip Michael Kenner’s overhead dolly rig, which allowed the floor to be kept clear. Babin also shot a great deal of handheld P.O.V. footage, using camera movement to provide the impression of additional vibration in the falling plane. A key to the success of the sequence was anticipating how Anderson was going to piece all of the footage together. In addition to the master shot in the narrow set, there were the many cutaways made with the handheld camera. Daviau made some use of the Introvision projection process for these P.O.V. shots looking out of the windows. As the plane comes down, the camera captures the cornfield flying by, with glimpses of smoke and flames here and there. Daviau also used a painted backing, and in some cases just showed the audience the burned- out sky through the windows, depending upon the angle of the plane. All of this serves to create an illusion of movement; the plane seems to be diving, even though it is on a stationary rig.
The Introvision process, supervised by Bill Mesa, was used for several other shots that were elements of the crash, and also for a remarkable scene where Max appears to be walking around the ledge of a 12-story building. “In this case, Introvision cost less than blue screen, and Bill could show us what we were shooting through the viewfinder,” Daviau says. “Bill Mesa makes special effects magic seem so simple.” There is also a brief “digital cinematography” sequence. During a scene in which Max is dreaming, we see the rapid eye movements behind his clenched lids, and the shot ends with an incredibly tight composition isolated on just one ear. The move is choreographed with sounds of the plane struggling to survive, allowing the audience to enter Max’s dream. Examining the shot later, Daviau noted that Bridges’ ear was noticeably more orange than the skin tones in the rest of the scene.
In the past, this defect would have been in the finished film. “It would have been a nightmare to fix that optically,” he says. “But it was quick and easy to fix digitally, because you can be selective in correcting just part of the image without affecting other colors in the same frame.” The cinematographer employed a digital postproduction technique originally intended to serve the needs of visual effects practitioners. The specific frames where the ear was discernibly orange were scanned and converted to digital picture files at the Cinesite digital film center, in Burbank. A Cineon scanner was used to transfer the analog images on film to digital picture files; each frame translated into 40 megabytes of binary information. The digital pictures were displayed on high-resolution color monitors which are balanced to match the eventual screening room result accurately. The processed digital pictures were recorded on Eastman EXR color intermediate film 5244 and intercut with the live-action footage of the rest of the scene.
“When you create a digital film with this system, it’s not like doing it optically,” Daviau explains. “There is no increase in grain and no build-up of contrast. You can fix the subtlest, or the most severe, image problems, and when you cut it with the original film, there are no apparent differences. There is nothing to jar the audience, even subliminally, to draw their attention to the shot.” Many times, Daviau introduced close-ups with a wide shot with a large source back and off to the side to establish the light source before closing in. “When you come in tighter with the camera, the light source can be brought in closer to the face,” he says. “You use cutters and flags to create shadows which emphasize certain planes of the face, usually the eyes and the mouth.
“There is a lot more flexibility with soft light. You can even float a flag by hand on close-ups, and give the actor a little more freedom to move around. You have to be flexible enough to adapt to the actors’ performances. Sometimes it’s just a matter of a position changing. Other times, an actor will take a scene further than you anticipated in terms of its intensity, and this will affect the way you light for mood as well as exposure. You have to be flexible enough to make quick changes between takes, and that’s asking a lot of your crew. “My general thought process is to decide how much depth-of-field a scene requires, and to light accordingly,” Daviau ex- plains, adding that on this film they were generally working between stops T-2.8 and 3.5. “Sometimes, you want the eyes to be extremely sharp, and less depth-of-field can help you emphasize that. Other times, you want more depth. If you are putting a lamp through a big grid cloth, you can build the light by using a more powerful lamp without having to move your flags or cutters.”
Daviau points out that there is also a lot more flexibility in the use of diffusion materials today. He made extensive use of grid cloth, but also shot light through tracing paper on occasion. He also occasionally used a very thin material (Hampshire Frost), which barely took the lamp away from being a hard light. “It’s almost a net without the texture,” he says. “We used dulling spray on portions of this material, to soften the light on parts of the set. Once you acquire the knack for placing the light where you want it for faces, these things don’t take a lot of time. One of the more important factors in lighting close-ups is having very good stand-ins, so everything is set up right.” The smallest interior set used in the film was that of Carla’s bedroom, to which she has withdrawn, emerging only to go to church. In contrast to Max’s bright, white-walled, comfortable and spacious home, Carla and her family live in a small Mission district apartment crammed with other family members. The colors are more saturated, with most walls yellow, the bedroom pink, offering insight into Carla’s personality before the crash.
Daviau recalls that “at one point, I noticed the sun was poking between two buildings, coming into the window at a high angle, and bouncing off the carpet. That was the look I wanted for lighting Max and Carla .” The problem that it was only lit that way naturally for around 15 minutes a day, so Daviau had an 18K HMI light rigged outside, pointing straight down through the bedroom window, hitting the carpet in exactly the right spot. The scene opens in a darkened room where Carla is tossing and turning in bed having a nightmare. A little shrine holding a picture of her son, candles and religious objects, is lit by candlelight. Her husband opens the door and a beam of light from the hall hits her. Then he pulls the window shade up, letting the light in, and tells Carla it’s time to get out of bed and face reality. She pleads for the isolation of darkness. “The bounce off the carpet was the main source of light for their faces,” says Daviau, “except for a little ambient fill, which we modified for close-ups, when we moved off the master shot. John Stoddart had the walls of her room painted pink. It seems like a strange choice for a dramatic scene like this, but it worked beautifully with the candlelit shrine. The 96 film pulled the details we wanted out of the shadows, and it gave us a wide range of tonality.”
One of the largest interiors was a church, which Max and Carla visit while a wedding rehearsal is being held. “It gave Peter an opportunity to use the sounds of the rehearsal,” Daviau says. “There were a lot of practicals in the church, but for dramatic purposes, I wanted them off. I wanted the feeling of sunlight coming from up high. Larry Wallace and his best boy, Kevin Arnold, mounted some 4K HMI Pars in the belfry, so our main key seemed to be coming from a skylight high above. The altar seemed to be lit by the sun, with the pews falling into shadows, forming a natural frame.” Paul Babin, the camera operator, had operated B camera on Bugsy. There were only a few two camera scenes, but Daviau credits the B camera operator, Tom Connole, with “some beautiful second unit work. These are mainly P.O.V. shots seen from Max’s and Carla ‘s perspectives on a trip to Oakland, and establishing scenes in San Francisco which are sprinkled throughout the film.”
While the focal point of the collaborative process is with the director, Daviau notes that rapport and good communications with the cast are nearly as important. “You have to understand their concerns and what they are up against,” he says. “Basically, they are there by themselves. It’s the loneliest job. They have to trust you to make them look good, especially with the large close-ups we used. You have to understand where the light has to hit them, and give them as much freedom as possible to move around and respond to the scene without nailing their shoes to the floor. You generally develop lighting motifs for each actor as you get to know them. Sometimes, that’s the most important thing you can do. Other times, the mood of the scene is more important, but even then you have to make it work for the actors.”
The lighting strategy for Bridges featured two decidedly different looks, based on the mood of the scene. When he’s cheerful, the light is softer. When he’s sad, the key light is placed a little higher, to emphasize the shadows under his eyes, and the lack of joy in his demeanor. Perez is always in near half-light with the key just barely reaching the eye on the other side of her face. The film comes in just a touch under two hours, and there isn’t a wasted moment. “Having worked with him, I now understand why Peter’s films have such incredible energy,” Daviau says. “He distills the essence of the story. He creates a very open atmosphere where everyone is enthused about participating. In the end, it all came down to helping Peter tell a very intense and emotional story. I think it will leave the audience limp. With all the sadness, Carla and Max do share with us their sense of joy at being alive.”
PAUL BABIN, SOC
“In 1992, I was hired to be the camera operator on movie that would change my life, and would forever shift how I looked at the unique, collaborative, creation process we call filmmaking. I would compare every director and production experience to the standard that film set. After it, I found myself passing on what I’d learned to anyone who would listen.” —Paul Babin
PETER WEIR: DAVID LEAN LECTURE
A director of distinction and finesse, Peter Weir discusses his filmmaking style and offers advice to first time directors. Event recorded on 6 December 2010.
“There’s some hook in it that’s drawn you in, a scene or a moment that resonated profoundly. That particular moment is generally impenetrable and mysterious, and it becomes critically important. I remember what it was in Fearless. There are two men flying on a plane that’s in trouble, that’s going to go down, and one of them, the Jeff Bridges character, says to his partner, ‘I’m going to go forward and sit with that kid up there.’ And then the script says, ‘He moves down the aisle and sits beside the boy.’ It’s maybe an eighth of a page. That was the line that struck me—not what he says to his partner, not even his sitting down with the boy. Just his moving through the aircraft. The moment’s gone now, because I actually thought it through intellectually and photographed it. When we came to schedule it, I told the AD I wanted half a day to shoot it, which I think was a bit of a surprise. It’s always hard to speak about what interested you in a piece, because it’s often something unknowable. It’s the nonintellectual, the unconscious that’s most important to me.” —Peter Weir
Peter Weir answers questions after delivering the 2010 David Lean Lecture at BAFTA.
PETER WEIR: BITS & PIECES
“Peter Weir is an international filmmaker with universal appeal whose films have spanned six continents with their emotional sweep and haunting beauty. As part of the Australian New Wave that rose up in the 1970’s, Weir rose to international fame by making wonderfully hypnotic films like Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave. Like his fellow Aussie George Miller, he eventually helped establish Mel Gibson as an international star with his projects Gallipoli and The Year of Living Dangerously. Weir came to Hollywood and made films such as Witness and Dead Poets Society, which are the two films he’s most known for in the States. Unlike many filmmakers of his generation, he has never been a ‘flashy’ director who calls attention to his films with brash editing and clever camera tricks, and has frequently defended his simple directorial style that allows viewers to become absorbed in the story and not the filmmaker. My montage may call attention to his wonderful voice in a way his films never do. But I think it’s only fitting to heap praise to an underrated master of cinema who deserves to be lauded. Here is my tribute.” —Alejandro Villarreal
PETER WEIR’S ADVICE TO BEGINNING DIRECTORS
“There’s a curious Polish influence on this film. There’s a director who has just struck me and inspired me, Krzysztof Kieślowski. I saw The Decalogue on TV in Australia and The Double Life of Veronique. I found myself playing various Polish composers on the set, as I do, and at dailies. Most noticeably, Henryk Górecki.” —Peter Weir
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Peter Weir’s Fearless. Photographed by Merrick Morton & Jeff Bridges © Spring Creek Productions, Warner Bros. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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