Peter Weir’s ‘Witness’: A Deep, Subtle and Complex Social Comment Disguised as a Police Thriller

One of the main figures of the Australian New Wave, Peter Weir, earned the attention of the film-appreciating community with such films as the mystery drama Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), the renowned anti-war historical drama Gallipoli (1981) and the Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver-led drama The Year of Living Dangerously (1983). It was the perfect moment for a step forward, and a newly established police thriller called Witness seemed like a good opportunity for Weir to present his talents to the American public. Unlike his previous projects, on which he worked from the beginning and whose author he was in the full sense of the word, either writing the stories, working with the screenwriters or authoring the script himself, Witness was a rather peculiar case in the Australian master’s career: he joined the film after the screenplay was already finished and Harrison Ford was already attached to star. Producer Edward S. Feldman, at the time in a deal with 20th Century Fox, received the screenplay back in 1983. The script was initially named Called Home and was written by William Kelley and Earl W. Wallace, based on a story they developed with Pamela Wallace. They based the script on an episode of the acclaimed TV show Gunsmoke they wrote a decade earlier. The original concept was that of a rough Philadelphia cop hiding in a conservative, traditional Amish community while trying to protect a crucial witness to his new case. Feldman was very much interested, but the script switched hands all around Hollywood for quite some time and Fox deemed it “too rural.” Even when Feldman announced Harrison Ford was set to star, Fox still expressed disinterest. Paramount, however, agreed to do it and, when Weir’s responsibilities regarding The Mosquito Coast’s pre-production loosened, he signed on to direct. As Weir himself later explained, he had the desire to work as one of those directors from the 1940s, a hired hand who would get assignments from the studio and simply do them, without nurturing an especially strong emotional attachment to the story. Witness was his first American film, and even though he was hired when the project had already taken off, this didn’t stop him from intervening. “On Witness, I gave my notes to the writers and it wasn’t working the way I’ve described, so I rewrote it and sent it back to them to put it through their typewriter,” Weir recalled, as reported in Virginia Campbell’s great piece for Movieline 9 back in June 1998. “They were shocked at what I’d done.” He accepted their original idea and saw great potential in the shocking clash of cultures embodied in the characters of the hardened city policeman and the rural community that provides him with nurture and shelter, but realized what aspects of the story needed adjusting. “I put more Amish ambience in it. And I took out the overt part of the love story—I thought it was rather tacky. I lessened the violence at the end,” explained Weir, adding the screenwriters failed to share his vision. “The writers thought I was so destroying the piece that one of them said to me, to my astonishment, ‘don’t you want to be walking up the steps at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion to get your Academy Award?’.” Witness premiered in February 1985, and a year later received no less than eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor, winning in the Original Screenplay and Editing categories. With a very solid box office result behind him, Peter Weir established himself as a profitable and desired young filmmaker in Hollywood.

The story of a betrayed cop used to seeing brutality and violence needing help from an isolated community that practically hasn’t changed or adapted for the last couple of hundred years could have turned out completely different from what Weir envisioned. First of all, with Indiana Jones and Han Solo’s recognizable face on the billboards, Witness could have been made as a standard police thriller, exciting, dynamic and possibly quite forgettable: a cop forced to turn against his corrupt colleagues in a bloody pursuit of justice and revenge. The direction might have also been steered clear from crime and concentrated on the classic impossible love story at the center of the film, providing the audience with yet another against-all-odds romantic dramedy that would sell a plethora of tickets on Valentine’s Day. Moreover, the Amish backdrop and the obvious collision of tradition and modernity, purity and crime, 18th-century village and civilization, might have inspired a very silly comedy with the central inspiration drawn from the differences of the main protagonists. Luckily enough, the authors and especially Weir had something completely different in mind. The Amish community, along with their traditions, customs and way of life, serve as an integral part of the movie, not a picturesque backdrop to the main arc of the story. The never-realized love affair between Harrison Ford’s cop and Kelly McGillis’ Amish widow is handled with subtlety, grace and realism. Instead of pleasing the broad audience with a sweaty, wheat-covered, sticky sex scene in the dark corner of the barn, Weir opted for a gentle, Jane Eyre-like, Victorian approach to romance: everything’s in the eyes, the passion and chemistry come not from an exposed breast, but from the gaze. And the sexual tension between the beautiful widow and her handsome guest is palpable to the degree of being an extra character in the film: all achieved by adhering to very strict rules and uncharacteristic restraint. “In (the old) 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,” said Weir. Even the violence is restrained, sporadic, achieving a much stronger impact when shown and seen through the eyes of the innocent, aestheticized and carefully thought-out—just think of the corn silo sequence. “Peter walked around the farm looking for a way to kill someone beautifully,” explained John Seale, Weir’s director of photography on the film. Weir’s film is a wonderfully unexpected mixture of a thriller and a romantic story with a lot more depth than it was expected from both genres.

People sometimes say to me they prefer my Australian films to the American ones. To me, they’re all stories and you tell them. You know, they’re set here or they’re set there. But, yes, I think it’s more the case I no longer work with the studios. And I started working with Witness, 1984, through Master and Commander, let’s say, 2004. So, that was my studio period, and they no longer make those kinds of films. As somebody from a studio said to me recently, “We’re not in that kind of business anymore.” —Peter Weir

 
This was also Harrison Ford’s first role in the uncharted, more complex territory, and is today considered as one of his finest, if not the finest, performance. He repeated his collaboration with the filmmaker the very next year on The Mosquito Coast. “I supply (Weir) with something, he supplies me with something. We both benefit from the exchange,” stated Ford in Digby Diehl’s article published in American Film’s December 1986 issue. “Peter has a vision and it’s not always articulatable, if that’s a word. I’m a person who calls for logic and even a plodding kind of determination to have all the cards on the table. I’m the assistant storyteller.” Written by Earl W. Wallace and William Kelley, with Weir’s uncredited work on the script, shot by the Australian cinematographer John Seale, who would later win an Oscar for his work on The English Patient, with the French composer Maurice Jarre’s (Doctor Zhivago, The Train, A Passage to India) score and Thom Noble’s (Red Dawn, Thelma & Louise) editing, and with the strong supporting roles of Danny Glover, Josef Sommer, Alexander Godunov and Lukas Haas, Witness is a pleasure to go back to even thirty-two years after its release.

Originally there were two pages of dialogue in which Harrison Ford explained why he was leaving and the Amish woman gave her feelings to him. It was very literal, and I cut it all because we didn’t need it. The producer told me that the studio would never accept it because we need to know what they are feeling. I knew that if I had done my job properly, you would know exactly how they were feeling by the time it was all cut together. —Peter Weir

 
Witness’ significance lies not only in its craft but also in the context within which it saw the light of day: a Hollywood film advocating peace and harmony hitting theaters while the cinematically profitable Cold War was still in full swing. Not to mention the fact it treated an isolated, foreign community with respect and sympathy, which was no piece of cake back then, and seems especially relevant in our present as well. But one of the main reasons it’s so important to us is its beautiful epilogue, which sheds light on the film’s seemingly simple title. As the Amish villagers gather around the desperate policeman neck-deep in crime, he lowers his gun and gives up the futile fight and chooses to avoid bloodshed. The villagers simply stand there and watch him—they present no threat to his safety, they have no active role in the conflict, they are plain observers. But they are watching him, witnessing his actions, passively and peacefully forcing him to understand what he’s doing. Weir implies there’s a great power in our ability to watch, just like there’s a great responsibility in the hands of the community: don’t turn your back, don’t avert your gaze, witness what’s going on around you. In this interpretation, it’s easy to see why there’s no article the in the film’s title: is it possible that the title is a small piece of advice for the audience?

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Earl W. Wallace & William Kelley’s screenplay for Witness [PDF1, PDF2]. (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.

 
From Virginia Campbell’s great piece for Movieline 9 back in June 1998.

You did substantial reworking of the original script for The Truman Show. What sort of rewriting did you do on, say, Witness, for which you had far less time?
Having started in filmmaking by writing my own material—which I did because I had to, it was not my strongest suit—I’ve always needed to tailor material so that by the time it comes to shooting it has become mine in a profound way. I used to joke with writers when I started with them by saying, “I’m going to eat your script, it’s going to become part of my blood.” And I’d ask them to help me. This is the only way I can do it. On Witness I gave my notes to the two writers and it wasn’t working the way I’ve described, so I rewrote it and sent it back to them to “put through their typewriter.” They were shocked at what I’d done.

What had you done?
I put more Amish ambience in it. And I took out the overt part of the love story—I thought it was rather tacky. I lessened the violence at the end. The writers thought I was so destroying the piece that one of them said to me, to my astonishment, “Don’t you want to be walking up the steps at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to get your Academy Award?” On all my other films, there was no problem.

You often use silence instead of dialogue to make emotional points. I’d guess many of your script changes are just deletions of words.
On Witness that caused more waves than any other changes. At the end of the movie, when Harrison came to say good-bye to Kelly McGillis, the original script had him explaining why he was leaving and she explained how she was feeling. I cut the two pages and said, “If I’ve done my job, they should be able to just look at each other.” The writers and producer were concerned the audience wouldn’t understand, and Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was the head of production at Paramount, flew out to talk about it. Jeff asked me to explain the scene, and after I did, he said, “That’ll work.”

 

ON DIRECTING ‘WITNESS’ BY PETER WEIR

“The two just stood there admiring each other, with silence, enjoying the beauty of her naked body. Again with the dull setting accompanied with the flickering of the lamp to create a romantic scene. Again, the relationship was troubled by the issue of cultural conflict, where John explains the following day where he makes his speech ‘Rachel, if we made love last night, you’ll have to leave or I’ll have to stay.’ The cultural differences show that the two are unable to be together because of their beliefs.”

 

PETER WEIR: WHY I DIRECT THE WAY I DO

Director Peter Weir excerpt from FilmCraft: Directing by Mike Goodridge, published by Focal Press.

I grew up going to the movies as a kid on Saturday afternoons, but unlike many of my American contemporaries who knew that film was going to be their world, I had no idea what I was going to do. Then, when I was 20, I went to Europe in the way many young Australians did and still do. When I went, it was more of an adventure because we went by ship, and that journey—five weeks at sea—set me on this path because I got involved in the ship’s revue.

There was a closed-circuit TV on the ship, which had never been used, and we asked the entertainment officer if we could use that to do a comedy show. So by the time I got off the ship at Athens, I knew that I wanted to do something in the area of acting or writing. I got to London planning to get a job in theater, and I did—selling tickets. I kept on writing and did a little sketch comedy on amateur night at The Troubadour Club with friends from the ship. Back in Australia, I carried on working with my friends on revue shows and made a couple of short films funded by the government short-film fund.

On my second trip to London in 1970, on a study grant from the government film fund, I decided to concentrate on film and settle in Australia. My generation was the first that decided to come back as opposed to remaining in London. My first script, The Cars That Ate Paris, was accepted by the government feature-film fund, and I was very fortunate to be synchronous with the emergence of this fund.

My first feature was an overwhelming experience. I had set myself the goal of making a feature before I was 30, as I felt that if I didn’t get going before that age I wouldn’t have that chance again. The film opens with what looks like an advertisement for cigarettes, with a good-looking couple in a sports car out in the countryside, and they have an accident and are killed. So you can see the sketch comedy influence. I’d grown up with the Hammer horror films, and the town of secrets in the film fits in with that kind of tradition.

Having been a performer on stage and in my short films, I had a great rapport with actors. I thought that acting and writing would be my career for a period. The directing really came quite late, and because we had no industry in Australia at the time, you didn’t grow up at the feet of giants. While on the one hand that was hard because we had no one to inspire us, at the same time we had nothing to beat or overcome. We were the first.

 
It was a lucky period for a young filmmaker in Australia. We were all on the starting blocks together, and I could think of 20 other promising directors who didn’t come through. I think some people ran out of steam; they didn’t have a feel for it. I think it was just natural to me somehow. I must have absorbed it through the pores of my skin from going to those Saturday afternoon movies as a child. You learned the grammar like a child learns a foreign language—very quickly.

I always think of the audience. I think it goes back to performing when we did those live shows. My co-writer and I would write the sketches together and if the audience was with you, we’d expand the sketch, and conversely if the audience wasn’t responding, you’d tighten it up or lean more toward the slapstick. I think I got to really feel an audience and, as difficult as it is for a filmmaker, preview audiences can help you with the film. I can feel them through that old mechanism of being on stage and I can make a lot of adjustments in the cutting room as a result of those feelings.

I felt that I became confident with what I was doing on my third feature, The Last Wave, which in my own private university was some sort of graduation film. Before that, I could analyze why something hadn’t worked, but I found it very difficult to work out why something had worked that I’d not planned. Why did the audience get caught up in that particular part of the film? Sometimes it’s a collision of elements that you can pick apart and try to understand. That is part of learning on the job, I guess.

To an extent, I think I know what will work and what won’t now. There are always moments where a film won’t connect with the public and you thought it would. You may never know why it has failed. But then again, it’s quite fascinating how a film takes on a life of its own. This brings me to a well-used analogy, which is that the film is the child and you give birth to it and raise it, but you have to let it go. And as with a child, it takes on its own particular personality and at a certain point, you have to serve that. You have to drop that scene or do more of those scenes because the film needs it. A lot of this comes in the cutting room.

The cutting room is like the final writing stage, although you do it in a different way and you’ve got a finite amount of material, but an infinite number of ways to combine that material. I think if it’s got a spark, the spark’s always going to be there, but it’s a case of making it as bright as you can. There is no way you can add that spark if it’s not in the material. Perhaps I achieve a sense of ‘scale’ in my films for a number of reasons: one was the tremendous impact of traveling to Europe in 1965, getting a sense of distance by traveling by ship, which was a gift I didn’t realize at the time. Nowadays, of course, you can get anywhere within 24 hours. I think that trip gave me a feeling for adventure, for setting off on a journey, which is reflected in many of my films.

 
In some of my films, I attempt to show how vast, unknowable and interesting the world is because it’s the way it used to feel to me. From living at the bottom of the world in 1965, the world felt huge, and you would only see Paris in movies. The other, quite different circumstance, was that in the early 1970s, very few of our actors in Australia could say dialogue and very few of us could write it. So I tended to delete dialogue and let the camera tell the story.

Here’s an example: you have two people in a café, and the scene opens with the waitress bringing over coffee—she slops the coffee down, it spills into the saucer and she asks, “You want something else?” That sets the scene into a bad mood. But when the actress couldn’t say the lines because they just sound hopeless and amateurish, I told her not to say anything, just to put the coffee down. But I still want to show that this woman is very sloppy, so I ask the wardrobe people to get a pair of rotten old slippers, and we put a bandage with blood on it around her finger. So then I do a close-up of her feet flip-flopping across the floor, a close-up of the two people having coffee turning to see her approaching. One of them looks at her hand and I do a close-up on the bandage. She slops the coffee down, and the two people move the coffees to one side.

In the early days, that was the kind of survival technique I would apply. I also loved silent movies, and even to this day, I watch a couple of favorites before I make a movie just to reeducate myself in storytelling without synchronous sound.

Whenever I’ve written a script for an American studio or financier, or rewritten a script which already has accredited writers, I’ll drop dialogue. Executives in the U.S. often find this puzzling because the story isn’t explicable without the dialogue, and that’s how they read a script—they read the dialogue and scan the descriptions, which are usually pretty basic. I tend to expand the descriptions and cut the dialogue.

I got into a tricky spot with my first American film, Witness. At the end of that movie, the police detective, played by Harrison Ford, is leaving the farm to go back to his life in Philadelphia, and he goes to say goodbye to the Amish woman. Their romance is clearly not going to go anywhere. You see him driving away and passing the Amish man coming down the hill, and you realize that she is going to have a life with him. Originally there were two pages of dialogue in which Harrison explained why he was leaving and she gave her feelings to him. It was very literal, and I cut it all because we didn’t need it. The producer told me that the studio would never accept it because we need to know what they are feeling. I knew that if I had done my job properly, you would know exactly how they were feeling by the time it was all cut together. They just look at each other. It’s hopeless; it’s beyond words. The executive from the studio, Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was at Paramount at the time, flew out to talk to me and suggested I shoot it both ways just in case. That seemed a waste of time to me, so Jeff asked me to paint a picture in words for him and tell it like a story. So, over coffee in a restaurant in Lancaster Pennsylvania, I told him. He thought it sounded fine.

 
Casting is interesting. You think you know what kind of actor you want to play a part and then you meet somebody who completely alters that perception. I did a TV movie in 1979 in Australia called The Plumber, and there was the part of the plumber, who was a working-class guy, and a couple who were university graduates. The wife had been set, so I auditioned husbands and plumbers, and I finished one audition with a very good actor for the husband, and he said he always gets the husband parts and would love to play the plumber. He auditioned, and he was wonderful.

I realized that I was casting in a clichéd way by casting actors who always play working-class types. By taking somebody who usually plays the middle-class type and putting them in the plumber’s shoes, it brought something else. And he got the part. It was a wonderful lesson for me in the 1970s, and I keep that slight recklessness in the casting period, as I think I do when I am shooting. I like the idea of a controlled situation, but you have to leave room for the wild or unexpected. I pass that onto my casting directors so they don’t become too conservative, and that resulted in casting director Dianne Crittenden coming up with the idea of Alexander Godunov to play the Amish rival for the young woman’s affections in Witness. I knew of him slightly from the press but didn’t think he was an actor. She said she had met him and he had charm and a wonderful smile. So we had him in, and he couldn’t really say dialogue very well, but he did have this charm that you could photograph.

You have to trust the actors, and they have to trust you. I think that’s what the first meetings are all about, whether they are casting meetings or meeting a star for lunch or dinner. The verbal part of it is the least important aspect of the meeting. I think you sense somebody and they sense you. You have to see if there is a connection between your sensibilities. If there isn’t that kind of unseen handshake, I don’t think you will ever work well together.

When I was preparing The Last Wave, I wanted tribal Aboriginals in the film, and in particular, I wanted Nandjiwarra Amagula to play the tribal elder. I went to see him in Darwin where he was rehearsing some dances, and my advisor said that I should just go up and sit with him and talk. He hadn’t agreed to do the film yet, but he had been told the story broadly. So I went up and sat with him on a beach for four hours while he rehearsed, and we didn’t say a word, but I began to feel like he was checking me out somehow. At the end of the day, he asked if he could bring his wife to the shoot. That was it. I had passed the audition, and it was a good lesson for me.

I think the most difficult times for me fall into two areas. As every filmmaker knows, time is the enemy during shooting because there just isn’t enough time in the day and you’ve got to get the sequence today and the weather might not be what you want. But the practical side of it is dwarfed by the creative challenges, when you know something is not working or you’re not reaching far enough for something. The challenges are always fundamentally creative. —Peter Weir, from FilmCraft: Directing by Mike Goodridge

 

PETER WEIR: DAVID LEAN LECTURE

Peter Weir delivers BAFTA’s annual David Lean Lecture in December 2010.

 
A director of distinction and finesse, Peter Weir discusses his filmmaking style and offers advice to first time directors.

“To be a director is to have imagination, to tell yourself a different story every day. This is something you exercise, like your body in the gym. You have to read and read and read, as well as watch movies and above all, try to keep your conscience open, without the Internet or text messaging. You must find a time to be bored because then you dream and you start to imagine, to pay attention to things, to the world, keep the soor open for the unconscious.” —Master Class with Peter Weir

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Peter Weir’s Witness. Photographed by Josh Weiner © Paramount Pictures, Edward S. Feldman Production. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

 
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