One of the many hats I wear is a job handling the distribution rights to several of my father’s earlier films – including Picnic at Hanging Rock. This year I organised an Instagram meet at Hanging Rock on Valentines Day to commemorate the 40th anniversary. With just 5 instagrammers participating, shots with the hashtag #peterweircollection went out to over half a million followers.
I grew up partly in suburban Australia, partly in a magical world. My father directed films, and I would often join the travelling circus: hanging out round the trailers, eating the cream buns from on set catering and often dressing up as an extra. As a young girl I listened in tears as Bill Kerr read the story of Mowgli in Gallipoli, was at the barn raising in Witness and painted the backdrop of the school play in Dead Poets Society.
Growing up and heading out on my own: I missed that world. Both the creativity and the coming together of a fascinating, diverse group of people. Drawn back into it, I became a set and costume designer in theatre, TV and film. Away from the child’s perspective I saw the other side: the hard work, the budget balancing and the bringing together of different visions. The effort that goes into getting something beautiful and unique.
In the last few years I’ve started navigating another branch of the creative path; an online one of Instagram, blogs posts and Pinterest – connecting with like minds, some in Australia, many living overseas. Along the way, I’ve often come across mentions of Picnic at Hanging Rock, which was the second film my father directed. Fashion designers frequently mention it as inspiration. Design*Sponge did a post called Living in: Picnic at Hanging Rock. Tavi Gevinson made a special trip to visit the Rock and created a collage of the experience for her online magazine Rookie.
I watched it again on the big screen. To my surprise I felt a strong wave of emotion as the carriage of excited young girls pulled out of Appleyard College, unknowingly moving towards the tragedy that lay ahead. Their innocence seems so precious. There is a timeless quality to the film: the hot day, the picnic, exploring the bush. I could see why young women were relating to it. Just as the name Miranda echoes in the bush on picnics and walks, the film is somewhere imprinted on the Australian psyche.
I had coffee with my father Peter Weir, up in Palm Beach, against a background of noisy parrots, and asked him about the process of making the film and why he thought it was continuing to resonate today.
Ingrid : A little while ago I met a Polish woman who told me that she had seen Picnic at Hanging Rock as a very young girl and was never sure if it was a actually a film or a dream. How did you give the film its ethereal mood?
Peter: Russell Boyd, the cinematographer, and I did a number of experiments with different camera speeds; that is slow motion – but not slow motion that you could detect. If we filmed a conversation between two of the girls we’d film the non speaking girl in slow motion and ask her not to blink or make any movement, so there was a kind of stillness within their shot. Then on the soundtrack a device I used was a slowed down earthquake, laid underneath certain bucolic scenes. I had a theory that there are inherited sounds from the deep past : you may never have been through an earthquake but if you hear that low rumble you have a feeling of unease.
Ingrid: Can you hear that when you look at the film now, the earthquake sounds?
Peter: No, not any more. We didn’t ever want it to be identifiable. But I did have occasional comments from people who had seen the film who would confirm that it did work, one person said ” I kept thinking, was the theatre I was in built over a subway?”
Ingrid: And Dad what was the actual shoot like?
Peter: We were under the usual pressure – time. The first challenge was to get the lighting right for the picnic itself which was at the very base of the Rock. There was just one time in the day when the light filtered down through the trees and created a very strong painterly image, a dappled golden light that lasted for about an hour.
Ingrid: What time of day was that?
Peter: 12. Just like the film. And Russell Boyd put silks up in the trees which further enhanced the light. My wonderful first Assistant Director contrived to get us there for that one hour over at least 8 or 9 days; which was very complex because it meant we had to go up and down the Rock to do other scenes. It was inconvenient but I felt it was important that the picnic had that dreamy look.
Ingrid : When did you first read the novel ?
Peter: It was bought to me by Patricia Lovell who was the co-producer of the film. We knew each other slightly from working at Channel 7; she’d been a presenter on Beauty and the Beast when I was a stagehand working there. In 1973 Pat appeared at my door with Picnic at Hanging Rock in her hand – I read it in one sitting, late into the night, I couldn’t put it down. As I read, I kept wondering about how it was going to end and hoping it wasn’t going to be a whodunnit … to my delight and surprise it remained open-ended. But therein lay the challenge: how to make a film of a mystery that had no solution?
Ingrid: The question that everyone wants to know is what happened to the girls. I remember you telling me about a meeting with the author Joan Lindsay where you asked the question you weren’t supposed to ask…
Peter: My first meeting with Joan Lindsay was a lunch at Mulberry Hill; a very beautiful property where she lived with her husband, Sir Darryl Lindsay. She had approval of the director in her contract and it was, as you can imagine, quite tense. I’d been told by her publisher (who was at the lunch), not to ask her about the matter of the truth of the story. It’s introduced in the book very enigmatically with a statement something like “whether this story is true of not hardly matters as the events occurred so long ago”. So she puts a riddle at the head of the book: is it true or is it not and does it matter? I personally loved not knowing. Because not knowing can induce a sense of wonder, that is to say, it links to some time in our childhood when we didn’t know things. But I did need to ask because it was going to come up. So I took a deep breath and said “Lady Lindsay… …did it happen?” And she said “Young man I hope that you will never ask me that question again.” Of course when the film came out journalists searched files and nothing was found in any newspaper records.
Ingrid: It stayed a secret…
Peter: Yes, and a secret that was very important to her, and I respected that and found it rather interesting. Apart from which people do disappear. And to be missing is to be neither alive or dead. It’s a kind of limbo. A key element of the film was to see the effect on those left behind .
Ingrid: A state of not knowing, which is a powerful idea in the film.
Peter: At the time and I’m sure since, there have been people who were extremely frustrated by it for this very reason. I was told a story of an American distributor who was looking at the film, hopefully going to buy it, and when it came to the end he threw his coffee cup at the screen, and said “I’ve sat here for nearly 2 hours and there’s no solution to the goddam mystery!” It certainly did break the rules.
Ingrid: The character of Miranda is central to the film. A line I love is “Miranda knows lots of things other people don’t know – secrets.” How did you conceive of Miranda?
Peter: Well, I think I just thought of her as having a highly developed, almost psychic ability to sense things. She had a foreshadowing of the events that were going to occur. Some sort of clairvoyant ability. It’s something that Joan Lindsay had herself. She wrote a book called “Time without Clocks” which refers to the fact that she had a certain strange power to stop the clocks and watches in her presence.
Ingrid: Wow- that’s like in the film where all the watches stop at 12. Did you ever see that happening with her?
Peter: No, she told me about it and she herself didn’t wear a watch for that reason. Also lifts would often stop with her on board. We talked of it one day when we were walking in the garden at Mulberry Hill – she was a great gardener. I asked her “Tell me about this ability, or should I say misfortune, that makes clocks stop in your presence ?” and she said “Well, I’m a gardener you know and we are rather strange people.”
Ingrid: She sounds intriguing. What you are telling me makes me want to know more about her. Last year you and I visited Hanging Rock- and bizarrely bumped into a group of American film students who had travelled out to Australia specifically to visit it. How did you feel seeing it again after all those years?
Peter: The first thing that I remembered was how over the many visits during filming it could present different facets. So it had a benign aspect in hard light – it looked lower, less threatening, sort of a hill really, a pleasant spot to go for a picnic. But then in another light it would change its mood entirely and seem rather ominous and threatening. It’s awe inspiring in a way to imagine the power of nature at the time of its creation – a great eruption out of the earth. Being there reminded me of just how much the location gave the story: it’s like a character, like an actor. When we climbed it I heard that same hollow sound underfoot- hinting at unplumbed depths.
Ingrid: I know some parts of it are very deep-
Peter: That’s true. Which of course was one solution to the mystery of what happened, as given by Tony Llewellyn -Jones who played the coach man, when he says “Perhaps they fell down a hole.”
Ingrid: There have been many fashion designers who have cited Picnic at Hanging Rock as inspiration – Alexander McQueen named an entire collection after it. I understand it, the look of the film is almost fairy tale like – golden and beautiful but with dark shadows.
Peter: A contribution to that was your mother because (although uncredited), she had a major influence on the wardrobe, specifically the young girls. Some of their dresses had already been made in different pastels, colours that they would have been wearing in reality. She showed me the famous Allen family photographic albums, from around 1900, held at the State Library of NSW. It was her inspiration to go for a monochromatic look and therefore thought the girls should be dressed all in cream. And that touch leant itself to an unreality and a feeling of the past in a very special way… but not as obvious as filming in black and white.
Ingrid: Sometimes Picnic seems to me not exactly a film but more of a poem, an elegy – perhaps that is why people find inspiration in it, like you might put on a piece of music to get into a creative state. It’s being mentioned as an influence by Sofia Coppola, Chloe Sevigny and Lena Dunham among others. Do you think it still resonates because of that open ended quality?
Peter: Well I think the story can continue to make itself in your mind because of this lack of an ending. In a sense then as a viewer the film belongs to you. The book and the film belong to you because you are left with the mystery and you are left to ponder.