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Peter Weir on being
Marianne Gray attended a master class by Peter Weir at the Taormina International Film Festival in June 2004. Weir gave an intimate self-portrait.
he painter Henri Matisse once said in an interview, 'An artist must never be a prisoner of himself, a prisoner of style, a prisoner of reputation, a prisoner of success etc.' I found myself, at an early point in my career, just such a prisoner, trapped and unable to go forward. It was at this point that I had a curious daydream. It was like a little story perfectly realised - and was set in Asia. I was to meet the guru of directors, the great master, the director of directors. He was so famous he had never made a film, like an architect who had never built a building. He did not need to; he was a genius. He lived on
top of mountain and it was very difficult to reach him. As a pilgrim I went up the mountain, waited some days and was finally permitted to see him. I went forward and he sat with his back to me. You were only allowed one question so I waited. He did not look at me but finally he said, 'What is your question?' I answered, 'Master how must I be and go forward as a director?' He was silent for a while and then, again without turning his head, he said: 'You must care and not care, both at the same time.' That was it. I have thought about his answer ever since. I think what it means is that if you care
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It's what you don't see that really matters
too much it blocks the unconscious, and it is that part of the mind that is freed by not caring. I would like to talk a little bit about a script. Firstly, and more important than the script, is the idea. The idea is so important. It can be fully formed; it can be a notion; it can be an emotion. I have had it in every form. Of course, sometimes you read a book and you want to make a film of it but sometimes the strangest origin will provoke a story. For example, on holiday in Tunisia in the 1970s I found a little Roman head in a field, a sculpture, and what was curious about this was that as I had walked across the field I knew I was going to find something. It was foreknowledge. I began picking through pieces of marble and eventually saw three parallel lines which was a hand attached to a head and the movie The Last Wave resulted from that experience. One thing leads to another, in this case, from the Roman head to a meeting with an Aborigine. When I told him about the the feeling I had before I found the head, he felt there was nothing strange about it. He believed that it was normal and he told me about pre-cognition and extra-sensory perception. Following your idea is a precious thing. Next, I would say, comes the talking. I find it best to work with someone - another writer - and such collaboration begins with talking, just talking. I think the best book I have read on the subject is Jean-Claude Carrière's The Secret Language of Film. At its heart is its most interesting point about working with Bunuel. I loved their ritual
which would begin in the morning with telling each other their dreams. Then they would talk through the morning, have a little siesta in the afternoon and in the evening they would meet for a drink and tell each other a story, any story, truth or fiction, thus exercising the muscle of the storyteller. Working recently with a writer on a difficult adaptation - and by way of an exercise - I thought up the worst story I could for a movie: the story of a lost dog. Every day we would spend half an hour talking about this lost dog just to provide exercise for our 'creativity-invention muscle'. Carrière talks a great deal about the struggle between left and right brain, between the conscious and logical part of the mind and the uncontrollable unconscious, and allows each their place. I think an even better way to start a script is by writing a short story since this is a freer form than a screenplay. For example, you have a scene where a man arrives to meet a woman in a restaurant. In the screenplay you would write interior restaurant, day, the man crosses to the table. You would probably describe the clothes he is wearing and some basic facts about him. You would describe the woman too, her look, her clothes, and only then would you have the dialogue. In the short story, as he crosses the restaurant you can describe his memory of the first restaurant he went to as a child with his mother and father; the woman can watch him approach and dream about what might happen in the future. It is a legitimate form of writing, the short story. The screenplay is a
Carrière talks a great deal about the struggle between left and right brain, between the conscious and logical part of the mind and the uncontrollable unconscious, and allows each their place.
Picnic at Hanging Rock: Pathe Distribution
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bastard, it is without literary credibility. I hate scripts. I remember meeting Stanley Kubrick and I said I hated scripts; apparently he did too. Somehow it takes the blood out of the writing for it to be put down like that. When I am writing a script, I put it down on a tape recorder and I try to make it like a radio play. I make all the sound effects like the wind blowing and the horses galloping and then I play it back in my car while driving through the traffic. This makes it legitimate, like listening to the radio, and you hear the bad and the good bits. Now I would like to move on to casting. I think that you can succeed with a good idea and great casting but of course, it helps if the script is also great. When casting, the director is like a detective in a missing persons' bureau. There is a description of the missing person and many people come forward claiming to be that person and it is for the detective director to decide who is the real missing person. The most extraordinary casting I've been involved with was Billy Kwan for The Year of Living Dangerously. I cast a woman as a man which was a very dangerous thing to do. It was not in the script. There was no benefit in this deception. The description of the missing person was for a 5ft tall, Chinese-Australian! Well, I cast someone in Australia, a man, and we began rehearsals with Mel Gibson but it was not working at all. I asked Mel what the problem was and he said that the guy irritated him and that he couldn't work with him. We tried rewriting the script but it still didn't work so I paid off the actor and went looking for someone else. I went to Los Angeles and New York, with a ticket leading me to Manila where we were filming, and I had to find Billy Kwan on the way. In casting I like to 'read' the other actors, which involves the actor looking into my eyes and not the camera while I say the words of the other characters - man, woman, child - so that I can feel the emotional relationship. With every applicant for the part, I could feel a problem until for almost for a joke we tried Linda Hunt. She looked like a man with her cropped hair; she was the right height and had excellent experience. We met and everything was perfect. Her feminine sensibility in the role made it intriguing instead of irritating so we decided on this dangerous path.
Now to the shooting. Generally speaking I do not like rehearsals because it becomes too worked out and everything is too logical. Instead I like to spend time with the actors, go for dinner, take a walk and talk about anything but the story. I think we are all Aborigines in that information comes to us much more than just via the lips and, if anything, language can be deceptive. Sometimes, if the actor wants a rehearsal, I will do improvisations. For instance, with Gerard Depardieu and Andie Macdowell in Green Card - a story in which they were sharing an apartment - I rented a little
The screenplay is a bastard, it is without literary credibility.
apartment and Gerard cooked food for them. I would have other actors telephone the house and we would improvise and try and make it a little bit like real life. I spent a week on the set of Frenzy - Alfred Hitchcock's last English film - and he only ever said one word on the set, the most important word 'Cut!' The actors would arrive while he was sitting in a chair, the first assistant would call 'Action' and they would do the scene. The actor might then come and kneel before his chair and say, 'I think I walked a little too fast; I did not have the right expression,' and Hitchcock would just look straight ahead and say, 'OK, take two.' He had already made the film in his mind. When you work on an American studio picture, a dangerous climate develops: them
and us. I would say to the crew, there is them and no us; there is only the picture. There are undoubtedly many traps in a studio picture, the major problem being how to retain your individuality under pressure. The answer lies in never taking a film unless it is deeply part of your creative DNA. I have seen others in trouble because they took a film for ambition or a creative actor or something. For me there is no difference in the creative love affair between the independent picture and the studio picture. But the studio will put the heat on. I remember a crisis on Master and Commander. The studio wanted to go one way and I another. They asked me to try it both ways. I replied, 'Gentlemen, think of me as a doctor. You have cancer and I am telling you how I will operate. I am a specialist and if I do it your way, you will die. This is not a debating society.' Many studio executives are intelligent and frequently have legal training and are used to arguing the case for the accused. You must therefore have conviction. For young film-makers, I give you this little tip: the clock is ticking, the money is being spent, the area is lit and the camera is here. You finish the scene. Now, what can be done for free? The scene may be set in a bedroom in the morning and you say, 'Let's go because we have to do the scene in the street,' but I say, 'Give me five more minutes.' To the director of photography whom I saw switch off all the lights, I ask for just the bedside lamp. To the wardrobe, I ask for some pyjamas or something to wear in bed. I then say to the actor, 'What can we do? We have a night scene in this room. Maybe you are reading a book?' The actor says that he has another idea: maybe he has insomnia, maybe he's sleepwalking or sleeping upside down or in bed fully clothed. Anyway, out of all this often comes a scene from the hidden life of the story. As for the cutting period, when I first screen a picture - the first cut - I get what I call the rough cut blues. If that is all there is, it's depressing. All of those dreams and all that work in two hours! Where has it all gone? In all my films, only once was it there for me, only once. So begins a wonderfully creative period: the final writing period. I collect all the video assist tapes, hundreds of hours of recorded material, including all the takes we did not
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print. Then again I become the detective looking for clues, for little moments. Maybe take six was cut halfway but maybe the actor had a particular moment, maybe three seconds, which were magic, so I mark and tape it and it may become a new scene. At night I play music (I play music all through the shoot too). I put on the headset, have a little wine and tobacco, and I play music for maybe an hour or two. It is pretty obvious what I'm doing: unjamming the conscious mind and allowing the unconscious to come through. Music stops the voice in your head. I also play the film silently - sometimes with music - because you learn a lot when the story comes through with just the pictures, the image. I screen twice a week, every week, each cut, once on the big screen and once on a television screen. Screen, screen and screen it. I mentioned music a couple of times. It is so important. I give you a quote from an Australian poet Gwn Harewood: 'Words can never say as music can, that unsayable grace that leaps like light from mind to mind.' I think I aspire to make films like that. Much of the music I have used to inspire me has ended up in the film, for instance, Beethoven's 5th Piano Concerto in Picnic and Richard Strauss in The Year of Living Dangerously. When I was playing that music Linda Hunt came and asked what it was. She said she loved it and I thought it fitted her character. Sometimes I find that I cannot put into words the feelings for an actor so I will say that I think their character is in a piece of music in some mysterious way. Linda took the Richard Strauss the four love songs - and she was so in love with the music that I put it into the scene. If I were an architect, I could never just do the plans; I would have to be the builder too. For the architect, if he puts a window here and doesn't like it, he can change it and put it over there. So it is with a script; there is a feeling on my sets of a restless mood because we might be rehearsing a scene before shooting and it is not working. What shall we do? The film is alive and it is like life. I would just like to make a couple of comments on audience. Sometimes on a Friday night when you find yourself in a multiplex with the swirling crowds, the garish colours, the popcorn, the shrill trailers
and the vulgarity of it all, you may wonder 'How can I make films for these people?' How have I survived? It is not really something you can think about too much. I neither make films solely for the audience nor solely for myself. I make them to communicate an intense feeling that has completely absorbed me. I make it with a budget proportionate to what I consider is the reach of the film. I think of the audience a lot when I am writing and when I am shooting. I think the audience would be thinking this. I think the audience would be expecting that.
Gogh and I feel my knees go weak and I have to sit down. What is that? What have they done? It is just a two-dimensional artefact but if I know what it is, I can put it in a film. Matisse speaks eloquently about it. He said it is possible for a strong feeling to be transmitted to an inanimate object and it is to do with love. In the latter part of his life Matisse refined work to a beautiful simplicity, for example his nudes. In his early works there were beautiful lines, great sensuality and immediate charm. In his later work, just a gesture or a couple of lines creates the same feelings and although perhaps initially less charming, they are more profound and more lasting. That is the search for the rest of my life: that simplicity. I would like to end with a quote from Matisse: 'Art may be said to imitate nature mainly by the life the creative worker infuses into the work. The work will then appear as fertile and as possessed of the same power to thrill, the same resplendent beauty as we find in works of nature. Great love is needed to achieve this effect, a love capable of inspiring and sustaining that patient, striving towards truth and that glowing warmth and analytical profundity that accompany the birth of any work of art.' He concludes: 'But is it not love that is the origin of all creation?'
I hate scripts. Somehow it takes the blood out of the writing for it to be put down like that.
Maybe that comes from my early tradition in theatre: I was an actor in university reviews and became very sensitive to the audience. I like to entertain people and it seems to me to be a worthwhile life. I am reminded of a cartoon I saw in a magazine. There is a tired, worn-out, old lady standing at the box office and she looks at a poster on the box office for a movie. She says to the clerk, 'Will it give me back my sense of wonder?' I became very interested in still-life painting, for example, a vase of flowers. You see thousands of paintings of vases of flowers and they have no effect. Then I look at the paintings of Cezanne, Matisse or van
Q and A
Audiences are hungry for something but they do not know what it is. It is probably art. How do you get it to them? I think you have to be patient and not conform to anything you think they want.
How did your way of filming change since you started working in the States? Did you have to give up anything? No. As an Australian, we share a language, the same colonial background and the popular culture of post-World War Two. Nevertheless I prefer not to live there. I think it is better for me to be a visitor, an outsider and a stranger, and to come and go. I live in Sydney and I do not want to become too familiar with the American culture. My last film was made with American money but had an English subject and The Truman Show was the kind of film that could have been made in Australia too. I think good ideas
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have no nationality. Let us not forget that this young art form began without national barriers. It is only language and the ownership of distribution that changed things. It is an international form of art and popular culture which belongs to us all. Look how we refer to directors: no one thinks of Fellini as Italian, he is Fellini. He is his own country and when you go to a movie of his, it is not an Italian movie. He belongs to us all. Whoever thinks of Mozart as an Austrian? In your films there is always a strong bond between the male characters. Why do you have this recurring theme? Well, my next film has a woman as the protagonist and I am starting to think like her, like a woman. In terms of the choice of subject, I think it chooses you. For me it is a mystery why it should be this one and not that one. As for the love story aspect of Master and Commander, it is true there was a love story in these books, in fact two love stories, but the majority of the writing is about men at sea. The love stories took place on land and what I wanted to deal with was a community locked inside the four walls of a boat. Do you agree that more film directors should study the other arts? Eisenstein, when he was filming in Moscow, spent three weeks studying a painting by Leonardo before he started filming. I think many film-makers are too narrow in their view. Do you consider
yourself an auteur and, if so, what is Weiresque? I cannot comment on what motivates other directors. What counts finally is what is up there on screen, however it arrived there. For me, I need the inspiration of the other arts, in particular, music and painting and nature. Auteur was defined in the fifties in France and I think I probably fit it broadly. For example, I think there are two Peters. The first Peter thinks, 'Here is a good script with an interesting star attached.' When my agent rings and asks: 'What did you think?' I say 'Beautiful.' He asks 'Do you like so and so the actor?' But when he asks if I'm going to do it, I say 'No.' 'Why?' he asks. 'Because the other Peter does not want to do it.' 'Why?' And I say: 'You cannot talk to him.' What do you think of contemporary cinema? I watch a lot of movies. I love movies. It is a little miracle when a movie works and I think
were again relevant. Is it also perhaps that this film unconsciously underpins your philosophy? Ambiguity underpins virtually all your films and is the power of many of them, so I wondered what it was that subconsciously informed the choice. Do you see yourself as a puppet master, working between poetry and reality? Yes, ambiguity is an important part of my work and sometimes in the United States I have had problems with this. It is not a general theme for films in the US with notable exceptions such as David Lynch, whose 'Picnic at Hanging Rock ' was never successful in the US. I think the artistic spirit is not comfortable with absolutes, not comfortable with political people. I have been courted many times by the left or the right, or they have seen a film as left or right and they wanted to meet me but by the end of the meeting, we do not have any rapport. The artist must remain a dangerous person otherwise they can become a propagandist and even if they are very good at it, it is a cul-de-sac which shuts down the unconscious and then all their work becomes conscious work. There are parallels between Living Dangerously and The Truman Show. Are we all puppets and how pessimistic are you? I think I believe there is some kind of balance. I probably have nothing but banalities to say so I will again quote Matisse who said that all painters should have their tongues cut out. I like to deal in the shadows. I would say that I have an optimistic personality but I do not think about it too much. I am curious and that helps guard against pessimism. Depression, yes, I can get that. But there is always the mystery of some little story. For example, coming out of the Greek Theatre the other night, walking across the path was a small beetle, like a tank, and I have been thinking about it ever since. Where did it go? Was it there when the Greeks were there? Does anyone eat them? Just when I am about to fall into some pessimistic mood, I find a story. From my hotel room I can see a palm tree and rocks in the sea. Hidden below, there is a lot of traffic on the road and I like quiet. The image of the tree and rocks is so strong that
Generally speaking I do not like rehearsals because it becomes too worked out and everything is too logical.
it is meant to be like that. It is very difficult to make them work but when I see myself fail, I see myself succeed. You need failure to drive you on. Each film is like a truffle: you cannot grow it; it just occurs where it will. This is natural, the way things are. There are very fertile periods in the world, such as, the seventies and the fifties. It is a cyclical thing. I think at the moment there is something of a creative recession but it will change, just like the world. Did you choose the film we saw today and if so, why this particular film and what do you think of it now, looking back? I think films are like wine: some are meant to be drunk in the year, others you put down in the cellar and they are better later. I took this bottle out of the cellar to see if it still had taste and how it was maturing. I am fascinated by this. I find some of my films have dated and some have not. Maybe I chose it because our neighbour is Indonesia and there is great change occurring in the country among the Muslim population, and so I thought these films
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1960s focus group
I forget the noise. For me, the image is more powerful than words so I'm distracted by things and that protects me. You mention in your opening remarks that there was only one time when you reached the editing stage that it was all there for you. Can you say what that film was and analyse why it was so for that film and not for the others? The film was Dead Poets Society and it just came together in the second cut. Why? I think it was just luck. Chance. I was even a little suspicious thinking that I was too lucky. Mostly it is a struggle and necessarily so. Do you sit beside the editor when he or she is cutting the film? No, the first thing I say to the editor is that he or she should cut it as if it were their film, as if they own it and their name will be on it. They should be the director with complete freedom. They can cut out all my favourite scenes, drop the wide shot of the battle, anything, because it is the only chance I have of getting another point of view on the material. By then I am rested and I can come back into the process. We discuss everything in detail, go away and come back, go away and come back, and finally I go away to watch my video from the set. Have you ever thought about making a film in Italy, on an Italian subject with an Italian cast, and can you tell us something about your latest film? I would love to point a camera at people in this wonderful country. For most creative
people, we are in a country that inspires us. It is not just the past; it is still here in your movies and your design and the way you follow the story. I often think it would be great to shoot my next film in Sicily but I will no doubt end up in South Chicago because you have to follow the story. No, I cannot say anything about my new film. It is bad luck to talk about what's next and I am superstitious. Has digital technology created a cinema revolution and in which way has it changed the career of artists like you? Having just done a film with 700 odd CGI shots, I have now passed through the learning experience and am a convert because it enriches the potential of the story you want to tell. I was working with top artists at ILM and Asylum, most of whose work in this new field was to do with fantasy, monsters, fantastic landscapes and doing nature, sky, sea and miniatures combined with CGI shoots. We would sit and look at a scene with a ship and the sky: the ocean was a plate put in and the ship was in a tank; the sky was added and you would say why it did not look right. You would analyse nature. I think there is much more to come from using the technology for realistic effects. Although I was impressed, I still believe that in the 100-plus years of cinema, the great invention remains the close-up: to see the eyes so big, three feet across, the close-up is stunning. I think that the eyes are windows to the soul in some way and you can look into a person through the eyes.
I play the film silently - sometimes with music because you learn a lot when the story comes through with just the pictures, the image.
The Year of Living Dangerously: MGM
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Ambiguity is an important part of my work and sometimes in the United States I have had problems with this.
Can you explain further about the two Peters syndrome? The films that I have said No to that the other Peter liked did not match some shadow in my being, in myself. It's like there is one Peter who wants to do something and the other Peter is like a shadow, and until they match up, I cannot do it. One is the unconscious and the other is the conscious. The left hand is the substance, the script that number one Peter says is very good and has a famous star, but the other Peter, the right side Peter, won't do it because there must be a shadow that matches the substance. Only when I have that matching, can I do it. It is something in my creative being that must match the offered material; when there is a match, both Peters will say Yes. In the case of Iraq, the propagandist or the documentary or social film-maker can work immediately, but for my kind of director, dealing with the ambiguities, I have to wait for my inspiration to come later. So here is a film made in 1982 about events in 1965, and even then sensitive Muslim people threatened the production. We had death
threats and eventually had to withdraw to Sydney to complete the picture because of Fundamentalist threats such as, 'In the name of Allah, the One and Almighty, cease your imperialist film-making activities. Stop or we will stop you.' What qualities did you find and appreciate in Mel Gibson? Have you thought about working together again and do you have a view on his directorial career? Mel Gibson was uncomfortable in this movie. I was shocked at this. Half way through the film I realised that I had been concentrating on Linda Hunt so I apologised to Mel and told him that I thought he was doing a wonderful job. He said he did not know what he was doing, that he was lost, that he did not understand the guy who was too old for him. I was shocked but I think this unsureness, the very thing he was talking about, was right for the character. I thought he did a wonderful job and has played no one like him since. We have talked about doing another film together over the years but have not found the subject. As far as his directing goes, I think his last film, The Passion of Christ, was a major leap for him as a director. I thought he had learnt a great deal and I complimented him. Do you think anyone would be willing to return to silent cinema? I think we are waiting for somebody to do that. The danger is that it would be a gimmick, and I think the most recent example of this, in a different way, was the Russian movie The Russian Ark in the Museum in St Petersburg. Very difficult to do. I think style is a tool, just a tool. If this tool of silence suits your subject then do it, but not the other way around. Do not start with the idea of it being silent. I like the Matisse idea that we must never be a prisoner of style; let the style come as the solution and not the means to the end. I look at my favourite silent films more or less each time I prepare for a film and it is wonderful that with DVD and video, we can collect them. Were you surprised that The Truman Show was a precursor to all the reality shows that are on television now? It was a surprise to me. I read a review from a respected New York reviewer (the reviews were generally good) which was negative saying that the problem with this film was that no one would watch a film like this
Call yourself a director!
Master & Commander: 20th C Fox
character, 32, and I'm interested in the world she has lived through and there is some connection with the story that interests me. It is a different world from the one I knew at that age. Communication has changed so much between young men and young women. The way the love story goes is different and I feel this is new territory. Like an explorer I'm going to a new continent where I do not know how it works and which way to go. I like that kind of new journey. I do not like to repeat myself and it is time for a bit of female sensibility. Do you feel in touch with today's audiences? Change is apparent and it is happening so rapidly, we do not know where it is taking us. It is noticeable with audiences under 25 who are not interested in linear narrative in the same way. Their interest in a story is not the same as mine; they do not care if the ending is bad or if there is no good film-making craft. They receive information all the time: when driving or jogging, there is music, and they have game-boys and television. Tuning to the sensibility of a young audience is very different and they are the ones who will dictate the changes. You can reach the audience in several ways but the hard part is marketing. I would hope to see in the future some kind of company that would think differently about marketing and production. If we care, we will save what we love, but if we do not care we will lose it. I am one of the front line troops and when I come out of the front line, like today, I understand less and less. These are anxious times and I think we are made more anxious about the film industry and its changes by the constant monitoring. It comes almost weekly: the patient is looking good, the patient is in decline. In a way we know too much. I think it is better that we get to work in our respective fields to make good movies and that we remain calm and focussed so that the Muse is made to descend.
because it was too boring. And generally it was said that they did not like it in Hollywood. I would like to become a director. What would you say to a person like me in the face of this huge and confusing machine? I wish there were a single answer to your question. If it is your destiny it will happen. Write, write, and go back and write something each day, about what you saw, a strange face in the street, a strange scar on someone or an odd phrase said to you; use your pad like a notebook. Was there any single film you feel was inspirational and which provoked you in the first place to want to become a film director? Many films. It's hard to pick a single one. I also had several teachers from the screen who were important to me but I won't name them because they are known to you. In the end though, you have to get in the water yourself.
But then moods come and I think of the very big difference between night and day. I once said yes to a film that I should not have said yes to because I could do it by day but not by night. It is another version of the two Peters: at night I would be very upset and say to myself that tomorrow I would ring and say no, and then day would come and I would feel I could do it. Now it has become
The artist must remain a dangerous person otherwise you can become a propagandist and even if you are very good at it, it is a cul-de-sac and it shuts down the unconscious and then all your work becomes conscious work.
organic and therefore not a torment any more. Why did your guru never make a film? Well, he had made them all in his mind, I think. He was beyond that. Why did Jesus not write? These people embodied their philosophy. There are architects who have built nothing, for whom it is more theoretical. Why are you turning to a women's subject for your next film? I have a daughter who is the same age as this
Do you feel the strain of 'I care', which is a very passionate relationship, and 'I care not', which is actually a tenet of Buddhism? Have you ever thought about the nature of creativity, why we create and what is the point of it all? I considered these questions many years ago when I began a journey along a path to the point now where I do not think much about them. I do not analyse. I have trained myself, by and large, to live somewhat spontaneously.
Marianne Gray is a freelance film journalist and biographer based in London. She is vice-chairman of the Film Section of the British Critics' Circle.