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TheRaider.net Features Interviews Simon Wincer
 
Simon Wincer interview
by Stephen Jared - posted on May 13, 2008
 
Simon Wincer

Simon Wincer, the Australian director responsible for decades worth of adventures and westerns such as Lonesome Dove, The Lighthorsemen, The Phantom and some of the best of the Adventures of Young Indiana Jones series, seems slightly out of place on the 22nd floor of a swanky West Los Angeles office building. His entertainment attorneys rent the whole floor. “I’ve been with these guys for years and their offices were small when they started,” he tells me after a friendly introduction.

 

I had been tracking Simon Wincer down, determined to discuss his career, and suddenly found myself exceedingly fortunate; he doesn’t live in Los Angeles but would be visiting on business for three days. He graciously agreed to meet. Not surprisingly, he’s a great storyteller. His accent resonates with the rich voice of an outdoorsman. He’s the kind of guy who has high praise for the people he’s worked with and the places he’s been, but when I turn similar praise onto him, he becomes uncomfortable, not quite sure what to say.

“It started in 1956,” he tells me. “The Olympic Games were in Melbourne and I had the opportunity to visit a television studio one Sunday morning with my father, and I saw them doing this live sports show, and suddenly this whole world lit up before my eyes, and I knew then I wanted to be in this world.” He left school in 1962 and got a job as a mail boy at the television studio. Due to the relative youth of the medium, he was able to quickly climb the ranks from mailroom to floor manager then cameraman. He occasionally filled in for directors during long outside broadcasts. Anxious to move away from shooting sporting events, he began working part-time in theatre.

He soon traveled to England and found a job with a production company as an assistant director. “The first director I was assigned to was a young guy who just got out of the design department, called Ridley Scott.” Three years passed before he returned to Australia. He started directing around 1970, and he’s been directing ever since.

Do you happen to know Graeme Clifford?

Oh, I know Graeme very well, yes.

He directed a film called See You In My Dreams with Aidan Quinn and Marcia Gay Harden. I worked on it.

You’re kidding? When was that?

It was shot during the summer of 2000. It was for CBS.

He did a—I was in a company in Australia called Hoyts/Edgley—and Graham did a film for that company called Burke and Wills. It was a true story about these people traversing the continent and Graeme did that, and did a great job. I haven’t seen Graeme for a couple years, but he’s a terrific guy. He did that film Frances and that was a really great movie. He was a great editor and was editor on one of my favorite movies, Don’t Look Now, which is a Nic Roeg film.

And he edited The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Right.

I asked him, how do you edit The Man Who Fell To Earth?

Yeah, right! The way Nicholas Roeg played with time in that film was amazing.

Nic Roeg directed an episode of Young Indy (Demons of Deception), but let’s talk about you. I’m wondering what films had a big impact on you as a kid.

click to enlarge
Scene from
Oganga

The only time I was allowed to go to movies was when it was raining. It was very outdoorsy, growing up in Sydney. You didn’t go to movies when the sun was out. But when I did go, there was the serial, the cartoon, the B picture and the A picture. Francis the Talking Mule, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and I suppose the serials, all that sort of westerns and stuff, the Hopalong Cassidy. I suppose that’s where I developed a taste for westerns. I have a great love of horses and have since I was a little boy, and so a lot came out of that I guess too. But the film that influenced me most, later on, once I started my career was Lawrence of Arabia. That’s still got to be my number one movie.

You mention the horses. Your movie The Lighthorsemen is so sensitive to horses. In fact, in the titles at the beginning, there is a mentioning, not only of the brave soldiers who fought—but of their horses as well. You worked with so many animals—

Especially horses. I think after Free Willy and Operation Dumbo Drop I became known as the large mammal guy.

How did The Phantom come your way? I noticed he’s one of the few superheroes who rode a horse.

I suppose with The Phantom—originally, Joe Dante was going to direct that and Michael Douglas was going to produce, and it all fell apart and didn’t happen. I had just finished Operation Dumbo Drop, and I got a call from Sherry Lansing saying, “We were thinking about getting The Phantom going again. Would you like to do it?” And I said, “Well, I grew up with the comic. Yeah, I’d be very interested,” and so that’s how that came about. So, it wasn’t that he was on a horse or anything. It was just one of those things, and I know how to do that kind of stuff.

Jeffrey Boam wrote The Phantom and he also wrote Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

click to enlarge
The Phantom

He had already written the script when I came aboard. Jeffrey is no longer with us, sadly, and he also wrote a version of this Indy that’s coming out. I can tell you a story: I came back from doing a film in Namibia called Young Black Stallion, which Frank Marshall and Kathy Kennedy produced along with Fred Roos, and we were editing at Kennedy and Marshall’s down in Arizona and I came into a room, and they were all watching Phar Lap, which was a horse-racing movie I had done in Australia, and I said, “why are watching that?” And they said, “We’re going to produce this movie, Seabiscuit,” which ended up being directed by Gary Ross, who ironically was represented by my ex-agent, who was the same guy who got me on Phar Lap.

Anyway, the next day, we’re back in the editing room and George Lucas sticks his head in and says, “Simon, how are you? I heard you were here.” I said, “What are you doing here, George?” He said, “We’re meeting about the new Indy film.” He invited me to have lunch, and there’s George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford, Frank Marshall and Kathy Kennedy. And… whoever was the current writer at that time. I think it was Frank Darabont. Harrison was the only one I hadn’t met because I got to know Steven a bit on Young Indy. George is just the sweetest guy in the world.

Do you know the Young Indy titles as they are now, because when the Adventures of Young Indiana Jones episodes first aired, they were known by location and year. Now they have movie titles.

I think I pretty much know the movie titles.

Okay, so then the first one you directed, if it was in Africa had to be the one with Albert Schweitzer.

click to enlarge
Oganga: The Giver and Taker of Life

Yeah, it was originally called German East Africa, and now it’s Oganga or something like that, which is what the natives called him. Yeah, that was just a dream for me. I had just finished a movie called Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and went to Africa and spent seven weeks under canvas. Right up in Northeastern Kenya, on the Somalian border, we were in a safari camp. A boat would pick us up at six every morning and take us upstream. We’d be picked up by a truck, which would take us to the set we had built. You’d see these native villages, which were just like you’d see a hundred years ago, you know. It was just a dream. Cause its like John Ford, you know. Living under canvas. Finishing off every day and then going back. It was just fantastic.

When you came onboard for that, was it with the idea you would do several or—

That was the only one offered to me at that time. This was very early in the series. They had done one in Spain, and I think they’d done one other in Egypt. I was in Africa before all the others with the production designer. George turned up and the first time I met him was actually at lunch. He had a list of all the episodes on a piece of paper, and he put his lunch down next to me, and Rick McCallum was there as well. And they had all these dates and there was one missing—October 1918. I said “Don’t you have a story for that, George.” He said “No, we don’t.” I said, “Have you seen my film The Lighthorsemen?” He said, “Yeah, I love that film.” I said, “October the 31st 1918.” (this would become Daredevils in the Desert). Cut to a while later, and I finished in Africa and they asked me to come and shoot one in Russia. I thought to myself, I’ve had such a fun time, how could I resist? Such a nice group of people, and it was just fun. You had time. Because they also shot it on 16 mm, did you realize that?

No, I didn’t.

The idea was that it would allow us higher production value by saving money on film stock. Also, you could use more cameras because the film stock is half the price. So, I accepted to do this Russian episode. And then he immediately put me in touch with Frank Darabont to develop this Lighthorsemen episode.

Between Indy films, did you go work on other things or did you do all the Indy work in succession?

click to enlarge
Adventures in
the Secret Service

I did Africa, then I did half of the Russia episode in Prague. Then went scouting in St Petersburg late November, but we didn’t shoot that until the following April. This was right at the end of communism—1992. Then when I was sitting in the editing room with George, the phone rang and a producer called, and George was sitting next to me and this producer said, “Simon, we wondering if we could get you to do the pilot of this new series called Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman,” and I said, “Oh, I’m not sure because…uh…I really need to go home for Christmas and be with my kids and…” And George starts whispering, “No. Turn it down.” I said to the producer, “Is it possible I could call you back?” I got off the phone and George said, “I’m going to do another 2-hour episode of Young Indy and I’d love you to do it. It’s going to be All Quiet On The Western Front and The Great Escape. I said, “Oh, that sounds great.” And George said, “Go home and be with your kids then you can come back and we don’t need to start shooting in Prague until the end of January, and then you can go to Russia after that.” And I said, “Great.” So I turned down Dr. Quinn. George put me in touch with another great writer, Jonathan Hensleigh, who was developing what is now called The Trenches of Hell. And it’s just great. That’s the one that Liz (my wife) was the art director on and helped design all the trenches and stuff like that. And we got to explore all those great castles in Czechoslovakia and it was just great. So much fun.

They all have a different tone. How do you as a director shoot something that is more of a somber war film, as opposed to something that is more lightweight action-adventure?

click to enlarge
The Trenches of Hell

Yeah, I think that’s why they chose to work with different directors. They wanted each episode to work on its own. They all have a different style. For example, the Russian one—Dave Tattersall, who is a wonderful cameraman, wanted it to look like, you know, all long shadows and The Third Man kind of thing, and so for the battle of the Somme one, Trenches of Hell, I just wanted the mire and the crap. It’s just so terrifying and also just the vast numbers of people when they get off the train, cause they’re just canon fodder, you know. It’s just dreadful. It’s hard to believe – something like 600,000 people died at the Somme. Something ridiculous like that.

There are the shots of the horses wearing gas masks.

That’s right. That’s a piece taken from a film George had bought. But I couldn’t resist it because it was something I’d never seen. It was some obscure German war or Polish film or something like that. That’s great. George said, “We bought a little stock footage. You might want to throw this into it.” The editor of that episode was Ben Burtt. Ben—I don’t know if you know who Ben is?

Star Wars.

Well, he’s the guy who reinvented movie sound. A lovely guy. On my African episode, he was given to me as a second unit director, and he’s fantastic with a movie camera. We really hit it off. When we were at Skywalker to look at the first cut of the battle of the Somme episode, Ben had set this up with full stereo, and he had these choirs, and I was just blown away. He had this huge orchestral stuff. He’s so wonderful. So, that was a really fun one to do. And then the second part of it was the sort of Great Escape one with Indy. Great fun to do.

Where was the Somme battle shot?

click to enlarge
Trenches of Hell scene

Prague. The battlefield was on the backlot of Barrandov Studios. We literally bulldozed it, and then built these trenches. Russian trench guys came and did it—a fantastic job. And we just got perfect weather. It was freezing bloody cold but the sun was out and so everything was backlit beautifully with the smoke and we never had less than 400 extras, and you can do a lot with that many.

Did you cast Catherine Zeta-Jones in The Phantom based on having worked with her in Young Indy?

Casting Catherine in Young Indy is really interesting because we had cast Minnie Driver and we were shooting in Istanbul, Turkey. I went to London for casting and was blown away by Minnie and when I got back, Minnie rang me up and said, “Look, I’ve just been cast in a three months role in a BBC Drama, or something; I can’t afford to say no, would you mind if I pulled out” and I said, “No, of course, I understand that.” So, the casting lady sent this tape of Catherine, and I can’t remember the name of the movie but she was very impressive. The one thing she hated in that bloody episode was being on that camel though. I can remember Catherine’s exquisite Welsh accent, saying, “Wincer, will you get me off this f-ing camel!” It was freezing cold and the horses were shaking cause they can’t stand the smell of camels, you know. Camels are difficult. We had to, at one point, use fishing line attached to their mouths to sort of guide them in the direction we wanted them to go.

Daniel Craig was in that episode too, wasn’t he?

click to enlarge
Catherine Zeta-Jones in Daredevils of the Desert

Yeah, that’s right. Liz, my wife, who was the art director on that episode said to me then “That guy’s going to be a star." He played the German baddie in that. There’s a big fight scene at the end, which was not in the original script. That was an idea George had. He kept saying, “It needs something. It just lacks a little something” and so we came up with that whole big ending, and it was fun to do.

Do Catherine Zeta-Jones and Daniel Craig call you from time to time and say, “Without you, I’d be nothing?”

(laughs) I have run into Catherine a few times, and we did The Phantom together, and she’s just great fun. Delightful. Daniel and I literally haven’t crossed paths. Daniel’s career has—I thought he was a terrific Bond. I just loved that last film.

I thought it was the best Bond of all.

Marty Campbell’s a good friend of mine, and I’m just thrilled for him because he’s a terrific director.

I loved his Zorro.

Yeah, they’re great. Particularly the first one. I thought it was just super. He’s a really good guy. He works hard. He’s great.

(I begin fumbling with my notes while Mr. Wincer waits patiently)

click to enlarge
Daredevils of the Desert

I think the thing George says about Indy—the thing he loved about television is—once that train starts going, it doesn’t stop until it gets to the station. It’s just relentless. And he liked the fact that it couldn’t just drag on forever. They workshoped all those writers, Darabont, Hensleigh, Gavin Scott and… so many. They all came up with these terrific scripts. I think he was really disappointed that the series didn’t do as well. George encouraged us all to shoot everything with two or three cameras, which was terrific, and it was probably the happiest creative experience I’ve had in terms of doing what we all thought was good work, and having enough time to do it, getting the production values that are so difficult to get on screen. They had a really good production crew and all of them are now doing the James Bonds and Harry Potters and all that. So, it was a terrific experience all around.

What’s Rick McCallum like?

He’s great, very laid back, very sympathetic towards problems, particularly as things happen when shooting all over the world. It’s not like shooting here. He was always on top of stuff like that. Logistically, Young Indy was a monster, you know. I mean I did Africa, Turkey, Russia, Czechoslovakia, casting in England, France and Germany, and that was just my episodes. I think in the end they did 26 countries or something like that.

You’ve worked with Tom Selleck three times. Any chance you’ll work together again?

Yeah.

Another western?

click to enlarge
Quigley Down Under (1990)

Another western. You know, the business has changed so much. But, yeah. It’s another Louis L’Amour. It’s called The Empty Land. I think it’s really good. We’re a good team on westerns, Tom and I. We have a good relationship and he’s a good cowboy. You know, on Monte Walsh, I wasn’t the original director. I replaced someone. At first, I wasn’t available to them. I was doing Young Black Stallion and then an ironic thing happened. Fed Ex lost the last three rolls of our film, just disappeared. We actually were in post-production and didn’t want to go back to Namibia. So, they shut the whole thing down to work out the insurance claim. Suddenly, I became available. They had been shooting a week. The cameraman was one of my best friends, an Australian named David Eggby. He said to me before, “We’re in trouble.” So, I said, “Well, there’s nothing I can do. I’m not available.” But then suddenly I became available. Anyway, so I went up on a Saturday, had breakfast with Tom and producer Michael Brandman then started shooting Monday. Re-shot 98% of what they’d done. I had read the script once. And, so I just had to do it on the fly. Really great team of actors. They were all terrific. The first guy was just overwhelmed by the genre, you know. I understand horses and what you can and can’t do. Cowboys all talk a different language, and if you can’t talk their language, then, you know, the door just comes down.

Your career has been mostly adventure films and westerns. Is that because of your background?

I’m attracted to stories that have a really strong emotional through-line. People say my films always make them cry. So, that’s what I’m attracted to.

There’s a moment in The Phantom, where he’s racing through the jungle on his horse and his wolf friend is charging along right next to him. It’s so beautiful; I was really moved when I saw it. Tears welled up.

That’s great. Hard to do. The timing of that was really difficult. That’s good, yeah. So, I’m attracted to stories that really have a strong emotional line.

I’ve got friends who know, more than I do, the great westerns and they say Lonesome Dove is the greatest western ever made. How did that project come to you?

First of all, every director in America wanted to do it. The book had won the Pulitzer Prize. Larry McMurtry—Terms of Endearment, Last Picture Show, Horseman, Pass By, etc. etc.—wonderful writer. It’s all about good material, you know. We’re only as good as the material we have. Bill Wittliff had adapted Lonesome Dove and did a beautiful job of adapting. Just exquisite. I was the lucky one chosen. There were a lot of people vying for the job, and they chose me. They wanted someone who could shoot a television schedule but with a feature background. I had just finished The Lighthorsemen and they were certainly inspired because I had also been a producer. As soon as I read it, I knew I could win an Emmy Award for it. It’s just what’s on the page, you know. You’re only as good as what’s on the page. If it’s a bad script, no matter how you dress it up, no matter who does the music, no matter who shoots it. You know that, being an actor, it’s all about the material. We had fantastic material.

Which film are you most proud of?

click to enlarge
Lonesome Dove (1989)

Oh, that’s like asking a dad, which is your favorite child, you know. Lonesome Dove of course. Interesting story: it was just after Christmas and I had arrived at what was then MGM. Now it’s the Sony lot. There had been a screening of The Lighthorsemen. I had gotten them a copy of the film, which hadn’t been released yet. We had lunch and they said, we think you’re the right guy. There were people from CBS and a great many other people but they said Bill Wittliff, who did the adaptation, was the one still outstanding vote. So I needed to fly to Austin to meet Bill, and so next day we fly to Austin and Bill and one of the producers said, “We’ll take you out for dinner and have a chat.” He’s a lovely guy—soft-spoken, twinkle in the eye, really knowledgeable about westerns—a Texan through and through. And so we went to this country club for dinner. I ordered shrimp cocktail and he ordered oysters on the shell, you know, where they crack open the shell. And so they bring the order and he cracks open a shell and there’s a pearl in the middle of the oyster and he looks up at me and he says, “I think this is a sign.” And he wrote me, after shooting—it was a really tough shoot—it was just 16 weeks of… oh… just… nonstop, you know, and… uh—at the end of it he wrote me this letter, a hand-written note that said, “Never forget the pearl. It really was a sign.”

Basil Poledouris, you worked with him—

Yeah. Sadly, Bas passed away last year. He was going to do Comanche Moon too. He… uh… he got lung cancer and he recovered from that, and then he rang and said “Oh, it’s gotten to my brain and I have to have another operation and then he said, “Look, I don’t think I’m going to get to do it,” but he did get to see it. I spent a day with him about two weeks before he died on his boat, which was great, out on Catalina. He was a very dear friend and—oh, so good! Of all the composers I’ve ever worked with Bas would struggle to get his themes, and they’d take him like weeks, and he’d go through agony, and then he’d eventually come up with a theme, and you’d go—oh, wow!

I once had the good fortune of spending an afternoon with LQ Jones, and he said, as I marveled at how well he knew movies, could dissect what works and why—

A lovely guy, LQ—

Yeah, and he said at one point, talking about movies, he said, “It’s a religion.” What is it about movies that they can have such power on some people?

For me, I’m like you, I cry at the drop of a hat in movies, but what brings me to tears—it’s usually a combination of a number of things. First and foremost, you know, it’s a visual medium, but then it’s how that visual medium is combined with sound, the way the piece of sound is used, like a piece of background, and when they all combine in just the right way, it sends a shiver up your spine. Look at a film like Lawrence of Arabia—that match lights and surprises you, intrigues you, the look of it, the sound. Lean had such a wonderful way of telling stories. Nowadays things are coming at you so fast it’s hard to be affected by it all. One of the things I enjoyed about No Country For Old Men was that scene where Josh Brolin is chased by the dog. It keeps you on the edge of your bloody seat. No tricks. Nothing. It’s just real, happening before your eyes. Movies have gone so far away from that. So, when you suddenly see a story simply told—

There’s so much silence in that movie too.

Yep. Yep. Yeah. And it is… um… I guess it’s hard to articulate but I guess it’s just…I love the medium, and I also love television too because it’s so down and dirty, and you have to get on with it. You don’t spend months and months trying to get one actor to say, yes. Once you’re off and running—

Today you can take chances in TV—

You can. That’s right. We were just talking about this. With movies, it’s become so corporate. It’s all about the bottom line. Suddenly, you can take a lot more chances in television. It’s interesting how so many of the movie people have come back to television, to do the cable stuff. You mention LQ: I remember when I first met him—because it was Paul Hogan’s idea to cast him in Lightning Jack—Paul said, “I’ve always loved that guy.” He’s a western legend, you know.

I know—

The business has changed so much, but just about everyone who works in it still loves it. We’d do it for nothing. You know, those at the more grass roots level, in spite of everything here and there it’s—you have you’re good days and bad days I suppose. I suppose it’s like playing golf—the good shots keep you going.

 

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