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
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.
I asked him, how do you edit
The Man Who Fell To
Yeah, right! The way Nicholas Roeg
played with time in that film was amazing.
Nic Roeg directed an episode
of Young Indy
of Deception), but let’s talk about
you. I’m wondering what films had a big
impact on you as a kid.
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
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—
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
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
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
Okay, so then the first one you
directed, if it was in Africa had to be the one
with Albert Schweitzer.
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
Between Indy films, did you go
work on other things or did you do all the Indy
work in succession?
the Secret Service
I did Africa, then I did half of
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?
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
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?
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?
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
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?
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
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)
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
Down Under (1990)
Another western. You know, the business
has changed so much. But, yeah. It’s another
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
said, “I’ve always loved that guy.”
He’s a western legend, you 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.