Fangoria # 112, May 1992, p. 44-46, 66
|Peter Weller´s Lunch Break
by Caroline Vié
Best known for more action-oriented genre work, the "RoboCop" actor dared to enter the warped world of Cronenberg´s "Naked Lunch".
"I don´t care for horror and fantasy films," reveals actor Peter Weller. "I never go to see them in the theater. I know I´ve played in many of them, but I didn´t do them because of their genre - I did them just because I loved their scripts. I can´t say why I like them so much on paper and dislike this kind of film so much on the screen. When I go to the movies, I like romance, comedy and thrillers. I hate gore."
Weller is right in one aspect: One really does wonder why an actor who dislikes the genre so much has chosen to not only appear in so many horror / fantasy films, but also accepted a place in Spain´s Avoriaz film festival jury, watching genre pictures all day long. "I had a great time in Avoriaz skiing, but I was having terrible nightmares because of the movies," he admits.
Nevertheless, he´s truly enjoyed some of the films he´s done, such as RoboCop ("Wonderful film, wonderful plot") and the rat-amok thriller Of Unknown Origin ("It was the first time I ever starred in a movie, and I had a wonderful time during the shooting"). He reserves comment on another film he did for Origin director George P. Cosmatos, the failed underwater monster flick Leviathan, but professes to have great memories of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, W.D. Richter´s cult science fiction comedy. "Christophe Llyod, Clancy Brown and Jeff Goldblum were so funny," he recalls. "It´s a real pity the movie was a flop."
Weller can also be very supportive of a film with which he feels personally involved. A few days after Avoriaz, Weller is in Paris to promote Naked Lunch, David Cronenberg´s adaptation of William Burrough´s classic novel, and speaks quite enthusiastically about it. and he insists on doing the interview in French, only occasionally interjecting an English word when necessary. "Naked Lunch is the best movie I´ve done so far," he begins by stating.
The actor has been a fan of the book since 1968 and, like many people, couldn´t imagine seeing it adapted into a movie. "I´ve read the book many times because I was deeply touched by Burroughs´ style: poetic flashes which were very different from anything I had ever read before," Weller explains. "I felt close to its impertinent and satiric aspects. When I started to work as an actor in the beginning of the ´70s, I told myself that I´d love to get involved in the project if the book was ever to become a film., but I thought animation would be the only way to transcribe Burroughs´ universe to the screen."
Now, almost 20 years later, Weller´s wish has been granted: He´s the star of Naked Lunch, in the company of Roy Schneider, Ian Holm, Julian Sands and Judy Davis. He had to fight to win the part, and tried to get Cronenberg´s attention very early on in the project. He first heard about Naked Lunch while on RoboCop 2´s set, thanks to a chat with cinematographer Mark Irwin, Cronenberg´s friend and longtime associate from Fast Company to The Fly. "It was during a coffe break," Weller remembers. "When he told me Cronenberg was working on Naked Lunch´script, I was so thrilled I almost fell to the floor in my RoboCop outfit! Then, I wrote to Cronenberg to tell him I´d be interested in acting in his movie. I had to wait for eight months to get an answer. David called and asked to meet me in New York. Then, everything went very fast, because I was very impressed by his script and was very keen to get involved."
Of course, Cronenberg didn´t literally transcribe Burroughs´ prose for his script; the material would have been too provocative for mainstream movie audiences. He decided to keep the novel´s gist and to incorporate elements of Burroughs´ real life in order to create a very special atmosphere. The movie´s plot centers on Weller´s character, William Lee, a tormented writer surrounded by menacing creatures and haunted by drug-induced visions after accidentally killing his wife.
"Cronenberg´s script is truly fantastic," raves Weller. "His idea to use Burroughs´ wife death is brilliant, because this event really marks the beginning of the writer´s career. David found out exactly how to mix Burroughs´ biography, his own universe and parts of the book. The movie is very close to the first script I read. David only cut some sex scenes which were too graphic to be put in the film."
Burroughs himself gave his unconditional support to the project since its beginning. Though he didn´t help writing the script, he was always present to provide advice and even accompanied Cronenberg and producer Jeremy Thomas to Tangier in order to scout locations. "The shooting was supposed to take place in Tangier," Weller explains, "but because of the Gulf War, we were obliged to cancel it and shoot the entire film in Toronto. We were all a bit disappointed, but I think David was more comfortable that way. He´s a bit like Woody Allen, who only works in Manhattan: He likes to stay in his own city and be close to his family."
Burroughs often came to the set and became Weller´s and Cronenberg´s close friend. "I met him for the first time in Los Angeles," Weller recounts. "We spent two nights together talking and talking. While working on my character, I wrote him many letters before seeing him again on the set. He´s very frail physically, but he´s still extremely clever and full of ideas. He fascinated me and was a great deal of help with his stories. I used a lot of details of his personality to create William Lee. David and I are proud, because he loves what we did with his book. He was supportive all along and really thinks that the spirit of his work has gone into the movie."
If Cronenberg didn´t use the most provocative scenes of the book - lessening, for example, its homosexual content - he created some pretty disgusting creatures, most notably the mutated typewriter-bug with its strange sexual organs and the Mugwumps - wrinkled green creatures who dispense intoxicating fluid from tubes on their heads. Working with FX was nothing new to Weller and presented no difficulties.
"Naked Lunch was very easy to do as far as special effects were concerned," he says, "because most of them were done live of the set. When I was doing Of Unknown Origin, for example, I never saw a rat for the entire shooting! I was obliged to try and imagine it. For Naked Lunch, everything was before my eyes: The typewriter was really in front of me, and I could talk to it as if it were another actor." Chris Walas and his CWI company created all the film´s nightmarish FX, but Weller never got to meet Walas himself. "Chris also did the stunt outfits for RoboCop 2," Weller explains, "but we were never on the set together. Even if I don´t know him as a person, I think his work is fantastic."
Cronenberg also seems to have left a lasting impression on Weller, who can´t stop lauding the director´s creativity and kindness. "I´ve worked with many good directors in the past - like Paul Verhoeven, Alan Parker [Shoot the Moon] and Richard Lester [Butch and Sundance: The Early Days] - but David is the best of all," he praises. "He´s a very soft-spoken and quiet man who never raises his voice, but who knows exactly what he wants and the way to get it. He´s got incredible inner strength, yet is always willing to hear your ideas. He´s simply wonderful - as a human being and as a director."
The actor is equally enthusiastic about the movie itself and his character. "Bill Lee was a very complex part," he observes. "He´s an invisible man, an observer, a character trapped by his own destiny who feels compelled to write about it by forces he doesn´t understand. Naked Lunch was a very enriching experience. I learned a lot of things about my work and about myself thanks to this movie."
Weller also seems extremely surprised at the favorable reactions of American audiences and critics to the film. "We thought that only Burroughs fans would go and see it, but a wider selection of people are interested - which, of course, came as a wonderful surprise. It may be because they felt the film is much more than a story about homosexuality and drugs; it´s also about lost opportunities, the death of a loved one and the difficulties of the creative process. These themes appeal to many people who were touched by them. The critics were also quite laudatory. The ones who didn´t like Naked Lunch didn´t say the movie was terrible, but just admitted that they didn´t understand it!"
After such a powerful film, Weller has been carefully considering his next projects. At the end of February, he was to begin work in LA on Sunset Grill, a thriller about illegal aliens directed by Kevin (From Beyond the Grave) Connor. One film you won´t find his name attached to is the upcoming RoboCop 3, "I´m not interested in spending all my life playing RoboCop," he says. "I loved the first movie, but was a bit disappointed by the second because it´s no more than an average action film. They contacted me for 3 and I´m very grateful for that, but I had to decline. It´s time for me to do something else." He nevertheless adamantly denies that he did Naked Lunch in an attempt to escape being typecast as a fantasy / horror actor." I never considered this movie as a career move," he insists, "but as something I really had to do."
To be sure, Naked Lunch once again proves Weller is a fine actor who´s able to do more than just carry a RoboCop outfit around. He´s ready to go on with his career, and is considering directing a comedy called Just Married. He concludes with a big smile as he admits, "I was never a mainstream Hollywood actor, so I didn´t consider Naked Lunch´s weird material as a particular risk for me. My career was always full of risks one way or another, and that´s the way I like it."