Make your own free website on Tripod.com

Chapter 7: Life after Jurassic Park

I travelled around a great deal. The cities swept about me like dead leaves, leaves that were brightly colored but torn away from the branches. I would have stopped, but I was pursued by something. It always came upon me unawares, taking me altogether by surprise.

Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie

Jurassic Park has, of course, become the blockbuster movie of all time, placing Sam in the unique position of having starred not only in film's greatest box-office success, but also in one of its greatest art movies as well: the Piano. While Sam 'had a blast' making Jurassic Park, he says of the Piano: 'I feel like I've been in something that is of a profound and permanent place in cinema history'.

 

Although the Piano hit American movie theatres six months after Jurassic Park, Sam actually completed work on the Piano well before the release of Jurassic Park. The differences in the two films could not possibly be greater. Sam went from a role where he portrayed a self-conscious, unconfident, angry husband to a highly-respected PhD-holding paeleonotologist, who also happens to be a courageous hero. Sam being the unique person that he is, he seemed to enjoy playing Alisdair Stewart more.

 

the Piano won the Palme d'Or, Cannes, for director Jane Campion in 1993. The film takes place in the New Zealand bush of the 1800s and stars Sam as landowner Alisdair Stewart, Holly Hunter as Ada McGrath, Anna Paquin as her daughter Flora, and Harvey Keitel as their neighbour, George Baines. In the Piano, Sam portrays a Scot who has immigrated to the bush of New Zealand with the goal of becoming a wealthy landowner. He arranges a marriage with a stubborn, silent woman, who is sent to him across the ocean from Scotland. The two characters are complete opposites of one another. Sam describes Alisdair Stewart as

 

a dour, single-minded, and repressed man. The fact that he falls in love causes him so much pain. When he becomes vulnerable to her, it's like he loses his epidermis. Just the touch of the wind or the weather on him makes him feel like his nerve endings are exposed.

Similarly to Jurassic Park, the human actors are not the stars. In the film, a piano belonging to Sam's mail-order bride, Holly Hunter, is the star. 'I refuse to bring the piano up from the beach,' Sam explains. 'But my neighbour, Harvey Keitel, suddenly has designs on that piano as well as my new wife. It's a very sexy film as passions and jealousies emerge, and it becomes a matter of every dog having his day, so to speak.'

Sam continues:

 

I remember meeting Jane (Campion) at the Berlin Film Festival and saying "Of course I think of Stewart as being an archetypal pakeha New Zealand male, greedy for land and so on." And Jane was very much surprised; she by no means saw Stewart as the villain of the piece -- which I found extremely encouraging. Certainly he serves that function from time to time, but he is not the villain. I don't condone what he does, but I see it as entirely understandable because of the time he lives in; and he's a man of his time. I see Stewart as being someone who is rather vulnerable. He really wants his little family. He wants things to work out. He wants to be loved, and he does love this woman. There are certain sad things about him, lonelinesses. What happens to him, I think, is that this shell--a carapace that Victorian men could assume--is cracked and disintegrated by the power of his feelings for Ada, leaving him very exposed.

Each viewer who has seen the Piano comes away with something very different. It affects both men and women profoundly, zeroing in on the core of their beings. Sam is no exception:

I think this film explores both the desperate and the wonderful things that happen between men and women in a way that's not often done in films. These things make for moments of sublime ecstasy and moments of the most terrible fear, of terror. It's been pretty scary territory to be acting in--it helps to have had a little life experience.

Sam and Holly Hunter put on a show for an American interviewer, Sam allowing his impishness out to play. Looking at Holly with a face-splitting grin, arms crossed in front of him, he begins by pointing out that 'this stuff between women and men is never simple, is never straightforward. It's a tough gig...a lot of the time.' Then leaning forward in order to see Holly better he asks, 'It can be fantastic, too, can't it?'

Holly looks a bit taken aback. Laughing and looking at Sam, then the interviewer, she answers, 'Sam's talkin' to me like, you know, we're a couple or somethin'.' Sam chuckles, and Holly continues, 'You know, like maybe we're a couple!' They both look at one another and burst out with laughter at their joke. The interviewer was never quite sure of the degree of seriousness.

 

American interviewer Chantal asked Sam what emotional impact the film had on him, to which he answered:

 

I think a lot of people have trouble articulating what effect the Piano has on them, because it has a very deep, emotional effect on pretty much everyone that sees it. It's very different from person to person, too. It's interesting watching women watch it. Some of them were coming out like this [Sam raises his clinched fist, it a victory/warrior pose] and some of them come out [Sam taps his chest in the area of his heart] you know, with the old heart beating. My character, Stewart, in the film , who's in love with this woman who doesn't care for him, is completely incapacitated. His power is completely...he's cut off at the knees. The usual objectifying of women that you see so often in films is reversed in this film. The men are sexual objects, at some time or other in the film. And I have to admit it's not easy. It gave me a whole new insight into what it must be to be a woman, and a woman in film. It's tough.

Chantal asked Sam about the differences in working on a New Zealand production, such as the Piano, compared with such Hollywood productions as Spielberg's Jurassic Park. Sam describes the New Zealand manner of filming:

In the early days, making films in New Zealand was very primitive. We didn't know what a call sheet was. We used to all get into the trucks and drive, and when you'd see a place and say, "that looks good. We'll shoot there." We'd all stop; we'd all get out. Someone would put up the camera, and then we'd shoot; then we'd all get back into the trucks and drive off to find somewhere else to shoot. It was a shambles. But now you go back, and things have completely changed. When we made the Piano it was a New Zealand crew, and it was entirely as professional as anything else you'd find. We didn't have a sushi chef, but we were well looked after.

Although the terrain was very rough in the Piano, the people that Sam worked with were exceptional. He considers Jane Campion to be perhaps the best director he's worked with, 'because of the love she lavishes on her actors. We need it.'

The film is a dark, gloomy one, with deep blues, greens and browns. A thick pea-soup mist hangs about continuously. Sam and the rest of the cast slogged through what looked like treacherous mud and muck throughout the film--muck which covered everything from top to bottom.

 

'It wasn't real, you know,' Sam confides. 'That mud was fake. It was clean mud.' Perhaps the special-effects people should have been nominated for an award; it certainly looked real to the audience. Not everything was artificial, however: for instance the lamb-chop sideburns of Stewart's were very much real. 'They were mine,' Sam admits, 'although there were a couple of times, especially weekends, when I wished they weren't.'

 

Sam is very proud to have been a part of one of the most critically acclaimed films of all time, the Piano, but he concedes that there is a danger in all of this hoopla:

 

It's had tremendous critical acclaim, but I think the danger in that is that it makes it sound like it's a kind of arty film. I think it's much more than that. I believe it's a real date movie. You should definitely take your date to this film.

Sam paused, then decided to qualify that statement, 'As long as you're grown-up, because I think it's a film for grown-ups.'

From the Piano, Sam went on to such films as Sirens, The Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, The Jungle Book and In the Mouth of Madness.

 

In Sirens, Sam plays Norman Lindsay, the famous, or perhaps infamous, Australian painter whose forte was shocking the world with his erotic paintings and libertine ways. Sam's co-stars in this film are Elle Macpherson, Portia de Rossi, Tara Fitzgerald and Hugh Grant. Grant plays a young minister sent on a mission to talk Lindsay out of showing a particularly offensive painting. However, once he and his wife, played by Tara Fitzgerald, arrive at Lindsay's Blue Mountains retreat they are overcome by the free-and-easy lifestyle. Set in 1930's Australia, the story is based upon a real incident. The painting which Grant is meant to talk Lindsay out of is very real, "The Crucified Venus", and this painting was actually the centre of a major controversy. Beyond these facts, however, how true-to life the rest of the film is is anyone's guess.

 

Once again Sam was placed in the position of being considered as little more that part of the background. An interview with talk-show host Conan O'Brian illustrates this, when Conan asks Sam about Sirens: 'You did a movie with Hugh Grant, Elle Macpherson. And the movie got a lot of attention, because Elle Macpherson is nude for most of the movie. There are scenes where she's fixing a bicycle or something, and she's nude. Was that at all distracting?'

 

Sam begins to twist and shift uncomfortably, his eyes widening as if he is wondering how in the world he will get out of this one:

 

I was in the same scenes, and nobody noticed me. I was in that movie. The scenes I'm in, mostly I'm painting these girls. But you'll notice, in the frame there I am, painting away, and the girls are nude over there [Sam motions to his front and left, as if the models are to the side of his canvas]. And do you notice I hardly ever look over there? I'm really concentrating on that canvas. There's a reason for it. Because, my wife was working on the film, too. If I looked up too much, I knew I was going to get my ass kicked.

Conan attempts to draw Sam out even more, perhaps into a huge kettle of hot water with Noriko standing above it, by commenting that 'it did get very distracting, though, working with Elle Macpherson, to the point that you actually dreamed about her...?'

Sam's face takes on a guilty expression, and he reluctantly admits, 'That's true. Actually, I had a dream about Elle the other night. And...you know...God, you're not responsible for your dreams.' He becomes increasingly flustered at this point, and Conan steps in: 'that's OK, we're here to help you.'

 

Sam continues:

 

I had this dream, and there was a knock on the door, and it was Elle. She said, "I want to go to bed with someone, and I want to go to bed with you, and I want to go to bed with you now. I was shocked. I mean, even though it was a dream, I was stunned. I knew this was odd. This was unusual. This doesn't happen everyday. And I thought, "No! I'm a married man. I can't possibly do this. [Sam's voice lowers to a whisper.] I'd get into terrible trouble."

Conan comments that Sam is 'a very decent man in your dreams,' to which Sam replies, 'Look, I'm very proud of myself in this one. I thought "I'm going to have to turn her down. I'm going to have to say no."' Sam appears to suddenly realise something: 'Probably no one's ever turned Elle Macpherson down. Have you ever thought about that? I suspect that it's never happened, wouldn't you say?' Conan ponders the question, and replies that 'probably not.' Sam continues recounting his dream:

So, I had to lie. I had to say "I'll be right over." And then, instead of going over and going to bed with Elle Macpherson, I went next door and played indoor cricket with the old people who happened to live next door. It's sort of a sad story. There was a great dream advantage there, and I just threw it away.

Conan comments that Sam 'screwed up.' He then asked Sam how the cricket turned out, to which Sam answered, 'it just faded away there. There's few things more boring than indoor cricket. Elle was gone, just gone. She was waiting for me there, across the street.'

A gentleman, even in his dreams, it appears. Sam's other films of the time period were not quite as erotic as Sirens, but they were definitely worthwhile.

 

Sam was pleased to be a part of The Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior because he is sympathetic to causes such as those of Greenpeace. The Sinking co-stars Jon Voigt and is based on an incident which took place in July of 1985. The Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior was docked at Auckland's Marsden Wharf when two agents of France's secret service bombed the ship, completely destroying it and killing one on board. The reason for the bombing was French irritation at Greenpeace's intention to protest against a French nuclear test in Mururoa, Polynesia. In October, 1987, Greenpeace won $8.16 million in damages from the French government.

 

Sam continued in his insistence on diversity by working with John Carpenter once again on the horror flick In the Mouth of Madness. In this film, Sam plays John Trent, an insurance agent who is hired to search for a missing author, a Stephen-Kingish character by the name of Sutter Kane. Along the way, Sam meets up with supernatural forces and strange, other-worldly incidents. In the Mouth of Madness promised to be another blockbuster for Sam, garnering praise from various magazines and critics, but it failed to live up to expectations. The reason could possibly be due to faulty marketing, as it was widely promoted as a Nightmare on Elm Street-type film, yet that is not what it was at all. Sam gives his opinion of the film:

 

The film is kinda cool, frightening, and I think it's very funny. In one scene I'm in a padded cell, covered with crosses. You ought to know that there's a lot of bad stuff happening, a lot of evil stuff, the crosses are for insurance. I figure the more crosses I've got on me--cos garlic is not available, as you know, in asylums--the safer I'll be. I think it's a funny film. I enjoy that sort of rather subversive, dark humour that runs through it. It appeals to me. I also think that it's the kind of film that film analysts--the kind of people who get a kick out of working out what things mean--will like. Even PhD writers, I get letters from those sort of people about the most odd things that they want to know about the films that I do. I'm sure that I'll get a rash of those for this film, because there's a lot to be mined out of it.

As for In the Mouth of Madness being a scary movie, Sam acknowledges that it is quite scary, and that is a good thing:

I like having a scare every once in a while. I think that's fun; it's cathartic, and it's probably good for you. We've always, as a species, enjoyed scaring each other with scary stories. This film states the obvious, that reading horror novels drives you nuts. It's certainly done that to me.

Sam does not really believe this, however, instead he concurs with John Carpenter's notion of the effect of horror novels on the people who read them:

Of course John thinks that it is a ridiculous notion, and he is a great believer in the idea that whenever anyone mentions the word 'censorship' that we should all jump up and down and make as much noise as we can. I'm with him on that one. He also is inclined to believe that civilisation is in decline, and there's a terribly frightening line in it [the film, In the Mouth of Madness] where I say something like "any species can smell its own extinction". He subscribes to that. I'm not with him on that one. That's where we diverge. Otherwise why go to work tomorrow, and why bring up kids? I think it's important to maintain a sense of optimism, even in the most benighted of times.

Sam describes what he considers to be the horror of the film: 'It's what you don't see, it's what's suggested that's scary.' However, the film is also very funny. Sam said that when he first saw the film, he 'laughed all the way through it.' 'I thought it was hilarious', he adds.

Sam's primary reason for doing In the Mouth of Madness was the chance to work with John Carpenter again:

 

This is the second time that I've worked with John [Carpenter] and we're good friends. We got on well last time; we're pals. I think he makes crisp, quality films. More than that, he makes films that make me laugh. Life's too short to have a miserable time when you're making films. In Memoirs of an Invisible Man he seemed to be under a bit of pressure. He seemed looser and happier in In the Mouth of Madness. We had time to kind of talk about the sort of stuff we enjoy. He's a great Beach Boys fan, as am I. If John asked me to shoot anything, I'd be happy to work with him. John just gave me a free hand; it was great. I had a chance to just stretch out and do some really crazy stuff. I have to take a little credit for the Carpenters thing myself. John wrote that in as a Rolling Stones song, and the distress of my character in that case would be "How could they possibly use one of the great Rolling Stones as muzak in the thing". I thought it would be funnier if they used the Carpenters. They clearly play the Carpenters all the time in this place. All the time, cos all the patients know all the words. It's guaranteed there's going to be a lot of people wanting those pills off that trolley. When they put you in a straight jacket you start feeling a bit strange. I had a Cyndi Lauper type of good time.

Working on In the Mouth of Madness was quite similar to working on Jurassic Park, it seems. Sam has become quite proficient in acting with characters who are literally not all there:

There's a special school for actors that we're put through and it's working with latex and K-Y Jelly. It's a hard school to graduate from, but I think I've got it down now. It is, of course, easier if you've got a three-dimensional monster to work with, rather than one that's going to be morphed in later by some computer in San Francisco. I prefer the three-dimensional one. People say that computers can do everything, and of course they're fantastic, but I'm of the school that believes that you can only get away with computerised things if you've actually got something three-dimensional as well that you cut to from time to time.

When asked if he enjoyed reading Stephen King-type books, Sam replied:

Well, to tell you the truth, I don't get as much time to read as I should. If I'm going to read one of those thick books, that cost you $6.95 at an airport, I tend to go more for science fiction. If I'm on a long flight, I'll get a science fiction novel, rather than that area [horror]. It's really not my bag.

 

 

Back to Sam Neill's Biography Page