The battle to make Peter Weir’s ‘Green Card’ an Australian film revealed

Confidential government documents reveal the story behind Peter Weir’s rom-com ‘Green Card’ as the famed director prepares to be honoured at this year’s Venice International Film Festival. An edited excerpt from the new book Money, art and madness: How the war between bureaucrats & auteurs killed the Australian film industry.

In early-1990, Film Finance Corporation (FFC) chair Kim Williams received a call from John Ptak, the LA-based agent for famed Australian director Peter Weir. It was about a new film Weir wanted to make called Green Card — and he wanted the government’s new film agency, the FFC, as an investor.

Weir had quickly become entrenched as one of Hollywood’s top directors with films such as crime-thriller Witness (1985) but was left bruised after the more recent commercial and critical disappointment of drama Mosquito Coast (1986). In response, Weir penned Green Card — a light romantic-comedy that would get him back into the market. 

“Peter and I had a coffee in some coffee shop in Double Bay and Peter said, ‘Look, I want to make this film, which I’ve written, and I want to have control’,” Williams now says.

“He said, ‘You’re welcome to read the screenplay’. And I said, ‘Well, I’d love to read the screenplay but that’s not the issue here. If I can state the glaringly obvious — you’re Peter Weir. Am I going to support you to realise a film where you’re completely in charge? Of course I’m going do that.’”

Green Card was Weir’s light and charming version of a 1930s Frank Capra screwball comedy. The film follows uptight environmentalist Brontë Parrish who marries undocumented immigrant Georges Fauré. The arrangement delivers him a green card, allowing him to stay in the US, while she gets the apartment of her dreams. Weir wanted to protect his vision, Williams says.

“He said, ‘It’s a small fragile film and I want Gérard Depardieu’ and that of course, was a very big issue for Disney — a big issue… he speaks French!”

Weir had some cause for concern. Hollywood gives filmmakers the biggest platform to showcase their talents, but that platform also comes with a plethora of voices. Not all of them are good. Dead Poets Society screenwriter Tom Schulman endured one early meeting with a studio executive who suggested he replace the teenage boys’ passion for poetry with dancing and rename the film Sultans of Strut. Katzenberg wasn’t one of the voices behind that bizarre suggestion, but he was well known for being opinionated.

“Jeffrey can be a very, very, very tough person,” says Williams. “Very smart, very creative, very imaginative — quite a wonderful, remarkable person. I mean, I like Jeff Katzenberg a great deal. But I understood what Peter was in for. Peter wanted to be in charge.”

I track down Peter Weir — now retired and living in the US — and ask him about Green Card. Weir had already made Witness under Katzenberg when he was president of production at Paramount, and then Dead Poets Society when Katzenberg was CEO at Disney.

“By the time of Green Card, we knew each other well enough for me to show him a 70-page early draft before anybody else,” Weir says. 

“This draft was essentially the film as it is, but it was a little rough and short, given an average screenplay is around 120 pages. We were in his office on the Disney lot when I asked him what he thought. He said he was very interested and looked forward to seeing the next draft. I asked him to commit to it on the draft he’d just read — the 70-page draft.

“This was a bit cheeky, but I wanted to know he was with me. So I said, ‘Let’s shake on it right here, right now.’ And he did. Just like that. The financial structure was worked out later by my agent, John Ptak. I had final cut rights by this time so there was no concern on my part of studio interference.”

Studios rarely grant final cut rights, which allows a director to release the film as they intended. Weir’s artistic and commercial success meant he had earned that right, although it’s likely Green Card’s unique funding structure helped his claim.

And it had to be a unique funding structure for the Australian government’s new film agency to invest millions of dollars into what, superficially, appeared to be a Hollywood movie. There were more than enough starry-eyed investors lining up to pay the cover price demanded by Hollywood studios to get into their dream factory. The FFC was not obliged to be one of them.

There was another possibility that could make it happen. Australia had just struck its first screen co-production arrangement with France in 1986, even though the agreement had rarely been used. An official co-production is classified as a domestic film in both countries, allowing it to double-dip both region’s subsidies and boost the film’s budget. The result should be a bigger film with more international appeal than a local one.

“All successful people, like Baz [Luhrmann] and Peter [Weir], have got really canny agents,” a former FFC executive says. “They all would have said, for particular reasons, this is what you can do. Co-production was pretty new. An Australian-French co-production was audacious but why the hell not?”

The co-production rules were not just new, but inherently complex. They dictated which country the creative participants could be from, as well as which country the film could be shot in, and which country post-production could be completed in. Each of those levels was set in proportion to the country providing the money, with the Australian funding used to pay Australians working on the co-production or spent in Australia.

The Australian Film Commission technically had the power to grant co-production status. But the process still required input from the government’s arts department and every major industry union and association.

Despite their objections, Green Card was finally issued a provisional certificate making it an official French-Australian co-production, but not before the shoot had already begun in New York on March 26, 1990. 

The government film agency had not yet approved its significant investment, according to the the FFC’s Green Card investment funding application, released for the first time by the National Archives of Australia.

“There was a scary moment in New York during pre-production when my agent called and said there was no money available to cover the weekly payroll as the deals were not complete,” Weir says. “There was no alternative — I had to use my own money. I don’t remember whether I covered more than that week, but it was a tense time.”

In the film industry, wherever there is creativity, complexity is not far behind. It seeps out of the pages of the Green Card investment funding application prepared by FFC investment manager Catriona Hughes for the April 30, 1990, FFC board meeting.

The full story, including Green Card’s funding structure and why the FFC approved a multi-million dollar deferral for Weir on top of his salary, can be found in Money, art and madness: How the war between bureaucrats & auteurs killed the Australian film industry.