In 2002 John Weiley was invited to become a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences - a rare honour for an Australian film maker.
His election honoured an exceptional body of work in television and feature film production and for the giant screen including his remarkable Antarctica, one of a tiny handful of theatrical documentaries to have grossed in excess of $100M at the box office. His most recent film, the theatrical documentary Solarmax was described by one critic as "The finest science documentary on any subject I've ever seen" - not his first critical superlative - The Times described his BBC film on the British press as "The best film on the subject ever made". His feature film work has ranged from the broad slapstick musical comedy of Dimboola to the experimental "lesbian feminist psychodrama" of Journey Among Women.
Weiley grew up in a grand old country pub in northern NSW - the occasional home of Worth's and Perry's circus, Jimmy Sharman's boxing troupe, the headless nude, Ram Chandra the Indian Snake Charmer (actually the aboriginal yard-man at the pub) - and a large family.
He went to Sydney University to study law but discovered film. After helping on Bruce Beresford's The Devil To Pay, a bit part as Germaine Greer's date in Dick Brennan's Lend Me Your Stable, and directing his own Death House he was lucky enough to be selected (along with John Seal, Geoff Burton, Bob Ellis and others) as a trainee by the nascent ABC television service.
While specialising in direction and production he received an eclectic education in every aspect of film making from cinematography through laboratory processing, neg cutting, sound mixing, editing, animation, production management and eventually writing and directing his own films. His work at ABC TV ranged from coverage of the construction of the Opera House to Pintubi, a film record of first contact with the desert tribe that won one of the first AFI awards.
In addition to his work at the ABC Weiley was contributing articles and helping to produce Oz magazine and various "underground" film experiments - until it was time for the then inevitable escape to London.
Or Manchester, as it initially turned out. There Weiley, with perfect timing and a great deal of luck, was invited to join the Mitchell/Swallow unit at Granada TV which is credited with inventing the modern television documentary (subjects' voices continuing over impressionistic images of their situation; intimate, naturalistic, little or no narration). The unit was well funded and given complete freedom resulting in programs like Seven Up and the historic This England series. Weiley's contribution included co-producing and writing Mike Grigsby's SS Lusitania which sold to every country in the world that had a television service.
A burning desire to tell the Sydney Opera House story prompted Weiley's move to the BBC's Omnibus arts program. The resulting film Autopsy on a Dream was greatly admired but provoked a storm of writs. The BBC fought them off but David Attenborough (then head of BBC 2) blames them for his white hair.
Somewhat to his surprise Weiley was not sacked and continued at the BBC as a founding producer of the top rated Tomorrow's World series and wrote, directed and produced a number of films for the BBC's Features department. These included The Total War Machine (featuring interviews with Barnes Wallis of Dam Busters fame and Albert Speer - head of Hitler's war production) and The Press We Deserve, a much praised history of the British press.
Moonlighting from the BBC Weiley produced with Phillipe Mora the appalling 60s London Rocky Horror precursor Trouble in Molopolis - a 90 minute, 35mm color musical (shot by Tom Cowan, mostly funded by Eric Clapton, featuring among many others Germaine Greer, Richard Neville, dozens of chorus girls and a tramp invited in off the street to play the leading role), with music by Jamie Boyd and sets by Martin Sharp. Peter Sainsbury gave it a run at his cinema in the Kings Road but it's a movie better imagined than seen. It was a lot of fun to make.
Reluctant to subject his children to the British school & class system Weiley returned to Australia to co-write and produced the ultra low budget experimental feature film Journey Among Women. Journey ran for 16 weeks on George Street, won a unique AFI award "for creativity" and sold world wide.
Journey was followed by the experimental zero budget drama (it would now qualify as a Dogma feature) Third Person Plural starring Bryan Brown.
The success of Journey and the fresh challenge of producing features diverted Weiley from his career as a writer/director for some years and he found himself recast as a producer for emerging directors - Dimboola then Winter of our Dreams for John Duigan (delayed by John's illness and later completed with Dick Mason), Dead Easy for Bert Deling, Coolangatta Gold for Igor Auzins.
Squeezed in among those was a major US/Australian feature The Earthling starring William Holden and Ricky Schroeder - and an enormous amount of lobbying for the establishment of something that could be called a 'film industry'. Weiley was a founder of the Screen Action Group and co-authored the 10 BA investment incentives. He spent more than a year shepherding them through parliament to become law. Weiley was President of SPAA and Chair of the feature film division for four years and subsequently Vice President of the Australian Screen Directors Association for three years.
In 1987 Weiley was delighted to get back to writing, directing and producing his own films. The opportunity was a requirement for a giant screen spectacular for the bicentennial exhibition at Darling Harbour.
Weiley had a long standing interest in exotic film technology and got to know Douglas Trumbull - FX whiz for Kubrick's 2001. Weiley used Trumbull's "Showscan" 60 fps/70mm system for Celebrating Us (shot by Peter James) which was screened in two 500-seat theatres specially constructed at Darling Harbour. The film was a great success with queues still stretching back to Chinatown on the day the exhibition closed. A shorter version was voted top attraction at Brisbane's Expo 88.
Profits from the bicentennial project made it possible for Weiley to patent and prototype a device he had invented which automatically created a record of the number of times a video cassette had been played. The Playcount Cassette and software offered the possibility of a pay per play system of distribution that would have been of enormous value to copyright creators. The device excited the US ABC network and Cap Cities/ABC spent millions on development before abandoning the project in the face of fierce resistance form both video store operators and Hollywood distributors to the tamper-proof audit trail that the device created.
The experiment with high definition giant screen film for the bicentennial convinced Weiley that he had found the right medium to fulfill his life-long ambition - the ultimate Antarctica film.
Weiley used the IMAX 15 perf 70mm system for the film. It was released in 1992 to world wide acclaim and enormous success, taking more than $100,000,000 at the box office.
Antarctica led to a rare opportunity to write and direct a $16M experimental 3D IMAX film Imagine for Taejon Expo. Imagine is generally acknowledged to be the most complex and innovative 3D film yet made. Attendance at the expo exceeded 100% of theatre capacity.
Returning to Australia Weiley wrote directed and produced another giant screen film The Edge for a specially constructed cinema at the entrance to the Blue Mountains National Park. The $2M film has been running several times every day for nearly nine years and has grossed over $10M from that one screen. (unfortunately not for the film maker).
While making The Edge Weiley established Cinema Plus, a new company to build IMAX theatres in Sydney and Melbourne and with Lionel Glendenning designed theatres for these sites. With the help of Imax engineers he built in Sydney the largest cinema screen the world has ever seen. He sold the venture to a group of financiers shortly before the Sydney theatre opened.
Weiley's latest giant screen film Solarmax opened in Sydney and Melbourne and is playing in Paris and at other giant screen theatres around the world. During the production of Solarmax (which involved long waits for eclipses, solstice events etc.) Weiley squeezed in some smaller projects like producing Walmsley's War for David Bradbury, making commercials for the anti war movement and for the Byron Bay Writers' Festival (starring such luminaries as Max Gillies, Andrew Denton and the animation of Michael Leunig). And he was a founder and is on the board of Screenworks, a group formed to support and develop screen production opportunities for the people of the north coast.
Weiley is married, has five children (two at school) and lives by the ocean near Byron Bay, Australia. For more information about John Weiley go to www.helio.com.au.