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WARD, VINCENT : What Dreams May Come

Vincent Ward had to find the key to heaven and hell before taking on his latest film, he tells ANDREW L. URBAN.

"It’s got legs," he says, as relief and elation combine on Vincent Ward’s face, in his body language and in his voice, as we settle down for a cup of tea, just hours after the results of the all important second weekend. The second weekend in the American movie world is a bit like the second coming in Christiandom; it leads to heaven or hell. Appropriately enough in this case, since we are talking about Ward’s latest film, What Dream May Come, which has aroused intense interest for its portrayal of the afterlife.

"you can’t help getting caught up in that business"

On its second weekend, the film stayed the second most popular in the US, and took some US$11 million, after debuting with US$15.8 million in its first three days.

For Ward, better known for his arthouse features with award winning potential (like Vigil, The Navigator, Map of the Human Heart) rather than mass audience blockbusters, this sort of conversation is rare. "Yes, but you can’t help getting caught up in that business," he explains, referring to Dreams being a high budget (some say US$90 million) film that to the studio represents an investment, not just a film.

Ward was especially relieved since Variety’s review had suggested that Dreams didn’t have legs: wrote Todd McCarthy: "This attempt to rally a mass audience around the weighty themes of mortality and eternal love had an outside shot at the "Ghost" audience, but the reportedly $85 million-$90 million production looks to fall way short of the commercial mark despite its audience-pleasing aspirations."

"got very close to the film I wanted"

And although the film was up to its neck in producers ("it’s like working with artillery behind you," he says, "there were never less than six producers on set…") Ward is pleased that he "got very close to the film I wanted. Visually they leave me alone, but in editing you have to listen …. they do test screenings, and you have to work with them."

When Ward first read the script he was moved by it, but didn’t see how it could be made, with 75% of it set in the afterlife. He was not keen to replicate the clunky view of the afterlife that had been screened to date.

"There were several keys to it, and one was that if there IS an afterlife, it’s probably subjective. So if you could visualise it as a 19th century painting by a visionary arist, you’d find a key to creating a world. So I made Annie a painter and also a restorer of 19th century paintings. This also served the narrative, showing how strongly he felt about her – so much so, he woke up in her painting after he died."

"I didn’t want to show a ‘white bread’ afterlife,"

Writer Ron Bass responded "really well to this," says Ward, which gave the project the impetus it needed.

The film, a metaphoir for the afterlife, poses the questions we all ask: is there one? Ward himself is equally curious. But he also has an editorial point when he shows people in the afterlife quite different – even ethically – to how they were alive. "I didn’t want to show a ‘white bread’ afterlife," he says.

This is one of the provocative ideas in the film, which adds to its psychological interest. "the other idea I was keen to explore," he says, "is that the dead grieve for the living – for their absence." Finally, Ward was fascinated by the psychological and psychoanalytical version of what hell could be.

But while all these elements fuse with the visual poetry of the film, Ward is concerned that some critics have called the film ‘sentimental’ in a negative way.

"It’s sentimental if you mean very emotional," he says. "But it doesn’t dwell on that. Ron and I tried to avoid sentimentality, which we define as overtly dwelling on emotions that are inappropriate for a scene. For example, when Chris learns his children have been killed, instead of crying he’s in a rage, like he wants to kill somebody. . ."

"That was another goal; not to allow the visuals to overwhelm the human drama."

In populist short hand, Ward describes the film as a love story and a quest, but his primary interest – as always – is "in the business of existing as human beings….and offering a big visual experience on screen. That was another goal; not to allow the visuals to overwhelm the human drama."

"I feel I’ll end up being paid to make these big visual pictures – while always hankering to make intimate dramas…"

The film uses some 260 SFX shots, provided by five different companies; "one of the challenges was to create moving painting over time, which has never been done before, combined with live action footage," says Ward.

It took two years of research and development to design the software used in the film, and for the last eight months, there were 50 people working on that alone. "There were a number of significant breakthroughs engineered in the making of the film, and the result is that you can shoot a scene traditionally and then change everything in it, add objects to it, change backgrounds, skies, the lot."

In short, What Dream May Come marks a watershed in the ongoing technical prowess of filmmaking.

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Annie (Annabella Sciorra) is a gifted painter, her husband Chris (Robin Williams) a fine child doctor. They are soul mates, deeply and forever in love. With their two children the Nielsens are mostly a happy young family - until death robs them of each other. When Chris is killed in a car accident, he finds himself in a heaven of his imagination, largely the work of his wife’s paintbrushes. Annie is inconsolable and eventually commits suicide, which sends her to another place – she and Chris appear destined to be forever apart. But Chris has always maintained one single and singular rule in life: never give up. He embarks on an impossible, love-driven quest – with help from The Tracker (Max von Sydow) - to be reunited with her.


Vincent Ward’s AFI Award winning feature, THE NAVIGATOR, will have its world television premiere in the week leading up to the 1998 AFI Awards, on SBS. The film won six AFI awards, including Best Film, Best Director, and was selected for Competition at Cannes.
The Navigator
Movie of the Week
SBS, November 5, 1998



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