The Railway Man - Andy Paterson (producer and co-writer) interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
ANDY Paterson talks about some of the many challenges of bringing The Railway Man to the big screen, which tells the true story of Burma Railway survivor Eric Lomax, his battle with post traumatic stress disorder and his subsequent life-changing romance with wife, Patti Lomax.
He also talks about his own relationship with the real-life Eric and Patti Lomax, as well as working with the film’s stars, Colin Firth, Jeremy Irvine and Nicole Kidman.
Q. Can you begin by telling us a little about the origins of the project?
Andy Paterson: Eric [Lomax] wrote the most wonderful book, which I read, and then discovered the rights were held by a wonderful man called Bill Curbishley who, among other things, is the manager of The Who – he produced Tommy and Quadrophenia and McVicar. So, we went to see him. We shared a passion for it. I think we knew it was tough to eclipse the book. The book was so beautifully written; it captured the voice of a man who told such a shocking and epic story and you just wanted to have done it unless you could feel you could do justice to the scale of it, physically, which meant it was going to be expensive and thus difficult to raise the money for, and to find a cinematic way to go beyond the book. And that was quite a challenge.
Q. What made you settle on doing the film the way you did?
Andy Paterson: Well, we started doing the obvious thing of trying to tell the story from the beginning to the end, so starting with a oung man going off to war, with all that youth and innocence, but we would have met Colin Firth about two and a half hours in doing it that way and maybe by the five-hour mark we’d have had enough. The problem we had was that we knew the film would, at this stage, be marketed as story of revenge and reconciliation, so it was the William Goldman thing of the audience are going to know the ending, so you have to find a way to bring some tension to the story.
One of the aspects of the story that gets very little coverage in the book is the whole Nicole Kidman/Patti story and, over the years, getting to know them, it seemed like the way to go. Patti’s a wonderful woman. She refused to believe that her role in this story could amount to anything compared to what those men went through, which we understood, but at the same time, she represents the millions of families that have to cope with the wreckage of war when these men come back. So, we wanted to expand that story and all the while, we were working very closely with Patti and Eric.
Q. With regards to the traumatic scenes in the film: how did you decide where to draw the line in terms of what you could show?
Andy Paterson: We felt it was necessary to give a hint of what these men went through. It’s a very traumatic story. When Patti saw the film she said: “You’ve given half-a-percent of what Eric really went through.” You don’t have to do very much on film I think. We wanted as much as possible to leave it to the imagination. We tried to do it in such a way that you could look away, but still know what was being experiences. We tried to show as little as we possibly could without dishonouring the experiences of these men.
Q. What was your relationship with Eric like? I know he made it onto set but I don’t think he saw the finished movie, did he?
Andy Paterson: He was such a wonderful character. We first met 14 years ago and one of the first things we did was have him take us round some of his childhood haunts in Edinburgh and I was looking at some of the footage I shot at the time and he signed the visitor’s book in the church in 1999. Patty said one of the reasons they fell in love was because they were both curious about everything. He grew up in a world of steam engines and radios and putting bits of metal together and making things go and listening to far off places. And that sense of curiosity came all the way to when we met him. I don’t think he thought it would take 14 years, but he stuck with us.
We realised at a certain point that we were not going to be adapting the book, that we had walked into a story that was still evolving. Eric had been through the events that we see, but we said to him: “When we see you meet Mr Nagasa, what happened? How did you go from revenge to forgiveness?” We completely believed that he wanted to kill this man, and Eric couldn’t explain it. He would say, somehow the pain just went away. Frank and I would just go: “We can’t write that.” In his curious way he was fascinated by the fact that he couldn’t really explain what had happened. But he was very eager to help. So, we talked to the people who tried to help him: an amazing woman called Helen Landberg, who ran the veteran’s and who was really the first person to make him understand that he was not alone.
One of the things about him was that he would tell a story and he would laugh and be slightly embarrassed about having a childlike giggle. And then he would suddenly say: “I had assumed I would never be happy again.” He went through 30 or 40 years of really being a very messed up man, so he was surprised at being happy.
We also talked to people who explained quite a lot about what torture does to you… not just the physical thing but Helen Bamber describes it as being the ultimate powerlessness. Everything that makes you a human being being is stripped from you. Think about the last time you were really furious about something and then multiply it by a million and imagine yourself 5,000 miles from home having tried to do something brave to bring hope to these men. You were told that you had surrendered. It was a hopeless situation, to be treated that way by a nation who believed that surrender was humiliation. So, we had to try and find a way to let that third act find a way through some of these transformations and discovering he [Eric] had power over this man, that he held his life in his hands, that he wanted to kill him but once he’s in that room it’s a very different thing. Just step by step, trying to explain some of those things that we’d learned, and all the while with him. Innevitably, they’re not going to be the events as they happened, but we were trying to get to a point where that’s what it felt like.
Q. How closely did Jeremy Irvine try to emulate Colin Firth’s vocal tones? And also what made you cast those two actors to play that role across the years?
Andy Paterson: Colin was… it was so hard to find anyone to capture Eric. It’s one of the curses of getting to know people so well, you need someone to do justice to them. The only good thing about this taking 14 years was that Colin kindly won an Oscar just at the moment we finally got the money together, which kind of unlocked a lot of things. I’d worked with Colin before on Girl With The Pearl Earring, so we knew each other and had a short-hand that helped. He called us having met Jeremy… they share the same publicist. He said: “I’ve just met this guy, he’s far too good looking to play me, but give him a go.”
It then turned out that Jeremy had already read the book and he came to the first meeting with 15 pages of notes. And he was the only person we saw. It was just so instant. But to answer you’re question, Eric was Scottish and for a long time we debated the question about whether they should have a Scottish accent, which meant they worked together with a dialect coach to see if that could work. I discussed it with Eric but I was dead against it because it always takes a part of an actor’s range to be dealing with accents. And in the end we made the decision that we wouldn’t go with it. But while working on that I think Jeremy caught a lot of Colin’s inflections. Jeremy did a great job doing that; it’s really hard to get two actors to play young and old.
Q. Is it true that Colin knew someone who had been on the railways?
Andy Paterson: He did. It’s amazing how many people know someone that was out there. A lot of men were out there – it’s not six degrees of separation. A lot of people have had connections out there. He knew someone in his youth, who was a parliamentary candidate, so he’d seen a bit about what the wreckage was.
Q. Was the meeting on the train with Patti close to how it really was?
Andy Paterson: Yeah. Patti said it makes her look far too forward [laughs]. He did all the running. But yeah, it’s very close to how it happened. But it’s a beautiful piece of Frank Cottrell Boyce writing. He did spend his life running away, visiting railway memorabilia exibitions and he had sprinted onto this train and she was sitting in this carriage and he took one look at her and thought: “This is where I’m going to sit.” She was reading this little tourist guide and it’s the sort of thing he was interested in – and she will tell you he was more interested in that than her, but he did indeed tell her that information along the way.
Q. What was it like for you and Frank the first time you gave Eric the script to read? Or were you constantly giving him different versions?
Andy Paterson: It was fairly constant. There were twists along the way, but when it came to deciding we had to approach it in a different way, that was slightly nerve-wracking. We explained it to him, but you get these lovely letters from Eric and I got one saying: “Dear Andy, Patti and I have each read the script three times and we think it is a powerful piece of work.” The notes we got would be a detail about a train. But he trusted us, I think because we had worked with them so closely along the way. It’s a very intimate process because Eric, as you might imagine, did not like being interrogated and you could go too far and then, as Patti would describe it, the shutters would come down and he’d just disappear. But you can, in a strange way, get closer than family can because you can ask things that family wouldn’t ask. I think it was harder for him to get used to the idea that we would be telling it other than a straight adaptation of the book – but when he got used to that, he was very happy. I tried to limit the number of draughts that he read, but he was always very attentive and engaged.
Q. How do you cast Japanese actors who are willing to recreate, albeit on film, the appalling and vile actions of an older generation of their countrymen?
Andy Paterson: It would have been a very difficult task but all you have to do is say the film is called The Railway Man and their initial hesitancy about playing a bad guy vanishes. They knew the story and they knew the book was offered in a spirit of reconciliation and it was really as simple as that. Those young Japanese actors became a huge resource for us because they understood the way the film was going to be received and they were able to explain to us that a lot of people realised for the first time after the Tsunami and the nuclear accident just how much information had been withheld from them. So, they felt that this was a very interesting moment for this film to come out. We screened it at the Tokyo Film Festival about a month ago, which was pretty fascinating. It was received initially in stunned silence because the audience knew nothing of this story. And the distributor said to us that the Q&A would be strange – and actually a lot of the questions came from ex-Pats.
But then we hung out in the atrium outside and over the course of the next hour we had fascinating conversations with people who said they did not feel like it was an attack on them. It was pretty wonderful that they took it that way, and the distributor decided they might take it wider in Japan than they initially thought.
Q. How many of the locations are real?
Andy Paterson: All the stuff you see on the railway is the real Death Railway. We had to go to Thailand. The railway still runs from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi, where the bridge is. And it runs for another 40 or 50 miles, and then the path continues into the jungle. So, we were able to go and excavate parts of the real railway from the jungle and make it look like the real place. That was a wonderful thing to be able to do. Being in those real places was amazing. It was 45 degrees, [there were] loads of mosquitoes and all those things, but nobody ever complained during the shoot because you could get a small glimpse of what it must have been like to be there for 16 hours a day under those conditions. But the logistics meant we had to prep in Queensland and do the studio stuff, then prep Thailand, then prep Scotland, then shoot Scotland and, with no time in between, fly to Thailand and shoot Thailand and by the time we got back to Queesnland it was three months by the time we left and the PoW camp had been built in our absence. Then the director walked on-set and had less than a day to prepare the whole shoot. Most poople would want to run away. But Jonathan Teplitzky just looked like his birthday and Christmas had come at once because he had so many things he could shoot.
Q. The behaviour of Eric, is surely the ultimate act of Christianity. Did religion or faith play a part in how these two men found it in themselves to embrace one another and become great friends?
Andy Paterson: This was a source of a lot of debate. Frank is a devout Catholic. I’m not. I don’t think this was an act of Christian forgiveness. That would have required him to say: “My calling tells you that this is what I must do to forgive the man who wronged me.” What I think we were trying to unravel was to get at something more complicated. What I think Eric, in a strange way, was very fortunate to have was to unpick all the things that had caused him all that damage. On the other side you have a Japanese army conditioned to believe that death is honourable. We refused to believe that the Japanese people are different from other human beings and yet, we also wanted to get Eric to the point where he had something to throw back at Nagase. So, when he can say to him effectively, “you treated us like rats because we didn’t die and when the war ended, you didn’t die”, that gives back the dignity to all those men who came back and found people [here] didn’t want to know about Singapore because it was a humiliation and if you were part of that, it was somehow a bad thing. There are many reasons these men didn’t speak when they came home, one of them was there was that residual sense of shame. I don’t think straightforward Christian forgiveness could have unraveled the damage that man had suffered. What he had was an opportunity to have his humanity restored to him. He was a man of faith, but he wore it lightly. He definitely wanted to kill this man.
Q. When it comes to Mr Nagase, is his point of view typical of Japanese people of his generation, or did he stand out from the crowd in terms of what he wanted to give back to this Scotsman?
Andy Paterson: He made himself very unpopular in Japan by constantly trying to get the government to accept these terrible things that had been done. So, he’s not typical. I think that an awaful lot of the Japanese who were there and suffering their own horrors – it’s one thing to talk about brain-washing but it’s equally obvious that if they didn’t follow orders then reprisals would be taken against their family. I think a lot of the Japansese had to deal with not wanting to take responsibility for what they’d done because they were forced into it. I can’t answer a question as huge as that.
But Nagase was a very ordinary man. The reason Eric hated him so much was because Eric would say: “When you were in that torture room, the guys who were doing the beatings could almost be excused for their ignorance. But this guy was an educated human being and I have to accept that he knew what he was doing.” Nagase would say afterwards that there was no choice in what he was doing, but when he was assigned to that camp he witnessed a lot of terrible things, so he tried to give back to make up for that. A lot of people will not separate those two things. But he’s pretty unique. There’s a documentary someone has made that’s probably going to be out next year where a lot men who were on the railways and they are, in different ways, coming to accept the horrors of what they did.
Q. How far did Jeremy allow himself to be pushed particularly in those water-boarding scenes?
Andy Paterson: He made the decision he wanted to lose the weight. He’s not one of those actors who looks for those opportunities, but he felt that if he was going to have any sense of that, he needed to lose the weight. They all wanted to experience as much as they could. He wanted the waterboarding to be as realistic as possible and we tried various special effects ways of dealing with water. But he went a lot further than I wanted him to.
Q. I imagine it was humbling for Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman to meet Eric and Patti. Was that the case? And how did they feel about being played by two of the biggest movie stars in the world?
Andy Paterson: Well Patti will tell you that when Eric found out that Colin Firth was going to play him, he had now idea who Colin Firth was. He made much more of a splash in Berwick than he did with Eric. But Eric and Colin got on incredibly well from their very first trip. They took the pilgrimage up the east coast quite a few times. Colin said it wouldn’t have been necessary to like him, but he liked him enormously and that raised the stakes considerably… partly because he’s a storyteller, and he’s not one of those men who tells you the same story over and over again. Colin captures him so perfectly that when Patti came to set and watched Colin doing it, she was astonished.
Patti is not someone who is impressed by that sort of thing, but when Nicole and Colin came to the house I think she was very impressed by how much Nicole understood that you only knew what love means when times are very hard. I think there was a bond there that Patti understood why she was playing this role. It’s interesting: Colin wanted to meet Eric and once he said he wanted to go and meet Eric, I knew I had him. Actors take a long time to commit to something. Nicole didn’t want to meet Patti until she’d established the role. We had some long conversations and she looked at some interviews that we’d done with Patti, but she didn’t actually want to meet her until she was established. And when they did meet, they just walked round the garden and looked at the flowers and it was good.
Q. What’s been Patti’s reaction?
Andy Paterson: She’s been really supporting it. She’s just come back from a tour of Australia promoting the film. When we first showed it to her – I took it up to Berwick to show it to her because it was going to be a very traumatic thing and she was either going to wave us away or invite us in. But she’s become a huge supporter is the best I an tell you. I think she feels it has captured him; it shows a tiny fraction of what he went through, but she’s been great. And I’m delighted to say that she’s actually having a lot of fun. When she came on-stage at Toronto there was a huge gasp as it was announced that the real Patti Lomax was there. She deserves it. She’s had many, many years of fighting for him and then looking after him.