The Railway Man – Jonathan Teplitzky interview (exclusive)
Interview by Rob Carnevale
JONATHAN Teplitzky talks about some of the logistical challenges of filming The Railway Man and what it was like working with Colin Firth, Jeremy Irvine and the real-life Eric Lomax.
He also discusses how the film has resonated with audiences and why he believes it’s an important film in remembering the Burma Railway and the suffering of people like Eric.
Q. How did you get involved with The Railway Man?
Jonathan Teplitzky: Well, it was in development for many, many years before I got involved. But I knew the people developing it, so when the original director fell out and had to go to America to make another film, the film became a UK-Australian co-production and they were looking for an Australian director to make it. So, really once I read the script and saw this incredibly succinct and simple story about the very best and the worst of human nature I thought that the combination of those things in one film was like movie gold.
Q. How challenging was the shoot? I gather there wasn’t much time between each location – Scotland, Burma and Australia…
Jonathan Teplitzky: Physically, it was an adventure. I thoroughly enjoyed doing it. But you’re right, we shot for three and a half weeks in Scotland first, and then four days later we were in Thailand for two weeks and then four days after that we were in Queensland, Australia. So, it was taxing but, like I said, it was also a great adventure. We got to go to some great places, we filmed up on the real Burma Railway, and we built the prisoner of war camp and did a lot of the studio work in Queensland, Australia. And it was challenging on a daily basis. We had extremes of weather, and that always takes its toll, but getting to make a film of this nature was a great experience and a privilege.
Q. How was walking out onto the Burma Railway for the first time for you?
Jonathan Teplitzky: Well, we went out there two or three times to scout it all before we started shooting and it never lost its sense of atmosphere. A lot of the actual rail has been pulled up, but when you walk along sections that are really no more than a path, you can’t quite believe that a huge steam train went along in. So, it was an amazing experience because as you walk along it you can palpably feel what the men must have suffered in that incredibly searing heat and in those brutal conditions in order to build something like that by hand… and to survive, and many didn’t. Many, many men lost their lives on that railway. So, there’s a strange atmosphere too, especially in the cuttings such as Hellfire Pass, where the men literally took a slice out of the mountains and ran a pathway through the middle of it that was only just wide enough for a train to pass. They are really quite eerie places but they also serve as monuments to the suffering and the lives that were lost.
Q. The statistics really are shocking in that a man died for every sleeper of railway that was laid between China and Burma…
Jonathan Teplitzky: Right, I can believe that’s true. It would not surprise me at all. There is an amazing museum in Kanchanaburi, which is right where the Bridge on the River Kwai is. It has these giant sleepers lent against the wall and in each sleeper is a series of nails that were used to hold the track onto the sleeper. But every nail represents a thousand men. When you look at it and see the number of nails in those sleepers it is almost inconceivable. These men were slaves in many ways and when you see just how many gave their lives it is incredibly humbling.
Q. How was meeting the real Eric Lomax?
Jonathan Teplitzky: Oh that was another amazing experience. The thing I found about Eric, or rather the first thing that struck me about him, was just how peaceful a person he seemed to be. I mean, to many this would seem like an unbelievable story of a man who was so badly treated and then [subsequently] so badly suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), so to be able to find a way through that and to find love and peace…. it’s exceptional. So, I found him to be quite peaceful and a very straight-forward, to the point kind of guy. He was very alert of mind and very open, which is not always the case with people who return from war, whatever war zone they’ve been in. But he was very articulate and very open and welcoming to us as filmmakers telling his story. The trust that he and Patti [his wife] bestowed upon us made this film a lot easier to make and brought a tremendous sense of responsibility that we all carried with us.
Q. Did you ever have to be careful what you asked him, in case he closed up?
Jonathan Teplitzky: I guess you enter into it [conversations] with that in mind but I never found that to be a problem. And even if it was, it was our problem to deal with in a way, not his. I remember one moment when Colin [Firth] and I were visiting him and we asked him what his real intention was when he went back to Thailand – was it to kill [Takashi] Nagase? And he looked at us – and he had these piercing blue eyes – and said: “Absolutely. It was my full intention to do away with this man.” When someone says that to you while you’re staring at them face to face it’s quite chilling.
Q. Isn’t that what makes his act of forgiveness all the more incredible? How did you personally view the act yourself and did that change through meeting Eric?
Jonathan Teplitzky: To me, this was always a great story about what human beings are capable of, so in that sense it’s a great story about something that defines humanity… as I said, it’s a story about the best and the worst of human nature and in many ways, for me, the forgiveness element of it is an incredibly important step that very few revenge stories ever take. If you asked the same question about killing a person, which is an incredibly unnatural act in itself, people may have strong opinions either way about it. But you don’t really, really know until you’re faced with a situation how you’re going to react. In many ways, there was a process that Eric went through… it wasn’t about him intellectualising it and deciding that he was going to forgive; it came out of a human process that started once contact had been made between the two of them. One of the most difficult and challenging things about making a film about this is that you don’t wake up, have an epiphany and decide that you’re going to forgive. Eric came to realise what he would do through experiencing a number of things to do with that person, so giving the film enough sense of time passing and that a process was being worked through without it feeling anti-dramatic at that point in the film was a challenging thing to pull off.
Q. I think you have…
Jonathan Teplitzky: Thank you. At screenings we have done so far, the film seems to pack a powerful emotional punch. And I think people identify with the possibilities that the film examines in regard to both hatred and revenge as well those ideas of forgiveness.
Q. How was working with Jeremy Irvine, especially during the torture scenes? I gather he wanted to push himself as far as he could go to do justice to Eric’s suffering?
Jonathan Teplitzky: It’s a funny thing but when you’re filming you tend to have a slight detachment from it because you have to be aware of so many other things going on around you technically. But when we filmed him doing the water-boarding, I think all of us watching on saw just how incredible he was at going to the places that the film shows he goes to. And all credit to Jeremy, he trained for all of that with the stunt guys and we found a way of making it work on a visually legitimate way without it putting him in harm in any way. There were a couple of times with Jeremy where we had to encourage him to eat a bit more because he was starting to feeling faint. His dedication to the role was incredible. But we all agreed going into this that if you tell a story like this, you’ve got to make something really legitimate and I think everyone went that extra mile to honour Eric’s story.
Q. What was it like working with Colin Firth?
Jonathan Teplitzky: Amazing. You wait a whole career to work with someone of his talent. And the amazing thing about his performance is that he didn’t even get to play the physical damage being done to him so that, as an actor, he could then play the emotional and psychological response and fallout that followed. He had to invent all of that because Jeremy got to play all of that. So, I really admire, on that level, the depth and complexity of his performance. What’s more, for Colin’s part of the Eric Lomax character, he doesn’t speak very often, so he also has to tell the story both emotionally and internally, yet be an active character in the film, which was an incredibly challenging thing to do. So, to work with someone of his calibre was, for me as a director, wonderful. It was almost like a master-class every day.
Q. What’s been your favourite response to the film so far?
Jonathan Teplitzky: Well, I think in a big picture sense people seem to be responding to the idea of forgiveness, as we mentioned. Nowadays, it’s almost like a forgotten art that we’re all capable of reconciliation and forgiveness… maybe that emotion, in modern society, is untapped into. We just go about our lives. But it’s good for people to be reminded of just how powerful that is as a response in terms of our humanity. So, in many ways, I hope this film will be remembered as a life affirming film about the power of humanity.