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The Way Back - Peter Weir interview

The Way Back

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ACCLAIMED director Peter Weir talks about some of the challenges of shooting The Way Back, his first film since Master & Commander, and working with a predominantly British cast, including Jim Sturgess and Colin Farrell.

He also talks about his career to date, which films he remembers most fondly, and why it can sometimes take such a long time in between projects.

Q. A Peter Weir movie is an event in any calendar year but The Way Back is your first in seven years. Why so long?
Peter Weir: It’s not through any lack of effort. It’s just finding the damn thing that I’m… I wouldn’t say passionate about because that’s not quite the right word, but something that I absolutely connect to and can’t stop thinking about, especially when you know it’s going to occupy you for a couple of years. It’s not that easy.

Q. So what was it about The Way Back in particular that really grabbed you?
Peter Weir: It was the survival aspect of it and the walk… the incredible distance. And the fact they were ordinary people. So, it wasn’t hard to join with them, really, and wonder whether you would have had the courage to go. I think it sounds corny to say, but the triumph of the human spirit… the will to keep going. What is it that makes us put one foot after the other? Even in contemporary life… not just in extremes but in our urban cities – why do you keep going?

Q. I know there has been some doubt about whether the man who wrote the book upon which the film is based actually did everything stated. But I gather everything you portray in the film was gone through literally by someone?
Peter Weir: Yes. Having decided to follow the idea of being inspired by this book, I must say that in spite of the controversy… and the controversy being was he – there was a walk – but was he a member of that group? He’s not with us… he’s dead as of a few years ago. But for me, all I needed was to know that the walk did happen… to know it was true, and then fictionalise it.

I changed the title and, to a degree, the characters and then added a mine of information gained from interviews with survivors of the Gulag system in Siberia. On one occasion, I was in Moscow and we talked to people here in London. Then I probably got somewhat obsessed with this truth thing and used it as the basis for everything – down to character and background. So, what you’re looking at is pretty close, I believe, to what it might have been like.

Q. How important was it to speak to as many survivors as possible?
Peter Weir: I was fortunate that we had Anne Applebaum, the historical advisor, who’d written these books and is the current authority on the Gulag system in a book called Gulag. She joined with us as advisor and gave us names and addresses and contacted a number of people in Moscow for us to talk to… Polish people. I got a lot that’s in the film from things that they said.

Q. Were they surprised that their experiences are being turned into a film?
Peter Weir: I don’t think they’ve seen it yet and I don’t know that all will be invited. But I think they’ll probably think you can’t really film what they went through. It’s probably like being a doctor looking at a film about a hospital or pilots with planes. But I think in terms of the physicality and the casting, I think they’d go with the clothes and the make-up and tell us we’d got it and feel proud at having played a part in giving us that information.

Q. How important is it to you to be able to shoot a film like this on location? And to be able to keep doing that in movies, instead of relying on green screen backdrops?
Peter Weir: For this one, in particular, you just had to get out there. It was important for the actors to experience it and I loved walking through the deep snow and the blazing heat. That’s also very important because a lot of the time there’s no dialogue and you’re just watching them endure it, get through it and help each other. So, the physicality of it was important and because we shot in continuity, it did feel like you were living it.

Q. Did you ever feel like a task-master? Ed Harris was talking about the moment he willed you to say ‘cut’ [but didn’t] when he was talking about suffering from exhaustion during the press conference?
Peter Weir: I didn’t know about that. It’s interesting what you hear at a press conference [laughs]! I thought he was going to refer to a night scene we did in which I knew that he was feeling ill. I shot a wide shot and a close-up of him to let him go and then finished the night’s work with everyone else, for which he was very grateful. It was probably round about the same time in Morocco, but I didn’t know he was ill when he walked up that dune. He hadn’t told me, otherwise I probably would have postponed it. I wouldn’t have shouted ‘cut’ because we needed the shot that I got, but I might have put it off to the next day.

Q. Do you have to work hard at certain points to keep morale from flagging?
Peter Weir: I think yes. I did keep my own up. I don’t know how one does that except making sure you find a good spirit as you arrive in the morning and never letting any worrying mood I’ve got spread. With moments of exception in my life, I’ve never really lost my temper on set. I don’t believe in it. If there are ever any differences, I’ve always said to step off and go somewhere else and have it out. I think I also know the actors… in my approach to filmmaking I might change something, or have a new idea, so everyone coming to work on any day can’t be 100% sure that what we’ll do is exactly what’s on the call sheet. I might add something.

Q. But the best actors thrive on that, don’t they?
Peter Weir: Oh yeah, yeah.

The Way Back

Q. What was it like being reunited with Ed Harris for the first time since The Truman Show?
Peter Weir: Oh wonderful. It was very successful. It was only 10 days on The Truman Show, so I looked forward to this reunion… and also, frankly, because he was absolutely the best person to play that part. He’s in that tradition of Clint Eastwood and, to a certain degree, Harrison Ford, John Wayne early on… they’re an American type. I mean they’re not all similar but they do have that hardness, that feeling that they’re hard men who have passed through extreme difficulties and have maybe had to make decisions in which people were killed or something [laughs]. It’s a particularly American screen type. We have our equivalents to a degree in the UK… They don’t come along very often but, in the past, they would be someone like Sean Connery.

Q. What was it about Jim Sturgess that appealed to you as your leading man?
Peter Weir: He’s got a quality that’s quite unique. I suppose I could call it very open. It’s the reason I think Julie Taymor took him for a kind of young Beatle [in Across The Universe]. You feel with him that what you see is what you get. He seemed to be just the character for me… because I didn’t want a heroic type coming in where you knew they’re going to solve problems and would probably get through, or a neurotic hero. He seemed like an ordinary, decent man… very watchable and I didn’t him want him to immediately assume command of the escapees, but grow into the role because he knew how to live off the land and he knew how to navigate.

Q. Where did you look for the character of Valka?
Peter Weir: There was one old man in Siberia that we believe was a criminal – he had the tattoos on the hand and was a very strange, emotional old man – and I interviewed him with a little portable cassette tape player. But he talked about his story, which I won’t go into, and how he ended up in the Gulag and then we finished and he said something to his interpreter. When I asked what it was, he said: “He wants the tape.” I said: “Absolutely, I’ll just make a copy of it and I’ll send it to him if you tell me where to send it.” But he said: “No, no… he wants the tape!” I said: “Do you mean the machine?” And he said ‘yes’. So, I gave him the machine, he put it in his pocket and off he went [laughs].

Q. And what about Colin Farrell? Did you have to persuade him to play the role of Valka, which he seemed reluctant to when talking about it at the press conference?
Peter Weir: No, we met to chat about it and I think enjoyed the conversation so much that it just happened. There was never any doubt from the time he left the room to me that he couldn’t do that part. I felt he would be fabulous at it. When he walked in the room, I had wanted to meet Colin because I’d always admired him, but I didn’t think he was necessarily the right person to play a Russian gangster. But as far as I was concerned, he left with the part.

Q. He has an amazing mastery of accents as well…
Peter Weir: Doesn’t he? He just disappears into that character. And as he said at the press conference, it was hard for him because he had to be patient. It’s a different kind of acting to be on the screen and not doing anything. He admits he likes to be involved, but for three or four days he was often just walking and looking. But those are the little moments that a lot of them are on-screen and I think they help give the reality to his character – rather than have him in ‘amazing scene one’ and ‘amazing scene two’. It’s the detail that leant itself to the reality. He’s a killer, but he’s a killer like it’s a sort of trade and something you do to survive.

Q. What was more difficult for you – shooting in the cold or shooting in the heat?
Peter Weir: I think the cold for me, but then being Australian I’ve sort of grown up with extreme heat in one way or another. It was interesting hearing Colin talking about how he can handle the cold more than heat. He’d made Alexander, of course. Cold was definitely a problem for the cameras… I saw the camera department running around at one point looking very concerned. The main problem we could have had was weather. We could have struck high winds, or something, for a long period so that every day would look the same because they’d be walking out into a high wind.

The Way Back

But we got snow when we needed it, strangely. They had a late fall. They said it never shows in February, and it was just before we started shooting, but it then gave the look to the camp. Even in the desert, we got a sand storm on the day we were about to shoot one. We were setting up our big wind machines and we were ordered back to the cars because there was a real one coming [laughs]. We laughed about it. I wanted to film it and enquired whether we could, but our location manager said: “They can be nasty! This is not a game.” So, we got in the cars and it came right over us. The windscreen went dark, as you’d imagine, and we couldn’t see.

Q. A lot of people talk about the similarity between some of the themes that run through your films. Are you aware of that when looking for projects, or more when journalists point it out?
Peter Weir: Yeah, maybe in talking about it. When it’s not something I’ve written, which is rare, they [scripts] will come through Fed-Ex, so I unwrap a package with a novel or a script, read it, and every one in 500 is one I want to do. But as far as I’m concerned it came from the outside world. So, with The Way Back, here was a book written by a Polish man in 1956 that didn’t seem to be anything to do with me [laughs]. But what I don’t realise that is the reason I chose that one is probably something to do with a pattern of choices.

Q. Which of the films you’ve completed are you most proud of?
Peter Weir: They’ve all got different memories attached to them. I think I seem to be fondest of the ones that were troubled in a way… they’re like a troubled child. Mosquito Coast… apart from university campuses, the public didn’t like it. Gallipoli… I’ve followed that because it was an incident in our history. But I don’t think too much about them.

Q. What about the likes of The Truman Show or Master & Commander?
Peter Weir: Well, Master & Commander, when I think back to it, was actually in some weird way we’d sailed around the world. It had such a reality although we never really left the tank, except for 10 days. But when you got on board and they pulled the gang plank away and they started rocking the gimbal and there was a bit of wind in the sails, despite the fact Mexico was just over there, you were kind of there. There was always a lot of extras… you usually had most of the crew on board for any one scene, so everywhere you looked it looked pretty real. There were people on the rigging.

Q. Are those the sort of things that stay with you for a lifetime?
Peter Weir: Absolutely, arriving for work, for instance, you’d go round a particular bend and it would reveal the studio and the ship sitting there and I would see them getting sails ready for that day’s shooting. You can’t beat a memory like that.

Q. Given the current climate, not only financially but also Hollywood playing it safe with superheroes and CGI, how difficult is it to get a film like The Way Back made?
Peter Weir: It’s tougher, for sure. It’s been a bad two years in which the larger tent-pole films have dominated. They’re exciting for studios because there’s so much revenue involved and potential profit. But there are signs it’s changing and swinging back. There’s always a voice inside of you that asks: “Is this a permanent change? Or is this just a cycle?” And my agent ea stalling me the other day that she sense a new wind blowing through Hollywood. I asked her: “How do you know?” And she said that producers are starting to buy books again, buy options on books, which is where a lot of drama in film comes from.

The Way Back is released in UK cinemas on Boxing Day.