This week in theaters Peter Weir’s latest epic, The Way Back, tells the real life story of the seven men who escaped a concentration camp and walked over 4,000 miles from Siberia to Tibet in order to find freedom. Of course, the only way for Weir to truly capture their journey was to take his film crew and actors on location to battle the elements themselvses. Reuniting with Weir is Ed Harris (their previous work was on The Truman Show) alongside Saoirse Ronan, Jim Sturgess, Colin Farrell and more. Find out what made Weir decide to tackle such an emotionally and physically strenuous film below…
Taking on an Epic:
With such a physically and emotionally demanding shoot, how is it that all your actors seem to have had such a positive experience? How did you make that happen?
Peter Weir: Let me tell you this, I like a happy atmosphere on the set and a feeling of positive energy. It seems like a good day is the day when you have a lot of work to do. Any disagreements, I always say let’s have them off the set and so no one ever hears and all of that. But therefore if you ever do say something with that attitude, very critical, in front of a crew, it can be devastating. I didn’t realize it. One day, someone had messed up some replay of some music of a film I was doing. I was doing live music on the set, and three time we had to stop and it was all messed up. And I said something like, “your whole approach to this has been very disappointing.” It would seem to be clearly gentle kind of thing to say, but the whole set went silent. I had to be careful because they don’t expect that.
How do you keep such a positive environment on a film like this with so many challenges?
PW: Actually it’s not the ideal way for the director to go. One there’s the risk of illness; two there’s the danger of the experience you’re having is not photographed. In a way we are in the fakery business. If you could possibly do it under the most controlled circumstances that’s the way to go, but in this particular film I think it helped the actors a great deal because they were all on screen all the time. Therefore if they had two or three days where they didn’t have much to do, they filled a part of this recreation almost rather than just feeling like an extra. And I think it helped them get through those days when they were really just walking.
How do did you come to Jim as your leading man?
PW: Unquestionably, Across the Universe. Then seeing his audition tape for Across the Universe which circulated somewhere in the internet. It’s about 20-minutes of a number of callbacks he did. And you’ve seen him chatting and talking and laughing. That plus the movie gave me a very interesting picture of him – such a kind of gentle soul. Then I thought it was just quality I’m looking for in this. The more conventional casting would be a more heroic type. A person walks in and you think he’s going to sort this out, and I didn’t want him to be a hero nor a leader just have a knowledge of how to survive and he would grow into this role of leader. Jim had those qualities to meet, as I’m sure you’ve seen.
How did you know that Saoirse Ronan was the girl for the job?
PW: She has such an old soul, I’d say. She was my only choice. There’s an early instinct to cast nationalities literally to explore that to some extent. But that’s not what filmmaking is about. I knew from the screen and she did a reading for me, again I held my breath that I’d get her. She just had head qualities totally suitable for this part. The character could not in any sense have a sexual kind of aura yet at the same time she had to be on the verge of a life as a woman which she was going to forfeit, so that you would sense her potential. Particularly with the men, that she would change them and she could contribute to their survival in a way. It softened them. It opened them up. Within doing to, I think opened up those qualities of the human spirit that needed to survive.
Bringing the Past Back and Making it Relevant:
When was the idea born? The first time you thought that you should come to this?
PW: It was a usual process for me. Most things I’ll read and put aside. When I do like something, I take about a week to ten days just to live with it and go about my ordinary life you know driving around, visiting friends, whatever, and see if it comes back, if it has gone deep inside somehow. So it was the case with this. I’d be cleaning my teeth and I’d get a flash from the book of that character of that situation. I began reading, reading, reading, then traveling. Then interviews with survivors.
Why did you want to do this movie now, what is it about now that makes the story relevant again?
PW: I can’t say because I didn’t approach it that way. For me, it’s just I’m a story teller. I don’t know if it has found its time until it opens. After the 21st if this month, and when I get some more reports, England is very promising, then I’ll be able to say it found its time. If it fails it did not. We should have a chance.
Did you feel you had to start the movie with as much information as you did, and with such a specific dedication?
PW: I made everything of any significance in dialogue or the way the characters are something that I could source back. I call it “providence,” was my word. It was some sort of antique dealer. I needed to say “that’s from this book Slavomir Rawicz, I mentioned before, or Gustav Halling who was Polish, and this is from my interview in Moscow, and details in the camp and the clothing were from mostly sketches that prisoners made and that was a very dangerous thing to do.” Details like that and the mosquitos where the man had made the walk so everything I wanted to be true, and I think I was affected by this whole thing what is true about the author or did he do it. I think deciding to fictionalize, inspired by the book, I then became obsessed with making everything truthful as much as I could.
How many survivors are alive?
PW: I have not seen any numbers. I met twelve.
Did they survive? Did you talk to them?
PW: There’s one man in England who claims to be one of them. He’s in his 80s, he’s Polish. He’s done some interviews. Unfortunately when he was asked why it had taken this long before he spoke out, the answer wasn’t really very satisfactory. Why didn’t he tell the story earlier. We don’t know. They may be dead now. No one has come forward now. There’s all sorts of amazing coincidences. There’s almost nothing you can invent in the style of film that I’ve done that didn’t happen I found. I had a young Polish girl, she came to check some dialogue, make sure we had it right. She saw the film or was told about it and she said,” so at the end the man comes back and he’s changed he’s older?”
She said, “that happened to my grandmother.” She said “her husband had been imprisoned and was gone for many years and released or got out. She lived in the country and there were still people around in the country side that were bad and robbers so she kept a shotgun in case they came, and one day there was such a man at the window looking in and got the gun, pushed the door open and she said she was that close to shooting and it was her husband, unrecognizable.” Almost everything you can find in this vast millions of people who were into resettlement areas like in the East, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan. Such suffering.
The Suffering On and Off Set:
There’s a lot of directors who would just make it gory or harsh, what was your decision process to not make it that way?
PW: There’s a saying, I believe it came from Ingmar Bergman of all people, he didn’t do many interviews. In terms of suspending disbelief on the part of the audience, “you can do most things. One thing you cannot do is to kill someone. The audience knows it didn’t happen, that it was an act, which is not unreasonable.” It fascinated me, ever since I read it. At the start of the film, if I have too many that are kind of movie-like, a cruel wicked commander in the camp, a sadistic guard, cliffhanging moments with a chase — if I don’t make it real and just deal with things like mosquitoes and running out of food and water, then when I reach those destinations, they’ll have less impact. So that’s what I aimed for.
Then as they do pass, I love the term “to pass,” these people and in this era they had seen a lot of death and it wasn’t necessarily the way it is for us right here today. If anyone of use us, god-forbid, got hit by a car. There’s one reaction you have, “my god, what happened.” Sad to say, in the 20th century, so much death that people were more used to it. It didn’t mean they had less pain. So I wanted to see this film pass film not in a conventional way, but those around you could help you as you died.
You intentionally worked in some of the most difficult locations in the world, what was the worst for you?
PW: I think in some ways it was Siberia. I could say the desert because of the heat. Heat was the problem and food. There was quite a bit of illness on the set. No matter how much the production team, production manages waited in the kitchens of the hotels and said we want to see where you’re storing things, people got stomach ailments. So there was worry and therefore weren’t eating much. Just dried food and then the heat. But in Bulgaria that’s where I was doing the most moving around once I broke out of the camp. We’d be in one part of the country side then in another. The city traffic was difficult to get through. I found that really tense because I had to complete each day because that date was (15:16) when we had to get on the flight and go to Morocco. And the same in India. So you had to make those days.
Why do you think the perseverance of the human spirit, why do to think?
PW: I don’t know, but I wonder about it too. I think it partly, one aspect might be that we’ve got so much information. One time we didn’t know about a bus accident in Chile, but we could’ve all seen about it or read about it this morning. A group of 27 children died in a bus accident. Earthquakes, floods in Pakistan, volcanic eruptions in Indonesia. We know about them, we see the images. Then over there we have this sort of climate change about which, in its early days, was far too hysterical in my view. Yes, there’s a problem. How do we deal with it. There was certain people, as far as I saw, getting on television and radio and sort of more or less saying in our lifetime this planet is going to be ruined, which was absurd. The floods will occur. The water will rise. This and that. It’s all bubbling around to the point where you sort of think tomorrow brings something for me. Somewhere we sense an impermanence and instability.
The Past in the Present:
The Truman Show, how did you know?
PW: Firstly, Andrew Niccol must credit as the writer, he wrote this script. It was his prophecy that I filmed. I think I recall a review. It was a stinging review because it was from some reasonably hardly regarded paper in New York saying that the trouble with this movie is that the premise is just so absurd. To think that people would sit around watching ordinary life goes against the whole idea of what television is all about. I wish I saved it and I would send him a letter with my television program.
What do you think is the most influential media?
PW: Books. I’ve just been reading a book about “The Looming Tower”, the full story about Osama Bin Laden, a non-fiction book. Highly regarded, Pulitzer-prize winning book and they don’t watch films in Saudi Arabia, but a written word could get through. Also, I think films belong more in the tradition of art.
More and more people now quote movies more than books nowadays…
PW: But is that more a part about the vernacular a part of our way seeing the world, therefore having an influence. I suppose I was looking on a more profoundness aspect of that which is what could change you profoundly and therefore I’d say the written word.
Check out The Way Back in theaters!