Peter Weir, The Way Back
Originally posted online on January 19, 2011. The Way Back is nominated for Best Makeup (Edouard F. Henriques, Gregory Funk and Yolanda Toussieng).
A pioneering figure of the new independent Australian cinema in the 1970s, 66-year-old Sydney native Peter Weir (The Truman Show) gravitated to Hollywood in the mid ’80s, found success with a handful of well-crafted studio pictures (Witness, Dead Poets Society), and never really looked back. At least that’s how it might appear after a cursory glance at his unusual oeuvre, which encompasses everything from 1975’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (an oneiric film awash in foreboding, in which a small-town community disintegrates after a group of elite-school girls eerily vanish en masse during a lunchtime hike) to the rollicking high-seas adventure of 2003’s Master and Commander (about the friendship of a British captain and a man of science in the Napoleonic Wars era). Weir may have forsaken the interior horror of early work like The Last Wave, wherein a lawyer representing Aboriginals is afflicted by disturbing visions and revelations, but his interest in human responses to other kinds of awakenings—grief and trauma in the case of Fearless, for instance—has remained consistent.
For his first feature film in seven years, the independently financed The Way Back, Weir tells the story of a group of men determined to survive at all costs after escaping a Soviet gulag in the dead of winter. Based on a semi-fictional memoir by Polish writer Slavomir Rawicz (The Long Walk), the movie depicts the efforts of Janusz (Jim Sturgess), a young Polish man sentenced to 20 years for espionage, to trek across Siberia with a motley band of inmates, including Zoran (Dragos Bucur), a cynical American who calls himself “Mr. Smith” (Ed Harris), and tattooed gangster Valka (Colin Farrell), the only one among them toting a knife. With a bounty on their heads, they soldier through a gauntlet of endurance challenges, first in the wintry desolation of Siberia and then, reaching the border of Stalinist Mongolia, across the endless empty plains to the equally forbidding Gobi desert, encountering all manner of physical hardships. At one point, they’re joined by another refugee, Irena (Saoirse Ronan), whose wounded looks and soft presence pricks their collective conscience. Weir based his version on the (possibly apochryphal) real-life accounts of four men who emerged from the Himalayas into the safety of British India in 1942, having traveled 4,500 miles on foot from a gulag. Regardless of historical verity, The Way Back is a tightly focused, robustly realized adventure yarn in the high-classic tradition that allows Weir to explore many of his signature themes: the battle with nature; the shock of danger and uncertainty; cultural tensions and miscommunication; subjective states of mind and dreamlike visions. Despite the caliber of actors in the cast, the film is an ensemble piece, its tangle of low-key performances echoing the solidarity and camaraderie of the central characters. As ever, Weir’s approach is meticulous (especially in his painfully accurate reconstruction of the gulag environment) and heroically unsentimental, as he steers clear of big emotional moments and easy resolutions.
Filmmaker spoke with Weir about his early love of horror films, the advantages of deep historical research, and why the close-up is cinema’s greatest invention. NewMarket Films releases The Way Back on Friday.
Filmmaker: You’ve always had a fondness for strange and desolate locations. And here you have three landscapes: Siberia, the Gobi desert, and the Himalayas. How did approaching such a trifecta of forbidding locales present new challenges for you, both logistically and artistically?
Weir: It was going to be too difficult to film in the Gobi and in Russia, mainly for infrastructure problems, so it was like casting actors, you know? I thought, who can play the forests of Siberia? And Bulgaria won the part. They had an old Soviet-era studio there where we could do interiors. And Morocco was a pretty natural choice. We went down to have a look, and that survey impacted the script, which often happens. For example, I saw a lake in Siberia one day and part of it was still frozen. You could walk across it, at risk, and it did begin to crack. I stepped back after a few paces and thought, It would be interesting for them to have to cross this.
Filmmaker: There are classic survival films like Flight of the Phoenix and Island in the Sky, and modern ones like Alive! and in a more psychological vein, your own Fearless, but this is a tale of survival that unfolds against the historical backdrop of Stalinist persecution. Did your interest in realizing this project stem purely from an encounter with Rawicz’s memoir or were you after a story with larger political dimensions?
Weir: Not the political side, that would be rare for me. It’s usually an emotional engagement with the material of some kind or an unnameable engagement, something you can’t put your finger on until you finish the film. Which I think is always true, to a degree. I’m starting in again on that process, and it’s a bit mysterious. Sometimes my agent will say to me, “Well, you love the script but you’re turning it down? And I’ll say, “Yes. I don’t know, it’s just not me.” The Way Back was an engagement at the conscious and unconscious level. I had been working on a prison-escape story, something that didn’t happen, so that was kind of in my mind. I think what hooked me, apart form the visual aspect that a film like this would offer a director was, What is it about ordinary people that could give them the strength to do this? Would I have had that strength? And the Mark Strong character, who lives by just planning to escape, I thought maybe that would be me! [Laughs]
Filmmaker: The Way Back harkens to a number of themes we’ve seen in your films before: tensions that arise between characters from distinct cultures; the battle with nature; death, grief, and emotional trauma; a sense of dread and foreboding. Do you see the consistency that others do in your work?
Weir: When you put it like that, yes. But I think some part of me is already rejecting it. I like to think each thing I’m finding is fresh. I’m not a stylist, pretty clearly. I’m that other type of director who serves the story, whose personal signature or name is not as important as [it is for] a singular artist whose films are, to a degree, about them: Fellini, obviously, or David Lynch. So I belong in that other group. In fact, if I get something that’s too close to something else [I’ve done], dealing with similar themes, I’ll reject it. But inevitably I’m dragging with me my own preoccupations and sensibility.
Filmmaker: Anne Applebaum, the Gulag author who served as artistic consultant on the film, said she’s never worked with anybody so fanatical about historical detail. Is that essential to making a film feel authentic and true-to-life, or is it just how you find your way into a narrative?
Weir: I think both. Historical material seems an obvious choice for a filmmaker, and in some instances it’s the only way to go. Of course, by doing that I’ll be drawn into it somehow and create some kind of reality that I think will affect the way the film is made and everyone you deal with. The standard will be that high. Finally, it gives something to the audience. I’ve done that with films that don’t have an historical background. For example, on The Truman Show, I had a lot of time before I shot it. I was waiting for Jim Carrey, so the writer and I were working on numerous drafts. At the same time, I was writing a full background about the life of the producer and how he came up with the idea for the show. I think I was doing these things to feel there was a world. I made up notes for key crew and cast, so they would have this background, too. I think it helped us feel that this could happen on a reality show.
Filmmaker: Your earliest films incorporated elements of horror and the fantastic. Do you think, as your filmmaking matured, so too did your ideas about what kinds of stories you wanted to tell?
Weir: Oh yes. I think it’s quite well known that a young director will be drawn to horror because that’s something you can create more easily and without a lot of experience. And also it’s the first emotion you feel, I suppose. What if mum and dad died? [Laughs] I think you learn from there. Plus, as a child, I liked the Hammer Horror series and used to look forward to those films. Then you move and change and leave it aside. Today I find myself trying to work within a story with strong emotion, with the simplest elements, trying to drop flamboyance to get to some essence.
Filmmaker: Which can be the toughest thing to do.
Weir: Yeah, with a long career you’ve reached a point where you don’t feel you want to prove anything. It’s just interesting to try to refine the craft.
Filmmaker: Even though The Way Back unfolds on a colossal scale, and had a $30 million budget, you produced the film independently. Did it feel at all like getting back to your roots?
Weir: Very much, and I enjoyed that. As were the Australian films, they were independent. I’d been with the studios for years, so it was kind of a fresh feeling to have the challenge of developing the thing, firstly. There was no money, it was all done on spec. But then I miss the studios in the release period, which is right now. That’s where their infrastructure, their firepower, their deeper pockets would come into play. They can put this out in the world in a way that we can’t afford to. So that you have to live with.
Filmmaker: What did you bring from that world, the Australian independent film scene of the ’70s, that continues to inform your bigger-budget, more commercial films?
Weir: I think it’s the approach to dialogue versus storytelling with a camera. From the Australian days, we had very few actors and only young ones could even say a line. The older actors from the early seventies were theater-trained, radio actors. And very hammy, a lot of them, or they had affected English accents. A lot of the time, and right from my first feature film, I was cutting dialogue. “Don’t worry, don’t say it, I’ll just pan from your shoes to the knife in your hand.” In fact, on Witness, my first American film, a producer said as we were coming toward the end of the picture, “What’s this? I heard you’re cutting the last two pages of dialogue.” Harrison Ford was saying goodbye to Kelly McGillis, and she has a page where she says her feelings, and he says his and off he goes. The producer said, “You can’t cut this, it tells how they feel,” and I said, “No, when we cut it together, it’ll be in their eyes.” He told me the studio wouldn’t go for it, so I had a conversation with Jeff Katzenberg, and he asked me to describe what I was doing. That really came from that Australian era. Why say it if I can show it?
Filmmaker: What do you like best about working with top-caliber actors?
Weir: They understand screen acting. Ideally, you need to work with professional actors. It’s even better if they understand the screen. If they don’t, I’ll give my comments about how much they can convey without words. The great invention of cinema is the close-up. Over one-hundred-plus years, it’s not sound, it’s not color, it’s not CG or 3D, it’s that we can see a face so big—and see the eyes!—that remains the single most powerful difference between this medium and others. I look at a lot of silent films in between pictures. Because they show just how much you could show with just the odd title, and that’s a kind of moviemaking that I like. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy good writing. The Social Network is chock-a-block with dialogue, and it’s fantastic writing and well played. I could even make a movie with a lot of chatting. But I haven’t, so I guess I’m drawn to things where I’ve got room to let the camera tell the story.