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The Way Back’s Weir: “If I can’t make the kind of film that I want to make, then the hell with it”

The Way Back's Weir: "If I can't make the kind of film that I want to make, then the hell with it"

DIrector Peter Weir sat down for a Q & A with an all-Guild audience at the Arclight in Sherman Oaks. Clearly, making The Way Back over a three-year period was not easy, but he made the movie his way, as an independent, and that’s the only way to go right now, he says. That’s reality. The studios don’t make films like this anymore. The book has been a popular worldwide bestseller for decades, because it is about the human spirit and the desire for freedom. It has been in development, with some 20 scripts written since Lawrence Harvey optioned it in 1960.

AT: Did you have trouble with the idea that this script was based on a memoir, The Long Walk, that was not entirely true?

PW: Yes, the memoir is called The Long Walk and it was published in 1956, it was very popular, written by Slamovir Rawicz, the Jim Sturgess character, and that was the book sent to me and the screenplay. Having grown up loving stories of explorers, of adventure generally, my first question was “It is true?” as I was raising the cover of the book. There’s been controversy since it was published, and for the documentary in 2006, they got into the KGB files and found some information there that indicated that Rawicz had not made the walk, he’d been a prisoner, he’d been tortured, whatever, but didn’t do the walk. He strongly defended himself in the past, he was dead by the time they found the KGB files.

It was enough for me to decide I would abandon the project. I had always been wary of doing any autobiographical movies, truly feeling at home with fiction. And I said, ‘I can’t do it.’ So what we did find was that three men had done the walk, and we got to survivors or witnesses who confirmed they were treated in hospital in Calcutta. And a British intelligence officer and his interpreter said, ‘Oh, that’s me.’ I talked to their sons, one in New Zealand and one in London. And they said their Dads confirmed the walk was true. So we made the compromise, that is, we dedicate the film to these unknown men, but I would fictionalize it and retitle it and rename the characters and draw on other memoirs.

AT: That gave you more freedom, allowing you to create all these very different characters?

PW: What it did do was make me somewhat obsessed with the truth. So everything, from the major elements to the screenplay and props and every little detail, I wanted to have a provenance for, and areas I didn’t know about, like long walks and explorers who have done such a thing, including one man who walked from Siberia to India. I became obsessed with the true stuff, and that led to shaping the screenplay somewhat toward a minimalist style, to avoid free-hanging moments, and to hold the music back, so it would never lead you to an emotion, and to try to make the emotions as real as I could.

AT: That’s what struck me; you’re not going for the obvious heroics. The Jim Sturgess character is not handled in the heroic way many Hollywood movies would handle him. 

PW: No, these survivors were all ordinary people, and that’s the whole point, that’s who I felt these people should be, and they shouldn’t be that hero that stands out.

AT: Did this approach affect your casting?

PW:  Well casting is always critical but in this case I was looking internationally to a degree for an interesting mix of gentlemen, Irish, Polish, Russian and American. Not many people had the qualifications, people who would play the game, particular to this industry as you know. But these were smaller parts, three or four scenes in the film, you’re not on screen all the time, you’re not really doing much, so I had to research amongst the cast. They had to be very very prepared as we had to start shooting as soon as we could, there wasn’t any time to talk, and there would only be three or four takes.

AT: Did you do rehearsals?

PW: No, I’m not from a theatre background, I’m wary of rehearsals. But what I do like is hanging out together, on location, and in this case it was practical to be refreshed by who had done the walk, talking about making campfires, they did stay overnight outdoors.

AT: You worked with Ed Harris on The Truman Show. His character carries a lot of the emotional throughline of the film, from being a loner to being part of the group because of Saorise Ronan. Did you intend him to carry the emotion for the audience?

PW: Yes, we set up that very happy experience and then we tried to find something else. I was fascinated with the relationship with them and the loss of his son, it’s all set up that way. Ed Harris seemed to be as a man, it seems, like a Clint Eastwood, this country is one that has produced more than one of this kind of man that’s iconic and enormously appealing to the world, as part of American film culture. 

AT: Are you talking about a kind of honor or masculinity?

PW: It’s spiritual, a man that has a past and regrets, but you can as a director take a shot, and there’s something in the eyes and the face, you just can’t fake it, you can’t teach it, and I think Harris has that quality. And I think he’s a conscious screen actor, so I think it was strong, it was like he put everything together somehow. He likes, I don’t want to say the method approach, because that’s not really necessarily his way of working, but it was easy to do because of the location. He’d go off by himself, and they would make things.

AT: What did he make?

PW: In the desert they created things from their clothing, he’s always thinking of things.

AT: He got dehydrated when he got to the desert?

PW: Many of the crew did, it was a problem.

AT: So what was the most difficult, grueling, horrifying thing to do in terms of the environment?

PW: The tough thing on this picture was we were out in the weather, but everybody knew we couldn’t go to cover, so we had to accept where we were. But we basically just had a day a scene, like Saorise crossing the ice, you just had to get a lot of cameras. And there were times where I would have liked to polish things.

AT: Was it hard to get the movie made, because you were breaking certain taboos–it’s a road movie, a drama, with snow? I mean, these are all forbidden now at the studios.

PW: There’s such a deep, conservative feeling out there. You go, ‘gosh, we’ve gotten narrow.’ So at the moment I think there’s a kind of tension, and it’s gold rush fever.

AT: So you chase the tentpole. 

PW: You’ve got these extremes. They’re attracted by making money, and they’re also trying to simplify things, going with the genre thing. The gambling instincts of a few years ago where you might make some thousands or a few hundred, it’s nothing now.

AT: But it means they are eliminating entire genres, like dramas. 

PW: You get very little from the studios anymore, it’s all independent. And I think the studio, with the exception of something like The Social Network, a fine film, very interesting, but as for studio pictures, that’s it, what else? There was more only a few years ago. So it changes, and I’m trying as much as I can.

AT: Well, you were willing to roll up your sleeves and do what needed to be done, you weren’t saying, ‘if I can’t do it my way I won’t do it.’ You did do it your way, but you did it for a price, finally. 

PW: Yeah, but it hasn’t gone out yet. What we love that this is not subsidized, it’s alive and kicking. And if I can’t make the kind of film that I want to make, then the hell with it, I’ve had a great run. But I’m more concerned with the younger people coming up that want to make this kind of film.

AT: Any hope for a sequel to Master and Commander? One of my favorites.

PW: Well thank you. I think that was the intention of the studio but it would have had to perform better to trigger a sequel.

AT: I heard Fox co-chairman Tom Rothman wooed you to do the movie my getting down on his knees with a sword?

PW: Yeah, I’d say this was 2000. They said, ‘Tom’s coming in with his project,’ and he was pretty impressive, laid down the sword, and I had an inkling, as I’d just finished the series of Patrick O’Brian books.

AT: Had you wanted to do Shantaram?

PW: Yes, I was involved in that for a period, I went to India, talked to Johnny Depp about it, it’s really his film, and it just wasn’t the right combination.

AT: You worked a lot with visual effects on Master and Commander and it was a bit of a hassle. Have you since turned against using visual effects in your films?

PW: No, I’ve worked with some great visual effects artists, and Rob Stromberg was just brilliant, he became just fascinated by skies and water. Many other people were involved, I’m singling Rob out because he moved on to become the art director on Avatar, and worked on Alice in Wonderland.

AT: He’s like a hybrid art director/VFX man.

PW: Yeah, so he makes it exciting, and it was wonderful with him, CGI or natural effects.

AT: The mosquito clouds were an effect, I hope, on The Way Back?

PW: Yeah, they were. And anybody I’d spoken to who’d been in Siberia said ‘would you please put mosquitos in,’ that’s what everybody knows about, they’re big and they’re nasty.

AT: So Colin Farrell’s character was a specific take on a person who is not just a Russian gangster, but has some humanity in him to be discovered?

PW: When the Soviet Union collapsed, that was the infrastructure that was in place, so when we talk about Russian mafia wars, they were running the country for a period. But yeah, Colin just took to it in a way that was very impressive, and he went into the learning of the language as much as he could, apart from just the accent. I met one of these gangsters in the early eighties, and I interviewed him and we translated the tape, and he told me he was ten years old when his parents disappeared, so he then quoted some poetry, very important for Russians and people in these times. He finished the interview and I said to the interpreter, ‘what did he say, what did he want?’ He wanted the tape recorder, it was one of those cheap, handheld things, so I took the tape out and gave the guy the machine.

AT: Authenticity is important to you. Do you agree that audiences demand that and are not going to buy fakery?

PW: The smallest detail can contribute to the whole, I think particularly with emotion, you want it to be as authentic as it can, whether its a artifact or a theatrical event. But the whole is the sum of so many images. With war and famine and flood and special effects films, when you do somebody under duress, you have to be really be inventive and the risk of keeping it very simple is you might loose some of the audience because it’s not overt, it’s hidden, not coming at you. Then you might cut through to some of this numbness and reach something profound and tragic. So hopefully it’s in the film.

AT: Digital filmmaking–how do you feel about that? Like what David Fincher does, messing with the negatives?

PW: It’s a hybrid, various studios are still shooting on film with digital grain and the DI negatives, it’s not ideal. We should really be all film or all digital. But that being said, the old way of graining in the camera, now you can make changes like a painter. It’s dangerous because you can ruin the film, you can over-fiddle. We’ve all seen films and gone ‘what the hell is that?’ 

AT: Was finding the different shooting locations stressful or difficult?

PW: I work with this professional on other films, yeah so I could call him up, he knew India and Morocco so he went off there, and we had a great experience in Bulgaria.

AT: That’s where you shot the blizzard scene with the snow and the bark masks, that was apparently very difficult?

PW: Yeah, it was on stage, there was a decision made in terms of budget, it was set in the forest in weather conditions and at night, we decided to build a forest on a very large stage, at the studio, it was extremely cold, then we would reshape the ground for the various conditions we wanted.

AT: So you blew snow with machines?

PW: Yeah. And it made it tough and they liked that, because this was a film where the actors wanted help with their performances. I can’t shoot a real forest, and we got the snow and it was pretty extraordinary. 

Audience member: How many days of shooting? What was your relationship with the cinematographer?

PW: Sixty-five days principle photography, five-day weeks, which is the only way I’ll work. With my cinematographer Russell Boyd, we take as much time as possible before pre-production, looking at stills. The next most important thing: he will come to me and talk about lenses. And I’ll see his plan, which is generally great, and I might talk about how the light will be, handheld or not? I talk very freely, and try not to talk specifically, just talk around it, because it can unlock all sorts of things. Russell, back to the first time I worked with him which was in the ’70s, he’s very serious, he knew Australian sunlight, he really had something, a touch, using silks and things. He just understood hard light, so I thought he’d be perfect for this. A great relationship, but once again, once we hit the set, not much talking.

Audience member: How long did it take you to find locations? And how hands-on are you with your characters?

PW: First question. Once we decided on Bulgaria, I went there for the forest and because we couldn’t film in Russia. Mongolia was dangerous to film, and in the end very complex bureaucratically to get there. I love a chance to shoot real locations, because in films in the earlier days before people traveled as much, it was exotic to see a film set in Switzerland, and that area has been taken over by CGI, mostly, and fantasy landscapes. It’s unusual to see this much landscape, people say it’s old fashioned. So what you’re referring to is there was that period in the ’50s and ’60s when there were epics and you saw landscape.

In terms of how I work with actors, having worked so heavily on the script I have a very clear idea of the characters; they are reasonably well illustrated in the script. If you cast it right, to a great degree you can hand it over to the actor and I just make suggestions. I’m not the kind of director who needs or wants to get into too much finessing. Ideally, when you hit the set, you have this conversation, like, ‘eh, what did you think?’ ‘I don’t know, what did you think?’ ‘Why don’t we just try it again, make a few physical changes.’ So casting the right actor for the right part is some unspoken thing between the two of you to communicate.

Audience member: What was the experience of going through making a movie like this for three years?

PW: I’m just thrilled, it’s like food, you know, I love stories and I don’t like to repeat myself. And I look for new stuff, and as they say it gets harder. I’ve done a number of things that get categories closed off in a way, so when I read this and decided to do it, ‘I thought, you know, this is going to be wonderful,’ two and a half years, three years, whatever it was. 

Audience member: What’s your relationship with your editor?

PW: It’s Lee Smith, we’ve done our last two films together. I always thought the editor should cut the film and so I’ll come in and look at the movie. Just because that’s the only way I can really see the ideas of the editor, it’s really working together. Yes it’s a hierarchy, yes I’m the boss, but I like to see and to think about the idea, and it’s about us asking, ‘do we have to say that?’ and, ‘how do we make it there?’ So it’s advising the editor, it’s very give and take, it’s very free, but in the end, it’s wonderful once you get through the first couple of cuts. It all comes down to just that two hours of film. 

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