Peter Weir on The Way Back

Features, FILM, Film Festivals, Interviews
The Australian director talks Picnic at Hanging Rock, working in Hollywood, and his return to the big screen after a seven-year absence.

Peter Weir is one of the rare filmmakers to have crafted both an iconic career at home (The Cars That Ate Paris, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gallipoli) and in Hollywood, with such acclaimed works as Dead Poets Society, Witness, The Truman Show, and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. His latest, The Way Back, is based on Slawomir Rawicz’s The Long Walk, a controversial account of the Polish POW’s escape from a Soviet Gulag to India by foot. A gruelling epic with Colin Farrell, Ed Harris, Jim Sturgess, and Saoirse Ronan among the small party of fugitives who embark on the film’s 4000-mile trek, it screens at this year’s World Cinema Showcase in April and May.

Known for his big canvases, Weir was instantly attracted to the monumental story. “As a kid, I read all of those escape stories growing up in the ’50s, from German POW camps mostly, and loved them. And I knew very little about the Soviet Gulags and that theatre of the war.” The phenomenal length of the journey also stuck with him. “I see a lot of projects, but say ‘no’ to most of them. At first I thought this seemed too expensive, but I found after I read it, I couldn’t get it off my mind.”

Rawicz’s memoir, however, has since been questioned for its authenticity, and Weir admits that this has affected the film’s reception somewhat. “I think it has added some confusion,” he says. “When I first heard that there was controversy about whether the author of The Long Walk was actually a participant, or whether he got the story from somebody else—he had been a prisoner, without doubt—certain details matched up, but the KGB or NKVD files, when they were released, indicated that he had been released, and had not escaped. So I said, ‘well I can’t do it, unless on one condition—if I’m satisfied the walk happened, then that’s enough. I’ll fictionalise the story’.”

To manoeuvrer around the “true story” quandary, Weir “changed the title and the characters’ names, and [prefaced the film with] ‘inspired by’. He reiterates, “I never said that ‘this is a true story’. Some of the advertising did lean that way, but I certainly didn’t on the film. I dedicated it to men who had walked out of the Himalayas. That I had got confirmation from.”

Regardless of the source material’s credibility, there were plenty of chronicles to draw from of men who had endured considerable physical hardship to escape POW camps. By virtue of this, Weir says it made the shoot difficult. “There was a certain physical aspect to it because we were in those conditions. That lent a reality to what we were doing. It certainly helped the actors, because they were living through a sort of indication of what it had been like. We were very cold, very hot, climbing mountains.”

Classically shot, the use of landscape in The Way Back was inspired in part by the last decade’s hit fantasy films. “It’s a strong aspect to the journey film—including Lord of the Rings—but landscapes to a great extent were enhanced in the fantasy world. I thought this was interesting, as I’d be using landscapes as they exist. They’ll play their part like actors.”

The real actors, meanwhile, were challenged as an ensemble cast. “I think a film like The Way Back is going to have a tremendous physical challenge for an actor. It either turns people off or it attracts them. I think the people who came forward, or were excited by the screenplay or the story were those who were prepared to put themselves through what was going to be a physical ordeal. I was at pains to point out that there was another aspect because it was ensemble, that there would be days of not doing much, just walking. With a conventional film, you come and go in your scenes. You could do them all together and head off. But in this case, you’ll be there for the duration of the film, up and until your character leaves or dies. There’ll be days which might be unrewarding. With that, it was like casting a film and an expedition.”

Despite positive reviews, The Way Back struggled to secure distribution initially. Weir comments: “Initially it was seen as too outside the current type of film being made, which I thought was to its advantage. But it’s a deeply conservative climate in America. There is no problem in the rest of the world, but the Americans are concerned about the market, and they like precedent. They think that something worked last week, so it’s going to work this week.”

Weir made his name at the vanguard of the Australian New Wave. Together with directors like Bruce Beresford, George Miller, Gillian Armstrong, and Phillip Noyce, an international buzz was created from the late ’60s through to the ’70s by the group’s deeply Australian films. “I think there was something unique about that late ’60s and early ’70s, because we had no film industry,” Weir says. “It had that aspect of being part of a group which revived it. That had its special circumstances. Those who come afterwards have that precedent, so they won’t have that feeling of blazing a trail like we were. But I’m not nostalgic and look back at that period in a particular way except that I was lucky to be around.”

Weir’s first success was the cult 1974 film, The Cars That Ate Paris.  He found it gratifying that the film still exists. “I guess it’s thanks to DVD. In the old days, once the film was finished it might get played as a midnight movie or revived for a night at a revival house. It was largely gone, just an entry in a lexicon of films of a year. They don’t go away now—they’re on a shelf somewhere. It’s good to know they still exist.”

A year later, Weir’s breakthrough came with 1975’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. Adapted from the classic Joan Lindsay novel, the film became a calling card internationally for Australian cinema. Weir says the success was quite surprising. “I think when you’re working on a film, you’re sort of living in the moment. There are moments you think the film is going to do very well, and there are moments you think no-one’s going to go see it. You oscillate between the two extremes, and fall somewhere in the middle. I knew there was an inherent risk in the film in that it fell largely in the category of a ‘whodunit’ type movie, and yet it did not have a butler who ‘did it’. It did alienate some, who thought ‘What’s this? There’s got to be an answer to it.’ There were some people who loved that aspect of it, like I did, that there was no answer.”

For the film, Weir researched “soldiers who disappeared in the First World War in massive explosions so there was no body—missing presumed dead. It was a pretty chilling and terrifying phrase. Many lived on: widows, mothers, younger brothers or sisters, who hoped that the missing person would show up, or was in hospital with shellshock or something. To be missing is to be neither alive nor dead. I found that an intriguing thought.”

Picnic at Hanging Rock became an instant classic, but when Weir produced a Director’s Cut a decade ago, he excised seven minutes from the film. “That was material I wanted to edit at the time. It was released first in Australia, and probably New Zealand. It was a success, and it was about to go to Europe and America and be sold. I said to the financier ‘I’d like to cut, having had the opportunity to see it in theatres with audiences—we didn’t preview with audiences in those days—and they laughed me off—‘you want to cut a film which is working?’”

Weir eventually made the move to Hollywood, and was instantly successful in receiving an Academy Award nomination for Witness. His later films, Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show, and Master and Commander, have garnered similar nominations and iconic status. “I was very experienced when I went there. I would hate to have gone there earlier,” he reflects. “I did have an opportunity and considered it, but felt I was too inexperienced.  I was busy and happy working in Australia. When I did go, I had made five feature films and a television movie. I was experienced enough to handle a studio picture and I chose it reasonably careful.”

Despite the fruitful career, Weir says he has unfinished business, though he’s not quite sure what he’ll do next. “[I’m] always looking ahead, looking to the next one. You’re never quite there, always another mountain to climb. It doesn’t matter what experience you get, you can easily blow it. It keeps you on your toes. It’s one of those professions which takes a lifetime to master. It’s not like something in which you arrive and you’re there. You’re not like a concert pianist where once you’re there you just have to practise regularly. You’re playing a different concerto or symphony each time.”

‘The Way Back’ screens at the World Cinema Showcase 2011: Auckland, SkyCity Theatre, April 1-18; Wellington, Paramount Cinema, April 14-30; Dunedin, Rialto Cinemas, May 5-18.