The director Peter Weir talks about the things that attracted him to the escape story in his new film, The Way Back, showing at DIFF.
Peter Weir moves ahead with The Way Back
As I walk into the London hotel room, Peter Weir and his publicist are puzzling over a line in French. I volunteer my translation services and the Australian director asks if I can make out a sentence written on a glass box containing a model of a shipwreck. It turns out to be a tribute to the sailors who perished on the vessel and seems apt, given that Weir's last film, seven years ago, was the sea adventure Master and Commander.
That done, we get to the business at hand, which is The Way Back. Weir's 13th feature, which screens tonight at the Dubai International Film Festival, is based on the book by Slawomir Rawicz about prisoners who escape from a Siberian gulag during the Second World War and have to walk 4,000 miles to India.
There has always been mystery surrounding The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom, first published in 1956. In 2006, the BBC unearthed records that showed that Rawicz was released in 1942. Then a Polish Second World War veteran claimed that the story was based on a journey he had made. It seems unlikely that the truth will ever be known.
The director says his own belief is that Rawicz was not on the journey. "Although no one can be sure completely, however the evidence does point against it."
The good thing about all this doubt about authenticity is that it gave the 66-year-old Weir room to manoeuvre when it came to filming the tale. He was approached in 2007 with the idea of making a movie and started to piece something together from elements of the story, visiting locations in Siberia and India.
As the dedication at the start of the movie (which was co-produced by Imagenation Abu Dhabi, part of the Abu Dhabi Media Company, which also publishes The National) states, only three of the seven escaped prisoners make it all the way to India. The film stars Jim Sturgess, Colin Farrell and Ed Harris, with the rising star Saoirse Ronan as an orphan girl they befriend in their wanderings.
When Weir and I finally settle into our seats, the director explains what attracted him to the story: "I have a real sense of admiration for these people. They are people who show how the human spirit can triumph against the odds. What was also important was that these were victims who were not looking for trouble. This was no expedition to Everest, where the protagonists knew that they were putting themselves into danger and were trying to attempt a feat. These were ordinary people who found themselves in a tough situation."
The concept of triumphing over the odds is a theme that echoes through many of Weir's films. His body of work includes Dead Poet's Society, Gallipoli, The Truman Show and Witness. He is a man who likes to see his characters - to borrow a line from Dead Poets Society - "seize the day".
The beautiful landscapes in The Way Back are almost as central to the film as the characters. Whether it be the bitter winter of Siberia or the wastes of the Gobi desert, Weir paints a large canvas on which the people are often small figures against the harsh reality of nature. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Weir tells me he didn't want to use too much CGI in this film.
"Master and Commander was such a technical exercise, as much of it was done against green screen and the visuals were computer-generated. For this picture, with nature being such a big theme, I wanted to make a facsimile of the journey but we could not film in Siberia and Mongolia, so I cast Bulgaria as the double for the forests of Siberia and the Sahara in Morocco as the double for the Gobi desert."
He also drew inspiration from the picture of Siberia painted by the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa in his 1975 film, Dersu Uzala, about a Russian explorer who is rescued in Siberia by a hunter. "I didn't directly copy any of the shots," says Weir. "That's not really my style, to replicate. Rather it was just something to be looked at for inspiration and I was deeply influenced by it."
Weir and Russell Boyd, his cinematographer, spent a lot of time framing the shots and would go to the locations before filming started - with Weir making suggestions about exactly where he wanted the camera and what he wanted to see framed.
He and Boyd have a working relationship that dates back to the 1970s when they started making horror films together in Australia.
One interesting aspect of The Way Back is the way in which Weir plays the Hollywood star system. Being a household name doesn't mean you are guaranteed to be a survivor, nor does it necessarily mean your character will die. The film starts with Sturgess being put into prison when his wife dramatically, and under torture, states that he has committed a crime against the state. As a prisoner he meets Farrell's macho Russian character and an American engineer played by Harris (a Weir favourite).
As a director, Weir boasts great sensitivity. There are many outstanding films in his cannon, and as we run through them, we end up talking about Dead Poet's Society. This leads to a discussion on the nature of audiences, if only because I tell the director I saw the film in my early teens at exactly the right age to be influenced by its message that anything is possible in life if you put your mind to it.
He explains that The Way Back is a film likely to entertain older audiences more than the younger generation and wonders how the effect of growing up with the internet and on-demand television has changed audience perception.
"I've made a film that goes against the clichés of the prison-break movie," he says. "There is no great planning and execution of the escape and then once they do escape there is no great chase.
"For this film I'd be surprised and delighted if young people respond. People who have grown up in the digital age, I've noticed, do not have the same desire to see films or they want something different from them."
Indeed, in many ways The Truman Show was prescient about the way that television would change with the advent of reality shows, especially Big Brother.
I joke that he should sue Endemol, that show's creator, over copyright. Weir smiles and talks about the influence his film may have had on one of the big media phenomena of the past decade: "I heard a radio show once where one of the directors of Endemol said that when he saw The Truman Show he took notes, not because he wanted to copy it but because he knew that he had to get his own show out on television and fast, before someone else did."
As for what comes next for Weir, the director is not sure: "I don't have anything on the agenda. I'm just looking around as usual."
Let's hope it won't be another seven years before he finds what he's looking for.
The Way Back screens tonight at Madinat Arena, 8pm.