Concluding our Peter Weir Blogathon, Trevor Hogg explores the making of the acclaimed filmmaker's latest epic, The Way Back...
In my quest to learn more about The Way Back, a World War II prison escape and survival epic, I spoke to two cinematic artists who have an unwavering sense of loyalty and respect for their countryman and colleague Peter Weir. “About a year before it actually started shooting, Peter talked to me about the film and I read the script,” states two-time Academy Award-nominated film editor Lee Smith from an edit suite in London, England. “They had a couple of changes of people who were going to finance it…and then we slipped into a weather situation. Where they were going to shoot it was going to be too cold and they had to wait for the weather to be [more] advantageous.” Oscar-winning cinematographer Russell Boyd was happy to leave behind the confines of the Napoleonic British warship which played a pivotal role in his last teaming with the internationally acclaimed director. “It was nice to get out onto different locations,” states Russell from his home in Sydney, Australia. “We shot in Bulgaria for about three months then Morocco and finally India.”
The $30 million independently-funded production features Jim Sturgess (21), Colin Farrell (Minority Report), Ed Harris (Pollack), Alexandru Potocean (The Whistleblower), Gustaf Skarsgård (Trust Me), Dragoş Bucur (The Other Irene) and Sebastian Urzendowsky (The Counterfeiters) playing seven prisoners who escape a Siberian labour camp in 1940, and befriend a young Polish girl portrayed by Saoirse Ronan (The Lovely Bones); it is loosely based on Slavomir Rawicz’s memoir The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom. “I read the book which the film is based upon,” says Lee Smith who was given the responsibility of assembling the footage as he did with the seafaring Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003). “When I got to Bulgaria I read a couple of other smaller books on the life and times of people who had gone through those [Siberian prison] camps.” There has been controversy over the historical accuracy regarding Rawicz’s account of traveling 4,000 miles on foot to India. “I think that was in Peter’s mind as well,” remarks Russell Boyd when I inquire as to whether or not the accuracy debate influenced the project being given a name different from that of the memoir. “He wasn’t out to tell a factual story; he adapted it from the background of the book.”
What the director did want to achieve was an authentic atmosphere for the picture. “Peter did a lot of research on the gulags,” explained Russell Boyd, “and he came across [information] that they were lit by one single light, like a domestic household bulb in the middle of these long barracks; he wanted me to try to emulate that. I couldn’t completely or otherwise it would have fallen off into complete blackness…but I tried to keep it as natural as possible.” One of the locations with which Russell was intrigued was a cave which proved to be so treacherous that Peter Weir injured his knee. “It was fairly late in Bulgaria and then we had the three or four weeks in Morocco and then India, so he did find it pretty difficult to get around. It certainly didn’t stop his drive or his ability to direct the film.” One particular example of Weir’s resolve occurred while in Morocco. “The characters that are still part of the story encounter this big sand storm and special effects had setup some huge airplane engine-like fans that can blow either wind or sand towards you. The day we were scheduled to do it…a real sand storm blew in and Peter was saying, ‘We must shoot! We must shoot in it! We’ve got the real thing happening.’ But it overcame us totally and we laid down our tools for a half an hour to let it pass through; it went through as quickly as it came. Once it was gone we continued with special effects blowing sand at us.”
“The snow in The Way Back is real snow,” emphasizes Lee Smith. “I remember shooting on a stage in Bulgaria. It was colder on the stage than it was outside.” Upon being told the remark made by his colleague, Russell Boyd cannot help but chuckle. “The reason for building the forest set was that there were a lot of scenes in the forest after they escape,” states the native of Victoria, “all sorts of things ranging from mid-winter blizzards through to a few scenes shot in the spring. There were also scheduled a lot of night exteriors in the snow which can be extremely difficult to shoot, not only because they’re physically demanding but also just getting equipment out in the right spot. The decision was taken to build a forest set on stage. What that gave us was a light from above which we call a space light, great big balls of quartz lights with a silk surrounding. They give a lovely soft light and we hung sixty of those up in the lighting grid. As the trees went in and they switched them on for me, this is a month before he [Peter] does the shooting, I realized that the trees were stealing a lot of my light so we doubled…the space lights. Being able to shoot a lot of those scenes in day or night or in snow was very flexible for the scheduling, and for production to be able to manage things very carefully for us.”
“It was bearable but it was really hot,” remembers Russell Boyd when recalling the time spent conducting the principle photography in Morocco. “We were gone by the time high summer came along.” Russell adds, “I’d rather be hot than cold so I enjoyed it more than the snow.” A problematic situation for the cinematographer and his camera crew occurred during what was supposed to be a brief one day shoot in India. “It was a busy morning as I was shooting some atmospheric stuff, and then in the afternoon shooting the scene where the guys march into India to freedom. The following day we had a scheduled day off; it poured with rain to the extent that there were a lot of mudslides in Darjeeling and a number of people lost their lives. Also, at that time our entire unit base was washed out. The next day we started shooting and it rained by lunchtime and we had to go home. So we went back the following day to finish shooting, hopefully, and got rained out again and the third day we went on to complete it.”
“The opening scene in the movie is very powerful,” marvels Russell Boyd of the late addition Peter Weir made to the script while on location filming. “It was one of the last things we did in Bulgaria, where he [Jim Sturgess] is being interrogated and forced to sign a piece of paper saying that the allegations against him are true and the allegations have come from his young wife who had been tortured.” The short scene which makes use of dramatic close-up shots also made an impression on Lee Smith. “As soon as you take a sequence seriously, you feel that you’re really there and this is really happening; you can only begin to try to imagine how incredibly difficult it would have been [to be] interned at that time,” observes Lee. “I think the combination of sound effects and music that subtly play in the background give you an idea of the horror it would have been in one of those prisons.” The concept of nature being the central antagonist, emphasized during the prison camp scene, fascinates the Sydney-born film editor. “One of my favourite moments is when they say, ‘It’s not our guns or wires that will keep you. It’s Russia itself.’ It’s where they are. It is such a remote place what is the point of escape? Where would they go? And if the locals don’t round them up for the bounty then surely they’ll perish through fatigue, starvation and cold. I thought that was a bit of a genius thing to play on.” Russell Boyd was impressed with an intelligently-used storytelling device that appears at the halfway point of the picture. “The introduction of Saorise Ronan in the film was a masterstroke I thought,” enthuses the cinematographer. “One of my favourite scenes in the movie is where she runs across this frozen river which you remember is in the trailer. To me it really put the picture on a different level…it pushed the story on much faster. It will give an audience a great feeling that this young girl is [able to] capture the affection of this [group of] harden ex-gulag prisoners.”
Not being able to crosscut between different storylines during the picture resulted in a major creative challenge for Lee Smith. “I think it was nice to stay with them,” believes Lee. “Once you’re walking, there is nowhere else to go and I think that adds to the vibe of the film. You’re as isolated as they are, and cutting back to the camp or back home to the loved ones, I think, would have broken that spell.” The film editor adds, “The great thing with films is that you can go on a journey with the people that you are interested in watching. You almost feel part of them. I certainly felt pretty parched as I got through that desert.” Working with a large principle cast of seven actors was creatively challenging. “Not everyone can have every line and every reaction to every moment,” acknowledges Lee Smith. “It definitely adds a layer of complexity when you have an ensemble cast for a fair chunk of the film.” To help him get a better assessment of the footage, Lee Smith delays incorporating a particular cinematic element. “We run without music the first time just to get an understanding of the film.” He goes on to explain, “My theory is that the longer you can resist putting music on a movie, the more you analyze and the more brutal you are on the images. Music is the great glue that can stick sequences together.”
“[The Way Back] is what I would call a fabulous piece of adult entertainment,” says Lee Smith. “It’s just a movie I would thoroughly enjoy watching. It’s not easily marketable because you can’t pin it to another movie.” When I ask if the unrelenting depressing nature of the story will hurt the picture at the box office, Lee tells me, “I’ve seen it with audiences who loved it and applauded at the end of it. I’ve been to a lot of test screenings in my time and you don’t often get that.” Upon assessing the commercial appeal of the epic tale, Russell Boyd remarks, “I rather believe that certain audiences will go to any film that a certain filmmaker might make. Peter Weir would have an inbuilt audience I would have thought for whatever sort of film he makes.” Lee Smith realizes that there are serious financial forces at work which may well deprive “accessible art” directors like Peter Weir of the opportunity to make films. “At the end of the day movies are expensive to produce and basically they do have to make money. It depends on how brave the people are who are funding the projects…We’re in an age of economic rationalism and I think it’s killed a lot of our thinking.” Despite the changing cinematic landscape, Russell Boyd has unwavering faith in his colleague of over thirty-six years. “One thing I don’t think Peter would ever do is deliberately take on a film that he doesn’t have a one hundred percent emotional attachment to.”
Visit the official site of The Way Back and read our review here.
Thanks to Russell Boyd for supplying the images for this article.
Peter Weir Blogathon
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.