Weir’s way: journey back to the screen offered no short cuts

Sourced from smh.com.au

Six Academy Award nominations – more than Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman and Cate Blanchett – show how highly regarded Peter Weir is in Hollywood. For his last two movies, The Truman Show and Master and Commander, the Sydney filmmaker was nominated for best director.

In a career of almost 40 years, he has also been acclaimed for Picnic At Hanging Rock, Gallipoli, The Year of Living Dangerously, Witness, Dead Poet’s Society, Green Card and Fearless.

So why has it taken seven years to make The Way Back, an epic drama about escaped prisoners of war who trekked 10,000 kilometres from Siberia to India in 1940?
Partly it was Weir being choosy.

”I’m very selective,” he says.

”I look for things that really interest me – enough to spend a couple of years on.”

Like even the biggest names in Hollywood, Weir, 66, has had to navigate a shift in the movie business. When studios have wanted familiar stories that make buckets of money – if it’s from a comic book, all the better – he has stuck with intelligent, thoughtful, heartfelt films.

In those seven years, four such projects failed to get financed – adaptations of the novels Pattern Recognition and Shantaram and the military films War Magician and Shadow Divers. But as with the prison escapees in his latest film, persistence has paid off.

The Way Back stars Jim Sturgess as a Polish cavalry officer, Colin Farrell as a violent Russian criminal and Ed Harris as an enigmatic American engineer who join a party fleeing a brutal Siberian gulag during World War II. To get to safety, they have to trek through snow, desert and eventually over the Himalayas.

Weir says he has been interested in adventure stories from childhood. ”For me growing up, it was stories of escapes from prisons,” he says. ”Escape From Colditz, The Wooden Horse or Reach For The Sky: I read all of those.”

Later came learning about epic treks by explorers, including Shackleton and Burke and Wills.

”In reading this story and the background to it – and interviews with survivors of the gulag – I began to really think about the nature of the human spirit,” he says. ”What is it that you draw on that can make you take such a risk and drive you on over 10,000 kilometres?”

The film was inspired by the book The Long Walk by a former Polish soldier, Slavomir Rawicz. But with doubts over whether he actually did the walk himself, The Way Back draws on other accounts of the trek.

”The walk did take place,” Weir says. ”That’s why I dedicated it to the unknown survivors. Did the author of the book go on the walk? There seems a question mark on that. Possibly not. That’s why I re-titled it and fictionalised it and used … true events as my bedrock.”

The film was financed outside the Hollywood system for a modest $US30 million. Instead of creating the locations using computer graphics, Weir shot in snowy Bulgarian forests, the Sahara Desert and the Himalayas.

Getting the film distributed in the US was another challenge. Because of limited opportunities for an epic drama full of foreigners, the film company had to buy its own distribution outfit.

”I do feel for young filmmakers,” says Weir, reflecting on the huge box office takings for fantasy movies that are largely made for children. ”That has sparked a kind of gold rush in the film world, where people would rather gamble at the high table. If you take a drama on, you may if you’re lucky make a few million but you’re not going to make the kind of money those films make.”

After mentioning his admiration for the writer-performer Chris Lilley from Summer Heights High, Weir admits that if he was starting his career now, he would head for television rather than film ”because of the stranglehold of distribution and marketing on the film industry”.

”You get your idea as a filmmaker; hopefully it has some rough edges. It has a little bit of daring in it – some degree of risk – so that it pops out the other end fresh and strong. But you have to take that to this small group of people who have the keys to the gate that will lead you to the world audience.

”They say ‘it’s too unusual, we want to straighten it out. We want to make it a little more like films which have succeeded in the past’ …

”I fear that those directors who don’t have the power, their films will get, to some extent, shorn of their individuality.”

Weir hopes it will not take seven years to make another film.

”One part of me wants to go and enjoy all the meetings and surveys and casting sessions,” he says. ”The other part of me simply can’t move until I find that story that fits like a glove, that is something I was meant to do or that I can bring something to.”