Thursday, January 20, 2011

"Primal experiences stay with you": A conversation with Peter Weir on The Way Back

The Way Back, Peter Weir’s adaptation of Slawomir Rawicz’s The Long Walk, concerns a group of prisoners who escaped the gulag in 1941 and traveled by foot from Siberia to India. The difference in the titles of the film and book already imply something of Weir’s authorial stamp: Weir’s story is imbued with a sense of destination absent in Rawicz’s narrative. Yet the journey itself remains central to The Way Back, its lasting impressions deriving primarily from images of unfathomably exhausted bodies staggering across seemingly endless terrain like semi-mummified pilgrims, of the small victories of finding food and shelter, and of the blisters and chapped skin that transform the topography of Ed Harris’ wisened face.

These days we might associate Weir primarily with his extraordinary streak of Oscar-winners like Witness (1985), Dead Poet’s Society (89) and The Truman Show (98), but consider how unlikely a candidate for Hollywood A-lists Weir seemed in his early years, working in his native Australia—a country that had almost no film industry to speak of when Weir started out—helming something as rigorously atmospheric and unresolved as Picnic at Hanging Rock (75) or the equally mysterious, apocalyptic and hallucinatory legal drama The Last Wave (77). Weir’s a rare talent who ushers a personal touch into films of the greatest possible scale. He’s also remarkably humble, charming, and articulate. I spoke with Weir during his visit to Toronto last week.

Peter Weir

JB: What drew you to adapt
The Long Walk?

Peter Weir: I think it was what it usually is, which is an emotional connection to a script or book and a feeling of discovery that I can’t get off my mind for days after having put it down. When that happens I’ve already started to make it, in my mind, imagining how a scene might be realized. With
The Long Walk I kept asking myself certain questions. Could I have done it? Would I have had the strength? What was it in those people that kept them going? But after having read the book I thought it needed something else. What I added to it, amongst other things, was the idea that it was Janusz’s wife he wanted to get back to after she’d betrayed him. I didn’t want it to just be like an Olympic event or something. [Laughs]

JB: I wondered if the hallucinations were yours.

PW: Yeah. Those too.

JB: Was there a particular element of the story that compelled you?

PW: Yes. It was to be without water. I remember going without water for just a day at home, wondering about that feeling. Kind of a silly way to do research. [Laughs] But it’s easier to imagine starving, because we know from hunger strikes that a body has the capacity to go a month or more without food. But not water. You’ve got to have that within 48 hours or so.

JB: Did you read the book presuming it to be entirely factual?

PW: Oh, yes. It was an afterthought when I asked the producers, “This is true, isn’t it?” And they confessed that there was always some controversy about whether or not Rawicz was on the walk. So I told them I can’t do it—if there’s doubts then that sort of destroys it. But then I suggested that if we can prove that the walk happened, with or without Rawicz, then I’ll do the movie, but I’ll fictionalize it. So that’s the way it went. I found evidence and then went ahead and changed the characters, changed the title, and freed myself from this man’s book.

JB: It raises interesting questions about which kinds of stories we accept as fiction and which we need to regard as fact in order to surrender to them. I guess for you this was the latter sort. You needed to know it was true.

PW: Yes. Once I was able to take some distance form the book, to use the “inspired by” credit, I then became obsessed with getting everything within the story as truthful as possible. The characters I was redrawing, the incidents they went through, the behavior, the life in the camp, I wanted all of this sourced back to true accounts or interviews with survivors of the gulag. I became surrounded by advisors so that every detail, from the clothing to the conditions of the walk itself, was accurate. Cyril Delafosse-Guiramand, my technical advisor, had actually done the walk, so he was with me for the whole production period. Being attacked by Siberian mosquitoes, for example, came from an experience he’d had.

Picnic at Hanging Rock

JB: Did you have similar concerns about verisimilitude with
Picnic at Hanging Rock? Was it important for you to assure the audience that all this might have really happened?

PW: I think particularly with that film. The author opened her book with the same quote I’d used in the film. “These events happened long ago…” and so on, something that at the very least encircled the truth. I felt it was important to reiterate because for the film’s lack of resolution to work I think you had to feel it was true. Otherwise it might just seem like a bad film, like somebody forgot to write the ending.

JB: How important was it for you to give us some sense of just how arduous an experience the events in
The Way Back would have been? How do you find a balance between conveying such unimaginable hardship and crafting a thoughtful, adult entertainment?

PW: That’s very much the question that confronted the editor, Lee Smith, and myself. I had a lot more anecdotal material as they went on, but it made the film too grueling or diffused the tension. So the questions became when to move, and at what rate? You have to believe they experienced these things but it reached a point where it was just too punishing. But I don’t think that’s what audiences will find involving. I think it’s that we stripped the film of most Hollywood conventions. There’s no wicked, sadistic commandant who’s obsessed with capturing them, therefore there’s no chase. Nature is the prison. There’s very few cliffhanger incidents, people clinging to a rope after having fallen down a crevasse or something. The music is also held back. These craft choices increase the film’s emotional strength. You feel you’re beginning to know the characters, so when you lose one it has a greater impact.

JB: So many of your films that deal with survival and self-reliance. What is it about these themes that keep luring you back?

PW: I think it was Robert Hughes, the Australian art critic, who talked about the gun-powdered trial that leads back to childhood. Primal experiences stay with you. In my case I was reading adventure books and biographies of individuals who’d been in prisons and POW camps.
The Wooden Horse, Stalag 17, Reach For the Sky, and so on. Then at 20 I went to Europe by sea, which was the cheapest way back then. It changed my life. I got a sense of the vastness of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. I realized how far I lived from Europe, from my roots. Then I was hitchhiking through Europe, as you could do in 1965. I think those experiences have probably tilted me more than I would have thought toward the subjects I’ve put on film.

Weir at work

JB: I suppose it might also come from growing up in a country that had a limited art culture but no shortage of nature to explore.

PW: Absolutely. That and a very short history. A country blessed to have had no civil wars or revolutions, nor to have been invaded or bombed. Our soldiers went and fought in every war that was going, and displayed great courage, but the civilian population only ever experienced famine, drought and floods, as we are right now in Brisbane. Those things can all be very tough, but it’s nothing like what civilian populations went through in Europe during the Second World War. You can still sit as I did with people who have survived those tragic and tumultuous experiences of the 2oth century. That’s a function of these films too, to keep their stories alive.

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