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The Way Back Interview

The Way Back tells the tale of a disparate group of prisoners who have escaped from a Russian Gulag and follows them on their arduous journey through ice and snow, desert heat, and half way around the world. Director Peter Weir and two of his co-stars were recently in London to talk about their stories on set and the savage nature of working in extreme weather conditions.

The film has an “inspired by” credit at the beginning and there's been some controversy over whether the author actually did the events that he describes in the book. But everything you describe in the film was gone through and lived through by someone?
Peter Weir (PW): For me I thought all I need is the walk we have, to know that’s true, and then fictionalise it and change the title and to a degree the characters’ names, with the exception of Mr Smith. And then add vital information gained from interviews with survivors of the Gulag system in Siberia in one case, and others in Moscow, and with Polish people here in London. I think we became somewhat obsessed about this truth thing, I just wanted provenance for everything in the film, dialogue and character and backgrounds. And I’m pleased to say, down to details in sets, that that is the case. What you’re looking at is a pretty close reproduction, I believe, to what it might have been like.

What process did you have to go through to portray your characters in these circumstances? Did you have to lose weight? And if so was the story shot chronologically?
Jim Sturgess (JS): We were blessed with that really, that it was the most chronological it could have been. We did start in the mountains of Bulgaria up at the Gulag, which was great because no proper bonds had been made at that time. I remember specifically in that first scene, where we were all walking to the gulag feeling fairly isolated, and a lot of foreign languages being spoken around me and not knowing where I was and what was ahead of me. And then obviously as we went through the journey those bonds were made, and those experiences were shared. We were able to lose weight along the way, just the pure nature of being out in the desert in that heat. The flies around the food was enough to make you drop a few pounds.

Jim, it was presumably important to play Polish-accented-English in a convincing way, without slipping into parody? Is it a tough line to walk?
JS: It is, certainly with this accent. An Eastern European accent is a hard accent to own, and get your mouth around. It’s a very easy one to sort of let it own the performance, and I think that was the challenge for the three of us, we really had to work at and just find that Eastern European flavour and make it a part of the character and part of your own voice. But as far as learning the Polish stuff, I remember we got the phrases quite early and I practised them and practised them, and I remember speaking it to a Polish speaker who told me I sounded like a four year old child. So yeah, I had to keep working on it until I felt comfortable enough to do the scene. I’d say that out of all the accents I’ve ever had to do in film the Eastern European has been the biggest challenge.

Have real Gulag survivors seen the film?
PW: No, not at this point I don’t think. Tonight maybe, but coming up definitely. I interviewed one old man in Siberia who was an Urki, was a criminal, he had the tattoos on the hands and he was a strange, emotional old man. I interviewed him with a little portable cassette tape, an analogue thing, and he said some poems and he talked about his story, about how he ended up in the Gulag. Anyway I finished it and he said something to the interpreter. They said he wants the tape, and I said “Absolutely, but tell him I’ll just make a copy of it and I’ll send it to him if you tell me where to send it.” He said “No, no he wants the tape!” “You mean the machine?” “Yes.” So I took the tape out – you could see he was a pro – we gave him the machine, he put it in his pocket and off he went.

Peter, did you see this film as a tribute to the human spirit?
Certainly, yeah. If I had to reduce this down to its essence I could almost put it on stage, with this wonderful group of actors and those not with us today, and have moving backdrops behind it with mountains and so on. It was the human spirit, yeah, these were ordinary people. That’s why the whole film was structured without the more conventional cliffhangers and pursuing soldiers and wicked commandants and so on. It was as real as I could get it, and they reflected and played that. I loved pointing a camera at each one of them, it became very real to me in the way that they portrayed it.

What was the hardest scene to film for you, either emotionally or physically?
JS: That’s an easy one for me, we were out in the desert and I think I had food poisoning. I think Ed got it at the same time, I think Saoirse got it too. So we were battling the elements as it were, and the Moroccan desert was, for me, harder than filming up in the cold, in the mountains of Bulgaria. I remember when we first started filming we were all dreaming of getting to Morocco, that was our light at the end of the tunnel, we were all championing that one day we would get to Morocco. And then of course we get there and it’s twice as hard as being in the snow so we sort of knew there was going to be no easy day on the set. But out in the blistering heat, climbing a sand dune or running to some water, there was a scene where we ran to the well and I was really, really sick that day. Just stomach cramps and needing the toilet every five minutes when you’re out in the middle of nowhere. So not one of the hardest days of the shoot but one of the hardest days of my life, probably. It was hard work.

Ed Harris: Emotionally, because it was a very physical shoot, any scene that did have emotional content to it it was just there. We were all kind of raw, we were all out there every day doing these things even though we had little tents of shade or whatever it might be, or places with a little heater to try to get warm, it was so demanding on a physical level, which was great. But what that does to you, it kind of opens you up a little bit and exposes you, so you feel like a raw nerve a little bit. So any time there was an emotional aspect to a scene, or some personal expression of something, it was pretty much at your fingertips. Or at least it felt that way to me. I mean my worst day, when I was sick, there was a big wide shot and we were going up the biggest sand dune in the whole film, and Jim and I are dragging this sled up there, and I couldn’t even stand, I couldn’t stand up I was so weak, I hadn’t been keeping anything in.

Also, we did do some work on soundstages where they had built this incredible forest. They had these machines that would blow this ‘snow’ for blizzards. And just blow it, it was really fierce. And it was bad enough when you’d get this stuff up your nose, you’d breathe it in, and in your eyes. So then when you got these masks made out of the bark that Jim’s character creates, and they have these little slits and you think it’s going to be better because you’ve got these things on your face, and you’re walking and of course it’s all going right in, pulverising your eyes, it was really nasty. And we did a lot of that.

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Content updated: 16/12/2018 17:37

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