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

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  • Lucyna Artymiuk
    http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/movies/weirs-way-journey-back-to-the-scr een-offered-no-short-cuts-20110214-1atl3.html Weir s way: journey back to the
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      Weir's way: journey back to the screen offered no short cuts


      February 15, 2011

      Choosy ... Peter Weir has stuck with intelligent, thoughtful, heartfelt
      films.

      Choosy ... Peter Weir has stuck with intelligent, thoughtful, heartfelt
      films. Photo: Steven Siewert

      The director took seven years to get his latest film made, writes Garry
      Maddox.

      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?

      Based on a true story ... Jim Sturgess in a scene from <i>The Way Back</i>.

      Based on a true story ... Jim Sturgess in a scene from The Way Back.

      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.''

      The Way Back opens next week



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