Director Peter Weir’s ‘The Way Back’ is a war drama in his tradition of sweeping epics.
The veteran director Peter Weir, inWashington for a screening of his new movie, “TheWay Back,” considers the question of whetherHollywood is still capable of making a PeterWeir film: classy, well-crafted and favoring story over empty spectacle. After four decades, during which he directed films that earned more than $450 million and six Oscars among them, Weir finds himself in a peculiar position, far from the studios and power circles of Hollywood but still working his way, on his own time— and, partly, his own dime.
“You just adapt or get out,” he says. With “TheWay Back” Weir adapted, but without compromise.
The film, which opened Friday and stars EdHarris and Colin Farrell, is a classic WorldWar II drama, in this case about prisoners escaping from a Soviet gulag by walking 4,000 miles from Siberia to India. The film was co-produced withNational Geographic Entertainment; Weir joins a reporter in theNationalGeographic Society’s sunny offices while a noisy claque of the magazine’s star photographers gathers in the lobby downstairs.
“ TheWay Back” isWeir’s first film since 2003’s “Master and Commander: The Far Side of theWorld.” With its epic sweep, intense focus on character, engrossing narrative and simple, clean lines, it’s precisely the kind of movieWeir became known for at the height of his career in the 1980s and 1990s.
After making the breakout films “Picnic atHanging Rock” (1975) and “The Last Wave” (1977), both produced in his native Australia, Weir swiftly proved a dab hand with any number of genres and stories, from stirring historical dramas (“Gallipoli,” “Master and Commander”) and atmospheric thrillers (“Witness,” “ The Year of Living Dangerously’) to thoughtful dramas (“Dead Poets Society,” “Fearless,” “The Truman Show”).
What those movies share, along with “ TheWay Back,” is less a visible authorial signature than a classical, sophisticated approach to making films aimed squarely at adults. When stars appeared in them, it was in service to the story rather than as a stunt or packaging gimmick. They weren’t shilling any ancillary products or video games or crossover come-ons. They weren’t special effects spectacles. They were movies by, for and about grown-ups— precisely whatHollywood seems incapable of making these days.
“I’ve watched the market changing in the last five to seven years, moving toward what I would call children’s programming,” saysWeir, who at 66 cuts a fit, dapper figure in a black sweater and artfully knotted scarf. “I am surprised, even amongst acquaintances of friends ofmy children in their thirties, that . . . you revisit childhood by going to the cinema as an adult.”
Weir has detected other changes as well; he sees more scripts, he says, inspired by fact-based stories. “I was saying tomy wife [‘TheWay Back’ costume designerWendy Stites] that something’s changed in the last fewyears,” he says. “Which prompted her observation that since 9/11 this idea of
Peter Weir’s ‘The Way Back’ marks his return after 7 years. He still refuses to take the Hollywood route.
‘ based on a true story’ as a qualification of your film has risen. Because on that day, truth became stranger than fiction.”
Weir adds that “TheWay Back” got “ tangled up” in its own struggle with truth claims when he discovered that the book it’s based on was largely fabricated. In “ The LongWalk,” published in 1956, author Slavomir Rawicz wrote that he and six others made the epic trek from the Siberian prison to India. Decades later, a BBC radio documentary revealed that he never made the walk but was released from the gulag as part of Stalin’s amnesty program to beef up a badly weakened Soviet army.
After first concluding that he couldn’t make Rawicz’s story, Weir tracked down descendents of a British intelligence officer and interpreter who encountered real-life people who did make the journey. As he’s grappled with the issue of Rawicz’s veracity, Weir’s been struck in newways by the “ based on a true story” imperative. “ There was a Josef Stalin. There were gulags; millions perished or were incarcerated; very fewescaped; and this is a story of such an escape,” the director says. “ There is such a thing as a moral truth.”
To convey the story’s larger meaning, Weir eschewed the more metaphysical themes that have often animated his work, from the existentialmystery that propels the dreamy “Picnic atHanging Rock” to Jeff Bridges confronting his own mortality in “Fearless” and JimCarrey questioning existence itself in “ The Truman Show.” In “ TheWay Back,” Weir delivers film narrative at its most elemental: one foot in front of the other, point A to point B. Must. Keep. Walking.
It’s an apt metaphor forWeir’s own slog through an entertainment culture that seems to be shifting under his very feet.
“I have faith in Peter,” saysHarris, who plays an enigmatic American escapee in the movie. “I don’t think he’s going to change what he needs to do as an artist. He’ll find something he’s compelled to do, and he’ll find away to do it.” Still, Harris adds ruefully, noting the exigencies of distribution and the market: “Whether anybody sees it is another question.”
ForWeir’s part, he dearly hopes it won’t be seven more years before his next film— and predicts that his next project, like this one, will be of modest scale and budget, with him working on spec (“in other words, an investor”). But he will also work at his own pace, guided by his own artistic values. “I remain optimistic, with some reserve,” Weir says softly, “ that the wheel will turn.”
PeterWeir directed such serious fare as “Master and Commander,” “ The Truman Show” and “Dead Poets Society.”