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‘The Way Back’: Director Peter Weir returns with a tale of survival

With “The Way Back,” filmmaker Peter Weir tells the rather unfathomable story of a group of escapees from a 1940 Siberian gulag walking — yes, walking — thousands upon thousands of miles to India. Over snowy mountains, through parched desert, the small band (portrayed by a troupe of actors including Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell and Saoirse Ronan) make their way uneasily onward. The Australian-born-and-based Weir is a six-time Academy Award nominee and four-time Directors Guild nominee, and “The Way Back” marks his first film since “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” in 2003.

With its vast landscapes and scenic vistas captured by Weir’s longtime collaborator, cinematographer Russell Boyd — who has worked on-and-off with the director since 1975’s “Picnic at Hanging Rock” and won an Oscar for his work on “Master and Commander” — “The Way Back” has a sweep and scale that contrasts the drama of its characters against a grander whole. There are some digital enhancements to the image, a dust storm here or a mountain range there, but most of what’s onscreen was shot on location in Bulgaria, Morocco and India. While the film could have been more comfortably created on soundstages in Hollywood or Sydney, Weir felt it important to capture the characters in nature.

“It seemed to me to be an advantage visually, apart from psychologically,” said Weir of taking the production out-of-doors. “I knew the actors would respond, and I had this kind of desire to create something real. There are many ways to do that, excluding extreme fakery, but in this case, I thought to go to the location.”

Weir shares credit on the screenplay with Keith Clarke, inspired by the book “The Long Walk” by Slavomir Rawicz, who recounted the events as his own story. Weir admits that the book having been factually discredited — Rawicz likely traveled west to the Middle East, though there are documented cases of prisoners escaping south to India — actually freed him up to tell the story with a basis in dramatic tension rather than strictly hard historical fact.

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The logistics of portraying the small, traveling cadre of escapees meant that every actor was usually needed to shoot every scene, even when not delivering dialogue or directly a part of the action.

“With the actors, I think I spoke pretty early on to them and said, ‘Look, this is an unusual film,’” said Weir, “‘nothing like I’ve ever really done and I can’t recall another film quite like it. While you might be a smaller character in the mechanism of the story, you are all there all the time.’”

“He’s what a real director should be,” said Sturgess on Weir. “His attention to detail at every level, the costumes, nuances of the performance, the reality of the scenery. And he’s hungry for your input. He has such a sense of tone. He never allowed us to get sentimental or push the drama. The smaller details became the most dramatic.”

In sticking to real locations and paring back the story to its barest, most essential human drama, Weir has transformed “The Way Back” into a survival tale, which is at once pure in its measured, small-scale detail but also as vast and vibrant as the landscapes on which it plays out.

“I think I wanted to create a true emotion, for the audience to connect with these people through that emotion,” said Weir. “And it’s always contrived, it’s a movie, but that it would be as free as possible from contrivance and manipulation in an obvious way. And to do that, I had to not push the audience to feel, not create scenes that are so extra urgent that only a Hollywood movie would do that. In real life, that wouldn’t happen. I wanted you to think, ‘I could have been part of this.’”

calendar@latimes.com


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