Journey of 4000 Miles Begins with Malibuites' Passion for Book
• Film Adaptation of 'The Long Walk' Offers Wide Canvas for Independent Filmmakers
BY SUZANNE GULDIMANN
In an era of computer-generated imagery and gimmicky 3D effects, Australian director Peter Weir's "The Way Back" is a rarity: an independent film shot entirely on location in the epic tradition of the films of David Lean.
"The Way Back" was inspired by the 1956 book "The Long Walk," a purportedly true story of a Polish political prisoner and his companions, who escape from the horrors of a Russian gulag and subsequently trek more than 4000 miles across Siberia, the Gobi Desert, and the Himalayas, to India and freedom. Weir describes the source material as "a wonderful combination of prison story and survival tale."
Translated to film by Weir and cinematographer Russell Boyd, a longtime collaborator of Weir's who won an Academy Award for his work on Weir's last film, "Master and Commander," the story is unexpectedly beautiful and even awe-inspiring.
The Malibu Surfside News spoke to two of the films producers, Malibu residents Joni Levin and her partner Keith Clarke. Levin and Clarke, who are the principles of Point Blank Productions, co-produced the film with Weir and Weir's longtime collaborator Duncan Henderson. Clarke also co-wrote the screenplay with Weir.
Levin and Clarke have produced numerous TV documentaries on subjects ranging from film history to the life of Dr. Seuss. That background shows in the attention to detail and intense feeling of veracity the film conveys.
No green screens were used in this film. Snow, sand, wind, vast desert and mountain vistas were shot on location. Even the Russian labor camp set built in Bulgaria, a country that still vividly remembers Soviet rule, has a gritty authenticity—all the more so since a snowstorm at the beginning of the film was 100 percent genuine.
The filmmakers say they began the production with extensive research on the gulags, reading records and memoirs and traveling to Siberia. "We had gone to Siberia, met survivors, heard their stories. That's a weight you carry," Clarke told The News. "Peter got the bullhorn out [on the first day of shooting]. There were 200 extras in the snow. It was cold. He told them 'as you work here today we are here to honor those who can't be here.'"
"He felt a sense of responsibility," Levin said. "He wanted everything to be authentic. Eight million Poles were shipped out to gulags. They disappeared."
The 65-day shooting schedule took the crew halfway around the world.
"Peter shot the film sequentially," Levin explained. "Bulgaria, Morocco, India."
Weir is no stranger to filming in difficult locations or to the theme of man versus the environment. "Mosquito Coast," "Picnic at Hanging Rock," "The Last Wave," Master and Commander" and many of his other films examine the theme.
In "The Way Back," Weir again focuses on what he describes in a press release as "ordinary people subjected to extraordinary events and environments, forcing them to peel away facades and peer inside themselves."
The lead characters subjected to the extraordinary in this film are Jim Sturgess as the compassionate and level-headed Pole Janusz, Ed Harris as the grizzled and enigmatic American Mr. Smith, Saoirse Ronan as an orphan who joins the fugitives, and an almost unrecognizable Colin Farrell as a tattooed and psychotic Russian criminal. The rest of the ensemble is comprised of actors Mark Strong, Dragos Bucur, Alexandru Potocean, Gustaf Skarsgard, and Sebastian Urzendowsky.
The locations are so vivid and so immediate that they too have a starring role, which may have been one of the elements that attracted National Geographic to the project, the organization's first feature film.
Harris reportedly had to find creative ways to juggle a full schedule to accommodate the project. "Peter and he wanted to do another film together [after 'The Truman Show.']," Levin told The News.
"Ed added so many layers," Clarke said. "He's really grounded."
In a press release, Harris describes Weir as "Well suited for the story. [The characters] have their pretensions stripped bare," Harris said. "They live completely in the moment. Breathing in, breathing out, putting one foot in front of the other."
For Levin and Clarke, "The Way Back" has also been an odyssey of many years and miles. They optioned the novel in the mid-1990s (Warner Brothers, which had the rights at one time, reportedly envisioned a big budget Hollywood adaptation with Burt Lancaster in the lead) and then bought the rights outright, when the option expired. It was years before the film began to take shape.
"Peter saw the film exactly as we did, and we told him we would wait for him, as long as it took," Levin said. Adding that, when the project finally began to move forward, Weir insisted that it remain an independent production. According to Levin and Clarke, he completed the shoot on time and under budget.
"The Way Back" belongs to the same sub-genre as Zoltan Korda's 1943 film "Sahara," Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," filmed in 1940 by John Ford, and even Peter Jackson's adaptation of Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings."
"The Way Back" is a grim film and there is a Kabuki-like formality to the characters and the fates assigned to them—the audience knows from the start that not everyone is going to survive—but it is also incredibly beautiful in an austere and mostly unsentimental way and features spectacular cinematography that deserves to be viewed on the big screen.
A nuanced and haunting score by German composer Burkhard Dallwitz, performed on classical, electric and 12 string guitar; bass recorder; harp; and synthesizer, augments the film.
"The Way Back" opens in the U.S. on Friday. More information on the film is available at: thewaybackthemovie.com