“The Way Back” Preview with Director Peter Weir at Film Society of Lincoln Center

Director Peter Weir

On January 7 the Film Society of Lincoln Center, as part of its series “Voyager: The Films of Peter Weir,” from January 6 – 9, presented a preview of Weir’s latest movie “The Way Back.” The screening was followed by an appearance by Mr. Weir himself. The director, just off the plane from Australia, entered to a standing ovation and proceeded to give an interview that was gracious and informative. He also took questions from the audience. The interview was conducted by Scott Foundas, Associate Program Director for the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

I will admit to not always “getting” Weir’s movies. In the Weir canon I find myself drawn to the more accessible stories such as “Witness” (1985) and “The Mosquito Coast” (1986). I have not found myself in line with films such as “The Last Wave” (1977) and “Picnic at Hanging Rock” (1975), although it has been many years since I have seen either. As I often find from seeing movies over the years, the movies do not change, but I do, so maybe these are worth another look.

“The Way Back” however definitely belongs in the category of the director’s more accessible work. Although fiction, it is based on an actual account of seven prisoners of a Siberian gulag who, in 1940, escaped and walked 4,000 miles to India. The film is suspenseful, harrowing, beautifully shot and acted and very much in the tradition of a David Lean epic.

Weir talked about becoming interested in this incredible journey through a book which purported to be a true account. “I was very excited about it but then learned fairly quickly that there was a question a mark about whether the author was actually on the walk…So I thought I couldn’t do it, really, unless I knew the walk had really happened…If we could prove the walk happened then I would do the film and make it fictional, inspired by both the book and dedicated to the perhaps unknown men who did make the walk, and that’s what finally did happen.

“The Way Back” features a prominent cast that includes Ed Harris and Colin Farrell. The actors are so immersed in their roles that it was not until quite a bit into the film that I even recognized them. Asked about his technique of working with actors, many of whom he has directed to some of their best performances, such as Harrison Ford, Robin Williams and Mel Gibson, Weir replied, “I don’t rehearse. My background’s not in theatre…I really like to have all the props and all the sets and all the locations and find that the mood is created with all of those elements present. So that I try to create an atmosphere so strong for the actor, first having cast the right person, that it’s impossible not to act, or rather it’s impossible to act. You have to just be.”

Interestingly, despite all of the advances in cinema over the years Weir maintained that, “The great invention in cinema, in one hundred plus years, surely is the close up, despite 3D, despite sound, despite color, despite widescreen. It is that we can see a face, in that size…it’s the great discovery, which we can’t get on stage, in drama or opera or anywhere else in life and it’s why we love movies.” Weir continued, explaining a theory that in silent films there was a hypnotic spell cast between big stars and their audience. “I’m not saying that’s possible in our era, but I was interested, in this film (“The Way Back”), in nudging into that area to some extent. Just sitting on close-ups a bit longer than we might do ordinarily.”

An audience member asked about a moment in the film, involving the actress Saoirse Ronan, that reminded her of Boticelli’s Venus and wanted to know if this was an intentional metaphor. Weir replied, “Whenever I see, and this film is full of them, hidden metaphors, I leave them alone. I hate the idea of being didactic or setting out to illustrate a point…But being one of the oldest stories in the world, the journey, every tribe had one. How did we come to be here? I thought, well this will be interesting. I’ll just do my job, just do the craft of telling this particular story and just let whatever bubbles through bubble through. So there’s really nothing that I’ve set out to illustrate or contrive. But sometimes, as I watch it, I’ll see things that you could take a certain way, which I think is good. ”

The Film Society’s tribute to Peter Weir will continue through the weekend including an appearance tonight at 6:00 in which the director will discuss his career. For tickets and information go to http://www.filmlinc.com.


About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on January 8, 2011, in Feature Articles, Personal Appearances. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Dear Peter,

    I wish to thank you for highlighting the plight of millions of victims of Stalin’s regime of terror in your film, The Way Back.
    Can you explain why Hollywood has never made films of this period to educate the public of the Siberian Gulags. Actually there are few books in English on the subject.
    It was an amazing film that reflected the stories of my parents who escaped the Russians to avoid that fete .


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