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Interview: Film Director Peter Weir On 'The Way Back'

Prisoners work in a gulag in the 1930s.
Peter Weir is Australia's most acclaimed film director, with movies like "Gallipoli," "Picnic at Hanging Rock," "The Truman Show," and "Dead Poets Society" to his name.

His most recent release, "The Way Back" starring Ed Harris and Colin Farrell, traces the purportedly true journey of prisoners who escaped from the Siberian gulag and made it to India, via the Gobi Desert, the Himalaya Mountains, and Tibet.

Weir recently visited Prague for the Febiofest film festival, where he was given the Kristian Award. He spoke with RFE/RL writer-at-large James Kirchick about his research of the gulag, his political reawakening, and how audiences are reacting to "The Way Back."

(Listen to Jamie Kirchick talk to Peter Weir in RFE/RL's weekly podcast, The Blender.)

RFE/RL: What was it that inspired you to make this movie?

Peter Weir:
I generally tend to say "no" to everything so I'd said "no" to it initially although I'd enjoyed the book very much that had become the primary inspiration, The Long Walk by Slawomir Rawicz. But I felt I couldn't get it off my mind. It would come back to me. And I'd pick an odd book off the shelf to read about this period, which was essentially the Soviet era, although it's set in the Second World War.
It's always been the human condition which has interested me and, in this case, these people had suffered injustice as the result of a political system that was an incredible experiment of the 20th century.

I found myself reading a little around it, and I read Anne Applebaum's book "Gulag." I was drawn into it, it was irresistible, finally, and I accepted to do it and found one of the great experiences was the research and interviews with survivors and so on.

RFE/RL: In many ways it's an adventure story, but there's something of a political message in the movie, do you think, or was that not intentional?

I know you don't mean this, but a gentleman got up at a preview during question-and-answer time and said to me, "You know, this film is basically anticommunist." I said, "Yeah." I said: "I'm anticommunist and I'm anti-Nazi. I'm anti-police states, generally."

I'm not a political filmmaker, although everything is political, as somebody said. It's always been the human condition which has interested me and, in this case, these people had suffered injustice as the result of a political system that was an incredible experiment of the 20th century. The first thing I noted was how little I knew about it. I had to do a lot of reading.

Left-Wing Dreams

RFE/RL: About communism?

Yup. Because for my generation growing up through the '60s, when you're a part of, particularly, the antiwar movement in Australia, and as it was in America, you came to distrust your own side's version of what was going on.

Peter Weir attends a screening of "The Way Back" in New York City in January.
And in some ways obviously you came to realize this had been the result of clever dissembling on the part of communists or communist sympathizers or apologists, and partly because of the ineptitude of the McCarthy hearings, with the House un-American Activities [Committee] -- that might as well have been a communist organization, it so brilliantly turned people against them -- that you grew up really thinking it wasn't as bad as it was made out to be.

And that's a shock. I know many of my friends from that period -- we were all vaguely leftish as all young people often are -- idealistic. I can't believe how gullible we were in looking back.

RFE/RL: Movies like this aren't made in Hollywood. There are so many movies about Nazism and fascism. There are very few movies about communism, and so many great stories that could be told. Why do you think that is?

Again it's "be careful if you tread on my dreams." I think in the world of creativity and even in the academic world to a degree, those who had their leftist sympathies when they were young, or communist sympathies, and the romance of it, found it very hard to give it up. They still sell the Che Guevara T-shirts like he was John Lennon or something. No one really wants to criticize Castro.
It's almost impossible for a lot of people to admit that this experiment of communism went so disastrously wrong and face the facts.

It's almost impossible for a lot of people to admit that this experiment of communism went so disastrously wrong and face the facts. Whether its Stalin or Lenin, for that matter, I can't let him off the hook, he was all for the terror. Through to Pol Pot, through to North Korea. What can you say? It's just dreadful, appalling.

But there's still resistance. I've noted that, even amongst friends to this day. When I said I was making this film and what it was about, there was just that moment, just that flicker across the face: "Oh, you're going along a right-wing road." And that fascinated me that that was still possible, to have held onto that romance from youth.

Mr. Smith The American

RFE/RL: The character I find most interesting is Mr. Smith, played by Ed Harris, an American who moves to Russia. He's one of those people who is in wonder at this new experiment. And there were many people like him, actual Americans who moved to the Soviet Union. Did you base him on somebody in particular, or is he a composite character?

He's the only name I've kept from the book, in my moving him to fiction from the purported true book. And I only kept his name and his nationality, and the fact that he was working on the Moscow Metro as an engineer.

But then I just built him out of books that I'd read about Americans. There were some 8,000, most of whom disappeared into the gulag; they never got home again. Not all of them were communist sympathizers. A lot were economic refugees from the depression and got good money for a period until Stalin, the paranoia caused him to turn on foreigners generally.

So he was an amalgam of types from that period and then Ed Harris did his own research on it and built up a back story for himself that wasn't necessarily referred to.

But there's a story, one excellent source. I came across a book that talked about how the author had gone into the KGB files during that brief period when they were open under Yeltsin; Putin shut everything down again. But he managed to interview KGB people and get a look at KGB files and so one of the incidents had been about an American woman and her son and the son was informing on his mother. And so I sort of used that as a basis for changing the sexes around and have Mr. Smith informed on by his son.

Reception In The Postcommunist East

RFE/RL: Do you find when you're screening this movie around the world, do you get a different reaction here in the Czech Republic than you would, say, in the West.

It's a little too early to know. I've only been here a few days, done a dozen, 15 interviews, but people seem to be rather discreet.... I've had a few people come to me to say that the film affected them deeply, but that's been true around the world. And people don't generally come up and say, "I've hated it."

But I have noticed that it is one of those films that appeals to a certain type of sensibility. It's not for everybody. I mean, I strip the film down to its barest working components, try to make those components very strong. But in doing that, I dispense with a lot of convention in this kind of film.

It's an escape story so you're probably going to have a pursuit, that's an obvious thing. You maybe have a wicked commandant who is intent on killing them all. So none of that.

They get out. They get away, because the real prison is Siberia, as I have it stated. Then on the journey itself, there aren't the more conventional cliff-hanging movements of a Hollywood film, there's no internal fights between the characters. It's rather simple, but I felt that would lend authenticity to it and would also increase the power of the emotion, it would be, as it were, true sentiment. That was my ambition.

RFE/RL: Do you plan or are you able to show the film in Russia today?

Yes, I sold it.... I've only spoken to a couple of Russian journalists in Los Angeles, a couple of stringers there, an older woman. I said, "How do you think it will go in Russia?" And she said: "Oh, all the people know. They don't want to talk about it. But the young ones, they already e-mail me, when's it coming? They have an interest." Maybe 30 years old, but they never lived under the system.

RFE/RL: Because Russia's Vladimir Putin has tried to resurrect Stalin.

Yes, it's like those people who said Hitler built great freeways. He was a strong man. You can see Putin's leaning very clearly. The admiration of the tyrant.