Director Peter Weir talks about 'The Way Back,' his 1st new movie in 7 years

Peter Weir directed such serious fare as "Master and Commander," "The Truman Show" and "Dead Poets Society."
Peter Weir directed such serious fare as "Master and Commander," "The Truman Show" and "Dead Poets Society." (Michael S. Williamson)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 21, 2011; 10:57 AM

The veteran director Peter Weir, in Washington for a screening of his new movie "The Way Back," considers the question of whether Hollywood is still capable of making a Peter Weir 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 between them, Weir now 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, at least partly, his own dime.

"You just adapt or get out," he says. With "The Way Back" Weir adapted, but without compromise.

The film, which opened Friday and stars Ed Harris and Colin Farrell, is a classic World War 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 with National Geographic Entertainment; Weir joins a reporter in the National Geographic Society's sunny offices, while a noisy claque of the magazine's star photographers gathers in the lobby downstairs.

"The Way Back" is Weir's first film since 2003's "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World." With its epic sweep, intense focus on character, engrossing narrative and simple, clean lines, it's precisely the kind of movie Weir became known for at the height of his career in the 1980s and 1990s.

After making the breakout films "Picnic at Hanging 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 Poet's Society," "Fearless," "The Truman Show").

What those movies share, along with "The Way 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 what Hollywood 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," says Weir, who at 66 cuts a fit, dapper figure in a black sweater and artfully knotted maroon scarf. "I am surprised, even amongst acquaintances of friends of my children in their thirties, that ... you revisit childhood by going to the cinema as an adult. I find that quite fascinating, in a way."

Weir has detected other changes as well; he sees more and more scripts, he says, inspired by fact-based stories. "I was saying to my wife ['The Way Back' costume designer Wendy Stites] that something's changed in the last few years," he says. "Which prompted her observation that since 9/11 this idea of '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 "The Way 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 Long Walk," 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. "The Way Back" may be inspired in part by "The Long Walk," but it's to the "three men [who] walked out of the Himalayas into India" that the film is dedicated.

As he's grappled with the issue of Rawicz's veracity, Weir's been struck in new ways by the "based on a true story" imperative. "There was a World War II. There was a Josef Stalin. There were gulags, millions perished or were incarcerated, very few escaped, 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 mystical, metaphysical themes that have often animated his work, from the existential mystery that propels the dreamy "Picnic at Hanging Rock" to Jeff Bridges confronting his own mortality in "Fearless" and Jim Carrey questioning existence itself in "The Truman Show." In "The Way Back," Weir delivers film narrative at its most basic and elemental: one foot in front of the other, point A to point B. Must. Keep. Walking.

It's an apt metaphor for Weir's own hard slog through an entertainment culture that seems to be shifting under his very feet.

"I have faith in Peter," says Harris, 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 a way to do it." Still, Harris adds ruefully, noting the exigencies of distribution and the market, "whether anybody sees it is another question."

For Weir's part, he dearly hopes it won't be seven more years before his next film. He'd love to adapt a book about the conquest of Mexico and Peru, "but I just wouldn't think of it. Because you'd have to create something so profoundly accessible and simple, I wouldn't be able to enjoy the [creative] freedom. And it would be too expensive."

He 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"), working at his own pace, taste and judicious sense of artistic values. "I remain optimistic, with some reserve," Weir says softly, "that the wheel will turn."

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