Five time Oscar nominee Peter Weir‘s (The Truman Show, Master and Commander) awe-inspiring epic ‘The Way Back’ is inspired by the true events of a group of escaped prisoners from a Siberian gulag in 1940. The film is based on several sources, most notably the Slavomir Rawicz book ‘The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom’. The book is Rawicz’s account of being captured by the Red Army in 1939 and his journey to freedom with other inmates, who crossed the Siberian arctic, the Gobi desert and the Himalayas, before finally settling in Tibet and India. The film features a fantastic cast in Colin Farrell, Ed Harris, Jim Sturgess, Mark Strong and Saoirse Ronan. Check out what Peter Weir had to say about the film below. ‘The Way Back’ is released on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK May 9th 2011 from Entertainment One

What was the initial starting point for The Way Back?

Peter Weir: The script was sent to me in 2008. The co-producer Jody Levin had already spent 10 or 12 years trying to get it mounted. When I got it, the screenplay was based on the book The Long Walk by Slawomir Rawicz, which was apparently a true story. I found it utterly absorbing and fascinating. As a young man I read many escape stories such as Colditz and I loved reading about the polar explorer Shackleton. Rawicz’s was a remarkable story and an incredible feat of endurance. I didn’t know anything about the gulags either. It had everything I had been looking for in a story.

What sort of work did you have to do on the screenplay?

Peter Weir: As it turned out quite a bit. I asked the producers whether it was a true story, and they said that there has always been a controversy, ever since it was published, about whether this man had made the journey. That caused me some concern because my film-making has always been drawn to fictional areas. This was a single story from a man and I didn’t feel comfortable proceeding with it. I told them I was so intrigued with it that I would consider fictionalizing it. As it says in the premise, it’s inspired by The Long Walk. That freed me to create other characters and make any changes I wanted, including the title. Actually the character Mr Smith, played in the film by Ed Harris, was a character in The Long Walk. To a degree Janusz, the character played by Jim Sturgess, has something of Rawicz in him, but my film doesn’t purport to be a true story. I did believe the walk had been made. There was enough evidence to convince me: it was more of question whether Slawomir was on it.

In preparing the film how daunted did you feel by the logistics of the project?

Peter Weir: The logistics really interested me. I wanted to visit these places in the film and meet survivors. I went to meet Cyril de la Fosse in Laos, who’s a young man who’d done the walk inspired by the book. I got from him details about the actual walk. And through the writer Anne Applebaum, I got to meet survivors from the gulags. Strangely enough, despite the debate about whether the walk was true or not, I wanted to make everything in the film true, whether it was what they did or what they ate, or what the gulag was like. It was important to me to be able to source everything back to a book or an interview.

In terms of how you tell this story, why do you stress the ‘ordinary’ nature of your characters ?

Peter Weir: This could have been a story of pursuit with the Russians going after them. There could have been more dramatic incidents. I wanted to reduce it to certain details, so that you believe in these people as ordinary people, rather than movie heroes.

The story has a wider application, because they are not extraordinary people. There is something about them that appeals to our own lives. What does make people put one foot after another? What does make people keep going in life? It would be so easy for them to give up and lie down in the desert. I think there are parallels with Shackleton. His story keeps getting made. He didn’t discover anything, but as an explorer he managed to get out of trouble.

What interested you in the one significant female character of Irena, played by Sairse Ronan?

Peter Weir: You have to remember that people who had been in the gulags would have been very careful about what they say to one another. What Irena does is allow the audience to get to know the other characters in a different way, because they quietly recount their stories to her. You get a different perspective on their suffering and what has happened to them. In terms of the film as a whole I wanted to take the viewer on a journey with these characters. I didn’t want to have lots of flashbacks and long speeches. I wanted people to learn things as the characters learn them, and gradually to get involved with them.

Why did you cast this particular set of actors?

Peter Weir: It wasn’t just a case of picking the best actor for a particular role. The important thing was that I had to pick actors who were prepared to go on a journey in very difficult circumstances. I said to each of them, including those with considerable reputations, like Ed Harris and Colin Farrell, “There will be days when you don’t have much to do. You will be plodding on, and I will be focussing on somebody else. Is that Ok with you.” It’s very much an ensemble acting job.

Apart from the actors who don’t make it, the rest are on camera all the time . They had to come on to the set every day having thought about what they’d eaten the night before and how they had slept, because the minute they were in a landscape, they had to be prepared for being filmed. There wasn’t time on set to discuss their particular characters. I think they were inspired by Ed Harris, who lived the part. He’d wander off and make something out of a stick or repair his shoes. It enabled us to move fast, because we had a lot of ground to make up each scene.

How tough was it to film in deserts?

Peter Weir: I think deserts are always tough to work in – i’ve shot in the Outback before. But they are inspiring, to you and the actors. The tough thing is getting to and from base every day to where you are shooting. It can take a couple of hours drive each way, which fills the day up with transportation issues. Sometimes you’re freezing, sometimes you’re very hot. You tend to just get on with it. Actually in Morocco we had a man whose sole job was to clear the area of scorpions, and we also had a snake man.

How hard was it to find distribution for The Way Back?

Peter Weir: It was very hard. There was a conservative mood amongst distributors when we talked to them about the film, because of the financial crisis. And I think there has been a change in audience tastes and patterns, in particular the rise of fantasy films. People are so used to looking at fantastical landscapes that it’s unusual for them to see real landscapes in The Way Back. Some distributors wanted to see a more conventional action film- to see the escaped prisoners being pursued by the Soviets. I wasn’t interested in going that way.

During the editing period, I’d look at the paper and see that there was a narrowing of subject matter amongst films. You had independent films dealing with contemporary urban stories and then at the other end of the spectrum blockbuster, which tended to be sequels, and which were either fantasy or animation. I couldn’t see anything in between.

What keeps you driving you as a film-maker?

Peter Weir: Well I have been very fortunate to have had a long career, and it becomes a way of life. I find the thrill of starting off a new project very addictive, especially in my case, because I don’t do a great number of films. When something good comes along, you just hope you can find another one. Making a film gives me a chance to live in the moment. In life your’e often looking to the future or reflecting on the past. When you make a film, you’re in the moment. It’s exhilarating. Even when you’re an experienced director, each film is a new mountain to climb.You can easily make a mistake and go the wrong way and end up failing, no matter how many films you’ve done. Beginning all over again on each project is part of what keeps you going. It’s always challenging. You’re always close to disaster. It’s that difficult to make a film. That’s where the addiction comes in – you think, I’ll try again once more.

I haven’t found my next film yet. I am in that process now of searching for it, and that’s the toughest part of what I do.