“The Way Back” is one of those movie for which the main actors truly suffered for their art. The intense drama (inspired by Slavomir Rawicz’s novel “The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom”) tells the story of seven prisoners who escape from a Soviet Gulag in 1940. Three of those escapees are Janusz, a Polish soldier (played by Jim Sturgess); Valka, a Russian thug (played by Colin Farrell); and Mr. Smith, an American structural engineer (played by Ed Harris), who had come to work on Moscow’s metro system.
During their journey on foot across thousands of miles (including Siberia, Mongolia and the Gobi Desert), the men are joined by a runaway teenager named Irena (played by Saoirse Ronan), and they all try to survive extreme weather, starvation, dehydration, wild animals, the threat of capture — and sometimes fighting among themselves. The actors who recreated this brutal trek in “The Way Back” experienced much of the fatigue and health problems that come with making the escapees’ plight as realistic as possible. at the At a London press conference for “The Way Back,” Sturgess, Farrell, Harris, Ronan and “The Way Back” director Peter Weir (who is a co-writer and a producer of the film) gathered to talk about the triumphs and ordeals of making the movie.
As its core, do you think the story of “The Way Back” about the human spirit?
Weir: Certainly, yeah. If I had to reduce it down to its essence, I could almost put it on stage with this wonderful group of actors and those who are not with us today, and have moving backdrops behind it and have mountains and desert. It was the human spirit. That’s why the film is not structured with the more perhaps conventional cliffhangers and pursuing soldiers or wicked commandants. It was as real as I could get, and they [the actors] reflected and played that. I loved pointing a camera at each one of them. It became very real to me in the way they portrayed it.
What was your most challenging scene to film?
Sturgess: That’s an easy one for me. We were out in the desert, and I think I had food poisoning. I think Ed [Harris] and I got it at the same time. I think Saoirse [Ronan] got it too. So we were battling the elements as it were, and the Moroccan desert was harder for me than filming up in the cold in the mountains of Bulgaria. And when we were first starting to film, we were all dreaming of getting to Morocco. That was our light at the end of the tunnel. We were championing, “One day we’ll get to Morocco.”
And, of course, we get there, and it’s twice as hard as being in the snow. So we knew there was going to be no easy day on set. But out in the blistering heat, climbing a sand dune, running to water — there was a scene where we ran to the well — and I was really, really sick that day: stomach cramps and needing a toilet every five minutes when you’re out in the middle of nowhere. So it wasn’t just one of the hardest days of the shoot, but it was one of the hardest days of my life. Yeah, it was hard work.
Ronan: I’m basically going to give the same answer, because I got food poisoning near the end of my shoot as well. The guys were going on afterwards, but it was one of my last days. I had gotten food poisoning, and I just felt awful. It was actually 45 degrees. It was actually a really nice shot.
I don’t know if it’s in [the movie], but I’m sleepwalking. Gustav [Skarsgård], who plays Voss in the film, is guiding me along, so I’m just listening to his footsteps. And so I had to keep my eyes closed and try and figure out where I was, and walk forward, and try and not walk into the camera. And I had this horrific pain in my stomach for the whole day. So that was the toughest for me, but it was still a great shoot.
Harris: Because it was a very physical shoot, any scene that did have an emotional content to it, it was just there, because we were all kind of raw. We were all out there doing these things. Yeah, we had little tents of shade or whatever it might be or a heater to try to get warm, it was still demanding on a physical level, which was great. But what that does to you is that it opens you up and exposes you. You feel like a raw nerve a little bit. So anytime there was an emotional aspect to a scene or a personal expression of something, it was pretty much at your fingertips. At least it felt that way to me.
My worst day was when I was sick. There’s a big wide shot, and we’re going up the biggest sand dune of the whole film. And Jim and I are dragging this sled up there, and I couldn’t stand up. I was so weak, and I hadn’t been keeping anything [food] in. Peter was kind enough to actually let me go and take a little break that day for a couple of hours, because I couldn’t stand up. We were dragging this thing up that hill, and I was like, “Just say ‘Cut,’ man. I know we’re far away and the camera’s 200 yards that way.” We were doing out best, and we would’ve kept walking. Thankfully, he did say, “Cut.”
Farrell: I don’t know scene-wise, but the thing I found hardest was the seeming inaction. You were always kind of in action walking, or even sitting and twirling the knife around or whatever it may be, but it came to pass that each actor would have his moment or his scene every four or five days. It would be Voss’ turn or it would be Ed’s turn as Mr. Smith or Valka could chime in and say something. So that was the stuff you looked forward to.
But we all had to be there at all times, and the camera as constantly searching. The camera was looking into the group, from behind, from the side, from the front. And there were days on end where you had nothing to do but walk and breathe, literally. And to stay focused and stay close to whatever you deemed was your character’s gait was, your character’s thoughts, where your thoughts went, was the trickiest thing, because personally I love to be active. I love to be involved. I love to be expressing or attempting to suppress expression, whatever it may be. It was an exercise in the patience of being in the patience of just being. It was interesting.
Harris: One of the things I’ve got to remind everybody of that Saoirse wasn’t there for. We did do some work on the soundstage. They’d built this incredible forest on the soundstage, and they had these machines that would blow this “snow” for blizzards and stuff … really fierce. It was bad enough because you’d get the stuff up your nose, you’re breathing it. It was awful. It was in your eyes.
So then we get these masks made out of the bark that Jim’s character creates, and they have these little slits. And you think it’s going to be better because you’ve got these things on your face. And you walk, and this stuff [the fake snow] all goes right in your little slits and pulverizes your eyes. It was really nasty. And we did a lot of that. [He laughs.]
Sturgess: I would’ve taken a real snow storm any day over that.
Can you talk about little bit more about the importance of choosing the right locations to film “The Way Back”?
Weir: Like the actors, various locations played the parts. Bulgaria played Siberia, and the Sahara played the Gobi. I love locations. They affect the script on the survey. I loved going to Darjeeling. It was the first feature film to shoot there. These locations are like characters n the story. We can get more specifics from Saoirse and Colin.
Farrell: Yeah, as Ed was saying, the environment, I didn’t have to deal with specifically with any barometer of heat. It was just freezing cold in Bulgaria. We arrived there in the middle of the winter. It was dark by 3 o’clock in the afternoon. There were snow blizzards in the whole city. Sofia was covered in two or three feet of snow when we got there.
And we started off shooting in the Gulag, which they replicated, they built to extremely painful detail. This [is] beautiful, as we were looking at it, as a piece of art and was going to allow our story as it would begin to unfold. The camp was incredibly stunning-looking but it was incredibly harsh at the time and incredibly foreboding. As much as you can reach into your imagination and get a sense of what it inhabit such a foreboding place, such a seemingly inhabitable place for so long — 10 years, 25 years, whatever it may be — you reach into your imagination, you take the cold you feel on the day, and you multiply it by infinity as much as you can.
The environment did a lot of work. Some of the walks we went on in the snow, there was one particular shot that we did one day that was about 400 feet. I think it took three rolls of film; it took us about 17 minutes. And you have a bunch of actors who are really struggling, [thinking], “Are we nearly there?,” praying to hear, “Cut.” It did a lot of the work for you. It really smashed the line between reality and fiction.
And moments. I say that with absolute respect for the level of comfort we worked within. We still worked only 12- or 14-hour days, and there was never a cup of tea that was too far away from where we were working, but there were some times, there were moments, when the line between reality and fiction was smashed. And that was one of those moments where you’re literally trying to get through what you’re trying to get through to the best of your ability, without being conscious of anyone observing or anything.
Weir: And Colin did eat the caterpillar.
Farrell: I did.
Weir: It was his last though.
Farrell: It was my last shot, yeah. And I didn’t name him, because I heard you’re not to name things, to anthropomorphize the caterpillar.
Jim, if you were placed in the same situation as your Janusz character, did you think about how you would have coped if it really happened to you?
Sturgess: Yeah, I think we all went through that and had that thought as we went through it. And we sort of discussed it at various times while we were making the film. It’s an answer you can’t come up with until you’re faced with something as extreme and as painful as what they were going through. You really don’t know what you would do in those circumstances. I know Peter would probably have initiated the escape.
Weir: I might have been like the Mark Strong [character in “The Way Back”]: lots of talk.
Sturgess: [He laughs.] I think I probably would have followed. I don’t think I would’ve instigated that. And that’s interesting about watching the film: what you feel you would do in the middle of such extreme emotions — fear would one of them, and love being the other. How would that take you?
Ed, you looked half-dead at moments in “The Way Back.” Is that how you felt?
Harris: I got pretty lean. I got as lean as I could and still feel like I had the energy to do my job. One of the great things about the shoot was that the harder it got, the more difficult the days were — whether it was walking through waist-deep snow or walking up a sand dune that was virtually impossible to walk up very quickly, especially when you’re dragging a f*cking travois behind us. Excuse my French.
The more physically difficult that it was during the day, the more you felt like you were doing your job. It was really helpful. It snowed when we needed it to snow. We actually had a sand storm on the day that we were doing to create a sand storm. Dealing with the elements and being out in the open like that, it just enriched the whole experience. It was great. The locations were fantastic to work in.
Colin, was it easy to research where a guy like Valka came from and what he would be like if he were a real person?
Farrell: [He says jokingly] Well, Saoirse was already cast, so I didn’t get to go for my favorite part. [He says seriously] I met Peter subsequent to reading the script. I think, speaking for myself, but the majority of us would probably say that the most exciting prospect of working with Peter. I personally was a big fan of his work through the years.
And then reading the script, I saw Valka as just a big stretch. It was something that was incredibly disparate to anything I had approached before. I had no relationship to that time in history or to that country, and so I knew it would be a journey of discovery. And that’s what it proved to be.
Yeah, Valka was, I think to this day, one of my least favorite characters to play. I felt very sad playing him. I felt very lonely. He’s somebody who’s at once a huge victim of and a huge proponent of the system which formed him and shaped him, which I found really, really interesting.
Did it help to have Saoirse Ronan as a fellow Irish citizen there with you on the film set of “The Way Back”?
Farrell: Yeah … more than just being Irish, but [having] a female energy join the gang, six weeks, seven weeks in. We [the men in the cast] were kind of sick of looking at each other at that stage. It was a welcome relief to have Saoirse come. Absolutely. It was a treat having her there.
Didn’t you film “The Way Back” in almost chronological order?
Sturgess: We were blessed that it was the most chronological that it could have been. We did start in the mountains of Bulgaria, up at the Gulag, which was great because proper bonds have been made at that time. I remember specifically that first scene, where we all walk into the Gulag, feeling fairly isolated and a lot of foreign languages being spoken around and not really knowing where I was or what was ahead of me. And obviously, as we went through the journey, those bonds were made and experiences were shared. And we were able to lose weight along the way — just the pure nature of being out in the desert in that heat and the flies around the food were enough to make you drop a few pounds.
Saoirse, was it hard to lose weight and keep your energy up while filming?
Ronan: To be honest, I didn’t really go on a diet or do any of those things. We didn’t really talk about doing anything like that, did we?
Ronan: It wasn’t anything that was very important for me. I think Irena could have looked after herself as well, when it came to food.
Weir: I think she was sneaking her hand into the communal bag, in the early stages.
Ronan: Yeah. I’m sure when she came across the boys, she was starting to get a little bit desperate. But I didn’t feel like it [losing weight for “The Way Back”] was something I needed to do. I didn’t need to deprive myself of beautiful food every day. It was good fun.
Saoirse, can you talk about the singing you did in “The Way Back”?
Ronan: I worked with Valentin [Ganev, the Russian dialect coach for “The Way Back”]. He and Colin made a CD of it. I sang the whole thing. I started to learn it a couple of weeks before we shot the scene. And it’s actually quite a beautiful song. So I would take the words and break them up phonetically as well and somehow found an English word that would remind me of this phonetic — and that really helped me. It wasn’t that long, so it was OK, but it’s always great to speak a foreign language in a film. It’s the only chance we get, really.
Ed, weren’t there about 7,000 Americans caught up in the Gulag at that time?
Harris: At least. There was a great book published in 2008 called “The Forsaken,” which is about the thousands of Americans who went to Russia in the early ‘30s during the Depression. Some actually had jobs lined up. Some were searching for work. Some were Communists, some were socialists, some were just people trying to find a job. It’s a great book. Peter had tons of research for us to look at and lots of great documentary footage and that kind of thing.
Valka leaves before the story ends. Colin, was it sad for you to leave this tight-knit cast?
Farrell: I was fairly ready, to be honest, by that stage. I [was ready] to kick Valka to the curb. He was used to it: a lifetime of being kicked to the curb. It felt like a truth of the character was that … he felt like, on the outside looking in, that he was the only one who didn’t really have anything to return to or anything to go toward. There was no love, there was no hope, there was no anything in his life — nor was he mournful or melancholy as a result of that.
He was just a very strange fellow. I was fine leaving then. I wouldn’t have minded going to Morocco, because I do like the desert. I’ve been to Morocco, North Africa. I wouldn’t have minded having a pot of tea in Darjeeling, but it wasn’t to be, alas. No, it was fine.
Peter, when you look back on your film career, did you ever think that you would accomplish this much? And how long and at what point did you get involved in “The Way Back”?
Weir: I had no idea it was a career. It was something I was always doing in my spare time, weekends or nights, working on review sketches or whatever, so I think I was born to it. And one thing led to another, but I never had a career perspective.
In terms of the project itself, I’m a real latecomer. [I was involved with the project for] two-and-a-half to three years. The co-producers and the co-writer, they carried it for 10 years, prior to my arrival. And before then, there was somebody else. Jeremy Childs had it for a long time, and tried to get it up and get it going. For me, it was a more conventional period from script to today.
What was the single most important thing to be cracked to make “The Way Back” filmable?
Weir: [He says jokingly] Well, we had to wait for [Joseph] Stalin to die … [He says seriously] Here you’ve got an epic but with a small group of people traveling. It’s not “Ben-Hur.” So I think probably the financiers were looking at it, trying to … calculate what kind of audience it would reach. I think, as with any project, there’s a right timing. And this was its time.
For more info: “The Way Back” website
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