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THE WAY BACK

Pre-Production/Development
Colin Farrell was the first eventual cast member to read a draft of the script for THE WAY BACK and says he found himself riveted by two specific aspects of the story.

"I had an intense fascination about the world inside the Gulags—how these prisoners exist and co-exist—and was even more drawn to the metronomic beat of the journey. The characters must keep walking to stay alive, and the transience pulled me into the story in a very meditative way.”

Despite considering it a remarkable story, Farrell wasn't sure if it contained an appropriate role for himself.

"I was excited that Peter Weir had chosen to direct it, because he's not the most prolific of directors, he doesn't come out that often. However, I didn't see myself as Janusz or Valka, particularly. I thought Valka was weak, even though he is dangerous and violent. But after re-reading the story, I saw how integral Valka is to the group while still remaining on the outside. He's an indicator of something bigger, of the fallacy and tragedy of this corrupt, despotic system. I realized the story was bigger than the sum of its parts, and was just hoping Peter would give me the opportunity to be involved.” Jim Sturgess responded to the story in a similarly visceral way.

"I was amazed by the script. Things we take for granted in our everyday lives become huge moments of drama in this environment. For example, just eating a piece of food for the first time in days. Finding water. It distills life to its essence.”

Sturgess, an emerging young actor coming off well received roles in Across the Universe and Fifty Dead Men Walking, first met with Weir at a London hotel while the actor was completing a grueling night schedule on a film called Heartless.

"I turned up looking like death,” Sturgess recalls. "I was completely wired, hadn't slept, and wasn't well prepared. I was all over the place.”

Sensing that he may not have made the best impression, Sturgess, somewhat like his character, took matters into his own hands. He videotaped himself reading some scenes, and sent it to Weir, along with a personal letter.

"I thought, ‘I don't want to blow this chance to work with Peter Weir,' so I took some extra steps, and, thank goodness, he responded. He rang me up and offered me the part. I must have thanked him something like 50 times.”

Ed Harris, who worked with Weir on The Truman Show, was pleased to reunite, knowing the director was well suited for a story whose characters, he says, "have their pretensions stripped bare. They live completely in the moment. Breathing in, breathing out, putting one foot in front of the other.”

Saoirse Roman had just returned to Ireland from shooting Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones in New Zealand. Weir flew from London to Dublin to meet her.

"I loved him straight away, and we got on really well,” recalls Ronan. "I noticed he is very detail oriented, and isn't careless with anything. I was excited about the physical challenges of the part, and got busy learning a Polish accent, which is lovely.”

Sturgess, Potocean, Urzendowsky, and Bucur also trained for Polish accents, while Skarsgård learned some Latvian, and Ed Harris and Colin Farrell studied Russian. The latter practiced the dialect in Los Angeles with Judy Dickerson and the language itself with a Russian-speaking Bulgarian actor.

"Learning Russian was great – it's incredibly primordial, it comes from the gut and the bowels,” Farrell states. "It feels like harsh winter land in the mouth, and the particular sounds and accents affect you physically.”

In addition to learning various dialects, the actors were given scholastic homework, and knew going in that Weir expected them to become immersed in the subject matter. Books and videos about the Gulags, the purges, and personal survivor stories were distributed.

"Every day there would be new stacks of material coming in,” recalls Sturgess. "I read them all, and wanted more. There was so much about this period I didn't know. I was kind of a slacker in school, and one of the wonderful things about this job is it gives me a chance to educate myself about things I didn't pay much attention to as a student.”

Sturgess visited with several former Polish prisoners now living in England, two of whom had escaped, soaking up their experiences. "It was fascinating to look into their eyes and hear their stories,” Sturgess says. "I didn't want to walk into this project without some appreciation of the historical context and the personal toll. When you see the men in the flesh you realize it wasn't so long ago.” Gustaf Skarsgård, whose preparation also included visiting Latvia to get a flavor for the language and culture, says, "This part of history is still largely unknown to a lot of people. I was horrified to learn of the extent of the brutality and death.”

Agrees Sebastian Urzendowsky, "Growing up in Germany, our education was so focused on the Holocaust and the Nazis, that I knew very little about the Gulags and the Reign of Terror. So I devoured everything I could get my hands on: books on Stalin by Varlam Shalamov and Simon Montefiore, documentaries, films about Polish history. I studied Polish language and culture…the most intensive preparation I've ever done.”

Education about the Gulags was step one. Step two was being introduced to survival skills and learning what kind of toll a trek across 4,500 miles would impart. The instructor, Cyril Delafosse-Guiramand, is the film's technical advisor and an avid adventurer, who himself undertook the same journey detailed in The Long Walk.

Says Colin Farrell, "Cyril shared his own journey and explained how the body changes through starvation and fatigue. The mind begins to play tricks on itself. Things slowly bubble up to the surface.”

Most of the cast participated in a camping trip in the chilly winter air, coordinated by Delafosse-Guiramand. He gave cast members individual survival lessons pertaining to the specific skills their character would need to demonstrate -- be it skinning animals, setting traps, creating makeshift shelters or starting fires. He created a small guidebook to aid their lessons.

"It was exciting to see the guys start to own their characters during these experiences,” comments Delafosse-Guiramand. "The script began to come to life before my eyes.”

Delafosse-Guiramand also briefed the cast on life in the Gulags and the physical and psychological aspects of a prisoner's arrest and interrogation.

Indeed, director Weir was so intent to verse his cast on the emotional torment prisoners underwent even before arriving at the Gulag that he work-shopped an unscripted interrogation scene.

Weir placed Sturgess in a small room with a table and a guard, who demanded he sign a confession. Suddenly a woman portraying his wife appeared, tearfully declaring him an enemy of the people.

Recalls Sturgess, "It was a heartbreaking scene, and I was surprised by the intensity and power of the role-playing. Then Peter says, ‘Well, we'll have to film that now. I don't know where it's going to go, but I have to have that in my pocket.'”

The director's fastidious research and painstaking pursuit of realism extended to the Gulag set being constructed at Boyana Studios in Bulgaria. Production designer John Stoddart, who was lured out of retirement to work on the project, tinkered with various miniatures over a period of time to come up with a satisfactory layout model.

"I started with a rigid grid system, which Peter didn't like because it was too similar to a German concentration camp,” Sto

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