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Peter Weir on ‘The Way Back,’ ‘Master and Commander’ sequels, and ‘The Truman Show’

By Sean O’Connell
Hollywoodnews.com: In an ironic twist of fate, a project titled “The Way Back” helped Oscar-nominated filmmaker Peter Weir find his way back to Hollywood after a seven-year hiatus. It was 2003 when Weir last released a picture – the maritime adventure “Master and Commander” The Far Side of the World” with Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany – and various unexpected obstacles prevented him from diving into a follow-up film.

“I didn’t notice the time passing. It was quite a shock,” Weir jokes during a recent phone interview.

He says he had several potential vehicles in the development stage, but something would always pop up to derail each project’s momentum. “Then number four, as it happened to be during that period, was this book that I read that inspired ‘The Way Back,’ and I said, ‘Now I’m not going to lose this one.’”

When asked, though, Weir said that a rumored “Master and Commander” sequel was never really a legitimate contender as an immediate follow-up to the original.

“There was no substance to that,” Weir confirms. “But certainly, while traveling with this film in Europe and now [in the States], there appear to be plenty of people who would love another one. I don’t know whether that will affect the studio’s thinking. It’s enormously expensive to mount them. Despite CGI, you actually have to have ships and cannons apart from a crew and cast members. It’s a big endeavor.”

Bigger, even, than the epic “Way Back,” which travels several continents as it tells the remarkably true story of Polish POWs who escape a Siberian prison in harsh natural conditions and embark on a 4,000-mile walk through extreme cold and vicious heat to reach home.

“I’m ready to get this picture open and out there,” Weir told me “The anticipation period is over. I just want to get it into cinemas. … You know we directors like to be in control, and this is a [waiting] period where you are not. You are a passenger in the car at this stage.”

As the film continues to expand to more theaters, Weir opens up about his casting, his difficult location shots, and the cultural impact of his previous films.

HollywoodNews.com: What was more difficult, casting “The Way Back” or selecting your locations?

Peter Weir: [Laughs] Casting I always find fascinating. As they say, if you get the casting right, given your script’s right, you are halfway there. I had a couple of people in mind … [laughs] and I actually got the people that I wanted. There was no blood on the carpet.

As for locations, yeah, it was tough. Some things you could have, and others you couldn’t. The story takes place over 4,000 miles from Siberia to India. It crosses through the Gobi desert, for example. Well, if I go to the Gobi desert, how do you film there? You have to bring in everything: water; coffee; tents. There’s no infrastructure in terms of filmmaking. So, OK, we start to think of Gobi as an actor in the film. Who’s going to play it? What about the Sahara in Morocco? They’ve got a film infrastructure there. So the Sahara played the part of the Gobi in the picture.

HN: The amount of planning that goes into a picture like that before even one frame of film is shot …

PW: Yes, it is a lot of planning. You don’t just sort of waltz into a project like this because you are going to be living the story, to a certain extent. You are plowing through these remote destinations in four-wheel-drive vehicles, and you have to make sure you get back [to camp] before dark, or you’ll find yourself in real trouble.

HN: How did you keep your cast motivated in these extreme conditions?

PW: We paid them. [Laughs] And we do feed them. I actually think that a project like this attracts a certain kind of reckless individual, whether actor or behind the camera. People tend to come to you and say, “I want to do this. I want to be in this. I want to get out into the world that’s in this story.” And so I had no shortage of volunteers.

HN: How long was the shoot.

PW: 65 days.

HN: And you shot in progressive order.

PW: We had to go in continuity. There was no other way. It would have just been a nightmare to have been jumping around in terms of wardrobe and costuming that was quite different as well as the mental state that the characters needed to be in a different times.

HN: “The Way Back” reunites you with “The Truman Show” co-star Ed Harris.

PW: Ah yes, that was a dream. You know, we got on so well in “Truman” and had been looking for another project. We’d bump into each other here and there. I thought he was just perfect for this and just hoped he’d be free, which he was.

HN: Do you still get approached about how prescient “Truman Show” turned out to be with our current, reality-television-crazed society?

PW: Oh yeah, people do say that. Like, “Did I know something or did Andrew Niccol, who wrote the original screenplay, have a prophetic gift?” I always said at the time that movie came out – which was only a couple of years before these shows swamped us – that “Truman” was only speculative fiction. It was satire, if you like. And a couple of reviewers said that the problem with the movie was that this could never happen, that it was so improbable, you know? Who would sit and watch paint dry? Of course, it happened.

HN: In fact, I’m surprised some network hasn’t tried to duplicate the “Truman” experiment with a newborn baby.

PW: Someone did try it in Germany.

HN: Did they?

PW: Oh yeah. It didn’t eventuate. I think it probably broke too many laws. But they did try and set up a situation where people were living a life in an artificial town, anyway. Scary.

Peter Weir’s “The Way Back” opened in limited release on Jan. 21, and will continue to expand over coming weeks.

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About Sean O'Connell

Sean O'Connell is a nationally recognized film critic. His reviews have been published in print ('The Washington Post,' 'USA Today') and online (AMC FilmCritic.com, MSN's Citysearch) since 1996. He's a weekly contributor to several national radio programs. He is a longstanding member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS), and the Southeastern Film Critics View all articles by Sean O'Connell Association (SEFCA).

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One Comment

  • February 5, 2011 | Permalink |

    Really would love to see Russell Crowe in sequel to Master & Commander. Need more movies like these. One of my very favorites, watch it over and over again. Started reading the books, there’s plenty of “action” from O’Brian to make a sequel. Know that russell would agree.

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