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'The Way Back' and its long trek to the screen

Of necessity, a 1940-set tale of gulag escape is made and marketed in old-fashioned ways. And that seems to suit director Peter Weir and cast member Ed Harris.

January 22, 2011|By Rebecca Keegan, Los Angeles Times
  • Colin Farrell, left, and Ed Harris star in "The Way Back."
Colin Farrell, left, and Ed Harris star in "The Way Back." (Newmarket Films )

The first time someone tried to adapt Slavomir Rawicz's book "The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom" for the big screen, historical epics such as "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Ben-Hur" were movie studio staples, location shooting was standard and Burt Lancaster was interested in the lead.

More than half a century later, at a time when cinematic adventures are based on comic books, landscapes are computer-generated and actors find their meaty period roles on cable TV rather than film, the tale is finally reaching theaters, with six-time Academy Award nominee Peter Weir directing and a cast that features Ed Harris, Jim Sturgess and Colin Farrell as political prisoners who trek some 4,000 miles on foot from a Siberian gulag to India in 1940.

But the new film "The Way Back," despite having all the trappings of a traditional Hollywood epic, is receiving a decidedly quiet release this weekend, opening in 650 theaters across the country after a limited one-week run in December to qualify for Academy Awards consideration.

"People have said 'The Way Back' is really old-fashioned," says producer Joni Levin. "I think it's out of fashion."

Its retro storytelling helps explain why the project, rather than being set up at a major Hollywood studio, instead was financed independently for a thrifty $30 million. Instead of fantastical CG environments, Weir filmed in exotic locales including the real Sahara Desert, Bulgarian forests and Indian Himalayas.

Weir's previous film, 2003's "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," had a budget five times that of "The Way Back." But for the Australian director of studio dramas such as "Witness" and "Dead Poets Society," the dramatic — and ostensibly true — survival story in Rawicz's book was too alluring to resist, and he was determined to find a way to bring the movie to the screen on his own terms, even if that meant working on a restricted budget.

That meant overcoming a number of obstacles, not least of which was learning that Rawicz's tale was in fact partly falsified. Though some men had made this arduous journey, Rawicz wasn't one of them, and the script is composed of fictionalized characters.

Still, Weir endeavored to bring as much authenticity to the film as possible, particularly in the visual realm. "Landscapes are predominantly fantasy landscapes today," he said. "So I thought, how interesting to be able to go out there and use the world as it really is."

The real world, however, is a far more dangerous place than a soundstage. By spring 2009, Weir's cast and crew were filming on a ridge in the Sahara Desert in Morocco, which was standing in for Mongolia's Gobi Desert, when a sandstorm rolled through. Weir, who had planned to create his own sandstorm with wind machines, wanted to shoot, but his location manager objected.

"He said, 'You don't film in this,'" Weir recalled. "'It's too dangerous and uncontrolled.' It blew across us. The whole area just went brown. You could hardly breathe."

After the storm passed, Weir shot his scene as planned, but his crew and actors had a profound sense of the peril and chaos they were meant to portray.

Other inconveniences — filming in knee-deep snow, suffering food poisoning, transporting equipment to remote locations via chairlift and snowmobile, drove home the arduousness of the characters' journey.

"The hotter it was, the deeper the snow, the better job you felt you were doing because it was closer to what these people were actually going through," says Harris.

Both in the way he shot and edited the film, Weir deployed bygone techniques.

"Today there's a lot of fast-cutting, a lot of hyperkinetic editing," he said. "I wanted to go the opposite of that and create almost a dreamy feel with these faces. Human nature and nature. Show the craggy mountains, cut to Ed Harris' face. It seemed to be saying, 'We are part of nature.'"

After the production wrapped, though, the film languished without a distributor until September 2010, when financiers Guy East and Nigel Sinclair, whose Exclusive Media Group had acquired the U.S. distributor Newmarket, decided to release the film themselves.

"Basically, here was a story about people walking and trying to survive," Harris said. "Nobody was chasing 'em, no big stars in it. The subject matter was such that nobody felt they could make any money on it. It was in that weird range where it's not low budget and it's not $150 mil. Nobody wanted to deal with it. At one point it felt like it was gonna go straight to DVD and I was like, 'C'mon guys.'"

While the making of this film has been decidedly old school, the marketing for "The Way Back" is, by necessity for its small distributor, untraditional. Instead of spending money on costly TV, billboard and newspaper ads, Newmarket is relying on partner National Geographic, which is promoting the film to its mailing list and 7 million Facebook fans, whom Newmarket believes will respond to "The Way Back's" travelogue elements.

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