Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Saoirse Ronan and Peter Weir talk about their most difficult experiences on set for this physically demanding story | The Fan Carpet Ltd • The Fan Carpet: The RED Carpet for FANS • The Fan Carpet: Fansites Network • The Fan Carpet: Slate • The Fan Carpet: Theatre Spotlight • The Fan Carpet: Arena • The Fan Carpet: International

Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Saoirse Ronan and Peter Weir talk about their most difficult experiences on set for this physically demanding story

The Way Back
13 December 2010

Despite the serious nature of Peter Weirs new historical drama The Way Back, spirits were high and the cast and director talked openly about how difficult filming was in some of the most physically challenging scenes in baking hot deserts and Siberian snow blizzards. 

The Way Back is an intense and gripping story of the incredible journey of a group of brave men, daring to escape their doomed fate in the Polish Gulags in the second World War. They cross thousands of treacherous miles, from snowy Siberia to the endless desert, battling starvation and exhaustion in pursuit of the ultimate goal, freedom.



You did the David Lean talk a few days ago, there are signs of David Lean in this picture. Did you notice when you were prepping the film?

Peter Weir: I don’t think any director would take that label on, we have too much respect for him, what he did was his but it sticks in your mind his use of landscapes. I said at that talk about that incredible long shot where Omar Sharif comes riding towards the camera. I said ‘really you know that was David Lean riding in on that camel, he rode into your hearts and into your memory of films. It’s a nice compliment.


The experience of your character joining this group late, is something you can identify with coming into the film six weeks in.

Saoirse Ronan: Yeah, I think it was about six weeks in. It was something that I had never experienced before personally because I had always started a film with everyone else at the start of shooting. So I was a little bit nervous because I didn’t know anyone like they had gotten to know each other. Luckily we have a really great group here and we got on really well so it wasn’t any trouble at all.


You did your own ice running stunt, how was that?

Saoirse Ronan: I did. I do my own stunts in this movie. Basically all I had to do was run across this beautiful fake ice that they had made out of wax. It looked amazing. It was great, I just threw in a few slips and falls. (laughter) It was good fun.


I suppose there’s a lot for the cast to get their teeth into, with the material and the characters. For example Ed, I was unaware but there were 7000 Americans caught up in the Gulag.

Ed Harris: At least. There was a great book published in two thousand and eight called The Forsaken, which is about the thousands of Americans that went to Russian in the 30s during the Great Depression; some 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 was a great book. Peter had tons of research for us to look at, lots of great documentary footage that sort of thing.


Colin, you didn’t see Valka as the character you necessarily wanted to play, but when you got your teeth into the part, was it easy to research where this guy came from?

Colin Farrell: Well Saoise was already cast so I didn’t get to play my favourite part. (laughs) I met Peter subsequently after reading the script. I think the most exciting part of being cast in the film was the chance to work with Peter; I was a big fan of his work through the years, And then reading the script I saw Valka as just a big stretch, something that was incredibly disheartened to anything I’ve approached before, I had no relationship to that time in history or that country and so I knew it would be a journey of discovery; and that’s what it proved to be, and Valka to this day is one of my least favourite characters to play. I found him a very sad and lonely fellow but also someone who was once a victim of and a huge proponent of of the system which formed him and shaped him I found that very interesting to play.


Despite Saoirse getting the role you had your eye on, was it nice to have a country woman there?

Colin Farrell: Yeah, the latter part more than having someone there that was Irish. It was good to have a female energy join the gang six or seven weeks in. You know we were kind of sick of looking at each other I think (laughs) and it was a welcomed relief to have Saoise come, it was a treat having her there.


Jim, you must have done a lot of research, but did you find yourself thinking ‘how would I cope in this situation’?

Jim Sturgess: Yeah I think we all kind of went through that and had that thought as we went through it. We discussed it at various times while we were making the film and it’s an answer you can’t really come up with until you are 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.


Peter, it’s inspired by the story that we see at the start, and I know there’s been some doubt that the man who wrote the book did all the events portrayed. But everything you’ve put in the film was experienced by someone.

Peter Weir: That’s right yeah. Having decided to give credit of inspired by Slavomir Rawicz’ book. I must say Slavomir controversy of was he a member of “The Walk” a member of that group? In fairness to him and despite evidence that’s come to light, he’s not with us he’s dead as of a few years ago so I respect that he can’t defend himself. For me all I really needed to know was that “The Walk” happened, to know that’s true and the fictionalize it, change the title and the character names, with the exception of Mr. Smith and then gather information from survivors of the Gulag system; Siberia in one case, others in Moscow and with Polish people here in London. I got somewhat obsessed with this truth thing I just wanted providence for everything in the film from dialogue and character and background. I’m proud to say that what you see in the film is pretty much as it was, and what it would have been like.


How was the process you had to go through to make the film, did you have to loose weight and use a lot of make up and was the film shot chronologically.

Jim Sturgess: Yeah we were blessed that really, it was as chronological as it could be, right from where we started in Siberia in the Gulag, which was great because no proper bonds had been made yet at that time, and we walked into the Gulag with loads of languages all around us and we were all feeling quite isolated, as we went through the journey those experiences brought us together and as time went on we lost weight naturally because we were genuinely out in the desert, and the flies were enough to make you drop a few pounds.


It must have been hard to loose weight and keep up your energy?

Saoirse Ronan: I didn’t go on a diet and we didn’t talk about doing anything like that, it wasn’t something that we talked about or was important to me, I think my character Irena could have looked after herself anyway, and I didn’t want to deprive myself of wonderful food!


That’s the beauty of watching a film as a viewer, you tend to believe what you see, it all looked very convincing, I mean Ed, you looked half dead at moments.

Ed Harris: Yeah well I got pretty lean, I got as lean as I could and still have the energy to do my job. One of the great things about the shoot was, the harder it got, whether it was walking waist deep in snow or walking up the mountains which were becoming impossible, the more difficult it was, the more you felt like you were doing your job, when it snowed it snowed, when it rained, it rained, dealing with the elements and being out in the open like just enriched the whole experience.


Colin, was it the same for you and because of this experience did it make it sad to leave them?

Colin Farrell: I was fairly ready to be honest, to kick Valka to the curb, he’s used to it, it felt like he was the only one who didn’t have anything to go back to or turn towards, there was no hope or love in his life and nor was he mournful or melancholy about it, he was a strange fella, he was fine leaving them.


Peter, how did you choose locations for filming, and what were the challenges?

Peter Weir: As with the actors, different locations played different parts, I love locations and how they effect the script, I love Darjeeling, this was the first feature film to shoot there, and these locations are like characters in the story.

Colin Farrell: Luckily I didn’t have to deal with the heat, but Bulgaria was freezing cold, and it was the middle of Winter and dark by 3.00pm in the afternoon, there were snow Blizzards and the city of Sophia was covered, and we started off shooting in the Gulag which they replicated to extremely painful detail, which was a stunning piece of art that we used to tell this story. You take the cold that you’re feeling on the day and try and multiply it by infinity. There was so much walking and we were praying to hear cut, and even though there was never a cup of tea too far away, there were days where the line between reality and fiction was smashed.



Did you eat the Caterpillar Colin?

Colin Farrell: Yes in the last shot, but I didn’t name him because I knew I was going to have to eat him. (laughter)


Your character had a lot of tattoos in this film, how long did it take to apply and maintain them, and were you tempted to get any of them done for real as a reminder of this film?

Colin Farrell: Yeah I had to resist the deep urge to have Stalin tattooed on my chest! (laughs) There is an incredible significance of each and every single tattoo on these men’s bodies, crimes committed, time done, and rank and position within the criminal infrastructure. So it was fun, it was something that was very foreign to me and very exotic, as was the accent and the language. Peter gave me a couple of books that were full of tattoos from the time and with that I designed Valka’s Torso, which took about an hour at the start, and then we cut t down to about 25 minutes.


Colin mentioned the language, how tough was it when you had to sing or speak?

Ed Harris: We had a great coach, Valentine, who was Bulgarian and spoke fluent Russian, he was really helpful, and broke it down phonetically, and I felt pretty comfortable after a while. We had a couple of weeks all practicing together as well as practicing physical things like milking goats, and stripping bark off of trees, and we had a fellow there who had actually done this walk, and he was really helpful because he had gone through several periods of hallucinations and starvation so he talked a lot about the physical aspects of that.


Saoirse, can you tell us a bit about your singing?

Saoirse Ronan: I worked with Valentine as well, and he and Colin made a CD, with the whole song on it, I started to learn it a couple of weeks before we shot the scene and its actually quite a beautiful song, I would take the words and break them down phonetically and find an English word that reminded me of it, which really helped me, and the song wasn’t that long so it wasn’t that bad.


Speaking not only in another language but speaking English in an accent and not letting it slip into parody must have been a hard line to walk?

Jim Sturgess: Yeah it was, an eastern European accent is a real difficult accent to own and get your mouth around, and I think that was the sort of challenge for the three of us who really had to work at that and find the east European flavour and make it their own and part of the character. As for learning the polish, we got the phrases quite early and I practiced and practiced them and I remember speaking to an actual Polish person and they said I sounded like a four year old! I think out of all of the accents I’ve had to learn, Eastern European was the hardest.

Saoirse Ronan: Polish is a tough accent to do, it’s not an accent you hear all the time, we’ve grown up with English or American that you see on the TV every day, so we had a great dialect coach who really helped us.


Saoirse, was Colin someone you previously looked up to as a successful Irish actor and did he give you any bits of advice to help you survive Hollywood?

Saoirse Ronan: Everyone who’s Irish is proud of anyone who does well in Hollywood, or as I like to call it, The Film Business, and Colin has been hugely successful and we’re all very proud of him, and as an actor I look up to him, and it’s great to get the chance to work with him.

Colin Farrell: Saoirse is so well able to look after herself, she is so bright and switched on, she’s so decent and talented and her parents are lovely and always around her, so she didn’t need any advice from me.


Peter, your films are always so different, and you have a remarkable CV, but how long had you been working on this project, and when you look at your career now, did you imagine it being like this when you started in Australia?

Peter Weir: No I had no idea it was a career really, it was just something I did in my spare time, weekends and nights working on review sketches, I think I was born to it, and one thing lead to another, but I had no career perspective and in terms of the project itself I’m a late comer,I’m ten years late to the project.


Can you see how or why it took so long to come to screen, was there something that needed to be cracked to make the story filmable?

Peter Weir: It was a travelling film about a small group of people and I think financiers were trying to calculate what kind of audience it would reach. With any project there is always a right time and this was its time.

Colin you’re character does a spectacular turn around at the border post in the film and disappears into the distance, did you ever wonder what might have happened to him afterwards?

Colin Farrell: Absolutely, yeah, I have this thought that he died in a tavern, it seemed that Russia was the safest place for him.


Do you think he had a death wish?

Colin Farrell: No, well how deep do you want to get into his nature? He certainly didn’t have a joie de vivre, in the world of the labour camps, and the criminal infrastructure, was something that made great sense to him and that he could exist in, I think it was the liberty of the outside world that didn’t make sense to him.


Peter, did you see this film as a tribute to the mental strength of humans?

Peter Weir: Certainly, yeah, if I could boil this story down I could quite easily have the same group of actors doing it on stage with moving backdrops, because it was about the human spirit, these were ordinary people, which is why the film doesn’t have the more conventional cliffhangers, it was as real as I could get it.


What was the hardest scene for each of you to film?

Jim Sturgess: That’s an easy one for me, it was when we were in the desert and I had food poisoning, and for me that was harder than filming in the cold in the mountains, I remember when we started filming we were all dreaming about getting to Morocco, and then we get there and it’s twice as hard as being in the snow, so there was no easy day on set. There was a day we were filming when I had stomach cramps and needing the toilet every five minutes in the middle of the desert, and it wasn’t just one of the hardest days of the shoot, but one of the hardest days of my life.

Saoirse Ronan: I’m going to give the same answer, because I got food poisoning towards the end of my shoot as well, it was one of my last days and I was really sick and it was 45 degrees, and it was actually a really nice shot, when I’m sleep walking, and I had to keep my eyes closed and try not to bump into the camera and I had the most horrible pain in my stomach, so that was my hardest day, but it was still a great shoot besides.

Ed Harris: Emotionally because it was a very physical shoot, any scene that had emotional content to it, it was hard because we were all so raw, and even though we had tents and shade, it was still demanding on a physical level, but that opens you up and every time there was a personal scene of emotional expression, you felt it in your finger tips. There was a scene where I was dragging something up a huge hill and I could barely stand I was so weak, and I just wanted them to shout cut.

Colin Farrell: The thing I found hardest was the inaction, it came to pass that each actor would have his scene every four to five days, and that was the stuff you looked forward to, but we all had to be there, and there were days when you had nothing to do but walk and breathe and stay focused, and that was the trickiest thing because I love to be active, and it was an exercise in being patient.

Ed Harris: The scene where we were in the snow storm and Jim’s character made us the masks out of the tree bark was so hard because the snow was so bad anyway and we thought the masks were really going to help, and they just had little slits for eyes, but then the snow just blew into the slits and pulverised our eyes,and we did a lot of that.

Jim Sturgess: I would have taken a real snow storm any day!



The Way Back Film Page | Ed Harris Photos | Jim Sturgess Photos | Colin Farrell Photos | Saoirse Ronan Photos

The Way Back will hit UK cinema’s on the 26th December 2010