The veteran director Peter Weir, in Washington for a screening of his new movie, "The Way Back," considers the question of whether Hollywood is still capable of making a Peter Weir film: classy, well-crafted and favoring story over empty spectacle.
After four decades, during which he directed films that earned more than $450 million and six Oscars among them, Weir finds himself in a peculiar position, far from the studios and power circles of Hollywood but still working his way, on his own time -- and, partly, his own dime.
"You just adapt or get out," he says. With "The Way Back" Weir adapted, but without compromise.
The film, which opened Friday and stars Ed Harris and Colin Farrell, is a classic World War II drama, in this case about prisoners escaping from a Soviet gulag by walking 4,000 miles from Siberia to India.
"The Way Back" is Weir's first film since 2003's "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World." What his previous movies share, along with "The Way Back," is less a visible authorial signature than a classical, sophisticated approach to making films aimed squarely at adults. When stars appeared in them, it was in service to the story rather than as a stunt or packaging gimmick. They weren't shilling any ancillary products or video games or crossover come-ons. They weren't special-effects spectacles. They were movies by, for and about grown-ups -- precisely what Hollywood seems incapable of making these days.
Weir has detected other changes as well; he sees more scripts, he says, inspired by fact-based stories. "I was saying to my wife, 'The Way Back' costume designer Wendy Stites, that something's changed in the last few years," he says. "Which prompted her observation that since 9/1 1 this idea of 'based on a true story' as a qualification of your film has risen. Because on that day, truth became stranger than fiction."
Weir adds that "The Way Back" got "tangled up" in its own struggle with truth claims when he discovered that the book it's based on was largely fabricated. In "The Long Walk," published in 1956, author Slavomir Rawicz wrote that he and six others made the epic trek from the Siberian prison to India. Decades later, a BBC radio documentary revealed that he never made the walk but was released from the gulag as part of Stalin's amnesty program.
After first concluding that he couldn't make Rawicz's story, Weir tracked down descendants of a British intelligence officer and interpreter who encountered real-life people who did make the journey. As he's grappled with the issue of Rawicz's veracity, Weir's been struck in new ways by the "based on a true story" imperative. "There was a Josef Stalin. There were gulags; millions perished or were incarcerated; very few escaped; and this is a story of such an escape," the director says. "There is such a thing as a moral truth."
To convey the story's larger meaning, Weir eschewed the more metaphysical themes that have often animated his work, from the existential mystery that propels the dreamy "Picnic at Hanging Rock" to Jeff Bridges confronting his own mortality in "Fearless" and Jim Carrey questioning existence itself in "The Truman Show." In "The Way Back," Weir delivers film narrative at its most elemental: one foot in front of the other, Just. Keep. Walking.
It's an apt metaphor for Weir's own slog through an entertainment culture that seems to be shifting under his very feet.