Director Peter Weir finds "Way Back" to big screen

Mon Jan 31, 2011 8:34pm EST
 
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By Jenelle Riley

LOS ANGELES (Back Stage) - It's difficult to find a common thread among Peter Weir's films.

The Australian native's first feature, 1974's "The Cars That Ate Paris," was a gritty black comedy about residents of a small town who deliberately cause car crashes. But he followed that cult classic a year later with the lyrical and haunting "Picnic at Hanging Rock," which tells the "true" story of the disappearance of three schoolgirls and their teacher in 1900.

Weir eventually began making films in America, and it was just as difficult to ascribe him to a particular genre. After heavy dramas like "Witness" and "The Mosquito Coast," Weir proved impressive at comedy with the lighthearted romance "Green Card." His last film was 2003's high seas epic "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World."

But there is at least one thing a viewer can expect from a Peter Weir film: The 66-year-old director is known for drawing terrific performances from actors, be it Mel Gibson verging on stardom in "Gallipoli," discovering a cast of young unknowns for "Dead Poets Society," or Jim Carrey transitioning to a more dramatic role in "The Truman Show." He coaxed Oscar-nominated performances out of Harrison Ford as a cop undercover in Amish country in "Witness" and Rosie Perez in "Fearless," a movie about the aftermath of a plane crash for its survivors.

His latest project, "The Way Back," is no exception. Based on the book "The Long Walk" by Slavomir Rawicz, the film tells the true story of a group of prisoners who escape from a Soviet gulag during World War II and must walk more than 4,000 miles to freedom. Led by Janusz, played by Jim Sturgess, the film boasts a cast of actors including Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, and Saoirse Ronan.

BACK STAGE: YOU WORKED WITH ACTORS LIKE MEL GIBSON AND RIVER PHOENIX EARLY IN THEIR CAREERS. HOW ARE YOU ABLE TO SPOT TALENT EARLY ON?

Peter Weir: Well, I think they were sort of on their way when I saw them. With Mel Gibson, it was really George Miller who spotted him and put him in the first "Mad Max," which I saw at a preview. Same with River Phoenix; it was there to be seen. He'd done "Stand by Me." So I can't really claim it. You could see it as a filmmaker, the way the public did.

BACK STAGE: WHAT ABOUT THE YOUNG ACTORS YOU CAST IN "DEAD POETS SOCIETY," LIKE ETHAN HAWKE AND ROBERT SEAN LEONARD? YOU HAVE TO ACCEPT SOME RESPONSIBILITY FOR SPOTTING THEM EARLY ON.   Continued...