Isolation is a recurring them in the cinema of Australian director Peter Weir, both literally and metaphorically. From his classic 1975 mystery Picnic at Hanging Rock to more recent efforts like The Truman Show and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, the director has demonstrated a nuanced fixation on the struggle between men and forces beyond their control—nature and otherwise.

In The Way Back, Weir keeps up that tradition with the spare tale of prisoners escaping from a Siberian gulag in the heat of World War II. Weir, who also wrote the screenplay, follows a group of survivors (including Jim Sturgess, Colin Farrell, Ed Harris and Saoirse Ronan) as they wander across a series of barren landscapes and eventually wind up in India.

The movie premiered to rave reviews at the Telluride Film Festival and generated immediate awards buzz for Weir, whose cautious approach to storytelling has often caused him to spend several years planning each new project. The director spoke to MM about his directorial strategy for The Way Back and how it fits into his broader intentions.

Eric Kohn (MM) : Did you expect to do an awards campaign for this movie?
Peter Weir (PW):
It’s not a surprise. I think the way “adult dramas,” as they call them, have gone, it’s inevitable if you come out during the awards season. It’s a crowded field and everyone’s looking for their spot.

MM: You use the prison break genre in a very unexpected way in The Way Back. The escape itself is not that suspenseful; the scenes that follow it form the bulk of the experience.
It was early in the scripting process that I decided on that route. With the deeper nature of the material, and the people who get caught up in this situation—I had met some of the survivors by that time—it seemed more interesting to me to explore how they endured this physical stress that a long walk would bring about and how, as they walked, you would get to know something of their story, as I did when I spoke to people in Siberia, Moscow and London. As they sat opposite me, talking about their experiences from so long ago, they would recall an immense amount of detail. I thought the film should do that, so you pick up information as they go along.

MM: What was the aim of your research? Did you want to be historically accurate?
To a degree. I think my approach to filmmaking is almost operatic. Most of my films are very theatrical. I usually avoid too much biographical material because I feel confined by it, even with true stories. I search for an artistic truth and frame it within the drama. You could say the film is highly theatrical and at the same time contains a higher truth.

MM: So you wanted to make a universal survival story more than a specific historical drama?
The historical aspect was an interesting background, but it really was the individuals who interested me in this piece. I knew quite early on that I should reach a point, when they’re in the desert, where it almost lost its specific historical framework. They’re in a primal situation that’s timeless.

MM: Was that idea reflected in your interviews with survivors?
Yes, in the way I took their stories and used them in the screenplay. The people I was meeting were names given to me by Anne Applebaum, who had published a wonderful book about them that won a string of prizes. She had done all this work and recommended people to me. These were people who got through it, so they were in place for what I wanted to do. For the time they spend in the desert, I wanted it to feel almost biblical, but at the same time it could be happening right now. There’s something slightly hallucinatory about that part of the film, and there’s some question inside all of us about how we would make it under those circumstances.

MM: Did you design their survival with the expectation that audiences would know how their story ends?
That was the challenge of it. This kind of a story—an expedition—it’s one of the oldest, most predictable stories: Are they or are they not going to make it? There are a limited number of possible outcomes. The challenge is to hold the audience’s interest so it’s not too predictable.

MM: Have any of the survivors you interviewed seen the film yet?
Those screenings will happen shortly, I think. You always know you’ll fail them. How can you make a film about something they experienced for 10 or 15 years? I don’t know. I’ll be pleased if they say I caught the spirit of it, or if they like the movie.

MM: As a minimalist storytelling format, this does mark a kind of return to the kind of movies you made earlier in your career. Was that intentional?
It’s funny about smaller projects: When I first took on the job in 2007, a friend asked what I was doing, and I said it was a small independent film about a group of people who break out of a prison in Siberia and walk all the way to India. And he said, “That’s a small independent film? How are you going to do that?” For me, it was always a big story, but what I liked about it was that it contained a small group of people in this vast landscape.

MM: What kind of cinematic techniques did you use to convey their situation?
I got terribly interested in the close-up; it’s the basic DNA of film. I really wanted the actors to be so much into the characters that I could just film them, quietly, in close-up, and there would be some kind of real power that would come from their faces.

MM: That’s an idea that goes back to early silent film.
Every couple of years, I’ll go back and look at silent movies, because it’s really a different art form. A potential that was never realized because of the advent of sound film was the startling power of the face on the screen. For that face to be worth looking at… I mean, that’s how we got movie stars. The great invention is not CGI or 3-D, it’s the power of the close-up. There was something about this particular story that lent itself to that. I wanted to see how far I could go with it. I didn’t want cliffhanger situations or a big pursuit.

MM: Did you use any CGI?
There’s CGI in occasional landscape enhancements and for the Great Wall of China.

MM: So even though you favor the close-up, you’re not against using technology in the service of story.
Yes, CGI is a wonderful tool. I had very good people. It just looks real. I use it more in the way matte paintings were used in the past. I’m probably in a greater tradition; if I had a film that was set in space or something, I’d use it differently.

MM: Given your advanced visual style, are you an advocate of watching movies in theaters rather than at home?
A film of real power will probably work anywhere. It’s really a question of the power behind the image or the power behind the idea. We know that the Zapruder film, no matter how many times we’ve seen it, will always stop you in your tracks. Or the Hindenberg disaster. In some ways, as a filmmaker, I think you get the full effect in the theater, with a group of people in the dark. There’s nothing like a good story. Nobody’s really reinvented the story, they’ve just reinvented the delivery of it.

MM: How do you manage to spend so much time between projects?
I’d rather work at a greater rate of production; it’s just about finding stories that interest me enough for what has to be two or three years of work. That’s what a lot of the period between films is concerned with. Sometimes I’ll get something that’s already at an advanced stage, ready to go, and I think it’s not bad. I’m tempted sometimes to do one, but then I think, “What can I bring to it?” And I let it go. It’s always about finding something that I feel I can make unique. MM

Newarket Films will release The Way Back on January 21, 2011.