A $16 million Australia-UK co-production, Jonathan Teplitzky’s The Railway Man tells the story of Second Lieutenant Eric Lomax, a Signal Corps engineer from Edinburgh who was captured when Singapore fell to Japanese forces in February, 1942. Along with other British officers, he was sent to Changi prison and then to Thailand, to the prisoner-of-war camp in Kanchanaburi, which is near the Kwai River, the setting for David Lean’s Oscar-winning The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).
Central to both films is the enforced construction of a 250-mile rail line through jungles and across rivers from Thailand to Burma. It became known as “the Death Railway”, with around 90,000 civil labourers and more than 10,000 prisoners-of-war dying during the project. But whereas Lean’s film, based on a 1952 novel by Pierre Boulle, who had himself been a prisoner-of-war in Thailand, follows a linear trajectory and focuses solely on the building of a bridge across the river in 1943, Teplitzky’s moves back and forth in time between the 1980s and Lomax’s period at Kanchanaburi.
It’s not the first time his experiences have been depicted on screen. In 1995, around the time of the publication of his memoir, The Railway Man, an ITV documentary entitled Enemy, My Friend? dealt with his reconciliation with one of the men who tortured him. After which John Hurt played him in Prisoners in Time, a 50-minute drama made the same year for the BBC’s Everyman series. And then, in 2007, according to a report in The Telegraph’s Lomax obituary (1) – he died on October 8, 2012 – his meeting at his Berwick-on-Tweed home with the son of a Japanese officer who had been executed after the war, largely on the basis of Lomax’s testimony, was filmed for a Japanese television documentary.
Now, as Teplitzky explains in the following interview, although it’s officially based on Lomax’s memoir, The Railway Man looks well beyond the narrative parameters it set to deal with the relationship between him and his wife, Patti. Written by regular Michael Winterbottom collaborator and novelist Frank Cottrell Boyce and producer Andy Patterson, the film neatly interweaves two plot threads. One is essentially a marital drama, sketching the tensions that emerge between Eric and Patti as he struggles with the trauma of the torture he suffered at the hands of his captors during the war. The other is effectively a psychodrama that deals with his relationship with Takashi Nagase, the Japanese interpreter who had been involved in his torture and whom he discovers is still alive more than three decades after the war’s end. (2)
Colin Firth brings a potent sense of anguish to the older Eric; Jeremy Irvine plays him as a courageous, charismatic young officer. Nicole Kidman lends Patti a defining solidity that makes her a convincing emotional force in the film. And Hiroyuki Sanada allows the older Nagase a genuine sense of remorse for his war crimes, while Tanroh Ishida manages to make the character’s younger self a curious mixture of callous cruelty and uncertainty.
Two pivotal incidents drive the film towards its downbeat but emotionally uplifting denouement. The first is the beautifully acted and brilliantly economical meeting between Eric and Patti in a railway carriage early in the
film, convincingly laying the groundwork for the transformation of their brief encounter into a lasting relationship. It’s her persistence that sets him on a journey back to Thailand to make contact there with the man who had been his nemesis. The second takes place during Eric’s time as a prisoner-of-war, when he is (wrongly) accused of trying to use a makeshift radio he has built to contact his captors’ enemies.
The torture he suffers at the hands of Nagase and the other interrogators, in their efforts to extract a confession from him, explodes with contemporary resonances. And they lend credence to Cottrell Boyce’s observation that, for him, The Railway Man isn’t really about the Second World War: “It’s a film about torture and about how we go about our business today.” Teplitzky’s comments in the following interview indicate that, for him too, the events he has depicted have a more universal application.
Failures of communication are fundamental to the film and the need to find a way of correcting them underscores its emotional urgency. The problems that emerge from Eric’s exchanges with his Japanese captors go way beyond the misunderstandings that are a consequence of their language differences. They don’t understand that the radio he has built is not a transmitter, designed to send messages to their enemies, but a receiver, built by Eric so that he and his fellow prisoners can hear news about the progress of the war elsewhere.
Along similar lines, Patti can’t make sense of Eric’s suffering. She knows that it’s threatening their marriage, but her husband’s and his comrades’ “code of silence” about what happened to them during the war seems insuperable. Her determination to stand her ground in the face of discouragement and to discover the truth makes her a formidable force in the film.
The Railway Man follows Eric’s efforts, with her help, to deal with the demons that have haunted him and to make peace with his past. He goes armed with a knife to his rendezvous with Nagase, but he learns that he has even more powerful weapons at his disposal. They have to do with his better instincts and the capacity of individuals to rise above their limitations and discover ways of communicating that release them from their psychological shackles. The film might toy with the possibility that it could become a conventional revenge thriller, but it finally takes a much braver and more rewarding route.
The Railway Man is Jonathan Teplitzky’s fourth feature. It’s preceded by Better Than Sex (2000), Gettin’ Square (2003) and Burning Man (2011). He has also directed “more than 150 commercials over about 10 years”, four episodes of the TV series, Spirited, episodes 3 & 4 from the first series and episodes 3 & 4 from the second (2010 – 2011), and two of the forthcoming third series of Rake, episodes 3 & 4 (2013). He’s currently in development on ‘Choir of Hard Knocks’ with producer Marian Macgowan and writer Pip Karmel.
The following interview took place at the Maria Cristina Hotel on the day after the first public screening of The Railway Man at the San Sebastian Film Festival in September this year and the unexpectedly moving press conference that preceded it.
There’s obviously a lot of emotion surrounding the film. It was most noticeable during the press conference yesterday, with Patti Lomax being so moved as she talked about the stresses her late husband had to deal with. But it wasn’t just that. It was the passion with which everybody spoke about the project, Frank Cottrell Boyce in particular. I get the sense that it was his baby from the start?
Very much so on both counts. Frank, Andy Paterson and Anand Tucker had all made Hilary and Jackie together. They had formed a company, Archer Street Productions, and had worked a lot with each other. I went to film school with Anand and he’s one of my closest friends. They came across the book, but then discovered that Bill Curbishley, the manager of The Who, had bought the rights to it. So they approached him, asking what he was going to do with it, but he didn’t know and asked them about their plans.
This is 15 years ago.
That’s right. They all decided to do it together. Frank wrote a number of scripts that were more linear than what we ended up with. Huge World War 2 epics. I think the hardest film to get up is a $40 million movie and they always fell just a hair’s-breadth short financing-wise. I always knew about the project and thought of it as Anand’s. But it had gone round in circles for a while.
I wrote Burning Man and was originally gonna shoot it in Los Angeles because of the landscape and for a lot of other reasons, and I got Andy to come and produce it with me. But then the GFC happened and no-one wanted to make independent dramas anywhere other than in Australia, where Screen Australia and Screen Queensland were instrumental in getting the whole thing off the ground.
While Andy and I were working together on it, he and Frank were playing with the script for Railway Man, trying to make it fit a smaller budget, to make it more contained. At which point, they realised that making it in Australia on a smaller budget was the missing link. And that’s how they got it up. Anand had headed off to do other work (preparing Truckers for Disney, a huge animation film which still hasn’t been made, a couple of TV pilots, and The Inside Outside Man, which he’s now about to shoot) and couldn’t do it. They needed an Australian director to access Screen Australia, so Anand and Andy offered me the job and everything fitted into place.
Anand would have done it. I still think of him as much as anyone when I think about doing it. We’re very similar in our outlook as filmmakers and I know how much this meant to him. He knew Patti and Eric as well as I did…
So the collaboration from the point you become involved is with Frank Cottrell Boyce and the Lomaxes?
Yes. And with Andy and Bill Curbishley as the producers.
When you came on board, was it still linear?
No. They’d rewritten it to accommodate the two time frames running alongside each other, back and forward.
That must have been a very delicate juggle.
Tell me about it. And then it changed a dozen times in the script when I came on board. It kept evolving, as it does when a director takes over, just to make it work. You know, it’s one thing when you’ve got, say, a bank robbery and you know where you going in the plot. But to have this elusive thing called forgiveness and to create a process moving towards it is very difficult. It’s not enough to have Eric wake up and simply say, “I forgive the guy.” It’s not believable, let alone emotionally satisfying. It has to be this process, but, of course, the last thing you have in film is time. Everyone wants to make it shorter. So trying to establish a process moving towards forgiveness was what was really important. We worked a great deal on that and it influenced the script at every turn. And it helped a lot when Colin came on board and breathed fresh life into it.
The mechanics of it suggest that you really pared back the story between Patti and Eric. Their previous marriages and their children from them, for example, aren’t mentioned.
Yeah. They were never in it. The family stories were never in it. The irony of it all is that, in Eric’s book, Patti hardly gets mentioned, because he mostly wrote the book before they got together. And he wrote it mainly to record what had happened to him: this happened, then this happened, and so on… It’s very moving because it’s so matter-of-fact. Its power is in its simplicity.
So while they’re officially based on the book, the script and the film are really based on what we learned after we got to know Patti and Eric. The friendship that grew up there led them to tell us details of their story and to trust in us as filmmakers. A lot of what’s in the script actually came not from the book but from them directly, from our discussions with them and our other research.
An important part of what we did was having them accept what we were doing and understand that you can’t put every detail in. That all you can try to do is capture the essence of it. You only have two hours to tell the story.
How did they react to the scene about them meeting on the train? Presumably Eric saw the screenplay before he died.
Well, that’s how it happened.
Really. Because that’s a great meeting and so economical. It makes you feel for them later when other things are the focus.
That’s a great scene. Not only is it what actually happened, according to what Eric and Patti told us, but it works so well because you’re watching two movie stars falling in love on screen. It’s incredible, you know. We shot that in half a day. And, of course, all the exteriors are green screen. They were brilliant. It was all so frantic, yet they got the nuances exactly right. That’s why they’re movie stars. They come unbelievably prepared: they bring their characters with them when they arrive on set.
Over the 15 years, who were the other actors attached to the project?
I know that 10 years ago, Sean Connery was involved. Geoffrey Rush was also looking at it. As was Ian McKellen, for a long time. What I did when I came on board was suggest Colin, which made Eric fractionally younger. For all sorts of reasons, those actors were unable to do it, and when I raised Colin’s name, that opened the door to a whole group of other actresses. Patti was 17 years younger than Eric, so we could go for an actress in her 40s. At one point – I don’t know how serious it was – they were looking at Helen Mirren to play Patti. Which would have been incredible.
When I first heard Patti Lomax’s voice at the press conference, what I heard was a younger Vanessa Redgrave.
Yeah. But Nicole gets her accent almost perfectly.
At one point, I understand that Rachel Weisz was involved.
Yes, she was involved when I was there. We cast her to begin with, but then the Bourne film she was doing went over by 10 weeks, which spread right into our schedule. And then Colin said, “What about Nicole? I got to know her last year. I’ve always wanted to work with her.” And I’d always wanted to work with her too. So we all went, “What a great idea.” She loved what the film had to say and came aboard very quickly after that. I spoke to her once on the telephone, then met her in Sydney, and that was it.
What’s remarkable, given the history of you coming on to the project, is how neatly it fits with the concerns of much of your other work: about people’s miscommunications and inability, for one reason or another, to make contact. Is that one of the things that drew you to the project in the first place, or did it emerge while you were working on it?
There’s an element of that. The other thing, which is a big part of my work, is that it’s about intimacy. It’s something I always want to explore. When I first read the Railway Man script, everybody was talking about it as a World War 2 drama. But I saw it as a story about intimacy. That emotional landscape was essential for me.
I always pushed to have more and more of Patti in there, because that relationship was so crucial to the journey that Eric took. Everybody agreed and we all wanted that and worked very hard at developing it. Nicole’s performance is especially fantastic because hers is a very difficult role to play: she doesn’t really get anything of her own to do. It’s all about emotionally responding to this man who won’t talk to her and whom she has to go in search of. Nicole brings this real integrity to Patti, so succinctly and so touchingly, and it makes the film work. It introduces us to a really determined layer of her personality. And Colin’s performance is amazing too because he doesn’t get to say anything for a lot of the film. He doesn’t talk about things.
Making all of that dramatic was one of the great challenges of the film. But what we had, and you don’t know this until you do it, was the chemistry between them. It enabled us to catch a glimpse of this great love, of the hurdle they have to get over, and of the great melancholy existing in the background.
What I find most moving about the film are the two trajectories – the love story and the war story – both of which are based on people who struggle to communicate with each other. And you resolve both of them with embraces.
We tried to draw those parallels. And the thing that struck me most was that, yes, the obvious intimacy is between Eric and Patti, but there aren’t too many things more intimate than the relationship between the victim and the torturer. And particularly when it goes to the place that they went to: the torturer who tries to make amends…
And there’s a code of silence in operation in both of them… [Teplitzky saying “in both of them” at the same time.]
Exactly. It’s very hard to write plot for such things, and what you have to try to do is create a landscape in which to explore them.
I’ve looked at some of the early reviews and the main criticism I’ve come across is that the film doesn’t have a big enough ending. That’s not something I agree with, by the way, but I wonder if you were concerned about it being a bit low-key?
I was always very conscious of not working towards “the big film climax”, because it would have sort of undermined the truthfulness of it. And it would have diluted the fact that this is a process that needs to be gone through rather than having fireworks going off. You make judgements about things like this, right or wrong, and the film lives by them. I try very hard not to let those things influence my judgement. But I think you have to very careful not to overplay your hand.
You want it to be emotional at the end, but to have it melodramatically emotional or sentimental is not the way to go. And that wasn’t the film I wanted to make.
In the torture scenes, you seem to shoot Nagase as The Observer in a really ambivalent way. He’s not like the Jessica Chastain character at the start of Zero Dark Thirty (2012), but, in my reading of his expression, there seems to be a discomfort at what’s happening. Yet at the same time, when he’s playing the interrogator, he’s pretty full-on. Were you directing the actor that way?
To a certain degree. The film is designed to switch points of view and, of course, you go from one actor to another as they’re watching things happen around them. Nagase was a very enigmatic character in his own right. Here’s this guy who went back to Thailand and tended the war graves, became a Buddhist and built a temple. And he wrote a book about what happened called Crosses and Tigers. You think that he’s trying to make amends. But then you go to one of the museums there and outside there’s a statue of him, erected by him. Just as you think you’ve got a handle on him, you realise that you don’t quite know.
Yeah, perhaps it’s that cultural thing as well. It’s not about ego, but it sort of is as well. And I think it was important to Nagase to remind and prove to the world that he was trying to make amends. It was very important to him that he was forgiven and that he was seen to be forgiven. He had to remind people that he wasn’t the bad man that he could be portrayed as. Which is an ego-driven thing, but I also find it understandable. The film’s going to be screening at the Tokyo Film Festival next month and I’m really interested in seeing how a Japanese audience reacts to this and to the situation we’re dealing with. (3)
I think what Eric came to realise was that they were both victims and what the film says is that: that they were both victims and – I don’t want this to sound flippant – that they were both in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were both victims of their respective governments’ politics. They were both just kids, these guys, and forced to do terrible things. And Nagase was forced to be witness to terrible things. We put an ADR (4) line in there during the interrogation that has Eric saying, “You were an intelligent, educated man but you did nothing.” I see it totally from Eric’s point of view, but there’s part of me that understands how powerless Nagase was to do anything. The thing about Nagase is that he wasn’t in a position to be heroic. I think if he had been heroic in that situation, they would have shot him.
I understand that completely. It’s like the person who does nothing about the asylum seeker tragedy in Australia because you feel powerless…
… to change it.
I remember reading about, of all people, Ian Chappell sitting at home watching the TV coverage about the “children overboard” case and complaining about how disgusting it was. And his wife said that history was full of bad things happening because good men do nothing. And, from that moment on, he’s been a huge advocate for the rights of asylum seekers and for us showing some humanity towards them.
And I really hope when the film is released in Australia that it will raise questions about these things, particularly now that we have a conservative government which has, to a large extent, won two elections on the back of this issue and will continue to use this to maintain power. Not that the Labor government had anything to crow about. They should all hang their heads in shame.
To go back to the film: whose idea was the glasses?
Eric wore glasses and Colin wanted to make use of that as he was trying to establish his version of the character. We looked at all sorts of things to try to get it right: there were the glasses, there was the moustache he wears at the start, there was the fact that his eyes are blue.
Eric’s eyes were incredibly blue. Colin has brown eyes. Ironically, Jeremy Irvine (who plays the young Eric) has blue eyes, so one of them had to change. And since it’s easier to make blue eyes brown than the other way around – you need much thicker contacts to turn brown eyes blue – we decided to keep Colin’s eyes brown and change the colour of Jeremy’s.
And that was easier than doing it digitally?
Yeah. You can do that, but it’d be a frame-by-frame thing and that’d be more trouble. I was always very worried about that because, you know, the life is in the eyes.
We also looked at other things, like the Scottish accent to bring him into the character, to make the character his own. We got rid of a few things for various reasons, but the glasses remained very important. And when we decided to have them, I wanted to make them iconic. Glasses have this connotation about seeing and memory and I like them as a visual motif. And when Eric is in confronting situations – like when he steps out to be beaten and when he sits down to talk to Nagase – he’d take his glasses off. Eric wore the glasses all his life and he needed to protect them. And, amazingly, despite everything that happened to him throughout the war, his glasses survived.
That’s actually factual?
It’s factual. They were beaten up a bit, but they actually survived.
There’s a real tenderness in the way his colleagues put them in his pocket after he’s beaten by the Japanese.
Yeah. Everyone knew that his glasses had to be protected and they became a very rich thing for us to use.
Did the Lomaxes see the other films about them?
What did they make of them?
I don’t know what they made of the John Hurt one. I don’t think it was that successful artistically. You know what it’s like: we live in this film world and we see a lot of films and often we have quite strong opinions about them. But people who have no connection to the industry take things much more at face value. Last night’s response by the audience to the film tells me all I need to know about how it’s playing. I wanted to make a film that is emotionally connecting and that audience response was about an audience emotionally connecting to it. [Teplitzky pauses to show me footage he’d shot on his mobile phone of the enthusiastic audience response afterwards.]
And I think, for the Lomaxes, they looked at the John Hurt film and thought, “That depicts our lives.” And they took it at face value and enjoyed it at that level. The documentary, because it addressed real events more directly, was again another version of their experience.
And he was actually in that…
Yes, exactly. And what’s good about those things is that it’s part of the process of coming to understand that when you make a film, even if it’s a documentary, not everything can be in it. We never struggled with the Lomaxes about that because they understood implicitly that we couldn’t show all the detail of their lives. Patti said to me that the torture and what happens to Eric in the film is terrible, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg of what really happened to him. Emotional and psychological harm is something that happens over time.
The Japanese obviously thought they were going to win the war and, after Eric was found with the radio, because he never admitted anything, he never signed anything, they didn’t execute him. That’s one of the reasons they kept him alive. He went through a lot of pain and suffering, but he never signed the document. If he had, they would have shot him. It was very strange that they didn’t.
There’s a weird kind of integrity in that.
When people died in the camps, they allowed the prisoners to give them proper burials in proper cemeteries. And sometimes the Japanese would come to the ceremony. They had a greater respect for the dead than the living.
With Eric, when they found him guilty, they sentenced him to 10 years in prison. And since they thought they were going to win the war, they believed that, when it ended, Eric would serve his sentence in a Singapore jail. Which was a crushing blow for Eric.
And it was going to be in the Outram Road jail, a place that they all say made Changi look like a holiday camp. But the one thing that Changi had was a hospital where they were well looked-after. So whenever they were sick and had to go to hospital, they all tried to go there. Eric threw himself down some stairs and broke both his legs so that he could go to that hospital. Now that’s the act of a desperate man.
What it takes to survive! And even to the end of his life, metal staircases really freaked Eric out.
Frank Cottrell Boyce said yesterday that this isn’t really a film about the Second World War, that it’s a film about torture and the modern world. Do you share that view?
I do. The Second World War is, in a way, just the setting. This is a story that could be transported to any theatre of war. Ultimately it’s about the things that are done to people in situations like this. And not only is the film about Bush, it’s about the type of torture that is still going on. And the thing about torture is that it’s a ridiculous thing. If it’s about trying to get the truth, it completely contradicts itself. Everybody has a breaking point and is going to give you what you want to hear, so how can you ever judge that as the truth? It’s never about the truth; it’s about punishment, about vindictively inflicting pain and suffering on people to get what you want from it. And what that is is by no means clear. That is a very contemporary story to tell.
The film opens in Australia on the 26th December, in the UK on New Year’s Day and April 2014 in the US.
- The Telegraph, October 9, 2012.
- Nagase died at age 92 in June, 2011.
- I spoke to Teplitzky by phone shortly after he returned home to Sydney in November after the screening at the Tokyo Film Festival and he was surprised by the response the film received there. “Basically, the Japanese audience had no idea about the story,” he said. “There were about 700 people in the audience, I guess. Many said to me that they never knew about this part of their past. They’d never heard of the Thai-Burma railway, or the Death Railway. Some asked if it was the same place where The Bridge on the River Kwai was set? Some thanked me for highlighting a part of their past and their culture that they didn’t know about. In a very Japanese way, they were all very polite about it. And they wanted to know more. But all they really related to was the movie.”
- ADR: Additional Dialogue Recording