Thirteen years ago I stumbled upon a book called The Railway Man by a man named Eric Lomax, a former prisoner of war. Lomax's book struck me pointedly, as it transcended what could have been a mere war story or autobiography. Its messages grabbed my attention with such vigor that, while I may not have had an exorbitant amount of time to spare, I was immediately convinced I had to find a way to make the book into a film. Lomax told a story of phenomenal historical significance, there's no doubt. Tens of thousands died building the Thai-Burma Railway during the second World War, and were subjected to some of the most dire, unimaginable conditions. Despite the depravity of the story, I have a feeling there are countless people -- especially the younger generation of both Americans and Japanese -- who have little to no knowledge that these atrocities even took place. Moreover, Eric's book illustrated just how despicably we human beings are capable of treating each other. Our ability to torture for the plain sake of torture is unique to us as a species; no other living beings inflict cruelty on their own race needlessly quite like we do. It's an unfortunate reality that has existed since the beginning of time. I contemplated, thinking both of the book and present-day tragedies such as that at Guantanamo Bay, under what circumstances is torturing our follow man acceptable? Was it possible that there are instances in which the torturer is no less innocent than he who is being tortured?
Eric's book demonstrates the idea that love is a force more powerful than hate. His wife Patti's support and partnership seemed, in my mind, essential to his ultimate survival. When you stop to consider it, people are oftentimes willing to give their lives for love. You will rarely, however, find someone willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in the name of hatred. Forgiveness, lastly, plays a crucial role in the story. I'm not sure that I'd realized this before reading the book, but forgiveness is the end game. Some may argue that this is the sublime virtue. That's an idea that dates back to the Bible, with Jesus Christ proclaiming under his own duress, "Forgive them, for they know not what they do." Eric addressed this when he discussed the idea that killing the Japanese who had tortured him, and so many others, would not solve anything. There are times when the only freedom we can find is in forgiveness. I found this so compelling and powerful.
When I phoned the publisher of Eric's novel about the status of its film rights, they told me that they were still available but that there were a number of interested parties. This convinced me to take my ambitions towards the project one step further, traveling up to Edinburgh to visit Eric and Patti at their home. Perhaps needless to say, I found him a profound and intensely spiritual man. More than being struck by Eric though, I was taken with his wife Patti. Her role in the novel is significant, no doubt, but experiencing their bond in the flesh greatly elevated my sense that she was almost singlehandedly the motivator towards his salvation. I can't say that I think he would have overcome the traumas of his time as a POW had it not been for her. The next day, I got a phone call from the publishing house saying that they wanted me to produce the film. And thus the journey began. Any producer reading this will nod their head in empathy when I say that I had not dreamt that it would take multiple three year options to complete this film.
From there ensued a string of serendipitous introductions. Nigel Sinclair at Exclusive Media introduced me to Andy Paterson who would become another producer, and then to Frank Cottrell Boyce, who would become our screenwriter. The film progressed through various incarnations, starting as a grandiose war story and ending up as a smaller but more emotionally-infused picture. It was as these rewrites wrapped that we approached Colin Firth about the film. It took no more than one reading for him to jump on board, quickly making this a passion project of his. Andy suggested the brilliant Jonathan Teplizky to direct, who he'd worked with on another film called BURNING MAN. I knew very little of Jonathan's work at that point, but knew that taking a gamble on a filmmaker can be worth the risk. I'd done it before with Franc Roddam when we made QUADROPHENIA -- needless to say that paid off.
Soon after, the rest of our insanely talented cast fell into place: Nicole Kidman was next, and would come to give what is, in my mind, one of the performances of her career. Her part is so unexpected for a movie star of her stature, and she rose to the challenge of embodying Patti to a superb extent. Then Stellan Skarsgaard and Jeremy Irvine joined us, two immensely talented actors who quite frankly blew me away with their abilities. There's no question that the delays in getting the film financed and under way were blessings in disguise, because it ended up being the very reason we landed on the cast that we did. Between the time that we first came up with the idea of adapting Eric's book and finally being ready to approach casting, Colin Firth had won an Oscar and become a huge star. How fortunate were we in that regard?
I've known Harvey Weinstein for the better part of forty years when he was a concert promoter in Buffalo. In 1979 The Who played a show in Cincinnati that made headlines in the saddest possible way -- eleven young people, mostly teenagers, were trampled to death during a rush to the seating. The next show on the tour was promoted by Harvey, and I'll never forget the poise and sensitivity with which he handled that difficult role. We've remained friends and collaborators ever since. When he screened the film and quickly took to it, I knew Eric's big screen adaptation was being assembled and distributed by the most impassioned individuals we could have asked for.
While I continued to make various movies, QUADROPHENIA, TOMMY, and MCVICAR, I often wish that I'd made more. The explanation for this, albeit a simple one, was always that music had to come first for practical and financial reasons. Fortunately, with age has come a relative freedom in how I use my time. When a story hits me between the eyes, as Eric's did, I want to help tell it. His was one I couldn't get out of my head, and I'm sure confronts any audience with enormous questions as it did me.
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