Director Jonathan Teplitzky talks The Railway Man

Close to 2,600 people awarded The Railway Man with an extended standing ovation at the film’s Gala Premiere screening at the Toronto International Film Festival this year. When director Jonathan Teplitzky invited ‘the real’ Patti Lomax on stage, who is portrayed in the film by Nicole Kidman, the ovation was triggered once more. This wholehearted response from the festival audience is the stuff of any filmmaker’s dreams, and for Teplitzky, it was an experience which he considered “once in a lifetime.”

“You make films for audiences to respond to and hopefully engage with, to be moved by, to become involved with,” Teplitzky tells IF. “When they palpably are, you feel like you’ve made a film that can reach an audience and the reasons that you set out to make the film are also resonating with 2,600 other people. It’s amazing.”

The Railway Man tells the story of Eric Lomax, a man who is struggling to deal with the horrors of his experiences as a prisoner of war working on the construction of the Thai/Burma railway during World War II, and his wife, Patti’s determination to do whatever she can to help rid Eric of his demons.

The power of the story had Teplitzky dedictaed to the project from early on, “I always felt it was such a great portrait of the very worst and the very best of human nature, in a sense what it is to be a human being,” he says.

Colin Firth, who plays Eric Lomax, showed enthusiasm for the film in its early stages as well. “It was a character that he almost could not not play,” Teplitzky says, emphasizing that the role required an actor capable of expressing much of the characters’ emotions through non-verbal expressions, given Lomax’s difficulty in talking about the traumas he went through. “I needed an actor who was going to be able to tell that story in the complexity of his internal landscape. Colin does that with such humility and such dignity but also with great emotional power and that is the foundation to the movie.”

Firth worked quite closely with the actor who plays a young Eric Lomax (Jeremy Irvine) in the prisoner of war camp sequences, in order to form the character into the perfect whole. “The work that Jeremy did was amazing in preparing for that role. [Irvine and Firth] take us on a journey that is both tense and dramatic and emotional, and all the things that you want from a good movie,” Teplitzky says.

It was also largely due to Firth that Kidman came on board to play Eric’s wife Patti Lomax. Friends with Kidman, Firth suggested the actress to Teplitzky and the director had nothing but praise for her performance. “As with Colin, she was able to open that character up in a way that didn’t need a lot of dialogue,” he said. “We ran very hard with the emotional climate of the film and she has that nuanced beauty that just lights up a screen. So much of the story could be told in her face and the way that she was responding to the things going on around her. The pain of realising that someone you love so much has gone through so much is a palpable part of her performance.”

The depth of emotions in The Railway Man was not only expressed by the actors’ performances, but also through the film’s visual aesthetic and its musical score. Teplitzky worked at endowing the contemporary scenes in the film with an icy feel and colder colour palette, juxtaposing these with the war scenes which were shot with a lot more warmth. This not only reflected the tropical climate of the Thai setting but also the naivety of the characters at that stage before the realisation of their situation had set in. “I always try and set up visual contrasts within the way that we structure and put the film together so that sometimes the most horrific things are shown sort of ironically in beautiful light, beautifully framed images and other times that are more peaceful, loving and warm are more spontaneous and thrown away images. I think those contrasts set up a visual dynamic that, in a way, subconsciously helps tell the story.”

Composer, David Hirschfelder, created a musical score for the film that was described by Allan Hunter of Screen Daily as, “warm and stirring” and by David Rooney from The Hollywood Reporter as, “robust and dramatic.” Of Hirschfelder, Teplitzky says, “I think he understands that it’s a very intimate film and a very emotional one. Good composers tap into the emotional landscape of a film and articulate the moments of irony and the moments of action; every moment of a film that can be re-interpreted and enhanced with a score. It makes the experience that much richer.”

With all these elements merging perfectly, Teplitzky set out to achieve his main goal for the film, which was to do justice to Eric Lomax’s story. “What was really important to me was that, not only was it authentic, but that it represented in a truthful way what Eric went through,” he said. “It was very important that the film contextualized Eric’s experiences so that it didn’t de-value, it didn’t dilute where it ends up. What I would say is that I think we struck a good balance between showing some of the violence, leaving a lot of it to the audience’s imagination, but also being tough enough to give value to the story as it’s being told.”

The Railway Man premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 6th and will be released in Australia on December 26th.