The Railway Man is based on the autobiography of Eric Lomax, a soldier who was captured by the Japanese during WWII, tortured and forced to work as a slave on the notorious Thai/Burma ‘Death Railway’. Eric died shortly after filming wrapped. Here, we talk to Aussie director Jonathan Teplitzky about the film, working with A-listers ,and honouring Eric’s legacy.

This is your biggest film to date – what does The Railway Man mean to you?

It means a lot to me just [because of] the story that it tells. It was a great experience to work with Patti [Eric’s wife] and Eric Lomax. For them to trust us to take their story and turn it into a movie was amazing. If the movie was fiction you’d just say it’s unbelievable, and I think that’s the challenge of making and honouring this story. That’s what made it so exciting to do.

Australia is churning out some top directors such as yourself, Baz Luhrman and Peter Weir – do you think people are starting to pay more attention to the Australian film industry?

I think that we’re a very small industry and the thing about it is that we go through periods where we make three or four really good movies and then another year we make maybe one or two. I think we punch above our weight generally and, if you think about America, they make hundreds of features a year and how many of them are truly great?

Were there any difficulties in adapting it from a book to film?

There always are. The problem is often about condensing because you can’t tell a 40-year life story in that amount of time. You have to decide the story you’re telling and then use the bits that are relevant. In many ways, the film started out as an adaptation of Eric’s book, but because it took so many years to develop and we got to know Eric and Patti very well, we got to know what they were feeling emotionally and psychologically. So ideas and directions for scenes came out of that relationship.

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A lot of war films glorify war, but you’ve really shown how awful it is and the after-effects. How difficult is it to capture that sort of raw emotion?

You have to trust the story. It’s about facilitating that and trying to pinpoint what the drama is and hopefully the emotion will come from that part of the storytelling. In a sense it’s not just one thing, it’s an accumulative effect where you put together all of these elements, which hopefully add up to something greater than the sum of its parts – that is, a great emotional impact for the audience. I never wanted it to be sentimental; I wanted it to be truthful.

This is the first time you have worked with Hollywood A-listers. Does it make the filming process easier?

They’re great actors and the whole celebrity thing is somewhat removed from it because you go to work day in day out with these people and you work together. Working with that quality of actors makes the film come alive and that is a very invigorating experience.

Was it easy to get them involved in the project?

When I first became involved in the project we sent the script to Colin [Firth] because I thought that there was no one better to play that central role of Eric. When he read it he came on board very quickly. He felt it was a character that he simply couldn’t not play. Once he was involved with us the next stage is always so much easier because Nicole [Kidman] came on board soon after, because she wants to work with great actors and so does he, so it’s a very symbiotic process.

And what made you want to get involved in the film?

You read the script and think ‘this is an unbelievable story’, which is what we’re all looking for as directors. But more than that, it is about the very best and worst of human nature. It reveals what we’re all capable of: hatred and revenge and so on. That’s a well-documented theme in a lot of movies, but what I liked about this was that it took it to a further level. It is about reconciliation, forgiveness and coming to terms with, and letting go of, these brutal experiences and being able to find peace in your life.

The Railway Man is out in cinemas now.