Learning to forgive someone who intentionally caused you both emotional and physical pain and torture can be a difficult, traumatizing experience for anyone, even the most courageous and dauntless soldiers. But once people realize their oppressors truly do harbor remorse for their actions, and were forced to commit their heinous crimes to protect and save their own lives, can make the forgiving process somewhat easier. That’s certainly the case with the lead character, former World War II English soldier, Eric Lomax, and his Japanese tormentors, including translator Takashi Nagase, in the new biographical drama, ‘The Railway Man.’
The film is now playing in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles, and is set to expand across America in the coming weeks. ‘The Railway Man,’ which was directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, is based on Lomax’s bestselling autobiography of the same name. The drama sets out to show that once people muster the courage to confront their demons, they can truly move on with their lives, and let go of their anger.
‘The Railway Man’ follows the true story of Eric Lomax (Colin Firth), an English World War II veteran who’s still mentally broken by his experiences, 35 years after the ending of the war. While he’s enthusiastic about riding and knowing the history of the local train system, he otherwise lives a lonely, isolated life. He tries to come to cope with the lingering terror and memories of the time he spent in a Japanese POW camp.
Eric’s mild-mannered, placid personality suddenly changes when he meets Patti (Nicole Kidman) on a train across the British countryside. The two instantly become friends, and get married not very long after their first meeting. While the couple happily starts their married life together, it isn’t long until his overwhelming memories begin haunting him. Desperate to help save her new husband, Patti reaches out to Eric’s friend, Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård), who fought with him in the war. Finlay finally agrees to give Patti’ the background about the time they spent in the war.
Patti learns from Finlay that during the war, her husband (Jeremy Irvine played the young Eric) was part of a contingent of British soldiers who were forced by the Japanese to build the Thailand-Burma Railway. Eric and his fellow soldiers, including Finlay (Sam Reid portrayed the young Finlay), did their best to withstand their grueling conditions. When the radio Eric and his fellow soldiers built was discovered by the Japanese, Nagase (Tanroh Ishida played the young Nagase), Eric accepted the responsibility, in order to save his fellow soldiers from harsh punishment. When Patti finally understands the details of the torture her husband endured, she helped Eric confront his past, so they start building their future.
Teplitzky, along with co-writer and producer Andy Paterson, producer Chris Brown and Patti, generously took the time recently to sit down during a roundtable interview at New York City’s Crosby Hotel to talk about filming ‘The Railway Man.’ Among other things, the filmmakers and Eric’s widow discussed how they wanted to follow the veteran’s story as much as possible, in order to honor his life and experiences, but wanted to do more than tell a literal translation of the book, in order to fully engage viewers; how it was a challenge to determine how much of the torture to feature in the drama, as they didn’t want to emphasize its gratuitous nature, and instead focus on Eric’s forgiveness of Nagase; and how the story really struck with both Firth and Kidman when they read the script, which led them both to immediately become interested in taking on the roles of Eric and Patti.
Question (Q): How challenging was it to create an entertaining story that would hold viewers’ attention, while also staying historically accurate?
Jonathan Teplitzky (JT): I think that’s two-fold, in a way. The first thing is to follow the story as much as possible, because we wanted to honor what the story is. These people have been through so much, so we wanted them to be happy with the way we represented them. So we stuck with the literal translation of the story, which unfolded over a couple years.
But it also has to be a movie that engages audiences, but also tells a story in 100 minutes. So you’re always trying to balance those two things.
The most important thing is to capture the essence and emotional truthfulness of what you’re doing. I think that’s the problem with a lot of bio-pics-they tend to be event-driven, showing this happened, followed by this happening. You don’t engage the characters in the way you should.
Before I became involved, the film was an adaptation of Eric’s book, but then it started to develop. Since it took time, the relationships between the filmmakers and Eric and Patti became strong. So they were able to communicate in great detail what Eric and Patti were feeling. We took some of those things and dramatized them for the sake of the film, because they allowed us bigger access to what the bigger picture was really about, and what we, and Eric and Patti, wanted to represent.
Andy Paterson (AP): Patti has watched the film four times. She said to me afterwards, there are things in the story you couldn’t have possibly known about characters and their behavior. We spent so many years trying to get to know them that we were able to recognize things they weren’t able to understand themselves.
JT: With all my films, and this one particularly, since it’s about people who have gone through so much, it was important to get under their skin. We had to understand what they were feeling.
AP: There was no point in making the film, unless we did something in the movie that the book couldn’t do, since it featured such extraordinary writing.
Q: How did you determine how much of the torture sequences you would film and feature in the movie, since Eric was still alive when you were shooting the movie?
JT: That was one of the great creative challenges. I think one of the greatest things for me was that he reconciled with, and forgave, his torturer. I don’t know of any story in the Holocaust where that’s happened, where a Jewish person forgave a German soldier.
One of the great things about this story was that this destroyed Eric when it happened to him. But over a period of time, he was able to reclaim his humanity and ability to love and lead some kind of normal life. But the key was doing justice to what he actually ended up doing, which was to forgive. That’s one of the fundamental things that defines us as human beings. I don’t think it was ever about the gratuitous nature of it, or giving the film a dramatic edge. It was about showing the forgiveness, and what he achieved by forgiving Nagase. It was always about determining how severe we would show the violence and torture, to show the audience that to really forgive this guy was an extraordinary thing.
The key was that Eric had only ever told the truth. He realized very early on that the truth was going to save him. He wasn’t guilty of the things the Japanese said he was, like being a spy for the Chinese. He rigidly stuck to the truth, because if he ever signed the piece of paper the Japanese required, it would have been a death sentence, even though it would have stopped the torture. So not only was there this incredible physical survival, there was this mental survival. I always felt that to come back and forgive after that, there had to be some justice. I think the emotional impact is tied up in what he went through.
Q: Nagase also wrote a book on his own experiences during and after the war (called ‘Crosses and Tigers’). Did you rely on his book for information while you were filming? How did his perception compare and contrast to the English insight into what happened?
JT: We were very focused on telling Eric’s story, since he was the victim and forgiver. I think the power of forgiveness is about the forgiver, and not necessarily about the forgivee. It’s about someone getting to a place in their life that they can forgive. Telling that story in one tiny film is complex enough.
Having some connection with Japanese audiences who have seen the movie, the most abiding thing is their complete lack of knowledge about this. There’s a lack of knowledge amongst Japan’s younger generation about the country’s past, particularly the black parts of history.
Nagase has a line in the film in which he says, “I tried to make amends.” There’s no doubt he went through a grieving and healing process. He became a Buddhist and built a temple. I think there was a genuineness and sincerity, and Eric felt that about his attempts to make amends.
AP: There was also a balance of not letting him off the hook. In his writings and our conversations with him, he wasn’t trying to pretend these things didn’t happen. He explained that being raised in that time, there was a code, and dishonor to your family if you didn’t do what you were expected to do. There were pressures for an ordinary soldier to be a part of that.
Eric said he focused so much of his hatred on Nagase because unlike the thugs who beat him, he was an educated, intelligent man. He couldn’t’ forgive that man, because he was clearly someone who should have aware of what he was a part of doing.
JT: Nagase was no way innocent, but he struggled for many years with his own humanity. I may be speculating on this, but I think Eric found a connection with him on a humane level. That gave them access to each other to find reconciliation.
It was difficult for Nagase to go against that regime and culture. If he surrendered, he would have been dealt with very severely, as well. But how much is that an excuse of being part of something that was destructive and inhumane, which was brought upon Eric. We hope this resonates with audiences today, because this is still happening.
Q: Patti, you were able to see on screen some things you weren’t able to see in real life, by just talking to Eric. How was it to see the scenes that you envisioned while speaking to him?
Patti Lomax (PL): Well, I knew a lot about what happened, simply because when he was receiving counseling, he was expertly drawn out to tell his story, which he had never spoken about before. So I had heard his story, because the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture in London, which helped Eric, liked the families to be present during the counseling sessions. So I’d sit quietly in the corner and listen. So I knew the extent of what had happened, so it wasn’t a huge surprise.
But what we know, and what we see with our eyes, are two different things. I knew he suffered far worse than what we’re shown in the film. So in that sense, it wasn’t too much of a shock.
Q: The film is very powerful, and what helps it is the performances. Did you have in mind who you wanted to play the parts when you first started the project?
AP: I started working on the film 14 years ago, and the script was a literal translation of the book. We eventually realized that wasn’t achieving anything we wanted to achieve, so there was no point in doing that. It was much later on, when Jonathan came aboard, that the script started working.
We started looking at older actors. But then Jonathan said, “How about Colin Firth? He’d be perfect.” So I sent it to Colin and he said yes, and it was that easy.
JT: Nicole was actually suggested by Colin, but they had never worked together. Colin had gotten to know Nicole on the Oscar circuit (in 2010).
But as fellow Australians, Nicole and I had met socially. She had liked my first film, ‘Better Than Sex.’ So we said the thing you always say, “We should work together.” But the first thing she said to me when she signed on to this film was, “How much of my clothes am I going to have to take off?” (laughs) But she had also seen one of my other movies, ‘Burning Man,’ which is a slightly left-of-field version of the first film.
When Nicole read the script for this film, it left the same effect on her as it did on Colin. It’s one of those roles that really spoke to her. Nicole has eloquently spoken about the personal connection she had in playing Patti, and the difficult places she had to go in her own life. This role had spoken to her on a number of levels. So she came aboard very quickly, as well.
What was great about having these two was that this always seemed to be an incredibly intimate story. It was ultimately about two relationships-one between Eric and Patti, and one between Eric and Nagase. The fundamental emotions that define us as human beings are present amongst the dealings of these people. That, to me, is a very cinematic place to be. Having these two actors, who understand the emotional landscape of the characters in the film, was fantastic. I told them, the story’s about a man who has to deal with his old life, before he can get on with his new one. That clarified in my mind what we were trying to do.
I though Patti’s involvement in the story was essential, because it is an emotional film. For Eric to have gone on that journey, as miraculous and incredible as it is, a big part of it was Patti’s role. My role as a director is to tell a coherent story, but also honor what was there.
Q: What was the process like of translating Patti’s side of the story from the book to the film?
AP: Patti’s involvement wasn’t heavily incorporated into the book, because I think Eric wasn’t yet able to talk about it. I pushed Patti quite hard to tell me more of her story. It was like our own therapy session. (laughs)
What she was effectively telling me was that her suffering, on any level, couldn’t be equated to what these men went through. I could completely understand that, but the families of soldiers deal with the effects for decades, and that struggle is never-ending. It took a long time for Patti to feel comfortable to share that part of the story.
Nicole responded to the fact that when things become quite difficult in their relationships, people either leave or fight. Had Patti not had fought that battle, Eric may not have recovered. When Patti first met this man, she had no idea the extent of the damage he suffered. When she did discover it, she chose to fight. When you have a man who doesn’t know what’s wrong with him, you have a dramatic set-up for the film.
Chris Brown (CB): That’s part of the reason why it took so long to write the script, because the script was almost like life itself. During the different stages, it was always reborn as something else.
JT: One of the profound images that stuck with me, and I think it came up during the discussions between Colin and Eric was that when they were liberated, many of them suffered from diseases and malnutrition and all sorts of physical affliction. But they were hospitalized and cared for, and that human care raised them incredibly quickly. After a period of rehabilitation, good food and love and care, during six weeks on a board going back to England in the sunshine, helped.
But while the body heals quickly, the mind only slowly begins to process what was going on, and in Eric’s case, it went on for decades. They arrived home to a country that was celebrating its own survival during the war. They also had the expectation of going back to their lives as they were before the war, which is impossible to live up to.
I think we underestimate what it means to be sent off somewhere as a young kid, and see the death and destruction that went on. To even see one person die is a traumatic experience. But to experience and survive what Eric went through, and survive that, is an extraordinary thing to survive. No one knew what PTSD was at the time.
Q: Can you discuss the process of casting and working with two actors who played both Eric and Nagase in the film, both during the war and decades later?
JT: We were blessed to have someone like Colin play the older Eric. The incredible thing about Colin’s performance in this movie is the fact that he didn’t get to play the trauma that led to Eric’s psychological and traumatic responses later in life. So that was a darkness he had to conjure in his own mind. That’s a huge thing to carry around. He also had to question if he was doing the part justice, and all the doubts he had.
With Jeremy, other than the fact he and Colin have a similar likeness, the work they did together had a powerful effect on the finished film. We had the radical time shifts over 30 years, but you still believe you’re following this one character.
CB: With the Nagase character, we wanted someone who was respected in the Japanese market. We, and especially Jonathan, wanted the film to have a major residence in Japan. So that character was incredibly important to cast correctly. Hiroyuki Sanada, who played the older Nagase, was fantastic.
Q: Patti, did you really met Eric on a train, and was it love at first sight?
PL: I did meet him on a train, but I can’t say it was love at first sight. It was more friendship at first sight, and the love came in later.
If I can also say something about Nagase, I also think he suffered from post-traumatic stress. He was a brave man, which was shown when he explained to us if he tried to stop the torture, it not only would have meant death for him, but also his entire family. He did understand he was caught in a cultural bind, which helped Eric become closer with him. He was afraid he’d wake up one day, and his family would be dead.
I think communication and understanding between enemies and friends is so important. Once they were able to exchange their thoughts, then their relationship was able to grow. Eric and I both thought he was extremely brave, and shouldn’t be underestimated. My one sorrow is that more of the good Nagase did after the war wasn’t shown in the film.