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My Year With Peter Weir and Lee Smith

– Watching the Masters work and helping a bit ( March 2010 ) –


One of the best years of my life was spent working on The Way Back. The project took me to four continents and I flew over 100,000km around the world. But the most rewarding experience was watching the two masters at work.


Lee Smith and I worked on three other projects prior this, so we were familiar with each other’s peculiar ways. We first set up in Sofia, Bulgaria at the Nu Boyana Film Studios with the help of Bulgarian assistant editor Lyubomir Grigorov. Rushes were processed and telecined at night, then sync and screened at lunchtime the next day.


After Bulgaria, we flew on a charted flight with the crew to Erfoud, Morocco ( on the border of Algeria ). Disaster stuck in the form of lamb Tagine, Lee went down for the count while our Moroccan assistant editor Yassine Benjamaa and I were fine. Two good things came out of this; I got to work on a promo for the Canne Film Festival with Peter Weir and we got a French chef flown in to cook our meals. Some people suggested I poisoned Lee, for the record…I did no such thing.


While on a visit to set one day, Peter Weir gave me the honor of calling Action on a shot. ( Peter is an exceedingly generous director when he knows you’re working hard, but god help you if you don’t deliver ). So there I was in the desert, calling action on main unit! ( I only went there to steal some food and have a look ). The Moroccan crew were wondering who the hell I was!


Lee flew off to spend the last week of shoot in London with our UK assistant editor Supriya Naidu-James. They viewed the last days of rushes and cleared the actors. A reduced crew went to Darjeeling India, while I flew off to Sydney with a nice stop over in Dubai.


Once again a cutting room setup in Sydney, this time in beautiful Palm Beach. Joining us is our Sydney assistant editor Michael Nguyen. The editorial setup was in the house next to Peters’, so Peter had about a 20 meter walk to work. The film was screened in Peter’s private theatre, directly off an Avid. Michael and I lived in a rented apartment 5 minutes down the road. Most days we had morning and afternoon teas in front of the fire. What a life!


The first temp mix was completed at Warner Brothers mixing theatre in L.A. This was followed by three audience test screenings, one in Sydney and two in L.A. Meanwhile VFX shots, graded DI footage and temp music cues flowed nonstop into the cutting room like an endless river.


After the final mix we bid farewell to Lee Smith as he left to edit Inception. There was a waiting period in which Peter utilized experimenting for a shorter length. I stepped up and sat in the editing seat. The experimentation resulted in a reduction of about 5 minutes throughout the film. Lee was in contact with us and monitored all changes from L.A.


One day Peter asked if I can edit a deleted scene back into the film and have it intercut with a scene it was never written for. So I got to work and Peter went out to lunch. Three hours later Peter returned and was excited by the progress. We sat together and worked for another hour and before we knew it, the whole scene worked. We were both delighted and Peter shook my hand. That was one of the best moments of my life.


The Way Back was released with positive critical reviews but low box office turnout. Having grown up in a communist country and a lover of history and Russian literature, I have a personal attachment to the story and love every frame of it.


Lee Smith has the great ability to stay calm and focused under extreme pressure. He draws on humour as a motivator for his team. His film credits are a reflection of his talents and character. Peter Weir is a six time Oscar nominated filmmaker. His dedication and devotion to his craft, plus his generosity and humbleness is an inspiration to all who’s lucky enough to have worked with him.