I had the pleasure of interviewing writer/producer Andy Paterson and Patti Lomax, in support of their film, The Railway Man. This great film tells the true story of a man’s lifelong struggle with revenge, forgiveness, and remembrance in a time of war. Honestly, the story is so epic and heart-wrenching, it’s hard to believe it took this long to make it into a movie.
Based on a best-selling autobiography of the same name, The Railway Man focuses on the life of Patti’s husband, Eric Lomax during his time in WWII. Eric (played as a young man by Jeremy Irvine and as an adult by Colin Firth) was working as a radio technician for the British army in Singapore when the Japanese attacked and conquered the area. More than 80,000 British soldiers (including Indian and Australian troops) surrendered and were taken as POWs, making it the largest surrender of British-led military personnel in history. Eric’s group of soldiers was transported to Thailand and forced to build the Burma Railway, a grueling task that took the lives of many men (some 12,399 POWs) leading it to be nicknamed the Death Railway.
To boost morale, Eric and a few of his fellow soldiers built a one way radio that allowed them to hear the status of the war, yet they couldn’t transmit anything back. When the radio was discovered, however, the Japanese severely tortured Eric, something that affected him the rest of his life. It was only after meeting Patti (Nicole Kidman) in his 60s that Eric was able to make sense of his experiences and get help. However, things change when Eric finds out one of his former torturers is still alive and allegedly benefiting from his past misdeeds. Eric takes it upon himself to confront this man once and for all, but will this confrontation be for revenge or forgiveness?
Unfortunately, Eric Lomax passed away in 2012. Although he was able to see some scenes being filmed, he never saw the finished product. As fellow Cloture Club writer John Hanlon and I spoke to Patti and Andy, I knew he would have been really happy with the final product. Check out the interview below, where we discuss Patti’s life with Eric, the torture scenes in the film, and of course, how it felt for Patti to have Oscar-winning actress Nicole Kidman play her in a movie. Also, make sure you go see The Railway Man, opening in theaters this Friday (April 18)!
Lauren: Is this your first time in DC?
Patti: No, I came with Eric in 1995 when his book first came out. Norton published it and they sent us on a little tour around, so Washington was one of the places. It was cherry blossom time again and it was quite something.
Lauren: Oh wow! So have you been able to see them this time? How long have you guys been here?
Patti: Not very long but we were lucky, yesterday was a rest day and I was riding in a car to take me around to places I hadn’t been with Eric. It was lovely.
John: Patti, can you talk about the first time you learned about your husband’s torture? I know you met on the train and then you got married. And then it was on the train when he had the first nightmares?
Patti: Oh yes. The film has got a great deal of truth in it, which is amazing considering it is a drama based on a book. You might know that some dramas have no relation whatsoever to the subject but this is quite remarkable in its truth. I actually found out about Eric’s story when he eventually agreed to go and receive counseling from a wonderful charity in London called The Medical Foundation For The Care Of Victims Of Torture, which was really set up to help people from Iraq and other countries in modern times. However, they liked to have the family present during counseling sessions and with great skill, over a period of about two years, the psychiatrist who was looking after Eric drew out the story and that was how I found out about it. So we’d been about seven years together beforehand and I knew absolutely nothing because these people don’t talk about these things.
Lauren: And did you know about the railway? The history…
Patti: Not a lot. I’d been a wartime child. I knew people who had been out there had a bad time, but exactly how bad a time, I wasn’t really aware. But Eric had told me he had been caught and made prisoner from Singapore and I did know about the fall of Singapore because it was one of the biggest defeats Britain ever had. It was really general terms. I had never met anybody who had actually experienced all of the troubles that all of the men experienced.
Lauren: How did you [Andy] find out The Railway Man story? Did you read the book?
Andy: Yeah, we were given the book and it was such a stunning story, not an obvious film to begin with because it’s a very complicated story. You’ve got the very basic screenwriting problem, that people are already going to know the ending. There was no way we could keep that a secret, particularly as the book was already out there. So, it was a complicated story to think about how to turn into a film. Fortunately, Eric and Patti were incredibly generous in welcoming us into their lives. It took many, many years, but we finally found a way. Partly, it was about bringing Patti’s story into it because she’s not mentioned very much in the book. Partly, because a lot of the book was written in 1945, and then a manuscript pulled out of a desk many years later. Partly, because I think it was really hard for those men to engage with their emotions and certainly to write about them. So after many years, we sort of convinced Patti that she represents the millions of families who deal with the wreckage of war so it’s much more than just her story, however extraordinary that is. Certainly she was reluctant to accept that her story could mean anything compared to what those men went through on the railway, which we completely understood, but it is those families that for decades have to put up with men and women coming back from war that simply can’t deal with what they’ve been through. We’re not, as a species, very good at witnessing horrors and then just coming back to ordinary life and being able to join the two together.
John: How did you balance telling an honest story with the more graphic aspects of the story because you don’t want to focus too much on what Eric went through but you want to be honest about his experiences?
Andy: Yeah, it was a debate that we had from start to finish as to how much we had to show to do justice to what these men went through and to give the audience the sense of what they’d been through without making it unwatchable. If you count the minutes of violence in the movie, it’s tiny but I think because it’s real you can absolutely relate to these incredible young men. These were kids. I have a 21-year old daughter. And it was 21 and 22 year olds this happened to and I find that unimaginable. We’re used to being tough in our 30’s and 40’s but to contemplate these sort of things happened to children. It had to be shown but we had to keep it down to the barest minimum so that it was something you could watch. It’s interesting because when we show the movie to people– when we do tests of it– and you ask people about the violence, they say it was awful, it was unwatchable, and don’t you dare change a frame. Without it, the movie doesn’t do justice to what people went through so I haven’t counted it but it’s a matter of minutes.
Lauren: [Patti] how much input did you have in the movie? It must be really cool to know that Nicole Kidman played you.
Patti: Oh yes!
Lauren: Did you have a lot of input on how she played the character?
Patti: No, I wouldn’t dream of telling Nicole how to play a role. [everyone laughs] She’s a consummate professional, isn’t she? I knew she had done a great deal of research into Patti (the person). My children, who I think are probably better to judge than I am, because I’m a bit close to watch she’s done, were very skeptical to begin with because of her coloring and she’s from another country, etc… but they’ve been very impressed as to how well she’s caught their mom. I would say that’s a big endorsement. But yes it’s fabulous, isn’t it?
John: Did Eric ever tell you how he was able to forgive these people who did these horrendous things?
Patti: Not really. I think if you don’t mind, I’ll turn that question to Andy because you did experience an answer, didn’t you, when you asked him?
Andy: Well we had to… the major task in deciding if this could be a film was to find a way of representing that journey. To begin with, when we asked Eric how he made that journey from revenge to forgiveness, he said I don’t know but somehow that pain just went away and that’s not an easy thing to write to be frank. You kinda go, ‘Get us out of here!’ But partly because we worked with a lady called Helen Bamba who runs the vets foundation, she’s devoted her life to people who suffered in many different ways. It gets a bit technical in a way because she had to explain to us what torture does to a human being and obviously the pain. All that you take in some ways as read. She simply said, ‘Andy, it removes your humanity. Every thing that makes you a human being, which is not just about pain. It’s about dignity and about justice. What you become on that torture table… if a woman you want to love you had seen what you became, you know that she’ll never love you because you became less than human. Everything that could be taken from you and so, that’s not an easy thing to discuss. You certainly don’t just walk up to Eric and say this is what happened to you.Now we’ve got to figure it out because he’s incredibly generous but there’s a phrase that Patti has used that if you push too far, the shutters would come down and you would realize that a) it’s none of your business and b) he can’t go there.
But he was a man who liked facts and details and to not understand something himself was, I think, quite painful for him. He knows the pain just went away is not a satisfactory answer to what happened. So, what we tried to do in the film, having gotten to the point where he had been challenged to go and meet this man, was to try and dramatize the stages that he went through. He arrives absolutely determined to kill him. We had no doubt in our minds his intention, an extraordinary thing for Patti to go through. He arrived wanting to do that and you find immediately that it’s not easy to discover this man is an ordinary human being who you discover has devoted much of his life to make atonement for what he’d done. There he is in our world, at this museum. You walk back into this strange and this macabre history of what you went through and you were a part of. Hopefully what we put on the screen was a man wanting to hurt this man, finding this man has reasons that he shouldn’t and really not wanting to hear that… almost closing his ears to it because he knows what he’s come for.
We put him in a position where he realizes he has power over this man. He could kill this man if he wanted to and just that reinstatement of control and power goes a very, very long way in taking away some of that hurt. Then to discover that the man respects you. These men, above all, had been put in a situation in Singapore where they had surrendered, but actually they were sent to a completely lost cause. They’d actually been told that they had been surrendered and been surrendered to a race that had been conditioned to see surrender as the greatest disgrace. So, you start building up all of these injustices.. You’re sent off to a hopeless situation. You fight and then you’re told to stop. Then you’re treated like animals because you surrendered, which you didn’t. Then you’re treated in that [terrible] way and you try to bring some hope to these men by doing something brave by building this radio to bring news… to give people a reason to stay alive out there. And for your troubles, you’re interrogated and tortured. Your life is a wreck.
To get to the point where somebody can actually say to you, “You never surrendered,” is to restore such… these men had never been, in any way, appreciated. When they came home, it was months and months and months after the war in Europe ended. So, they had lived for all this time with a sort of sense that they should be ashamed of being part of this military disaster in Singapore and that that was somebody else’s problem. You just pile on these layers of injustice and silence and so to find yourself in a situation where you’re understood and someone can finally say to you, “You never surrendered…” you’ve unpicked some of the damage. That’s a very difficult thing to do, but that’s certainly what we tried to do in the third act of the film. I think Eric said to us at one point to the effect of ‘This is what it felt like,’ which is what we needed to be able to do to make sense of it at all because the book is a masterpiece. There would be no point going beyond that unless you can do something that tries to understand that central question of how could it be possible. Sorry, it has to be a long answer because there’s no way to simplify what… a fancier way of telling the story.
Lauren: That’s okay! We like long answers! I know whenever someone wrongs a friend or family member, though I know “wrong” is a weak word to use in terms of what happened to your husband, I almost take it more to heart than they do. That said, did you find it harder for you to forgive than Eric? Have you been able to forgive the people [that hurt Eric]?
Patti: Oh yes, in both respects. It was very much harder I think because it seems such a waste of time. Eric was quite a brilliant man in many respects, and yet he was so damaged. He was held back by it all those years and so I did feel very, very angry. But, there was a point where I had to realize that Eric, who was the one who was really involved, could genuinely forgive Mr. Nagase, then who was I not to also? Once I’d come to that conclusion, it was much easier and yes, we did all become friends. He had a wife also and I think she had quite a time with her husband.
John: So you heard about Mr. Nagase’s story through the book he wrote? Is that correct?
Patti: Yes. Just quickly… Eric was given a cutting from the English language Japan Times newspaper, which did a review of this book.
John: So Eric didn’t know it was coming at all?
Patti: No, not at all. And in the cutting, they’d included a picture of Mr. Nagase as he had been during the war as a soldier. Eric recognized him immediately. Very soon after that, another friend sent him an English language copy of the book, it’s quite small, called Crosses and Tigers. In the book, is a description of Eric’s tortures and the effect that the author thought it had had on him personally. Also, further along, he describes how he had been at one of the war graves, British cemeteries, in Thailand and had a strange experience where he felt he’d been surrounded by golden lights and he felt like he was forgiven. Well…Eric read the book and the shutters came down. He didn’t make any remark about it whatsoever and a few days later, when I had read it, I asked him if I might write to this terrible man and let him know that the subject of some of his writing was very much alive and kicking and had not yet forgiven him. So, I never did anything without Eric’s permission because it was his life I was interfering with, but he allowed me to make contact with Mr. Nagase. It led to about a series of about five or six letters backwards and forwards in which Mr. Nagase expressed deep regret. Eventually, Eric felt that he would take over the correspondence himself. It took about two years before Eric decided that yes, he would go and meet this man and as we got to know, it wasn’t for friendly reasons…
John: What was your expectation when you wrote that first letter?
Patti: I didn’t expect him to write back. I just wanted to kiss his [butt] as far as I could kick it. [everyone laughs] I had very bad feelings myself, but when he did write back, he wrote back very quickly and the terminology he used was so beautiful, you really had to take him seriously.
Lauren: Did you guys have a difficult time finding Japanese actors that wanted to be extras?
Andy: It was quite extraordinary. When the casting directors were initially sending it out, they said that the result was a lot of these guys kind of went, ‘Oh my God, not another Japanese POW camp.’ Then, as soon as the name of the film was mentioned, they said, “That’s an entirely different question. We would be honored.” The story obviously found that level of awareness in Japan, that they knew this was a very different and very special thing. They became our huge friends and advisers in making sure we got those sides of things right. They took it so seriously, even the guys that were playing the worst thugs and officers on that side. We had endless conversations and rewrites to get the tone of things correct. Hiroyuki, obviously, who plays older Nagase, is a wonderful, wonderful man. I worked very closely with him to get those words right and young Tanroh, who plays young Nagase. Yeah, we were expecting that there may be some resistance but the book simply had already done our work for us.