Edinburgh - Eric Lomax’s home town - provided the perfect base for the Scottish shoot. The Bo’Ness and Kinneil private railway, run by enthusiasts and volunteers, had working trains and stations; Perth station had beautiful period platforms, some of which are no longer used by the network, making them easier for filming and North Berwick provided a wonderful house on a beach. Even more crucial for the filmmakers - and Patti Lomax - it meant they were in reach of Berwick-upon-Tweed, where the story is really set. For Nicole Kidman a special moment had arrived. She had chosen not to meet the real Patti thus far. “I didn’t want to meet her until I’d started. I’d read a lot, and seen interviews where she told a lot of her story and was very open, but I just felt nervous to meet her. So it was actually the perfect way because we were shooting in her town and we drove to their house and sat in the living room; Patti, Eric, Colin and I and we talked and there were tears and laughter and a connection and it felt very pure and then I got to walk through her garden with her and we both love flowers and we talked about roses and flowers and bonded over that and it was just for me a very gentle way to meet this person I was trying to portray.” Thailand was where the cast began to understand a little more of what Eric and tens of thousands of others had experienced. The actual Death Railway line still operates, largely for tourists, from Bangkok as far as Kanchanaburi and forty miles beyond. Jeremy Irvine discovered what happened after that.
“When we reached Thailand our military advisor, Rod Beattie, took Sam Reid (Young Finlay) and I up into the mountains, to a section of the railway which had been reclaimed by the jungle. We helped him clear a section of it and you’re working there in 40 degree heat and 98% humidity with just hand tools as the POWs would have done and we did maybe an hour and a half and I was wrecked. You’re dripping sweat from the moment you get out of the van and we weren’t even lugging all our kit with us. To imagine doing that for 16 hours a day on such meagre food rations and very little water, that was a very big moment, really brought it home.” “And visiting the real Hellfire Pass you get a sense that these places are haunted by the thousands and thousands of young boys, three years younger than me, who were doing this work. It was an intense experience”.
Firth agrees. “Something immense happened there and it can’t fail to leave a mark, whether it’s the power of your imagination or not. It was something beyond the comprehension of most people. You stand in a huge cutting in the rock, it’s towering above you, and you’re told this was carved by men with hand tools in the space of six week and this is how many men died just here, it’s shattering actually. I saw several documentaries, one with an Aussie who said “I don’t believe in the supernatural but those boys walk here.” Kidman had been warned by Patti Lomax: “She said - be careful when you get to Hellfire Pass. It has a power. There’s just something there, you can feel the darkness and it stays with you. Patti said the moment she absorbed it, when she first visited, she wept, not just for Eric but for all the boys there, and Eric comforted her.
That scene was shot on Eric Lomax’s 93rd birthday. A very special greeting from Firth, Kidman and the entire crew was sent from Hellfire Pass to Berwick-upon-Tweed. It’s one of Jonathan Teplitzky’s happiest memories of the shoot: “getting everyone to sing Happy Birthday to Eric in Hintok Pass was pretty profound, that we could record it on an iPhone and email it to him so he could watch it a few hours later when he woke up....”. The technological advances weren’t lost on Eric, a former Signals Engineer.
After the freezing weather in Scotland and the intense tropical heat of the Thai jungle, the filmmakers moved on to the Gold Coast in Queensland, where the prisoner of war camp and the studio sets were being built. For production designer Steven Jones-Evans, the greatest challenge had been the sheer physical separation of the locations. “We prepped in Queensland, then had to go off and prep and shoot Scotland and Thailand. By the time we got back to Australia we’d been away for three months.” Producer Chris Brown said “Over the five years that Andy Paterson and I worked on the project, authenticity and the book were our touchstones, so the look of the picture was crucial. “Steven did a fantastic job. The prisoner of war camp was the most extraordinary construction, based on original plans, perfectly authentic down to the last stick.”
Teplitzky was confident. “You feel as if you can go into any battle if you have the team you trust and we were lucky enough to have the whole team from our previous film, Burning Man. You share an aesthetic, you know they all understand what we’re trying to achieve and they have great taste in people.”
The weather added the final touches to the design; tropical storms moved in over the camp. Again, Teplitzky loved it: “The rain helped the film. Filming waist deep in mud was tough but it felt right. The rainy season in 1943 was the worst time of all for the POWs. It raised our adventure to new heights and demanded a lot of everyone but no one was going to complain. We were all humbled by the tiny inkling it gave us of what the real people must have gone through.”