Trevor Hogg continues his Peter Weir retrospective with a look at his Academy Award-nominated twelfth feature…
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, 2003.
Directed by Peter Weir.
Starring Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, Billy Boyd, James D’Arcy, Edward Woodall, Chris Larkin and Max Pirkis.
An embattled British Naval Captain, Jack Aubrey, seeks revenge against an enemy French frigate during the Napoleonic Wars.
Half a decade after the release of The Truman Show, acclaimed filmmaker Peter Weir reemerged in 2003 inspired by the nautical adventure novels of author Patrick O’Brian. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World had the Australian collaborate with fellow countryman and acting juggernaut Russell Crowe. Constructed from several books in the Napoleonic Aubrey-Maturin series, the high-seas adventure featured Crowe as the vengeful British Naval Captain, Jack Aubrey, who commands the H.M.S. Surprise, and Paul Bettany as the introspective Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Stephen Maturin, who views the revengeful pursuit as being reckless.
There was one thing Peter Weir knew that he must do if he was going to capture the true spirit of the original novels. “My approach was very sparse,” he explained, “there was no subplot, no love story, and no scenes on land. A film set entirely at sea. This stemmed partly from my own predisposition to the books, I’d read them all, and loved them all, long before the film came about. It was also the result of studying films in this genre, in preparation for writing the screenplay…I was right in attempting to match the author’s authenticity, his attention to detail; I did the same thing with the film and I went to great lengths to get that detail right”.
The director was reluctant to use computer generated imagery until he saw what Peter Jackson had been able to accomplish with The Fellowship of the Ring. Weir then made a decision to divide the production of the film into three parts. First was the life-size and workable sea vessel placed on top of a hydraulic gimble situated in a large water tank which had been used for another ocean epic Titanic. Second was the construction of huge miniature versions of the ships (coined “bigiatures”) by Oscar winner Richard Taylor and his WETA workshop team. Third was the use of CGI artists to seamlessly blend the different elements together.
After witnessing the creative potential of computer generated special effects, the traditional storyteller became a convert to the technology. “During the process I found myself at a party,” began the Sydney native, “talking with a director of some renown, who shall remain nameless. He told me that he’d never used a CGI shot and I knew by the way he said it, he was proud of this. It was in some way as if using CGI was similar to an athlete using steroids or performance enhancing drugs. And I saw myself in him a couple of years back, and I tried to say to him ‘look, it’s just a tool, a marvellous tool’, but I could see that he was not convinced, but that’s how I feel. It’s just another set of wonderful tools, to be used sparingly, but they are there, and they are there to help tell a story, in this case a story that could not have been told without these particular tools”.
When he was down in Cape Horn good fortune visited Weir. “As luck had it,” the moviemaker recalled, “I saw the Endeavour, Captain Cook’s vessel, which was not dissimilar to the Surprise, though not a warship, and I took a number of trips with a cameraman, learning how the vessel worked. Then we heard that the Endeavour would be taking a trip around the Horn, so we got a cameraman on board, Paul Atkins, and that ship hit some heavy weather going around the Horn, as it’s liable to do, and Paul shot some 20,000 feet of film. This weather became the water of the movie. I loved the fact that in the storm scenes there was actual water from the Horn. Who cares? Maybe, but for me I loved that fact“.
To better prepare himself, Peter Weir did some preproduction research. “I read all the books about making movies at sea, particularly informative was the book on the making of John Huston’s Moby Dick and Jaws by Stephen Spielberg; you come only to one conclusion, which was don’t film at sea.” Weir heeded the advice. “I made a critical decision, despite having this ship, fully rigged, ready to go to sea, that I would only risk her for second unit shots, and some main unit shooting, but we would replicate it and put it in the tank in Baja, in Mexico.”
At the commencement of the project, Russell Crowe had misgivings about the script but his director reminded him that the tale would be constantly changing. “In the 60s and 70s in Australia there were very few good writers,” Peter Weir explained, “we didn’t know how to write for screen, and there were very few great actors who could deliver those lines, so constantly you were cutting lines out of the script and telling the story through the camera. And for me that continues, I’m always cutting lines and letting the faces and the camera tell the story”.
Situated in 1805, the movie opens with the sighting of a ghostly ship which turns out to be the very real Acheron. The French privateer vessel attacks and cripples the H.M.S. Surprise. Using the prevailing fog as a cover Aubrey leads his men to safety. A debate breaks out amongst the ship’s officers about whether their assailant is too out of their class to capture. Aubrey overrules the discussion and commands that the warship be refitted at sea rather than be returned to port. They are ambushed once again but are saved by a decoy which enables them to escape into the night. The accidental shooting of Maturin causes Aubrey to halt his obsessive mission of revenge. However, an unexpected sighting of the elusive Acheron during the doctor’s convalescence sets up a final confrontation which results in a British victory.
In regard to his attitudes toward producing a blockbuster, Weir stated: “I am not usually sent them. And if I am, I’m just not drawn to them. Sometimes you sweat it out,” This attitude has resulted in large time gaps between his theatrical endeavors, however, the filmmaker remains steadfast to his creative ideals. “I have to be patient to find that particular kind of project. Occasionally, I’ll write one myself if I can summon up the energy.”
Despite not generating enough box office success to warrant a sequel (though rumours of the contrary continue to persist), Master and Commander had a dominating presence at the Oscars with ten nominations which included Best Picture and Best Director. Not entirely shutout, the high seas adventure was awarded Best Cinematography and Best Sound Editing.
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Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.