THE CALL OF THE SEA
By Martyn Palmer
Photos: Stephen Vaughan
Saturday, October 18, 2003
Russell Crowe returns to larger-than-life heroics as Patrick O' Brian's swashbuckling tales are launched on the big screen.
On set report: Martyn Palmer
As HMS Surprise executes a slow, elegant turn back towards the Mexican coastline, the Union flag billowing in the breeze, a spontaneous cheer rises in the throats of the crew. the script says it's 1805 and, for a few moments at least, that's easy to believe.
A few hundreds yards away Surprise's Captain "Lucky" Jack Aubrey, hero of Patrick O' Brian's enormously popular 20-volume series of seafaring novels, enjoys his first beer of the evening on the deck of a luxury yacht, speeding back to land and the 21st century after a day's filming. A decent-sized flotilla of support craft, including rescue tugs (just in case), loaded with camera equipment and technicians, follows in our wake. Russell Crowe, the actor charged with bringing Aubrey to life on the big screen, is still in costume - long boots, tight fawn breeches and a white linen shirt; his blue dress coat, handmade in London and complete with gold vullion braid at $5,000 a throw, is draped over the back of his chair - a 19th-century Royal navy officer planked amid high-tech gadgetry, canapes and a fridge stocked with beer and water.
As the sun sets on the Pacific, the Suprise is bathed in pale, lemony light. Crowe, his co-star Paul Bettany, who plays Aubrey's best friend, ships surgeon Stephen Maturin, and various other costumed members of cast watch with director Peter Weir in reverential silence as she fades into the dusk. "She looks beautiful, eh" says a reflective Crowe. And indeed she does. This has been the final day of filming on the ship - although there are still weeks of shooting to come in the giant tank" - a vast man-made lake (in which Titanic was filmed) at the Fox Studios Baja, a few miles along the coast. There, a full scale replica of the Surprise and the gun-deck of her French prey, the Acheron, have been built on huge gimbals, so they can move them as if at sea. But Crowe, Bettany, Weir and co are already getting nostalgic about the real Surprise.
"I can honestly say I haven't seen that many people throw up since I went to a Cure concert in the Eighties" Bettany says of a marathon 20-hour session out in the ocean. Crowe, his long hair pulled back into a ponytail and dyed blond (another of Aubrey's nicknames is "Goldilocks") didn't succumb to seasickness.
"On that first day I think there were about half a dozen of us who weren't sick," he recalls. "But it was worth it to able to go out on the ship. You can read the books, do your research and rehearse your lines, but when you step on the deck in full uniform it gives you a certain something extra."
Some of the crew, dressed in period baggy pants and hemp shirts, are real sailors (including some women, their gender disguised with fake sideburns and stubble) who are genuinely steering the ship while the filmmakers go about their business. Others are there simply because they have the right look - "faces of another century" says casting assistant Judith Bouley, who interviewed, 7,000 people for 55 hands on this multimillion-dollar deck.
"We have eleven men from Poland because they have such fantastic faces" says Bouley, who has worked with Weir on several movies. "Peter really loved their faces. Five of them had never been on a plane before. We have people from all over the world. I actually found my peg-leg in Toronto, Dave Kelsey, he plays the cook"
Working at sea and achieving historical accuracy presented Weir with extraordinary challenges during the filming of Master and Commander: The far side of the World. That both the historical and geographical locations should look convincing is absolutely crucial to how this eagerly awaited blockbuster will be received, especially by the many die hard fans of Patrick O' Brian's Aubrey - Maturin novels. For months, the internet has been crackling with speculation about the film, the story, the cast, whether or not one of the favourite, more minor, characters is in or out. There has been endless conjecture on how O'Brian himself, who died in 2000 would have reacted to his work being adapted for the bid screen by Weir, the director of Gallipoli, Picnic at Hanging Rock and the Truman show, with a $135 million budget and a line up of talent including Crowe, Bettany and a strong British supporting cast.
Weir, 58, is a fan of the books and, at first, simply didn't believe that they could be adequately captured on film. When he was originally asked to direct the first novel, Master and Commander, he turned it down. "I thought it was an interesting idea, but then I re-read the book and I said no. I thought with the first book that O'Brian had crammed everything into it -- there were pirates and spying, a lot of swash and buckle, but held you, I think, were the characters, they made you want to read the next one. I thought it couldn't help but come out slightly comedic and tongue-in-cheek. It's like trying to do a serious vampire film - very difficult"
Years later, in 2000, Tom Rothman, now joint boss of Fox Filmed Entertainment, approached Weir, determined to convince him that the time was now right to bring O'Brians work to the cinema. "We met to talk through some ideas," recalls Weir. "I told him I didn't want to do it. I was worried that it could come across as some sort of parody."
(Director Peter Weir on the set. One of the films many battle scenes.)
Rothman, however, is obviously a very persuasive man, and he agreed to let Weir, along with British screenwriter John Collee, forge a plot that doesn't strictly adhere to the first novel, Master and Commander, but takes a large chunk from the tenth, The Far Side Of The World, and from others. This creative freedom, together with the rapid advances in computer generated imaging that have revolutionised much of Hollywood's output, finally made Weir feel that he just might do justice "to the spirit of the books."
"Tom was very encouraging, very enthusiastic about the material," says Weir. "So I read O'Brain again and a script began to evolve. But I left a lot of O' Brian's plot out of it, I don't think he is about plot in the end, I think he's about detail and characters."
Indeed, for the director, it's all about the love of the characters - Captain Aubrey, man of action, a natural seaman and brave as a lion, and his unlikely friend, Maturin, philosopher, lover of nature, a bit of a landlubber, who is well versed in the political machinations of the day and a spy to boot. They have one thing in common, a shared love of music. They play Boccherini sonatas in the captain's cabin, Aubrey on the violin and Maturin on the cello. To state the obvious, this is not typical Hollywood fare.
"With the characters, you have two vastly diverse men," says Weir, "the Maturin character, who is part of the Enlightenment, and I love this sort of Samurai-like Jack whose trade is about to close down. So really, what a pair of characters, what a wonderful pair."
Crowe, 39, has long held Weir in great esteem. "And I loved the image that Peter put in my head when we talked about this man, a sailor with callouses on his hands, who has grown up in the Navy and knows every part of his ship - if the sails aren't going up fast enough he will jump down and grab the rope and see what is causing the problem. And those same calloused, thickened hands then pick up this delicate, feminine instrument, the violin, and he will play from his heart the things he can never say. I couldn't walk away from the description of the character. And the fact that Peter was directing it. So yeah, I was seduced."
Like any movie, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a gamble. "It's like an art-house movie with a big budget," observes Crowe. There's no love story, and rather than offering the viewer a dastardly, easy-to-hate bad-guy, the "villain" is an enemy french ship at the height of the Napoleonic Wars. As the Acheron's ability to seemingly disappear and reappear at will, as well as its superior fire power, begins to play on the minds of the superstitious British crew, it becomes clear that the movie is, as much as anything, an exploration of friendship and what life was like on board the confined space of a British frigate, 179 ft tip to toe and 28 ft across, sailing on the high seas for months at a time, often venturing where few men had been before.
"It's an obvious comparison, but they were like the astronauts of their day," says Crowe. "Setting out on these epic, dangerous voyages and living in this confined space for months at a time. You are basically riding a piece of wood against the force of the ocean. Sometimes it's working for you but you are always at its mercy."
Another gamble is whether the public is ready to re-embrace the seafaring genre, once such a Hollywood staple. But with 3 million copies of the novels sold in Britain and 6 million in America, there should, of course, be a ready-made audience.
Weir, however, rather provocatively suggests that fans of the books might be better off not going to see the film. "I think if you love the novel, it's very rare that you love the film version," he says with admirable frankness. "It can happen. I gather for a lot of people it did with Lord of the Rings. But I think it's pretty rare. The thing is, someone else's imagination is never as creative as your own."
Weir hasn't "meddled" with O' Brian's characters. "They are so good and I love them and I think that would really be desecrating the work. But he chose his plots from naval history and I don't see any reason why I shouldn't combine a couple of incidents and make it more suitable to a film structure."
By the time he died, aged 85 and three chapters into his 21st Aubrey novel, O' Brian had received worldwide acclaim and amassed a fortune on the back of Lucky Jack and his shipmates. O' Brian's books skillfully evoked an entire world, or rather several interlocking worlds: admirals and assassins, marines and mandarins, sailors and the women who wait, patiently or otherwise, for the arrival of their husbands - or simply for a letter written months earlier on the far side of the world.
"I enjoy them," Crowe declares. "I have a really good response to them and I like the adventures and I like being inside where these two guys go. And I really like the two characters. But I also think O' Brian himself was a very complicated man and obviously, as the Americans would say, had some issues. For a start, he 's not Irish, he was born in England. So the whole Patrick O' Brian persona was completely false. I think it's great that we have such rich source material to draw from but I shy away from labeling him a genius. I think he was a very competent journeyman writer who lucked on to a subject matter that suited his personality."
O' Brian's books are packed with naval jargon - one of the reasons, say the true fans, they are so addictive - along with layers of period detail. Weir was insistent that the film should be similarly painstaking in its approach. Gordon Laco, who runs a naval history museum in his native Canada, spent virtually the entire five and a half months of shooting at Weir's shoulder, ready to answer any questions that the director threw at him.
Laco has worked on numerous television and film projects and, he says happily, Weir is as picky as they come. "What Peter is doing here is continually saying, 'I want this right, I want this right.'" Indeed, Weir is hoping that the film will have a documentary feel to it - a big cinematic experience, for sure, but one that conveys an accurate impression of life on board a 28-gun frigate, crammed with humanity and animals: chicken, goats, cats.
"It's never less than difficult, but at the same time the curious thing is it's very rewarding," says Weir. "It sounds absurd, I know, but it's a re-creation, and we have gone to such trouble with the details and the cast and the extras. It's an insane undertaking. If you were aware of everything that could go wrong before you started you probably wouldn't do it, because it's such a monumental task. Even when you are on the boat in the tank and it's 20 ft from the shore those 20 feet mean one gang plank has to get 100 or more people on board and off again whenever they need a cup of tea or a toilet. It just takes a lot of time."
Crowe clearly relished the physical challenge of the role, climbing the mast without a safety harness for a shot taken from a helicopter circling above the ship, instead of letting a stunt double take the risk. "Rule number one is hold on," the actor recalls. "It's as simple as that, and get about your business. And I 'll tell you it's a wonderful view up there."
And he's taken his role of captain to heart. Each Sunday, the only guaranteed day off from filming, the locals were treated to the baffling spectacle, in soccer-mad Mexico, of Crowe and 20 or so cast and crew members playing rough rugby on scrubland near the manmade lake, kitted out with national colours - all Blacks, Aussies, England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales - supplied by the leading man. "It builds the spirit of camaraderie," says Crowe. "And it breaks down barriers. If you 're playing some bloke at rugby you tend to get to know him pretty well over a beer or two after the game."
Also to help foster team spirit, Weir ordered an alcohol-free "bar" to be built at the Baja studios, so that the cast could have a meeting place in-between takes, instead of hanging around, alone, in their dressing rooms. And many of the cast, away from family and friends for a long period of time, shared accommodation and explored the surrounding Mexican countryside on their days off. David Threlfall, who plays Killick, Aubrey's uppity servant, sports an impressive thatch of facial hair for the role. He recalls, "The first time I went to a restaurant I couldn't work out why everyone was starring at me and then a friend said, 'You've forgotten what you look like - you look like a roadie from Motohead!'"
At the end of each week, most of the cast, Crowe included, would gather at a local watering hole to celebrate and unwind. Robert Pugh, who plays sailing master Mr. Allen, says, "You think with Russell, 'Oh, he 's a big star,' which he is, and 'Is he going to be awkward?' But, no, we all get on absolutely fine. You get the feeling he is one of the lads, and we've all put away a few beers. I mean, what they should have done is hire a dialysis machine! But after a week of very long days, sometimes 18 hours a day, you do need a blast at the end of it. And Russ is up for all that. We've all been away for a long, long time but there 's a great spirit."
For Crowe, in particular, the role must have been physically exhausting. There was an especially grueling sequence, when the Surprise is trying to round the treacherous waters of Cape Horn, which took 11 days to film on the deck of the fake Surprise, amid specially re-created storm conditions.
"We had these six huge fans, the largest you can get, and we had four dump tanks, which carry about 1,200 gallons each, and they pull a lever and all the water comes out at once," says Crowe. "But that wasn't furious enough for Peter, so he said, 'What can we do? How can we step it up?' And they brought in these two jet engines, with the fans and the water hoses on top of them blowing in your face and the dump tanks, and you are shouting into the wilderness, soaking wet, because you really cannot hear any dialogue with the deafening noise. So you have to have rehearsed it pretty well. And you could say that was pretty challenging. And wet."
Crowe has been here before, of course. During Ridley Scott's Gladiator, he tore muscles, ripped tendons; physical wear and tear is part of the job, he says. "I think Ron (Howard) put it best in an e-mail he sent me. He said, 'I kind of get from your e-mails that it's the same old mixture of joy and torture'. And that's what it is. But as long as you know that the tortuous aspect is worth it then that's OK. You have to be patient because it's a complicated medium.
"I don't think any single movie that I 've ever done has been happy 'la, la, la' all the way through. I don't think that happens. Maybe it does if you are outside of it, if you are not concerned enough to bother spending that time, then fine and dandy, and you can probably live in that bubble. But I am hands on, I'm at the coalface, I wanted the smell of it in my nostrils, and I wanted to know what it feels like to stand on top of the mast 137 ft above the sea in a rolling ocean, because my character would have known that."
For Weir, Crowe and the rest of his crew, it's been an epic journey of film-making. "It's been unlike anything else I 've ever done," says the director. "And I just hope that we've captured something of the power of O' Brian. And if we have, that's enough really."
(Thanks to the chedge and friend)
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