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Director Series: Peter Weir

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By Bill Desowitz
It began with director Peter Weir buying a 19th century ship captain’s sword to get the feel of the period and an inkling of what he was getting himself into by embarking on Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, the most ambitious film of his career, which played through Fox (though a coproduction with Universal and Miramax). Set during the Napoleonic Wars and adapted from the novels by the late Patrick O’ Brian, it stars Russell Crowe as a British Navy captain who embarks on a high-stakes chase across two oceans to intercept and capture a superior French foe. As always, Weir’s mandate was period authenticity along with “invisible” CGI in steering this adventurous and literate sea epic.
Peter Weir: It’s as difficult as you might imagine to get a ship just sailing along looking right, and get the sky right.
Below the Line: There is a seamless combination of practical and CG elements…
Weir: It needed to be that way in order to be convincing, and not be distracting by looking wrong and stagey. I insisted on using real water in this, unlike The Perfect Storm, which used CG water. It took all their resources and knowledge to get the right result.
BTL: Production designer William Sandell, who worked on Storm, was the only new member of your team, not counting the CGI crew.
Weir: Bill essentially designed and built the ships. That is, the tank vessel and the sets associated with it and then did the alterations to the second-unit vessel, The Rose, to make it look like The Surprise. Then he had to leave the production, so all the auxiliary sets, the French ship, were done by his department. When he had to go I felt I could work effectively with the art directors, and that’s the way we did it. Duncan Henderson, the coproducer, introduced me to Bill and his team. They knew water and they knew the tank in Baja, and we had to get moving very quickly to get our start date.
BTL: What was it like working with your old pal, cinematographer Russell Boyd, after 20 years, since The Year of Living Dangerously? The two of you go back to Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave and Gallipoli.
Weir: I was flying over for a script meeting and we were on the same plane and got to chatting and it made me think that he’d be perfect for this. So I offered him the job and he was delighted to take it. We decided to do some camera tests on Sydney Harbor, using the Bounty. We wanted to find out as much as we could about shooting a tall ship.
BTL: Why Super 35?
Weir: Well, I think it gives you so much flexibility. The depth of field is better, and it seems to have more advantages than shooting anamorphic.
BTL: Did you do much digital grading?
Weir: No more than 20 percent. Very helpful during the storm sequence to get a very good match because it was shot in all kinds of lights and conditions. Then to match Galapagos Islands footage with what we shot in Baja. We were fortunate in getting good overcast conditions in Baja for the 100-day shoot. That was fortuitous because that was a neutral light.
BTL: Tell me about the work done by Michael John Meehan, the location manager.
Weir: Our hero after taking nine months to get permission to shoot on the Galapagos. Mike convinced them that our footprint was going to be light and that they could trust him. Myself and Russell and a small group of others did a survey in preproduction to back up Mike’s. They said we couldn’t get off the beaten path of the tourist trails. I said it was very difficult because you’d look across 100 yards from the tourist trail at the most beautiful camera platform of some kind and they’d say no. So I adjusted the scope of what I wanted to do. We have some CGI in the Galapagos shots.
BTL: Costume designer Wendy Stites’ contribution must have been enormous, making 3000 costumes and 2000 hats, among other things.
Weir: Well, as with all the departments, authenticity and detail were the clarion call. For Wendy it began at Greenwich Museum studying paintings and books, and trying to get costumes that are in the museum exactly right. For example, in the officers’ uniforms, in most movies done from this era, most of them put shoulder pads in, whereas in the real officers’ jackets there were sloping shoulders with a very particular kind of cut—and to get the gild right on the shoulder epaulettes so they don’t look too bright and too shiny as the modern materials. So it was a matter of tracking down the original stuff that still exists and getting them made.
BTL: And your editor, Lee Smith.
Weir: I think there were more cuts in this picture than in any other I’ve done. The structure of the picture basically worked from very early on. But the difficulty was that while any particular reel or any particular scene worked well, as a whole the picture was in danger of becoming too anecdotal. You felt the steam going out of it. You might be enjoying it but you got the feeling of, where are we going? So it was constantly taking things out or putting them back in shortened form or moving them around a bit. Lee did a great job. As they say in the Navy, “My compliments to you, sir.”

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