The storm scenes in the film are truly dramatic, where the sea becomes almost another character in the plot; and, while there is a huge amount of technical wizardry going on there, there is also footage of actual storms from the Horn: “As luck had it, I saw the Endeavour, Captain Cook's vessel, which was not dissimilar to the Surprise, though not a war ship, and I took a number of trips with a camera man, learning how the vessel worked. Then we heard that t
he Endeavour would be taking a trip around the Horn, so we got a camera man 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“.
The film is Russell Crowe's first since the 2001 production A Beautiful Mind, and while keen to work with fellow Australian Weir ( he turned down a film with Lasse Hallstrom, to work with Weir), the rumour mill around Hollywood suggested that Crowe was far from happy with the script, with its sparse nature. In an interview, as part of the standard extras with the DVD release, he mentions two scripts. Weir however is quick to dismiss this: “Russell makes more of this than was the case. He hadn't read any of the books, and I had interpreted the style of the books in the screenplay and it's not conventional, so the screenplay when he first read it was very spare and documentary like and didn't have much to do with his character, but the script is always changing, and I tried to warn him that it would be very different” .
While Crowe may have had concerns with the script to start, for Weir it was second nature. “In the 60s and 70s in Australia there were very few good writers, we didn't know how to write for screen, and 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”.
As it turns out, Crowe and Weir worked perfectly together to create the film. When asked about how he deals with actors, how he prepares them for scenes, Weir takes a similarly sparse approach. “I choose actors with whom I can communicate, but not through words. That communication is important, but it’s not something we discuss as such. Through signs and gestures. I try to create an atmosphere on set that guides the actors, that is realistic and allows them to be what the part requires. It's like in an orchestra with the conductor and the soloist, it's all down to gestures, minute signs”.
While it's been noted that Weir's rapport with his actors is crucial, and has resulted in some startling performances from actors on the cusp of a change (Robin Williams in Dead Poet's Society, Jim Carey in The Truman Show), for Master and Commander the director had to build another type of rapport, that of one with the technicians, to create the phenomenal scenes that dominate much of the movie. “Working with the CGI artists was fascinating. I thought they'd know the solutions to most of our problems. As it turned out they didn't. Their experience is in the terms of the last 10 or 5 years. Many of them are technicians, and don't have experience dealing with reality or nature. They've created artificial worlds, fantasy worlds, sometimes very successfully, but if you try and do a sky, a sky in the middle of the day, it's very difficult. The temptation is to make it too beautiful, too perfect. So I tried to work with the artists to bring the reality through.It's terribly difficult to make something look real and natural when you're drawing from different sources and compositing. The secret at the end of the day was time. In Hollywood, to my surprise, it seems that a lot of directors don't spend time with the mat artists. There's some sort of tradition developed, where the director gives his ideas at a meeting, they're taken away and worked on, and brought back to the director in the form of a screening, the director comments, and generally it's not working, and you have to go back and start again. It seemed logical to me to go there, to go and sit with the artist, and to treat them in the same way that you treat the crew on the main shoot. You know their names, you share a coffee, you talk about things. You form a rapport, and together explore how to make the shot work”.
And finally, he sums up his feelings about the film, and perhaps his film making in general. “The way I wanted to make this movie was impossible prior to this era. I think back to John Huston, and how he would have loved for Moby Dick which had so many good ideas, but was let down by the great sequences with the whale and so on. It would have been so wonderful if he could have drawn on this technology. You need great faces, a great story, and then tools.”