Australian veteran director takes on yet another challenging genre

Sticking to one cinematic genre is of little concern to Australian filmmaker Peter Weir, who has directed everything from police thrillers, social dramas, war dramas and comedies with equal ease. His filmography («Gallipoli,» «Witness,» «The Mosquito Coast,» «Dead Poets Society,» «Green Card,» «Fearless» and «The Truman Show,» among others), is ample proof of this flexibility. However, until recently, he had never undertaken a high-budget Hollywood film, nor had he filmed an epic adventure. For «Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,» currently playing in Greek cinemas, three major studios (Fox, Universal and Miramax) entrusted him with $135 million to shoot a maritime adventure with an all-male cast (led by Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany) that relates the adventures of a British frigate stalking a French warship during the Napoleonic Wars. At a meeting in Santa Monica, California, Weir spoke to Kathimerini about the film, which is already being hailed as one of the best this season. When did you become interested in this historical period? Was it at school, or later? I think the moment my interest peaked was when I bought a sword in a London antique shop in the 1980s. I asked them if they had an original captain’s sword from the late 18th century. Not a formal dress sword, but a battle sword. And they said: «Of course. We have exactly what you are looking for. It costs 600 pounds.» Unfortunately, I don’t have it anymore because it was stolen when my house was burgled. What fascinates you about this period? Everything was changing. The French Revolution had changed the world and the confusion continued in Napoleon’s war with Britain. The Enlightenment, science and natural history were all evolving. This was one of the last heroic eras. I still read about it and I always end up finding a book that has a new viewpoint. It is said that Russell Crowe did not want the role [of Captain Jack Aubrey] initially. How did you convince him? The truth is that you can’t convince Russell about anything. He was the obvious choice even before any contact was made. Nobody else has such strong characteristics of a hero, plus star quality. The studio could not have made this film with someone lesser known. He got into the spirit of the role immediately. As soon as we started shooting, he began behaving like a captain. He gave the actors, the ones playing the crew, different colored shirts according to their rank and name tags that they had to sew onto their shirts themselves. Was working with him difficult? Not at all. The problems in films and in working with actors appear when the casting is wrong. If the right actors get the right roles and they embrace them with enthusiasm, half the work is done. This is crucial. Russell was ideal for the role, and he knew it and knew he could play it. And he was completely dedicated. The best example I can give is about the violin he had to learn to play. He kept shouting that he wanted to break it in front of my face but every time I walked past his trailer, I would hear the violin screeching. «Master and Commander» is a very male-dominated movie. How do you expect women to react to it? I don’t think that women are so predictable. Do you think all they want are love stories? I don’t think so, and I’ve done many different types of films. Maybe the first reaction to the film is that it has nothing to do with women – this was one of the studios’ concerns – but personally, I don’t share that concern. A good story can be appreciated by men and women alike. Anyway, I would define a «male» movie a lot differently: a bunch of blokes causing mayhem. And this is not the case here. The film is based on the 20-novel series by Patrick O’Brian. Is a sequel likely? The studio naturally sees that as a possibility and that is why it has invested so much money in it; it believes this first film will be a success. As far as I’m concerned, whether I would direct another one… Well, I have never repeated myself. I have never done a sequel; it is foreign to my approach to cinema, so probably no. I would prefer something different. The scene with the crew fighting in the storm must have required a lot of special effects, but it looks very realistic. How was this achieved? As you probably already know, the film was shot in a huge water reservoir in Baja [Mexico], where «Titanic» was also shot. We shot the storm scene at the same point where the Titanic broke in two. Just image our ship supported by a huge lever that moved left and right, like the cameras, while we made the waves. We added the effects of the ocean, the wind, the sounds, a lot of things. It is a scene full of effects. It was very difficult, but also very exciting. Was there any tension, any differences over the content of the story? There was occasionally a bit of tension after a particularly difficult day of shooting, but no one ever disagreed on the material. We mustn’t forget that we were not dealing with original material but with an epic story based on 20 books, which I shared with everyone. They all had to know that we were doing service to the story in the books. My approach while filming had nothing to do with with my ego or the egos of the actors, but with the material itself, and how we could all approach its basic ideas. This approach lessened the potential for tension. I can’t work under stress. I need a happy atmosphere around me. Have you had to make a lot of compromises to make the films you have? Life is full of compromise and so are films. The compromises I accept, though, are technical. Compromising anything that has to so with your ideals is death. Death! They may tell you that they won’t pay for what you want. And you can always say you are leaving. I was very clear about what I wanted from the very start of my career.