October 13, 2002
On the Seas Again, Guided by a Star
By RICK LYMAN
RUSSELL CROWE peeled off his British naval tunic, slipped a pack of
cigarettes into his pocket and pulled himself onto the thick rigging
running up the starboard side of the H.M.S. Surprise. "You want to go
up?" he asked.
The swaying web of horizontal ratlines and
vertical shrouds converged on a wooden platform wrapped around the central
mast, about 65 feet in the air. From down below, the platform looked the
size of a slice of bread.
"The trick is to put one leg on either
side of one of these thick vertical lines," Mr. Crowe said, swinging
out over the blue-green water of the eight-acre oceanside tank at Fox Baja
Studios, a half-hour drive south of the United States border on Baja
California's Pacific coast. The Surprise, actually a life-size replica of
a tall-masted frigate, was resting on an underwater gimbel capable of
making it rock, sway and dart across the tank. "Then you hold onto
that line and climb," he said.
With that, he scurried skyward, seeming
oblivious to the height, while a platoon of nervous producers and
publicists watched from below. "Oh, my heavens," one of them
gasped. Following, a few feet behind, was an older, heavier and much less
acrobatic newspaper reporter.
Mr. Crowe, 38, is playing Capt. Jack Aubrey
— Lucky Jack, to the Surprise crew — in "Master and Commander:
The Far Side of the World," an adaptation of Patrick O'Brian's widely
beloved 20-volume cycle of seafaring sagas set during the Napoleonic Wars.
The $120 million movie — which 20th Century Fox hopes to transform into
a multi-chapter "Master and Commander" franchise — draws its
central plot from the 10th book in the O'Brian cycle, "The Far Side
of the World," although some characters and incidents will be
borrowed from other installments, according to the producer Duncan
Henderson. ("Master and Commander" is the title of the first
novel in the series.) Mr. Crowe has expressed interest in continuing to
play Aubrey, if the first movie succeeds.
The film will become one of Fox's major
releases of 2003; whether in the summer or holiday season has not been
Hollywood is on a binge of epic moviemaking
at the moment. Baz Luhrmann is working up an "Alexander the Great"
with Leonardo DiCaprio. Brad Pitt and Eric Bana will play Achilles and
Hector in "Troy" for the director Wolfgang Petersen. And Vin
Diesel is preparing to play Hannibal in a movie about the Carthaginian
general who crossed the Alps on an elephant.
Indeed, "Master and Commander" is
not even alone in its attempt to resurrect the seafaring genre. Disney is
also in production on "Pirates of the Caribbean," a
family-oriented swashbuckler based on the Disney theme park attraction.
Once one of Hollywood's most durable genres
— back in the days when "Mutiny on the Bounty" was winning the
best picture Oscar and Errol Flynn was packing them in as "Captain
Blood" — the seafaring epic has fallen in recent decades, along
with the western and other pre-science-fiction action forms, into a kind
of Bermuda Triangle. Among the expensive shipwrecks were Roman Polanski's
"Pirates" with Walter Matthau in 1986 and Renny Harlin's "Cutthroat
Island" starring his wife at the time, Geena Davis, in 1995. When the
latter bombed, many predicted that the swashbuckler would never rise again.
"It's really very depressing to think about," said Peter
Weir, the director of "Master and Commander,"
as he contemplated the task of re-igniting audience interest in the genre.
This soft-spoken, sun-reddened Australian director of such films as
"Gallipoli" (1981) and "The Truman Show" (1998), added:
"So I try not to think about it."
DESPITE the recent failures, however, Mr.
Weir and his bankrollers at Fox are convinced that the time is right for
sea epics to be reborn and that a new "Master and Commander"
film series is the perfect vehicle for it. They point to the strong fan
base for O'Brian, who died in 2000, the depth of fascinating historical
detail in his stories and the recent advances in digital computer effects
that allow filmmakers to recreate vanished eras more easily.
Mr. Weir's left hand, protruding from a
rust-colored rain slicker, was covered with scribbles to remind him of
ideas for the day's shooting. It had been his inspiration to base the
first film in the series on the 10th book, which he felt had the cleanest,
simplest plot line.
The book is but one volume in what are
known as the "Aubrey-Maturin" novels — named for the captain
and his closest friend, the ship's doctor and secret agent Stephen Maturin
(played here by Paul Bettany, who was Mr. Crowe's Princeton roommate in
"A Beautiful Mind"). The novel follows Aubrey's chase of an
American warship around Cape Horn during the War of 1812. In Mr. Weir's
version, the date is shifted to 1806 and the enemy transformed into a
French super-frigate, the Acheron, in part because of nervousness about
whether post-Sept. 11 audiences would feel uncomfortable cheering for the
sinking of the Stars and Stripes. And the story begins not with Aubrey's
political wheeling and dealing in Gibraltar but at sea, where the Surprise
is attacked by the Acheron and barely escapes.
Thus, Aubrey's obsessive chase around a
typhoon-tossed Cape Horn and up to the Galapagos Islands becomes one of
payback, with the Acheron making several mysterious appearances along the
route that spook the superstitious crew.
Many of O'Brian's characters appear in the
story, including Killick, Aubrey's surly servant (David Threlfall) and the
coxswain Barret Bonden (Billy Boyd, who plays Pippin in the "Lord of
the Rings" series).
O'Brian fans, who are both legion and literate, have been especiallywatchful of this production, encouraged by
the presence of Mr. Weir and the casting of the Oscar-winning Mr. Crowe as
their beloved Aubrey, but also worried that Hollywood will tarnish and
simplify the series.
The project began about 10 years ago when
Tom Rothman, currently co-chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment, read one
of O'Brian's books during a rainy Connecticut vacation. He urged his boss
at the time, the producer Samuel Goldwyn Jr., to pursue the movie rights.
After the film spent several years in
unsuccessful development at Disney, Mr. Goldwyn reacquired the rights and
took them to Mr. Rothman, by then the head of production at Fox. And Mr.
Rothman approached Mr. Weir, who is a fan of the O'Brian series.
All of the earlier attempts at a script had
been adaptations of "Master and Commander," but it was Mr. Weir's
suggestion to start with the 10th book in the series. Mr. Crowe said he
was immediately keen to work with Mr. Weir, a fellow Australian. But he
was not acquainted with the O'Brian books, and not altogether taken with
the script he was sent.
"When I'd officially walked away from
it last December, what kept me up at night was thinking, what am I doing?"
Mr. Crowe said. "Do I really want to give up a chance to work with
Peter Weir, something I used to dream about doing?"
So he read the books and fell in love with
Aubrey (to the point where he says he's a little angry over the way O'Brian
transformed the character into something of a buffoon in the last few
installments). And he convinced Mr. Weir and his co-writer John Collee to
flesh out the script and add some scenes, particularly a couple showing
Aubrey's teacher-student relationship with the young midshipmen on the
"I wanted to show the responsibility
of having these kids on board," Mr. Crowe said.
The filmmakers said they were steeling
themselves for criticism from O'Brian purists. "My feeling is that as
long as you are true to the spirit of the book and the spirit of the
characters, then you'll be all right," Mr. Rothman said.
All of the actors went through a kind of
boot camp of basic 19th-century seamanship, except Mr. Bettany, whose
character is relatively unfamiliar with the sea. "It wasn't so much
that I was given a pass as that I sort of took one," he said. "That
boot camp looked like far too much hard work, so I backed off and learned
about cutting up fish and how to perform amputations."
Gordon Laco, a tall-ship specialist and O'Brian
enthusiast, leads the movie's three-man team of technical advisers. He
said he had been impressed with the production's commitment to historical
accuracy, within the confines of the moviemaking process. There have been
long discussions about details, he said; for example, which of the ship's
officers would have been permitted to use the captain's privy.
ANOTHER debate concerned the proper accent
for Aubrey. Historians were consulted and said that Mr. Crowe's own
Australian accent was as valid as any, but the actor rejected that idea,
fearing that audiences wouldn't accept it. Mr. Crowe said he had thought
about Aubrey's upbringing, as revealed in the books — he was the son of
a successful naval officer — and decided that Aubrey had probably had a
solid, upper-middle-class British accent.
Mr. Crowe said he was not overly concerned
about maintaining fidelity to O'Brian's canon. If something works better
on the screen, then so be it. "The way I figure it, Patrick O'Brian
is dead," Mr. Crowe said. "And anyway, we're making a movie here."
There was something of the captain in Mr. Crowe's
bearing, both on and off camera, during the long day of shooting
in Rosarito — a combination of absolute confidence and polite
correctness, whether he was making almost formal introductions of the
other cast members or positioning himself at the bottom of a tricky ladder
to help people onto a ferry barge.
"Be careful there," he'd say,
"the last step is a big one."
When he organized Sunday football games for
the cast and crew, one player was aghast when told that the real reason
was to build them up for the physical scenes at sea. "I told him,
`Hey mate, it's all about the work,' " Mr. Crowe said. "Everything
is about the work."
This was not the Russell Crowe of tabloid reports, scowling at reporters and engaging in beer-fueled fisticuffs
around the globe. The New York Post, whose gossip columns feature frequent
items about Mr. Crowe, said in March that the actor "doesn't give a
damn what anyone thinks of him." In August, The Daily News said that
he "prides himself in his hatred of the press."
And in the last year alone there have been
reports of a yelling and shoving match with the television producer of the
British film awards (for which he apologized), an altercation with a
photographer at a pre-Oscar party whom he mistook for a paparazzo, and an
alleged shoving match with the pop musician Moby. The British Daily Star
reported that a female karate champion saved him from a barroom brawl in
Rosarito this summer, while The Washington Post
had a woman stepping in to restrain him from tussling with one of the
other "Master and Commander" actors.
But Mr. Crowe said that while he is
certainly no saint, the rowdy rumors about him have taken on a life of
"You know, there are people out there
who call themselves journalists who don't do what real journalists
do," Mr. Crowe said. "I'm supposed to have done all these things
or been places, and it never happened. It's like there's another bloke out
there and he's doing all these crazy things.
"A guy in the crew came up to me
recently and said, `Hey, I read this story that you were in a fight in a
bar on Saturday night, but then I remembered that you were with me on
Saturday night.' I told him, `Hey mate, welcome to my life.' "
He gave the whole subject a dismissive wave.
"I don't mean to give the impression
that it bothers me or that I give it a whole lot of thought," Mr.
Still, he added, there is something similar
about him and the character he is playing, the master seaman whose shore
life is a tangle of debts and missteps.
"At sea, he is extremely able, but on
land, he is pretty much hopeless," Mr. Crowe said. "Just like
me, I guess."
Shooting began on June 17, the schedule
calling for 18 weeks in Mexico and one more in the Galapagos. The H.M.S.
Rose, a British frigate not unlike the fictional Surprise, was a floating
museum in Bridgeport, Conn., when the filmmakers bought it and had it
sailed through the Panama Canal to Baja. Meanwhile, the full-scale replica
of the Rose was built in the same oceanside tank where "Titanic"
was filmed in Rosarito.
The shots at sea were done off Baja, using
the Rose, while more intimate scenes were filmed in Rosarito. And it was
here, on a bright, cloudless afternoon, that Russell Crowe was occupying
his time between shots by climbing high in the rigging with a visiting
"Take your time," he said. "You've
got two hands and two feet connecting you to the ropes. Only move one at a
Unabashedly confident, Mr. Crowe brushed Aubrey's long, blonde locks from his face and said that he had little
patience for those who did not take the work as seriously as he did. And
he chafed when asked if he considered the state of film acting to be as
high today as it has been in the past.
"What about Daniel Day-Lewis, or Sean
Penn or Robert Downey Jr.?" he said. "They're doing work as good
as anyone has ever done. They just don't play the game."
Mr. Crowe does not seem to have much
affection for the game — the image burnishing and career shaping that
consume most major stars.
A happy smile spread across his face only
when he talked about the work, such as when he described his struggles to
learn the violin so that he could convincingly play the scenes of
late-night duets in the captain's cabin between Aubrey on violin and
Maturin on cello.
"I have gotten to the point where I
know that I can make a beautiful sound," he said, proudly. (Mr.
Bettany also studied the cello, but has no such warm feelings for it.
"It's a ghastly instrument," he said.
Casually, he reached his arms around the
edge of the wooden platform — to do this, one must traverse the final
six feet by climbing out and around the edge, hanging back out over empty
space at a 25-degree angle — and pulled himself on top. The reporter
stalled a few feet short.
"Don't worry, mate," he said.
"But just take a second. Look around. It's quite a wonderful view
from up here."