At 59, Weir's latest exercise in navigating uncharted waters is the sweeping high-seas epic Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, based on one of a 20-volume set of British naval adventures penned by the late Patrick O'Brian. The new film (his first in five years) stars fellow Aussie Russell Crowe as Jack Aubrey, the captain of the HMS Surprise, whose dutiful crew is embroiled in a cat-and-mouse battle with an elusive French vessel (and the ever-threatening natural elements) during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s.
Creative Loafing: You rose to prominence in the late '70s as part of an Australian "New Wave," which also included Bruce Beresford, Fred Schepisi and others who are now primarily working in Hollywood. What's the current state of Australian cinema?
Peter Weir: What I hear is that it's not a very good period. I suppose the last great creative explosion we had was Baz Luhrmann. It's hard to maintain a thriving film industry in most countries. There are really only two, Hollywood and Bollywood. Sometimes I think maybe highly talented people are like truffles. They seemingly occur at random. But I also think these things are cyclical.
So the Australian renaissance of the late '70s and early '80s happened merely by accident?
I don't know if there's any one neat answer. It was an explosion of talent that coincided with one on these shores, when you had Spielberg and Coppola and Scorsese and Lucas all coming into their own at the same time that we were. There was just something about the social conditions of the times, but when it comes to individual talent, I tend to feel it could happen at any time, rather than as some kind of an orchestrated movement.
If I asked you for a personal favorite among your films, would you just give me the standard answer about how films are like children and you shouldn't play favorites?
No. I'd probably say that my films are like my children, and then I'd go ahead and play favorites by saying I've always had a special connection to Gallipoli, just because it's about such a defining moment in my country's history.
How nautically minded were you prior to working on Master and Commander? Surely you'd heard the directorial adage about never working on water.
You'd think I would be more nautically minded, growing up in Sydney, but I've never been much of a sailor. In terms of the filming, we shot for 100 days, only 10 of which were at sea. The other 90 were on a soundstage or in the controlled environment of our massive tank. In a way, limiting the amount of actual sea shooting posed its own challenges. It's like, if you're making a movie about Peking on a vacant lot in New York because you can't afford to go on location, it forces you to think about what the essence of a place is. Rather than simply plopping a camera down in Peking and letting that do all the work for you, it forces you to focus on what specific images you need to make your point.
Talk a little about working with Russell Crowe. Is he as prickly to direct as he is to interview?
I'd heard all the stories, so I asked him about them, and he said it only happens when he's faced with incompetence. ... Because of the extremely physical demands of the picture -- and not just the obvious battles and storms, but also the logistics of working with so many extras and crew people in a rather confined area -- I don't think we had time to think about egos or temperaments or anything like that. Everyone was trying very hard to be accommodating, to work as a team, because that was the only way to get the movie done.
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