Sailing Master’s Perspective on Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Peter Weir behind the scenes of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Courtesy of Cinephilia & Beyond

Captain Andy Reay-Ellers was one of the maritime consultants on Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. This interview comes from Maximum Russell Crowe and gives a great peek behind the scenes!

MAXIMUM RUSSELL CROWE: What was your job on the set of the film?
 We wound up using a term from the period in which the film is set: “Sailing Master.” The sailing master was the officer on a ship whose duties included overseeing the handling and maintaining of the sails and rigging, and also the training of the crew. Since two of my most important assigned tasks were to manage and advise on the sailing of the ships, and the training of the cast and extras, it seemed appropriate to use that traditional title for my position.

MRC: How did you get involved with the project?
To make a long story short, it all has to do with the HMS Rose [the replica tall ship that Fox Studios bought to make the film]. My relationship with the sailing ship Rose and her captain, Richard Bailey, goes back to 1989 when I was captain of another replica warship and we would stage mock sea battles for harbor festivals and promotional events. A few years later Rosebecame certified as a sail training vessel, and I began sporadically working aboard her as relief captain and mate. When Fox purchased Rose, Richard hired me to help fit her out and sail from Rhode Island to the West Coast for the film. Once the trip was over, I met some of the film’s production staff and was asked to work on the film as sail trainer and technical consultant. From there my position just kept growing as I accumulated more and more jobs.

MRC: Such as?
As one of the film’s technical advisers I was called upon both on set and off. On set it might be a question from Russell about certain commands he was to deliver as captain — what else he might say, how he’d say it, or to whom. He was rigorous in examining every word, every command. He both wanted it to be accurate, but also to personalize it in a way that would sound natural coming from someone who’s had decades at sea. We all develop mannerisms over time, and he was working to evolve his speech patterns so that his use of nomenclature and colloquial phrases became second nature.

Some sections of the script simply said something like: “Lieutenant walks forward issuing commands.” So on the day we filmed that, people like [historic consultant] Gordon Laco or I would put our heads together with the actor and come up with some appropriate dialogue.

Off the set, I was just kinda “on call” for all the departments, and a great many of them had questions at one time or another. There were questions to answer to help maintain the accuracy of the ship and of the action on camera; sometimes during the filming there were requests from the DP [director of photography Russell Boyd] to do unusual things with the sails off-camera to help control the lighting of some shots — or simply to move some of the rigging out of their way. The rig of the ships were both a boon and bane to the film crew.

Sometimes my job was simply the logistics of helping to move the gear on and off the ships; sometimes it was sort of creative — like meeting with Akiva Goldsman to help with dialogue and ship functions when he was brought in to hone the script. Mostly, it was technical advice, training and management of the sailors —  both real and pretend.

Please don’t let me sound like I did all this single-handedly. As far as “consultants,” I was one of at least six people contributing to various aspects of maintaining the film’s accuracy — and when it came to the grunt work of handling sails, boats, gear, etc., I was backed up by professional mariners from the Rose who in turn pressed into service as many of the cast, crew and extras as we could.

MRC: Could you elaborate a bit more on your responsibilities with the technical aspects?
 Sure. Technical questions and concerns ranged from something as small as checking over a bunch of sextants and quadrants which the prop department had for one of the scenes, to a breakdown of the sail plans used during every moment of the story.

It was almost like I was in charge of the ship the way that costume and make-up were in charge of each actor. Because things are often shot out of order, a reference was needed to establish which sails are set when. Maintaining this continuity was especially important since the sailing footage you’ll see of the Surprise is made up of a combination of shots of the Rose, the mock ship in the tank, the miniature ship, and the CGI [computer generated image] work. All of these images had to match perfectly, so I wound up creating a sail-plan “bible” for distribution.

MRC: Do you have a favorite aspect of the technical work?
This sort of falls outside of the realm of what you’re probably thinking about, but months after the principle photography was complete they sent me to New Zealand for five weeks to resurrect my role of “sailing master” to help with the filming of the miniatures. It was an unexpected windfall, and I loved the place and the people I got to work with there.

MRC: Are you allowed to talk about the details of the miniatures?
I guess so — photos and descriptions of them are in the “making of” book, so its not too big a secret. They were constructed by WETA Workshop, the folks who created the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. They’re all just incredible craftsman — artists really — and as nice a group of people as you’ll ever meet. The ships themselves weren’t all that “miniature.” The Surprise was 1/6 scale, and the Acheron was 1/8 scale, so they both wound up about 30 feet long and 25 feet tall. All of the sails worked, and the cannons could be animated to recoil as they fired. In the completed film they are indistinguishable from the real thing.

MRC: Can you describe the training that you did?
It varied from quick lessons on set of things like the proper handling of those sextants I mentioned, to the “boot camp” we ran during pre-production to get the actors and extras up to speed on sailing and seamanship in the early 19th century. This stretched from speaking the language of sailing ships, to handling lines and sails, to climbing aloft. Part of the challenge Peter [Weir, the director] established was that everyone needed to not simply look like they knew what they were doing, but that they needed to look like they had all been doing it so long that they were comfortable, casual, almost bored with it.

The training flowed right in to the “management” of the sailors. Members of the Rose crew (men and women), and myself, were all dressed as extras so that we could “hide in plain sight” in the background of the sailing scenes and make certain that the “crew” [of actors] worked properly and safely. Though the “tank ship” was a mock-up, the rigging and sails were 100 percent real and were just as dangerous as a real ship — in some ways more so. The professional mariners were always the first on the ship to get the sails ready prior to shooting, and after wrap would stay behind to secure the ship for the night.  These people put in a lot of hard work and many extra hours.

MRC: Can you discuss Russell’s training?
A couple weeks before production started he and I started one-on-one tutorials on the sailing of these ships, the organization of the crew, etc. He had already been reading the O’Brian books and studying up on the period. When I first met him I had no idea how much he wanted to learn, but when I asked, he said that he was a sponge and that he wanted to suck up all the information I could give him. We spent over a dozen hours in that first week, and that doesn’t count the reading I assigned him as homework. Some of this stuff is incredibly dense technical reading, but he just kept digging in and asking for more.

Even more amazing was the fact that at the same time that he was learning seamanship with me he was also studying the violin, a new style of sword fighting and how to speak as a Dorchester-raised British sea officer. Now, you have to remember that the violin, fencing and speaking in this special accent would all be things which would be seen and heard in the film. Much of what he was studying with me would not, since a captain of a warship would issue commands, not actually handle the sails himself.

I think Russell wanted to immerse himself in a depth of knowledge, since he knew that when his character had started in the navy some 20 years before, he would have learned those skills. So he wanted to replicate that long-held, inbred comfort with all that happens aboard the ship. He also wanted to be certain that he had heard all of the training that I was soon to give to all of the people who would be serving as his character’s subordinates in the story. In fact, at his request I gave him updates on how the “crew” was progressing in their training. The closer we came to beginning filming, the more he became THE captain.

Anyway, we worked from the books; a training model from the Rose; a lot of diagrams I had created as orientation materials for everyone on the project; and finally on and around the mock ship itself which was being completed in the tank just outside his trailer.

MRC: What about the climbing of the rig?
Yeah, after a couple days of working out of the books and from my scribbles on a white-board we decided that the full-scale ship was as good a spot to talk about seamanship as we could get. To get a closer look at the workings of the rigging I gave him a quick safety orientation and we climbed aloft. Just before we went up I admitted I was a bit nervous about it and said, “If I manage to get you hurt I’ll be out of a job.” Russell paused, looked at me with a wry smile and said, “Mate, if you get me hurt we’re ALL out of a job….”

As if this weren’t enough, once we were aloft I looked down and there was [executive producer] Duncan Henderson intently watching us. I found out later that Russell going aloft was something that I should have “cleared” first.

Throughout the filming a number of scenes required him to be up in the rig, and he did every bit of that climbing and those stunts himself. You’ll see a scene in the movie filmed from a helicopter where Russell and James D’Arcy are both at the top of the Mainmast above the topgallants. It’s easy to see that it really IS them, and that there would have been no easy way to fake that shot.

As a fall-back, not knowing how the various actors would react to working aloft, they built a separate mock-up of the ship’s upper rigging on a soundstage surrounded by a blue screen so that they potentially could have changed a shot to allow for visual effects trickery to fake the scenes aloft. It seems a terrible waste now, but I’m sort of proud to say that the entire mock “upper-rig” set was never used.

MRC: So what was it like working with Russell?
 I found him to be a personable, intelligent, generous guy. A couple days after we first started working together he made a point of not allowing my work with him to conflict with my need to pick my wife up at the airport.

Several times he got gifts for the crew, and he organized an informal rugby league for us on Sundays. I guess I should point out that he first had be patient enough to teach most of us the game so that we could play. On the set he regularly just chatted with the cast, crew, and extras. I think most everybody had contact with him.

He seemed to want us all to “become” the fictional crew. He definitely seems to enjoy the camaraderie of a whole team working together. He really started to inhabit the role of captain, and many of the extras always referred to him that way. During preproduction he got the cast and extras shirts whose colors designated their character’s rank, and monogrammed name tags which he asked everyone to sew on themselves. He was sort of giving everyone a bonding experience; and also testing people to see who was in the spirit of the project and who was conscientious and professional about any job they tackled.

MRC: Any other stories about him on the set?
Well, it would have been easy for people’s attitudes to have soured at times — there were some pretty uncomfortable situations we were all put through. Perhaps the worst of it was the filming of the storm sequences. Thousands of gallons of saltwater were dumped on us, wind machines, jet engines, and fire hoses were aimed at us. And through it all Russell was right there in the midst of it all with us. He worked hard to have fun with it. Sometimes between drenching takes yelling at the special effects guys: “Is that the best you can do? We want more!” That sort of energy and levity kept everybody’s morale high. He really did begin to personify the disciplined, passionate, fun-loving character of Jack Aubrey.

[As far as his performance], this is the first time I’ve ever worked on a feature film, so I don’t have too much to compare it with. As I’ve said his preparation for the role was impressive, and he really did come to embody Jack Aubrey. He seemed to me to be incredibly talented and professional. On the set he was very aware of the technical aspects, while still being very focused on his part. But then when it was the end of the day, or even when there was a just a short break, he just seemed to relax right out of it all.

MRC: Can you give us some examples?
 Again, I don’t know anything about acting, but I remember one thing Russell did which really amazed me. We were doing a sequence when the Surprise is deep into the southern latitudes. We’re supposedly halfway to Antarctica as we try to get around Cape Horn, and the ship is buried in snow. After all the other scenes had been shot, I guess Peter wanted to end the day by just getting some coverage of Russell alone on the quarter deck. Its just a sort of situation where Capt. Aubrey has made some tough choices, and has suffered some losses, and may be reconsidering, or regretting, remembering or looking ahead. A captain on a ship like this can be quite lonely since there’s really no one to talk to. It’s the old saying “It’s lonely at the top.”

Anyway, the camera was set up, and after a brief conference between Peter and Russell, they roll. They didn’t do separate takes — they just rolled the film and Russell paced into frame and paced out. I think he came into the shot around 15 times in a row, and every single time was different. All those different takes without a break or pause. Not a word spoken. He alternated between sad, frustrated, wistful, contemplative; collar up, collar down, brushing the snow off, or balling it up to pitch into the water; he hunched against the wind, or faced resolutely into it. At least for a non-actor this was a brief little tour-de-force. If someone could ever get their hands on it, I’d think this would make a great acting tutorial.

OK, now for the bad news: A couple nights ago I got to see a screening of the finished film. Not a single bit of any of those takes made the final cut.

MRC: You’ve seen the film. So — what did you think of the finished product?
 It is a jaw-droppingly beautiful and complex piece of work. I know I’m going to be biased, as both a longtime fan of the books it was based on and as a contributor to this project, but even if I had no connection to it I believe that this would be one of my favorite films.

It is as full a film as I have ever seen — there is just so much story, such compelling characters, and such a rich texture of details. Being one of the historic consultants, I’m very proud of what I think is the greatest level of accuracy for this period that’s ever made it to the screen. There’s virtually a documentary hidden beneath the fictional story. I think a lot of people are going to want to see this multiple times — and that every viewing will reward them with new details.

MRC: Any Oscar prospects?
I certainly think Russell is as good here as he was in Gladiator — and he won the Oscar for that. Best Picture? I think this measures up as similar to, as good as Gladiator or Braveheart, which both won. But look at the competition. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World will be up against the third Lord of the Rings and some other heavy-hitters.

To me Peter Weir deserves to be right in there both for direction and screenplay. He manages to tell an amazingly complex series of intimate, inter-locking stories with the framework of a pin-you-in-your-seat action historic epic. This is no easy trick.

The screenplay and film are also amazingly true to the source material. I’ve been a fan of the O’Brian books for over 15 years, and this not just tells an O’Brian story, but emulates the style in which those books were written.

Supporting actors? I loved Paul Bettany’s portrayal of Stephen Maturin, and first-time actor Max Pirkis was amazing as midshipman Blakeney. Nominations for either or both of them would seem well-earned.

Finally, while I don’t have any previous experience in this business, from what I witnessed, if the editors (Lee Smith and John Lee) don’t deserve an award I’ll eat my hat!

MRC: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
It would have been the most amazing thrill to wind up “peeking behind the curtain” at how any film is produced  —  but to have stumbled into the situation of participating on this big of a film with all these amazing people is basically just indescribable. I feel incredibly lucky.

About Andy Reay-Ellers:

He was born and raised in the United States. After college he decided to travel to see the world, finding jobs to support himself as he went. As he describes it, a couple of years later he landed a summer job on a passenger-carrying sailing ship — and that summer has now lasted nearly 20 years. He quickly worked his way up to captain, and has sailed on a variety of power and sailing vessels in countless locations around the world. Principally, he works aboard traditionally rigged sailing ships engaged in educational programs. Master and Commander is the first feature film he’s worked on. Andy contributed to, and is featured in, the book The Making of Master and Commander. He and his wife live in Seattle.

Courtesy of Maximum Russell Crowe.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply