When I got asked to do Master and Commander with Peter Weir directing, and starring Russell Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey , I was delighted. I 'd read some the series of books by Patrick O'Brian and knew how striking it could be on film. We would be filming for 3 months in Mexico at the Fox Studios Baja, where the Titanic was filmed . Our ship "The Rose" would use the same huge water tank as did the great ship Titanic.
The film company put us up at various hotel resort complexes around Rosarito Beach. Rosarito was about an hour from the United States Border near San Diego, California. Many of us escaped up to San Diego for the weekend. A beautiful city on the coast full of great restaurants and clubs and beaches.
Curzon, my daughter, joined me from California. My daughters, who often work for me as personal assistants , make life a lot easier and smoother when I have a busy and hectic schedule.
I flew in from England several days earlier, and the day she joined me the whole cast was being taken by the charted film unit vans to the beautiful silver sanded Coronado Island near San Diego, compliments of Russell Crowe .
Russell put all of us up at the historic Del Coronado Hotel. Famous for Presidents and movie stars that had luxuriated on its charming and lavish grounds, we assumed we were there for a cast welcoming party. In fact it was a surprise wedding that Russell had arranged for his Stand-In and his bride .
After cocktails on the beach, a lovely ceremony was held and it was followed by a delicious dinner in one of the private banquet rooms of the Del, as it is affectionately called. It was a great celebration. We had just finished with a week of boot camps. Russell wanted everyone fit and agile for the very strenuous weeks of filming that was to follow. We worked out, learned to tie sailors knots, fenced, etc. We were really ready for a party. And party we did!
After dinner and wine, I got my graceful willowy daughter up on top of our table and had her join me in a rousing rendition of 'Fly Me To The Moon', provided by the DJ. Unfortunately in the middle of taking our well deserved bows, we fell off the table. To another round of raucous applause.
Russell and Peter really wanted us to work well as a team, both on the boat and on the shore. After a long night of celebration, Russell arranged a private tour for all us at SeaWorld, where we could swim with the dolphins or go to Soak City, the adjacent Water Park. There was a picnic to follow. My daughter and I swam with the dolphins, and it was one of the most humbling and amazing experiences I have had.
Then it was back to work.
The concept of much of the film was to keep true to period. Shipmakers and riggers, craftsmen and even sailors from the famous tall ships like the Star of India, berthed in San Diego, were brought in from all over the world. They either worked on the ship or performed as extras on the film. There was considerable research done for not inside and outside of the ship but every aspect of the film. The attention to authenticity was amazing
At the Studio we had a small structure where we could gather and meet called the Monkey Room. There were books and a coffee bar. relaxing sofas, but there was no TV. No one wanted us to stray too far from our characters or the period.
On the lot we even ate out meals by rank. The captain and the officers ate together, the midshipman, and the sailors all ate separately so that we could keep the feel of the film between shots
My character, Able Seaman Joe Plaice. had to undergo a special surgery called a trepan, a depressed fracture of the skull dangerously repaired by Dr. Stephan Mautrin, played by Paul Bettany. It took a a long and patient time for everyone in the scene. A lot of makeup and special effects, yet the attention to every authentic detail constantly checked.
I looked gross, my daughter almost lost it when she saw me. The same effect overcame her as our rolling ship had when we actually took it out to sea and had many a sailor/actor living on Dramamine, for motion sickness.
Filming was arduous, the battle scenes and fighting was intense . Smoke, heat, practiced chaos and small quarters with a lot of actors. We worked long hard hours. Russell gave me a fencing sword in remembrance of the film and its fighting scenes.
But there was fun as well. We were all away from home, for quite a few weeks. But there was always a bit of home with us. Russell had gotten a rugby team together and they played and we watched the games as a group. And he also put together a band which played for our small groups.
The boys from Lord of the Rings came over to Mexico to visit with Billy Boyd , who was one of the hobbits, and they surfed in their free moments and had huge bbq parties.
We would all meet up at Papas and Beer, which was a beach bar with sand volleyball and a mechanical bull. Many of us gave it a try. We would get together as a group at Ricky's Bar, or on Thursdays at Senor Frogs. We had some really great moments.
One of our best times, taught me a lesson.
We were having a Build a Boat Day. We all joined up in teams, actors crew, extras and we were given boards, paint, hammer and nails. We had to make a boat and its oars and row it from one end of the tank (about the size of a football field) and back again. I looked at my tall, attractive, slender daughter and immediately kicked her off my team. She was far too delicate for this. I did not want her to get hurt in the race.
Ignoring me, she joined up with Jack and Nils, two extras on the film and went to work on her boat. Which, when Curzon and her team were done, wasn't too bad.
It was bluey green and called the "Polynesian...," something...but nothing like the "REDBUM", the boat that Johnny Wight and my team made. It was beautiful , with an 'ornate and outstanding' paint job. While we were working there was music from the Mariachi bands playing and people laughing and applauding our efforts.
Time for the race...eight boats entered the water. Oars and crew readied. In went the "REDBUM", and out fell its bottom. Six of the eight boats sprang bad leaks and eventually most sank. But not that darn "Polynesian ..." something that my delicate daughter built. She rowed and strained, and got hit in the head with an oar and her ear bled - and she just shook it off. Yet that "Polynesian..." something WON!
Not to be outdone, my team got inside the bottomless boat, and as a crew we carried it - and walked it from one end of the tank to the other . We were going to finish that race , and we did.
Peter Weir the director, has a wonderful eye. He paints some lovely pictures with his shots. He is easy to work with and is flexible and open when working a scene. But he knows what he is looking for in a shot.
Russell Crowe was a consummate professional. Crowe would work with an actor, listen to ideas and try to work them in it they were right. He helped the young boys who were there on their first films, and taught them and watched over them like a kind uncle. He would work as hard or harder than what he asked of another actor. Russell was gracious, kind to everyone, generous with himself and as I have spoken about before, generous in other ways as well.
Long films are sad to leave. You build good friendships, depend on one another, see each other through some difficult and happy times. And then you are gone. Off to another project, sometimes not meeting up again for 10 years or mores... But never forgetting those friendships.