Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is becoming that new-millennium rarity, an adult blockbuster. In its opening weekend, it rang up numbers comparable to the youthful comedy smash Elf, but with an audience largely over the age of 25. (The estimate of over-25 viewers was an extraordinary 83 percent.) In weeks to come, it should lure younger audiences the way The Bridge on the River Kwai or Lawrence of Arabia did in their day: by putting across to adolescents the glamour and potency of thinking and acting like a grown-up.
The movie's appeal is rooted in its literary source: Patrick O'Brian's 20-book series featuring Captain "Lucky" Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) and his best friend and ship's surgeon, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). But it wins over fans of the book -- and earns the allegiance of moviegoers not partial to spectacles -- because it seasons the fantasy and reality of 19th-century high-seas adventure with its own distinct, mature sensibility.
It conveys a healthy respect for both the man of action, Lucky Jack, and his more ruminative companion, Stephen, without romanticizing either. It makes you root almost as hard for the surgeon, a naturalist, to explore the Galapagos Islands to his heart's content as for the skipper to overtake and seize a superior French ship. Of course, major credit must go to the director and co-writer Peter Weir. But one of his smartest choices was to pick the little-known John Collee as his collaborator on the screenplay.
Unlike most scriptwriters in the post-MTV era, Collee draws on experience outside the soundstage and the screening room. "Often," Collee says, "younger writers' whole experience is based on other films -- they're replaying the same scenes they've already seen in movies. But I've seen destruction and war and the inside of a jail, so when I'm writing that kind of stuff, which increasingly I do, I'm reprocessing memory rather than relying on invention."
Men of medicine
Collee studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh before practicing in Cambridge, Bath and Bristol and dispensing care in social-cultural trouble spots and areas of ecological upheaval from Madagascar and Gabon to the former Soviet Union and the Solomon Islands. He met his wife, Debs, in the U.S.S.R.; she's an Australian newswoman. He's been a broadcaster and print journalist himself, serving as Radio Bristol's phone-in doc for a year and writing a column for The Observer from 1990 to 1996 based on his travels. Along the way, he penned three suspenseful novels and veered into television and screenwriting, most notably with the feature adaptation of his 1987 novel A Paper Mask (filmed in 1990).
When he and his wife had their first child, on the Solomon Islands, Collee decided it was time to settle down. They had two more children, and he eventually chose screenwriting full-time. After a stint in London, he moved to Sydney, Australia, in 1996, where he figured he could help fill the gap between the modest number of international screenwriters based there and the amazing number of talented Down Under directors, such as Weir, George Miller (Babe), Scott Hicks (Shine), and Phil Noyce (The Quiet American). So far, his gamble has paid off. He's currently working as co-author for Miller's next movie, Happy Feet, a computer-animated feature about a singing, dancing penguin.
On the phone from Los Angeles last week, Collee noted, "George Miller is a former doctor, too, and I think we both at times feel stricken at having given up such a worthy profession." But even as a doctor, Collee focused on quenching his thirst for observation and activity. "I gradually lost contact with the growing knowledge base of Western medicine. My medical skills were those that would be useful in a jungle or a desert island -- improvisation and realizing what could be done with a limited set of drugs and a splint."
Collee says, "Modern men are totally conflicted: They're torn between two extremes of being -- between being the John Wayne guy and the thinker." Nine years ago, the salary that the government of the Solomon Islands paid him could barely cover his phone bill; he wrote his weekly column for The Observer on the run, including a widely reprinted personal view of the stripping of Pacific rain forests.
But Collee's globetrotting allowed him to play out "a constant drama within me. I was always drawn to a life of adventure. That became impossible only when my wife and I began having children."
Writing screenplays allows him to exercise his artistry without the solitude of writing novels. "I love novels, but the process is isolating -- and that's depressing if you're a social animal. I love the collaboration of making films."
And Collee now possesses a treasure chest of incident and insight to raid for the screen. "A lot of world-class directors like to work with people who share some of their knowledge of life. Jon Amiel [director of the BBC's The Singing Detective] once told me that you can't get a job in Hollywood unless you have body-piercings and tattoos. He was talking ironically, of course, but when you see all these directors coming out of the advertising world, it sometimes seems as if youth and inexperience are a real bonus -- as if the people who make the deals feel they're the ones who can bring in that 14-year-old demographic."
Distilling the books
On Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Weir and Collee "spent months together talking about O'Brian's characters. It's not like sitting down at a desk. Peter originally emerged from the non-mainstream theater, so he has a great knack for improvising and freeing you up. And he didn't want to worry about what it would cost. It was about imagination rather than budget."
They initially based their script directly on The Far Side of the World. But they found that a straying woman who falls victim to a bad on-board abortion and the appearance at the end of Amazon-like female pirates were "distracting from the real theme of male friendship." They basically cut the plot line down to the concept of a ship-to-ship chase. They concentrated on their readings throughout the series ("the scene where Stephen operates on himself derives from H.M.S. Surprise") and on "the eternal dilemmas contained in O'Brian's fictional world: When do we or do we not go to war? What sacrifices are worth making? What are the limits to friendship? At what point do you break principles?" In the end, they formed the script "from all the books. And we worked from memory. It was a good way of distilling everything down to the components that would stick."
Ultimately, when it came to the characters, too, they tried to hit on essences. "In the book, Stephen Maturin is riddled with conflicts; he's also a small guy with flaky skin and badly fitting waistcoats and hopelessly at sea in every way. That's not Paul Bettany in the film. But Paul absolutely arrives at a valid distillation. His compass was, 'Here's a devout Catholic who's anticipating Darwinian theory.' That's why the small argument of whether he can go on shore at the Galapagos comes over with such earth-shaking significance. Jack prefers to go fighting a bloody gunbattle instead of discovering one of the great secrets of life."
On episodic TV, writers often refer to "Bibles" containing the history of every series character and incident. O'Brian scholars had already created Bibles for the filmmakers. Weir also created his own. "He filed everything away, huge binders of stuff. And he filled the background action with it. Watching the movie, the plot should give you only the first satisfaction. Like an O'Brian novel, it should offer many incidental delights."
They always intended "to create a documentary feel: We hoped the wind would blow through the theater with a smell of salt to it." That goal influenced their approach to language as well as scene making, whether it was their deployment of jargon "or really feeble jokes. Jack and his officers are unsophisticated enough to laugh at the pun of 'the lesser of two weevils.' They're able to talk about Lord Nelson in an incredibly sentimental way and be inspired by it."
What makes Weir a master filmmaker, says Collee, is his insistence on "getting at the emotional heart of each scene. Working on this movie wasn't sitting at a typewriter and making up clever dialogue. When discussing that female character we later abandoned, Peter would say, 'All right, I'm coming to ask you for an abortion and I want you to guess what is wrong with me without me telling you; you be the doctor, I'll be the woman, and we'll improvise.' It takes you into stuff that's difficult to write down: nuances of expression. And as a director he gets performances that allow you to read people's thoughts in their faces."
Tough, tender men
It wasn't just Collee's medical-aid background that filtered into the script. During the latter half of the 1980s, an oil company employed him as a medic while it drilled along the coast of Madagascar. His time there sensitized him to a spectrum of male emotions often truncated in genre fiction. "This was a community of men who were so tough, they were almost like gorillas: they had to be, living in a rough and isolated environment, before cell-phone technology, doing hard mechanical labor like driving paths through oceans and swamps to get to drills. When they were working, they were totally committed. But when they weren't, they were surprisingly tender and affectionate with each other."
In Master and Commander, Weir and Collee hoped to violate "this modern taboo against speaking about love between heterosexual tough guys. Some people break into tears watching the movie. Perhaps it's because the film evokes that secret sense of men's love for each other: Guys being supportive and expressing the female side of maleness."
For Collee, life around oil rigs exposed the ruthless side of male bonding, too -- "the sort of self-selection of a group into guys who are able to get on with other guys. Someone who didn't fit would be thrown off." And that ostracism also enters the movie's narrative when the crewmen peg an overage midshipman as a nautical jinx or "Jonah" and freeze him out. Their victim is the same sorry character, Hollom, who'd been stripped of his pregnant mistress in the course of months of adaptation; without that complication, his plight became poignant.
For Collee, the midshipman's evolution illustrates the odyssey that writer and director took throughout the production. He feels the changes made for a "more authentic" movie: "You take away the melodrama and you're left with drama."