Marina del ray, california - with a rich man's parking lot of cutely named yachts bobbing outside, Peter Weir sits down to talk seafaring. Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World is his first film since The Truman Show, and the first time since Gallipoli that he's helmed so heroic a drama. Starring Russell Crowe and decked in old-fashioned honour, it's built to sail through the middle of the holiday movie season straight to the Academy Awards. "Helmed" is the only word for this gig.
The hundred-day shoot included 10 days at sea and weeks in the same wave tank where Titanic was filmed, whipping up sea storms with jet engines.
The trick to bringing a Napoleonic-era sea battle to the screen, Weir says, was planning.
"Planning and a bit of luck, but there's nothing like planning. There were bad days - a jet engine getting too close, salt water in an actor's eyes - but basically everything was in position" before filming began.
This is the same soft-spoken Australian who made credible dramatic actors of Harrison Ford in Witness and Mel Gibson in Gallipoli and The Year Of Living Dangerously. He's nothing if not diligent.
To understand shooting on water, he studied how John Huston made Moby Dick and Spielberg shot Jaws. But he found an answer to the lure of computer-generated effects closer to home.
"When I came out of the first Lord Of The Rings, I thought, 'My god, how have they done it?'" he says. "They had a dimension I hadn't seen in computer-generated. So I got in touch with (director) Peter Jackson, and he put me on to Richard Taylor (Jackson's long-time effects man). Richard said, 'Miniatures combined with CG.' So I decided to make miniatures, and he shot them all in New Zealand."
Sometimes, though, "it was as low- tech as that trick every beginning filmmaker knows. You can't afford to move the train out of the station, so you track the camera along the train. A lot of shots had us racing around the vessel and swooping up to her. In the dailies it looks absurd."
For all his reputation as one of cinema's great artists of ambiguity, Weir talks like a nuts-and-bolts craftsman. His crumpled white shirt is scrunched up to his elbows, eyeglasses poking out of the pocket. He looks like he can't wait to get back to the drawing board.
The only time he shows even a hint of pride comes in relating a detail. "Part of the planning," he boasts, was "not to use any CGI for the water. Every drop of water in the film is real."
That fact cuts to the heart of Weir's filmmaking. What separates Master And Commander from the bombast of a typical period adventure is its organic scale. This isn't a sensation-driven movie; it's a film of moral nuance. Weir guides the story through the explosive battle scenes to pockets of quiet, where Russell Crowe's Captain Jack Aubrey wrangles with the ship's doctor, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). It's the man of war versus the man of reason.
"Aubrey's on the right and Maturin's on the left," Weir suggests. "They're tied together at the ankles in this version of democracy. Stephen's the modern man, the man of the Enlightenment. If Stephen ran the navy we'd get nowhere. But if Jack ran it without Stephen in his ear he'd take us too far down the wrong path. So there is a balance in those arguments, left and right. They need each other."
It's hard not to hear contemporary echoes. If period films inevitably reflect the time of their making as much as the time when they're set, Master And Commander may be Weir's attempt to find balance in our own dangerous age.
Just before his minder pulls him on to the next appointment, I ask Weir how he found his own path. What's it taken to remain a relevant, A-list director into his fourth decade?
"That's interesting," he says, by way of hesitating.
"Never moving on anything that didn't feel organic to me," he says finally. "Never moving on anything just because it was interesting or highly paid or a great location or an interesting cast."
Perfectly sound reasons to make movies, but not for Weir.
"I've only made stories that absolutely pulled me," he says, "like iron filings to a magnet. That's what I've done from the first film to this."
He pauses, like he's considering the $135 million he's just spent making Master And Commander, and the high-end flotilla parked outside this five-star hotel.
"So this," he smiles, "is really a small, independent film."
MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD directed by Peter Weir, written by Weir and John Collee, from the novels by Patrick O'Brian, produced by Weir, Samuel Goldwyn Jr., Duncan Henderson and John Bard Manulis, with Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, James D'Arcy and Edward Woodall. A 20th Century Fox release. Opens Friday (November 14). For review, venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 88. Rating: NNNN