O, Captain, My Captain

Directors are a superstitious lot. They have their good- luck hats and T shirts, their little routines and rituals. Anything, really, to ward off the bad juju that can sink a movie. Peter Weir is not one of them. "At one point, I had a little toast with sake or something at the beginning of each shoot," he admits, one afternoon last week in Beverly Hills. But that tradition ended on the set of his 1986 drama "The Mosquito Coast." The first scene was outdoors, complete with a pig in the background. "And I was going about my quasi-poetic raising of the glass, and we smashed one," he says. "It may have been too dangerously pagan. Anyway, the pig attacked the script girl shortly afterward."

The 59-year-old Weir has a lot of stories like this: literate, entertaining narratives that hint at larger ideas but never spell them out. The Australian director's movies--including "The Year of Living Dangerously," "Gallipoli," "Dead Poets Society," "Witness" and "The Truman Show"--succeed for just that reason, and they've earned him four Oscar nominations over the years, three for directing and one for writing. His latest, the 19th-century high-seas tale "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," based on the 20-book series by Patrick O'Brian and starring Russell Crowe, could give him a fifth shot at the gold. Even if it doesn't, the $135 million film will enhance his reputation as one of the most versatile and daring directors of his generation.

"Material like this in the hands of a lesser director would push into parody," says Crowe, who plays Jack Aubrey, captain of a British frigate called the HMS Surprise. "Peter doesn't acquiesce or bow to anything that contemporary audiences may require." He doesn't, in other words, hit them over the head with what his movies "mean." He leaves it up to them.

"Master" is about two longtime friends (Aubrey and the ship's doctor, played by Paul Bettany) and the crew of the Surprise on a quest to seize a French ship off Cape Horn. When Weir first met with screenwriter John Collee, Collee suggested that he and Weir spell out what the movie was really about, "a kind of mission statement," Weir says. "I said, 'It's about these two men and they're on this journey.' And he said, 'Yes, but beyond that. What's it saying?' And I said, 'Well, I'd hate to think of that. I haven't the faintest idea'."

The result is perhaps the most harrowing and least pretentious epic in the history of the genre. It's meticulously researched--down to every square sail and hawser--and though it's thrilling, some critics may protest that it doesn't rise above the level of a damn good yarn. If that worries Fox studio chairman Tom Rothman, who has been trying to get this movie made for 12 years--and went after Weir twice before the director said yes--you'd never know it. "There's a continuing thread in the work of Peter Weir," Rothman says, "which is epic pictures told through intimate moments. Tremendous canvas, but no empty explosions. That's my ideal of great cinema."

Weir's too, obviously. What inspires him beyond that? "To surprise yourself," he says. "I don't think it's terribly important to know what motivates you to do a thing. In a way, it's a very childish occupation, keeping alive a sense of wonder." And it's not always easy. "I've had a couple of periods where I've dried up, and everything I look at is hopeless," he says. "I think, 'What's the point? What a trivial thing it is, what a waste of time, to make a film. What a waste of time to go to one. Why not go for a walk instead?' "

Fortunately for us and for him, he always manages to find his way back. And although he doesn't propose that good-luck toast anymore, he has made a ritual of bringing a boombox on set--less for superstitious reasons than to set the mood for each scene. On "Master" that included everything from Japanese drums to the score of Stanley Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon." But the most important piece of music was one he played only for himself, as he walked down to the Surprise on the first morning of filming. "I passed by all of the crew, and they would get these sheepish smiles because it was a little eccentric," he says. What they heard was their master and commander blasting Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here."