One is an action-adventure epic with a literary pedigree; the other is an airy romp inspired by an amusement park ride. But Fox’s “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” and Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” do have one common and indispensable element: Salt water.
Besides that, they are about as similar as a mismatched pair of jacks: in this case, Russell Crowe’s steadfast Capt. “Lucky” Jack Aub-rey and Johnny Depp’s flamboyant Capt. Jack Sparrow. The differing tones of the two seafaring extravaganzas — one rife with period detail, the other imbued with fun and imagination — are reflected in the distinctive design work that went into them.
On “Master and Commander,” there was an obsessive devotion to the concept of authenticity. Set decorator Robert Gould was part of a team that received its marching orders from director Peter Weir. Gould enlisted the help of four Italian craftsmen to pull off Weir’s by-the-book vision of the HMS Surprise patrolling the waters off the coast of Brazil, circa 1805.
“I had worked on three movies in Italy, and felt I needed to bring in these four Italian guys, master craftsmen, because I didn’t feel I could get that level of work done in the U.S.,” Gould says. “It’s amazing that everything here in the U.S. is done by machine, whereas they wanted to do it by hand.”
Gould had to fight to get the producers to OK the extra cost, but he feels it was worth it to convey the feel and look that Weir sought in adapting the highly regarded Patrick O’Brian novels.
With the exception of one desk, one chair and one set of dishes, everything was made specifically for “Master and Commander” by hand, including hammocks, lanterns, tables, chairs, cups, mugs and a distinctive Brodie stove. Even the jars were made by a glass blower.
“There was so much knowledge to absorb,” Gould says. “It was really rewarding seeing how great the movie was.”
“Pirates” production designer Brian Morris had a different mandate. “We started with the premise that we wanted to capture the true spirit of the ride,” he says, referring to the Disneyland attraction.
Morris operated largely from memory, as he had not been on the ride since the 1970s. “The discussion I had with Gore (Verbinski, the director) was to keep authenticity to a degree, but make sure to maintain the adventurous spirit and theatricality,” says Morris. “There were certain authentic aspects we maintained, like the armaments, the rigging, some of the technical things. But the Black Pearl was a piece of theatrical madness.”
Costume designer Penny Rose worked with Morris to make sure what the characters wore was anything but stuffy.
“I knew it was going to be slightly tongue-in-cheek and humorous,” she says. “But I don’t think you need over-the-top costumes. It’s a better canvas to work from if it’s somewhat real. Then you can get away with the jokes.”
Depp’s character is notable for a voice patterned after that of the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards. “I came to the table with the idea that this was the worst pirate in the Caribbean, absolutely hopeless,” Rose says. “My major contribution was to make him look as if he’d been dragged through a hedge back and forth eight times or so.”
On “Master and Commander,” head makeup artist Edouard Henriques had to go for the realism of the period. Employing nine makeup artists for most of the show, Henriques made sure that the scars and tattoos were the real deal, that the hole in a sailor’s head during brain surgery conformed to the medical limitations of the period, and that even the characters’ teeth reflected the poor dental care of the time.
“Some of the actors would shy away from having their teeth done,” Henriques says. “But when you see a close-up of their white teeth shining, it takes you out of the scene.”
That is the last thing producer Duncan Henderson wanted, even though he concedes that much of the background detail in “Master and Commander” goes unnoticed by all but the trained eye.
“We wanted this picture to be reality-based. That was a premium issue for us,” he says. “We were going to go as far as we could until it was no longer economically feasible.”
“Peter had very strong opinions that this should not look like it was sourced from other movies, but sourced from history.”
And Morris’ approach on “Pirates?” “I looked at a lot of paintings in art galleries to get a feel for street life in London in the 18th century,” he says. “But I also looked at old-fashioned pirate movies for inspiration. A lot of old Douglas Fairbanks. Some wonderful Gene Kelly films.”
After all, the two groups of filmmakers operated from different mission statements.
“There’s a high level of competition out there,” Henderson explains of “Master and Commander.” “Things are done in a top-notch way. We felt compelled to deliver an epic at that level.”
Says Rose of “Pirates”: “I think 98 percent of the people who saw it loved spending 2.5 hours being entertained and coming out with smiles on their faces.”