Man of the world wielded a pen for 'Master'

Co-writer Collee can draw on his travels, medical-aid experiences

Film

November 23, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

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."

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