Interview With Gordon Laco, Historical Consultant on Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Those of you who are frequent visitors to this site may have noticed the huge crush (not quite sure what else to call it) I have on the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Practically every time I mention the film I have to go on and on about what an incredibly accurate and near perfect representation of life on a Napoleonic Era Royal Navy vessel it is. Recently all that gushing paid off in the form of a very gracious Email from Gordon Laco, the Lead Technical Advisor and Historical Consultant on the film.

Naturally I begged Mr. Laco for an interview and he was kind enough to agree. I hope you all find this peek behind the scenes of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World as fascinating as I did!

The Dear Surprise: How does one become a historical consultant? What kind of degrees and background do you have?

Gordon Laco: I have an undergraduate degree in History from the University of Western Ontario…. I developed my career as a historical consultant and technical advisor over a period of many years on smaller budget television projects. I got into this through my work in the Marketing department of Discovery Harbour, one of the two reconstructed period Royal Naval Dockyards world.

My duties led me to work with film productions…I found I had an aptitude for the work on a film set. After I returned to the private sector my phone kept ringing and I steadily developed my practice.

TDS: When did you first become interested in the Age of Sail?

GL: ‘The Age of Sail’ is a huge span of time…. I’d say I have had a particular interest in the period roughly spanning the mid-1700’s to the early 1800’s for as long as I can remember. My mother kept a drawing I made as a quite young child and gave it to me a few years ago; in the crude sketch one can make out that I was trying to draw a 74 gun ship of the line. I reckon I’ve always been interested.

TDS: Was it your interest in the AoS that lead you to become a sailing captain, or did you become involved with that in some other way?

GL: I became captain of HMS BEE through my interest in promoting the professional operation of that historic sailing ship. My great interest in traditional seamanship and teaching led me to that appointment.

TDS: What’s the process to become a captain of a sailing vessel like the HMS BEE?

GL: To become a captain one must learn and demonstrate mastery of navigation, ship handling, crew management, emergency procedures and preparedness, and a host of other professional qualifications.

TDS: What other eras do you consult on?

GL: Early in my career I had an epiphany that the historical consultant on a project needs to be a manager of questions and answers. When I came to that realization I found myself able to consult on a wide range of eras. My work tends to follow the seasonal fashions of the documentary business. For example I have done several Great War projects in the past few years.

TDS: How did you become involved with the production of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World?

GL: That is a very long story…the short version is that through my work as an outfitter of ships I learned that HMS ROSE had become involved in something big that I surmised might be a film adaptation of an O’Brian book. I used my contacts in the industry to find the producer, and began writing letters.

TDS: How did you figure out the excitement with the HMS Rose was likely a film of an O’Brian book? How much effort did it take to convince them you were the man for the job?

GL: The sailing ship industry is small; I acted on a hunch when I surmised that she’d become involved in a film.  The hardest work was finding who was making the film.

TDS: Were you already familiar with the novels of Patrick O’Brian? Which are your favorite and why?

GL: I was already intimately familiar with the novels; my favourites are Reverse of the Medal and Desolation Island. I find those two particularly rich in character development and the life of the period. O’Brian was a great writer.

TDS: What were your duties as Historical Consultant?

GL: My duty on the production crew of M&C was originally to train the actors in the life of the period. I wrote back stories for many of them and trained the Royal Marines. Later I was made Lead Technical Advisor, which made me sort of a chair for the committee of advisors we had on the productions. There was Leon Poindexter, Shipwright. Andy Reay-Ellers, Tony Arrow and Richard Bailey from the ship. Martin Bibbings for gunnery. Andy Soper for sails, Jim Barry for rigging. Dan and Jan Speaker for hand to hand combat. In addition to those people I kept contact with people at significant museums all over who made themselves available for consultations for particular issues. As the years go by we have noticed a slowly growing list of people claiming to have worked on the film who really had little or nothing to do with it…

The heads of the other departments were great – although the period of the Napoleonic Wars was not their specialty, they were all consummate professionals and did a lot of good research themselves. Often my role was to confirm their work. I worked with a crew of people all at the top of their game and felt sometimes like I was sprinting to keep up with them.

I worked a lot with the director’s department writing what is called ‘extra dialogue’ for many scenes. For example nearly all the spoken commands etc. that one hears in the background were written by me and given to the appropriate actors to fill out the background in scenes. I consulted on much primary script material too, which was an honour and a pleasure.

TDS: How did you find all the period-accurate items that aren’t readily available?

GL: That was mostly done by the film’s props master, Douglas Harlocker. A very few items were period (officer’s swords etc.) but most were reproductions.

TDS: Were there any times you had to compromise on the historical accuracy to fit within the confines of the story or filming? What were the circumstances?

GL: We had to remember that while we were doing our best to stay on track, we were telling a story. We had to remember that we had to be careful not to lose the audience; we sometimes had to give them enough of what they understood to carry them forward and help them understand the story. I have seen much on the web about so called ‘errors’ that either were not in the film at all, or were put in intentionally to help the audience understand the action.

One example of the latter would be the scene in which Midshipman Calamy orders the towing rowers to cease rowing after the first battle sequence. The correct command would have been ‘OARS!’. We didn’t want the command to be given by a professional sea officer… We wanted him to be a frightened teenager who was just realizing that perhaps he wasn’t going to die after all… So we had him give the command ‘incorrectly’. I got some savage hate mail over that sort of thing from people who didn’t notice many much bigger issues I expected we’d be pilloried for. Ah human nature….

TDS: Were there any instances during filming where what you saw as necessary historical accuracy clashed with what the filmmakers wanted to do? Were there any times where you felt you really had to be insistent about something being a certain way, or something being changed? Any times your advice was overruled?

GL: Well again there are a few instances were the dictates of film-making clashed with history as we know it; but nothing so major as some of what I’ve seen on various web sites.  I suppose the largest might be the ship herself, which although a dramatically accurate representation of a frigate, was actually somewhat smaller than the SURPRISE O’Brian wrote about.  Everyone on the project had a will to ‘get it right’ and we did our best to do so, but we were telling a story and sometimes that had to come first.    In the novels, O’Brian had the luxury of a sort of narration, often in the form of Stephen Maturin’s thoughts or what he wrote in his secret diary.  On paper these passages are often pages long and serve to carry the reader into the story… but on film our actors had to achieve the same effect sometimes by only a sigh and a facial expression.   There is much art in film making and
I was in awe of the director’s skill as a story teller, particularly his understanding of pace and mood.

An example of this would be the formal dinners we filmed. A naval mess dinner is quite a structured and formal affair.  We needed the audience to know that despite the rigidly observed hiearchy of rank in the ship, her officers were a ‘band of brothers’ who knew each other well and shared mutual respect.  O’Brian could just have one of the characters thinking this and the reader would know… We had to show it.  One way we did this was by
abandoning Naval tradition and leaving the table covered with dishes and food while the port was being served.  This was ‘wrong’ in a strict sense, but at the same time helped create the impression of the closeness the officers shared with each other.

TDS: When you watch the movie, what are you most proud of? What would you change if you could?

GL: I am most proud of particular moments…. I like the way Aubrey/Crowe walks the deck like he owns it…. Of the set that was built for Stephen’s cabin (I could really feel his personality in there). I like the whole thing!

TDS: You’ve worked on a large number of film and television productions. How did your experience with Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World compare?

GL: M&C was not the biggest, but it was the one that was certainly most satisfying. I am very proud to been part of Peter Weir’s team.

TDS: Of the productions you’ve worked on, which was the most fun and why?

GL: Fun is a difficult word to apply to this work. There are ‘fun’ moments but there is also hard work, long hours and often a lot of pressure. On M&C I was away from home for many months during principal photography. I saw my wife and sons only twice and for a few days each time. The consequences of mistakes or confusion were plain so I worked very very hard to keep ahead of the production’s needs and help the people in my department do the same

That said, in answer to your question I’d have to say M&C was tops so far. I will never forget one morning when I was going into the studio feeling more than a bit glum about missing my family… Then in the dawn light I saw the masts of the ship sets; going through the gates I saw the riggers, the sail makers, blacksmiths, sailors etc…. We basically had recreated a Napoleonic Wars dockyard to support the production… I said to myself “Well Gord, where else would you want to be right now? Get on with it!”

Gordon Laco has contributed to over 30 historical movies and television productions, including The New World, Pirates of the Carribean II and III (supplier of rigging), Moby Dick and Dracula 2000 (apparently it had a historic sailing ship in it, who knew?). You can learn more about his background and work at his website.

Questions by your captain, answers by the inimitable Gordon Laco.
Image: Still from the Making of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World feature, courtesy of Lisa.

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2 Comments on Interview With Gordon Laco, Historical Consultant on Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

  1. subrookie // October 3, 2010 at 9:09 am //

    A good interview and it was nice of him to contact you. Hopefully, he’ll drop by from time to time to answer questions. I imagine that the world of historical maritime consultants is far smaller than that of civil war consultants. I’d always wondered if the rigging was historically accurate on the ship used to represent the “Surprise” in the movie.

    He mentioned how he was called out by some bloggers because the movie wasn’t 100% historically accurate. I agree with him when he says that some details have to be given up for the sake of telling the story. It isn’t a documentary after all.

  2. Great interview and particularly timely for me personally: we watched MAC last night again on request from a guest (twist my arm). Really nice to be able to read the answers to your thoughtful questions and have the movie fresh in my mind. Thankee indeed!

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