Interview met Gordon Laco: historisch adviseur voor de film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Waaraan herken je een echte zeeman? Hij kijkt vaker naar boven om weer en wind voortdurend in de gaten te houden, terwijl landrotten meer naar de grond kijken. Het is een van de vele tips die Gordon Laco gaf tijdens het maken van de film Master and Commander (film uit 2003 van regisseur Peter Weir met Russel Crowe in de hoofdrol), over een Brits marinefregat dat in 1805 de halve wereld rondzeilt op zoek naar een vijandelijk Frans oorlogsschip. De film is gebaseerd op de boeken van Patrick O’Brian en is gemaakt met (zeker naar filmmaatstaven) veel oog voor historische details. Gordon Laco was de belangrijkste historisch adviseur bij het maken van deze film: hij was vaak op de set aanwezig om kleine aanwijzingen te geven en hielp ook bij het grotere werk zoals de gevechtsscènes. En hij was bereid om daarover een interview te geven: een bijzonder kijkje achter de schermen van een bijzondere film. Verrassend is dat zelfs Nederlandse bedrijven een rol blijken te spelen bij de uitrusting van zeilschepen in grote Hollywoodproducties.

Gordon Laco

Let’s talk about the movie Master and Commander first. You were a historical consultant for the movie. What did this entail; what exactly was your job?

My title on the project was ‘Lead Technical Adviser and Historical Consultant’. This meant that I was chairman of a committee of specialists. I had many direct responsibilities, but also worked to coordinate the activities of the members of my committee. Martin Bibbings of England was our artillery specialist, Leon Poindexter of the USA was the shipwright specialist, Andy Rae-Ellers, another American, was the ship’s operations specialist… I was the overall historical specialist. My job was first to go through the script and work into it authentic language and activities. I wrote much of the secondary dialogues in the film (the calls and conversations by second level actors) and some material spoken by principal actors. I was responsible for ensuring that the right sailors, officers and marines were doing the correct things at the correct times… to do this I determined what time of day each scene was so I could have the right watch on duty in those scenes, and much material like that. I coached and educated the cast on the back stories of their characters (either taken from the novels, or developed by me if O’Brian didn’t cover that in the books) I consulted on the props, set decorating, fighting styles and incidents, how weapons were used and what they did, surgical details, food, shipboard life, etc.

After principal photography was finished, I worked with the sound and editing teams to ensure that authenticity and realism were kept as far as possible, and worked with the director re-writing and re-recording where that needed to be done. Finally, after the film was completed, I was honoured to be brought to the media events to discuss making the film, the history and the whole experience as part of the launch of the film in Europe and North America.

What is your background and how did you get this job?
I studied History in university, have always had a deep interest in it, and was for a number of years the captain of a historic replica sailing warship. Before M&C I had for many years worked as historical consultant in smaller film and television projects. I also already had a business supplying and outfitting historic sailing ships.

How did your own seafaring experience help with your M&C work?
I have many years of practical seamanship experience… including five in command, and that certainly helped give this film, and all I’ve worked on, the benefit of practical experience. There are things often written about in academic history that just make no sense and are therefore impractical in reality. My practical experience, and that of my fellow advisers, was of great use to the production.

Een matroos op het toilet: een grappig detail dat in de film kwam na een tip van Laco

Een grappig detail in de film is wanneer het Britse oorlogsschip in een storm rond Kaap Hoorn zeilt. Een paar seconden is te zien dat een matroos in de vrieskou gebruik maakt van het toilet op het galjoen vooraan op het schip. Ook dit was een idee van Gordon Laco, vandaar de vraag of hij voor meer van zulke details verantwoordelijk was.

Could you give a few examples of details in the film in which you had part?
I had a role to play in every part of the film…  for example I worked with the Director and writer to create a realistic series of moves for the two ships to make in the final battle scene. We drew upon real actions as well as used our knowledge of what was really possible to develop the sequence of events. I also helped the production develop the fight choreography, working with Dan Speaker and Jan Bryant, the film’s fight choreographers, so that combat seen in the final battle involving the boarding of a vessel was done in a plausible manner. I remember one time talking with the principal actors about an upcoming scene and telling them that one can always recognize a non-sailor in a sailing ship… They never look up. That sort of advice (which is a small detail only) helped our very brilliant actors look and work like real professional seaman. I was very impressed at the aptitude they all showed, learning the nuances of how to look like what they were doing were things they’d done for real all their lives.

Do you still learn many new things about historic vessels through your work?
Always. I go into every project expecting and looking forward to learning something new all the time. The great value of historic sailing ships is that by their very nature, they force and encourage real practical knowledge of how things were, and how things were done.


You’ve also supplied material for movies like Pirates of the Caribbean II & III, Moby Dick and the New World as a supplier of rigging and nautical gear. Do you have some kind of special store of historical ship equipment, with certain gear for ships from certain time periods?

The Half Moon replica already has rigging, so are you supplying special rigging for the movie? I do have a warehouse, but most of the gear is ordered to suit the needs of each ship or project. It’s tough to predict what is coming next, but I’ve got great suppliers who share my professional interest, so it all works out. Half Moon was re-rigged before her participation in The New World, so her rigging was not special for that film, it was what she needed anyway to be an authentic reproduction of a ship of her time.

There’s also a connection with the Netherlands, could you tell me a little bit more about that?
My principal Dutch suppliers are Ording Blocks of Almere, and Langman Rope of Nijkerk. Both family owned businesses, and good friends. The rope and fittings they supplied to the Pirates [-of the Caribbean, red.] films, and others was through my business. They are a pleasure to work with and I know are very proud of the support they give me.

What is the latest (movie-) project you’re involved in?
There are always projects in development… Last year I worked on two large projects, one called American Gods and the other called la Grande Traversee. American Gods is a television series that involves Vikings in some segments… so I oversaw the completion of a Viking knarr the production was already building when I joined, then rigged it, and taught the actors to sail and row it. That was a lot of fun, and it’s always good to work with such talented people as these were. The other was about colonists coming to Canada from France in the early 1700’s… I toured all over Europe looking for a ship to use, then supervised of the one we chose (actually a Canadian ship, after all that searching) conversion for the project. That was also very interesting work.

Are you a movie-fan yourself? If yes, what are your personal (maritime) favorites?
Yes, I very much enjoy films and especially good ones. My favourites include The Bounty, starring Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson – by far the best of the film adaptations of the famous mutiny story… The English Patient… Last of the Mohicans… Moby Dick starring Gregory Peck, Out of Africa, Das Boote, Regeneration, War in Winter, The Black Book, etc. and yes, I am very proud on behalf of all of us who worked on it, of how Master and Commander turned out. I am looking forward to the upcoming film called Dunkirk. That looks like its going to be good.

What other areas do you consult on besides maritime history?
I have done quite a number of projects involving the Great War, exploration (both historical and contemporary)… historical topics ranging from Classical Greece to horror films and dramas. Outside the film industry, I own a thriving business supplying rigging and consulting to museum ships and working sailing ships all over North America. I also own a company which makes self steering wind vane equipment for ocean going yachts, and am the Canadian representative for Epifanes, the Dutch yacht coatings company. I do a lot of public speaking about history, marine technology and historic ship operation, and leadership. And I was for ten years an officer in the Royal Canadian Navy.

Many thanks to Gordon Laco for giving this fascinating interview.

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