Twenty-six years ago -- before Peter Weir started collecting Oscar nominations for movies like ''The Truman Show,'' ''Dead Poets Society,'' and ''Witness'' -- he directed a mystery called ''The Last Wave.'' Its plot was out there (it's doomsday Down Under when an Aboriginal prophesy threatens to sink Australia!) and its star was no less -- or really, no more -- than Richard Chamberlain, between gigs in ''The Towering Inferno'' and ''The Swarm.'' Nevertheless, in 1977, it did rock the world of one 13-year-old Aussie. In fact, Russell Crowe still hasn't gotten over it.
''It scared the s -- - out of me,'' says the actor, now 39, recalling the movie's impact on his fragile adolescent psyche. ''I'd never seen anything like it. It was so real to me, so huge. I thought about it for a long time afterward. And I decided from that point on I would see whatever movies this director made. That was the moment Peter Weir became my cinematic hero.''
At this particular moment (a hazy August Wednesday), Crowe's childhood hero is huddled inside a special-effects lab outside San Francisco, rushing to finish a print of his latest picture, the seafaring epic ''Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.'' Based on Patrick O'Brian's popular historical novels about life in the 19th-century British navy, with Crowe playing the violin-strumming Capt. Jack Aubrey, it's by far the most ambitious movie of Weir's 30-year career. (It cost $120 million, with three studios -- Twentieth Century Fox, Universal, and Miramax -- sharing the bill. ''It would hit me sometimes how much money we were spending,'' the 59-year-old Sydney-born director says during a break from editing. ''I'd think to myself, 'I could build a high-rise for this amount of money.' But it's all relative. I see an ugly high-rise now and think, 'I could have made a great film out of that building.'''
In some ways, Weir was an unlikely choice to helm this particular vessel. For one thing, he's never made anything more than half its size. (''The Truman Show'''s $60 million was his biggest previous budget.) He's never directed an action movie or an epic costume drama. (''Gallipoli'' comes close, but Weir made that Great War tragedy way back in 1981, so long ago not even its lead -- some kid named Mel Gibson -- was considered a star at the time.) He's never shot anything at sea, either -- or in a giant water tank in Mexico for that matter (although he did study up on the procedure, reading ''everything from how 'Jaws' was shot to how John Huston made 'Moby Dick''').
Come to think of it, Weir hasn't made a whole lot of movies of any kind since bursting on to the Aussie film scene in 1975 with ''Picnic at Hanging Rock'' (technically not his first feature, but the less said about 1974's ''The Cars That Ate Paris'' the better). His entire oeuvre -- including this latest film -- comes to a total of 12 pictures.
But, of course, those aren't just any 12 movies. Weir has directed a remarkable mix of groundbreaking hits and modest masterpieces. His films have helped launch huge careers (Lord knows where Gibson would be without him -- maybe Mel could ask him in ancient Aramaic) as well as cast established stars in bold new directions. (He certainly made Robin Williams' resume more interesting; Jim Carrey owes him a thank-you note too.) Here, what he told us about some of his cinematic gems: