Australian Simon Baker is an award-winning actor known internationally for his lead roles in US television series The Guardian (2001-2004) and The Mentalist (2008-2015). He has also appeared in a number of movies, including LA Confidential (1997), The Ring 2 (2005), The Devil Wears Prada (2006) and Margin Call (2011). He has directed for television and now he has made his directorial debut on a feature film.
BREATH is an adaptation of Tim Winton’s best-selling 2008 novel of the same name and was shot in a number of coastal locations in the south-west of Western Australia. Simon Baker is also a producer on the film and stars in the role of the charismatic surfing guru Sando. Other cast members include Elizabeth Debicki, Richard Roxburgh, Rachael Blake and newcomers Samson Coulter and Ben Spence as the film’s main schoolboy characters Pikelet and Loonie.
AccessReel’s Phil Jeng Kane spoke with Simon Baker about BREATH which premieres Australia-wide this Thursday (May 3rd).
You can listen to the interview below or you can read the transcription of the interview, hit play to listen.
AR: You had a Premiere at the Gold Coast Film Festival last night. How did that go?
SB: It’s always a bit heightened for me, it seemed to go pretty well. My ability to analyse how well these things went is not that great. People stuck around for the Q&A and obviously they were very forthcoming in praise to me, but I don’t think people are going to stop me and say, “that film sucked”. Again, I’m not really sure how accurate my analysis is.
AR: Did it feel different to how it was received at Toronto or Zurich (Film Festivals)?
SB: It was actually received quite well in Zurich. It was subtitled in German and they’re a land-locked country, but people identify with the ideas, themes of identity, fears and working out who you are. I think that came across. In Toronto, it was very hard for me because it was the first public screening, so my experience of it was all about sweaty palms and shifting in my seat constantly. That was an out-of-body experience, I couldn’t really tell you how the film played at all. (laughs)
AR: What was different about directing a feature as opposed to directing episodes of The Mentalist?
SB: When I direct for The Mentalist it’s an eight-day shooting period, I have a seven-day prep period and then I cut it in three days. Whereas this one had eight weeks of official prep, six weeks of shooting and I cut it over fourteen-fifteen weeks and then you go into the nitty-gritty of sound design, colour-grading and sound-mixing. It’s a very different animal, it’s far more detailed and far more intense. There’s more control over the different elements to be had, because you’re making it for the cinema.
AR: The surfing sequences seemed really complex. Did you spends weeks and weeks directing from a boat?
SB: From the water, mate. Or on a jet-ski. I was in most of the scenes. We had a boat for a couple of days, that basically the First A.D. stayed on and we could go and get dry on and then we could jump back in. Shooting on water is incredibly difficult and the ratio of usable footage is pretty slim. So a lot of it is about post-production and putting it together in the order in which you put it together. And being flexible with the narrative based on the footage that you have. There’s an element of “found-footage” cutting, almost like documentary making, when you’re doing that. I’ve grown up surfing, so I wanted it to feel authentic.
AR: You’re an avid surfer, was there anything you had to learn to surf like Sando?
SB: No, not really. It was about keeping everything within the parameters of authentic for me. Also I’d done a lot of research. Over the years, I’d always been into the evolution of the sport, the evolution of the aesthetic related to the sport, the art associated with the sport. I look at it as a sort of lifestyle more than anything.
AR: Were you keeping an eye on the authenticity of the time period?
SB: All of it. That’s your job as the director. Keeping an eye on all of that. So anything in the dressing and the set that distracted you from the story was gone. That what your job is as a director, to oversee all of that stuff. That’s the joy of it. You’re the first and last line of defence, so if something slips through, it’s your fault.
AR: When you read Tim Winton’s book, how much overlap did you feel there was with your own childhood in Australia?
SB: A massive amount of overlap. But I don’t think I was alone on that. I think there was a lot people that were affected by that for the same reason. What was also interesting about Tim’s work, this particular book, was that it took people who hadn’t grown up on the coast, land-lubbers, and plonked them out in the ocean and made them feel like they’d experienced it. I think it’s the best piece of literature I ever read describing the experience of being in the ocean. Surfers felt that, for sure, across the board.
AR: Was Tim Winton always going to be the narrator of the film?
SB: No. I had no idea who the narrator was going to be. I didn’t want a sort of “movie” voiceover feel, I wanted a “vox-pop” like someone sitting down in their living room, telling a story and just taking snippets of it. I wanted a very normal, ordinary voice that felt authentic. I didn’t want that silky voiceover sound a lot of Hollywood films have. And Tim visited the set at the beginning, we’d just started shooting and he was leaving. He said, “Give us a call if you need anything.” I said, “Listen mate, I’ve got this voiceover stuff and just as an idea, because I want a regular person to record this voiceover, I was wondering if you could put it down for me?” And he was like, “Ooooh, I dunno. OK.” And he recorded it into his phone. And I cut the film to his recording from his mobile phone.
I just fell in love with how kind of “normal” it was. And how unforced it felt. Then I got an actor to re-record it. And with voiceover you have to play around with it, and look at it, to know if it feels right. The actor did a wonderful job, but I missed Tim’s voice and they were his words. And I thought, fuck, why not? So I called him up and said, “Mate, I want to stay with yours, but I need to come over to W.A. and record it a bit better because it’s pretty shitty, the mobile phone recording of it.” He was like,”OK, mate.” There’s just an “every-man” quality to his voice that just felt real.
AR: Richard Roxburgh is in the film and is also an actor-director. Did he have any advice for you?
SB: I think it would have been weird if Richard had started trying to give me advice. He’s not that kind of guy. He really liked the material and he’s very professional. If you look at Richard’s work, that performance is a very different performance than you’ve ever seen him give before. He’s not often that still. He’s a very technical actor and often he’s very busy, so I loved seeing him being really understated. The silence of Richard was really nice. He’s normally cast as the more verbose characters that are very active. It was nice to see him in a more passive role that had gravitas to it.
AR: Because you were the only one of the actors who can’t speak to the director, was there something extra you had to do to direct your own performance?
SB: Not really. I think if the casting is right, then the actor gets it. I think sometimes with actors it’s what you don’t say to them is what works. Sometimes you can fill them with too many thoughts and every actor is different. They’re all individuals. I prefer directing and it was a nice relief when I didn’t have to act and direct. As a director you have to play all the roles, to a degree, in your head. You have to have empathy for all the characters.
AR: Are you planning on directing another feature?
SB: I don’t have hard plans at this point but I am very interested at working more as director. I might have a rest after this. It takes a lot out of you.
Phil Jeng Kane.