‘I got a bit terrified’: Simon Baker on filming Tim Winton’s Breath
Debut director on his fear of adapting this Australian paean to surfing and the challenge posed by its most taboo subject: autoerotic asphyxiation
“I’ve done a lot of work as an actor making a living that I’m not necessarily proud of, and I’d be quite happy if it just sort of disappeared, to be honest,” Simon Baker confesses. “I wanted something that might last a bit longer.”
The actor is best known in Australia for his television work, on procedural The Mentalist and drama The Guardian, but he’s currently promoting his feature film directorial debut: a big-screen adaptation of Tim Winton’s controversial novel Breath, in which he also stars.
“A lot of the roles that I’ve played, where they’re – on paper – only two dimensional [or] they’re not that rich, it’s because they’re generally devices,” he explains. Diplomatically, he doesn’t point fingers. “Often it doesn’t matter how much you bring to it; it’s just going to become what it is. That’s where being the director is a bit more interesting, because you can flush out the nuance and the detail.”
Set in 1970s Western Australia and shot in the coastal town of Denmark, Baker’s flick hews closely to Winton’s text. It follows Pikelet (Samson Coulter) and Loonie (Ben Spence) over a formative few years as they get taken in under the wing of the ageing surf legend Sando (Baker), and grow enraptured with Sando’s troubled wife, Eva (Elizabeth Debicki). Coulter and Spence were both amateur actors selected for their surfing ability, captured stunningly by water cinemato- grapher Rick Rifici.
When Sando and Loonie head off on a surfing adventure without Pikelet, the teen finds comfort in Eva’s bed. She later raises the stakes in a manner that gives grave meaning to the title, pulling out a pink plastic bag and strap for Pikelet to affix to her head.
Having been written by Winton, the novel has plenty of local lingo – “ducks nuts” gets a guernsey twice – and reflects warmly yet solemnly on the loss of innocence. It confronts male identity and has its protagonist reckon with a fear of ordinariness and a very confused sexual awakening.
But in WA – where Winton lives and where nine of his texts are on the year 12 syllabus – Breath is known for one thing specifically: Eva’s dangerous infatuation with breath play, a taboo act that requires Pikelet to strangle or suffocate her during sex.
In the novel, Eva’s asphyxiophilia – or arousal through oxygen deprivation – is written as an eye-watering blow-by-blow account, with Pikelet describing the “evil, crinkly sound of the bag and the smeary film of her breath inside it”. But for the film, Baker edited the sequences elliptically, not showing much at all. He put a number of other sex scenes aside, while toning down the ferocity with which Pikelet takes to his task. (“I gently throttled her,” remembers Pikelet, as an older man in Winton’s book.)
Baker spent a long time thinking about how he’d approach the scenes. “There was a while there where I considered not even showing the bag over her head,” he says, before describing the shot order in precise detail, to emphasise that the remaining “two-second shot” and the suggestive images that follow are “far more potent”.
“In the book, it really goes there in a lot of ways, because you can do that in a book,” he says. “You don’t have to worry about ratings, you don’t have to worry about what’s going to turn an audience off.” By side-stepping the titular act, the film was awarded an M rating, which will mean it can still be studied in schools.
“With the book, it’s black ink on a white page, and you paint the picture and you join the dots yourself,” Baker says. “But, on a 30-foot screen, it’s there in front of you, and it can be far more confronting without a word spoken.”
Another omission in the film is the book’s tragic prologue and epilogue, featuring an adult Pikelet – now a paramedic haunted by his past and present kinks – encountering not one but two deaths by autoerotic asphyxiation. Instead, Baker keeps Breath planted in the 1970s.
“It’s just not going to work in a film,” he says of the excised chapters. “I wanted to make a film that, when you watched it, it felt like you felt when you read the book, as opposed to a checklist of literal translation of what the book is to the film. It wouldn’t make a good film if you just went through the book and put all the points down.”
The idea of adapting Breath first came to producer Mark Johnson, who thought of Baker for the character of Sando, based on his heritage, history and love of surfing. Baker’s initial plan to simply produce alongside Johnson proved unsatisfying after he read the book and found himself ensnared.
“Normally, whenever I read anything that was related to surfing at all, I’d run a mile from it, because it always – in script form – felt a bit corny or cheesy,” he says. But after a few meetings with prospective directors, Johnson finally asked Baker if he was keen to take the helm: “I thought you’d never ask,” Baker says with a laugh.
Approaching the text, Baker was driven mostly by a fear of failing it. Like Pikelet, he was reckoning with the elemental fear of ordinariness. “[Before production began] I got a bit terrified and started to consider backing out of it, pulling out of it or just letting it fade away,” Baker admits. He confided in his wife, telling her: “I’m scared that I can’t make the film the way I want to make the film; as good as I want it to be.”
“[Winton’s] book is intact as a beautiful piece of work,” he says. “I could come unstuck and make a terrible movie completely, but I just needed to know I was free to go and do that. [Winton] was completely accommodating. He completely understood and he said, ‘you go mate, you go ahead and do it’.”
“I’m really proud of this movie and I still sort of pinch myself that we were able to pull it off at all. What I wanted to do with this movie [is] try to make a film that had a bit more longevity and, for my own personal satisfaction, [had] some kind of a legacy that I felt proud of.”
Somewhere on the coast of Australia in the 1970s, some men go surfing. The waves are high, so high the sensitive one – still a teenager – is scared. His companions cajole him into the sea with a combination of encouragement and mockery.
This is Breath, a new film adapted from the Tim Winton novel of the same name. At the heart of the film are three men: teenagers Pikelet (Samson Coulter) and Loonie (Ben Spence), a pair who are discovering surfing; and Sando (Simon Baker, who also directs the film), a much older daredevil who assumes the mantle of mentor. The film is filled with adolescent tipping points. We follow Pikelet closest through his changing friendship with Loonie and Sando. The quest for danger, for breathlessness, escalates.
“It’s more of a sport now,” says Simon Baker. “When I was a kid it was more counterculture, like in the film. I remember being the same age as these guys.” He gestures across the table at Coulter and Spence.
I’m sitting with all three leads at the Village Roadshow office in Melbourne, and it’s clear they’re real surfers – all three are tanned and toned, their hair and skin coloured and textured by sun. (Admittedly their tousled, blond-tipped locks might have had the help of a good salon.)
Coulter and Spence are a bit older than their film personas (18 and 17, respectively), but they’re still firmly in teenage land, giggling and sharing private jokes. Spence, the more boisterous of the two in the film, says almost nothing, working simultaneously on a takeaway coffee, a bottle of water, a mandarin and some biscuits. (Also with us, as if to hammer home the father-son dynamic of the film, is Baker’s own 16-year-old son Harry, another surfer.) At 48, Baker doesn’t seem old when I see him on his own. But nothing ages you like proximity to youth.
The trio spent six weeks shooting the film together and neither Coulter nor Spence had ever acted before. The dynamic between Baker and his young protégés is very similar to the dynamic in the film. Baker will make a point, and the boys will occasionally interject. But it’s clear he’s the mentor, dad, pack leader.
A few weeks ago Tim Winton wrote a piece for the Guardian about the problem with boys. “There’s so much about them and in them that’s lovely,” he writes. “Graceful. Dreamy. Vulnerable. Qualities we either don’t notice, or simply blind ourselves to. You see, there’s great native tenderness in children. In boys, as much as in girls. But so often I see boys having the tenderness shamed out of them.”
Breath retains these ideas, including Winton’s exploration of tenderness and terrible male role models, and surfing as a ritual to explore it.
“I’ve talked to Tim a lot about that,” says Baker. “I still surf as much as I can. I go to the beach and see kids individually and chat with them and they’re fantastic, and then see them in groups and they’re idiots. Are they the same people? Which of those children, when it comes to the crunch, will revert to who they are as an individual, instead of turning to the mob mentality? At what point do you check yourself and pull back? That’s the essence of the story. You guys are probably witness to it,” he says to Spence and Coulter.
Spence nods. “You do stupid shit,” he says, succinctly.
“Regrettable stuff,” Baker corrects.
“My character is out of date,” Baker goes on. “Sons outgrow their fathers, and fathers can learn a lot from their sons. That happens to us all the time. Sometimes I won’t know how to approach something. My son tells me I go too far.”
Harry looks up, vaguely aware he’s being talked about. So, I ask, when has your dad gone too far? Harry laughs and shrugs.
Baker laughs, too. “Maybe you’re going too far right now, mate,” he says to me, probably joking.
So, I ask the boys, did the script ring true to you as surfers?
“Yeah,” says Spence. “We get into mischief, out at night. It’s a good thing, going in the surf.”
“There’s only so much of that you can do in the surf,” adds Coulter.
“Well,” says Spence, “you might die, but still.”
How real is the danger?
“It depends,” says Coulter. “Sometimes you get out there and just know. Sometimes you think it’s fine and then there’ll be a shift, and it’ll go from fun-scary to shit-scary.”
Breath is evangelical about surfing. It’s described in hushed tones as “pointless, elegant, beautiful”, a kind of spiritual congress between man and ocean. On land, the complicated, tangled dynamics of the trio remain beneath the surface. On the ocean, the release is palpable.
For Baker, capturing that freedom was imperative. He went in knowing that he had to do justice to the world of surfing. “We’re all from that world,” says Baker. “What I had in common with these two was the culture of the sport. If I had actors rather than surfers I’d have to teach them all that.”
“You can’t really teach it,” says Coulter.
One of the film’s best assets is its realness. When they’re on the water, it’s very believably a skilled surfer, on a board, on a wave. Baker says that if they did all the character groundwork but the surfing didn’t look real, the film would collapse.
“I watched the American version of Animal Kingdom on the plane the other day,” he says. “All the actors are playing tough surfer types, and when they get to the beach they’re all on Mini Mals. It’s hopeless. It undermines everything.”
“What’s Animal Kingdom?” asks Coulter.
“You didn’t see the film?”
“Yeah, well,” says Baker, “if you want to be an actor you’re going to have to start looking at some movies, mate.”
Coulter looks reproached, but doesn’t say anything. Maybe he’ll save it for the surf.
Hi Ladies...I decided to fly to New York on Tuesday. Yeah...I know I am crazy but I am on vacation anyway and could find a good flight and place to stay so I just booked it yesterday. I think you all saw this competition to win tickets and I wanted to ask, just in case if you could do me a favour and even when you won´t be in New York, could you please participate in it so I could maybe use your tickets if you win??? I would be forever grateful. Thank you so much in advance
Simon Baker says the women’s empowerment movement has led to the the realization that men need “to grow.”
“That’s one of the obvious fantastic byproducts of [the movement] is that men are being forced now to have to grow and develop,” he told Page Six at a screening of his directorial debut, “Breath,” on Thursday night. “The notion of ‘toxic masculinity’ [is] being handed down through generations … now is the time that people need to understand that becoming who you are doesn’t mean you have to conform to a prescribed identity.”
Hugh Jackman and his wife, Deborra-lee Furness, hosted the screening of the 48-year-old Baker’s film, a coming-of-age story about two boys in Australia, based on the 2008 novel of the same name by Tom Winton. Baker also stars in the film.
“This film is in a lot of ways representative of a period that I’m hoping is ending, which is about prescribed identity,” the actor-turned-director said, adding, “the traditional notions of masculinity should be dissolved and rethought.” Modal Trigger Hugh Jackman, Deborra-lee Furness and Simon BakerGetty Images
Also known for his roles in “The Mentalist” and “The Devil Wears Prada” — which Baker was appropriately dressed in for the night — said he could relate to the book, having also grown up in Australia and struggled with conforming to gender norms.
“For me there’s a lot of times where I was a young man [and] I felt like I failed to comply to what was accepted as masculine and there’s a heartbreak to that and I think it should be a strength,” he explained.
As for his relationship with the “Greatest Showman” star and fellow Aussie, Jackman, Baker is grateful to have a friend who supports his venture into directing.
“He is involved in massive blockbuster films,” he said of Jackman, whom he knew before he came to the States. “Small independent films like this need every chance they can get and I’m eternally grateful to him [for wanting] to help to get it out there, its just a really nice gesture.”
Jackman. who was dressed casually in jeans and a white button-down shirt, was seen purchasing a Coke and a root beer from the theater’s concession before heading into the screening.
There is an article I read from "Eye For Film" entitled Bodies in the Water where Anne-Katrin Titze interviews Simon regarding Breath ( sorry don't know how to post). It's an interesting interview in which Simon says the grey sweater he wears in the movie was knitted by his Mum!
“I’m really proud of this movie and I still sort of pinch myself that we were able to pull it off at all,” confessed Simon Baker to The Guardian earlier this month in speaking about his feature film directorial debut. “What I wanted to do with this movie is try to make a film that had a bit more longevity and, for my own satisfaction, had some kind of a legacy that I felt proud of.” Up until this point, the Australian actor has been a TV mainstay with his seven-year tenure on The Mentalist, not to mention his three-season commitment on The Guardian before it, playing a corporate attorney sentenced to countless hours of community service at a child advocacy office following a drug conviction. Evidently, Baker is looking to cement a different kind of legacy with Breath: an adaptation of Tim Winton’s acclaimed novel of the same title, in which is he also stars.
Set in the 1970s and largely shot in the Western Australian coastal town of Denmark, Breath is a rite-of-passage tale that chronicles a pair of small town boys who come under the spell of a Svengali-like, former pro surfer. The bro-triangle that develops out on the water between sensitive teenager Pikelet (Samson Coulter), his reckless best friend Loonie (Ben Spence), and their mentor Sando (Baker) is held together by instinctive respect, but also threatened by ego and rivalries, especially as Loonie’s increasingly erratic bravado pulls him mercilously into the direction his name suggests. Further complicating the boys’ surrogate parentage is Sando’s wife, Eva (Elizabeth Debicki), a former competitive skier—a confusing erotic presence: too old to be a conventional love interest, yet too young to be their mother—who communicates a kind of impenetrable sorrow.
I’m sure adapting any novel for the screen, let alone something by Tim Winton whose work is beloved, is fraught with obstacles. What sort ofconversations did you have with him when you were about to embark on this project?
I had a couple of conversations with him on the phone and we talked more broadly about the approach to it. Then at one of the first dinners that just he and I had together, we pretty much outlined what I wanted to take out of the novel and distill into a film. Because they’re very different mediums, you can’t do a literal translation of the book and put it on the screen—it’s not really going to work out. It has to be broken down and then reinvented as a movie. So that was the process. I had the framework and the approach to it that I needed to run by Tim. I had his go-ahead or his approval and a sort of blessing, really, to be able to fuck with it and make it my own. He was a hundred percent on board with that. In fact, he was really encouraging of that, which I thought was brave of him and very trusting of him. Then he pretty much let me go in the direction that I wanted to go. He did a very early draft of the script, but I worked a lot with Gerard Lee. When we got to a point where [Gerard] kind of wanted to make a different movie out of it, I worked on it on my own from that point on, getting it to the shape where it is now.
I saw this quote from you: “You have to be prepared to murder the book, I think, and I needed to get Tim’s permission.” I think that’s so honest and accurate.
That was pretty much it, yeah. Breath was a seven-year journey for you to get made and you can sense that it really comes from the heart. But I understand you weren’t originally attached to direct on top of your other duties. Was there always an ambition to direct?
It was an ambition that I had for a very long time. I mean, pretty much from the point in which I was an actor arriving on set. I was like, “Yeah, this is fantastic. I’m on this set as an actor. But I’m much more interested in what that guy there is doing.” [Laughs] Because he’s the conductor. He’s the guy that’s putting the whole thing together and that always fascinated me a bit more. I like the way things work. [Directing is] a lot more consuming in so many aspects. Your time, your energy, your emotional input, your sense of craftiness—I find it far more fulfilling in so many ways than I do with acting. I wish I found acting as fulfilling. Unfortunately, I just don’t. I don’t dislike acting. I just like that all-consuming nature of directing. Maybe there’s a kind of parallel to be made between you, a veteran actor, directing these newcomer actors, and Sando mentoring the kids. Did that bring back some memories from when you first started out in the business?
A hundred percent. We were kind of living the story of the film in the making of the film in a lot of ways. It did make me [feel that way], just like probably how Sando aligns himself with these two young guys because I think he’s fearing his own mortality—a midlife crisis or something. Being around those two guys, Samson Coulter and Ben Spence who play Pikelet and Loonie, made me feel incredibly vital again. It did really energize me in a lot of ways, and because they were so raw and so natural, it kind of puts you on your toes as an actor as well. I’ve come to learn that you surf in real life so you were well-aware of the world that you’re going into. What was your approach to capturing these expressive images on the water? For instance, how do you communicate to viewers this feeling of surfing for the very first time?
My approach was to make it feel really authentic and a big part of that authenticity is the fact that, when you’re on the water surfing, you’re exposed to such a sensory overload at times. Sometimes, you can’t see completely. Other times, you can’t hear completely. So you’re sort of immersed in the water and the things that we rely on on land are pushed to the back. It’s incredibly visual when you’re surfing on the water. Some of the glimpses of the beauty that you’re exposed to and take for granted—I wanted to capture the simplicities of what those things are because I think it’s always going to help the audience feel like they’re experiencing it themselves. Also, living that experience through a character—going from land and transitioning into the water—you never really lose sight of the protagonist. We don’t detach and then see them surfing. We go with them. I think that helps to enhance the experience. Obviously, visually, it’s shot very simply, but that visual world is incredibly beautiful. Then the sound design just enhances the visuals. The sound design is a big part of this film. If you do get a chance, go see it in a cinema with good sound. The sound design is a big factor in a lot of the sequences in the ocean.
The film is so much your baby as a filmmaker, but you also turn in a great performance as Sando. Was he immediately recognizable to you? Who did you model that character after?
He was definitely immediately recognizable to me. I’ve had very similar relationships as these boys. I’ve had relationships with Sando-like figures all through my life, particularly through their age period. I mean, my upbringing was very similar to this. I knew most of these characters quite well. I didn’t model Sando after one specific person. I think there’s a bit of a license there because Sando is just one piece in the fabric of the film and I wanted him to be the antidote to Pikelet’s father, who is quite restrained and conservative. He’s loving and gentle and thoughtful, but quite conservative. The idea was that, as a sort of mentor figure, Sando paralleled the role of Pikelet’s father, but was the antithesis of his father.
You directed a string of episodes when you were starring on The Mentalist. I know that must be a completely different beast, but that must help you nonetheless. What did you find most challenging on this directorial debut on a feature film?
Because it’s such a personal story, I think the most challenging thing for me was keeping a perspective on the bigger picture of the story for audiences that do know this world. I love movies where you enter into a world that you’re not familiar with or that’s sort of somewhat unexpected, but there’s an integrity to the world where there isn’t anything that takes you out of it once you’re in it. You’re in it for the entire film, even if it’s a science fiction film. A fantastic movie that I love is Children of Men, the Alfonso Cuaron one with Clive Owen. You enter into that world and you just buy right into it completely. There’s no bad notes that take you out of what that world is. I enjoy that aspect of watching a film, especially if I don’t know anything about it and just going in and going,”Wow, I’ve gone into this other sort of dimension.” To keep perspective on the storytelling and keeping that world authentic, whether it’s personal or not, is a challenge. But going back to what you were saying about working on shows and directing episodes of The Mentalist, it’s a completely different animal. But obviously, it’s great training ground—a great sort of practice field for doing something that immerses like Breath.
Breath offers this bit of poetry in the form of narration: “How strange it was to see men do something beautiful. Something pointless and elegant, as though nobody saw or cared.” It’s a wonderful meditation on prescribed identities and finding your own way. What does that signify for you on a personal level?
I like what you’re saying: prescribed identifies. I’ve articulated that the film’s about identities, but I haven’t used “prescribed identity” and I’m going to steal that from you, Kee. [Laughs] Because that’s exactly what it is. To me, there were so many times as a young man this pressure to comply to a certain masculine ideal. So often, you would feel like a failure because you fell short in some way or you couldn’t live up to this expectation. It puts a lot of pressure on the individual. That is a prescribed identity. What I wanted to do was set up that framework of the stereotypical, masculine, macho sort of idea and subvert it through Pikelet’s strength as an individual, in the moment that he finds his strength as an individual that defines him as a unique person. And then he sees that in his father as well. That was important to me because I’ve felt those moments as a kid. I fell short and I didn’t understand why I fell short or why I had to comply to a prescribed identity. The Mentalist is far-reaching. You go to South Korea and they’re still rerunning episodes. I saw it come on in Austria the other day.You’ve cemented one legacy. What legacy are you looking to leave behind now?
I want to make films. I want to become a filmmaker. I want to make films that connect with people, you know? Whether I’ll be achieve that—I don’t know. I don’t think of it as so much a legacy. It’s more about just not taking the opportunities that I have for granted, more than anything. And growing. I wanna grow. I wanna learn. I wanna share these experiences with people. And when I say that, I don’t mean sharing the film with people so much as sharing the experiences of making the film because you do share that experience with a lot of people. That’s what you carry away. The film is a byproduct of that shared experience.
Is there a sophomore feature on the horizon?
There is. I’ve optioned Tim Winton’s most recent book called The Shepherd’s Hut, which is a great book. It’s tense and brutal and speaks a lot to intergenerational, toxic masculinity.
As if the Australian press tour wasn’t grueling enough, actor/director Simon Baker is now in the US promoting the Stateside release, where he spoke to Danny Peary about the masterful Breath.
It is not unusual that after seeing a good movie I read the source novel, because I am often intrigued by the choices madeduring the adaptation process. But it is unusual that after reading the book that I immediately see the film a second time. That was my experience after seeing Breath, Australian actor-director Simon Baker’s adaptation of Australian novelist Tim Winton’s international bestseller of the same name. I couldn’t let the story go. It’s a mesmerising film co-scripted by Winton, Baker, and Gerard Lee (Top of the Lake) that on the surface seems simple and innocent but is actually complex and often dark, and will keep you wondering about the characters and their risky choices long after the film ends. That’s why I recommend it. As someone who watched every episode of The Mentalist, it was a special treat to have this conversation with the personable Simon Baker last week at the Crosby Hotel in SoHo.
You directed episodes of The Mentalist, with great inventiveness I thought. But even with that experience I’d think it was riskyto cast two non-actors in the lead roles for your first feature film. Was it a worry for you or a good challenge considering that it isa movie about risk?
It was a risk. And like with any risk, it was a challenge in that you can get great stuff or fail miserably. The upside is really up, and the downsideis really disaster. But that could happen if you have trained actors. It was a calculated risk worth taking because for me the most important thingwas authenticity. For that I needed two young actors who could project their characters’ confidence in the ocean and able to do what was requiredphysically. I thought it would be easier to teach a couple of skilled young surfers how to act than to teach a couple of young actors how to surf.So that’s what I chose to do by casting Sam [Coulter] and Ben [Spence].
I would think that it would be another difficult challenge for you as an experienced surfer to convey to viewers who don’t surf what it is like to surf.
I thought that wasn’t possible until I read Tim Winton’s book. Tim is a surfer but he was able to articulate successfully to readers who never surfedwhat it feels like to be a surfer, to be in the water, to be in certain situations. That in a lot of ways was the challenge of making his book into a film, to be able to translate cinematically that feeling of complete immersion in the ocean.
And Samson Coulter and Ben Spence understood that feeling?
They are surfers. Our level of communication benefited enormously because we all surf. My cinematographer [Rick Rifici] had also surfed all his life and knew that world. So, we were all on the same page. There was no one outside the surfing world who was involved with that aspect of the film; there was so much surfing knowledge that we’d already acquired that we didn’t have to talk about it. We understood it all. We knew whereeveryone should be instinctively, so we didn’t have to yell, “Where are you going? Don’t go there!” We knew what was going to happen, we knew what to do. We knew what our limitations were.
Were all those exciting surfing scenes still difficult?
They were still difficult because we were working in an uncontrollable environment. And we were still trying to tell a story on the water. It’s not just footage. The story has a point of view and we had to express what was happening to those characters in those dramatic scenes on the water as opposed to the surfing sequences. In a lot of narrative films that have surfing in them, the surfing feels like a different movie. I wanted there to be integration. As a surfer it was important for me that the development of the relationships between those characters translates scene by scene from land into the water. I want the audience to live that experience of being in the water through the characters, to have it be intimate.
There is a conversation between Sando, Pikelet, and Lonnie about whether surfing is instinctual or requires intellect. As a sportswriter, I’ve come increasingly to the conclusion that the difference between a successful athlete and an unsuccessful athlete who has the same talent is more confidence and intelligence. Does that apply to surfing and these two kids?
Definitely confidence. These are kids who have grown up in the water, who have surfed from a very early age and have been constantly put into problematic situations where it’s only them and nature and they can get out of them only by using their wits. So, they’ve developed a uld see they had confidence when they were acting. The film is set in the seventies and my recollection of being a teenager then is that we were out and about all the time. It was a physical existence. With my parents, it was, “Just be home before dark.” That was it. We were encouraged to go out. When you are outside with no parents around, you get to figure out your own limitations.
I think Pikelet and Loonie are trying to find their identities. I’m not sure they find it in the right way, especially as kids, in that they come to identify who they are by how they respond to fear of the various waves.
You hit the nail on the head. For me, the primary theme of the film is the search for identity. That to me is the focus. We use fear because it is such a common sensation that motivates us in so many actions. Fear can incite violence, fear can incite paralysis. It can take us in so many directions. So, it ties directly to identity in so many ways. Pikelet doesn’t want to be his father. He fears being his father because he’s dull and he’s ordinary. He worries about being ordinary. He loves his father but rebels against him out of fear of growing up to be as ordinary as him.
And Loonie? Loonie might be intelligent but that never comes out because he does reckless things before he thinks them through.
Loonie’s fear is of not belonging. He wants desperately to be part of something. That’s what motivates him. That’s why he’s fearless in this other world.
He likes eating with Pikelet’s family and being kissed goodnight by Pikelet’s mum when he sleeps over.
He definitely wants to be part of Pikelet’s family at the beginning of the film. He jokes about it, but he really wants it. Pikelet thinks his home life is dull, but Loonie really loves going to that house and being part of that family. And later he wants to be Sando’s favourite. He wants to be adored by Sando.
In Tim Winton’s book, Pikelet narrates early on about him and Loonie, “We were friends and rivals.” But I think they aren’t rivals but friendly competitors – in the book they see who can hold his breath longer – until they meet Sando. He turns them into rivals for his approval. I think the movie conveys this.
Obviously, the book goes into more detail but what I tried to illustrate, as with so many things without bogging it down with plot, is that the level of rivalry or competition is exactly what you said – it’s over the attention and affection of Sando. So, when Pikelet finds out that Sando has taken Loonie to surf in Indonesia without him, that’s heartbreaking. When two’s company and three has become a crowd and you’re the one who is left out – and we’ve all been there – there is heartbreak.
Why does Sando do that, leaving with Loonie without telling Pikelet?
Because Sando is pitting one against the other to create competition, to create a rivalry. It’s exactly that. There is that natural best friends’ competition that always exists, but you see Sando trying to fuel it. Earlier, Sando and Pikelet surf Old Smoky while Loonie can only watch with jealously because he has a broken arm.
There is a scene when Sando drops off Pikelet at his house, and Mr. Pike (Richard Roxburgh) is outside. And they don’t say hello or acknowledge each other. Is that a big moment for you?
Yes. Initially I shot it with Sando nodding to his father and his father giving Sando a small wave. And that was it. But tonally it felt a bit forced. The scene that comes directly after that is at the dinner table and Pikelet’s dad says he’s going to take the dory out and fish on Saturday and Pikelet turns down his invitation to go with him. I didn’t want to put too much of a point on it if they’d waved so I cut the nod and wave and they just glance at each other.
I thought that scene is important because it shows another competition, between Mr. Pike and Sando for Pikelet.
Exactly. Who’s the father figure? I’m losing my son to this guy who isn’t even taking the time to meet me. I love when people notice the small things because there are a lot of details that people don’t get, particularly the first time they see the movie.
In the press notes, you say that you really knew the Sando character, that he’s familiar to you. I’d think he’d be a once-in-a-lifetime person you’d meet. He’s not like that to you?
No, there were a few guys like Sando around when I was a kid growing up on the North Coast of New South Wales. I knew those characters. I still do. The weird thing about the culture of surfing is that it has a mysterious mythology that all surfers love. We don’t touch it, we don’t go near it. A lot of these guys like to build this mystery and this mythology around themselves.
It’s aging that gets them, right?
Well, that’s sort of what Sando’s experiencing. He’s hurdling toward a mid-life crisis.
So he hangs out with two boys. When playing an enigmatic character like Sando, do you want to totally understand him?
I don’t want the audience to, but I want to understand him. The complexity of Sando has to do with the narcissistic quality to him. The big brave moment that happens, which is Pikelet’s arrival as a young man, is when Pikelet says he doesn’t want to go surfing with Sando and Loonie, it’s not for me. I think Sando has respect for Pikelet at that moment, but at the same time he tells him to get his board out of the back. Pikelet says it’s Sando’s board, but Sando says, “I said it’s your board so get your fuckin’ board out of the back.” Which means: you can do your thing but I’m still the fuckin’ alpha here. I kind of respect you, perhaps because of your bravery surfing, but don’t think the hierarchal structure is going to change. You’ve now got your own thing, Pikelet, so piss off. Then Sando drives off and he looks straight at Loonie, like, Don’t you abandon me, too! Because at that point, he needs them more than they need him.
Do you think a major reason that Pikelet and Eva start having sex while Sando is away with Loonie is that they both feel betrayed by him?
Yeah, but there is something that builds earlier. The idea is that Pikelet is a more evolved man than Sando is. Eva picks up on that quickly. There’s a sensitivity and self-awareness to Pikelet that Sando has no grasp of, but Eva does. Because Sando is a complete narcissist. Eva, in her frailty and depression, doesn’t articulate it but is a lot more aware of what’s going on underneath it all, in these dynamics. She sees it when Pikelet comes up the stairs while she is napping and is looking at her scarred leg and up her skirt when she wakes up. And he leaves. Pikelet owns up to that moment and there’s a maturity in that. Here’s this kid who is mature enough to acknowledge what he did and apologise. When we were shooting that I cried, I just broke down. Because it was so potent to me.
Late in the book, the adult Pikelet looks back on his affair with Eva and all that happened to him and Loonie with Sando as damaging. What you do is refuse to go where Tim Winton goes in the book. You protect Pikelet and save him from being hurt that way. You keep him grounded and safe and have him make mature decisions. That’s intentional on your part.
That’s completely accurate. That’s exactly what I wanted to do.
Did you discuss that with Tim Winton and your co-writer, Gerard Lee?
Tim did an early draft and I had a lot of discussions with him early on about how I wanted to break the book down and remake it as a film. I know Pikelet’s a wreck at later in life in the book, but I saw Tim recently when we were releasing the film in Australia and told him, “Tim, it’s so funny but I don’t remember what’s in the book anymore.”
Both the book and the film deal with the themes of fear and not being ordinary, but I think your film deals more with Pikelet and Loonie dealing with fear and the book deals more with Pikelet not wanting to be ordinary. Do you think that’s true or do you see a connection between facing fear and trying not to be ordinary?
No. I think that “ordinary” was a device that worked better for the book. I think for the film fear had more potency.
I see another, dangerous theme that fits all these risk-taking characters, including Eva, who wants to be choked during sex, and that is: what can kill you makes you feel alive. Did you want this to be a major theme of your movie?
I think that’s in the film. I think that’s definitely a major theme for Loonie and of Sando and Eva’s existence, but we primarily follow Pikelet’s story and his story is a little more about finding what makes each person tick. He’s a curious, empathic character. He’s curious about Sando, he’s curious about Eva, he’s curious about his parents, and he’s curious about Loonie. His relationship with Loonie was sort of born out of curiosity. Loonie is entertaining to be around but what makes him tick?
In the book, years later Eva hangs herself. When watching the movie, I worried the whole time that she might commit suicide. Did you feel that also?
I wanted the audience to feel a sense of dread. Eva’s moving toward something that’s pretty dark. But then she becomes pregnant and Sando says he’s going to be a father. So maybe things will be brighter for a while. A few people have asked me why I have the adult Pikelet tell us only what happens to Loonie and not what happens to Sando and Eva. And I tell them I don’t want to have truckloads of explanation in his voice over. Remember, the core of this story started with just these two boys.
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).