‘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.
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