Hollywood’s Simon Baker dips into his past to make Tim Winton’s Breath
WHEN Simon Baker was growing up on the northern New South Wales coast and spending most of his out-of-school hours on a surfboard, he was constantly being challenged — not just by the waves, but by other surfers. It was a case of sink or swim for the sun-bleached future Hollywood Walk of Famer.
“There was a lot of peer pressure. You wanted to belong. You wanted to be part of the mob. There were tests all the time, where you had to push yourself,” Baker recalls.
Those challenges, he says, were part of a ritualised cruelty that was endemic to the surf culture in which he grew up (“They now call it hazing,” Baker says) and give us a disturbingly different picture of a world we think of as laidback, open-hearted, non-hierarchical.
“The weird thing is that when you’re a young fella if you didn’t get chosen for what amounts to torture you felt like you were being left out,” he says. “You were so desperate to have a story to tell you didn’t mind being tied up in a board bag and thrown into a swamp for four hours in 40C heat.”
With a lifelong passion for surfing and painful memories of machismo gone awry (or, in the post-Weinstein universe, “toxic masculinity”) it’s not surprising that Baker would choose to make his feature film directing debut with Breath, Tim Winton’s 1970s-set novel about two young surfers pushed to the limit by a charismatic former pro big-wave rider named Sando.
Under Sando’s tough-love regimen, Pikelet and Loonie quickly graduate from coolites to fibreglass boards and from the manageable waves close to their home on the south-west coast of Western Australia to a frightening break a kilometre out to sea.
“So which of Winton’s two heroes were you?” I ask the 48-year-old actor as he sits down with STM ahead of the Perth premiere of Breath. The soulful, bookish Pikelet or the feral, fiercely competitive risk-taker Loonie?
“As a young fella I was more of a Pikelet; as an adult I’m more of a Loonie,” laughs Baker. “Shouldn’t that be the other way around?” quips Winton, who joined Baker and the film’s two young leads, Samson Coulter and Ben Spence, for a busy round of interviews ahead of the release of Breath this week.
It was definitely Baker’s inner Loonie that pushed him and his partner, Rebecca Rigg, to quit well-paying jobs on the early 1990s Australian soap E Street, where they met and fell in love, and decamp for Hollywood (not such a big deal now, but Aussie actors back then were not the height of cool).
Baker says his risk-taking has always been encouraged by Rigg. “The culture of our relationship is that we’re always setting ourselves up for challenges,” he says. “We became parents quite young, we left the country and went to another not knowing what was ahead. It causes trouble, but it’s great.”
“Trouble” paid off handsomely for the father of three. After making a splashy debut on a small part in L.A. Confidential (1997) and paying his dreamboat dues in a series of comedies and romances (Something New, The Devil Wears Prada) Baker went on to become the highest-paid actor in American television with The Mentalist.
Despite these achievements, which include directing numerous episodes of The Mentalist, Baker considers adapting Winton’s 2009 Miles Franklin Award- winner the biggest challenge of his career — made bigger by the fact that he took on three roles.
Instead of restricting himself to calling the shots, which is the norm for actors making their directing debut, Baker co-wrote the script with Winton and Gerard Lee (Top of the Lake) and co-stars as the dangerous father figure Sando.
Baker says the scariest part of adapting Breath was not ordering around the crew or directing himself (“One less person to tell what to do,” he says) but dealing with the fact the source material has become a near-sacred text. “Every second person I met told me that Breath was their favourite book,” Baker says.
Curiously, Breath came to Baker not through an Australian source, but from a legendary Hollywood heavyweight Mark Johnson. One of the most elegant and artistically ambitious American filmmakers of the past several decades, Johnson’s remarkable CV includes Good Morning, Vietnam,Rain Man, Bugsy, Donnie Brasco, The Notebook and the recent television classics Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.
Johnson also produced The Guardian, the television series that set Baker on the path from charming support player to one of the small screen’s biggest stars.
After the highly literate Johnson devoured Winton’s slender but powerful examination of the dangerous tides between “breathing and gasping for breath”, between settling for an average life and the rush that comes from boundary-pushing and risk-taking, he immediately thought of his Aussie Guardian star.
Baker says that when he received the book with the offer of “doing something together” it had an immediate impact on him. “I know these characters,” says Baker, who rang Johnson back immediately, setting him on a journey that, he admits, has been in equal parts exhausting and exhilarating.
Part of that exhaustion came from shooting in a remote corner of WA. It seems natural for an adaptation of a book to be set in the place where the author imagined it to be, but making a movie away from major urban centres is expensive and fraught with problems.
Ironically, the person who was least interested in Breath being made in WA was Winton, who early on made the shocking suggestion (to local literary types) that the story could be relocated to California or Oregon.
The four-time Miles Franklin winner was concerned about the impact a multimillion-dollar film production would have on the fragile ecology of a small community.
“There are lots of stories where the circus comes to town, pillages and just moves on,” Winton says.
Denmark was eventually chosen for the six-week shoot in March and April of 2016, with its wild beaches and heavily forested coastline the perfect metaphor for dangers faced by the boys as they enter the dangerous waters of adulthood.
In the end, Winton is pleased that Breath was filmed in the region that had such impact on him when he was the age of Pikelet and Loonie.
“I knew deep down that it was the right place to make it. Their (the filmmaker’s) instincts were right. I was being selfish. I was dressing it up as altruism that I didn’t want to disturb the local community, but really I just didn’t want to share the secret,” he says.
By far the boldest decision made by Baker in making Breath was casting two non-actors in the lead roles. Instead of scouring the nation’s drama schools Baker went on the hunt for a pair of surfers, eventually deciding on the 16-year-old Coulter, who hails from Manly, and 14-year-old Margaret River grommet Spence.
Baker says he quickly realised he would have better odds teaching surfers how to act rather teaching actors how to surf.
“The moment someone picks up a surfboard you can tell if they know what they’re doing,” Baker says.
Amusingly, the biggest problem with casting a pair of accomplished surfers was they were too good, especially for the early scenes in which Pikelet and Loonie take their first tentative steps from styrofoam to fibreglass boards. Baker promptly ordered them to “unlearn” how to surf.
“We used to sit on the beach and watch the other surfers and take a few notes,” says Coulter, whose understated recollection of learning how to surf badly triggers a Falstaffian belly laugh from Winton. “Did you go and ask for some advice?” he howls.
Ironically, for two young men who routinely face waves that cause the rest of us cower on the shore clinging to our beach towels, Coulter and Spence were filled with fear when they first stepped in front of the camera.
“It was the scariest thing I have probably ever done,” Coulter says. “But it was a different type of scary. When you’re in big waves you’re not thinking about the situation. You’re just trying to survive. When you’re in front of the camera you’re thinking about the consequences and the pressure.”
What made it doubly challenging is that Baker didn’t want the boys to act. He wanted to get rid of all the “false notes”. “Simon often said to me on set, ‘Just don’t act’,” Coulter says, “which is a funny one because you’re acting and he was telling me to stop acting.”
Of course, the advantage of teaching two surfers to act and not the other way around, as well your third leading man and director being an accomplished big-wave rider, is that they could minimise the use of doubles.
This meant veteran Perth-based water cinematographer Rick Rifici could shoot the surfing action continuously, instead of having to cut away from actors and substitute stunt doubles.
“Normally I have to deal with actors pretending they can surf,” says Rifici. “So it was great to have actors who are the real deal. Simon is a really good surfer and the boys are fantastic.”
However, having real surfers presented Rifici with an array of other problems. It meant he had to photograph the action more like a documentary — to be ready for the shot instead of manufacturing the moments through clever staging and photography.
“The shots were longer, which means we were fighting to keep the water off the lens, we had to be on jet skis for longer and we had to battle the elements. But you can see for yourself that it’s well worth it. It feels real because it is real.”
Winton is currently on double duty — talking up Breath at the same time as selling his latest novel, The Shepherd’s Hut (see page 31), the tale of a teenager named Jaxie who after the accidental death of his abusive father (Captain Wankbag, he calls him) is on the run on the harsh salt flats of Western Australia.
Winton says that while promoting both it became clear to him the two narratives share a common concern — the dangers faced by young men coming of age in a culture that has a very narrow model of masculinity.
“Jaxie is Looney except he can’t surf,” Winton says. “Jaxie is an inland boy. He has never even seen the ocean. But Jaxie is like Looney in that he’s yearning for parental affection. He is a lonely, risk-taking boy who just needs some guidance and who is going to take it on. He’s a hard charger.”
Winton says he, too, has faced the kind of ugly, brutal behaviour in the surf that Baker encountered growing up in northern New South Wales.
“Some of these guys were the full dickhead package,” the 57-year-old Fremantle-based author said in a recent interview.
“They were rednecks. But there was also a script there. It was almost as if they were rehearsing what they thought a real man should be like.”
Winton believes that men have fallen well behind women in the journey towards becoming more fully rounded human beings. “Women have made enormous progress. It’s really heartening to see women encouraging each other to reach and go harder after what they deserve,” Winton says.
“It’s really disheartening to see that men are satisfied to stay where they are and not make equivalent changes. They are satisfied and lazy because they have the advantage. It is unexamined privilege.”
While Breath has sapped Baker, taking him away from Rigg and his three children months at a time, he clearly now has the taste for directing.
And if the effortless camaraderie between Baker and Winton on display during our interview is any indication, don’t be surprised to see his name attached to the film version of The Shepherd’s Hut, the country’s No.1 bestseller.
“I want to let go of this this one before I focus on the next one,” Baker says. “No rush, no urgency. These things take a lot from you. I need to replenish.” •