Simon Baker's Feature Film Directorial Debut
Cast: Richard Roxburgh, Elizabeth Debicki, Simon Baker, Rachael Blake
Director: Simon Baker
Running Time: 115 minutes
Synopsis: Mid 70's, in a remote corner of the Western Australian coast. Pikelet (Samson Coulter) and Loonie (Ben Spence) stand poised on the edge of young adulthood. The two are constant companions and fellow adventurers, but their home lives and personalities differ in crucial ways.
Mr and Mrs Pike (Richard Roxburgh and Rachael Blake) are solid and dependable " Pikelet is an only child, a thoughtful soul, and the Pike home is a warm yet slightly monotonous sanctuary. Loonie is fiercely competitive and brittle, and lives by his wits. His father Karl Loon (Jacek Koman) is a violent man and Loonie's home life offers no tenderness or protection.
Nevertheless, the boys bond over bikes and daredevil stunts, but their dreams begin to focus on the ocean. Pikelet can only look at it longingly from his father's fishing boat on the river; the journey across the sand bar to the open sea is off limits. For Loonie, the compulsion is what it always is " danger. Snowy Muir drowned out there. This coast is beautiful but brutal.
One day, the pull is too much and the boys cycle outside of their comfort zone down to Sawyer Point. There they encounter the enigmatic Sando (Simon Baker), a former professional surfer, whose effortless grace on the waves and studied detachment on land compels the boys.
Pikelet and Loonie begin to learn to surf, starting out on stubby, Styrofoam boards. As their skills increase, Pikelet shifts emotionally, by degrees, away from his parents. By winter, the pair are fitter and taller, but they still watch Sando from afar. They need to graduate to proper fibreglass boards, earning money doing manual work to afford them. The trick works – the first time they take their new boards out, Sando notices them, offers to store their boards under his house, and the mentorship begins. The challenge quickly becomes to surf Old Smokey, a dangerous break a kilometre out to sea.
Pikelet and Loonie's lives increasingly centre around Sando, his Kombi, his house, and most importantly, his role as guru.
Part of Sando's allure and enigma is that he disappears then reappears, but Eva (Elizabeth Debicki), Sando's enigmatic wife, is always at the house. A former champion freestyle skier from Utah, Eva's career was cut tragically cut short by a knee injury from which she's never recovered physically or emotionally. The feeling of being fully alive by being close to mortal danger was a narcotic for Eva, and it still is for Sando, and increasingly for Loonie.
Sando's forcefulness, Eva's allure, Loonie's competitiveness and the spectre of Old Smokey will all force Pikelet to make crucial decisions " to give in to the expectations of those around him, or to become his own person.
Release Date: May 3rd, 2018
About The Production
Background To The Film
The journey to the film began with a copy of Tim Winton's book Breath being sent to veteran Hollywood producer Mark Johnson's Gran Via Productions in Los Angeles. Breath had won Australia's prestigious Miles Franklin award in 2009, but was less known in the United States.
Tom Williams, VP of feature development at Gran Via Productions and the film's executive producer recalls: 'The novel was sent to us by an agent whose taste I particularly trust. We share books with each other and say, -Here's something you have to read, whether or not it could become a film.' Breath was sent to us under that guise."
Tom Williams was immediately fascinated and drawn into the world Tim Winton had crafted.
'Breath has an emotional depth yet is also a very accessible story, written in a vernacular that is both exotic and familiar. I sent it to Mark Johnson, my boss, and said -You've got to read this, I think there might be something here."
Mark Johnson, a producer on Rain Man, The Notebook and the Narnia trilogy, had in the past worked with the Australian actor Simon Baker had worked with Australian actor Simon Baker in the past. When he read the book, he was equally compelled and beyond the Australian connection something intuitively drew Johnson to call Baker, who knew Tim Winton's work but hadn't yet read Breath.
'Mark Johnson said, -I'm sending you a copy of the book, this is something that perhaps we could do together,'" recalls Simon Baker. 'It had an immediately profound effect on me. Having grown up in a coastal town in Australia, and knowing the characters in the book, I was drawn in. I called Mark Johnson immediately on finishing it and said -Yes'."
Although the book felt in certain ways autobiographical for Simon Baker, it was the universality of Tim Winton's depiction of the defining moment of stepping across the line from childhood to adulthood that he found so moving and accurate.
'What enhanced the connection was that at the time I first read it my two sons were, like Pikelet and Loonie, on the cusp of becoming young teenagers. Kids generally have this incredible unconditional love towards their parents, but there is that moment when your kid looks at you less adoringly and more to try and understand the person you are. I have always been fascinated by stories that capture the unspoken aspects of personal development, the foundations of one's identity."
Mark Johnson contacted Tim Winton about securing the rights to make the film. They planned to meet when Johnson was shooting in Australia, but were never able to be in the same place at the same time. 'In the end, we finally met in Portland, Oregon," says Tim Winton. 'I was arriving for a US book tour, but my plane was delayed and Mark Johnson was stuck sitting in a diner in Portland for a few hours waiting for me to show up. In the end, it was a great meeting; I was flattered that he was interested and surprised by how intense his interest was. It wasn't just about the exotic for Mark, that it was set in a different hemisphere. He saw that the story was universal. I could tell he was after the heart of the matter and I knew from then that he was going to make the film."
Finding a local Australian producer to collaborate with from early on in the process would be key. In 2009, Mark Johnson was in Australia shooting two films and he called producer Jamie Hilton and invited him on set. After a subsequent meeting with Simon Baker in Sydney, Mark Johnson and Simon Baker invited Jamie Hilton to come on board with his production company See Pictures.
'I think the fact that Mark Johnson, such a prolific Hollywood producer, read Tim Winton's novel and decided he wanted to make the movie is testament to the story's universal appeal," says Jamie Hilton. 'Our lead character pushes boundaries we all face - our mortality, our sexuality - and while the film has exciting spectacle, at its heart it's a very intimate and familiar journey".
'When we first optioned the book, Mark Johnson and I met with some really great directors," recalls Simon Baker. 'Everyone was interested because of Tim Winton's stature as a writer, but after one particular meeting, Mark Johnson leant over and asked me -has it occurred to you that maybe you should direct this film?' I said, of course it has, but I was never going to be so bold as to put myself forward unless someone recommended me. By asking that question, he more or less recommended me."
'There was no way I would be able to shoot Breath during a hiatus of The Mentalist, because I would only get three months off and this needed a lot more energy than I could give it while I was doing the show. I knew I was only going to be doing seven years of the show, so for the last year and a half I was gearing up to finish The Mentalist and then direct Breath."
Tim Winton would consult with Simon Baker remotely during the initial screenwriting phase. 'I spoke to Simon Baker on the phone a couple of times about script ideas while he was on the set of The Mentalist " we would have discussions between takes and then we met a year or so before the shoot began in Perth, and it was a good meeting. We realised that we were on the same page and understood each other instinctively and the work was something in common between us."
For the author, it was an unusual but pleasurable process to go back to the novel to repurpose it as a film. 'I had to re-enter the story and find the parts of the story that you couldn't do without. The rest of it was a feat of compression and elision, moving things around to make them fit. For other books there's so much information that the compression becomes a form of butchery, but for Breath, it was already there so it was leaving some things out of the suitcase."
For Simon Baker, it was vital that Tim Winton trusted him. Gerard Lee (Top of the Lake) came on to work on the screenplay with Simon Baker 'Gerard Lee brought a fresh and unencumbered voice to it. We were very lucky to have a screenwriter of his calibre involved," said Simon Baker.
'Tim Winton was incredibly gracious and supportive. He let me play with the material in my own way. I needed to know that he would be okay with that. He said something to me that was very simple but profound; -When I finish writing a book, it's no longer mine, it belongs to whomever reads it'. That statement is something that will always stick with me."
The challenge of directing as well as acting was an experience not foreign to Simon Baker, as he had directed and acted simultaneously in episodes of The Mentalist and The Guardian.
Of the dual role, Simon Baker says: 'It's not easy and wouldn't work for many roles; in this case Sando is a character that I know, and have known for some time. I imagine that gave me some kind of advantage. ' Tom Williams sees two connecting threads through all the film and television projects that Mark Johnson and Gran Via Productions produce " the idea of a family and who we choose to surround ourselves with for better or worse, and the idea of coming of age.
'In Narnia, there's a family that enters a land which they cannot fathom, and they have to figure out who the good guys are, and who are the bad guys, and rely on their own judgment to do that. Breaking Bad is about a man who finds himself disillusioned and powerless in his life and makes some bad decisions, and develops a family around him that sits to the side of his biological family."
'Breath explores the same themes, in a different but very moving way. Coming of age can happen early in life as it does in Breath, or later in life as it does in Breaking Bad. Every human being is always evolving. We're turning the lens on a part of that journey, dramatising it. Whether it's a big movie or a little movie, we're trying to say something about life on earth."
Casting And Characters
Breath is framed as a coming of age film for Pikelet, charting the forging of his identity, but the ensemble of characters are vital not just as foils to Pikelet's journey, but because each one experiences their own rite of passage.
For Simon Baker, these multiple trajectories are vital. 'At what point do you say -I am an adult'? You can say it all you want, but your actions are what define you. Everyone in the story is going through some sort of crisis of identity."
Of their origins, author Tim Winton says: 'The characters are all the kinds of people that I knew as a young man, but they're not based on particular people. I grew up in small communities like the community in the book, and I'm still living in those kinds of places. From before I was in puberty I was meeting these kinds of people, and I'm still meeting them, so I could pick people from any decade of my life and cast them as Sando and Loonie and Pikelet."
The film called for a challenging physical element that informed the approach to casting the two young lead roles. The actors would have to be able to surf.
That necessity was something Simon Baker felt comfortable with. 'It's probably easier to learn to act than it is to learn to surf," he explains. 'I think you just need permission to learn to act."
Simon Baker also wanted to cast non-actors as Loonie and Pikelet because he felt that the raw nature of the characters " two boys living in a remote corner of the world in the 1970s " could be difficult for trained actors to access in an authentic, uncomplicated way.
A national campaign via social media as well as traditional channels commenced, led by casting director Nikki Barrett. The high level of talent involved with Breath, paired with the fact that the book was widely loved in Australia, led to an enormous response. Casting would take a year.
'I had an expectation of what I wanted to achieve as far as a level of authenticity," Simon Baker explains, 'so the bar was high and I knew that casting was going to be complicated and time consuming, and it was." Simon Baker and Nikki Barrett were moved and impressed by the level of commitment from each of the candidates, who submitted introductory videos.
'It was profoundly energising and motivating to see how many young people were interested in putting themselves out there. Kids would record themselves, or sisters would record their brothers, it was fantastic and we had a massive response. We slowly went through them all and narrowed them down into lists."
Once the two roles were cast, Simon Baker engaged drama coach Nico Lathouris, who he had worked with many years previously, to help in the rehearsal process and give the boys their own strength and foundation. The dual role of acting and directing the novice performers energised Simon Baker.
'I was right there with them. If I was not in the scene, I was right there directing, and if I was in the scene I was right there acting and directing, so it was a very efficient way to approach things."
From the outset of the six week shoot, Simon Baker determined to set up a relaxed atmosphere on set for the two young leads.
'I didn't want the boys to feel any tension, any of that uptight rigour that can manifest on a film set," he explains. 'It was very important for me that it was loose and organic. They were so willing and so free that it brought out that joyful excitement out in everyone. These young boys were up for anything, they were phenomenal, and I am so proud of their work."
Executive producer Tom Williams says of the two young actors: 'We got to watch them realise what the craft is about. I remember meeting them for the first time and they were crackling with energy and it was clear that each of them had an element of the character on the page within them. It really was about watching Simon Baker pull that out and shape it into what needed to be there on the screen."
In the end, Tim Winton, who had first created the characters, had the highest praise for the entire cast. 'The casting was masterful for this ensemble piece. Watching them all at work bore out the judgment of the people who made those casting decisions. They found terrific actors."
Pikelet – Portrayed By Samson Coulter
Pikelet has grown up in a loving and safe family environment, but he's on the cusp of an age where he begins to crave things other than safety and familiarity.
Simon Baker says: 'When you're twelve your horizon is not that wide, but it seems enormous. From that period on, all you do is stretch your horizon out further and further. If you'd asked me when I was fifteen what I wanted to do with my life, I would have said I want to do anything but be the same as my parents. I just wanted to be different. It's a natural rebellion and one that defines who you are."
Pikelet is portrayed by newcomer Samson Coulter, who grew up on Manly Beach, just north of Sydney Harbour. Samson Coulter was alerted to casting notices by his parents and by a teacher at his school.
Samson Coulter says: 'I had done drama at school, but I'd never really imagined acting in a film. When the part came up, I thought it was interesting because it's rare that there's a part where surfing and acting merge together, so it appealed to me straight away."
As fate would have it, Coulter had read Blueback by Tim Winton and was just about to read the author's 2015 memoir, Island Home.
Samson Coulter sent in an initial audition video. An audition and call backs followed, and finally a workshop with Simon Baker, Nikki Barrett and a few other shortlisted boys. After the workshop there was a time gap and Samson Coulter almost forgot about the film in the maelstrom of schoolwork and surfing.
'In the summer holidays we were up north, out of Sydney, and mum tricked me and said that she'd got a call from the casting people and said in a sad voice, -I spoke to the Breath people…' and I thought, I probably didn't get the part. Then she said, -You got Pikelet!' I couldn't believe it. Simon Baker called me that afternoon to congratulate me."
The lure of the water that draws Pikelet was something Samson Coulter had felt himself " his surfing prowess would prove not only a technical advantage but an emotional advantage for playing then role.
'I've been a surfer forever, for as long as I can remember," explains Samson Coulter. 'Pikelet is a complex character and has a deep love for the ocean."
As the shoot commenced, Samson Coulter had to acclimatise to the colder waters of the south coast of Western Australia. He developed a routine of surfing with Ben Spence, who played Loonie, when not shooting, which would help the boys to bond and refine their acting skills helped the boys bond more closely and refined their acting skills.
'Simon Baker often said to me on set, -Just don't act', which is a funny one because you're acting and he was telling me to stop acting. I had to think about that for a while, to listen to what was underneath those words."
By the end of Breath, Pikelet's future seems assured, at least in terms of the person he will become. His story is learning that courage is more than physical bravery, that it's embracing who you are and taking responsibility for your life.
Executive producer Tom Williams says: 'Simon Baker talked about Breath as a film in which the hero does the heroic thing by not slaying the dragon. Sometimes the courageous thing is to walk away from a fight. In this movie it is a victory that he is able to stand on his two feet. Pikelet is a character who's going to be solid."
Loonie – Portrayed By Ben Spence
In Pikelet and Loonie, Tim Winton imagined two characters that were very different but drawn to each other for specific reasons.
'Pikelet's a careful boy " he's considered, responsible and what attracts him to Loonie is wildness. Loonie is a damaged boy; he's ungovernable and completely unable and unwilling to be contained by social proprieties, by any kind of limits. He's this wild spark who introduces Pikelet to a more adventurous way of being in the world."
Pikelet sees that Loonie's vibrancy is also self-destructive, driven by his dire family circumstances. Loonie will do anything because he doesn't care if he lives or dies; Pikelet comes to realise that life is sacred.
Simon Baker feels 'enormous empathy for Loonie, because I had many friends who were like him. There were times that I was like him, so I understand exactly where Loonie is coming from. He wants to, like all kids do, know that he has somewhere to belong and that he's of value in some way. He wants to know that someone cares about him and that someone feels for who he is. Loonie is trying to figure out who he is, but has a totally different set of circumstances to Pikelet."
Loonie is portrayed by Ben Spence, who at the time of filming was a 15 year-old surfer from the Margaret River region of Western Australia.
'I first heard about the film when Surfing Australia sent out a call about a film that was looking for a surfer kid to be in it," recalls Ben Spence. 'My Mum sent in a photo to Nikki Barrett and I auditioned for her. After that, I got sent to Sydney for a workshop with Simon Baker and then I got the job."
Of the comparisons between actor and character, Ben Spence feels that 'Loonie is a daredevil who wants to do everything at 100%. Loonie's life is similar to mine in terms of wanting to surf, doing pranks, but he's different in that he's reckless to the point that he'd kill himself doing something to show off."
Of the acting experience, Ben Spence says: 'It was weird at the start, getting makeup and that sort of thing, but it was cool getting a buffet every morning. It was interesting, tiring and hard work, but it was fun and worth it. Simon Baker calls it -professional bullshitting,' you pretend, but you put yourself in that situation, you believe that you are the character. When I had the first scene out of the way I felt pretty comfortable."
Ben Spence executed his own stunt of riding a bike and grabbing hold of a utility vehicle. 'I wouldn't call it a stunt. Well, it probably is for the movie, but I felt pretty comfortable because there was a pole there as well. I do that stuff at home, so it was fairly simple."
Ben Spence and Samson Coulter drew from their common experiences working with each other "surfing and being first time actors.
'Because I was with Samson Coulter in workshops and then as we started the shoot, I was comfortable with him," says Ben Spence. 'He's a funny kid, similar to my friends at home so pretty cool to hang."
Samson Coulter sees Ben Spence as 'a legend. It was good to be with someone who is in the same situation, who hadn't acted before, because you're both asking the same questions and wondering the same things. He was great to be around, he loves a laugh and he's the perfect Loonie, I reckon."
Sando – Portrayed By Simon Baker
Sando has experienced great accolades in the world of international competitive surfing, but is now living off the grid with his elusive wife, Eva, in a remote coastal house. Pikelet and Loonie are drawn to his golden hued aura, and he, at first noncommittally, adopts a role as mentor to the boys.
Of the pull that Pikelet feels for Sando, Simon Baker, who portrays him, says: 'Mr and Mrs Pike have one child and that child is pulling away from them, wanting to become his own person. The Pike household is restrained, respectful, and there is a contrasting dynamic at Sando's house. They actually yell at each other and have arguments and smoke pot and do all these exciting things."
Pikelet is at first seduced by the possibilities of freedom and self-expression that Sando's world evokes, but as he grows up, the perspective of the film towards Sando matures, revealing the fissures and the cracks in his world.
Simon Baker seemed fated to play the role; when Tim Winton met with Simon Baker, the author said: 'You were the guy I had in my head to play Sando."
'Sando is someone who's attractive to these boys because he's got a mystical warrior persona that they can't get enough of," says Tim Winton. 'Sando is a skilled and thoughtful person, but he's trapped in his own boyhood, he hasn't been able to relinquish his own golden youth. He's extending his youth through Loonie and Pikelet."
As the film's journey plays out, it becomes evident that Sando is getting more out of the relationship than Pikelet is.
'Pikelet, and Loonie, get out of him what they can and eventually they see through him," Tim Winton continues. 'I see Sando as a kind of a tragic figure really. An interesting man but a guy who settled for a version of himself and he's not brave enough to make another step into a different phase of his life. "
Eva – Portrayed By Elizabeth Debicki
Eva, Sando's wife, is a former competitive skier whose career was cut short by a traumatic and debilitating knee injury, from which she still suffers pain and reduced mobility.
Sando and Eva live in a microcosm in which Sando is still living a dimly lit version of his dream, but Eva's identity has been violently wrenched from her. The two were drawn together by the mutual love of the rush of adrenalin, by the power of risk, which is something she can no longer experience. The core of their relationship has been fractured. Sando, her only connection to the outside world, is increasingly distracted by his two acolytes.
Eva is portrayed by young Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki, who was drawn to the role itself, as well as to the source material. She was the final actor cast.
'Eva is American, so we'd been looking in that direction," says producer Jamie Hilton. 'Three weeks before the shoot began, I was talking to Elizabeth Debicki's agent about another film and her agent said, -Have you thought about Elizabeth Debicki?' and I said, -Let me talk to Simon Baker about her.'"
Baker said 'Elizabeth Debicki carries herself with great poise. She has emotional and intellectual confidence. I felt the idea of seeing someone so capable struggle with Eva's circumstances would be dramatically interesting."
'I was fascinated by Eva," Elizabeth Debicki explains. 'She's a complex amalgamation of pain and frustration. She's warm and loving but she's struggling profoundly because her identity was so wrapped up in her profession as an athlete. She's like a caged animal; she's incredibly vulnerable because she doesn't have control over her life anymore. She's at the mercy of Sando and his life decisions."
Eva's boredom and her desire to have some agency in her own life leads to a dark journey for Pikelet, who is bewitched by her.
'I was intrigued by the relationship with Pikelet and what that means and why she enters into it," says Elizabeth Debicki. 'There are a lot of unanswered questions about Eva and that's why I loved her."
The way that Sando and Eva live evokes the social movement of the time of -living off the grid'. The truth of the character struck Terri Lamera, the film's costume designer, who had lived in coastal Western Australia during the seventies, and was connected to the types of people the film portrays.
'For surfers, life is about surfing," Terri Lamera explains. 'If you want to come along for the ride, come along for the ride. For a while, I remember feeling comforted and comfortable in that lifestyle because there were so few expectations. The reality of living without electricity and lighting a fire when you want anything heated, going out into the forest to have a shower when it's freezing cold, is not as romantic as it seems. I know a lot of women who bathed their children in the sink because they didn't have a bath, and lived in a shed because the house that was being built never got finished, it was a repetitive story. Added to that, the isolation of living in those places by yourself when the guy's away surfing for who knows how long – a lot of those relationships fell to pieces."
Simon Baker says, 'Elizabeth Debicki has a rigorous approach to her work, she works very hard and she takes it very seriously. It took her a day or so to understand the tone on set, that it was safe to take risks. She did a wonderful job in one of the most difficult roles in the film."
Mr Pike – Portrayed By Richard Roxburgh
Australian actor Richard Roxburgh, who plays Pikelet's father, has a long connection to Tim Winton's work.
The actor explains: 'I read That Eye, The Sky in the early 1990s and thought it would make a fantastic piece of theatre. So, a mate and I created a piece for the theatre company that we had then. It was a very special time, and Tim's work translates uniquely and incredibly well to the stage."
In more recent years, Richard Roxburgh was engaged to read the novel Breath as a talking book for the BBC, as well as acting in many screen adaptations of Winton's work.
'I love the -frequent flyer' points that I have in the world of Tim Winton," says Richard Roxburgh. 'There may not be any other actors who've done more Tim Winton work. Breath is my third Tim Winton film, so that's getting up there, I should get points."
Richard Roxburgh and Simon Baker knew each other distantly when the actor was approached about the film and the role.
'I was attracted to working with Simon Baker because I've always thought he was a lovely bloke, a terrific actor and I thought he would work really well with the young actors playing Pikelet and Loonie. Simon Baker is a very subtle actor and you needed somebody who could work very delicately with the boys in those roles."
Mr Pike is a tinkerer, a potterer " a man who spends most of his spare time in his shed fixing things, as Richard Roxburgh's own father had. Not just the character, but also the context evoked strong feelings for Richard Roxburgh.
'There was a great beauty and nostalgia for me in the film. I walked into the Pike family house created for the film and it was incredibly moving. There were print patterns in the lounge room that I hadn't seen since I was a boy " our house was infested with them because we were not hugely well off. The paraphernalia of the seventies within the film, that's where I grew up."
Richard Roxburgh sees Tim Winton as a writer who speaks in a very particular way to Australians.
'He rings a bell, certainly with my childhood and translates it beautifully to the page. His themes occupy a special place in the Australian imagination because he talks beautifully about landscape, about water, and about this strange place that we occupy in the landscape, pasted around the periphery of it."
Mrs Pike – Portrayed By Rachael Blake
When actress Rachael Blake was Pikelet's age, she'd just moved to Australia from England with her family. 'I was in a completely alien environment, it was hot at Christmas which was bizarre, and I was the posh girl at school. I was relentlessly teased. I was a bit lost and incredibly shy. We used to have a joke in the family that I used to -hide behind the couch' when anyone visited " an invisible couch that I used to drag out in conversations and hide behind."
Rachael Blake was living in London when she first encountered Breath. An Australian friend who had been a houseguest left her the recently released hardback as a leaving gift.
'It was beautiful because reading it was a little slice of Australia under the grey London skies. The way Tim Winton writes has an elegance to it, and I don't mean stylistically, I mean a mathematical elegance. He tells a story in the simplest possible form, there are no complications to his writing. I find it incredibly accessible and visual."
Rachael Blake sees Mrs Pike as a warm, supportive parent who doesn't quite know what her child is going through, but who allows Pikelet's rebellion to happen while supporting him.
'I think it's an incredibly evolved thing to do. She's watching her son push away from her but it's not a war, it's something that she allows to happen. It's unconditional love. In the book, Tim Winton describes the relationship as tenderness without intimacy. I can see that, because one hand is pushing away and the other hand is holding on, but it's also a very sweet inclusive way of being that they have with each other."
For Rachael Blake, the particularity of the setting has a relevance to the way the relationship between mother and son plays out in Breath.
'Perhaps back in the seventies these were problems that we solved ourselves, whereas now Mrs Pike might be online looking for pointers about how to talk to her son, she might have found a therapist, she might be on a Facebook group for wayward kids, there'd be more infrastructure around it. In this information drenched world, I can't imagine that the microcosm they've created that exists only around them would be there."
Mr and Mrs Pike have a long established relationship, to the point where they don't directly speak to each other through the course of the script. Rather, they communicate to each other through their child. Working together for Rachael Blake and Richard Roxburgh was not a new experience for the two actors, nor was playing a married couple.
'Rachael Blake and I played Bob and Hazel Hawke together in one incarnation," recalls Richard Roxburgh. 'She was also recently in my show Rake. It's always great working with her, she's a natural, she's terrific."
For Rachael Blake: 'I love that Richard Roxburgh and I take the work seriously but we don't take ourselves seriously. When Richard Roxburgh is on, he's completely on, and then when we're off set we can laugh and relax. I adore working with him."
The production design of the Pike's house, as it did for Richard Roxburgh, evoked strong memories for Rachael Blake. 'It's that tenderness of the seventies. The beach, the denim shorts, the waves. Summer came into your house then. There was no air conditioning, no mobile phones. If you wanted a note, you had to write it. There was an immediacy that life forced you to have."
Finding The Locations
Despite the universality of the book's themes, the specificity of the landscape would be vital to creating the visual and emotional world of the film. For Tim Winton, the south coast of Western Australia has a significant impact on his work " most of his books and short stories are set in or touch on this region. 'I think it's the strangest, most enigmatic and beautiful part of the world," he says. 'I went there as an exile at 12 years old and hated it, partly because it was always raining, but when I left I felt that it had got under my skin and it was part of me forever."
In Breath, the landscape shapes the characters - their behaviour and aspirations are strongly influenced by the particular personality of the environment.
'Australians are like that, I think more than many places," Tim Winton continues. 'We're the product of our geography. So in the sense that the film shows how overpowering the landscape and the coast is, that makes it quintessentially West Australian."
Despite this, Tim Winton himself initially encouraged Simon Baker and Mark Johnson to make the film elsewhere.
'I suggested that they could make the film in California and it would be fine by me, but Simon Baker and Mark Johnson were very keen to make it in Western Australia. To be honest, I was a little anxious, it was like the world was going to come to my little secret place, but I knew deep down that it was the right place to make it. Their 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."
During the writing process, Simon Baker conducted location research, flying to Perth, driving down to Albany and then back up to Perth along the coast, looking for the perfect place that felt like it had the various aspects that were necessary for the way in which he wanted to tell the story.
The director explains: 'In Breath, the beach and the coastline are important, as is the coastline in relation to the town and what the town represents. Even though you don't get to see the town much in the film, you get a good sense of the journey from the town to the coast and the estuary, and how the estuary connects to Pikelet's life. All those things are intrinsic to the way the story stacks up emotion." Finding this ideal location was, in the end, fortuitous and speedy.
'At the end of the first day, we arrived at a little town called Denmark," recalls Simon Baker. 'We drove towards the beach, it was around 4pm and the light was gorgeous. We went up to a lookout and from there we could see the sweep of Ocean Beach and the Nullaki Peninsula lit up in the distance. It looked so majestic but also inviting and nurturing. The beach wasn't very developed, and incredibly rugged, and I thought this is geographically exactly what the town feels like to me in the book."
'I said to the location manager and to Jamie Hilton, -This is the place'. We took photographs then, and many are very similar to shots in the film. I have a photograph of the back of the Pike house that we used in Denmark; it was the first house we went to. We looked at other houses and went through a whole process but ended up coming back to that house."
When the team returned to Perth, that Denmark was the ideal location was in part endorsed by Tim Winton himself.
'Tim Winton asked if I'd found anywhere I wanted to film," Simon Baker continues. 'When I mentioned Denmark, he said -Oh, that's interesting' and left it at that. Legend has it, there is a house in Denmark that he lived in when he wrote the book, something which Tim Winton has neither confirmed nor denied."
With the help of government film funding agencies Screen Australia and ScreenWest, and government economic and social development agency Great Southern Development Commission, filming in and around Denmark became feasible, in terms of budget and logistics.
Executive producer Tom Williams says: 'The dream had been to film Breath in Western Australia. We thought we'd probably have to shoot it somewhere else but when it became a reality, it really excited us. We were incredibly well supported by Screen Australia, ScreenWest and the Great Southern Development Commission. They gave us not only the financial support but also incredible advice. They recommended the best window of time to shoot the film in, in terms of ideal weather conditions, and they supported every decision that we made. It was a very harmonious relationship."
Tim Winton's hesitations about the local community being disturbed were in the end not necessary. The production would be a positive for the area, employing locals in a variety of roles and injecting money into the community.
Production designer Stephen Jones-Evans had read Breath before being sent the script and was familiar with Tim Winton's work.
'What really attracted me to the project was the fact that I was Pikelet's age in 1975 and I lived through the world depicted in the book and the film," says Stephen Jones-Evans. 'My brother was a huge surfer in the early 1970s " though I wasn't a surfer myself, I understood that culture."
Stephen Jones-Evans was also drawn to Simon Baker's profound connection to the story. 'Because this story is really about Simon Baker's upbringing as well, when we discussed the approach in the initial stages, we were always talking about it from a place of authenticity. You felt that Simon Baker had lived this."
The first parameters of the production design that Simon Baker and Stephen Jones-Evans set was that they didn't want overtly iconic images from the 1970s. They eschewed a drippy seventies period approach in favour of a stripped back aesthetic.
'Because the 1970s has been treated so iconically in a number of films, we wanted to go back to a monochromatic, raw, unfiltered look at the period," explains Stephen Jones-Evans. 'We looked at a lot of references, particularly the work of John Witzig who was one of the major Australian surf photographers of the period. His pictures became a kind of a bible on which we based our images."
Simon Baker and Stephen Jones-Evans went to great lengths to ensure authenticity. Sando and Eva's house, the place where Pikelet and Loonie increasingly spend their time on land, would eventually be made from the ground up when the right house couldn't be found as an existing structure.
'The sort of house we needed was very common when I was a kid on the North Coast of New South Wales," says Simon Baker. 'I had this romantic notion that those houses still existed and they do to a degree, but there was a certain point when those living an alternate lifestyle discovered power tools and a lot of the finishes started to change. They aren't as handmade anymore."
The team looked at 45 houses built in the 1970s, but many had been partially modernised or had gardens that were too well established. Sando's house is a place in which many different storylines meet and required specific physical elements to enable these intersections to take place. To be able to connect the inside to the outside, Stephen Jones-Evans and his team used a great deal of glass and took advantage of reflections to bring nature into each frame.
The overall impact impressed Simon Baker. 'It was exactly how I'd imagined it. Stephen Jones-Evans did a wonderful job. When you look at the house onscreen, you can feel what it would be like to rub your hand on the walls, you can smell what it's like to be in the house. Stephen's attention to detail is so precise that those senses are triggered."
As part of the producers' emphasis on employing local talent, the house was constructed by a builder from the Denmark region. Other local professionals provided innovative solutions that worked within the film's budget.
'We had a number of scenes that called for rain," says Stephen Jones Evans, 'but we couldn't afford to bring a special effects technician plus all their equipment from the eastern states. We found an irrigation specialist called Simon Shepard, gave him a budget and he bought plumbing pipe and hoses, did a number of tests and, with few adjustments, he created two fantastic water towers that created our rain."
One of the first people Stephen Jones-Evans employed in the Art Department was Jodie Cooper, a former prosurfer, who was engaged to supervise the construction of the surfing paraphernalia, which, again, needed to be completely authentic to the period.
'Jodie Cooper had worked in the Art Department on a number of other films that I'd worked on, so I knew I needed to get her on board, because it required that level of authenticity. Because surfing was such a big part of Simon Baker's upbringing, I knew he'd be very detail focused on those aspects of the design. Jodie Cooper is from the part of Western Australia we were filming in, she knew all the surf spots and knew the characters. I got her on early to start researching and making all the boards."
Ben Spence, who portrays Loonie, was struck by the differences between the film's boards to those he uses today. 'The surfboards were different in a lot of ways, they had a single fin, they hadn't discovered the thruster, and they were a lot thicker and longer. They were very different to ride in the film, harder to turn and harder to speed on."
A key part of Stephen Jones-Evans' set was the landscape, so crucial to Tim Winton's world which plays a crucial part in Tim Winton's world.
'The region we filmed in has some of the best coastline I've seen in Australia and was reflective of how we treated the period," he explains. 'It feels very raw, and has this beautiful flaw in the way that the peppermint scrub rolls down to meet the white sand, which meets the aqua blue sea. You've got nothing in front of you except the Antarctic, so you've got those wild southern oceans pushing in on this incredible landscape."
Costume Design And Hair And Makeup
Costume designer Terri Lamera was no stranger to film and television adaptations of Tim Winton's books, having worked on the mini-series adaptation of Cloudstreet in 2011. Terri Lamera felt particularly drawn to Breath, because she'd lived in Western Australia in the 1970s, emulating a similar lifestyle to that of Sando and Eva.
'A lot of the guys that I hung out with surfed," she recalls, 'a lot of people were building their own houses out in the bush, trying to find a better, non-materialistic lifestyle. I knew a lot of Sandos, and I think there are still a lot of Sandos hiding in the hills behind Denmark, which is one of the things that gives the place its charm."
Terri Lamera compiled a vision book of costume concepts and designs, which combined John Witzig's photographs along with personal photographs taken by Terri Lamera and friends, some of whom still live that lifestyle. As with the production design, Simon Baker and Terri Lamera's aim was to pare back, to keep the costumes as simple and authentic as possible, and to integrate them with and take inspiration from the environment.
'Simon Baker, Steven Jones-Evans and I created a palette that drew on Denmark's unique colours, which are quite different to the rest of Western Australia. We dyed a lot of the clothing and aged the pieces, to create realism. Simon Baker was keen for us to use a lot of texture in the clothing so we produced a lot of beautiful hand knits. We had a local lady who knitted some beanies for Loonie and we sourced antique hand spun wools from Melbourne that we knitted into jumpers."
Pikelet and Loonie are kids in the early scenes of Breath, so Terri Lamera dressed them in generic oldfashioned swim shorts and T-shirts, dyed to the colours of their surroundings, and in Plimsolls. When the pair begin to use proper boards, their look begins to imitate Sando's.
Of Sando's costuming, Terri Lamera says: 'Simon Baker is a surfer and he grew up a surfer so he looks like he belongs in what we dressed him in, and in fact one of the things he wears in the film is a jumper that his mum knitted for him, which looks totally right for the period."
Terri Lamera worked closely with hair and makeup designer Shane Thomas, who she'd last worked together with years earlier.
'I hadn't read the book when I was contacted by Simon Baker to meet him and talk about the project," Thomas remembers. 'Once we started chatting and I could see how excited he was, and how interesting the subject was, I was on board. What excited me were the intricacies of aging these two boys, from 13 to 16, without making it look hokey or contrived, but creating a free flowing coming of age."
For Loonie and Pikelet, Thomas referenced various photographs from the period, in which young surfers had often cut their fringes off so that their hair didn't fall in their eyes when they surfed. He had the added challenge of aging the two young actors.
'I thought that the best way to approach it overall would be through skin tone and slightly changing their hair length and colours," Thomas says. 'When they're younger, they haven't been as exposed to the sun so I kept them paler. As they grow up, they're more exposed to the sun, so I gradually darkened their skin tones."
'I did a trick with Loonie where I gave him a fringe and underneath that fringe there's a shorter fringe. For scenes where he was younger I pushed those bits to the side so you'd see a shorter fringe, and then when he's older I brought it heavier at the front."
For Elizabeth Debicki, playing Eva, Thomas says: 'The imagery that kept coming up was Joni Mitchell and I thought that was a really good way to go. Joni Mitchell was the perfect iconic seventies woman, and beautiful, as Elizabeth is, so that's where we started in terms of hairstyle, length and colour for Eva."
Of the interplay between the two departments, Lamera says: 'There's no point in creating a costume that looks authentic if the hair and makeup aren't authentic, you've wasted your time. It was such a joy to work with Shane and see it all come together. I brought Shane into the costume area to show him what I was doing; we went through Witzig's work together and looked at different haircuts from the period. From the moment the two boys went into Shane's trailer and came out with their haircuts, it completely changed the look and had a huge impact."
Both Terri Lamera and Thomas felt, for different reasons, powerfully moved by how working on this story interplayed with their own experiences as young people.
'I was in tears many times on this job," Terri Lamera confesses, 'at how real it felt to me and how much it reminded me of times when I was young, when everything was full of promise and life was simple." 'I can relate because there was a lot of angst for me when I was 15," says Thomas. 'I grew up in the country, and I didn't know what a gay person was when I started feeling things. I think there's a correlation with Pikelet. Pikelet's decisions end up becoming ethical and moral, he's really thoughtful about his decisions. Don't feel pressured to do something that you don't really want to do if you think it is right. The decisions he has to make are so mature for a 16 year old. It's really beautiful."
A photo of himself as an eight year old became Thomas' inspiration for Pikelet's hair.
'When we were trying to work out what to do with Samson's hair, I found a photo of me as a kid in my iPad case " I'm not sure why it was in there " and I said -I think I just found the solution.' During the shoot, the photo was stuck on my mirror as a reference for the character's hair, but also to look into my eyes as an eight year old and feel those feelings of being indestructible, before you're conditioned by adults and by society."
Filming in Western Australia was ideal for Simon Baker and the other producers, not just in terms of authenticity to Tim Winton's setting, but to keep integrity in deeper ways.
'One of the things that we talked about from the beginning with Breath is that this be made as Australian as possible," explains EP Tom Williams. 'We didn't want the fingerprints of Hollywood on this movie so we always had, in our minds, designed this to be an Australian film."
Australian producer Jamie Hilton knew that the team could take advantage of the particular incentives offered by the state, including a recently announced $16 million Western Australian Regional Film Fund, as well as the experience and skill of local crews.
"When people think of Western Australia, they think of mining or a giant desert. Not many people know that they have one of the best funded and supportive screen agencies in the country, and as a result much of Australia's film production happens there. The crew are hardworking, experienced and have great equipment, and the locations are very diverse and underexposed. Our company produced three films in WA in 2016/2017, a futuristic sci-fi, a Perth set drama and Breath, which showcases the spectacular Great Southern region and its dramatic coastline. I'm sure WA's new regional film fund will generate further production and give more communities the experience of having a film come to town".
The film presented a specific challenge that has long faced filmmakers " shooting in the water.
'Mother Nature controls so much when you are shooting a film on dry land, but as soon as you get out into the ocean every problem is magnified one thousand fold," says Simon Baker. 'You can't employ the same range of equipment you can use on land, it's hard to communicate on the water, you have more complex safety issues and many factors can change in a matter of seconds."
The producers assembled a highly experienced water camera department which was small in number, to allow nimbleness.
Rick Rifici, who would shoot all the surfing scenes as well as the underwater scenes, brought with him the added benefits of originating from Western Australia. Rick Rifici had filmed a wide range of surfing scenes, for TV commercials as well as drama.
'With my job, I've been lucky enough to travel the world," Rick Rifici explains. 'I normally hit the road for six to nine months a year. Depending on the weather conditions, we travel from Fiji to Tahiti to Hawaii then Western Australia. We follow the sun, or follow the swell rather."
Whereas the main unit director of photography on land, or on a boat, has a support crew, Rick Rifici was often alone, even for the dialogue scenes.
'I'm usually a one-man band once I hit the water, dealing with technical aspects of the camera and gear, dealing with Mother Nature in some awkward positions at times. The surfing scenes on Breath were mostly smooth, and we had a really good safety team. We filmed some point of view shots from the tinny one day, with Simon Baker and Samson Coulter, and experienced what's called a ghost bommie where we suddenly went over quite a large wave, but the skipper handled it extremely well, everyone was safe. Everybody was highly experienced in what they were doing."
Simon Baker's decision to cast boys who could already surf, as well as his own surfing prowess, greatly benefited Rick Rifici's job.
'Normally I have to deal with actors that can't surf. Trying to -sell' that they're surfers, even if it's just paddling, let alone getting to their feet or catching a wave, is really hard, whereas Simon Baker is a really good surfer and both the boys are really good water men, so it made everything authentic."
Simon Baker was impressed with the team, and was deeply thankful for and awed with the final results. 'We had a great team. At times it rained and the winds turned onshore and we had storms that battered us, but it was all in or nothing and in the end, we got really lucky, so lucky. When I look at the film now I still pinch myself and cannot believe that we were able to get what we needed to get to tell the story."
The Finished Product
Editing Breath was a significant undertaking, given the amount of not just on water footage, but additional land footage that Simon Baker captured.
'I have always had a deep respect for editors, but I have a particularly enormous respect for Dany Cooper, who edited Breath, for her attention to detail as well as her compassion. She understood, during the process, that the story was very personal for me."
'The mood while we were editing was incredibly collaborative and extremely focused," says Dany Cooper. 'Simon Baker is a remarkable director. He was intent at all times on telling the story in the most nuanced way possible and to create a film that felt very real. His enthusiasm and love of the project was infectious." The most striking challenge for Dany Cooper while editing Breath was the water material.
'Choosing the right pieces to tell the story was paramount. As I had not really surfed, I relied on Simon Baker to tell me what was -good' surfing as opposed to -not so good'. Some days we would spend a day assessing a single set of waves. We would line them up in rows, work out which was the best wave for that particular moment in the story, then start the work of making sure it fitted into the scene. The waves were shot on a Red camera at 6k resolution, so we could create frames out of frames, which was a great benefit."
The film's composer, Harry Gregson-Williams, is best known for large scale Hollywood films like the Shrek franchise, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and The Martian. Harry Gregson-Williams joined the film's team on seeing an early edit of the film, drawn to the performances and to Simon Baker's handling of the material.
'I was struck by the subtle performances Simon Baker was able to capture from the two young boys playing Pikelet and Loonie. Simon Baker, as a director and an actor, is masterfully connected to the story and its intricacies, and it was his welcoming collaborative approach that made me take a head-first dive into the film."
Simon Baker wanted to ensure that Harry Gregson-Williams' music communicated a sense of subtlety, space and breath. Because the film takes place in the 1970s, Harry Gregson-Williams' score became primarily guitardriven, and the harmonic structure and style were influenced by the music of the era.
Of working on an intimate, small-scaled film like Breath, Harry Gregson-Williams says: 'I had to be careful not to -over-score' certain moments, as many of the emotional beats and relationships were so delicately acted and crafted. In that sense, it was actually much more challenging writing the score for Breath, because as a composer you can't rely on your compositional instincts or fall back on certain tricks you've acquired. There's no hiding or masking anything in such an exposed and raw film like this. It was a refreshing and challenging process, which I truly enjoyed."
At the end of the process, the producers were aware of the uniqueness of the film they had been able to craft.
'It's rare that you have the opportunity to make a picture like this," admits Jamie Hilton. 'Cultural funding for the arts allows us to tell our own stories and Tim Winton articulates the Australian experience in such a beautiful and unique way. It was a real privilege to work with Simon Baker and Mark Johnson to bring Breath to the screen at the scale which the story demanded. Australian audiences and filmmakers are fortunate to have screen agencies, distributors and cinemas that are supportive of local stories and talent."
Working With Simon Baker
Samson Coulter: 'Simon Baker taught me everything I know. It was amazing to see someone handle the pressure of making a film like he did. It was awesome to see someone who was so in love with the story that he was telling."
Tim Winton: 'I couldn't think of anyone better to direct Breath. It was a brave thing for him to do and I think it's great to see someone extend themselves as an artist. I'm happy that he's having his feature directing debut with one of my books, it's a privilege."
Tom Williams: 'Simon Baker has an incredible creative mind and it's been in acting that most people have experienced that, but he's proven himself with Breath. He directed, he wrote, he was a fantastic producer, he wore so many hats. His understanding and his ability to realise this vision is really uncommon."
Jamie Hilton: 'Simon Baker is very specific, very direct. What makes him so strong as a director is that he's a fantastic communicator. He speaks to people in their language and has a great universal understanding of filmmaking because he's grown up on sets. If Simon's directing career burgeons - if he's the director that I believe that he is - he'll go on to have a big future. It's been really exciting to be a part of the beginning of that."
Elizabeth Debicki: 'Simon Baker was very passionate about Breath. He directed it from his heart. Every choice was made with precision and trying to access the truth of the moment for each character. He directs with a lot of detail and specificity and I loved working with him because of that."
Shane Thomas: 'Simon Baker has a very calm energy to be around. He's a great director, amazing with the cast, with the young boys who had never acted before he guided them expertly. The casting was flawless and he did a really good job with crew. He assembled an incredible team of creatives."
Terri Lamera: 'Simon Baker is such a warm and beautiful human being. He has a really strong vision, a clear picture of how he wants things to be. He's incredibly visual and has a fantastic eye for beauty."
Richard Roxburgh: 'From the first phone conversation I had with Simon, I could tell that he was completely embedded in this story. He's incredibly passionate and sweats every single tiny detail. He has an ease with actors, because that's the territory that he comes from, and he's such a good guy."
Rachael Blake: 'Simon Baker has an incredible passion for this story. What was interesting for me was working with an actor who's now directing, it was interesting getting inside his world, which was very simple, very pared back. He was always trying to get away from any sort of artifice."
Working With Samson And Ben
Elizabeth Debicki: 'Samson Coulter and Ben Spence are gorgeous, annoyingly wonderful actors and are so natural. It's unfair that they can surf so well and act so well. They seemed born to be in these roles, I loved watching them work."
Richard Roxburgh: 'Samson Coulter and Ben Spence are really pretty special. It was extraordinary how relaxed they were acting on film, having never done it before. The natural ease that they had was fantastic. They both managed to occupy that territory really beautifully."
Rachael Blake: 'Ben Spence is kind of twitchy, he's got a great quality I hadn't seen before and Samson Coulter has a very soft quality to him. It was like working with sponges, they were learning on the go. As a trained actor, they forced me to be very honest because they don't know how to lie yet, whereas as professional actors we lie all the time. On set when you're telling the truth, you're lying in some respects. This will be the first of many films, I would say, to come for both of them."
Release Date: May 3rd, 2018