Bodies in the water

Simon Baker on fathers, sons, a rescue dog and Breath

by Anne-Katrin Titze

The Mentalist star Simon Baker with Anne-Katrin Titze on the evolution of Tim Winton's Breath, adapted by Baker and Gerard Lee, to become his directorial debut‪: "I was given the novel by my producing parter Mark Johnson, seven or eight years ago now, just to sign on as a producer."
The Mentalist star Simon Baker with Anne-Katrin Titze on the evolution of Tim Winton's Breath, adapted by Baker and Gerard Lee, to become his directorial debut‪: "I was given the novel by my producing parter Mark Johnson, seven or eight years ago now, just to sign on as a producer." Photo: Denise Sinelov

At the Crosby Street Hotel in SoHo before meeting with Simon Baker for a conversation on his film Breath, I was greeted by Pepper, his agent's lovely dog, who is also friendly with Ben Mendelsohn. When Simon joined us I told him that I had just come from an interview with Whit Stillman on the 20th anniversary of The Last Days Of Disco. Simon is also in Fabien Constant's Blue Night, starring Sarah Jessica Parker with Jacqueline Bisset, Renée Zellweger and Gus Birney.

Elizabeth Debicki (who was in Jean Genet's The Maids at Lincoln Center with Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert), Richard Roxburgh, Rachael Blake, and newcomers Samson Coulter and Ben Spence are directed by Simon Baker in his beautifully subtle film adaptation, co-written with Gerard Lee, of Tim Winton's novel Breath.

Simon Baker is Sando with Loonie (Ben Spence) and Pikelet (Samson Coulter): "The sweater that I wear, the gray one? My mom knitted that! "
Simon Baker is Sando with Loonie (Ben Spence) and Pikelet (Samson Coulter): "The sweater that I wear, the gray one? My mom knitted that! "

People who feel they have nothing to lose can make for dangerously captivating friends. Death and water in the old romantic tradition float together hand in hand. Two boys, Pikelet (Samson Coulter) and Loonie (Ben Spence) live in a small, spread out, Western Australian coastal community in the Seventies. Baker's directing heart beats for authenticity. Riding bikes on dusty roads, catching waves among presupposed sharks, and growing up to become a man - large universal truths peek out from underneath the realism in depicting the boys' lives.

Sando (Baker), a surfing champion, lives in what could be described as an enchanted, slightly disheveled tree house for grownups with his girlfriend Eva (Elizabeth Debicki), a former professional skier, and their unwavering dog Rooster. The boys are fascinated by Sando's world, as both see in him an alternative role model to their respective fathers. Mr Pike (Richard Roxburgh) likes to pot plants, whereas Loonie's dad (Jacek Koman) has a cruel streak that puts him in an altogether more hazardous category.

This is a story of fathers and sons, friendships and betrayals, boredom and excitement, sea monsters and seduction, choosing who one wants to be like and the very different process of becoming it. Much is communicated by a well-placed gesture, the choice of a cup, a nap on the veranda or a fishing trip declined only to later be accepted. Simon Baker discerningly doesn't shy away from the tragic dimension we sense in Breath from the very first shot but for whose confirmation we have to wait until the final die is cast.

Anne-Katrin Titze: You must have put a lot of thought into the beginning and how you wanted to start with the swimming bodies. We are thinking: Is this two boys? Is it a boy and a girl? Is it a boy and a mermaid? Is it a merman? Who are they? It's a fantastic way to start this story. Did you always know this was the way?

Simon Baker on Samson Coulter's character: "Roughly it sort of spans for Pikelet - it is like 13 1/2 to about 17 by the end, 16, 17."
Simon Baker on Samson Coulter's character: "Roughly it sort of spans for Pikelet - it is like 13 1/2 to about 17 by the end, 16, 17."

Simon Baker: Yeah, it was sort of an interesting way to enter into a film. More so to create this slight sense of foreboding in the opening sequence. Like, is he stuck and drowned or is he...

AKT: … alive, yes, and we don't even know who that is.

SB: No.

AKT: The theme of fear and death is already there.

SB: Look at you, you got a book of notes!

AKT: These are for Whit Stillman, actually, whom I just interviewed.

SB: Oh, wow.

AKT: About The Last Days Of Disco. It's quite different, although the time frame is similar. I noticed a plate in a car in your film, stating 1978.

SB: Oh you saw that?

AKT: I did.

SB: On the sticker, yeah. That was towards the end of the film. Basically I hate putting numbers on screens and saying it's 19 whatever. I just wanted the production design tell that story. I guess you see the kids grow up, really. You see them develop into young men. Roughly it sort of spans for Pikelet - it is like 13 1/2 to about 17 by the end, 16, 17.

Simon Baker on Pikelet (Samson Coulter) and Loonie (Ben Spence) on their bike rides: "You would just talk about stuff. And reveal different things and learn different things about each other."
Simon Baker on Pikelet (Samson Coulter) and Loonie (Ben Spence) on their bike rides: "You would just talk about stuff. And reveal different things and learn different things about each other."

AKT: It's universal, childhoods take place on bikes.

SB: Yes.

AKT: I could identify very much. You go everywhere on your bike, with friends, with stuff you carry. Was that your experience?

SB: It was exactly that. And that's when you had those conversations. You would just talk about stuff. And reveal different things and learn different things about each other. Always kind of getting from one place to the other.

AKT: So it's not actually that different from Whit Stillman's walking and talking and here the bikes.

SB: He has bikes in his films?

AKT: No, he doesn't. You do.

SB: I have not seen that film for many many years.

AKT: It has its 20th anniversary, that's why I was talking to him about that. In your film you have a fantastic dog. How did you find him?

SB: He's just a local dog. He's not an acting dog at all. He's one of those dogs that rescues people. Like if someone is lost, he'll go and find them. If your kid's missing in the woods, in the bush, and you give the dog the smell of the kid's T-shirt or something like that, it'll sleep the night with the T-shirt and then they take him off to the area and the dog will go off and find it.

We had Jed, the dog's name was Rooster in the movie. And Jed's trainer, she wasn't a trainer for film dogs. That was the first time she worked on a film and she just lived in that town.

Simon Baker on directing Samson Coulter and Ben Spence: "Sometimes for me it's more about making space for behaviour. To watch these kids behave, to see their reactions."
Simon Baker on directing Samson Coulter and Ben Spence: "Sometimes for me it's more about making space for behaviour. To watch these kids behave, to see their reactions."

AKT: That moment when you call the dog and he comes and jumps on the truck.

SB: Jumps in the back?

AKT: Yes, there's fearlessness. This dog is a perfect connection to the characters, to Loonie - the kind of creatures your character attracts. The clothes work well in the film. Beautiful sweaters you are wearing.

SB: The sweater that I wear, the grey one? My mom knitted that!

AKT: Wow, congratulations to your mother! These are very much of the period. And timeless as well. They say a lot about the people who wear them.

SB: Yeah, they're beautiful. All hand-made. Beautiful hand-made sweaters. And Loonie has a little cardigan at one point, knitted.

AKT: All of them by your mother?

SB: No, not all of them by my mother. Just mine.

AKT: How did the project come about? How did you end up with the novel [by Tim Winton]?

SB: I was given the novel by my producing parter Mark Johnson, seven or eight years ago now, just to sign on as a producer. And over time, when we were developing it and working on it, he asked me if I wanted to direct it. And basically I said, "Look, I'd love to."

And then it was about waiting for the time because I was working on a TV show which took up a lot of my life. And when I knew we were going to the last year of that TV show, I kind of wrapped up the development of the script.

"Hi doggie" - Simon Baker's agent's lovely Pepper at the Crosby Street Hotel
"Hi doggie" - Simon Baker's agent's lovely Pepper at the Crosby Street Hotel Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: And that TV show we are talking about?

SB: That was The Mentalist. And then as soon as that show finished I went back to Australia and opened an office to start trying to get this thing up and going and get the financing together. And we kept developing the script.

AKT: There are beautiful subtleties in the script where you don't spell it out. The boy falls down the stairs and we just get the comment that the father might have had something to do with this. And that's it. You leave it at that, which is much more powerful that if you'd had a scene.

SB: Yeah, I think so.

AKT: These are good decisions. Did you subtract a lot?

SB: That's my style. Is to try to just reduce and reduce and reduce. And really only leave anything that moves the development and understanding of the character and story forward. And that's it. And sometimes for me it's more about making space for behaviour. To watch these kids behave, to see their reactions.

So, case in point, when Loonie is on the veranda at Sando's house the first time they go there. And he's standing up on the veranda and Pikelet is like "What the … you shouldn't be up there!" And he goes "Don't get all fucking sulky." And he hits the thing and walks down and [Simon mumbles something as Loonie]. And Pikelet looks at him. The way they look and react to each other to me speaks far more than anything that they say.

Breath US poster
Breath US poster

AKT: True.

SB: All those details, I like them to be precise in their observations. There's a scene, you know, where the two boys are leaving Sando's after Eva's just come back. Loonie's on his bike riding out and he says: "There's no way I'd let my wife run the show. He lets her get away with so much shit." Which is this completely misogynistic comment.

AKT: Yeah.

SB: In the very next sentence, he says, not even a breath later, he says: "I reckon your mom's done scones?" Right? Which means I reckon your mom's made scones. And then he goes "I love your mom!" That's like this whole complexity of what's been mottled to him as a child is this misogynistic view. But his heart and instinct is: "I want to be nurtured. I love being nurtured."

AKT: The joy while he [Loonie] is eating during that first dinner. The way he is eating, the way he is drinking the milk! I haven't seen anyone drink milk with such exuberance. It's full of life, which makes a lot of sense in the context you are dealing with.

SB: Yeah!

Breath opens in the US on June 1.

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