Drawing breath

Simon Baker on the ocean, identity and making Breath

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Breath director and star Simon Baker on Samson Coulter and Ben Spence‪: "They were incredibly brave. They threw themselves into it."
Breath director and star Simon Baker on Samson Coulter and Ben Spence‪: "They were incredibly brave. They threw themselves into it." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In the second instalment of my conversation with The Mentalist star and now feature film director Simon Baker, he discusses with me the casting and rehearsal process with Ben Spence and Samson Coulter for Breath, the details in the costume design by Terri Lamera, Elizabeth Debicki's Eva as Sando's girlfriend, the danger of Klaus Kinski in Loonie, fairy tales about boys in search of fear, Simon's renewed "relationship with the ocean", and his remembrance of "when I outgrew my stepfather."

Pikelet (Samson Coulter) with Sando (Simon Baker) and Loonie (Ben Spence): "As Sando drives away, the first thing he does is look at Loonie …"
Pikelet (Samson Coulter) with Sando (Simon Baker) and Loonie (Ben Spence): "As Sando drives away, the first thing he does is look at Loonie …"

"Surrender is what frees you up," surfing champion Sando (Simon Baker) teaches teenagers Pikelet (Samson Coulter) and Loonie (Ben Spence), while he himself, as it turns out, can only follow through with his own maxim to a certain extent. When you live your life "like someone who didn't believe in death," a structural switch occurs. The unspoken trade between the boys - although a lot is shared verbally with each other while they ride their bikes - is this: I give you some of my stability, you give me a hunk of freedom. And vice versa.

A detail in Sando's suede jacket becomes visible to us just at the moment his young pals, definitely one of them, discover their idol's imperfection. His surface is cracked. The façade cannot hold. This fragile deal only functioned for a while.

Anne-Katrin Titze: The jacket your character Sando is wearing when you return from your travels - that's the first time we see the hole in the jacket.

Simon Baker: Oh really?

AKT: I thought that was very subtle costume design. It's a denim or corduroy jacket.

SB: Yeah, there was a corduroy jacket. The hole in the jacket is the jacket when Pikelet doesn't get in the car. It's like a suede jacket with shearling on it. That's the first time I wear that.

Loonie (Ben Spence) with Pikelet (Samson Coulter): "We had a ten-day workshop, a sort of ten-day rehearsal period, so that they got a lot more time to spend together."
Loonie (Ben Spence) with Pikelet (Samson Coulter): "We had a ten-day workshop, a sort of ten-day rehearsal period, so that they got a lot more time to spend together."

AKT: Oh, I see. But the fact that there's a hole in the jacket at that point is perfect.

SB: I like that. Here's the thing - is that because of the way the film is structured and there is a lot of detail stuff - what I find interesting is that you kind of educate your audience how to watch a film. You know, in the first 15 or 20 minutes.

And then, hopefully, they're engaged in that process so that you can take bigger leaps. And they will go there with you. And they'd still also be looking for more detail. And you are obviously a very observant audience member because you are looking for things that are very specific.

AKT: Well, in this case, it means the sheen is gone. At that point Sando is no longer what he was. There are holes in Pikelet's way of perceiving him.

SB: Pikelet's perception of him has changed. Pikelet now sees him for what he is.

AKT: Yeah.

SB: And exactly, he is not this guru, this sun god to worship anymore. He's slightly pathetic. And Pikelet sees that he's kind of pathetic. And Loonie kind of gets a little whiff of it in that scene at the same time. And as you realize, as he says goodbye to Pikelet, "You got your own thing, now piss off." As Sando drives away, the first thing he does is look at Loonie to see if he's still … if he's seen the weakness in him.

Pikelet (Samson Coulter): "Pikelet outgrows Sando and no longer has that possibility to communicate with him."
Pikelet (Samson Coulter): "Pikelet outgrows Sando and no longer has that possibility to communicate with him."

AKT: It's all there in the glances and the props. The film is a lot about father figures.

SB: It's a lot about that. I mean, it's a big thing for me.

AKT: You have a scene where the other father - I am saying other father, I mean Pikelet's biological father [played by Richard Roxburgh], is seen potting plants and going fishing with his son. And then he goes surfing with the other father figure. Both connecting to water in drastically different ways. It gives a nice structure and makes it possible for us to go beyond the literal meanings. But you were saying the father theme is a big thing for you?

SB: It's a big thing for me in the sense that I remember very clearly when I outgrew my stepfather. And I couldn't communicate with him anymore. You know, I had sort of outgrown him. And in a lot of ways, Pikelet outgrows Sando and no longer has that possibility to communicate with him.

And Sando has the choice to evolve but doesn't. He acknowledges the courage it takes for Pikelet to say "No" and not want to go. But he still doesn't allow Pikelet to help him develop. Sando has an opportunity there to develop and he doesn't do it.

AKT: And he lives in what feels like a tree house.

Simon Baker on Elizabeth Debicki as Eva: "She has a great loss of her own identity that she's struggling with as well."
Simon Baker on Elizabeth Debicki as Eva: "She has a great loss of her own identity that she's struggling with as well."

SB: Yeah. I mean when I talk about that, I'm talking about in the sense that when I was growing up in this world that I've created in the film, there is this masculine sort of stereotype. And this ideal that is created and has solidified in Australian culture. Particularly around that period of time.

And I wanted to create that as authentically as possible but then subvert it. So that the perceived identity or prescribed identity is something that you can fight against. Or stand up against.

AKT: You are losing your voice. Do you want one of these? [I am handing Simon a Ricola Original Swiss Natural Herb Cough Drop I happen to have in my bag].

SB: Thank you. I love these! And Pikelet does that in that moment. And him doing that, fighting against that prescribed identity - he finds who he really is. And the strength in that.

AKT: The woman's name is Eve. Eva?

SB: Eva.

AKT: Elizabeth Debicki is very good in that role. Of course she is representing something else too, but she is also very much just a person. A person who is choking herself.

Simon Baker on Ben Spence and Samson Coulter: "Every morning we'd go surfing together. And then we'd work and play around and then I'd take them to the different locations."
Simon Baker on Ben Spence and Samson Coulter: "Every morning we'd go surfing together. And then we'd work and play around and then I'd take them to the different locations."

SB: Metaphorical, yeah. She has a great loss of her own identity that she's struggling with as well. I mean, who she was has been stripped away from her and she's obviously really not sure about who she is anymore. She's not sure how to live as the person who can't do those things. She has this desperate need for risk and danger and feeling afraid. She can't quench that thirst in any other way than what she's doing.

AKT: Because it is that destabilising idea that she needs in her life, that dangerous element. "Surrender is what frees you up," is one of the noteworthy lines. It's something to think about. Is it really? Is that it?

SB: I mean, yeah. Look, it's a big thing for me. In so many ways. To even to be able to take on this film is about surrendering to it, you know?

AKT: There are these classic tales, fairy tales about boys in search of fear. I don't know if you are familiar with them; there are some in the collection by the Brothers Grimm.

SB: Oh yeah, yeah.

AKT: In one we get to know about the family background, a father with two sons. One son is considered the smart one and the other, the one who doesn't know what fear is, is treated as incurably stupid and it is said that he will always be a burden to his father.

Simon Baker on casting Samson Coulter and Ben Spence: "It took a year to find them. It was a long process."
Simon Baker on casting Samson Coulter and Ben Spence: "It took a year to find them. It was a long process."

Anyway, he goes out to learn what fear is because he cannot feel fear. I was thinking of him in connection to Loonie. The family background, the search for love and also that search for fear. That makes him almost a classic fairy tale hero, almost.

SB: Yes, he has got equal parts danger and vulnerability about him. He's kind of a by-product. He is such a tragic character.

AKT: He is.

SB: And the writing is kind of on the wall early for that character.

AKT: And you go there, into the dark place, which I really liked. You did not not go there what you proposed from the first scene. In parts he reminded me, maybe also because of the blond hair, of Klaus Kinski.

SB: Oh really? Yeah, right, Klaus Kinski had that danger too, right?

AKT: Yes, very much. The boys are great.

SB: Neither of them had ever acted before.

AKT: They jumped out at you right away during casting?

Breath poster at the Angelika Film Center in New York
Breath poster at the Angelika Film Center in New York Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

SB: Yeah. Well, it took a while. It took a year to find them. It was a long process.

AKT: They are so good together.

SB: That was just creating the right environment for them. We had a ten-day workshop, a sort of ten-day rehearsal period, so that they got a lot more time to spend together. And during that ten-day rehearsal period, every morning we'd go surfing together. And then we'd work and play around and then I'd take them to the different locations.

As they were building the Sando house or showing them things, basically getting them on track because they had no real kind of yardstick or measure of understanding what the experience of making a film was going to be like. They were incredibly brave. They threw themselves into it.

AKT: Surrendered?

SB: Yeah.

AKT: Did your relationship to surfing change with making this film or did it remain the same?

SB: No. Same. I mean it's always been the same. If anything, maybe during the process of making the film, leading up to making the film, the development of it, I thought a lot more about my relationship with the ocean.

And really as opposed to just doing it. What water really meant to me, and what it has meant over different periods of my life. And being more mindful of how who I am is affected by my connection to it.

AKT: Thank you so much. I'll let you breathe.

SB: Thank you.

Read what Simon Baker had to say on fathers, sons and a rescue dog in Breath.

Breath opens in the US on June 1.

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