Being There

Simon Baker on Del Kathryn Barton, intergenerational trauma and Blaze

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Blaze star and executive producer Simon Baker (in front of a Rosemary’s Baby poster) with Anne-Katrin Titze on Del Kathryn Barton: “She’s quite a celebrated artist in Australia. I got sent the script and it was unlike any script I have ever read before.”
Blaze star and executive producer Simon Baker (in front of a Rosemary’s Baby poster) with Anne-Katrin Titze on Del Kathryn Barton: “She’s quite a celebrated artist in Australia. I got sent the script and it was unlike any script I have ever read before.”

Del Kathryn Barton’s Blaze, co-written with Huna Amweero, and a highlight of the 21st edition of the Tribeca Film Festival, stars Julia Savage and Simon Baker (The Mentalist and director of Breath) with Yael Stone, Josh Lawson, and Sofia Hampson with Jacques Brel’s Ne Me Quitte Pas and a poignant song by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis in the soundtrack.

Simon Baker on Nick Cave and Warren Ellis: “I obviously know of them and love their stuff, but I don’t know them.”
Simon Baker on Nick Cave and Warren Ellis: “I obviously know of them and love their stuff, but I don’t know them.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The opening shots of Blaze (cinematography by ) are as mysterious and alluring as those of Simon’s film Breath. Here an eye opens in what looks like a plant and a little girl, fascinated by art has milk at hand. In a residential neighborhood with great old trees and enchanted houses, 12-year-old Blaze (Savage) goes out in her school uniform to get ice cream.

A song featuring little bunnies plays in her headphones as she says hello to a Dalmatian, when suddenly, in an alley, her life changes forever. She watches a brutal attack on a woman named Hannah (Stone) by a man named Jake (Lawson). After the assault nothing is the same anymore and Blaze, who lives with her father Luke (Baker) and no mother in the picture, has to figure out how to continue.

Helpless, caring, worried, exhausted, and overwhelmed equally by what he can and what he cannot do, the father through Baker’s excellent performance, is the magic glue that holds the magic dragon together. This dragon, conjured up by Blaze as a companion of strength, courage and wayward whimsy is one of the wondrous visuals in play to express Blaze’s inner life.

There is also her collection of porcelain figurines that come only in pairs as if they were summoned by the Noah of trinkets to his special ark. Del Kathryn Barton with pizzazz and creativity delves deeply into anguish and dream in this uniquely told story about a violence that is far too common.

Simon Baker: “Blaze, Julia Savage, her journey is a journey of trauma on top of trauma on top of trauma.”
Simon Baker: “Blaze, Julia Savage, her journey is a journey of trauma on top of trauma on top of trauma.”

From New York City before the world premiere of Blaze, Simon Baker joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on Blaze.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Nice to see you again, Simon! We talked about Breath in 2017.

Simon Baker: Great, wow.

AKT: I asked you then about the beautiful sweater you wore in your film and you told me it was knitted by your mother.

SB: I still wear that sweater. All the time.

AKT: Sustainable fashion! How it should be. Now to Blaze, which is a veritable tour de force. Not just for the character of Blaze but for you as the father. It’s a never-ending concern that you are playing. Tell me what you loved about the script! You are also executive producer, how did you get involved?

SB: I knew Del as an artist. I know her work and I’ve seen her work in Australia. She’s quite a celebrated artist in Australia. I got sent the script and it was unlike any script I have ever read before. There was pictures all through it. You know, Del’s very visual so there’s artworks throughout. Every couple of pages there’s an artwork, right?

Simon Baker on Blaze (Julia Savage): “She is forced to grow up and deal with these circumstances and that is the struggle.”
Simon Baker on Blaze (Julia Savage): “She is forced to grow up and deal with these circumstances and that is the struggle.”

So I was kind of like, this is not like anything I’ve read. You know, it’s a very simple story in terms of what it’s dealing with. But the depth and the complication of, like you said, how kind of corrosive that trauma is. And it’s intergenerational trauma.

AKT: Absolutely.

SB: I really liked the intention of it as a film first and foremost. I sat down with her, Del and I had a meeting and we sat for maybe three hours and really just chatted and got on. And I thought, you know what? This is going to be. I love the intention, it means a lot to me. I have family members and friends who have been through traumas, sexual abuse traumas. And I felt a great sense of value in making a film like this.

AKT: In the film is mentioned the statistic that one woman a week in Australia is killed by either a partner or a former partner. That’s immense and a concern all over the world. It’s not just Australia we’re talking about.

SB: Yeah, that’s right. So once I sat down with Del and I really enjoyed her company, I thought artistically this is going to be a lot of fun, whether the film turns out or not. I mean, with any film you can have the best intentions in the world, whether or not it works out, I knew it was going to be interesting. It was going to be unlike anything I’ve ever done before. And I like Del, so that’s why I went into it.

AKT: The first time we see you on screen is after the assault and you find this little bug. The scene sets the tone for how we perceive the relationship. We see the father and don’t know much about the background, other than that he says to the police that the mother is out of the picture. It’s step-by-step that you are guiding us by your performance into this family.

Simon Baker (wearing sweater knitted by his mother) in Breath with Ben Spence and Samson Coulter: “I still wear that sweater. All the time."
Simon Baker (wearing sweater knitted by his mother) in Breath with Ben Spence and Samson Coulter: “I still wear that sweater. All the time."

SB: Yeah. I haven’t seen the finished film. I’ve seen cuts of it, but I’ve never seen it completely finished. I’m waiting to watch it tonight with an audience and on a big screen. I know when it’s all finished and sweetened and mixed and colour-timed, that it’s going to be an exciting experience and I’ll only get that once. I didn’t want to watch a link of it, you know.

AKT: That’s funny, now I can give you spoiler alerts.

SB: No, obviously I know it. I saw rough cuts as I am producing it, but I haven’t seen the finished complete thing.

AKT: Were there any scenes that were particularly difficult for you? More daunting than others?

SB: No, I mean, you kind of hit the nail on the head. To me it was really the emotional connection. The relatable emotional connection within the story is through what as an audience member we can attach ourselves to or identify with.

And that is a relationship of a father and daughter. Most people, most families can connect with that on a normal level. That’s the box. I always knew that Del was going to go outside of the box. And Blaze, Julia Savage, her journey is a journey of trauma on top of trauma on top of trauma. It’s a constant struggle for her. The only thing that anchors that back is a notion of family as we know it.

Del Kathryn Barton’s Blaze artwork
Del Kathryn Barton’s Blaze artwork

AKT: About the way this family works, we only get little details. Six hours of Lord of the Rings and pizza with Nutella is a heartbreaking, desperate offer by the father, isn’t it? He is trying to bond with a kind of normalcy. At that moment she is holding a milk glass with two hands. It’s very much in the details.

SB: Absolutely! At the time I was reading a lot of stuff about masculinity, about masculine and feminine polarity. And I was kind of curious about how she really needed, she really needed a mother in those situations.

AKT: Yes, not having one at that point is tough.

SB: And he was trying to fit into all those things.

AKT: And he offers Lord of the Rings and Nutella, which is so perfectly non-motherly. And another glass of milk. As in here, I’m trying to be so much a mother I can’t be.

SB: Yeah, nurture.

AKT: Did you talk at all with Del about the figurines, the doubled up figurines, those twins that Blaze collects? Because I have different interpretations in my head. At one point I thought it had to do with the two of you.

SB: Not really. It’s a little film and we shot it during COVID. It was pretty quick, we didn’t have a lot of time.

AKT: It doesn’t look quick and little at all.

SB: It looks very luscious, right?

AKT: It does.

Blaze screens at the Village East by Angelika on Friday, June 17
Blaze screens at the Village East by Angelika on Friday, June 17 Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

SB: I can’t wait to hear what she did with the music.

AKT: The music, well, there’s Nick Cave at an important moment! Shattered Ground suddenly coming in. Which is pretty fantastic.

SB: It is. I know Nick gave us a song for it.

AKT: Do you know Nick Cave and Warren Ellis?

SB: No, I obviously know of them and love their stuff, but I don’t know them. So you enjoyed it?

AKT: I did, absolutely. One more moment of music I noticed. Near the end comes Ne me quitte pas, the Jacques Brel song, which fits so well with the dragon! I want to go back to the gender thing you brought up earlier. Breath, the film you directed, is so much about boys on bicycles and boys in motion. Here again, it is a coming of age story but stopped short. This girl doesn’t get a chance to jump on her bike and go explore the waves.

SB: Yes, if you look at it, she starts off buying an ice cream. It’s the most innocent sort of act. And it’s interrupted and I think that’s kind of the crux of the whole story. How radically it’s interrupted and how quickly she has to grow up.

She is forced to grow up and deal with these circumstances and that is the struggle. For me, the interesting part of the character that I play was sort of the impotence of him in all of it. He’s unable to actively do anything, except just be there, right?

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

AKT: Yes.

SB: And be solid and be support to her. In the realm of binary concepts, I feel that’s a very hard father figure. It’s a hard masculine role to take, to just be there, not solve problems, not fix things. You can’t fix it, but just actually be there.

AKT: It’s an interesting choice that we never see you with other people either, really. Yes, at the police station, but it feels as if there is no other life. Once we overhear you saying on the phone that you’re waiting for her to collapse or break down. There is no outside that could aid. I was very impressed by your performance.

SB: Oh thank you! There is a moment where the character explodes. When she’s almost burning the house down.

AKT: And in the car!

SB: In the car! And then I think I say something like “Hey, I love you. Have a good time.” Or something like that. The part of being a parent.

AKT: That’s almost exploding. It’s difficult and sometimes there’s no outlet. That’s what parenting is, no?

SB: Yeah. Yes, absolutely.

AKT: Never ending.

SB: I’m actually staying at my daughter’s house now, in her apartment in New York. It’s nice.

AKT: Did she see the film, no, you haven’t even seen it.

SB: She’s going to watch it tonight [June 9].

Tribeca Film Festival on the Village East by Angelika marquee
Tribeca Film Festival on the Village East by Angelika marquee Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Did you talk to her about it?

SB: Yeah, she knows roughly what it’s about and she loves Del’s art. So I’m sure she’ll enjoy it. It’s a pretty bold and brave film. You know, the style in which it’s made and I knew it was going to be the case with Del.

AKT: It’s definitely original. Thank you so much. Have a wonderful night tonight, Simon!

SB: I will! Thank you! Thanks very much, take care!

The remaining screening of Blaze is on Friday, June 17 at 8:00pm - Village East by Angelika: Theater 2.

The Tribeca Film Festival runs through June 19.

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