To me, there were so many times as a young man this pressure to comply to a certain masculine ideal.
“I’m really proud of this movie and I still sort of pinch myself that we were able to pull it off at all,” confessed Simon Baker to The Guardian earlier this month in speaking about his feature film directorial debut. “What I wanted to do with this movie is try to make a film that had a bit more longevity and, for my own satisfaction, had some kind of a legacy that I felt proud of.” Up until this point, the Australian actor has been a TV mainstay with his seven-year tenure on The Mentalist, not to mention his three-season commitment on The Guardian before it, playing a corporate attorney sentenced to countless hours of community service at a child advocacy office following a drug conviction. Evidently, Baker is looking to cement a different kind of legacy with Breath: an adaptation of Tim Winton’s acclaimed novel of the same title, in which is he also stars.
Set in the 1970s and largely shot in the Western Australian coastal town of Denmark, Breath is a rite-of-passage tale that chronicles a pair of small town boys who come under the spell of a Svengali-like, former pro surfer. The bro-triangle that develops out on the water between sensitive teenager Pikelet (Samson Coulter), his reckless best friend Loonie (Ben Spence), and their mentor Sando (Baker) is held together by instinctive respect, but also threatened by ego and rivalries, especially as Loonie’s increasingly erratic bravado pulls him mercilously into the direction his name suggests. Further complicating the boys’ surrogate parentage is Sando’s wife, Eva (Elizabeth Debicki), a former competitive skier—a confusing erotic presence: too old to be a conventional love interest, yet too young to be their mother—who communicates a kind of impenetrable sorrow.
Breath opens in NYC on June 1 and L.A. on June 8 with a national rollout to follow.
I’m sure adapting any novel for the screen, let alone something by Tim Winton whose work is beloved, is fraught with obstacles. What sort of conversations did you have with him when you were about to embark on this project?
I had a couple of conversations with him on the phone and we talked more broadly about the approach to it. Then at one of the first dinners that just he and I had together, we pretty much outlined what I wanted to take out of the novel and distill into a film. Because they’re very different mediums, you can’t do a literal translation of the book and put it on the screen—it’s not really going to work out. It has to be broken down and then reinvented as a movie. So that was the process. I had the framework and the approach to it that I needed to run by Tim. I had his go-ahead or his approval and a sort of blessing, really, to be able to fuck with it and make it my own. He was a hundred percent on board with that. In fact, he was really encouraging of that, which I thought was brave of him and very trusting of him. Then he pretty much let me go in the direction that I wanted to go. He did a very early draft of the script, but I worked a lot with Gerard Lee. When we got to a point where [Gerard] kind of wanted to make a different movie out of it, I worked on it on my own from that point on, getting it to the shape where it is now.
I saw this quote from you: “You have to be prepared to murder the book, I think, and I needed to get Tim’s permission.” I think that’s so honest and accurate.
That was pretty much it, yeah.
Breath was a seven-year journey for you to get made and you can sense that it really comes from the heart. But I understand you weren’t originally attached to direct on top of your other duties. Was there always an ambition to direct?
It was an ambition that I had for a very long time. I mean, pretty much from the point in which I was an actor arriving on set. I was like, “Yeah, this is fantastic. I’m on this set as an actor. But I’m much more interested in what that guy there is doing.” [Laughs] Because he’s the conductor. He’s the guy that’s putting the whole thing together and that always fascinated me a bit more. I like the way things work. [Directing is] a lot more consuming in so many aspects. Your time, your energy, your emotional input, your sense of craftiness—I find it far more fulfilling in so many ways than I do with acting. I wish I found acting as fulfilling. Unfortunately, I just don’t. I don’t dislike acting. I just like that all-consuming nature of directing.
Maybe there’s a kind of parallel to be made between you, a veteran actor, directing these newcomer actors, and Sando mentoring the kids. Did that bring back some memories from when you first started out in the business?
A hundred percent. We were kind of living the story of the film in the making of the film in a lot of ways. It did make me [feel that way], just like probably how Sando aligns himself with these two young guys because I think he’s fearing his own mortality—a midlife crisis or something. Being around those two guys, Samson Coulter and Ben Spence who play Pikelet and Loonie, made me feel incredibly vital again. It did really energize me in a lot of ways, and because they were so raw and so natural, it kind of puts you on your toes as an actor as well.
I’ve come to learn that you surf in real life so you were well-aware of the world that you’re going into. What was your approach to capturing these expressive images on the water? For instance, how do you communicate to viewers this feeling of surfing for the very first time?
My approach was to make it feel really authentic and a big part of that authenticity is the fact that, when you’re on the water surfing, you’re exposed to such a sensory overload at times. Sometimes, you can’t see completely. Other times, you can’t hear completely. So you’re sort of immersed in the water and the things that we rely on on land are pushed to the back. It’s incredibly visual when you’re surfing on the water. Some of the glimpses of the beauty that you’re exposed to and take for granted—I wanted to capture the simplicities of what those things are because I think it’s always going to help the audience feel like they’re experiencing it themselves. Also, living that experience through a character—going from land and transitioning into the water—you never really lose sight of the protagonist. We don’t detach and then see them surfing. We go with them. I think that helps to enhance the experience. Obviously, visually, it’s shot very simply, but that visual world is incredibly beautiful. Then the sound design just enhances the visuals. The sound design is a big part of this film. If you do get a chance, go see it in a cinema with good sound. The sound design is a big factor in a lot of the sequences in the ocean.
The film is so much your baby as a filmmaker, but you also turn in a great performance as Sando. Was he immediately recognizable to you? Who did you model that character after?
He was definitely immediately recognizable to me. I’ve had very similar relationships as these boys. I’ve had relationships with Sando-like figures all through my life, particularly through their age period. I mean, my upbringing was very similar to this. I knew most of these characters quite well. I didn’t model Sando after one specific person. I think there’s a bit of a license there because Sando is just one piece in the fabric of the film and I wanted him to be the antidote to Pikelet’s father, who is quite restrained and conservative. He’s loving and gentle and thoughtful, but quite conservative. The idea was that, as a sort of mentor figure, Sando paralleled the role of Pikelet’s father, but was the antithesis of his father.
You directed a string of episodes when you were starring on The Mentalist. I know that must be a completely different beast, but that must help you nonetheless. What did you find most challenging on this directorial debut on a feature film?
Because it’s such a personal story, I think the most challenging thing for me was keeping a perspective on the bigger picture of the story for audiences that do know this world. I love movies where you enter into a world that you’re not familiar with or that’s sort of somewhat unexpected, but there’s an integrity to the world where there isn’t anything that takes you out of it once you’re in it. You’re in it for the entire film, even if it’s a science fiction film. A fantastic movie that I love is Children of Men, the Alfonso Cuaron one with Clive Owen. You enter into that world and you just buy right into it completely. There’s no bad notes that take you out of what that world is. I enjoy that aspect of watching a film, especially if I don’t know anything about it and just going in and going,”Wow, I’ve gone into this other sort of dimension.” To keep perspective on the storytelling and keeping that world authentic, whether it’s personal or not, is a challenge. But going back to what you were saying about working on shows and directing episodes of The Mentalist, it’s a completely different animal. But obviously, it’s great training ground—a great sort of practice field for doing something that immerses like Breath.
Breath offers this bit of poetry in the form of narration: “How strange it was to see men do something beautiful. Something pointless and elegant, as though nobody saw or cared.” It’s a wonderful meditation on prescribed identities and finding your own way. What does that signify for you on a personal level?
I like what you’re saying: prescribed identifies. I’ve articulated that the film’s about identities, but I haven’t used “prescribed identity” and I’m going to steal that from you, Kee. [Laughs] Because that’s exactly what it is. To me, there were so many times as a young man this pressure to comply to a certain masculine ideal. So often, you would feel like a failure because you fell short in some way or you couldn’t live up to this expectation. It puts a lot of pressure on the individual. That is a prescribed identity. What I wanted to do was set up that framework of the stereotypical, masculine, macho sort of idea and subvert it through Pikelet’s strength as an individual, in the moment that he finds his strength as an individual that defines him as a unique person. And then he sees that in his father as well. That was important to me because I’ve felt those moments as a kid. I fell short and I didn’t understand why I fell short or why I had to comply to a prescribed identity.
The Mentalist is far-reaching. You go to South Korea and they’re still rerunning episodes. I saw it come on in Austria the other day. You’ve cemented one legacy. What legacy are you looking to leave behind now?
I want to make films. I want to become a filmmaker. I want to make films that connect with people, you know? Whether I’ll be achieve that—I don’t know. I don’t think of it as so much a legacy. It’s more about just not taking the opportunities that I have for granted, more than anything. And growing. I wanna grow. I wanna learn. I wanna share these experiences with people. And when I say that, I don’t mean sharing the film with people so much as sharing the experiences of making the film because you do share that experience with a lot of people. That’s what you carry away. The film is a byproduct of that shared experience.
Is there a sophomore feature on the horizon?
There is. I’ve optioned Tim Winton’s most recent book called The Shepherd’s Hut, which is a great book. It’s tense and brutal and speaks a lot to intergenerational, toxic masculinity.