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Interview - Simon Baker, Samson Coulter & Ben Spence On 'Breath'

Simon Baker Interview

Breath marks the feature film directorial debut for Australian actor Simon Baker.  He was recently on the Gold Coast for the film’s Australian premiere and I had the chance to talk to him, and stars Samson Coulter and Ben Spence, about the project…

Matt:  Most people know you as Simon Baker the actor as opposed to Simon Baker the director.  We don’t make a lot of movies in this country and so how did you become involved with this project in this capacity?

Simon:  It was sent to me by an American producing mate who I’d worked with before, Mark Johnson.  He said he’d thought of me and asked me to read the book with the thought of partnering up and producing this together.  The book blew my mind and took me back to a lot of earlier stuff in my life.  I called him back and said “sign me up.”  We then went through the process of trying to find at a director and it was at one of those meetings where Mark leant across and asked whether it had occurred to me to direct this thing.  He thought I should and I said “great, I was just waiting for you to ask.”

Matt:  There’s a question I’ve always wanted to ask someone in your position – how do you direct yourself?

Simon:  You just do it.  Sometimes you do it bad and sometimes you do it a bit better.  It’s tougher during certain scenes.  I wish I loved acting as much as directing.  It’s still okay but I feel more “alive” when behind the camera.

Matt:  Many will have read the book by Tim Winton.  How involved was he during the shoot?

Simon:  He came and visited just before we started shooting to look at some of the locations and stuff.  He was incredibly supportive with me.  We had a couple of dinners early on and I talked about what I wanted to do in terms of my approach.  I asked for his blessing and he told me to go for it.

Matt:  Samson and Ben, how old are you guys now and how old were you when you shot the film?

Samson:  I’m 18 now but I was 16 when I shot the film.

Ben:  I’m 17 now and was just shy of 16 when we shot it.

Matt:  What was the audition process like?  Did you have a strategy going in?  Anyone giving you tips?

Samson:  I don’t know what a normal audition process is like but this did feel different given they were looking for someone who could both surf and act.  My parents saw a notice on social media and said something at dinner which I dismissed at first.  I then had a teacher at my school who had done a bit of acting who said I should throw my hat in the ring for a bit of fun.  So I did and got an audition and they called me back a few times and then Simon got involved for a workshop with a few other boys.

Ben:  Surfing Australia were sending out details of the auditions to boardriders clubs.  I was in the Margaret River Boardriders Club.  My mum saw it and she sent through a photo without really consulting me.  Nikki Barrett, the casting director, then sent through an email asking me if I wanted to audition but we never got the email.  Six months later, she was came down to Margaret River and I had the chance to audition and that’s when I got the call up to go to a workshop in Sydney.  

Matt:  Now be honest – how good are you guys at surfing?  Do you guys do it just for fun?  Are you at an elite competitive level?  How do you stack up?

Samson:  We both compete.  It’s been a big thing for most of life.  I think I started competing when I was about 9 years old.  I don’t know how that led into acting but it did.

Matt:  What happens now?  Do you have dreams of becoming an actor or a professional surfer?

Samson:  That’s a good question.  My goal has always been to surf but the experience of making Breath has opened my mind to something else.

Simon:  Why can’t you do both?  You can’t surf competitively as a career forever.

Samson:  Yeah.  I can’t see why I can’t give them both a good nudge.

Matt:  Simon, it is tough finding convincing young actors for any movie so how did you settle on these guys?  What were the factors that got Samson and Ben over the line?

Simon:  I watched hundreds of auditions.  You look and you hope.  I didn’t want a drama school polished kind of actor.  I wanted the authenticity of real kids who could also surf and handle themselves on the water.  I also wanted to find kids that were “boy men” – they had boyish look to them but you can see them on the cusp of manhood.  We shot this film over 6 weeks and it was very important for me to capture them feeling like boys in the beginning but men in the end.  You need kids with an emotional maturity and a confidence in themselves to take on the task of acting.  The acting was more terrifying to them than the surfing stuff.

Matt:  There are some strong, moving scenes in the film so how did you guys find the acting side of the role?  How did it stack up against your expectations?

Ben:  Two weeks beforehand, we did some practice with an acting coach.  We got a lot more comfortable with acting and got to know more about each other and Simon.  That helped when we got on set.

Matt:  How did you pull those surfing scenes together?  Did they involve a lot of takes?  You’re at the mercy of the seas so how easy was it getting the right angles?

Simon:  Yeah, really tough.  We had a water crew for 4 weeks which is all we could afford.  When we didn’t have the right conditions, they would go out and shoot stuff with stunt doubles just in case – like underwater paddling shots and waves breaking.  When we got the right conditions, we’d drop everything else on land and shoot the stuff on the water.  It was like a shadow hanging over us as we were looking at weather forecasts each day.  We got lucky enough to have just enough good days to get the footage and have a story that fit with it.

Matt:  I don’t want to give too much away but the film goes down some interesting paths in the second half that may not sit well with everyone in the audience.  Their views of the characters may change.  Obviously that’s part of the source material but as a director, how much thought goes into those scenes as in choosing what to show and how much to show?

Simon:  My style as a director is more about withholding.  I don’t want to show a lot.  I want to suggest things so that the audience is engaged with their own imagination.  I want them to put things together so that they share in the experience.  Also, the style arc of the film is a boy crossing that line into adulthood and things becoming real.  The film’s visual style matures over the course of the film.  There’s a sweet naivety to it at the start but by the end of the film, it’s much more intense.

Matt:  You guys had the chance to take this film to the Toronto Film Festival which is a huge honour.  I’ve been there myself and it is absolutely nuts in terms of the people and the atmosphere.  What was that experience like?

Samson:  Mad!  We were looking at each other going “what are we doing here?”  We were blown away by the whole experience.  There were actors running around everywhere and we were sneaking into parties.  That was also the first time that I’d seen it before with a big audience.  There’s a different feel to that.

Matt:  What was it like watching it with your friends and family for the first time?

Ben:  My mum cried which was a bit whack.

Samson:  I was a bit nervous.  My mum is a very emotional person.  She cries during advertisements for old people’s homes on TV.  I was a bit worried that she would be uncomfortable about some of the themes but she took it well.

Matt:  Simon, what are your plans going forward?  I assume we’ll see more of you in front of the camera but any plans to direct again?

Simon:  I did a movie with Sarah Jessica Parker in New York for a few days after I finished this movie.  It’s a little arty movie and I’m not sure if it’ll make it here to Australia.  I maybe acting in a film later in the year but I’m not sure at this stage.

Interview - Director Will Gluck On Bringing 'Peter Rabbit' To Life

Will Gluck Interview

Peter Rabbit is one of the big family releases for the Easter school holidays in Australia.  I recently had the chance to speak with director Will Gluck about the project…

Matt:  What stood out and lured you into this project?

Will:  My parents read me the novel when I was a kid and I loved it.  My dad’s name was Peter which is another part of the reason we’re talking today.  I read it to my kids and remembered why I loved it so much and I thought it would be great to make this into a movie that had never been done before.

Matt:  You’ve made a few movies now and dabbled in a few genres but this is your first time with something that is part live-action, part animation.  How was the experience?  Was there a lot you had to learn beforehand and during the process?

Will:  I should have learned it beforehand if I was smart.  I had to learn as I went along but I had the huge advantage of working with Animal Logic which is Sydney based and probably the best visual effects house in the world.  They took me by the hand and talked me through everything.  I can think of no better teacher than them.

Matt:  I was going to ask about that.  It sounds like there was a bit Australian connection to this movie in terms of the cast, locations and production companies involved.  How did all that come about?

Will:  It started with Animal Logic who had the idea of making a hybrid film about Peter Rabbit.  They spoke to me about it, we got the rights to the Beatrix Potter estate, wrote the script and went from there.  The intention was always to do the filming and visual effects in Australia which was a new place for me but it now feels like a second home.

Matt:  Was live action always the go here?  Was there thought of a purely animated feature?

Will:  Live action was always the idea with just the animals to be computer generated.

Matt:  We live it a work where there are seemingly more animated films and family films as ever.  When you come on board a film like this, what are you hoping to achieve?  What are you looking to do to reel audiences in and perhaps find a point of difference to make this stand out?

Will:  I never set out to make a movie to achieve anything in particular.  I just want to make a movie that I like.  This movie is a little special because I love that families can see it with both parents and kids enjoying it.  It leaves them with the message of owning up to your mistakes and family is the most important thing.  It’s a Trojan horse message in this funny movie we made.

Matt:  I was surprised how much adult humour was in the movie.  There were jokes I laughed at that might be out of the each of some children.  Was that always part of the script?  How do you balance up the laughs?

Will:  I had a mantra that if there was a joke that the kids wouldn’t laugh at, we wouldn’t put it in.  We wanted to make a movie that parents and kids would like just as people.  Having two kids of my own, I think we sorely estimate how smart children are and even if they don’t understand something, they lock it away in their memory bank until they get it 6 months or a year later.  The cool thing for me is my kids just figuring out the joke in something they saw 2 years ago.

Matt:  So did you use your kids as a test audience on this film so to speak?

Will:  Of course.  As life progresses, you develop different interests and given I have kids now, I want to do things with my kids and for my kids.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve shown them scenes from this movie.  They roll their eyes every time I talk about it now.

Matt:  The houses in the film have a charm about them.  Did they actually exist or did you have to build them from scratch?

Will:  We built them from scratch based on houses we’d seen in the Lake District in the United Kingdom.  Usually you can build a set on a sound stage but I really wanted to feel the district countryside so we built both houses in Centennial Park.

Matt:  Oh wow.  Did you have to deal with a lot of background noise there given its proximity to the centre of Sydney?

Will:  Traffic and people weren’t that bad but every now and then the sound department would make us stop because of an Australian bird making a noise in the background.  Centennial Park was a fairly quiet area and so most people went about their day without bothering us.

Matt:  Did you have to knock all the houses down when you finished?

Will:  Yeah.  It took us 2 months to build the set and about 2 hours to get rid of it which is always the sad part.

Matt:  It feels like a bucket list item for actors in Hollywood that they have to lend to their voice to an animated character at least once in their career.  You’ve got a huge range of voices here.  Is it a long casting process or is it easier than we think?

Will:  It’s usually a long casting process but for this movie, because of everyone’s love for Peter Rabbit and Beatrix Potter, the first people we went for on every role said yes.  We were very lucky.  Throughout the whole project, everyone went above and beyond because they loved these characters.

Matt:  We see the human actors talking and interacting with the animals and even cuddling them in their arms.  It all looks so seamless but can you tell us how those scenes are created?

Will:  They’re holding a combination of things.  Sometimes they’ll hold a stuffed animal, sometimes they’ll hold sticks and something they’ll hold people in blue suits.  It’s the genius of Animal Logic that makes it work.  I had to give up so much control and put my faith in them.  When you’re making the movie, it looks bananas as the characters are running around getting hit by sticks and puffs of air and then a girl in a blue suit would punch someone in the face.  The outtakes from this movie are quite something.  When the animation started coming in, I realised they knew what they were doing and it felt seamless to me too.

Matt:  Obviously you do the live shoot first and then the animated stuff second but what are the timeframes for each?

Will:  The live action was a normal movie shoot – about 60 days.  The animation started during the movie and took almost 12 months.  We finished it in early February and that’s actually a quick turnaround compared to other animated films.

Matt:  Didn’t the film come out in February?

Will:  We finished the film 6 days before it came out which was a crazy short period of time.

Matt:  What are you working on at the moment?  What will we see from your next?

Will:  I’m making a TV show and then after that, I’m going to an R-rated dark comedy in Los Angeles to cleanse my pallet.  There’s also talk of dipping my toe back into the Peter Rabbit world if this film does well. 

Interview - Australian Director Garth Davis On 'Mary Magdalene'

Garth Davis Interview

Last year, he won the Directors Guild of America Award for best first-time feature film and the AACTA Award for best director.  He was recently in Brisbane for a Q&A screening and it was great to chat to Garth Davis about his follow up feature, Mary Magdalene.  Here’s what he had to say…

Matt:  We see plenty of biopics made every year but it’s not often we see one about a person born 2,000 years ago.  I know you didn’t write the screenplay but what the source material here.  How did the writers come up with the script?

Garth:  The writers were drawing on the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Mary.  They also drew upon an interpretation of Mary that hasn’t been told before.  We all know about the story of her as a fallen woman and prostitute which was confirmed by Pope Gregory in 591 AD but the one we’re telling is the one we believe to be more accurate.

Matt:  So why this particular version?

Garth:  Everyone felt it was astonishing that her story hadn’t been told before.  It’s a beautiful story that acknowledges Mary Magdalene as a great spiritual leader and an incredible apostle.  She played a major part in one of history’s great stories.

Matt:  How did you become involved in the project?

Garth:  It’s my producers’ fault (laughs).  I was in post-production on Lion and Emile Sherman and Iain Canning sent over the script.  I was intending to take a break but they said I’d like this.  There was a bit of trepidation about making a religious movie but I read the script and fell in love with it.

Matt:  We’ve seen in recent census here in Australia that the number of people who identify as being from “no religion” has increased significantly.  What’s the target audience here?  Is this a film for Christians or is the scope wider than that?

Garth:  There’s no doubt that this will connect with a wider audience.  I don’t have a religious background and I invested a chunk of my life into making this movie because I believe it is a very human, very spiritual telling.  Like Lion, it celebrates the themes of unconditional love and forgiveness.  They’re themes I want to help bring into the world as an artist.

Matt:  It’s interesting that you say you’re not religious yourself.  Did you learn a lot out of this process about the story and the way it has shaped religion?

Garth:  I was intrigued by the fact it was a world I didn’t understand.  That was exciting as a filmmaker.  You can go in with an objective viewpoint.  On getting involved, I always felt a connection with Mary and her relationship with Jesus.  That came from the script.  However, all the detail was the stuff that I learned and needed to understand along the way.

Matt:  We’re going back 2,000 years in time – how do you go about coming up with a look for the film – from the costumes of the characters to the towns where they live?

Garth:  It’s a good question.  You have to draw on all the research that exists.  I sat down with all my heads of departments and looked at that together.  We also visited Israel and retraced the steps of Mary in her journey.  That helped a lot.  We went to the Sea of Galilee where just recently they’ve discovered the city of Magdala.  A guy was building a hotel and dug into the foundations of Magdala town.  It was incredible to stand where Mary would have been.

Matt:  I remember when Mel Gibson made the Passion of the Christ 15 years ago that he used Latin as the language for the film.  You’ve gone with English here which I understand makes it more accessible for the average audience but how did you come to that decision and how do you then settle on the accents and the way that characters speak?

Garth:  The common language was Aramaic which we decided to use as English.  It really comes down to what you want the film to do.  I wanted audiences to relate to this and feel the emotion under the skin of the characters.  I didn’t want them to feel like they were watching the History Channel or a documentary.  It’s worth noting that the area was a very nomadic place with people moving through there.  I love the idea that there were different people with different backgrounds and different accents.  It mirrors the global society we’re living in today.

Matt:  There’s not as much dialogue in the film as I was expecting.  Was that part of the script or a conscious decision on your part?

Garth:  There wasn’t much dialogue in Lion either.  What’s unique in this story is the spiritual calling.  Mary has an undeniable connection to something that is calling her but because of the patriarchal society that she lives in, she can’t explore it.  So in a way, it is about the silence and it is about the thing she can’t express and understand just yet.  When she finally musters the courage to leave home and follow Jesus, that’s when things start to liven up.

Matt:  Talk me through the casting.

Garth:  I’d just worked with Rooney on Lion and she’s a very unique actress.  During those silences that we just mentioned, she has a worldliness and emotional atmosphere that I felt we needed for the character of Mary.  You can feel her searching for something spiritual.  As for Joaquin, he’s a great actor.  He has so many colours and so many emotional sensitivities – compassion, burden and fear.  All of those attributes helped create a Jesus that is both human and of the spirit.

Matt:  This is one of the final films for composer Jóhann Jóhannsson and it’s tragic that he’s passed away so young.  Can you talk to me about your working relationship with him and how you settled on the score for the film?

Garth:  We did a collaboration with Jóhann and Hildur Guðnadóttir who is very close to him.  Hildur is a beautiful composer who helped capture Mary’s voice.  She understood her journey and found both its truth and beauty at the same time.  Jóhann brought the other worldly qualities.  I didn’t want the music to feel of the time.  As we got closer to truth and closer to God, I wanted the music to feel like we were going into space and taking us into another realm.  The two of them together was an exciting journey.  They both worked out of the same studio.

It was devastating that we lost Jóhann.  One of the final pieces he focused on was the piece that opens and closes the film which is about ascension and there’s a particular irony in that.

Matt:  What are you working on at the moment?  What will we see from you next?

Garth:  I don’t have a project locked and loaded but I’m taking some steps with a few at the moment.  The biggest project I’m working on at the moment is spending time with my family. 

Interview - Director Steve S. DeKnight Goes 'Action' With Pacific Rim: Uprising

Steve S. DeKnight Interview

Oscar winning director Guillermo del Toro was at the helm of the original Pacific Rim but for this sequel, Steve S. DeKnight had his name on the back of the director’s chair.  I caught up with DeKnight when he was recently in Australia to talk about how to make a big blockbuster action movie…

Matt:  I’d love to delve into the art of making an action movie – what you know and what you’ve learned during this particular film.  I guess I’ll start out with the special effects and the visuals.  Given so much of what we see on screen is created with visual effects, how do you work as a director?  What’s the relationship you have with the visual effects guys?

Steve:  You have to work very closely with your visual effects supervisor.  I was extremely lucky to have Peter Chiang from Double Negative as my wingman.  I love him to death as a person and he’s brilliant at what he does.  You need to work in tandem with the visual effects supervisor making sure you’re getting the live action stuff you need.

One of the great tools that we usually don’t have time to use on TV is Previs.  It’s basically a stripped down computer animation version of what you’re seeing.  It’s a rough blueprint but it is moving images as opposed to storyboards.  For any of these big action scenes, we plan everything and then we Previs it.  It’s not like the old day where we have a tennis ball and we tell the actors “imagine a giant monster here.”  I always had my iPad with me and Peter Chiang by my side so I could show the actors what’s happening.  It’s a huge advantage and it makes the shoot go much faster.

Matt:  Do the action scenes have to be very well choreographed then?  I guess you don’t have a lot of flexibility to mix things up because of how expensive the scenes are.

Steve:  You have to make sure you know what you’re doing.  In this movie, we had to know what was going on outside the Jaegers because that informed the action inside the Jaegers where the actors were.  For instance, if a sequence called for them to throw a punch, we needed to know if they were throwing right hook or a left jab because once we shoot that, we can’t go back and reshoot that without a lot of expense.  You have to really nail down your choreography before you start shooting.

Matt:  Where do you draw the line between what can be achieved by building a huge set and what can be done in front of a green screen with the background inserted in later?

Steve:  These days, there is no line.  We obviously never built a 270 foot robot that could move.  That was a little beyond our technology and our budget.  That said, there are things in the movie that you could swear that are real but actually are not.  There’s a scene were John Boyega jumps out of his Jaeger and onto its arm, onto the street and then takes off running.  I was reviewing it to make sure the visual effects in the scene were correct and then I realised that none of that was real.  We didn’t build one single real element of that scene.  It fooled even me for a moment.

Matt:  I was looking at some of the scenes were the Jaegers are fighting and the sound effects are so loud, so distinctive.  I have no idea how the sound engineers come up with that stuff.  How do those guys apply their craft?

Steve:  We had an amazing team at E Squared who had worked on films like Transformers and Godzilla.  They’re magicians.  I’d be sitting with them and saying “that sounds great” and they’d be saying “that’s my cabinet door from home”.  For me, the sound and music are equally important as the visual effects.  All three of those go hand in hand.

Matt:  How do you find all these great craftsmen to work behind the scenes?  Some of the guys you’re working with here have some great credits to their name.  Do they lobby you or do you have to go seeking them out?

Steve:  It’s a little bit of both honestly.  For instance, when we were looking for a director of photography, Legendary sent me a long list of people.  I looked for those people who were the director of photography on movies that I’ve loved.  One name that jumped off the page at me was Dan Mindel.  I had loved his work with J.J. Abrams like on Mission: Impossible 3, the Star Trek movies and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  I never thought I’d be able to get him but we met up and he signed on.  This entire movie has been like that.  I had the same reaction to John Boyega as I never thought we’d get him either.

Matt:  One element I always find amusing in big disaster action films is that you have shots of extras screaming and running away from things.  How easy are those scenes to shoot?  To get everyone on the same page, doing what you want them to do?

Steve:  Whenever you’re wrangling together big crowds of extras, that’s under the purview of the first assistant director.  There are rules about what a director can and can’t tell someone who doesn’t have speaking lines.  It’s very convoluted.  So basically, the director has to tell the first assistant director what to tell the crowd.  I had a guy, Nick Satriano, who was brilliant at dealing with those crowds.  He was always upbeat and positive and got them to give it their all.

Matt:  I’m not quite sure what the budget is on a film like this but I’m guessing it’s pretty hefty.  Wikipedia tells me $150 million but I’m not sure how accurate it is.  The question I was going to ask is as a director – how conscious are you of costs?  Is there an accountant looking over your shoulder saying “um yeah, not quite sure we can afford that?”

Steve:  Yeah, of course.  When you get to a budget this big, a little bit extra here or there won’t break the bank but coming from TV, I’ve always had to be very budget conscious.  There were things I had to cut.  Without running anything as it’s in the trailer, there’s a big attack in the Shatterdome where some drones have gone half Kaiju.  Part of that scene was to have John Boyega and Scott Eastwood’s characters get inside Gypsy Avenger and have a fight with one of the Kaiju drones.  It would reach a point where they hit the drone so hard that it knocks its alien brain out, it lands on the ground, sprouts legs, and tries to eat the cadets.  I loved it but it added $10 million to the movie so we had to cut it.  There’s always give and take but you usually end up with something on screen that’s a great compromise.

Matt:  Now I believe that most of the shoot took place at Fox Studios in Sydney but there were some exteriors shot around Brisbane.  I was trying to see if I recognised any places in Brisbane but was struggling.  Is there any particular scene I should keep an eye out for?

Steve:  You have some hope.  There’s a bunch of stuff shot in Brisbane to double as Tokyo.  Also, a good chunk of the opening in the Jaeger scrapyard was shot in a decommissioned factory up there.

Matt:  Now the door has certainly been left open another instalment in this franchise?  Do you know what the plans are?

Steve:  Yes, in broad terms.  As I was developing Uprising, I was jotting down a bunch of notes about what I’ll do in the next movie.  I didn’t want to paint ourselves into a corner and not have anywhere to go.  There is a plan for the next movie which will need some fleshing out but I’m hoping that the audience shows up for this one and it warrants the third part of the trilogy.  I’m also hoping my schedule allows me to be a part of it.

Matt:  And can you tell us what you’re working on at the moment?  What are we going to see from your next?

Steve:  I have a tonne of projects swirling but none I can officially talk about.  I have plans to shoot a small, three-person thriller as a bit of a pallet cleanser and also some other really gigantic projects in both film and television.