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.