‘Breath’ is much more than a coming-of-age tale, and it’s much more than a surf film. Simon Baker’s directorial debut explores the fear that at times holds us back and others drives us forward. With stunning cinematography, breathtaking Australian landscapes and genuine surf sequences, the film adaptation of Tim Winton’s book of the same name is picking up rave reviews wherever it screens.
Samantha Morris spoke to Simon Baker and his two lead actors Samson Coulter and Ben Pence about what it was like to work together and whether any mishaps occurred along the way.
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It seems fitting that when I meet with Simon Baker and his proteges Samson Coulter and Ben Pence, we’re in Surfers Paradise with a view of the ocean. It’s a well-known story now, but neither Samson nor Ben aspired to be on the screen, coming to Simon’s attention after a year-long search for young surfers who might make that transition. Simon says time and time again that it’s easier to teach surfers to act than teaching actors to surf. The younger pair are obviously stoked with their experience.
“You just don’t think surfing will lead to something like this,” said Samson Coulter (Pikelet).
The three men became friends pretty quickly through the filming process and while Simon admits there were lots of challenges in working with people who’d never acted before he says their shared love of the water created a short-hand.
“I already lived, kind of, what these guys were living,” he added, “so there was a shorthand there too, and because of that we didn’t have to go into airy-fairy actor stuff that a lot of times you have to go into. I pushed that there is no right and there is no wrong. I tried to create that kind of environment.”
Simon says it’ll be interesting to see what happens if the pair work on another film.
“I can’t wait to hear what their experience of that is, because this was tailor-made to the fact that we were working with two guys who’d never acted before so all the things that make you nervous and jumpy were pushed back a bit so they could still be themselves, be kids and find their way,” he said.
“I like to think I learnt a few things in that experience I could take to something else,” Samson told Blank Gold Coast. “It wasn’t easy work, I think I have a new respect for actors – for a while there I thought they had a good gig.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever get to work on a project of a similar nature though,” he said. “I have nothing to compare him [Simon] to as a director but I think it’s safe to say that he took a different approach and he was easy to be around and kept calm I guess. I could imagine a lot of people would have been a little bit frustrated.”
That connection around the water and the sea extends way beyond this trio. The surf sequences are noticeably authentic and Simon is quick to praise the entire team.
“It starts with who you work with as collaborators. It’s why I cast two kids that hadn’t acted but could surf. It’s why I used Jodie Cooper – she’s an ex-champion surfer who grew up in the area. She was the prop master for the first time. I used Ric Rifici as a surf cinematographer who had a grounding in drama but understood the water. John Frank as a camera operator – a celebrated water cameraman who’d never shot drama EVER as our lead camera guy,” he said.
“You’ve gotta put all those things in place ‘cos I know the problem – I’ve seen it a million times and then you just keep on top of it and you hope for good conditions,” he said.
Of course there were mishaps along the way. “Plenty,” in Simon’s words. Including a boat that was sunk and had to be towed underwater. They laugh at some of the scenes that caused distress.
“I was driving the boat, Ric was beside me with his housing like this and Samson had his back to me, and we were in the middle of the ocean pretty much and this wave just loomed up – solid wave – and I was like ‘fuck, what’s this’ and I fanged the motor, Samson could see the whites of my eyes and it broke just at the top and I let go of the throttle just as we got over it. Samson went flying through the air and landed on me and we were like ‘woah, what was that’ and then there was another one coming.”
The retelling of that story, along with several surf tales and the laughter that go with them makes me realise how close the trio have become during the shooting of Breath. It’s obvious were a lot of fun moments, but Simon is quick to stress the strong work ethic shared by the team.
“We were working our arses off,” he said. “If it’s not fun, you can’t get good stuff. There’s certain things you have to do in scenes and moments. You have to go there. But there’s no reason why you can’t have a good time while you’re doing it,” he said.
And he’s philosophical about any industry expectations that existed around his directorial debut.
“Things are going to flow your way or not. You can’t choke the life out of something,” he said.
“I am a bit of a perfectionist and a bit of a task master. But I’m definitely that with myself before I am with anyone else.
“These guys saw the good, the bad and the ugly in me but they stuck with me. For a couple of young men their age and lack of experience, it was incredibly admirable of them and in a weird way it fed me and gave me energy.”
“I can’t help but look at these kids – not so much now, but at the time and see an aspect of myself in them at that age… that wide-eyed kind of nature, these guys threw themselves into it.”
That wide-eyed fear is a recurring theme through the film. Indeed Simon says one of the film’s key messages is that there’s fear in all of us and it’s how you live with it that makes you who you area.
“That’s kind of the strength of what fear is. It’s always going to be there in some form,” Simon said.
“You invite fear with you on the journey, just don’t let it drive.”
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‘Breath’ had its Australian premiere at the Gold Coast Film Festival and is now screening across the country.