Simon Baker – Actor, Director, Surfer
Over an afternoon cup of tea at a Bronte café, Simon Baker is talking me through his decision to direct, and star in the film adaptation of Tim Winton’s Breath. Simon has just finished explaining that he ‘lives reluctantly in the public eye’ when a loose acquaintance of his wanders past our al fresco table and casually chimes in on the conversation.
Baker is friendly and sincere, eventually indicating to the gentleman that he is mid-way through an interview about his work on Breath.
“Good luck, it’s my favourite book,” insists the passer-by, before taking the polite hint and shuffling on.
Baker immediately turns to me and with half a sigh acknowledges the enormity of what he has undertaken.
“I’d like a dollar for every time someone’s said that. ‘It’s my favourite book.’ You know, don’t stuff it up.”
So how did the charismatic star of The Guardian, The Mentalist and The Devil Wears Prada eschew a comfortable acting career to put himself in a situation where he is simultaneously shouldering the expectations of Tim Winton lovers, and surfers who are notoriously loathe to see their culture misrepresented on the big screen?
Almost a decade ago Baker was in the US working on a show when he took a call from a producer named Mark Johnson. Baker explains that Johnson had worked with him on other productions and didn’t waste time getting to the point of the call.
“He said, ‘I’ve just read this book, Breath, and it made me think of you, and I’ve got the chance to get the option if you want to partner up on it’.”
Johnson won an Oscar for his work on Rain Man and has a slate of other production credits to his name including Good Morning Vietnam and Donnie Brasco and more recently Breaking Bad, so he is the type of Hollywood heavyweight whose advice you might take seriously.
Baker picked up Breath and remembers feeling an immediate connection to the novel, which is set in ‘70s Australia and tells the story of two boys who fall under the spell of a guru surfer.
“I had moments where I just had to put it down and just wept. It brought up things for me that were so heavy and so personal in a weird way… I knew all those characters. I knew five or six versions of each one of them.”
When Baker was nine his parents made the sea change from St Mary’s in Sydney to Lennox Head. The move catapulted a young Western Suburbs kid into a heady, north coast scene.
“I’d only seen surfing on TV and I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know what that is but I want to do it’ and then I was plonked into this town and it was the late ‘70s, early ‘80s… I lived across the road from Bob McTavish.”
With its glorious point break, country-soul ambience and proximity to other classic waves, Lennox in the ‘70s was a haven for surfing luminaries who wanted to keep their counter-culture dream alive. After inspiring surfers to ride radically shorter boards, Bob McTavish was already considered a revolutionary board shaper.
Baker quickly grows glassy-eyed with nostalgia and wonder when reflecting on his time in the company of Bob.
“As kids we’d sit in the dairy bails at Lennox where Bob shaped. Then he built a shaping bay with a glass panel and we’d sit there and watch him shape all day, and you know Bob, he likes to tell a story…”
While the sage-like utterings of the older surfers in Baker’s sphere certainly resonated, they played out alongside the provocations of his self-described ‘rat-pack’ bunch of friends, who were all hell-bent on answering the siren call of surfing’s nascent competitive movement. There was an obvious allure to a career that, at the time, promised a life of international travel, wild parties and minimal responsibility.
Baker competed at a serious level in his junior years, but when asked if he dreamt of becoming a professional surfer (which many of his peers went on to be) he flashes that smile, which I imagine will have women of all ages rushing to see him in Breath, and says cheekily, “Well, I guess I kind of did, but then I discovered sex and my priorities shifted.”
However, if adolescent lust proved a distraction for the good-looking young Baker, he stresses that surfing was still at the core of his existence. “It (surfing) was the rack on which I hung my identity,” he explains succinctly.
It was Baker’s immersion in surf culture during his formative years that ultimately inspired his decision to assume the role of director for Breath. Initially he signed on as a co-producer and for the lead role of Sando, but as he and Mark Johnson flirted with potential directors it became increasingly clear to Simon he didn’t have faith in anyone else to do justice to his vision for the film.
“The truth is that if I didn’t direct it, I would have been a nightmare producer. I would have been all over the director,” he insists.
To appreciate how Baker arrived at this standpoint you have to know something about surfers – they are mercilessly critical of the way their culture is portrayed on the big screen. For a film to pass the scrutiny of the highly opinionated tribe of wave-riding devotees, the lexicon has to be spot on, the action expertly shot and the props and wardrobe delicately selected – bereft of any anachronistic mishaps because surfers can tell exactly which era a particular board or clothing item belongs to. A whole swathe of Hollywood movies, including Point Break, have been widely discredited by surfers because they fail to get the nuances of the subculture right.
For surfers, the most universally approved attempt at a Hollywood film is Big Wednesday. Released in 1978 and directed and co-written by John Milius (who went on to write the screenplay for Apocalypse Now), the film is a coming of age story about a group of draft-dodging, rebellious surfers growing up in Southern California during the Vietnam War era. Like most young grommets who saw Big Wednesday, Baker bought into the romance, but as he points out, it didn’t necessarily reflect the reality of the Australian surfing scene at the time.
“The closest thing we had to a narrative surf film when I was growing up was set in California – it was Big Wednesday – and we appropriated it because there was nothing that came close to it other than surf documentaries or surf movies, which are made just for us.”
Simon, who has never abandoned his roots and still gets in the water regularly, soon became personally invested in Breath. Perhaps more than anything he felt compelled to ensure that the surfing culture he loved was authentically portrayed.
“How many times have you seen it stuffed up?” he states emphatically, one surfer to another. “I owe too much to what it’s given me and what it means for so many of us. It only takes a bit more attention to get it right.”
Despite the passionate proclamations, Simon admits he almost buckled under the weight of his own expectations. The scale of his self-doubt came to light when he and two close mates were on a surf trip in Indonesia.
“We were having a few beers around a fire and they asked me what was happening with Breath and I said, ‘I don’t know, it’s probably too much to take on.’ At the time I was thinking, my bar’s too high and I don’t think I can pull it off and I’m only going to be disappointed…”
Baker concedes that if it wasn’t for the support of his friends and the straight-talking attitude of his wife, Rebecca, he might have just ‘done the dance’ with the idea and moved on.
“My mates basically said, ‘If anyone’s going to do it, it should be you… Just have a crack, have a dig.’ My missus was like that too. She just said, ‘Look, honey there’s so many bad movies made, so what if yours is just another shit movie? Just go and make it. Just go and have a go’.”
However, while the heartfelt logic served as a necessary catalyst for action, there was still one more endorsement Simon needed before he could move forward confidently with the production.
Tim Winton is a titan of Australian literature. A four-time winner of the Miles Franklin Award (one of which was for Breath), his writing has helped bring both a sense of definition and mystique to the Australian experience.
As an actor, Simon Baker may have spent more than a decade reflecting the cultural mores of North America, but he still well understood the impact of Winton on Australia’s cultural identity.
“It’s such a beloved book and he’s such a revered Australian literary icon… A film is a different animal, but I wanted to make a movie that felt like you felt when you read the book.”
It took Winton a little while to understand Baker’s own coastal influences (Tim is from the west coast where the film is also set), but according to Baker, the relationship eventually clicked.
“Tim was good. Tim’s salty, he gets it… We had a couple of dinners and a couple of chats and then he got it. He understood where I was coming from and what I wanted to do with it. From him I just needed to know that he was okay with me committing to that and making it my own… I think that once I felt there was trust there he was like, ‘Yeah you go for it.’ He wasn’t right there on my shoulder.”
Having secured the support of Winton (who wrote the first version of the film’s screenplay), Baker set about recruiting a production team that understood the idiosyncrasies of surfing.
“Making a film brings an enormous number of people together and you can’t hire everyone on that set as a surfer,” he indicates pragmatically. “I hired enough of them – as many as I could – because we just have a short-hand and an understanding… there’s a lot of communication and dialogue abbreviated.”
If Simon was to seamlessly convey the rapture a surfer feels for the ocean and bring to life Winton’s provocative prose, then the role of water cinematographer was always going to be crucial. As it happened, the right guy for the job had worked with Baker in the early ‘90s on Australian series E Street, the gritty, urban-set soap in which a young Baker had played Constable Sam Farrell.
Like Baker, cameraman Rick Rifici used E Street as a springboard to involvement in a host of productions. However, while Rick’s career took him to the leading production houses in Hollywood and France, he simultaneously nurtured a reputation in surfing circles as a camera-wielding virtuoso with the capacity to put a unique twist on the kind of high-octane footage surfers crave. Rifici lives in Western Australia where Breath was shot and is familiar with much of its wild coastline but, according to Baker, Rick still got a little emotional when Simon illustrated his vision for shooting the film.
“As soon as I met with Rick and explained how I wanted to shoot the surf stuff – he’ll probably deny this – he got a bit of a tear in his eye. I told him I just wanted to shoot it simply and I just wanted to exploit those moments that we (surfers) see and we enjoy every day and we take for granted, that organic nature of your visibility and your senses being shifted, and I wanted to try and integrate all that into the sound design as well.”
Rifici explains that shooting Breath was both more satisfying and challenging than many of the commercial campaigns he’d done for the surf industry
“For those shoots, it’s all sunny and fluffy… you’re looking for strong overhead light and sort of clichéd surf stuff, but this project was totally different, I had full creative range of what I wanted to shoot… often we used less depth of field which creates more drama in the shot.”
This was always going to be a movie that could succeed or flop on the strength of the surfing imagery. Baker was acutely aware that no matter how good his crew were, making the film involved considerable temporal, natural and financial constraints.
“I didn’t have a lot of money and I only had the water unit for four weeks and all the main cast are in the water sequences.”
While the surfers on set were accustomed to the whims of wind and waves, Baker knew it wasn’t easy for everyone involved to understand the dynamics at play.
“I’m not going to be naive enough to go into making a film that’s largely set in the ocean and think that I’m going to man-handle the environment – it’s just not going to happen. Sometimes you can tell people that and they go, ‘Yeah, yeah, but…’ and you have to say, ‘No, there’s no buts mate. If the wind changes direction we’re screwed, so we need an alternative’.”
Fortunately for Baker, the ocean corresponded.
“We got completely blessed by Mother Nature. We could have been so screwed. We needed footage at three different locations and enough to be able to put it together to tell the story. In the end it literally came down to having just enough frames.”
Rifici admits that there was a lot of pressure to get the feel of the footage right within the limited time frame and suggests that if Baker didn’t have an extensive surfing background it might have been a different story.
As for how they got along on set? For the two old friends it seems there was only one point of conjecture.
“He missed my best wave,” complains Simon with a grin that mocks his own hubris. “I got the wave from the best angle,” chuckles Rifici in his own defence. “I just didn’t think he was going to make it out of the barrel.”
Ultimately, the surfing footage in Breath, which was shot mostly around Denmark in Western Australia, is compelling; beauty and authenticity of experience trumping the kind of cornball mishmash Hollywood frequently splashes on the screen. Throw in a score that incorporates classical music in addition to the era-defining rock tracks and you have something with a distinctly sophisticated quality – surfing as mysterious art form rather than dead-beat, Puberty Blues culture. This, it seems, was one of Baker’s other aims – to elevate the perception of the world he grew up in.
“I wanted people to look at us that go out there and surf and not just think that we are all just one dimensional narcissists… that you can be that person that goes out there in all conditions and still be interested in a lot of other things.”
Faith in the broader talents of surfers was responsible for one of the other big risks Baker took with the film – casting two teenage kids with no previous acting experience in the lead roles of Pikelet and Loonie.
“I had to do it,” insists Baker. “I can see someone pick up a board and know that they can surf or not. You can’t teach that stuff.”
Samson Coulter (Pikelet) and Ben Spence (Loonie) were plucked straight off the beach – Samson from Queenscliff in Sydney and Ben from Margaret River in Western Australia – and thrown in front of the camera. Their wave-riding expertise enabled them to do almost all their own surfing scenes, thus eliminating the problem of clunky switches to stunt doubles and potential incongruences in the action.
“The clever thing Simon did is get two young, champion Australian surfers and teach them how to act,” explains Rifici. “It allowed you to keep the camera rolling and make it much more of a real production rather than having to cut around it.”
Like Coulter and Spence, Baker also did almost all of his own surfing in the film – a factor that prompts Heath Joske, a former pro surfer and Baker’s stunt double for Breath, to quip, “Simon surfs really well, so well he nearly put me out of a job.”
Joske points out that when the surf scenes were being shot over a tight, four-week period, Baker would frequently wander over at the end of the day and hang out with the ‘surf unit’ as they were called, and talk story.
“It was apparent that he obviously had a very authentic surfing upbringing,” suggests Joske, with a hint of mischief.
Although picked for their surfing ability, the acting performances of Coulter and Spence well and truly stand up. As Loonie, Spence captures the essence of the quintessential surfy ‘grommet’ and his zany interpretation of the role brings a distinctive and perhaps unexpected element of humour to the film. Breath will likely make Spence a star. Meanwhile, Coulter has a more sensitive interpretation of Pikelet. In the movie, Pikelet is played as a dreamy teenager whose obsession with surfing parallels his growing preoccupation with an unorthodox sexual relationship. If you’ve read the book you will appreciate that some of the scenes might have been quite confronting for a teenage boy. Coulter lends the kind of subtlety to the role that belies his limited acting experience.
While the ocean can be the most fickle of cast members, there were other aesthetic aspects of the film over which Baker was able to assert much more control. While Baker set the benchmarks, the responsibility for making the film accurately reflect the era and the surfing sub-culture fell upon the shoulders of former pro surfer Jodie Cooper.
Cooper, as Simon recalls, was responsible for one of his most satisfying moments in the making of the film.
“She had all the props lined up – all the boards, everything from the ‘70s, like from eskies to everything else, the furniture from inside the house and all of that. All the boards were lined up and I had goose bumps because it was so good and spot on. Then she goes, ‘I’ve got a surprise for you’. This guy had made the original honey surf wax. She just told me to close my eyes and put it in front of my face. I smelt it and just started crying. I was 12 years old again.”
For all the attention to surfing details, Baker was also well aware he was making a film about much more than boyhood wave lust. The movie, like the novel, has a complex layer of themes at play beneath the briny surface.
“There’s a part of the film that is about fear and beauty,” Baker enthuses. “Pikelet was in it for the beauty of it and Loonie is in it for the rush. He’s into everything for the rush. For me, I’ve always had a foot in both camps.”
When pressed to come up with a binding concept that brings all of the film’s disparate parts and characters together, Baker settles on the notion of identity.
“For me, the film was always really about identity, and forging your own identity, so the actions that you take and not just through the coming of age period. If you really examine it, everyone in the film is struggling in some way with their identity… Obviously Pikelet and Loonie, but Queenie, the young girl. Sando is sort of hurtling towards a mid-life crisis… Eva is completely displaced in that she doesn’t know who she is anymore. Mr Pike and Mrs Pike – kids now looking at them less like Mum and Dad, but more as a person… which we all do.”
As the afternoon drifts on and the teapots are emptied, Baker and I are eventually trading stories of glory days; a couple of middle-aged surfers anxious that perhaps their best waves are behind them, but faintly optimistic that there might be many more to come. In a fit of laughter he confesses, “My close friends know that there’s part of me that’s this close to throwing it all in to just go surfing.”
He talks at length about a recent surf trip to the North Shore of Hawaii with his son and dwells on how much he loves going back to Lennox Head and surfing the point with old friends. Like most life-long surfers, he also has a weakness for accumulating surfboards.
Sensing the easy and irreversible descent into surf chat, I feel the need to ask Simon a final direct question. Having taken on the responsibility of director and lead actor for a film that will be scrutinised heavily by both surfers and lovers of the book, is he scared about the way the film will be received?
“Of course I am, but at the same time I feel comfortable in the fact that I had a dig, I gave it everything I had. I don’t feel like I’m running off the field going, ‘I wish I’d gone in a bit harder.’ I feel at peace with myself in a sense…”
For Baker, one milestone at least has already been achieved. I mention that they played a re-run of Big Wednesday down the road at Randwick Ritz a couple of days prior to our meeting. The cult classic surf film has stood the test of time and is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Surfers still love to show up to cinemas and shout out the classic lines from Big Wednesday they remember. Baker lights up when I mention the screening.
“They showed the trailer for Breath before it,” he enthuses.
For the surfer in Simon this is almost accomplishment enough, to see his film on the same bill as everyone’s favourite surf movie. The rest he feels is perhaps now out of his hands when it comes to Breath.
“It’s not my choice as to whether or not it’s good or not, that will bear out over time. I’ll probably be able to know if it’s any good in ten years, just to see where it sits… I wanted to make something that’s got some longevity to it…”
If you asked this surfer and book lover, Baker has quite possibly overcome his demons of self-doubt to make a movie that, like the novel, will ultimately be considered an Australian classic.
Breath is a coming of age story about resisting complacency, finding like-minded souls, and discovering just how far one breath will take you. For session times and more information, please visit www.roadshow.com.au.