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Bruce Beresford: Double Threat

Bruce Beresford: Double Threat

Articles - Directing

Bruce Beresford was at the forefront
of the Australian film industry’s “new wave” of the
1970s. After the international acclaim that greeted Breaker Morant,
he was lured to Hollywood, where he directed Robert Duvall’s
Oscar-winning performance in Tender Mercies. It was the first of
his many Southern dramas, which have included Crimes of the Heart,
Driving Miss Daisy and Rich in Love. After recently completing work
on what has become his latest hit, Double Jeopardy, Bruce Beresford
recently returned home to direct an IMAX film about his hometown
called Sydney—Story of a City. It was at this point that I
caught up with him to ask him about his career.

Stephen Lynch (MM): Your latest
Hollywood movie, Double Jeopardy, has a larger budget than most
of your films. Can you tell me a bit about it?

Bruce Beresford (BB): It’s
a thriller with Tommy Lee Jones and Ashley Judd. A woman is accused
of murdering her husband, goes to jail, and when she’s released
several years later she skips bail because she finds out her husband
faked his own death and she sets out to find him. Tommy Lee Jones
is a parole officer who has to chase her down.

MM: What was Robert Benton’s

BB: Robert did a polish on the
script, but it was written by the two guys who wrote The Rock, Doug
Cook and David Weisburg. I didn’t have much interest in the
idea initially, but then I thought it was quite an interesting thriller
script, and I’d never done anything like it before, so I thought
it might be fun.

MM: It’s not a genre you’re
usually associated with. What challenges did making a thriller present?

BB: Perhaps the main thing was
that it was essential to keep the film moving pretty briskly. Also,
I was careful during the making of the film to try to keep the audience
in suspense and not know certain things. As it turned out, everything
I was

Ashley Judd and Tommy Lee Jones
on the Double Jeopardy set

concerned that they didn’t know was given
away in the trailer. When I complained, someone at the studio said
to me, ‘Audiences don’t like going to films unless they
know what’s happened.’ So I thought, ‘Bugger it,
what does it matter.’

MM: I imagine the action sequences
needed to be very tight.

BB: Yes. I storyboarded all the
action sequences way, way in advance of doing the film, because
they’re so elaborate. You just can’t turn up on the set
and say, ‘What if the car rolls over the sand hill here?’
Everyone’s got to be prepared, and it takes months to work
out. There’s a sequence in the film where a car goes off a
ferry, and I had to storyboard that in enormous detail. You can’t
make it up as you go along.

MM: Tell me about the scene
where she’s trapped inside a coffin.

BB: That was hard to do, from
a lot of points of view. Filming in an anamorphic format inside
a coffin is pretty difficult. So I did a number of camera checks
in the weeks preceding the shooting of the scene, storyboarded little
sequences, then got them to shoot those. Afterward we’d have
a look at the test sequences and work out the best way of doing
it. It had to look claustrophobic, otherwise you’re lost, it
wouldn’t have worked.

MM: Has the success of the
film come as a bit of a surprise?

BB: Yes, it has. Though it didn’t
surprise the studio. They told me early on that it was going to
be very popular. So I’m pleased that it turned out as well
as it did. Certainly the most gratifying part is if you watch it
with an audience, they love it. They eat it up, which is nice for
a filmmaker. To see the audience absolutely enjoying something,
you think ‘Well! I might have done something right.’

MM: Do you think it might be
more commercial than some of your more recent films?

BB: I bloody well hope so, because
it cost so much money. The others have been pretty cheap.

MM: I’ve heard concerns
over the believability of some situations.

BB: Well, it’s certainly
more believable than The English Patient. I thought about that at
first, then I thought, ‘Wait a minute, is this less believable
than The Piano?’ No. So after that it didn’t really worry

MM: Did the gun cause some
concerns, with her being able to take it on a flight?

BB: No, she just put the gun in
her bag and checked the bag through. The only things they check
through are the things you’re carrying onto the flight. And
she’s only on a domestic flight, where they don’t go through
the luggage you put in the hold.

MM: The basic premise of Double
Jeopardy—does it stand up?

BB: It’s certainly open to
debate. The thing is the way the film presents it is accurate enough;
it’s never been put to the test. Now you can always argue that
if she went to shoot him the second time, then it’s not the

Judd and Bruce Greenwood on
Double Jeopardy

same crime as the first time. Even though she’s
having a go at the same person, it’s a different crime. I think
that would be the argument.

BB: Yes, and a number of others,
as well, but it is certainly true that the trailers that they make
these days give away absolutely everything.

MM: Let’s go from your
most recent hit to your first. Like many of your movies, Breaker
Morant was based on a play.

BB: That’s true. I think
there’s about six of them. I quite like filming plays because
the characterizations are so solid, and I like to be able to deal
with those very well-developed characters on screen. I mean, just
because it’s a play doesn’t mean it can’t be filmic.
It depends on how you break the shots up and the way you look at
what’s going to be filmed. I always try and make the audience
forget that it was a stage play.

MM: What was the reaction to
the film overseas?

BB: In England they hated it,
but everywhere else it got good reviews.

MM: Do you think it was perceived
as anti-British?

BB: I don’t know if it was
that. They just didn’t like it. Gallipoli was shown there at
almost the same time, which is somewhat more anti-British, and it
was a huge success. So Peter pulled it off and I didn’t. I’m
never quite sure why they disliked Breaker Morant quite so much.

MM: You mention your contemporary,
Peter Weir, who left for the US at about the same time as you. Over
the years you’ve certainly been more prolific than he has.

BB: That’s probably because
I’m making films with lower budgets, not getting any fees and
I need the money (laughs). I like to keep working. I like to keep
busy, but I have made a lot of very low-budget films. Driving Miss
Daisy I actually directed for nothing. Nobody wanted to finance
it. Finally they said, “We’ll give you the money provided
you take no director’s fee.” I agreed because I had such
faith in the product. I knew it was going to be a wonderful film.

MM: So how did you feel when
it took the O

From Beresford’s new
IMAX film Sydney: Story of a City

scar for Best Picture, and you weren’t
even nominated for Best Director?

BB: I must say I never got my
knickers in a twist about that. The film was done and I was proud
of it. I never imagined it was going to win the Best Picture Oscar,
so I was quite pleased when it did. I didn’t get myself upset
because I wasn’t nominated, but at the same time I was a little
surprised. When we were trying to get the money together for the
film, one reason that was consistently given for not investing in
it was that everyone kept saying no one could direct it well enough
to entertain an audience for 100 minutes of watching three people
essentially chatting in the kitchen. You just couldn’t do it.
It would be boring. So when the film was a big success, I thought
now at least they will see that maybe it was directed reasonably
well because it was entertaining. But then everyone sort of said
to me “Oh well, the direction was non-existent. It doesn’t
look like there was any effort involved at all.” Ultimately,
though, it didn’t really matter.

MM: Like a lot of your films,
it was set in the American South. What is it about that setting
that draws you to it?

BB: Nothing! It’s just that
I happened to have stumbled across a number of very good scripts
that were set in the South. It’s just an amazing coincidence,
really. There’s no significance whatever.

MM: Your first American film,
Tender Mercies, was also set in the South. What differences did
you encounter between making an American film and an Australian

BB: Tender Mercies is actually
a very low-budget film, but it was a huge budget compared to anything
I had done in Australia. My fee for Tender Mercies, which was actually
very modest, was something like five times all of my Australian
films combined. Also, I was surprised as to how big the crew was,
and I remember being amazed that all the actors had caravans, because
I was used to actors just sitting around the set.

MM: The film’s press kit
referred to your surprise that you could say, ‘I think I’d
like 20 people there’ and before you knew it they were there.

BB: Yes, that was all a bit of
a surprise. In Breaker Morant, we had so little money we used the
same soldiers attacking the fort as defending it. We’d put
them on the horses, and then when we were finished with that shot,
we’d dress them in British uniforms and put them behind the
guns. It was the same group of men. So it was great to have a little
bit more freedom.

MM: One of the other common
themes within your films is a “conflict of culture,” perhaps
most notably in Black Robe.

BB: Perhaps it’s unconscious
that I have made films along those lines. I think it’s because
when I was young, about 23, I went to Nigeria, and I lived there
for a couple of years working as a film editor for the Nigerian
government. I was the only white man in an all black film unit,
and it was an eye-opener for me. Suddenly I saw everything from
somebody else’s point of view, from the African’s point
of view. Inevitably, I learned to think like them and to have an
approach to things like them. So when I came across scripts later
on which dealt with major clashes, I think I had an intrinsic understanding
of them.

MM: Mister Johnson, I suppose,
is the reverse of your own situation.

BB: I desperately wanted to film
Mister Johnson when I was actually in Nigeria. I was glad to be
able to go back and do it.

MM: He was an African who adopts
English customs.

BB: And eventually messes it all
up. It’s based on a true story; based on a novel by Joyce Cary,
who was a district officer in Nigeria in the area where we filmed
the movie, and

Bruce Beresford

that was based on his own experiences.

MM: There has been a high caliber
of scriptwriters for your films, such as William Boyd, who wrote
the script for Mister Johnson and also A Good Man in Africa, from
his own novel.

BB: I’ve worked with some
really first class writers. Horton Foote, Beth Henley, David Williamson,
Brian Moore—they were all absolutely major writers. There’s
a huge difference working with them and a lot of the guys who turn
out competent but ordinary scripts. It’s a great pleasure to
be able to direct a scene written by any of those people, because
your job is so much easier. The dialogue makes sense, the subtext
is there, and you can talk to the actors much more intelligently.
There are so many scripts that are just a load of garbage. When
your actors come to you and ask, “Why am I doing this?”
you have to say “Well, the real reason is because they want
to get you from A to B and there’s no other way to do it than
this silly method.” There’s no real logic to it. But once
you’re dealing with a superior writer, it makes the whole job
not just easier, but a pleasure.

MM: Paradise Road was your
first film in Australia for 10 years. What changes did you notice
in the Australian film industry during that time?

BB: It had become a lot more sophisticated.
The technicians were much more savvy about everything, and of course
everybody now had trailers. But they hadn’t fundamentally changed.
The Australian crews were still down to earth. They don’t get
carried away with any phony glamour, and they’re not afraid
to give you their opinions. They’re also very good with the
actors. They don’t kiss their bums, but they’re perfectly
polite and straightforward and I think the actors appreciate that.
On Paradise Road one of the crew called out to Glenn Close and said,
“Hey Glenn, mate! Just move a bit to the left so that light
hits you there. O.K., mate?” And she looked up and said, “Oh,
yes. Certainly.” I thought nowhere else on earth would someone
call out to her like that, but it was good. He wasn’t rude,
he wasn’t offensive, he just had a nice Australian frankness
about him, and it makes it easy to deal with.

MM: I get the impression there’s
a camaraderie on the Australian sets, where everybody chips in.

BB: That’s true, they do.

MM: Is that very different
from your experience in America?

BB: No. I must say the American
crews are very good, and I have a lot of great friends over there,
but there’s certainly a somewhat more relaxed atmosphere on
Australian sets. There’s a less “us and them” feeling
about it all.

MM: I suppose an illustration
of that would be the sharing of directorship duties with cinematographer
Geoff Burton on Sydney—Story of a City, which would have to
be one of the most expensive Australian films for some time.

BB: Well you can’t make a
cheap IMAX film. You’ve got to have an IMAX camera, and you’ve
got to use 70mm film. It’s always going to cost you a fortune.
It’s a very expensive process.

MM: What are the difficulties
associated with making an IMAX film?

BB: One is that you can’t
cut very fast because you’d lose the audience. The screen is
so massive, with so many things to look at and capture the attention
of your senses, that the shots have to be on screen longer to be
absorbed. If IMAX scenes ran the same length of time that they do
in an ordinary 35mm film, they would appear to be too quick, because
your brain can’t process them fast enough. So you’ve got
to be careful of that. Also, when you’re shooting the film
you can only do about four to five set-ups a day, because the camera
is so cumbersome. There’s only a tiny amount of IMAX cameras
in the world and they’re all rented out of the IMAX Corporation.
So you have to fly them in from Toronto, which is a big deal, along
with some IMAX guy who’s standing there all the time to fix
the bloody thing when it breaks.

MM: Unlike the IMAX film, the
majority of your films have been low budget. What’s your perception
of how the independent scene in Australia compares to that in the

BB: It’s somewhat similar
to the independent scene in the States.

I don’t think the way they’re
financed is the same, but some of the films are similar. I suppose
it’s because these days people in that age group of 25 to 35
years old, who are making the films, have similar cultural experiences.
Australia and America are probably the two most alike countries
in the world. There are a lot of differences, but they’re also
very much alike in a lot of ways. It’s not surprising that
a lot of the preoccupations are similar. MM

Stephen Lynch is a freelance writer
and frequent contributor to MovieMaker who makes his home in Sydney,

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