Bruce Beresford and Sarah Wynter

Bruce Beresford
directing Sarah Wynter as “Alma Mahler” in the historical drama Bride of the Wind.

After 30 years of moviemaking and almost as many
features to his credit, Australian director Bruce Beresford is far
from a household name in the US. With a handful of classics under
his belt, including Breaker Morant, Tender Mercies, Crimes of the
Heart, Driving Miss Daisy, Black Robe
, he
typifies the seasoned journeyman for whom good work is its own reward. In a telling comment on his anonymity, Beresford was overlooked
for the Oscar in 1989 when Driving Miss Daisy won for Best
Picture and Screenplay. Noting the irony, host Billy Crystal quipped,
‘I guess the film directed itself.’ It’s unlikely that the
prolific Aussie was offended by the oversight — good-natured and
thoroughly unpretentious, he gives off the sort of relaxed informality
we’ve come to expect from the land down under.

Beresford’s pictures have been marked by a conspicuous number of
outstanding performances over the years. Bride of The Wind proves true to form, introducing filmgoers to a stand-out new talent,
including Sarah Wynter, an Australian actress previously seen in
Schwarzenegger’s The Sixth Day. In this, her first truly
meaty role, Wynter stars as Alma Mahler, a sort of later day Helen
of Troy who was involved in often tumultuous marriages and affairs
with some of the most celebrated artists of her era. Among them
were composer Gustav Mahler, impressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka, Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius and novelist Franz Werfel.

Before dashing off to London, where he’s already preparing
his next film, Boswell For The Defense, Beresford, youthful
at 60, chatted about the new film and shared a few thoughts on the
nuts and bolts of the film craft.

Phillip Williams (MM): Bride of the Wind deals
with a fascinating period in European history.

Bruce Beresford (BB): Sure, well the film is
set in Vienna between the years of 1900 and 1920. It was really
an extraordinary period in cultural terms: it was an era of great
composers and painters, musicians and scientists. It was amazing,
and Alma Mahler was an extraordinarily beautiful woman who married
or had affairs with a number of these extraordinary people.

MM: And her first husband was Gustav Mahler?

BB: Yes, she was Gustav Mahler’s wife, then he
died in 1911 and she married Walter Gropius, the architect. She
had a big affair with Oskar Kokoshka, the painter — he painted
the famous portrait of them lying together, called Bride of The
Wind — but she never married him; she refused. After divorcing
Gropius, she married Franz Werfel, the novelist, who wrote The
Song of Bernadette
. She was with Werfel until he died
in 1945 in America.

MM:How did you decide to cast Sarah Wynter
in the lead?

BB: The only other film I had seen her in was
a Schwarzenegger’s The Sixth Day. I was having
trouble casting this film because I wanted a girl that was very
beautiful, but in a rather classy sort of way; I didn’t want a girl
too much end of the 20th century in spirit. I thought Sarah
was very sexy, but in a sort of gracious, rather elegant, European
sort of way.

MM: It’s interesting how some actors seem
out of place in a period film. They often just
feel too modern. It’s like people carry it
in their bones.

BB: Yes, it’s an indefinable quality. Sometimes
you look at people and you think, for some reason, it just doesn’t
work in a period thing.

MM: Is that something you were concerned with
in the script, in terms of the dialogue?

BB: I was careful to avoid phrases and things
that were very much of our period. I am often given scripts
to read which are set 50, 60, 70, 80 years ago, and I am often amazed
how the dialogue is horribly wrong — too contemporary, with slang
and words people simply didn’t use.

MM: It’s interesting that you only deal with
a particular part of this woman’s life; you don’t try to tell her
whole story.

BB: It’s impossible to depict someone’s entire
lifetime in a film without resorting to a tedious and usually meaningless
montage technique. A number of films could be made dealing
with various eras of Alma’s life. We dealt with the early
years up to her marriage to Werfel. After that, another era, and
another potential film, begins with the growing power of the Nazis
and Alma’s departure from Austria in 1938.

MM: It’s interesting that even as you attempted
to place this piece firmly in the spirit of the period, the character
and her conflicts are very contemporary.

BB:I hope so. Alma may have had the most extraordinary
range of love affairs of any woman in history. Her beauty
and charm were so overwhelming that she was relentlessly pursued
by some pretty amazing men. But this made it very difficult
for her to assert her own individuality and talent. Mahler forbade
her to compose and Kokoschka stifled her with his jealousy. I think
she transcended them in her own way. She was ahead of her time in
trying to be her own person.

MM: This picture has some very poetic imagery
in it. Are you conscious of looking for images
that maybe represent or symbolize a given theme?

BB: I don’t think it is a terribly conscious
thing. I think all I ever try and do when I am directing
a film is tell the story as simply as possible. Often the
cameraman will suggest a beautiful shot and I will say ‘Well, it
would look good but we’ve really got to tell the story.’ It’s about
the character, and that’s all I really want to do.

MM: How can a shot tell us something about
a character?

BB: I always try to position the characters so
you get a certain dramatic effect. I shot some scenes [in Bride of The Wind] very wide, with the characters dwarfed
by the magnificence of the city. I storyboard a film before I start.

MM: Do you get someone else to draw your storyboards?

BB: Occasionally, if the sequence is very complicated,
I will get someone to re-draw it so that everyone can understand
them better because my drawing skills are below zero. But the cameraman
understands them clearly enough. One of the advantages of my drawings
is that the shots actually exist: if I draw a shot, you can do it. Storyboard artists often draw shots for which there is no lens.
It looks great on paper but in fact you can’t film it; there’s no
lens that has this ability — it doesn’t go that wide or it doesn’t
go that tight.

MM: Do you choose the camera lenses as well?

BB: Yes, I do, because the way the lenses see
the actors varies the way that I talk to them about playing it. I’d direct an actor differently if I was shooting him through
a 100mm lens rather than a 20mm lens. A longer lens will isolate
him more, and so you can see every little nuance. If you shoot it
with a wider lens, he will be in the context of a background which
is sharp, so your attention will be less concentrated on him; then you need to get into doing things slightly differently.

MM: How much do you want to tell the actors
about the characters?

BB: I go into a lot of detail because I find
that even the most experienced actors will come to me and say ‘What
am I thinking in this scene? What do I feel? What
is my attitude toward this? What do I know?’ I want them
to ask me these questions and it’s pretty important for me to have
the answers.

MM: So you do a lot of research?

BB: Yes. Bride of the Wind could
be researched enormously because so many of the people involved
wrote memoirs and books and letters.

MM: What do you do when you are studying a
period, like in
Bride of the Wind,where you
have various people writing about events but you get conflicting
views of history from them?

BB: I tend to read original sources. You don’t
get so much conflicting views [as you do] different viewpoints.
Even that gives you insight into the characters.

MM: Do you think it’s helpful for actors to
use sense memory and all that various stuff that people use in the
method school?

BB: I’m all for them doing anything which helps
them. I find a lot of the best actors I’ve worked with are
the least convoluted; they will come and do the scene then
walk off and tell a joke. Whenever they arrive in character˜dressed-up
liked a swordfish or something, and pretend that they are underwater
and go on and on about their motivation, I start to really worry. I’ll think, ‘This bloke’s lost it.’

Morgan Freeman didn’t do it, Albert Finney didn‚t
do it and lots of the greatest actors I’ve ever worked with don’t
do it. Then a lot of the ones you find who carry on with all that
stuff are really phenomenally insecure; they are trying to convince
themselves of something. I am not saying that this is true
in every case but it’s generally been my experience that
the more they talk to me about their involvement, the more worried
I become. I think this involvement they are talking about
is sometimes covering up a complete lack of involvement (laughs).