Set in 1970s coastal Australia, two teenage boys hungry for discovery form an unlikely friendship with an older, enigmatic surfer who pushes them to take risks that will have lasting and profound impacts on their lives.
Based on Tim Winton’s international bestselling novel, Breath is lensed by award-wining Cinematographer Marden Dean and was directed by Simon Baker.
By James Cunningham.
The journey to the film Breath began with a copy of Tim Winton’s book of the same name being sent to veteran Hollywood producer Mark Johnson.
Johnson, a producer on Rain Man (1988), Donnie Brasco (1997) and The Notebook (2004), had worked previously with Australian actor Simon Baker. When Johnson read Winton’s book he was compelled to contact Baker, who knew of Winton’s work but hadn’t yet read Breath.
“Johnson said, ‘I’m sending you a copy of this book. This is something that perhaps we could do together,’” recalls Baker. “It had an immediately profound effect on me. Having grown up in a coastal town in Australia, and knowing such similar characters from the book, I was drawn in. I called Johnson immediately and said ‘Yes’.”
Johnson contacted Winton about securing the rights to make the film. They planned to meet when Johnson was shooting in Australia, but were never able to be in the same place at the same time.
“In the end, we finally met in Portland, Oregon,” says Winton. “I was arriving for a US book tour. I was flattered that he was interested and surprised by how intense his interest was. It wasn’t just about the exotic for him, that it was set in a different hemisphere, he saw that the story was universal.”
Initially, Baker was attached to star in the film. “When we first optioned the book, Johnson and I met with some really great directors,” recalls Baker. “Everyone was interested because of Wintons’ stature as a writer, but after one particular meeting, Johnson leant over and asked me ‘has it occurred to you that maybe you should direct this film?’”
The challenge of directing as well as acting was an experience not foreign to Baker, as he had directed and acted simultaneously in episodes of The Mentalist (2008-2015) and The Guardian (2001-2004).
Cinematographer Marden Dean had recently finished on the film Fell (2014), which appealed to Baker because of its rich personification of nature and the character’s connection to it. “I hadn’t previously worked with any of the producers or creative team, but I quickly found a shared language and passion for the material,” says Dean.
“It can be a gamble working with new people,” explains the cinematographer, “but when Baker first contacted me to discuss the film, any nerves I might have had about working on a ‘surf film’ were washed away. I immediately felt at home with his approach and cinematic language.”
Filming in Western Australia was ideal for Baker and the other producers, not just in terms of authenticity to Winton’s setting, but to keep integrity in deeper ways.
“One of the things that we talked about from the beginning with this film is that this be made as Australian as possible,” explains Executive Producer Tom Williams. “We didn’t want the fingerprints of Hollywood on this movie so we always had, in our minds, designed this to be an Australian film.”
Despite the universality of the book’s themes, the specificity of the landscape would be vital to creating the visual and emotional world of Breath. For Winton, the south coast of Western Australia has a significant impact on his work. Most of his books and short stories are set in or touch on this region. In Breath, the landscape shapes the characters; their behaviour and aspirations are strongly influenced by the particular personality of the environment.
Having shot extensively with the ARRI Alexa family in a variety of conditions, Dean and Baker decided early on the camera would provide them flexibility in a challenging and remote environment. “We went with two Alexa XT’s, an Alexa Mini and a RED Dragon for the surf unit, all shooting their respective flavours of RAW,” explains Dean. “I decided that the extra resolution from the RED would be useful for any required image stabilisation and post reframing from shooting on the ever unreliable waves.
“We wanted lenses that would add a visual poetry to the 1970s setting and ultimately landed on Panavision Ultra Speeds, complimented with ‘detuned’ zooms to better match the primes,” says Dean. “Baker described these lenses as being ‘alive’ and I couldn’t have agreed more. Not only were they vintage lenses from the era of which the film is set, but they rendered contrast in a painterly way that supported the intimate nature of the story.”
For Dean, it was exciting to work with a director who had a deep understanding of lenses, and how they help to realise a vision. “I enjoyed geeking out with him about the characteristics of anamorphic versus spherical, and how these might relate to the story. For the water housing we went with a set of Cooke S4s which resolved sharper and had slightly more contrast, adding to the kinetic and subjective experience of the surf environment.”
Dean finds a broad variety of references useful on every project that he’s attached to; whether it is photography, music, colour palette boards, or even keywords that resonate during conversations. “These influence lighting decisions where, more often than not, I am removing light sources rather than adding them, and trying to adhere to naturally motivated sources such as windows or existing practical lights,” says Dean.
Production designer Stephen Jones-Evans had read Breath before being sent the script and was familiar with Winton’s work. “What really attracted me to the project was the fact that I lived through the world depicted in the book and the film,” says Jones-Evans.
“Jones-Evans comes with a wealth of experience,” says Dean. “He has a fantastic energy, values collaboration and loves exhaustive research. Dean and Jones-Evans looked at an abundance of 1970s surf photography, and took cues from their gritty quality. “There was a frontier quality in them that is completely different to the contemporary professional surf scenes. We both gravitated to finding a palette and texture that felt authentic to the time and to each environment.”
“Because the 1970s has been treated so iconically in a number of films, we wanted to go back to a monochromatic, raw, unfiltered look at the period,” explains Jones-Evans. “We looked at a lot of references, particularly the work of John Witzig who was one of the major Australian surf photographers of the period. His pictures became a kind of a bible on which we based our images.”
For interior locations the team looked at more than forty-five houses built in the 1970s, however many had been partially modernised or had gardens that were too well established. The home of Sando (Simon Baker) and Eva (Elizabeth Debicki), the place where Pikelet (Samson Coulter) and Loonie (Ben Spence) increasingly spend their time on land, would eventually be made from the ground up when the right house couldn’t be found as an existing structure.
“Pikelet’s family home was simple, ordered and safe and I responded by lighting it in an even way and using classic compositions,” explains Dean. “This juxtaposed to the raw and rambling home of Sando, where I introduced more contrast and shadow to heighten the edgy mystery of this enigmatic character.”
“We were lucky to be able to build Sando’s house, a key location nestled in the bush. I was able to influence its orientation to favour views framed through windows and make use of the sun’s path, which allowed us to maintain consistency through our longer scenes,” says Dean. Jones-Evans was very responsive to allowing opportunities for natural light, the position of practical lights and creating ‘nooks’ where Dean and his lighting crew could hide large lamps outside.
“Each location already felt so authentic,” explains Dean, “and I wanted my lighting approach to have a subtle touch, even when forced to light spaces for consistency owing to the constantly changing weather. I favoured large HMI exterior lamps to augment the sun and a warmer colour temperature for interiors.”
There were a set of storyboards created for Breath, but not for the complete film. They also only primarily covered the more ‘action-oriented’ scenes. “Although planned out with shot lists and mud maps, our approach generally allowed for a flexible approach in order to respond to blocking or what the weather was offering,” says Dean.
As Breath was being filmed along the Western Australian coastline, the Cinematographer opted for an all-local crew. “I had only worked with one of them before, Second Assistant Camera Karina Davies, who is a very supportive and knowledgeable technician,” he says. “I was fortunate enough to have the talented Gavin Head as First Assistant Camera, whose experience proved to be invaluable.”
“Our young lead actors, Coulter and Spence, were inexperienced and I didn’t want to complicate their process by having them relying on marks,” say Dean. “Head was always at the ready and didn’t miss a beat when our approach went in a more improvised direction.”
“Sam Winzar, our on-set Digital Imaging Technician (DIT), provided valuable technical feedback to ensure consistency through ever-changing conditions,” says Dean, “and my B-Camera Operator was Jon Frank, who was supported by First Assistant Camera Pietro Cusimano and Gabrielle Mouat as Second Assistant Camera.”
Filming Breath presented a specific challenge that has long faced filmmakers; shooting in the water. “Mother Nature controls so much when you are shooting a film on dry land, but as soon as you get out into the ocean every problem is magnified one-thousand fold,” explains Director Simon Baker. “You can’t employ the same range of equipment you can use on land, it’s hard to communicate on the water, you have more complex safety issues and many factors can change in a matter of seconds.” The producers, along with Dean, assembled a highly-experienced ‘water camera department’ which was small in numbers, to allow nimbleness.
“I have been incredibly fortunate in this film to be able to have talented cinematographers in specialised roles such as water and aerial, add value with their expertise and collaboration,” says Dean. “A significant portion of the drama happens out in the surf and I was excited to have Rick Rifici as our Water Cinematographer.
Rifici, who had filmed a wide range of surfing scenes, for television commercials as well as drama, had the added benefit of originating from Western Australia. Rifici brought a wealth of experience with filming in this environment and his work is undoubtedly brilliant in the film,” says Dean.
“I’m usually a one-man band once I hit the water, dealing with technical aspects of the camera and gear, dealing with Mother Nature in some awkward positions at times,” says Rifici. The surfing scenes on this film were mostly smooth, and we had a really good safety team.
“We filmed some point of view shots from the tinny one day,” Rifici continues, “with Baker and Coulter, and experienced what’s called a ‘ghost bommie’ where we suddenly went over quite a large wave. The skipper handled it extremely well, everyone was safe. Everybody was highly experienced in what they were doing.”
Dean had done his research. He had extensively watched surf films in preparation, and found that there was often too much stylistic separation from the terrestrial and water photography. “Early in pre-production I spoke with Rifici about our aesthetic approach and wanted to find ways to capture a subjective perspective and use a narrow depth of field as one way to convey this,” he explains. “We created a custom housing to accommodate a remote follow focus, a first for Rifici, and we both nerded out over the conception of this device. I was relieved that our early tests worked and felt confident the approach would serve the story.”
All the surf scenes in Breath were shot toward the end of principal photography. This created a schedule that could be switched up to readily allow for the best surf conditions within that filming block. The timeline also allowed Rifici to view Dean’s rushes up to date, to further get a sense of the visual language that had established.
“The Director and I had detailed maps of how each scene should be blocked and covered, which was also rehearsed on a lawn near the production office with Rifici,” says Dean. This planning was invaluable, but of course, it had to be reasonably flexible to accommodate whatever Mother Nature presented at any given moment.”
“Rifici’s eye, boundless energy and skill in this area was essential here,” says Dean. “It’s daunting heading into a shooting environment like this where the variables are so great, but it was rewarding to see the preparation pay off.”
Dean has just been signed onto another feature film, set to commence later in the year, and is working on commercials until then. “I think it is a challenge to turn a loved piece of literature into a film,” says Dean. “Any adaptation has to stand on it’s own as a unique work. I’m proud of my contribution and found the collaborative process to be very rewarding and it contributed greatly to my growth as a cinematographer.”
“Looking back,” he says, “there’s nothing I would want to do differently, outside of not being able to control the weather!”
Marden Dean is an accomplished cinematographer winning Gold at the Victoria & Tasmania ACS Awards for ‘Fell’ in 2014, also being nominated for the AACTA Award for Best Cinematography that same year.
James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.