Bruce Beresford

Interview: Bruce Beresford on Breaker Morant and Mister Johnson

Interview: Bruce Beresford on Breaker Morant and Mister Johnson


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Bruce Beresford has been making films for the better part of 50 years. In the mid ’60s, he worked as an editor for a film unit in Nigeria. In the ’70s, his oeuvre grew to reveal a director capable of working in a multitude of genres: comedy, with The Adventures of Barry McKenzie; adult drama for Don’s Party; and a coming-of-age story in The Getting of Wisdom. But these films were only warm-ups for the international prominence Beresford achieved in the ’80s, beginning with Breaker Morant, which premiered to acclaim at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival. From there, he left Australia for Hollywood, making Tender Mercies, Crimes of the Heart, and Driving Miss Daisy, all of which received numerous Oscar nominations and cemented Beresford as one of Hollywood’s go-to directors for character dramas. Subsequently, Beresford elected to make Mister Johnson, which won Maynard Eziashi the Best Actor prize at the 1990 Venice Film Festival. In the 25 years since, he’s continued working at a blistering pace, adding 17 more films to his résumé. Now, the Criterion Collection is releasing Breaker Morant and Mister Johnson on Blu-ray, each in new 4K transfers. And fittingly, for a career defined by a prodigious work ethic, I spoke with Bruce via phone while he was between locations in Baton Rouge, on a scouting trip for an upcoming project.

Edward Woodward is the actor who connects these two films, and in quite different roles. Were you conscious of the drastic change in these two parts when you cast him in Mister Johnson? Because in Breaker Morant he’s a very impassioned figure, a tragic hero even, but in Mister Johnson, he’s something of an old, racist bastard.

You end up feeling a bit sorry for him though, don’t you? His character was actually fond of Mr. Johnson. But when I was looking for someone to play the role, I knew Edward could do it. The accent he speaks with in Mister Johnson is the accent he grew up speaking with in Croydon. In Breaker Morant, he’s speaking the way he learned in order to do an English accent.

It’s a fascinating casting choice, because if there was lingering romanticism from his character in Breaker Morant, it’s dispelled by hearing him use such racist language. It is abrasive, even, to see him play such different characters.

He threw himself into it. Some of the stuff, I thought maybe we should tone it down a bit, but he said, “Oh no. Let’s not do that. It wouldn’t be accurate. Let’s get it right.” That character was pretty racist.

Speaking of accuracy, in one of your interviews for these Criterion releases you talk about how, in Breaker Morant, you weren’t interested in sugar-coating the fact that these men were guilty of their war crimes.

Yes, the point I was trying to make is that they were guilty, but it was the circumstances which drive people to those kinds of actions.

You even include the fact that they executed a German missionary, which was omitted from the play.

Yes, they shot the missionary. They definitely did all of that. When I was doing the film, the producer said to me, “You must make sure that they’re completely innocent.” And I said, “Oh, but they weren’t.” And they said, “Oh, no no, in the film they should be innocent.” I said, “Look: It’s nowhere near as interesting. It’s a much more complex situation than simply having three innocent men.” And, they weren’t innocent.

It certainly does make the film more interesting, especially with the courtroom dynamic, which allows you to see a full range of responses from these men.

Yes. About 50 minutes of the film is in that courtroom. It’s a hell of a lot.

I know you storyboard your films extensively. I’m thinking of a particular edit where you cut from a high-angle shot of the courtroom to a close-up of Lt. Handcock’s face, as he turns and speaks, almost directly into the camera. Did you plan those shots and edits, or was that something you came up with on set?

Oh no, it was all storyboarded. Every shot. We made that film very quickly. If I hadn’t storyboarded the entire thing, we’d probably still be there shooting it. [laughs]

I like it, because many courtroom dramas keep the camera grounded with the characters. But here, you’re using many stylistic setups. I believe you’re even using a split-diopter, at times.

Yes, I did get a split-diopter for one sequence. I wanted the effect on the background people to be exactly the same. I wanted it to be as detailed as the figure at the front.

It’s amazing how it dynamizes the space. Was that the goal when storyboarding it: to maximize the space?

Naturally, that’s the point of the storyboards. If I storyboard it all, I can see mental images and I can work it out dramatically as to how it’ll be. What you have to keep in mind when directing anything, really, is how the scene is going to fit into the whole thing. You can’t direct each scene just for itself. What will the scene be like in the mix with a lot of other scenes? I always try to think of the entire film.

Especially when you have to consider how the image is going to look when cutting into moments from the past. There’s a cut where Morant is thinking about his wife, while he’s inside the courtroom, and you quickly flashback to glimpse her. In those juxtaposed moments, you realize how heavily constructed the images are.

I think it’s the only shot of a woman in the whole film. Just one short flashback.

It’s striking.

She looked exactly right, I think. She wasn’t an actress, that girl. I saw her in the street. I said, “You’d be perfect for a shot in a film I’m doing.” And she came on and did it. [laughs]

It’s similar to the way you shoot Beatie Edney in Mister Johnson. Peter James talks about his cinematography in one of the supplements and how he used gold paper to help light several sequences. Do you use filters or augmented lighting to contribute to an attempted realism in your films, or does it give them, for lack of a better term, a dreamlike quality?

We never used much in the way of filters. But the gold paper, he wanted to use the light like that to reinforce the feeling of heat in West Africa. It bounced warm light everywhere.

Both of these films seek to understand how certain men behave or react in a particular circumstance. Is psychologizing men’s behavior when they’re under the thumb of an institution a general interest of yours?

I’ve always found it fascinating. Someone once said to me, “You’ve made the same film about 10 times. Why don’t you disguise it?” [laughs] It’s interesting. Each of these films has very different stories, but thematically there are similarities.

Is it something you’ve thought about over your career?

I’m aware of it in the sense that it gives me lots of opportunities for drama. I want to avoid any sort of blandness to it. That’s why, when the producers of Breaker Morant said you’ve got to make the three men innocent, I said, “Absolutely not.”

You mention in one of the interviews that you don’t think of yourself as having a particular style.

No style that I’m aware of.

I wonder about the work of being a director for you, on a set. Do you view your films as art, as an artistic practice, or is it truly work, in terms of labor: a job. How do you distinguish between the two?

It’s a fun job. Really, what I like doing is telling stories. All I really try to do is tell the story as simply and directly as I possibly can. I don’t really try and do anything else. I look at a scene, what’s the scene about, where’s the drama, and what’s the sequence where I’m doing it that will communicate this drama to an audience. That’s all I ever think of.

Each of these films has a high degree of ideological conflict. Your films, I think, deal with political matters, but display a significant degree of compassion toward all of the characters involved. They aren’t polemical about the politics. Did you approach these films from the stance of wanting to tell a political story?

I’m not really trying to be political. As far as Mister Johnson goes, it was based on the Joyce Cary novel, set in 1923 in West Africa. And Cary was actually in West Africa as a district officer. He was, in effect, the character Pierce Brosnan plays. The incident that happens in that, with Mr. Johnson, is actually one that happened to Cary when he was in Nigeria. And I thought it was very interesting. But I didn’t want to get out there and start bashing the British colonials, because they did a lot of good things, as well as bad.

Mister Johnson had been the dream project of John Huston, according to producer Michael Fitzgerald, before he died in 1987. Did you know that before you agreed to direct?

No, but someone told me that once, and I never found out any more about it. One of the main things about it was that I had lived in Nigeria for a couple of years. That’s what interested me tremendously. I was there from ’64 to ’66, working on a film unit in Enugu, which is about 100 miles from where all of those incidents happened to Joyce Cary. I knew Nigeria very well. And I knew a number of people there.

I’m struck by how attuned you are to regional characters, we might say, and how they behave within an enclosed environment, as is the case with these films, but also Tender Mercies, even Puberty Blues. Do you have any sense of where that knack comes from?

It might have been just the fact of growing up in a small country town in Australia.

But these are spaces that aren’t often depicted, certainly not in Hollywood or larger budget films featuring movie stars.

Yes, it’s probably true. I’ve always been attracted to filming plays. I think I’ve done six of them. It’s because the characterization is usually very good. Tender Mercies, even, wasn’t actually a play, but it could well have been.

It feels like one.

It’s all set in the front room of the motel. [laughs] I said to [screenwriter] Horton Foote, “We can’t shoot everything in the one room.” And he said, “Well, where do you want to do it?” I said, “We can move things around a bit. We can put scenes outside, and in the field, and in the town, and that kind of thing.” And he said, “Oh, yes, well I suppose we could.”

Have you ever considered making a documentary? Looking through your filmography, a lot of your work is based on true events.

I’ve shot a sort of documentary that I’m not editing at the moment because I took on another film. But I shot a documentary in Australia about two painters, about their work. I’ve got to get back to Australia and edit all of the material.

Well, I think it’s the lived-in, somewhat documentary feel to your films, in part, combined with how rigidly assembled they are, with storyboards and whatnot, that makes them unique.

I think I storyboard them because I started off doing such low-budget films. Very, very, very low-budget. And if I didn’t storyboard them, we’d have never gotten through them. But then I found that it helps me to clarify my own thoughts on what the film is about and how it should work. It’s easy to direct scenes by themselves, but if you only do that, you’ll put them all together and see that nothing works in the overall film. Some friends of mine, who’ve made films, have made that mistake.

So, it’s never like Terrence Malick, where you find the film in the editing room?

No, I never do that. I think you’re in trouble if you do that. Or I would be. But no two people would make a film the same way. I’ve never been on a set with another director. I don’t know what they do. I’ve hardly ever meet any other directors. I only hear about other directors from film crews, who say, “so and so does this” or “so and so does that.” But I’ve never actually seen another director at work.