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Drawing breath: Simon Baker

Sporting a dishevelled look of longer hair and a beard that sent his legion of admirers into a frenzy at Cannes recently, Baker shares some thoughts about his latest project Breath.

Hollywood’s loss is definitely our gain. While fans mourn Simon Baker’s departure from his  hit TV series The Mentalist, the news that Baker was returning to Australia to produce, direct and star in a screen adaptation of Tim Winton’s surfing novel Breath has been greeted unequivocally as a triple whammy win.

Breath tells the story of the friendship between two young boys Pikelet and Loonie who surf together and meet a former professional called Sando who leads them to new levels of recklessness. Later on, Pikelet develops a relationship with Sando’s American wife, Eva.

Ironically, Baker did not come up with idea of adapting Winton’s coming of age story. “It was my American producer, Mark Johnson (Breaking Bad, Rain Man, The Notebook) who first said I should take a look at the book and might want to do something with it. I’ll confess I’m not a big reader of novels as I have to read so many scripts but as soon as I read it I recognised a world I grew up in, where I knew all the characters. I also thought it contained the best descriptions of surfing I had ever read. And what really appealed to me was the bigger theme of identity and where you fit in.

“I wasn’t too sure who I was in my teens, but the tribe I hung out with at the beach helped define who I am now. They had a big hand in raising me. I wasn’t a big risk-taker as a kid. I was more the cautious type, a thinker, a bit like Pikelet. I was at my core, introspective.”

Born almost a decade apart, and at opposite ends of the country Baker, 45 ( from Tasmania) and Winton, 54 (from Western Australia) found an instant connection through their shared down to earth background.

“Like Tim, I’m a country boy. I grew up in an overtly masculine environment. I think we speak a similar language – we’re both pretty direct. We met and there was an immediate ease, but at one point I had to say to him, ‘Mate, no disrespect, but I have to feel free to make Breath mine now’. He was very supportive and encouraging, more than he needed to be. He told me I was brave. That scared me!’

After early drafts by Winton and Peter Duncan (Rake), Baker worked on the script with Gerard Lee (Top of the Lake). “I didn’t know Gerard at all before this but what I liked was the way he captured the kid’s voice in an early draft of My Mistress. He’s not a surfer, so this was quite bold of him to take on. I took him around to some of the places where I lived as a kid, bored him senseless with stories, introduced him to the world in which the film had to exist. He’s a very sensitive and open guy and our collaboration has been real joy.

“It was a challenging story to distill while keeping its essence but I’ll say this: what we’ve done is not literal, but it’s faithful to the spirit of the book.”

The film will shoot in the majestic unspoilt landscapes of WA. In a welcome boost to the local economy, projections estimate that the film will create 250 local jobs. A $2.3 million investment by the West Australian state government secured the project through close collaboration with Screen West and the Great Southern Development Commission. The majority of key production roles and 100 crew will be West Australian and 150 Great Southern locals will be employed as actors, extras and surfing doubles.

Of shooting in WA, Baker says “I love the scale of the place, it’s so massive. I like the idea of telling what is an intimate story against a vast canvas as the boys push their boundaries. As you pull back from Pikelet and Loonie wide to where they are, that should really express his vulnerability and fragility.”

Despite his passion for surfing, Baker is keen to emphasize that Breath is not specifically a surfing movie. It provides us with a dramatic backdrop but the physical element could just as well be any other sport or activity. Although he clearly feels there is a certain poetry in the graceful art of surfing that adds a rich texture to the piece.

Initially, Baker was intending to co-produce with Johnson and Jamie Hilton and to play the charismatic role of Sando, who initiates Pikelet and Loonie into a dangerous adult world they are unprepared for.

“We met with all the hot up-and-coming directors, whether they were working in commercials or film until one day Mark turned to me and said ‘Has it ever occurred to you, that you should direct this film, because you understand it like a director?’ It felt a bit presumptuous of me to ask,” said Baker. “But the thought had been sitting in the back of my mind, and with Mark’s encouragement, I decided to take the leap.”

He acknowledges that readers are often infuriated by Winton’s endings and is playing his cards close to his chest about how the film resolves – although his version has the author’s seal of approval.

“I just got a short email that said: ‘You are on track, now go make it.”