Somewhere on the coast of Australia in the 1970s, some men go surfing. The waves are high, so high the sensitive one – still a teenager – is scared. His companions cajole him into the sea with a combination of encouragement and mockery.
This is Breath, a new film adapted from the Tim Winton novel of the same name. At the heart of the film are three men: teenagers Pikelet (Samson Coulter) and Loonie (Ben Spence), a pair who are discovering surfing; and Sando (Simon Baker, who also directs the film), a much older daredevil who assumes the mantle of mentor. The film is filled with adolescent tipping points. We follow Pikelet closest through his changing friendship with Loonie and Sando. The quest for danger, for breathlessness, escalates.
“It’s more of a sport now,” says Simon Baker. “When I was a kid it was more counterculture, like in the film. I remember being the same age as these guys.” He gestures across the table at Coulter and Spence.
I’m sitting with all three leads at the Village Roadshow office in Melbourne, and it’s clear they’re real surfers – all three are tanned and toned, their hair and skin coloured and textured by sun. (Admittedly their tousled, blond-tipped locks might have had the help of a good salon.)
Coulter and Spence are a bit older than their film personas (18 and 17, respectively), but they’re still firmly in teenage land, giggling and sharing private jokes. Spence, the more boisterous of the two in the film, says almost nothing, working simultaneously on a takeaway coffee, a bottle of water, a mandarin and some biscuits. (Also with us, as if to hammer home the father-son dynamic of the film, is Baker’s own 16-year-old son Harry, another surfer.) At 48, Baker doesn’t seem old when I see him on his own. But nothing ages you like proximity to youth.
The trio spent six weeks shooting the film together and neither Coulter nor Spence had ever acted before. The dynamic between Baker and his young protégés is very similar to the dynamic in the film. Baker will make a point, and the boys will occasionally interject. But it’s clear he’s the mentor, dad, pack leader.
A few weeks ago Tim Winton wrote a piece for the Guardian about the problem with boys. “There’s so much about them and in them that’s lovely,” he writes. “Graceful. Dreamy. Vulnerable. Qualities we either don’t notice, or simply blind ourselves to. You see, there’s great native tenderness in children. In boys, as much as in girls. But so often I see boys having the tenderness shamed out of them.”
Breath retains these ideas, including Winton’s exploration of tenderness and terrible male role models, and surfing as a ritual to explore it.
“I’ve talked to Tim a lot about that,” says Baker. “I still surf as much as I can. I go to the beach and see kids individually and chat with them and they’re fantastic, and then see them in groups and they’re idiots. Are they the same people? Which of those children, when it comes to the crunch, will revert to who they are as an individual, instead of turning to the mob mentality? At what point do you check yourself and pull back? That’s the essence of the story. You guys are probably witness to it,” he says to Spence and Coulter.
Spence nods. “You do stupid shit,” he says, succinctly.
“Regrettable stuff,” Baker corrects.
“My character is out of date,” Baker goes on. “Sons outgrow their fathers, and fathers can learn a lot from their sons. That happens to us all the time. Sometimes I won’t know how to approach something. My son tells me I go too far.”
Harry looks up, vaguely aware he’s being talked about. So, I ask, when has your dad gone too far? Harry laughs and shrugs.
Baker laughs, too. “Maybe you’re going too far right now, mate,” he says to me, probably joking.
So, I ask the boys, did the script ring true to you as surfers?
“Yeah,” says Spence. “We get into mischief, out at night. It’s a good thing, going in the surf.”
“There’s only so much of that you can do in the surf,” adds Coulter.
“Well,” says Spence, “you might die, but still.”
How real is the danger?
“It depends,” says Coulter. “Sometimes you get out there and just know. Sometimes you think it’s fine and then there’ll be a shift, and it’ll go from fun-scary to shit-scary.”
Breath is evangelical about surfing. It’s described in hushed tones as “pointless, elegant, beautiful”, a kind of spiritual congress between man and ocean. On land, the complicated, tangled dynamics of the trio remain beneath the surface. On the ocean, the release is palpable.
For Baker, capturing that freedom was imperative. He went in knowing that he had to do justice to the world of surfing. “We’re all from that world,” says Baker. “What I had in common with these two was the culture of the sport. If I had actors rather than surfers I’d have to teach them all that.”
“You can’t really teach it,” says Coulter.
One of the film’s best assets is its realness. When they’re on the water, it’s very believably a skilled surfer, on a board, on a wave. Baker says that if they did all the character groundwork but the surfing didn’t look real, the film would collapse.
“I watched the American version of Animal Kingdom on the plane the other day,” he says. “All the actors are playing tough surfer types, and when they get to the beach they’re all on Mini Mals. It’s hopeless. It undermines everything.”
“What’s Animal Kingdom?” asks Coulter.
“You didn’t see the film?”
“Yeah, well,” says Baker, “if you want to be an actor you’re going to have to start looking at some movies, mate.”
Coulter looks reproached, but doesn’t say anything. Maybe he’ll save it for the surf.
Breath is playing in cinemas nationwide.
Watch the trailer.