Bruce Beresford on the Decades-Long Road of Getting 'Ladies in Black' Off the Ground

Courtesy of Stage 6 Films; Courtesy of subject
From left: Alison McGirr, Angourie Rice and Rachael Taylor star in 'Ladies in Black,' which opened in Australia in September. (Inset: Bruce Beresford)

The director, whose new film has its North American premiere at the Palm Springs Film Festival, opens up about why "it was nice to make a cheerful film about Australia," his home nation, and reflects on his career.

Australian director Bruce Beresford was part of a new wave of helmers who emerged Down Under in the 1970s and went on to have distinguished careers. Now, almost four decades since his 1980 feature Breaker Morant put him on the global map (his other films have included Driving Miss Daisy and Tender Mercies), Beresford, 78, has a new movie, Ladies in Black, based on Madeleine St. John's 1993 novel The Women in Black, about workers in a Sydney department store in the late 1950s.

Beresford spoke to THR ahead of his film's U.S. premiere at the Palm Springs Film Festival.

It took you decades to get Ladies in Black off the ground. Why?

Everyone kept turning it down. This happens all the time. But it’s been a huge success — it’s been running in Sydney for eight weeks. It was nice to make a cheerful film about Australia.

How much of the film is based on real people?

It’s all based on real people, and mostly I know who they are. The character that Julia Ormond plays, the old woman, is still alive. She’s about 96 and she came on the set. She was Hungarian. She’s still an amazingly astute old thing living alone in a smart apartment in Double Bay.

You wanted Isabella Rossellini for that role at one point.

That was years ago. The film commission said, “You have to get some well-known actress.” Isabella was very keen, but the film commission people had never heard of her. They said, “Who is she?” Then it all feel apart.

Your film touches on an issue that Australia and America are both grappling with: immigration.

That was one of the reasons I did it, because the theme of cultural clash with the Europeans coming to Australia was particularly fascinating. I certainly think that migration to Australia is doing wonders for the place. This country's underpopulated anyway. They keep saying that it is. There’s 22 million people in the country, the size of the United States. With America, I hesitate a bit. America is really, like Australia, a country of immigrants. I think it’s essential to be welcoming and humane. But with all those people coming up from Honduras to the border, you can see the hesitation in saying “Come on in.”

You and the author of the novel were at university in Sydney with a brilliant group — Clive James, Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes.

I think it’s just a coincidence. Clive James and I are still very good friends, but he’s very sick now. All he can do is sit in his house and write. He was given a couple of weeks to live six years ago, and since then he’s published about 10 books!

You also came of age as a filmmaker with a “New Wave” of talented peers — Peter Weir, Fred Schepisi, Phillip Noyce. How come you all emerged at once?

The trouble was, there was no finance available to do feature films [until the 1970s]. Then there was a lot of pressure put on the government to make money available; they’d had grants that went to sculptors and painters, but there was a big push for directors. That came through around 1971 or 1972. The amounts were very modest. I think I did my first feature for $250,000, but before that there had been nothing. All these people had been chomping at the bit. It was like the floodgates were open and we all made feature films.

How close were you to one another?

We all knew each other. But everyone went in different directions because people had different sensibilities. Fred and I are still very good friends; Phil is in America; Peter is here but he hasn’t made a film in a long time. He’s a little insular. He’s very friendly in person, but he lives a very quiet life there; with the screenings and get-togethers, Peter never shows up. I don’t know why.

Looking at film today, what do you most admire?

One of the films I saw last year that didn’t even get shown here was one by Noah Baumbach, The Meyerowitz Stories. It was wonderful. And last night we went to a film by Peter Jackson called They Shall Not Grow Old, which is a documentary about World War I. He had all this black and white footage and colored it and fixed it digitally and it’s all done. It’s quite horrifying but also tremendously moving. The soldiers were making jokes about living in the mud with rats and lice, and getting up and charging toward the Germans, knowing that two-thirds of them would be killed. Incredible.

When you were growing up, was there any film you found transformative?

A John Ford film, The Sun Shines Bright. I used to watch it over and over again. I said, “I want to direct like that.” I was just so humane; the characterizations were so good.

Is that sort of liberal humanism on the way out?

I hope not.

You left America at the peak of your career, following 1999’s Double Jeopardy. Why?

My wife said, “I want to go back and live in Sydney.” I said, “All the work is here.” She said, “They’ll come and get you. You’re only a day’s flight away.” So I gave in. I loved living in California, but we came back to Sydney and, in effect, my career didn’t come to a halt. There was a lot more independent stuff in Australia and Europe. Double Jeopardy was a popular genre film, and I was offered a lot of films like that. Not really my bag. I prefer more personal, character-driven films.

Among your pictures, does one mean the most to you?

I suppose Driving Miss Daisy (1989) and Tender Mercies (1983). But Black Robe [a 1981 film about Jesuit missionaries in North America] I was obsessed with. The Jesuits were courageous beyond belief, and so were the [Native Americans]. The film was based on reports that the French Jesuits had to send back — they’ve all been kept in Paris. I was desperate to make that film. I thought, “That’s what it was like in the early 1600s in North America.“

Is there any dream project you haven’t made?

Boswell for the Defense. You know James Boswell, who wrote the Life of Samuel Johnson? He defended a woman called Mary Bryant, the only woman to escape the [Australian] penal colony. This group of convicts, they got a boat and they rode out of Sydney Harbor and then got caught and all died except her. She got back to England. She was going to be hanged. So they had a trial and nobody wanted to defend her, except Boswell. By that stage, he was an old drunk and the years of greatness were over. In his big defense speech, he said, “Look, she’s suffered enough. Let her go.” And they did. I spent two years on it and it collapsed at the last minute. We’d even built the set. I see the name Boswell, I get the shivers.

Don’t you get depressed when that happens?

I’ve got the knack of picking myself up and saying, “Well, that did not work, but there’s other things I’m passionate about.” I’ve seen friends of mine whose films did not work. They went into a sort of chronic depression and they never really pulled themselves out of it. A director friend named Don Levy, who did a film called Herostratus [1967] was so shattered by the lack of audiences, he ended up committing suicide.

A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.