Toronto Hidden Gem: Surfing Drama 'Breath' Takes a Risk With First-Time Actors

Courtesy of TIFF
From left, Simon Baker, Samson Coulter and Ben Spence in 'Breath'

For his directorial debut, 'Mentalist' star Simon Baker tapped teen surfers (who had never been in front of a camera) for a look at beach life in 1970s Australia.

Looking back, says Simon Baker, the whole idea was absurd.

“What was I thinking?” jokes Baker, recalling the decision to make his directorial debut with Breath, which premieres in Toronto. The film, which Embankment is selling worldwide, is an adaptation of the 2008 novel by Tim Winton, a coming-of-age tale about teen surfers in 1970s Australia. The movie stars two non-actors in the lead roles, and Baker shot the whole thing in six weeks, mainly on location on Australia’s west coast.

“Here I am, never having directed a film before, dealing with kids who’ve never been on a film set before, and we’ve got the ocean — which can’t be controlled and is such a key factor in the story — and we’ve got almost no time to do it,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘I’m probably going to fail miserably, but I’m going to have a great time trying.’”

But Baker did have one advantage: He knew the world described in Breath inside out. Because he lived it. Like Pikelet, the film’s narrator and main character, Baker grew up amid the “crass machoism” of 1970s Australia with the twin loves of surfing and the arts.

“I’ve been surfing since I was 10,” he recalls. “When I read Tim’s novel I found myself weeping out of empathy for friends I grew up with. I was living in America at the time, and his words evoked the things I missed most [about home], the everyday sights and smells of the growing up in Australia at that time, for those of us who discovered the ocean and surfing played a big part in the formation of our identity.”

For the leads, teen surfers Pikelet and Loonie, Baker cast Samson Coulter and Ben Spence. While neither had ever acted before, both knew their way around a board.

“I needed kids who can handle themselves in the ocean,” says Baker. “It’s a lot easier to act than it is to surf.”

That approach pays off in the stunning sequences that form the core of the film, as Baker’s character Sando, a former pro surfer who becomes the boys’ mentor, challenges the two teen daredevils to new levels of danger on the water. Baker said he “barely used” the film’s stunt doubles and virtually all of the surfing footage in the final cut is of the actors themselves. In “an incredible bit of luck,” the Australian weather also played along, delivering just the waves needed for Breath’s big scenes.

Baker says it’s now up to the audience in Toronto to decide if he nailed it with his directorial debut. But he knows at least he was true to the advice Martin Scorsese gave him on first films: “Do something you know better than anyone else — so you don’t doubt the authenticity of it.”

Breath premieres at TIFF on Sept. 10.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Sept. 9 daily issue at the Toronto Film Festival.