Bruce Beresford talks Ladies in Black and directing movies

30 August 2018

He had a significant influence on Australia's cinematic voice, and is the only Australian director of a film that won an Academy Award for Best Picture. Alumnus Bruce Beresford discusses his journey from Hollywood to home.

On the set of Ladies in Black. Bruce Beresford (L), with Nicholas Hammond as Mr Ryder.

Bruce Beresford (BA ’64) has enjoyed a very full and wide career and shows no signs of stopping now. He’s made more than 30 films in five decades, several of which have entered the Australian canon, including The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972), Don’s Party (1976), The Getting of Wisdom (1978), The Fringe Dwellers (1986), Paradise Road (1997) and Mao’s Last Dancer (2009).

And that’s before we even get to the Oscars. Breaker Morant (1980) earned Beresford and his co-writers a nomination for best adapted screenplay; Tender Mercies (1984) won for best screenplay (by Horton Foote), garnered Beresford a best director nomination and saw Robert Duvall win best actor; and Crimes of the Heart (1986) netted a best actress nomination for Sissy Spacek.

Then came the big one: the hugely popular Driving Miss Daisy, which took out a swag of Oscars in 1990, including the career-changing best picture, as well as best actress for Jessica Tandy.

The dizzying heights of Hollywood are a long way from the modest western Sydney suburb of Toongabbie, where Beresford grew up. But then, so is the exclusive King’s School in nearby Parramatta, which Beresford attended for two years in the late 1950s. How did he end up there?

“It’s a long and complicated story,” he says. The story starts with Beresford’s local high school not offering the leaving certificate. Keen to continue his education, he pleaded with his mother for an alternative. “Next thing I heard, I was accepted at King’s School,” he says. “But I never found out how she pulled that off.”

It was at King’s that Beresford got an early taste of professional movie making, when in 1956 he and a friend visited the set of The Shiralee, an English film being made locally.

Beresford (R), discusses shots with cinematographer, Peter James.

Beresford (R), discusses shots with cinematographer, Peter James.

“I wanted to see them working,” he says. There is a photograph of the then 15-year-old Beresford on set, testing a light meter, and the kit looks archaic. That technology has since gone digital and leapt forward light years, yet many of the essential elements of filmmaking remain unchanged.

“All the digital technology in the world can’t write a good script,” Beresford says. “You still need creativity, you still need well-written scripts and talented actors to make them, and talented people on the production side.” Likewise, good directing. “You need something to say,” Beresford emphasises. “A feeling for character, a passion for plots and telling stories.”

Beresford brings all of these qualities to the production of his latest film, Ladies in Black, based on the book The Women in Black by Sydney alumna and novelist, the late Madeleine St John (BA ’63).

Set in 1959, it tells the funny and warm-hearted story of Lisa, who takes a summer job at a department store that looks very much like Sydney’s iconic David Jones. She’s waiting for her high school results to come through as she dreams of attending the University of Sydney. It’s a coming-of-age story for Lisa, but this was also a time of great change for Australia, and the film explores the nation’s cultural awakening, the breakdown of class structures and the increasing emancipation of Australian women.

Hear Bruce Beresford discuss Ladies in Black and his time at University in this interview.

Lovingly detailed department store sets were created for Ladies in Black at Sydney’s Fox Studios, peopled with dozens of period-dressed extras. When SAM visited, the lunchroom was a curious mixture of 21st-century canteen functionality and mid-century chic.

On set and behind the camera, Beresford himself is relaxed yet meticulous. As much as directing a film is an intensely demanding process, there’s also the tortuous process of getting the production up and running in the first place.

“The studios make money by selling certain star names,” Beresford explains. “It’s very hard to get a film financed without one or more of those stars in the film.” Think A-list stars like Cate Blanchett, Tom Cruise, Jennifer Lawrence and George Clooney.

This approach might have made sense in the past but, as Beresford points out, in saying no to good projects because their stars aren’t ‘big enough’, Hollywood is now shooting itself in the foot. “Oh, it’s wonderful for television,” he adds. “In the past 10 years, a lot of the finest writing has been done for TV, not movies.”

Beresford himself is also a writer, whose screenplay credits include Breaker Morant and Paradise Road as well as the adaptation for Ladies in Black. Less well-known is the fact that he has also directed numerous operas, both in Australia and in the United States, including Verdi’s Rigoletto for the Los Angeles Opera in 2000, and an adaption of A Streetcar Named Desire featuring Teddy Tahu Rhodes for Opera Australia in 2007.

When Beresford arrived at the University of Sydney in 1962, he quickly fell in with a group that revelled in exploring many points of view. It started when he joined the Theatrical Society, where his creativity flourished. It was also here that he had one of his earliest film production experiences, directing a six-minute short called It Droppeth as the Gentle Rain for use in an absurdist theatre piece. The film was quickly banned by government censors, but Beresford was hooked.

Beresford (L), with Ryan Corr, Vincent Perez and Julia Ormond.

Beresford (L), with Ryan Corr, Vincent Perez and Julia Ormond.

“For the first time I met a lot of people who were interested in the same things as me – acting, theatre, movies, painting, art,” he says. “It was the first time I’d met a concentrated group with a similar range of interests. I made a lot of friends, many of whom I still have.”

These friends included actors John Bell (BA ’63 DLitt (Honoris Causa) ’96) and Arthur Dignam, feminist writer and intellectual Germaine Greer (MA ’63 DLitt ’05), author and broadcaster Clive James (BA ’61 DLitt ’99) and the “unexpectedly prickly but quick-witted” novelist Madeleine St John, who died in 2006.

Beresford disagrees with the suggestion that his time at the University was a ‘golden age’ of arts and letters in Australia. “I think there’s been a hell of a lot of gifted painters and filmmakers since that group – it’s just that they were probably better at publicising themselves,” he adds with a laugh.

The first time SAM spoke with Beresford, he was in Toronto, wrapping up the telemovie Flint and preparing to return to Australia to shoot Ladies in Black. A year later, his schedule is as busy as ever and shows no sign of slowing down – which is fine with Beresford, who says he still has goals to kick.

“I have a film I’d like to make about Italian artist Modigliani – but I doubt I’ll ever get the money,” he says matter-of-factly. But it’s not all bad news: “My unrealised dream for a long time has been Ladies in Black. Now that dream is realised at last.”

Written by Monica Crouch (BA(Hons) ’95)
Photography by Lisa Tomasetti (MDP ’12)

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