Filmmaker Follows Mind's Eye

Australian director Bruce Beresford says he visualizes aspects of a film's making before it's even started

FILM director Bruce Beresford makes intelligent, humane, complex films.

Though he has made some stinkers (notably "King David" and "Her Alibi"), he is responsible for such important films as "The Getting of Wisdom" and "Breaker Morant," in Australia, and "Tender Mercies," "Driving Miss Daisy," and "Black Robe" in North America.

His new film, "Rich in Love," opened nationwide this month.

During the Denver International Film Festival last fall where "Rich in Love" made its American premiere, Mr. Beresford discussed his filmmaking style - what draws him to material, how he works with actors, and how he organizes himself for creative action.

In so many of his films, the central characters are complicated and difficult people, troubled by the past or laboring under emotional difficulties.

Yet they are able to triumph over human pettiness in adverse circumstances - despite their own prejudices and weaknesses. Beresford says this is not something he has consciously chosen to do.

"I guess I really like to make films about people I admire," he says. "I certainly respond emotionally to the material.

"When I first got the `Tender Mercies' script, for example, I was still in Australia, and although it was still in a rough state, I thought it was great. I found out later it had been turned down all over the place.

"One of the oddest things you find among the studios is that the most erratic single factor is the assessment of scripts," Beresford says .

"They never really assess them from the heart, they read them in terms of all sorts of other movies. They read them and say, `Well what is this like? Is it a cross between "Star Wars" and "Unforgiven"?... `Can we sell it like that?' Instead of just reacting emotionally, they try to analyze it in terms of box office.

"So it never worries me to get ahold of a script that's been turned down by a thousand people. It's almost a sure sign that it's pretty interesting."

It is the characters who always determine Beresford's interest in a script.

"Rich in Love" concerns the redefinition of family. A woman abruptly leaves her husband after many years of marriage to find her own peace. Left behind, her teenage daughter helps her dad through the crisis. A pregnant sister arrives with her husband to stay in the family home a while. All of them have to find each other and the meaning of their relationships again.

"The writing is excellent," Beresford says of "Rich," pointing out how layered and human the motivations and reactions are.

The film has been well cast: Albert Finney is the father, Jill Clayburgh is the mother, Kathryn Erbe is the central character (the teenage girl coping with parental breakdown), and Kyle MacLachlan plays her sister's troubled husband.

"Again, I liked the variety of characters," Beresford says. "Casting then becomes two-thirds of the job. If you get the right cast, things go relatively smoothly. I'd made a number of films with ensemble casts in the past, and it is the way I like to work best [with actors]."

He rehearses with the actors for a week. They may make suggestions for changes, but Beresford casts actors whose character interpretations he likes, so there are seldom arguments.

HE likes actors. He says they are getting more professional (he seldom has to handle temperament problems) and more proficient at their craft all the time.

He points out how well Albert Finney, a British actor, carries a southern accent in "Rich in Love."

Films are never made in the sequence we view them on the screen.

They are also expensive.

So, rather than improvising on the set, Beresford plays it safe by shooting his entire film from a storyboard - a series of drawings of scenes that include the actors, furniture, sets, or locations.

"Really, what you are doing is fitting parts of a jigsaw puzzle," Beresford says, "and what's important is not how it looks each day, but how it all looks together, because an audience only watches it from beginning to end.

"So, the storyboard gives me a much clearer sense of how all the scenes relate to each other, how to plan transitions from one scene to the next - I'll cut here with a close shot of this person, to a field.

"Now what kind of impression does that make?"

"You see," he continues, "It's cutting [editing separate shots together] that creates the emotion ... cutting, and camera angle, and placement. I want to be sure I understand these transitions [in the planning stages], so I can film them."

His background in low-budget Australian films taught him the wisdom of working in such a highly organized way - it saves time, and time is money. He has seen many promising careers blighted by failure to organize properly.

"But then, once I've worked on the script, the film forms itself in my mind. In a way, it's all shot, and cut, and scored, and finished in my mind even before it's started. I know exactly what it will look like.

"I'm not saying my choices are always the right ones, or that the film is going to be a masterpiece. But it is, nevertheless, completed in my mind before it's begun. If there are any changes, they will be very slight."

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