Bruce Beresford is sitting on his director's chair, leaning
back to greet me as I arrive on set. Relaxed and tanned, his
black shirt sleeves are rolled up, and his white hat with a black
band seems to have taken all the battering of the previous four
weeks shooting in Singapore and here in the beautiful setting of
the Port Douglas hinterland of North Queensland.
This film, Paradise Road, is the biggest Australian film
production, and a logistical hell, with over 140 people to
manage, accommodate, feed, nurture and direct.
Beresford carries the weight of this giant film factory
easily, and is enjoying working with a large and largely female
cast. In fact, one of the stars, English actress Pauline Collins
(Shirley Valentine) confides to me that Bruce has been so well
accepted by the actresses that when she threw a little party for
the women, Bruce was invited - and made an Honorary Woman.
Co starring with Pauline Collins (taking over from a sick Jean
Simmons before shooting started), is Glenn Close, joined by a
long list that includes Jennifer Ehle, Cate Blanchett, Pauline
Chan, Johanna der Steege, Frances McDormand, Julianna Margulies,
Elizabeth Spriggs, Wendy Hughes, Pamela Rabe, Lisa Hensley, Tessa
Humphries, Penne Hackforth-Jones, Susie Porter and many more,
including several male roles, and of course key Japanese
Dozens of the women, several 'Japanese soldiers' and teams of
crew are waiting or working on the huge set, a Japanese camp in
Sumatra during the war, as the temperature reaches 28; and this
Beresford, his green fatigue trousers a suitable choice in the
circumstances, is amazed at it all: "I've never worked with
so many people..."
The story begins in wartime Singapore as the Japanese sweep
through, interning the British, the Dutch, the Australians, nuns
or nurses, paying no regard to western notions of gentlemanly
conduct towards women. Several camps are established by the
Japanese in various parts of the region, including one at
Sumatra, where the story focuses.
Based on fact, Paradise Road is about a camp where the captive
women formed a unique choir - "not singing the popular songs
of the day, mind you, but these amazing, complex symphonies,
reset for voice. They were rewritten by a woman missionary - from
At an earlier interview in Sydney before the shoot, Beresford
played me some recordings of them, and I found them instantly
The CD, Song of Survival, is a recording made by the Women's
Choir of Haarlem, Holland, conducted by Lenny van Schaik, who
conducted the 30 voice choir for the film, with the voice of
individual actresses overdubbed.
It is not surprising that Beresford has thrown himself into
this film: he loves music passionately, and has guest conducted
several operas in Australia, America and the UK, as an indulgence
of this passion.
The story that Beresford is telling in Paradise Road really
culminates in the success of the women forming this choir,
fighting internal and external conflicts, and finding this
extraordinary music: a remarkable story, an unusual event, a
terrific premise for a film. It is a good example of what excites
Beresford as a film maker.
"His lack of hysteria
and his abundance of human spirit - are the most oft-quoted
characteristics about Bruce Beresford."
"A new experience...I love it. I knew nothing about this.
So you find out through research and you learn a lot." We're
standing side by side behind the camera, where cinematographer
Peter James is looking at the sky through the gizmo that lighting
cameramen use to tell them what sort of exposure to set for a
Beresford goes over to consult: then he moves to the furthest
end of the latrine trench and squats, holding up his hands to
indicate where he wants the camera for the next shot, looking
back along the row of women prisoners beside the trench.
In the guard tower behind the fence, a Japanese soldier is
standing stiffly beside his rifle. James calls out to Beresford:
"Can he lean on his arms?" Beresford calls up.
"Yes, lean on your arms."
The down to earth way he handles the actors and the easy calm
he maintains on set are traits that Australians would recognise
as home grown. He is cool, but not cold, relates to everyone with
equal generosity, without adjusting his behaviour to the
hierarchical demands of movie making.
These two aspects - his lack of hysteria and his abundance of
human spirit - are the most oft-quoted characteristics about
Bruce Beresford. These and the fact that he is possibly the most
well prepared director to shoot a film.
"Once the films are
finished, I never see any of them ever again. I like to see
them once - and that's it,"
His next film, to be shot mid-1997, is Goodbye Saigon, about
the Vietnamese community in Los Angeles. "It's a drama, but
often very funny," he say. "It's about a Vietnamese
woman's efforts to deal with American society, to find a better,
new way of life. You see, I knew nothing about any of this, but
I'll find out."
As with Driving Miss Daisy, Beresford is working again with
producer Richard Zanuck, whose perseverance was the only thing
that got Driving Miss Daisy made as a film. "He and his wife
were so committed to it...but the kind of films I want to do are
always hard to get off the ground."
And then when he does get them off the ground and makes them,
Beresford abandons them like old chewing gum.
"Once the films are finished, I never see any of them
ever again. I like to see them once - and that's it," he
says emphatically. "After that, all I can see is mistakes. I
can't bear to look at them. From the very fist frame, I can see
the camera should have been a bit more to the left, I should have
the actor do this, I shouldn't have started the music there, I
should have had the titles bigger ... EVERYthing."