Jodie Foster once told him: "Don't argue with me Bruce. I'm so intelligent, I'm always right." And she wasn't joking. "A lot of people have told me I must’ve made that up but I didn't, of course," he tells IAN HORNER.
IN THIS interview for his second collection of revealing and entertaining anecdotes about the movie business, leading Australian film director Bruce Beresford talks about stars’ egos, the down-to-earth natures of just a few of them, the over-extended reputations of certain directors – Hitchcock and Kubrick among them – and the films that got away.
Like Les Mis, which he had to let go when the studio started getting overly “trendy”.
And Bridges of Madison County, on which he worked for a year without pay until he relented and let the star of that film direct it as well.
Beresford was a very young boy when images dropped off the silver screen and into his imagination as he went wide-eyed to cinemas across Sydney's west.
His family lived at Paddington, Springwood and Toongabbie and he was a regular at all the local cinemas of the day. Now he has a weekender at Wentworth Falls where he escapes to read scripts and go bushwalking.
For this interview he was on the line from his home at Birchgrove.
Clearly, being a Sydney westie has held you back and stopped you from being famous. Yes, it's been a big drawback!
When you were a young boy in Toongabbie, did you dream of making films? Oh, I certainly did. We moved there when I was about 8. Even before that, when we lived in Springwood.
And what was the reaction of your family and friends to your dreams? Bewilderment. Because they knew nothing about films. My mother only ever saw two or three in her entire life. Never went at all. My father used to go to films if Errol Flynn or Ronald Colman were in them. If they didn't have Errol Flynn or Ronald Colman he wouldn't go.
So what was the appeal to you as a young boy? Well, it was when I first saw a couple of films when I was about 5 when we lived in Paddington, before we went to Springwood. I just thought, gosh, this is a great way of telling stories. And it was so captivating, sitting there in the dark and looking at this big screen. I mean, it's still magical to me. Gosh, you know, if I'm going to tell stories, this is the way to do it.
What’s the most lasting early cinema image for you? There are a few but I don't know what the films were ‘cos I was so young. There was a film I saw in Springwood. I must have been about, well, I guess 7 or 8. It was just before we left Springwood.
And there was a scene where men were throwing people off a verandah. I don't know why, they might’ve been bad guys or something. It was absolutely horrifying to me but it was so vivid and it really struck me and I thought what great images. It upset me so much and I thought it was incredible to have the power to do that to people.
Fast-forwarding a couple of years and you're making some of the best films we've ever made in this country, with a second book spilling the stories from your life in the movies. I'm sure you hummed and hahed about what you’d put in and what you wouldn't. Any misgivings about what’s in there? No, I don’t think so. See they were all faxes to Sue Milliken and she organised them all. I was in America doing another film and she just sent them off to a publisher. I didn't really do anything!
You see the faxes already existed. We didn't change them. I didn't change a thing. It all happened some time ago now but, you know, these were personal faxes that weren't meant for publication. But I haven't come across anything where I thought, oh, God, I should've cut that bit.
I think you made some pretty scathing comments about Michael Douglas's performance in Basic Instinct. Oh, did I? I don't remember. I haven't found those in the book.
There’s criticism of his “one performance in film after film”. Oh, really? Did I say that?!
It’s there. I'll look for the page number. Actually, he's rather a good actor. Especially since I saw him playing Liberace [in Beyond the Candelabra]. I thought my God, he's absolutely wonderful! Hmm, you’ve got me. Give me the page number!
I will. [Laughs] But of course, you know, over the years your opinions change. Not just your opinions on actors but just about everything.
I’m looking for the quote! Meanwhile, the stories of casting in your book of course are fodder for great gossip. Casting is always a nightmare. Always.
And the studios are always foisting their ideas onto you. Like wanting you to cast Eddie Murphy in Driving Miss Daisy. That was the funniest thing. I've just done a film with Eddie [Mr Church] and he's a wonderful actor but he was far too young for Driving Miss Daisy! It was an absurd idea! [Murphy was 28, Morgan Freeman, who got the role, was 52.] The chauffeur was meant to be an age similar to the old lady [Jessica Tandy was actually 80].
The studios always have strange ideas. Because, you see, they're putting up a lot of money. Or even if they're only putting up a small amount they want to guarantee their returns with name actors and at that time of course Morgan Freeman was completely unknown. He'd only done one film before Daisy and it was a supporting role so when we suggested him they all had a fit.
You went for Dan Aykroyd for that film, perhaps an odd choice considering he’d just come off Ghostbusters and My Stepmother is an Alien . . . ! [laughs] Well, yes, but that was a fluke because when we were casting Daisy – I don't know if this is in the book, it's probably not – nobody wanted to play the son. We couldn't get anyone at all.
We were about to abandon the film completely when I got a phone call at my house in Los Angeles and this voice said “Oh, it's Dan Aykroyd” and I thought it was someone playing a joke.
He said: “No, it really is Dan Aykroyd. I was at a party and someone told me you couldn't find anyone to play the son in Driving Miss Daisy. I'll do it. I'll come and audition for you.”
I said: “Dan you don't need to audition, I'm telling you now, you've got the role.” Because without him we didn’t have a film. Dick Zanuck said to me: “Oh my God, do you think he can actually do it?” I said: “Yes I do. I think we're gonna be OK.”
You’ve said to make a modest film all you need is a script, a couple of stars, a director and $50 million – most of which goes to the two leads. What does that sort of power, that sort of money, do to the psyches of those actors? [Long intake of breath] Well . . . I s’pose a lot of them lose any kind of real grip on reality. But I think the thing that surprises me is how so many of them stay completely sane! I mean I'm surprised any of them do. Because the amount of money they get often for just a couple of weeks' work, and the adulation, you’d think that would turn the head of anybody!
What sort of money are we talking about? Depends what the film is of course but, you know, $10 million is pretty common. $15 million, $20 million, those sorts of figures. Even to get $2 million or $3 million for acting in a film is a fantastic amount of money. I mean it's unusual for actors in films to do more than two or three weeks’ work, so that's a lot of money. I mean, a director can’t work on a film for less than a year. All films take at least a year. The director's on for a long time. But an actor can be there less than a month. And get staggering money for it!
$10 million is pretty common for a film role. $15 million, $20 million. Even to get $2 million or $3 million for acting in a film is fantastic. I mean it's unusual for actors to do more than two or three weeks’ work!Bruce Beresford
What’s left of the budget has to be spread over hundreds of people. Is there ever any antagonism that the stars get a fortune and the rest get (relative) peanuts? Rarely, but I’ve seen it. Yeah, I’ve seen some antagonism.
Ever cast any stars you've regretted? [Long pause] Y-e-s, well I've [breath], you know, 95 per cent of the actors I've worked with have been fine. You get an occasional one but I don't think I've regretted any stars where I cast them. Sometimes I've had problems with actors that I didn't cast that the studio's insisted on putting in and then there were problems because probably deep down inside I knew they were miscast but the studio insisted on using them. Then you can have problems because they're not really suitable for the role.
You were going to work with Jodie Foster on Double Jeopardy (1999) until she fell pregnant and had to pass. In your first book you recounted something she said to you and I’ve never been able to look at her the same way since. Oh, the time she told me “Don't argue with me 'cos I'm so intelligent”? And she said “I'm always right!” [laughs] A lot of people have said to me I must’ve made that up! But I didn't, of course.
She's never confronted you on that? Well, what can she confront me about?! She's the one who said it! [laughs] And we weren't alone – there were three of us there [laughs].
Don't argue with me Bruce, 'cos I'm so intelligent. I'm always right.Jodie Foster
It can be hard to come up with a good film title. Once established a title rolls off your tongue like the name of an old friend, but you struggled to come up with “Paradise Road”. I love the fact it's based on a line in a poem – which you had to write to justify it as a title! Correct! [laughs]
How silent is this place, The brilliant sunshine filters through the trees, The leaves are rustled by a gentle breeze, A wild and open space, By shrubs pink-tipped, mauve blossomed o’ergrown, A hush enfolds me, deep as I have known, Unbroken save by distant insects’ drone, A jungle clearing, a track, through which we bear our load to Him, It is our Paradise Road.Bruce Beresford
Are you finally happy with the title? [big pause, big intake of breath] I like the title but it may have been a mistake. I don't know. I mean the film didn't do very well. And I don't know if the title is responsible. It probably wasn't.
It must be disheartening to say it didn't do very well. It’s one of the best films we've ever made. Commercially it didn't do very well. The reviews weren't good. Overall they were rather tepid. That didn’t help us. I must say I did think it was better than the reviews said it was. But they weren't great. We all thought we were gonna get good reviews and that would help.
And I think, too, people thought because it was women in a Japanese prison camp it was gonna be incredibly harrowing and they stayed away because of that. It’s like that film that just won the Academy Award last year, Son of Saul. I mean that's a pretty impressive film. It did absolutely no business at all. NAHTHING!! Nobody went. Because nobody wanted to see people being thrown into gas ovens in a concentration camp.
It didn't matter how much acclaim the film had or how many awards it won. Nobody went to see it. Statistically.
I saw it. I mean, it's really a great film but it's something of an ordeal and I think a lot of people thought that was what Paradise Road would be like.
There was an ordeal in the casting. There was! Well that was the studio, you know. There were people we wanted who couldn't do it, like Jean Simmons who was going to do it at one point and that fell through because she got sick. In fact, we all thought she was going to die. She was so ill. And in fact she’s still alive.
And there were a number of actresses, you know, sometimes they keep you on the hook. They won't say no but nor will they say yes. And you can never quite work out what's going on. You think why can’t they tell me?
So now I always set deadlines. I say look here's the script, I’ll say to their agent or to them if I’m talking to them. By Friday week I need a yes – if I haven’t got a yes by Friday week it’s a no and we move onto someone else. Otherwise you can hang on for a year. The studios too come up with all sorts of names who are often wildly unsuitable.
Talking of the ones that got away – Les Mis. Do you still wince when you think of films you could’ve made and wanted to make? I'd like to have done that. I mean, that one didn’t work out. I didn’t get the cinematographer I wanted, Peter James. They were being so trendy, they were going through the list of latest hits and saying we'll get this one and that one and I thought we can’t make a film on the basis of who's made a good film last week. I didn’t want to be bullied like that. It was better to get out of it.
And another that got away – Bridges of Madison County, one of the best films ever made. Well, did you see the article in The Australian recently? It said I'd pulled out of Madison County because I didn’t want to work with Jessica Lange. Not true! Not true! I don’t know where that journalist got that information because it's not something we discussed in the interview and it's not something I’ve ever said!
The reason I didn’t do Madison County was that although I worked on it for about a year, Clint Eastwood wanted to direct it. He was always sort of polite in a rather off-hand way but he was basically uncooperative when I was preparing it and I finally went to the studio and I said Look It’s never gonna work like this. I said you better let Clint direct it and I’ll go. I just pulled out.
You worked on it for a year without pay! That’s right! You see I had an old Hollywood agent, wonderful man actually, Lenny Hershon. He’s dead now. A really nice guy but he was the old-school gentleman type who worked in an era when you got your first payment on the first day of principal photography – when the film started shooting. So you could work tor a long period preparing the film but no fee would come through.
I said to him early on I didn’t like that, you can’t trust people these days. You can work on the film for a long time preparing it then they pull the plug at the last minute! And you have nothing! He said oh they wouldn’t behave like that. I said well I wouldn’t be too sure. But they did. I left him after that. I went to another agent who gets me paid each month from when I start working. A much better deal.
You’ve had a lot of disappointments and setbacks. A year’s work for no pay could destroy anyone's confidence! Not only got nothing for it but it cost me a lot because I was paying all my expenses. I found all the locations. Clint used them all. I had all the sets built. I found all those bloody bridges. I crashed around Iowa for months! And he just moved in. He didn’t change a thing, he just used everything I’d found [laughs].
I still can’t find that line about Michael Douglas but I’ll keep looking. Ah you made it up, that’s why.
I was so relieved to hear you’re not fond of Stanley Kubrick as a director. Why don't you like him? I find his films very ponderous. The only one I quite like is the period one set in Ireland, Barry Lyndon. I think it’s quite good. Because he has to get on with the story from the novel, and it's a good story.
find the others rather lugubrious. I mean, look, I agree that most of the world-famous directors are really great. There are just a couple – Kubrick's one of them – that I’ve always thought were boring. And that last film of his I tried to watch three times and never got through it, Eyes Wide Shut. Did you get through that?
I gotta say three-quarters through it. Well, you got further than I did. I never cared for his films. And that war film, the Vietnam thing he did [Full-Metal Jacket], I thought was terrible. But, you know, I’m probably wrong.
You also said Hitchcock couldn’t direct actors. He couldn’t.
Better herding cattle, you reckon? Well, he’s the only one who got a couple of really bad performances out of Cary Grant. And that’s really hard to do. The worst one was that one he did with Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant. Was it Notorious?
No, I found his films rather mechanical. I could see, you know, he’d set them up carefully, one device after another. I mean they date horribly. When I had a look recently at – which is the Bates Motel one? Psycho! I had a look at that recently on TV. It’s really comically bad! You had a look at it lately? You’ll collapse with laughter.
Why then has it remained one of the most loved films? No idea! [laughs] Not by me! I’ve always found his films clumsily plotted and usually very badly acted. Look, I must say I’m in a minority on this. The Guardian in London, I think it was, ran a worldwide movies poll and Vertigo came out as the greatest film ever made! I just don't believe it. I mean, I can’t accept that at all. I thought it was indifferent at best, not the greatest film ever made.
Have you cast The Women in Black yet? No, we've got a list of people we're going to approach. We're still trying to get our money, still trying to get our finance together.
OK, turn to page 61. You found it, did you?! OK, wait a minute, hang on.
And now I realise I'm not quoting you at all. It's by Sue! It’s from Sue!
It's in the book but it’s Sue talking! Well, I'm glad I clarified that! My apologies. Yes, good. ’Cos that's it. ’Cos I said to you I thought Michael Douglas was a rather good actor! [laughs]
OK, so Michael Douglas has a beef with Sue, not with you! Yes. I think he's a good actor.
The Directors Guild in the US insists that directors take the possessive credit, like “Bruce Beresford’s Paradise Road”. But you refuse. Why? Actually, the Directors Guild in the US ruled that you can't take the possessive credit unless you also wrote the script. But everybody ignores that. But when we got the notice about the rule I observed it. I don’t know if everybody else did.
Would you refuse the credit? Unless I also wrote the script.
Would you be happy about that? Oh, I s’pose so, if I wrote the script. Although when I have written the script I haven’t had that. It all seems to me to be a rather pretentious credit to have when in fact it's acted by very talented people, it's shot by some talented guy, it's edited by some talented editor. They've all made massive contributions. It's not as if you’ve written a novel and then you can put “A Novel by Fred Schmurt”. Film is a pretty collaborative business.
Still have the house at Wentworth Falls? Yes.
How often do you get up there? Often. In fact we were going up this morning. And then my wife suddenly said she's got a couple of appointments and we’re gonna go tomorrow. We go up there a lot.
We go hiking up the mountain. It's beautiful up there. I like it in the winter. We go up there and light a big log fire and I can take my work up, read scripts, play tennis. We've been on just about all the hiking trails. It’s great.
Just remember to attack Sue over Michael Douglas!
I will be merciless. OK! ❏
- Read Ian's other star interviews and reviews here.