This week, Criterion releases beautiful new editions of two films by Bruce Beresford: The riveting Boer War court-martial drama Breaker Morant (1980), one of the most important works of the New Australian Cinema; and Mister Johnson (1990), a drama about the efforts of an eager, ambitious Nigerian clerk during British colonial rule. The two releases will hopefully bring some new attention to the career of Beresford, one of the more underrated filmmakers of the past several decades. His best-known films in the U.S. are probably 1989’s Best Picture–winning Driving Miss Daisy and 1983’s Tender Mercies, with Robert Duvall as a down-on-his-luck country singer, which won the actor an Oscar (the movie also garnered one for original screenplay).
Those two films were well-rewarded, but Beresford’s filmography is replete with remarkable, underseen work — including 1991’s Black Robe, a gorgeous epic about a Jesuit priest attempting to travel to a mission in a remote corner of Canada during the 17th century; and 1986’s The Fringe Dwellers, about an aboriginal family in Australia trying to move into a white neighborhood. We recently caught up with Beresford to talk about his career, how Breaker Morant almost never saw the light of day, the reputation of Driving Miss Daisy, and what it was like to work with “the very bizarre” Robert Duvall.
What do you think of the idea of pairing Breaker Morant and Mister Johnson, two movies that on the surface seem to have little to do with each other?
That was Criterion’s decision. They just got in touch with me and said, “We’re putting out two of your films.” And I said, “Which two?” And they said, “Breaker Morant and Mister Johnson.” And I said, “Well, that’s nice. Those are two of my best films.”
I’m glad Criterion did them, because they always do such a wonderful job and go through so much trouble cleaning up the negatives and so forth. Especially because I don’t think Mister Johnson has ever been available on DVD. It got good reviews when it came out, but nobody went to see it.
Breaker Morant was such an influential film. Did you have any idea that you were onto something when you were making it?
Absolutely not! When we actually finished it, they had no plans to release it in Australia. Nobody wanted to put it out there. Then, a French guy from the Cannes Film Festival came to Australia and insisted on seeing every Australian film made that year. I ran into him at a cocktail party, and he said, “I’m here seeing all the Australian films.” And I said, “Oh, you must have seen my film.” He said, “What’s your film?” I said, “It’s one called Breaker Morant, but it hasn’t been released.” And he said, “I told them to show me every Australian film, including the unreleased ones!” Then he insisted on seeing it, and picked it for Cannes. After Cannes, it was shown in Australia. But it was not successful: It got mostly good reviews, but people didn’t go. But that film still gets me work. People still call me and say, “Oh, we saw Breaker Morant, and we’re wondering if you might want to film this script we’ve got.” It’s amazing how much work that film has got me – for a film that was seen, statistically, by very few people.
Your Hollywood career took off after that film.
Yes, but the film didn’t do that well in America either. I found out it was shown on the plane between New York and Los Angeles, as an in-flight movie. So a lot of the executives were basically forced to see it! When I started to get all these calls, I asked, “Where on Earth did you see this film?” They’d seen it on the flight.
This was kind of an amazing period for Australian cinema, too. The whole industry, it seemed, was undergoing a renaissance in the 1970s and '80s.
I think there were a lot of people in Australia just champing at the bit. And when the government made money available through the arts funds, there were a lot of people at the starting gate — and bang, they were off. They got some money and off they went. There were a bunch of us who were just so keen to make films, and had stories we were passionate to tell. It’s gotten much more sophisticated out there now: Big studios, co-productions with America, that sort of thing. But there’s still a lot of enthusiasm in Australia. They still make very good films. I think a lot of the best Australian films for one reason or another don’t get shown much out of Australia.
Your first big American film was Tender Mercies, starring Robert Duvall as a troubled country singer. Ironically, though, I think Horton Foote’s screenplay had been kicking around for quite some time before you got to it, no?
The script was sent to me in Australia, after it had been sent to almost every director in America — I think they’d been to about 30 other directors. When I read it, I remember saying to my wife, “I just read one of the most beautiful, moving scripts anyone has ever written.” And I couldn’t get on the phone quickly enough to tell them I’d do it.
Was Robert Duvall already attached to the film? I’ve read that you and he didn’t get along.
He was already attached when I got the script. He was linked as producer as well. No, he’s not the easiest guy in the world to get on with. The really difficult ones are the ones who show up drunk, or don’t show up at all, or they don’t remember the dialogue – and he wasn’t one of them. He turned up, he did the lines. We never argued over the interpretation of the character or anything like that. But he was just one of those people who was hostile to just about everybody. He’s a strange man. One day he wanted to take all the lighting equipment away. Another day, he wanted all the sound equipment taken away. It was very bizarre. But he gave a fantastic performance. On the very first day of shooting, I said, “If this guy doesn’t get an Academy Award for this, I’m a monkey’s uncle.”
I’m fascinated by the rhythm of Tender Mercies. It has this odd, quiet, episodic narrative, with scenes quietly fading out, one after the other. And it has a story that could have easily been very melodramatic, but the film is so modest.
It was all in Horton’s writing. He always avoided any kind of melodrama. He was always very restrained. Same with his plays: They were filled with great observations and wonderful dialogue, and it all felt sort of effortless. He was never striving to write funny lines; he was just filled with compassion. Tremendous character insights. He was a wonderful man. Of course, the film didn’t get shown very widely. It’s gotten a reputation over the years, but it was a very difficult film to sell, really. Nothing much happens in it. It’s basically just three people sitting around talking in a kitchen. And I did it again with Driving Miss Daisy. Cut it down from three people talking in a kitchen to two!
Let’s talk about Driving Miss Daisy. It was one of your biggest successes – won four Oscars, including Best Picture. But over the years it’s taken a lot of hits. Have you read some of the things people have said about it?
Yeah. I read an article saying it was the worst film to ever win the Academy Award for Best Picture. And I thought, “No, it’s the second worst. The worst is Cavalcade, made in 1932.” [Laughs.] Honestly, I haven’t seen Driving Miss Daisy since it was released. Everything changes over a period. I mean, films don’t change, because they’re stuck where you made it, but life changes, people change, attitudes change. I thought the script was wonderful. It was a very personal story. Alfred Uhry wrote it about his own grandmother and her chauffeur, whom he observed when he was a small boy. He really just told the story that he knew about them. And everything that he put in it was something that had happened.
One thing that I think gets lost – and it’s clearer when one looks at Alfred Uhry’s other plays in the Atlanta Trilogy – is that the film is about Miss Daisy’s Jewishness as much as it is about race. She lives this life of wealth and privilege, but she doesn’t quite realize that she herself is also an outsider in this world.
That’s quite a big theme in the film. And it’s something that was important to Albert. He’s a wonderful writer, too. I’m lucky that I think two of the best films I’ve done have been by two of my favorite American writers ever. Alfred and I were going to do another film together called The Last Night of Ballyhoo. It was all set up at Disney, but then they changed their minds, and we never made it.
Watching your films again, I began to notice some similarities. These are all essentially powerless characters, completely at the mercy of the people around them. They’re living in a world that’s been rigged against them: Major Thompson in Breaker Morant is defending these men, even though he knows they’re doomed; Mister Johnson has dreams of becoming an Englishman, even though nobody will ever let it happen. Many of your other films have this, too. For example, the priest in Black Robe is going up to a remote part of Canada to preach to the natives, even though he knows that he won’t be able to help them in any way and will probably die a miserable death out there.
In a way, I admire these characters’ delusions. I admire that priest in Black Robe immensely, even though he’s hopelessly deluded about everything. I do think there are thematic similarities in those films. But I don’t think they in any way reflect my personality. I just got fascinated by them and their predicaments. Sometimes, when people say to me, “Do you realize this theme and that theme are linked?” I’ll say, “You’re right, that’s true, but I can’t say that I’ve ever been aware of it.” I suppose in all those films you’ve got people in really stressful, isolated situations. I’m just attracted to them because they’re so dramatic. I read the novel of Mister Johnson when I was quite young, and it struck me then that it was a great story. And when [producer] Michael Fitzgerald got in touch with me to tell me about this project, I was immediately very interested – especially as I’d lived in Nigeria for a while when I was younger. I was 24 when I first went there. I was the only white man in an African film unit. It was interesting to me to be thrown into that culture headfirst. I think it gave me a lot of insights.
Culture clash and racism are issues you’ve tackled in a number of your films. Do you think growing up in Australia gave you any insights into that as well?
I don’t think so, particularly. When I grew up, we lived out in the country. I remember being shocked as a little boy that the aboriginal kids weren’t allowed to swim in the swimming pool. We used to go in and these poor kids would sit outside looking in. I remember asking my uncle, “Why can’t they come in?” And he said, “Oh, they’re all dirty.” I thought, “There’s something wrong here.” I guess those experiences all shape us to some extent, but I don’t know that it gave me any unique insights.
A few years after Mister Johnson, you returned to the setting of colonial Africa, with A Good Man in Africa, starring Sean Connery.
God, that was horrible. That was the worst film experience I ever had. It was cast wrong, the crew was all strange. We were filming in the wrong place. We filmed in South Africa, it was set in West Africa. Which is like shooting in Alaska when it’s set in New Orleans. And I realized that although the novel that it’s based on is terribly funny, it was very anecdotal. It had no narrative. I think on about the second day I realized it was never going to work, because the scenes don’t link. I thought, “I’m sunk! I’m never gonna get out.”
Interestingly, Driving Miss Daisy and Mister Johnson seem to have had opposite trajectories. Miss Daisy was a hit, but its reputation has waned. Mister Johnson came in for some flak when it was first released, but it now seems to have grown in status.
Some African-American viewers at the time were angry with the character of Mister Johnson, because they felt the film depicted him as being servile to white men. But this story took place in Nigeria in 1923. It was the colonial era. He had a job as a clerk. He was working. That was the situation then. I think, however, that a lot of the humanity of the character came through in Maynard [Eziashi]’s performance. He is a wonderful actor. He’s been with the Royal Shakespeare Company and done a lot of West End plays. He’s one of my best friends still. I’ve been trying to get him interested in the thing I’m doing now.
What are you working on now?
I’m one of the directors on the new version of Roots. They got four directors doing each section of the series; the other directors are Phil Noyce, Thomas Carter, and Mario Van Peebles. I’m in Louisiana, doing the fourth part. Two hours each. And I’ve got two months to do it. Not a lot of time, but it’s terribly elaborate.