Bruce Beresford: Recreating ’50s Sydney for Ladies in Black

September 14, 2018
He recreated the Boer War in Breaker Morant, the Canadian frontier in Black Robe, and the Great Depression in Bonnie and Clyde. Now veteran Australian filmmaker Bruce Beresford has rebuilt 1950s Sydney for his latest film, Ladies in Black.

You went to university with Madeleine St John, the author of The Women in Black, the source novel of Ladies in Black. What do you recall of her?

She was very quick witted, very sharp and very quick to correct you if she thought something you said was a bit silly. I used to be very intimidated because I was very young when I first met her – I think I was about 19. She was so… so quick, and I thought ‘Oh, I better be careful what I say because she’s gonna shoot me down in flames.’ She was very witty. I didn’t know her that well, but reasonably. We were in the same drama group and she would do parts – mostly comic parts – in plays and reviews. She could be very funny.

I got to know her a lot better in London after I’d bought the option on the book – then I found out we both had an interest in classical music and we went to a few concerts and things together. She was quite sick then. She had emphysema, she had this big cylinder, we’d go to the Albert Hall for a concert and I’d have to carry this big cylinder – she was on an oxygen tube, poor girl.

She was very well-informed, very bright. She seemed to know everything. She was fluent in French, she was very smart.

When it came to translating her book to the screen, how conscious were you of your directorial voice not overwhelming her authorial voice?

Very conscious, I think. If you actually read the novel and see the film, you’ll see they’re very close. There’s a few bits and pieces added, there’s bits of dialogue added, but not much. I think of all the film’s I’ve done that were adapted from something, it’s the closest to the original. And I think that’s because of the way the book is written – it’s in very succinct scenes that work well in film, and it moves well from one character to another. There’s about five main characters and you drift from one to another, but it’s always very fluid, the way it went. I found that when I was doing the script with Sue [Milliken, co-writer/producer] that we could pretty much just follow the book.

What attracted you to the book as a potential film?

There were a number of things. The first is that I like the period, Sydney in ’59. I thought the book was very funny, and I liked the fundamental good nature of it. You keep thinking something terrible is going to happen and it never does. The sunny good nature of it really appealed to me – I thought there was something very Australian in that, in a very unforced sort of way – it’s not contrived. I liked, too, the theme of the Anglo-Saxon Australians, her family, having to deal with these migrants who are coming with different ways of eating and different ways of doing things and then having to cope with it. I can remember my parents doing that – it is quite similar.

What challenges did you face in recreating Sydney circa 1959?

It was tricky doing it on the budget we had – really, the budget for the film was quite low for a film that’s quite ambitious. I got a production designer who I’d done an opera with, Felicity Abbott, and I told her that I wanted this thing to look big, but we didn’t have a lot of money. It was her that designed the set that a lot of it takes place on.

The location people were clever – we found a tram museum, and we found a printing museum in Penrith. The museum had those machines working, so we were able to shoot there. A lot of it was like that – you found bits and pieces around the city that you could do it with. It was tricky.

You also utilise a lot of CGI in recreating Sydney’s streets and skyline. How do you find working with digital technology at this stage of your career?

Well, it’s taken over completely. I was always all for it – it’s better. It’s silly to resist technical advances, because usually the reason they’ve come in is that they’re largely an improvement. The digital stuff enables you to do a lot more – that’s why you see movies in which every shot is digital. Actors hate it, because they’re usually acting against a green wall and everything is put in later – they don’t like it. But if you’re doing big action movies or space movies, you have to do it that way. But all the films I’ve done for 10 years or more have used digital. It’s good – you have tremendous control over the colour, over the grading, you can do all sorts of things to help the image.

The film tackles a lot of serious themes – coming of age, women’s rights, sexual liberation, the migrant experience – but does so with a very deft, light touch. Can you talk about that approach?

I think the mood you’re talking about probably comes from the novel. If I’d made it more heavy handed it would have been a betrayal of the way she’d done it in the book. The light touch that you mention, that’s one of the things that really appealed to me when I read the novel. I see so many films that are so serious and rather portentous and I thought, ‘I really don’t want to make that’ – and I don’t think I ever did.

Ladies in Black is in cinemas from September 20, 2018. Read our review here

As patron of the Brisbane International Film Festival, Bruce Beresford will be participating in Q&A screenings for Ladies in Black and Mao’s Last Dancer, and curating two film streams: Bruce Beresford Directs and Bruce Beresford Selects.

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