by Abhi Parasher

Australian director Bruce Beresford began his career 51 years ago with The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972). He has since helmed celebrated films such as Tender Mercies and Driving Miss Daisy, the latter winning the Best Picture Oscar at the 1990 Academy Awards. Now, at the age of 83, Beresford has signed on to direct the little-known story of Mo Norman.

“My agent in Los Angeles sent me this script, and usually I just read the script and politely say no,” shares Beresford. “I read this script, then called my agent and said ‘Wow, you’ve actually sent me a good one’. It’s a very interesting story about a very interesting personality.”

Mo Norman is often referred to as the ’Rain Man of Golf’. He had a unique and unconventional way of playing the game, which led him to become, in Tiger Woods’ words, one of only two players to ever ‘truly own their swings’. Norman’s swing, as abnormal as it was, allowed him to strike the ball with an accuracy that even Woods was in awe of.

“He was extraordinarily eccentric in a very well-organised sport,” Beresford says. “There are rules in the way that you dress and the way that you play golf. Norman didn’t observe any of that. He often played barefoot, insisted on carrying his own clubs, and had a bizarre style of doing everything because he never had lessons. He also was never into going to functions or giving speeches. They eventually kept him away from all the professional tournaments because he was such a nuisance.”

Mo Norman’s unique personality ended up driving a wedge between him and his peers, much of which was due to bullying. As a result, Norman’s career largely remained within the confines of Canada. Regardless, his life story is one that spans decades and according to Beresford, “some of golf’s superstars regard him as the best to ever play.”

The problem in portraying such a character is understanding Norman’s eccentric personality, which largely stems from his presumed Autism. For Beresford, another challenge is entrusting that responsibility to one actor.

“His story spans from when he was a child, to when he died at 79,” says the Sydney based director. “The challenge is finding an actor that can do that. What I have suggested is finding an actor that is in his 30s, so that he can play a Norman in his 20s and a Norman who is older, because switching actors to me never seems to work. The audience seems to reject it. I’ve done the ageing up thing before in Driving Miss Daisy with Morgan Freeman and it worked.”

Beresford is the common denominator between many actors who have gone on to either receive Academy Awards or be nominated (such as Freeman for Driving Miss Daisy). Despite that record, he believes the success should be attributed to something other than his direction.

“I don’t think there is anything magical in what I do,” Beresford says. “It’s really a matter of casting the right people. If you make a mistake in casting, you are history because if you get the wrong actor in a key role, you might have dug yourself a hole you will never get out of. So, I tend to spend a long-time casting and I’m very cautious with it.”

Mo Norman’s story comes under the banner of character-driven cinema that has slowly been eradicated from the mainstream. Beresford’s early work was masterful in this form of storytelling, however, since the big-budget Marvel movies which Martin Scorsese aptly termed ‘theme park rides’, the character-driven mid-budget film is seen as a less profitable proposition that appeals to a small portion of the public.

“He [Scorsese] is not wrong, those Marvel films are usually quite boring,” says Beresford. “Everyone said Driving Miss Daisy was not actually releasable. All the studio heads said, ‘You’ve got an old Jewish lady talking to an old black man in the kitchen, who would want to watch that’. It ended up becoming one of the most profitable films in Warner Brothers’ history, because it only cost $7 million to make. They all said it was for ‘art-house’ audiences, and it turned out not to be.”

Beresford’s feelings towards the films he is drawn to speaks to a broader piece of advice to young filmmakers.

“Make something that you actually believe in,” he shares. “People send me films all the time and some of them are awfully good. All of those good films are incredibly personal, despite the fact that they would probably get better distribution with a crappy horror film.”

The Place I Belong: The Mo Norman Story is currently in pre-production with aims to shoot in the US spring of 2024.