Producer Mark Johnson.
American producer Mark Johnson has landed in WA and is in the thick of pre-production on the film adaptation of Tim Winton's Breath, to be directed by Simon Baker.
"I've now done three films in Australia – one on the Gold Coast, one in Cairns and one in Melbourne, but I'd never been to Western Australia, and I actually got to know it through the works of Tim Winton", Johnson said.
"Winton describes it with such love and respect and is so protective of the land that I felt like I had already known it".
The vast majority of the shoot will take place in the coastal town of Denmark, which Johnson is "in awe of", and the producer is already excited about the communal atmosphere.
"I have to say, and it's been a long time since I've experienced this – the entire town is behind this film. The man in the street as well as on the municipal level".
Johnson, whose credits range from Rain Man to Breaking Bad, latched on to Winton's book years ago while he was in Melbourne making Don't Be Afraid of the Dark with producer Guillermo del Toro.
"I was aware of the book. I knew of Tim Winton but really hadn't read him. Hollywood has been trying to make one of his books, Dirt Music, for some time. At one point I think Heath Ledger was going to do it".
"Somebody had told me about Breath and I was in Melbourne and I saw a streetcar go by with an ad on it for the book. I thought: now I have to read it. And I fell in love with it".
"I tracked Tim down and ironically first met him in Portland, Oregon, where he was on a book tour, and he was nice enough to grant me an option on the book. I was developing it, and I thought – I'm being very arrogant in assuming that I can tell a uniquely Australian story".
"I had done this television show [called] The Guardian with Simon Baker. I gave it to him as a producer, and then we started developing it together. He had been wanting to direct, and he read this and so identified with so much of it. There was a Sando character [an older surfer to be played by Baker in the film] in his life. I gave it to him on a Friday and he finished it on Sunday, and he told me that when he put the book down he just sat down and had a little cry".
This may be the feature directorial debut of Lennox Head-native Baker, but it doesn't feel like it, says the producer.
"I don't see him as a first timer. He's been around some major feature directors, be it Curtis Hanson (LA Confidential) or Ang Lee (Ride with the Devil), and he's been doing hundreds of hours of TV. And he started directing a number of those [Mentalist] episodes, which I saw".
Baker has been careful about his choices since breaking out with that show, acting in only two features in the last five years.
"He's one of those actors who doesn't sit around and go to his camper between set-ups. He's on the set, he's asking questions. He's as prepared as just about any director I've been around".
Johnson and co-producer Jamie Hilton, who met on the Gold Coast set of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010), enlisted first Winton himself and then Top of the Lake's Gerard Lee to have a crack at the screenplay.
"Tim did the first adaptation, and did a very good job", said Johnson.
"It's interesting. I have the book on such a pedestal that I actually thought when I read Tim's screenplay that Tim Winton the screenwriter has done an injustice to Tim Winton the novelist. But it was kind of inevitable; you can't include everything. I thought that he had made some decisions on [omitting] some key moments and characters that I thought needed to be in there".
"Gerard Lee was fantastic and somebody I think the world of. We had some very good writers but it's not one of those books that becomes a movie. You have to make some very important decisions and hopefully – we'll see – most of our audience will say they made the right decisions. It was a tricky one. It took several years to get the script right".
Financing also took time, with Johnson emphasising that he's been "so impressed with the Australian art councils and the support we've gotten, from Screen Australia to ScreenWest".
Alleviating the pressure to enlist big names is the fact that "our two stars are Tim Winton and Simon Baker", said Johnson.
The two lead roles in Breath are sixteen year-old friends 'Loonie' and 'Pikelet'.
"There are some big names we haven't announced yet, but at the core of it are these two boys, who obviously had to be able to act but also had to be surfers. That's not something you can really fake".
"I remember years ago I did an American baseball movie called The Natural, and we had a very good casting director who kept on bringing actors in who were good but couldn't even play baseball. So we said let's reverse the process and bring in baseball players and then find out which ones can act".
"That's what we did here too. I think there's a very healthy disrespect of authority and authority figures in the Australian culture, and that's what we wanted these boys to have. Simon saw hundreds of boys".
Shooting dates and the full cast will be announced "any day now", said Johnson, who is determined to do justice to Winton's novel by making "not just an exceptional Australian movie, but an exceptional movie, period".
"It's so hard to make a good film. It has to be a good film. I think my number one goal is for Tim Winton to take a look at it and think that we've done justice to his extraordinary book".
"It's got universal themes – about being desperately afraid that you're ordinary, about being afraid as a young man that there's nothing exceptional about you – and I think that has great application in a universal way, but this is also a specifically Western Australian story".