Canberra Writers Festival 2019, Day 1, Session 4: Bruce Beresford and Ladies in black

Pomeranz and BeresfordIt’s a curious thing, isn’t it? When I write my book reviews, I spend very little time on the content, focusing mostly on themes, style and context, but when I write up festivals and other literary events I find it hard to be succinct about the content. Perhaps this is because I can always go back to the book to check something, while these events are fleeting. Once they’re gone, they’re gone, so I want to capture all I can. Of course, many events these days end up as podcasts, but you can’t be sure how long they’ll be there. Anyhow, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it …

Why I attended this one should be obvious. I have read, loved and reviewed Madeleine St John’s The women in black, and I have been following the story of its adaptation to screen for over ten years, keeping my fingers crossed that Australian director Bruce Beresford would get the money to make it! Finally he did, and Mr Gums and I saw it soon after. An added attraction was that Beresford, whose memoir I have reviewed, was being interviewed by the inimitable Margaret Pomeranz of Margaret and David.

Ladies in Black – A thirty-year obsession: Bruce Beresford in conversation with Margaret Pomeranz

The women in black, Madeleine St John, book coverPomeranz began, it seemed to me, by wanting to focus more generally on book-to-film adaptations, but Beresford focused, not surprisingly I suppose given the session topic, on The women in black/Ladies in black.

Are there some elements that make a book easy to adapt?

Beresford responded that he looks for story rather than adaptability. However, The women in black (my review) was easy to adapt, because it has short chapters, a strong narrative line, and a lot of dialogue. By contrast, many years ago, he was offered The thorn birds, but found it so badly structured that he rejected it.

Later in the conversation, Pomeranz returned to the issue of adaptations, asking him what’s different for him as filmmaker between working on adaptations versus original screenplays. No difference really, said Beresford. His main issue is whether he thinks he can handle the script. Nonetheless, he admitted that he had had flops which David Stratton, he said, had treated mercilessly. That got a laugh, as we knew Stratton was in the audience.

He mentioned working with Horton Foote on Tender mercies, calling him the best writer he ever worked with. He also worked with William Boyd on adapting Joyce Cary’s Nigerian-set novel, Mister Johnson. A challenge, he said, because the novel is anecdotal with no through plotline. He is now working on a David Williamson script about Isaac Newton. He likes doing Williamson, his dialogue is sharp.

Beresford returned frequently through the conversation to the challenge of raising money. He mentioned the Italian producer, Dino De Laurentiis – a pleasure to work with, astute, generous, kind, and able to make all feel they are contributing.

Why change the title from Women to Ladies?

There was a play and a film called Woman in black. Also, some people misunderstood the title, assuming something darker. He found himself explaining that it was about ladies working in a department store, hence the change to “ladies”.

How did it all come about?

Beresford knew St John at university. She was well-read, fun, witty. He lost touch with her until the early 1990s when Clive James recommended a book he’d read, calling it “one of best novels ever written.” Beresford loved it too, describing it as marvellously funny, observant, and with a fluid style . He thought it would be easy to fund. Famous last words! It took 23 years to put the funding together, with producer Sue Milliken (whose memoir I’ve also reviewed).

I liked his clear articulation of the story’s themes: young women asserting themselves, and the clash of immigrant culture. He made very few changes, saying the book is the film and the film is the book. His main change is the last scene bringing the characters together, but this was presaged in the book.

Making the film

Film critic Pomeranz was particularly interested in the filmmaking process – from the intellectual decisions to some of the more practical aspects – and assumed, rightly, I think, that the audience would also be interested in behind-the-scenes stories.

The book, she said, seems to have an acerbic view of Australians, and is also about Australia on the cusp of change (a time when Pomeranz and Beresford were young). How did he handle these? Beresford said that it resonated closely with him, and that he did his best to recreate the time. Madeleine was very observant which made it easy.

There was a question during the Q&A regarding his physical recreation of Sydney. Beresford described using trams at the Sydney Tramway Museum, printers at the Penrith Museum of Printing, and the unrenovated 7th floor of David Jones in Sydney for the first scene at Goodes when the doors are opened. The rest was done at Fox Studios.

Pomeranz asked him how he approaches a screenplay. Is it all structure? No, he said, it’s about dialogue and characterisation. I laughed, really, at how often Beresford said the opposite to what Pomeranz assumed!

Pomeranz also asked how you know what audiences will like. Beresford said you never know but he hoped they’d respond to St John like he did, and then talked about the difficulty of getting funding for Driving Miss Daisy, because potential producers didn’t believe it would interest audiences. An old southern belle being driven around by an old black man!? How then do you know you’ve got it right, Pomeranz persisted? You don’t, he said. However, he runs a rough cut of his films for an audience in an out of the way place, and stands at the back to watch their reactions. He looks for their emotional reactions, and will use that in final cuts.

He storyboards his films (and indeed the NFSA has some of his storyboards). This makes both the filming and editing easier, because he knows what he is doing. He works with editor Mark Warner, and has for over 20 years.

Regarding casting and characterisation, Beresford described the challenges of casting Magda, and his not using a Middle-European. (Middle European Australian actors turned down the role because they thought it was a supporting role! Silly them!) Pomeranz suggested that St John’s view of men is acerbic, and Beresford admitted he softened Lisa’s father because he didn’t want to lose the fact that he loved her. Beresford also talked about Patty’s husband who runs away, embarrassed by his own sexuality, saying that some people, “get” this while others don’t.

The film didn’t have much of a cinema release in the US, but is on Netflix; it is opening in France, but not in England! Say no more!

A bit more about Madeleine

Through the conversation and Q&A, other interesting facts came out about Madeleine St John, such as that she wouldn’t allow translations. She made Beresford her literary executor, and he approved translations after her death! Hmm, that old ethical conundrum for literary executors. It has resulted in money going to her two nominated charities.

However, most of what came out is in Helen Trinca’s biography (my review) so if you are interested, I recommend that.

Q&A

There was quite a lively Q & A, including:

  • various members sharing how closely they related to the story, for themselves or their mothers’ generation. Beresford said he advised the marketers not to promote the film to older women, as they’ll come anyway, but to young women, as it’s all about them. The marketers didn’t listen to him, but the young women came.
  • questions relating to the novel, such as does he require the cast read the novel or prefer they don’t. He doesn’t stop them, but usually they just read the script.
  • a potential contretemps occurring when an audience member commented that the book/film represent an Anglo view of Central Europeans. Magda’s negative comment about the German language, for example, this person said, the feeling of Central Europeans. Some misunderstanding ensued, but Pomeranz, and general goodwill, hosed it down pretty quickly.
  • Beresford naming his favourite directors as including John Ford, Carol Reed, Martin Scorcese, and saying he likes many new films.
  • Beresford believing that while it is always hard to get funding, the Australian industry will continue as long as people want to see their own stories.

It was a lively, warm, light-hearted session, and yet it was also informative about both this film and filmmaking more generally. Mr Gums and I enjoyed it – as we also did a lovely dinner at our favourite Muse afterwards.

12 thoughts on “Canberra Writers Festival 2019, Day 1, Session 4: Bruce Beresford and Ladies in black

  1. Years ago I heard Philip Noyce at an advance screening of The Rabbit-Proof Fence, and he said the same thing about funding.
    Just imagine how many great films we’d have that tell our own stories if there were more funding for it…

    • Oh, absolutely, Lisa. It’s not an uncommon story and things haven’t changed obviously. You go to a movie and you see multiple of names of the funders. The work the producers go to to get money. Not a job I’d like but I’m glad someone does it.

  2. Thanks for another excellent report, Sue.I love your opening comments about reasons to be succinct. Having just had a conversation yesterday with a maker of several award-winning short films who has decided to give up on ever making a feature, I endorse the comments about difficulty raising the funds to make movies here.

  3. I’m not a fan of Pomeranz’ (although a huge fan of Stratton’s), and relate instantly to your mention of how often Bruce seemed to contradict her assumptions: I used often shout “That’s your assumption !” when seeing her on the movie show.
    Beresford is a good bloke, and a good director: one of the really intelligent ones. A thinker. You can’t go wrong with a thinking director. If I’d had directors like him I would’ve stayed in the industry and not stamped away in a rage.
    “questions relating to the novel, such as does he require the cast read the novel or prefer they don’t. He doesn’t stop them, but usually they just read the script.” I laughed like anything: imagine actors having any interest in the book the script came from !!!
    I wonder why Madeleine wouldn’t allow translations ? – maybe because she feared they wouldn’t hold true ?

    • I can understand your reaction to Pomeranz M-R. I initially felt the same, but as I got to “know” her I came to appreciate her too.

      I pulled back a bit on some things Bruce said, eg re actors not reading the novel, but I can see you got the gust of it, ha ha!

      I have met Bruce a couple of times through my NFSA work, and liked him, but this session, and his book I reviewed, really gave me insight into what he thinks about what he does, and his love for deeply human stories. I wish you could have stayed in the industry, then you would have had more stories for us!

      And yes, re Madeleine, that was exactly it, as Bruce understood it. He told her that she was fluent in French so could check those translations herself, but still she refused.

  4. What a great weekend Sue, and it happened in Canberra! (lol). The Winchester conversation would have been fascinating, and the Beresford conversation most interesting. Women in Black is one of my favourite novels. I also liked the film, Ladies in Black. I saw a lovely Japanese animation movie on Saturday, Weathering with You.

  5. There’s a question: Are Australians interested in stories about themselves? Not unless it’s Crocodile Dundee. Thoughtful movies seem confined to the same people who read book reviews. And the idea of our anti-intellectual governing class funding them is laughable.

    • Yes, Bill, I must say that I had a little cynical thought about that, because, even now, not enough people go to Aussie movies. But, as a lover of Australian literature, I have to believe we do want to hear our stories. And therefore we need to do what we can to support the industry, notwithstanding our current government.

  6. Thank you for your very thorough review Sue. Very jealous – would love to have been there. I loved this book, loved the musical, and loved the movie!

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