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.


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.

Bruce Beresford, The best film I never made (#BookReview)

Bruce Beresford, The best film I never madeBruce Beresford, author of The best film I never made, is of special interest to me for a couple of reasons, besides the fact that I’ve enjoyed many of his films over the years. One is that after a few years of taking (or, perhaps, “dragging” is more accurate) our then young son to various classic movie “experiences”, like, say, a silent movie accompanied by live theatre organ, we finally hit pay dirt with Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant. He loved it, and I’d say his love of film was born then. The other is that I’ve known for some time that Beresford has wanted to film his old university friend Madeleine St John’s novel The women in black (my review). I want to see that film! According to the brief bio opposite the title page, it is being made now. At last!

All this is to explain why I was keen to read Bruce Beresford’s collection of stories when I saw it appear in Text Publishing’s New Releases list. But, what does “collection of stories” mean in the context of non-fiction? These are not essays or even newspaper columns that have been published before, and, disappointingly, there’s no Introduction, Author’s Note or Afterword providing context. There is, though, in that aforementioned brief bio, the address for his website, and there I found a tab called “Articles”. So this is where they are published? Yes, some anyhow, including some in an earlier form, but not all. However, from this, and from their personal, rather chatty style, I’d liken these articles to blog posts, which in his case comprise musings on things relating to his film and opera directing career and his related cultural interests.

The best film I never made, then, is a collection of these blogpost-cum-stories, organised for the book into four parts: I Family, Journeys, Memories; II Making and Not Making Movies; III Behind the Screen; IV Operas, Painters, Writers. The stories are all dated, ranging from 2004 to 2017. Some have brief updates at the end. The 2010 piece on Jeffrey Smart, “Smart lessons”, for example, has a final annotation noting that Smart died in 2013. The stories are not presented chronologically.

And now, because this is not a book with a narrative structure that can be spoiled – though there is some logic nonetheless to the order – I’m going straight to the end. You’ll guess why when I tell you that the title of the last article is “Australian literature and film”, but that literature connection is not the only reason. Other reasons are that it provides a good introduction to the style and tone of the whole, and also to the way he imparts his experience and understanding of filmmaking.

The main point of this last article is to discuss the idea, put forward he says by the press, that “Australian films would benefit if more adaptations were made from acclaimed literary works. Comparisons are inevitably made with foreign films, particularly English and American …” Commenting that he can understand why writer-directors might want to tell their own stories, he admits that probably a majority of English-language films are adaptations of novels but suggests that many of these would be from popular fiction rather than “literary successes”. He unpicks why:

Many novels are famous for their prose style, various colourful characters, their themes and so on: factors which can obscure the fact that other useful ingredients – a coherent plot for example – may be absent. In film, most of the characteristics that distinguish a literary work – such as a striking prose style – are stripped away and this can reveal the lack of a well-constructed story, or convincing dialogue, and be fatal to the effectiveness of the film.

He then provides examples of English and American adaptations, about which, of course, every reader-filmgoer will have different opinions – but I think his principle stands. He comments for example about the difficult of transferring “the satire and dry cynicism” of Waugh to film, and says Patrick White is notoriously difficult “because his novels like Conrad’s, are psychological studies, intense and profound, and not easy to transfer to a film script”. (Interestingly, though, he suggests that Happy Valley, which I’ve reviewed, could be a good candidate because of its “more conventional narrative”.) Filmmakers do better he argues “to adapt novels which rely on a few strong characters and a compelling narrative” like, for example, Kenneth Cook’s Wake in fright (albeit “won no literary prizes”).

So, this article demonstrates Beresford’s grasp of filmmaking, which, unsurprisingly, runs throughout the book, but it also exemplifies his tone and style, including his willingness to share his own prejudices. He’s not a fan of Tim Winton, for example, describing his books “as bargain-basement Patrick White: stylistically derivative, they are far more savage, full of unpleasant characters, and weakly plotted”. And Christina Stead, he says, is “a turgid writer, in my worthless opinion”. This possibly false but not pompous self-deprecation is another feature of his tone. In the same paragraph as the Stead comment, he writes that he’d filmed Henry Handel Richardson’s The Getting of Wisdom, but that “critics did not share my admiration for the result”! (Other films of his, he agrees, aren’t the best.)

And finally, this chapter also reveals his ability to “tell-all” without being gossipy. He suggests that another reason why classic novels aren’t adapted in Australia (as they are in England) is that they are just not well-known, “certainly the word of their excellence has not reached all of those in charge of making financial decisions.” (The challenge of financing films is a theme running through the book, in fact.) Beresford wrote, he tells us, an adaptation of Henry Handel Richardson’s epic, The fortunes of Richard Mahony. He says he hadn’t expected potential investors to have read it, but he “did at least expect them to have heard of it – and her. But this was not the case.” Oh dear! He backs up this example of philistinism with another:

when I was planning a film about Mahler, a Hollywood executive said, ‘What I can’t understand is why you would want to make a film about a nonentity.’ I said  nothing, but perhaps should have told him that one of the most gifted composers of all time could not accurately be described as a ‘nonentity’ – except by someone of overwhelming stupidity.

To his credit, Beresford does not name this person of “overwhelming stupidity”.

If you’ve enjoyed my discussion of this article, then you are likely to enjoy the book. I loved his discussion of the filmic qualities of the artist Caravaggio, and of his friendship with luminaries like Barry Humphries, Clive James, and the late Jeffrey Smart. His Behind the Scenes section provides fascinating insight into the role of cinematographers, composers and designers in the filmmaking process. And so on.

However, because this is a book of collected articles written over a decade or more, there is the occasional repetition, particularly in the first section about his personal life. And, he does come across somewhat as an unreconstructed male. There are several references to his chasing, or his friends’ marrying, beautiful women, which focus I find out-of-date (but that’s just my worthless opinion!)

The best film I never made is an enjoyable book. It’s more chatty and informative than reflective, but if you have followed Bruce Beresford’s films over the years – including Breaker MorantDriving Miss Daisy, Tender Mercies, Black Robe, Mao’s Last Dancer – and you are interested in the practice of filmmaking and in the arts more generally, this book has a lot to offer. And makes, methinks, a good summer read.

Bruce Beresford
The best film I never made, and other stories about a life in the arts
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9781925603101

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)