Simon Baker channels his teenage surf experience in movie of Tim Winton's Breath

Like many Australians who came of age in the surf in the 1970s and 1980s, I was as much in love with surfing's spirit of rebellion and the escape it offered from my safe suburban upbringing, as I was with the thrill of riding the waves. To surf was to reject all that was solid and predictable and embrace the edgy and unknown.

When I returned to surfing as a mature woman after a 15-year break, it struck me that for all surf culture's obsession with big-wave hunting and the quest for new frontiers, the oceanic and the domestic did not have to be mutually exclusive. Freed from the machismo of seafaring mythology with its imperial ambitions of "ruling the waves", surfing allows for a new conception of adventure and heroism in which you don't have to go "in far" in order to go "out deep", to quote the poet Robert Frost. It is possible to commune with the sublime and still be home in time for tea.

Director and actor Simon Baker at one of the locations of “Breath”.

In the film adaptation of Tim Winton's acclaimed novel Breath, directed by Simon Baker, the young protagonist, Pikelet, finds himself growing up too fast when he is lured into what Winton calls the "gladiatorial realm" of big-wave surfing and extreme sex. Through this painful getting of wisdom, he comes to the insight earlier than most of us that you don't have to turn your back on the ordinary in order to do something as extraordinary as dancing across the face of a wave.

Although faithful to the book in many respects, the film offers a more optimistic take on Pikelet's ability to come through his loss of innocence without being destroyed by it. In the novel, Pikelet is left emotionally and psychologically crippled by his teenage encounter with hippy surf guru, Sando, and his wife, Eva (Elizabeth Debicki) – an ex-champion freestyle skier who initiates him into the world of grown-up sex. In flight from the responsibilities of adulthood, the couple exploit their mystique and their influence over Pikelet (Samson Coulter) and his mate, Loonie (Ben Spence), as they seek to recapture the intense highs of the glory days of their youth.

Making the film was a huge learning experience for Ben Spence (Loonie) and Samson Coulter (Pikelet).

While Baker – who also plays Sando – says he found the book profoundly moving and that it resonated with his experiences as a boy surfing at Lennox Head, he wanted the film to explore the resilience that a character like Pikelet could possess. As in many rites of passage stories, much of the narrative drive comes from the tension between the boys' desire to push their limits and prove themselves in the adult arena, and the pull of the home environments that have made them who they are. Pikelet draws his strength from his protective, loving family whereas the first time we see Loonie he is sporting a black-eye courtesy of his violent father who runs the local pub.

In the book, Pikelet's solid background and introspective nature are not enough to stop him going off the rails, and he spends his adult life reeling from the damage done in his adolescence. The film, however, takes Winton's preoccupation with troubled masculinity in a different direction when Pikelet realises that a truce can be achieved between the lure of danger and the security of home.

Baker is adamant the bravest and most heroic moment in the film would be when Pikelet stands his ground and resists the pressure from Sando and Loonie to surf the unconquered big-wave break called Nautilus. "When I look back at that time in my life," Baker says, "I certainly wish that I had more confidence in who I was to say, 'I'm not going to do that', and not feel like I'd failed. I think we have evolved enough to be able to accept that as a strength. They're the moments that define you and make you who you are and separate you from the mob."

In its defiant mood of rebellion, rejection of responsibility and worship of youth, surf culture has traditionally celebrated the eternal adolescent in all of us: that secret part of the self that resists the pressure to be civilised and domesticated and finds atavistic solace in the sea's savage mystery. While we don't need to relinquish it in order to grow up, there's no escaping the fact that clinging to this inner adolescent has stunted surf culture. Localism, sexism, surf rage and racism have been some of its uglier manifestations.

Simon Baker at one of the film’s locations, Elephant Rocks, Denmark, WA.

Along with Winton's eloquent essay on his own surfing experiences The Wait and the Flow, the novel and film of Breath, offer a nuanced commentary on surf culture's own protracted coming of age. Winton started surfing in the early 1970s (when the novel is set) and credits it with getting him through adolescence. "When I was lonely, confused and angry, the ocean was always there, a vast salty poultice sucking the poison from my system."

At the same time, he believes the Aquarius generation's veneration of freedom came at a cost. "People forsook the group in the late '60s and thus began the 'festival of me'. Surfers have always been the most gigantic narcissists, so it was a perfect alignment. I'm not talking about hobby surfers here, but lifelong hardcore surfers who sublimate every other part of their lives to the tides and the swell and the weather,"I he says. In their conception of themselves as exceptional and not answerable to anyone, Sando and Eva epitomise this strand of arrested development in surf culture.

Simon Baker, Tim Winton, Samson Coulter and Ben Spence before the film’s premiere.

With its gentle pace and loving depiction of the seductiveness of the alternative universe the Sanderson's inhabit in their wooden house on stilts surrounded by bush, the film presents a more oblique critique of this way of life. While Baker agrees that surfing has, "always [been] a macho sport, particularly in the 1970s", his Sando is an alluring enigma who goads the boys beyond their limits even as he tells them they have nothing to prove. "I wanted to play around with the masculine ideal, the Australian male stereotype, to frame it and then step outside the frame and basically subvert it, in a way that wasn't dishonouring it," he says.

The West Australian premiere of Breath took place in Albany on the state's south coast, 60 kilometres from the small, close-knit town of Denmark where the film is set. Before the screening, Baker, Winton, Coulter and Spence lined up on a strip of red carpet to be photographed and take questions from the media. Behind them stretched a larger-than-life promotional poster of Sando and the boys with boards under their arms, surveying the surf.

I certainly wish that I had more confidence in who I was to say, "I'm not going to do that".

It is two years since the film was shot and while Baker looked much the same, the boyish faces of the 15-year-olds in the poster had sharpened into the more angular features of young men. Although both are experienced surfers, neither had acted in front of the camera before being cast. Weeks of media promotional tours lay ahead of them and although they seemed remarkably composed, it was evident they were still coming to grips with the impact that the film would have on their own coming of age.

At the beach during a photo shoot earlier in the day, they veered between goofing around – exchanging rings in a mock wedding ceremony – and taking the spotlight in their stride. "Making the film was a rollercoaster ride," Coulter says, "because it was such a big learning curve from start to finish." One minute he was at school and the next, he was on the set, "being brought coffees all day and kind of being treated like an adult". Looking back, Spence felt he was able to throw himself into his role as Loonie because he was still young enough not to feel too self-conscious.

The most challenging moment of the promotional tour was probably the Q&A after the Albany premiere when Coulter was asked about the intimate scenes between Eva and Pikelet. To much nervous laughter from the audience, he admitted that beforehand he was "scared shitless", but the professional atmosphere and support of the cast and crew made it a positive experience.

In his signature, low-key way, Baker took Coulter out for a surf in advance of these scenes to sound him out about how he was feeling about "the end of the script". The time Baker and the boys spent surfing together was fundamental to the bond established between them. While Baker's directorial approach had much in common with Sando's mentoring of Pikelet and Loonie, there was one crucial difference. Whereas Sando casually exploited his influence over the boys, Baker was acutely conscious of his responsibilities in loco parentis.

"I didn't want the boys to feel any tension, any of that uptight rigour that can manifest on a film set. It was very important for me that it was loose and organic," he says. "They were so willing and so free that it brought that joyful excitement out in everyone. These young boys were up for anything, they were phenomenal and I am so proud of their work."

Both the book and the film remind us that the business of growing up – in or out of the surf – never ends. And that those like Sando, Loonie and Eva, who stay stuck in the past, unable move on to the next phase of life, risk bitterness or self-destruction.

As his directorial debut, the making of Breath was itself a rite of passage for Baker. While he has directed episodes of the television drama series, The Mentalist – in which he starred and for which he is best known as an actor – Breath is his first feature film. "I'm almost 50 and I'd be lying if I didn't say I'm probably somewhere in the midst of a midlife crisis," he says. "I'm grateful to have had something to channel it into."

Just as Breath explores the way the main characters deal with their fears and insecurities, Baker found himself wrestling with self-doubt while making the film. A friend who is an artist urged him not to shut it off, comparing it to meditation where you acknowledge your thoughts and feelings but don't let them take over. "You invite fear on the journey with you. You just don't let it choose the music."

Breath opens on May 3. Fiona Capp is the author of seven books including a memoir That Oceanic Feeling: A Surfer's View of the World and the novel Night Surfing.

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