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MOVIES : Storyteller to the World : Director Bruce Beresford will go anywhere to make a film, including Africa for ‘Mr. Johnson,’ a tale of the colonial era

<i> Sean Mitchell is a frequent contributor to Calendar. </i>

One year ago at this time, as Oscar night approached, the mention of Bruce Beresford’s name touched off some major muttering in film circles. Beresford, an Australian with a growing Hollywood portfolio, was the director of “Driving Miss Daisy,” nominated for nine Academy Awards. It went on to win four, including best picture. Yet in what was a small embarrassment, Beresford didn’t even make the list of nominees for best director supplied by the Academy’s director’s branch.

Was there a message in this? Didn’t other directors like him? Was one Australian on the ballot (Peter Weir for “Dead Poet’s Society”) considered enough? What was the problem?

Beresford wasn’t in town during the six-week Oscar watch last spring, and his own speculation on these matters went unrecorded. But back in Los Angeles the other day, during a pit stop between Australia and France, he was asked for his thoughts.

“I don’t think anybody knew where I was,” he said, referring to last year when the nominations were announced. He was, in fact, in Nigeria, shooting “Mister Johnson,” the adaptation of Joyce Cary’s 1939 tragi-comic novel with a British colonial backdrop that is just now reaching the screen. The film opened in Los Angeles on Friday.

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Jet-lagged but in good humor during an early morning meeting, the director made light of the Oscar slight for “Miss Daisy” and said it hadn’t phased him.

“No, not really. It’s not the sort of thing that ever worries me. It doesn’t mean anything one way or the other. See, I got nominated before when I didn’t really expect to, for ‘Tender Mercies,’ and for the ‘Breaker Morant’ screenplay. This time, I don’t know, it was just one of those whims.”

A leading member of the Australian New Wave of filmmakers who put the island continent on the map culturally in the mid-1970s, Beresford made his first big impression in America with “Breaker Morant,” the astringent 1980 picture about the scapegoating of three Australian soldiers by the British high command during the Boer War in South Africa. He had already directed “Don’s Party” and “The Club,” two highly regarded adaptations of plays by his countryman David Williamson that were not widely seen in the United States, as well as the coming-of-age story “The Getting of Wisdom.”

After seeing “Breaker Morant,” American writer Horton Foote sent a script to Beresford in Australia about a broken-down country singer seeking redemption, set in Texas with the possibility of Robert Duvall starring. “Tender Mercies,” released in the United States by Universal, went on to become a sleeper hit in 1983, Duvall won the Oscar for best actor, Foote for best original screenplay and Beresford picked up a best director nomination.

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The success of “Tender Mercies” led to such mixed Hollywood assignments as “King David,” “Crimes of the Heart,” “Driving Miss Daisy” and, almost, “Total Recall.” Beresford worked for 1 1/2 years preparing to shoot “Total Recall” for mogul Dino De Laurentiis before Laurentiis’ company went belly up. The project eventually moved into the hands of Dutch director Paul Verhoeven and became another box office smash for Arnold Schwarzenegger. Which at least partly explains how Beresford came to direct the empty-headed 1989 Tom Selleck comedy “Her Alibi,” a movie many thought was as suited to his abilities as a tour with Tony Orlando.

Beresford groaned at the mention of the title.

“It wasn’t the money really,” he said, offering his rationale. “I was so depressed (about ‘Total Recall’) that I came over here and read this comedy script and it made me laugh. But overall, it wasn’t my style.”

His in-laws, nevertheless, loved “Her Alibi.” “Listen, all my relatives in Australia think it’s the best film I’ve ever done. They think my films are incredibly obscure and strange. ‘Her Alibi’ is the only film of mine they’ve ever bothered talking to me about.”

“Mister Johnson,” his new picture, is likely to render them mute once again.

Set in British West Africa in the early 1920s, the film is the story of a strained relationship between a young civil service officer (played by “Remington Steele’s” Pierce Brosnan) and his chief clerk, the Mr. Johnson of the title, a young African of tribal background (Maynard Eziashi) whose aspirations to be like the English have tragic consequences. Edward Woodward, the man who was Breaker Morant before he was The Equalizer, has a supporting role as a British shopkeeper who befriends Johnson.

It’s an understated period piece, long on nuance and short on action. If this sounds like a return to the colonial terrain of “Breaker Morant,” it is and it isn’t. Where “Breaker Morant” was a portrait of British realpolitik at its most cold-blooded, “Mr. Johnson” mostly shows the brighter side of colonialism, with Brosnan cast as an enlightened regional governor overseeing the building of a 100-mile road that will connect a remote Nigerian village to a main highway. The road project is discouraged by his bosses in the Empire but abetted by the insouciant and resourceful Mr. Johnson.

“He’s quite a decent chap,” Beresford said, describing Brosnan’s character. “He’s trying quite hard. That’s by and large what they were like, those British administrators there. There were still a lot of them there when I was working in Nigeria in the ‘60s. They like the Africans.”

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Beresford’s interest in Joyce Cary’s novel dates back more than 20 years to one of his first film jobs, as an editor at a government film unit in Nigeria. Like many Australians with artistic ambitions a generation ago, Beresford left Australia for England in 1962, when he was 21, but after a decade of kicking around London, he applied for a job in Africa he saw advertised in the paper.

“I didn’t even know where Nigeria was and didn’t think I’d get it. But I did. Turned out I was the only applicant.”

While there, he read all the novels he could get his hands on about West Africa, including “Mister Johnson” and five others that Cary wrote based on his experience as a district officer in Borgu, in a remote part of Nigeria.

In the ‘70s Beresford tried to drum up backing for an adaptation of “Mister Johnson” to no avail. John Huston had long been interested in making a movie of the book, but, according to Boston-based producer Michael Fitzgerald, who produced two of Huston’s late films, “Wise Blood” and “Under the Volcano,” “Huston was up against the problem a black leading man posed in Hollywood during much of his career.” Toward the end of his life, Huston was finally hoping to make “Mister Johnson” in association with Fitzgerald when he grew too ill to travel to Africa. When Huston died, Fitzgerald found his way to Beresford.

William Boyd, the Scottish novelist who has had some difficulty thus far marrying his literary humor to the big screen (“Stars and Bars,” “Tune in Tomorrow”), was hired to do the adaptation.

To fill the difficult title role, Beresford went to London and auditioned dozens of African actors until he found 23-year-old Maynard Eziashi, who was born in London to Nigerian parents and had worked on the stage and in British television.

Eziashi plays a young man dazzled by the trappings of British culture but shaped by the tribal customs of his own people. His inability to reconcile the two cultures produces comic results at first, but eventually the young man’s British-fed ambition leads him into petty crime, then violence as the story takes a fateful turn.

The morality of the events on view here is not so clear as it was in “Breaker Morant.”

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“What I liked about it was the absence of hard and fast moral judgments,” Beresford said. “Mr. Johnson is a very complex character, not all good or all bad, but I adore him. I adored him when I read the novel. The passion for life that he had, the compassion he had, the love that he had, it leads him into all sorts of areas that are going to get him into terrible trouble.”

The movie was shot entirely on location in Nigeria for under $7 million. Beresford hired thousands of local extras for the road building scenes, and, for an opening tableau showing the local emir’s grand procession, he simply filmed the real thing.

It was not an easy location, he said, because Nigeria is broke and drought-ridden. “There is tremendous corruption and no tourist trade.” For scenes requiring rain, the local fire brigade was called into action. “But I don’t know where the water came from. It was fairly suspicious water. I kept saying to everyone, ‘Just let it fall on your head but don’t breathe it in.’ I think it was probably from the sewer.”

If a story about building a road in West Africa in the 1920s is not the sort of thing to get many of today’s studio executives excited, Beresford takes this in stride. “A lot of the things I want to do, the big studios are not interested in,” he said calmly. (“Mister Johnson” is being released by Avenue Pictures, the small company that distributed “Drugstore Cowboy.”)

“One of the things I’ve always liked about making films is that you can bring areas of the world and people to the screen that you don’t know or see that much. I always loved reading geography and history books about obscure corners of the world and learning what people did there. In my next film (an adaptation of Brian Moore’s historical novel ‘Black Robe’), I go to Canada and there’s this priest from France in 1630 working among the Indians. I mean it’s amazing to think what people did and how they lived and what their lives were like. It depresses me a lot when I’m in Los Angeles and everybody says to me, ‘Can’t you make a film about teen-age life in America?’ And I think, aaggghh, not another one!

“In fact I did do some films about teen-agers (‘Puberty Blues’ and ‘The Getting of Wisdom’), but sometimes the pressure you’re under to make exactly the same kind of film everybody else is making is fantastic.”

Beresford’s two most important Hollywood credits, “Tender Mercies” and “Driving Miss Daisy,” he said, were screenplays he was widely discouraged from taking on. “It’s always the same. The minute you get a script and read it and think, this is absolutely one of the best screenplays I’ve ever read, then people start saying, ‘Bruce, this is a (expletive) screenplay.’ ‘Tender Mercies’ and ‘Miss Daisy’ (written by Alfred Uhry) were the two most denigrated scripts I ever started working on.

“The number of people who assured me there was no audience for ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ was fantastic. It was, like, everybody--except (producer Richard) Zanuck. He kept saying, ‘I don’t care what they say, it will be a popular film. They’re all wrong, all of them.’ And he was right. And everybody went nuts. It’s just better for me to do what I really want to do.”

Beresford’s best films have been about life-sized human beings, politically aware and attentive to language. If he has a style it seems to lie in the service of these values. (One can’t help but wonder what he would have done with “Total Recall.”)

He is a congenial man, with a large, open face and an easy laugh. In the wake of his Oscar snub last year, there was some Hollywood gossip that he wasn’t good with actors.

“I used to hear that gossip about John Huston,” said Michael Fitzgerald. “That he wasn’t good with actors. And it’s nonsense. It’s clear from the work Bruce has done that he knows what he’s doing. I can tell you that Edward Woodward, who is a great actor, would do anything for Bruce. He certainly didn’t take this film for the money I was able to offer him.”

Pierce Brosnan had this to say about Beresford: “As an actor I trusted him. He’s someone who knows how to tell a story, someone whose eyes and ears pick up false notes in a performance. So many times you go into a piece and you’re left to your own devices. I hadn’t heard an awful lot about him, but having seen his movies you could feel the spirit of the man.

“There’s no grandstanding with him. He creates a wonderful mood. He doesn’t come with all the answers. He isn’t giving you all the moves, which can be very restrictive. There is real collaboration.”

Does Beresford himself think directors are ever overrated in their importance?

“Some are overrated, I suppose. Some are underrated. I think with nearly any director from anywhere in the world, if you put a bit of their film on that I hadn’t seen, I could tell you within a few shots who directed it. A director has a way of seeing things.”

Still, there are directors, he believes, who “have no attitude toward the material. A lot of people make films because they like making films. They don’t have any particular feelings about the world or about characters. And they don’t have any particular attitudes. You make movies because you want to say something about somebody or some place or something. It’s not the actual technique of the movie that’s interesting. I get irritated by films that are just patched together like a quilt. I get angry or fall asleep.”

Beresford is a citizen of the world these days, with homes in Sydney, Los Angeles and London. Often he can be found in none of them, but instead on location somewhere. Most recently he was in Canada and France filming “Black Robe,” a joint Canadian-Australian production that does not yet have an American distributor.

Until he went home to Sydney last Christmas, he said he hadn’t been in Australia for four years. His ties to the country of his birth are not the strongest. “By the time I was 21 and left Australia, I thought I’d had enough of it really. But when I was growing up in Sydney it was much more boring than it is now.

“When I was growing up everybody wanted to pretend they weren’t Australians. They all wanted to be English, some of them wanted to be Americans. Now, it’s changed. There’s been a huge wave of nationalism. You see people around Sydney wearing ‘Crocodile’ Dundee hats. It’s sort of comical.”

The burst of nationalism was touched off in part by the new wave of Australian films a decade ago made possible by government subsidies and generous tax incentives--a wave that has flattened out since those programs were discontinued because of abuses and what Beresford believes is government shortsightedness.

“When I used to come to America and Europe and said I was from Australia, people used to think it was Austria. They used to say to me, ‘You speak English very well.’ And I’d say, ‘Why wouldn’t I?’ And they’d say, ‘Because you speak German.’ And I’d say, ‘No, no. I don’t speak German. I’m from Australia , not Austria.

“But once all these films went around the world, not only did the perception of the country change, but people sort of took note of it. The tourist industry went from nothing to being the second biggest dollar earner in the entire country. I don’t think (the government) realized what an impact these films had. But you try to convince a politician of that.”


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