Surprise award for director of note

Top score ... Bruce Beresford receives the Screen Music Award in Melbourne.
Top score ... Bruce Beresford receives the Screen Music Award in Melbourne.
Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy in <em>Driving Miss Daisy</em>.

Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy.

Opera Australia's production of <em>Die Tote Stadt</em>.

Opera Australia's production of Die Tote Stadt.

Think of Bruce Beresford's most successful film, Driving Miss Daisy, and the first thing likely to pop into your head is the music that accompanies Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman as they tootle along.

That synthesised clarinet earworm is synonymous with the film and it was Beresford who enlisted popular composer Hans Zimmer to write the score.

While he is best known as a director, Beresford's relationship with music is long-standing and goes well beyond filmmaking to directing a number of operas.

Yet the Academy Award-winning director was as surprised as anyone to receive the international achievement award at the 2012 Screen Music Awards in Melbourne last week, the first time it has been bestowed on someone other than a composer.

''I'm completely baffled by it,'' he says. ''I felt like a bit of a fraud. You're sitting there with all these musicians and that fabulous orchestra and they're playing all that music so fantastically.

''I'm somewhat in awe of musicians. It's magic to me. I think they can look at all those funny little squiggles on the staves and then they play these tunes from it. How do they do that?''

While Beresford may seem perplexed at the accolade, the Australasian Performing Right Association board feels it's entirely justified. Writer, director and board member Nigel Westlake describes Beresford as a ''rare director for whom music really is a priority in a production''.

''He has a remarkable ability to know when to use it and when not to.''

For Beresford, the process of finding the perfect music for a film starts during the editing.

''I generally have a reasonably firm idea of the sort of music I want in a film, and where I want to put it,'' he says. ''A lot of films these days, they use music far too much. They put it in at the start of a film and it goes all the way through; it drives you mad.''

Beresford had to battle the film studio to use Zimmer's score for Driving Miss Daisy, after it was suggested by the producer's wife, Lili Zanuck.

''It was [Zimmer's] first American film,'' Beresford says. ''We went to the studio and said, 'We want to use this guy', and they threw a pink fit and said, 'We don't want him'. And Lili was a tiger and she said: 'No, bugger you, we're going to use him'.

''When they heard it on the film they wanted to take it off and replace it; they hated it.

''And of course the irony was the music was enormously popular. It helped a lot, I think, with the success of the film.''

The studio would not pay for the score to be recorded with an orchestra, much to Zimmer's disappointment. ''It went out with a synthesised score and I was never happy about that,'' Beresford says.

Tightened budgets make it increasingly difficult to use Australian composers in films produced overseas but he is keen to champion local talent where he can.

He is off to the US in a few weeks to start filming a miniseries on Bonnie and Clyde, and is finishing a script for another film to be shot in South Africa, based on the true story of a Jewish man who rescued orphans whose parents had been murdered in pogroms in Ukraine in 1921.

Beresford fondly recalls working with the celebrated French composer Georges Delerue, who wrote the score for Crimes of the Heart in 1986 and Black Robe, Beresford's 1991 Canadian epic.

''He was always wonderful.He had great range, from dramatic scores to comedies, and it was always complex and beautifully orchestrated,'' Beresford says of the late composer.

The music for Black Robe was recorded in Sydney with the Sydney Philharmonia Choir and ''a bunch of scratch players''. ''George was extremely happy with the quality of the playing and the choir,'' Beresford says.

Beresford has also directed opera productions of Sweeney Todd, The Crucible and Rigoletto. His most recent was this year's well-received Die Tote Stadt at the Sydney Opera House.

''The first opera I directed was in 1986. I think I've done eight or nine, but you've got to fit them in between film jobs. It's not always that easy.''

This story Surprise award for director of note first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.