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It was the authenticity of their story that attracted Bruce Beresford to direct another screen version of Bonnie and Clyde, he tells Andrew L. Urban; the 4 hour miniseries is screening as a special event on the big screen this week at the Noosa Arts Festival (18 – 27 July, 2014).

They were young and wild (23 & 24) and they killed 14 people; the true story of Bonnie and Clyde’s outlawing, bank robbing exploits in the 1930s has never been told with any accuracy: “How do you retain sympathy for them … they went around shooting people,” was a big challenge for Aussie director Bruce Beresford, who was only attracted to make the 2 x 2 hour mini series by its veracity.

The creative challenge aside, Beresford also had the logistical challenge to manage the tight budget and fixed schedule. But on schedule it was, and went to air in two x 2 hour parts in December 2013 on the Lifetime and History Channels in the US, prior to its Australian screening on Foxtel’s SoHo Channel earlier this year (2014).

The biggest action scene, the couple’s most famous escape, takes place in a motel, when they are surrounded by police. “There are six police vehicles, including a a World War 1 armoured car with a machine gun mounted on top … which we recreated,” says Beresford. After some preliminary fighting, the police give Bonnie and Clyde a 60 second ultimatum, “after which they would open fire with the machine gun and blast them out.”

To get this scene shot, as it were, the motel set was built and rigged with explosives that would eventually tear the place apart. It also required interior shots of the actors and their escape. “I wanted five nights to shoot this scene … but I was only given one and a half,” he laughs. The only way this could be done, Beresford felt, was to meticulously storyboard every shot. 

The motel set was one of only three sets specially built for the movie, all shot in Louisianna, where the actual events took place. The other two sets were the interior of a police station and a newspaper office. “It all took place nearly a hundred years ago,” Beresford points out, “and the place looks nothing like it did then – but we did get lucky and found St Francisville, about 30 kms from Baton Rouge, which has been restored by the National Trust and looks great.” 

St Francisville was established in 1809 and a number of historic structures from that period still exist. Called the town "two miles long and two yards wide" because it was developed atop a narrow ridge overlooking the Mississippi River, it was the commercial and cultural centre of the surrounding plantation country.

As he wraps post production at the Sony editing facilities (by mid September), Beresford says he was especially grateful to have “a very resourceful Irish American cameraman in Francis Kenny” to capture the images.

Not surprisingly, given that it is a production for the Lifetime and History channels, the screenplay is thoroughly researched and paints a more accurate and realistic picture of the young bank robbers than previous versions. That’s the point of difference between all previous versions and this one, says Beresford, and that’s exactly what convinced him to take it on. “I got the script sent to me by my agent but I didn’t even read it. I wasn’t that interested; it’s been done a few times before so why do another version? What could I bring to it. But then my agent urged me to read it so I did – and I really liked it. It’s so well researched … there were quite a few books written about them, including one by Clyde’s mother, and this all comes through in the script.”

“When Bruce’s name was suggested by our executive producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, we didn’t think he’d do the film, actually!” says Arturo Interian, Vice President, Original Movies, Lifetime Networks/A&E Television Networks.

“Bruce had done huge features, Academy-Award winners, and we knew him to be a visionary director and an incredible storyteller. We knew we wanted this mini-series to feel like a feature film in its scope and execution, and we knew Bruce could deliver that in spades. But could he handle the aggressive TV filming schedule required after doing features his whole career? To Bruce’s credit,” says Interian, “he embraced the shorter shooting schedule. He storyboarded the entire film so he knew what shots he needed to have, and literally rolled 3 cameras at once to get the coverage he needed.” 

On May 23, 1934 Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were finally killed by four Texas Rangers in a hail of bullets, bringing their two year crime spree to an end. 

Beresford feels a bit sorry for Bonnie And Clyde: “It’s a sad story of these kids drifting into that way of life. Bonnie wanted to be a movie star and kept sending photos of herself to Hollywood – and kept getting rejected. Clyde was just a farm hand. They were only 24 when they died.”

To play the central characters, Beresford held a series of auditions; “They let me do the casting which is unusual for television. And everybody that I wanted they approved,” he adds with a note of pleasant surprise. For Clyde, Beresford wanted Los Angeles actor Emile Hirsch, a boyish looking 28 year old, who first impressed as Chris McCandless, the uni student who abandons his possessions and hitchhikes to the Alaskan wilderness, in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild (2007). 

For Bonnie, Beresford hadn’t found anyone locally when he received an audition tape from Holliday Granger in London. He was sold. “I didn’t think the producers would be too keen on an English actress, but they looked at her tape and agreed with me.”

Among Granger’s other roles, the 24 year old English redhead had played Estella in Mike Newell’s Great Expectations (2012) and the Baroness in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina (2012).

Bonnie’s mother Emma is played by Holly Hunter (of The Piano and Top of the Lake fame) and Clyde’s sister in law Blanche (one of the Barrow Gang with her brother Buck) by Sarah Hyland, who spent the last four years playing Haley in the TV series, Modern Family.

For Frank Hamer, the famed Texas Ranger who made his name as the one who tracked them down and ended the Bonnie And Clyde spree, Beresford chose high class veteran actor William Hurt. Hamer fought in nearly 100 gunfights during his career as a lawman in the Southwest and is reputed to have killed fifty-three men. He was also wounded in action 17 times and left for dead four times.

With all the historical detail woven into the film, Beresford says it has the essence of a noir thriller – with plenty of action. 

Published July 19, 2014

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Bruce Beresford

Bonnie and Clyde

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