Timing and Talent: The Secrets Behind The Sapphires’ Success, with Director Wayne Blair

Wayne Blair, director of THE SAPPHIRES

Wayne Blair, director of  The Sapphires, is buzzing with excitement the morning after the film’s Australian premiere at the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival.

We meet in the lobby of the Sofitel Hotel, which is swarming with friends, relatives and crew from the film. Screenwriter Tony Briggs (whose own family history forms the basis of the story of an Aboriginal singing group who toured Vietnam in 1968) strolls past smiling, and there are wives carrying babies and kids milling in the the lounge area. It’s enough to make you want to be part of the family, which in a way, is a key to the film’s special charm.

An opening night to remember…

“It was such a special night, wasn’t it?” says Blair, who is now cheerfully battling a cold. “I couldn’t have asked for anything more. It was also a bit like a reunion! We had  the four lead actresses here – Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens and Miranda Tapsell – the two writers [Keith Thompson and Tony Briggs]; Warwick Thornton, the cinematographer; Tess Schofield, the costume designer; the producers; and the four aunties whose story inspired the film.”

It certainly was a great night. As the festival’s opening night film, The Sapphires screened simultaneously in six packed cinemas. The feel-good story, with its spine-tingling Soul Music soundtrack, was followed by a huge party, with one of the film’s lead actresses, the golden voiced Jessica Mauboy, taking to the stage for an energetic live performance. The vibe in the room was ebullient, the general consensus being that The Sapphires is that magical much-longed-for creature: the quality Australian film with mass audience appeal.

“I was watching the film last night,” says Blair, “and I walked around between the six cinemas to see the audience reaction. It was great to be there and think, ‘yeah, it’s working!'”

A long journey, a tight budget and steep learning curve

It’s been a long journey for Blair, who is already an established stage and screen actor, writer and award-winning director of television and short films, including The Djarn Djarns, winner of the prestigious Crystal Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival in 2005. (He was also nominated for an AFI Award for Best Screenplay in a Short Film for that project.) The Sapphires, however, is his feature film directorial debut.

“Tony [Briggs] approached me in about 2006 and said he was looking to make the stage musical into a film and wanted me to direct it,” says Blair. “But it was in the last three years that it really gained momentum. Three years ago, in Cannes, we got the money to make it, but then twelve months after that we lost the money from around the world. Then we got the money again in the space of about a week, and there was some real interest, and people were available to do it. We shot the film this time last year [2011] with a really tight budget of about AU$9.3 million. We had to shoot it in about six weeks. We had the money, we had the schedule, and the time was right.”

Partly shot in Vietnam (as well in Sydney and in Albury in country NSW), and with the added expense of recreating period costume and sets, meant that the budget and the schedule were very tight indeed. “We had to be very detailed and prepared to complete the film in those dates,” says Blair. “Of course every filmmaker wishes they had more time, but that was was we had to work with, and Warwick [Thornton] and myself and our first Assistant Director, Thomas Read, developed a kind of rhythm in terms of what we completed each day.”

Other challenges for the filmmaker included getting the sound right, particularly for a story with a musical focus. “Our Sound Designer Ben Osmo was unbelievable with the tight schedule. When you have five actors every day that you have to shoot and mic up, and have their voices as well as a piano thrown in, it’s all very complicated. Not just the playing and singing, but having the songs start and stop. It’s all those little nuances. We had Bry Jones as Music Producer and Cezary Skubiszewski doing the score. I feel very lucky to have had those three men available.”

Blair admits the learning curve while making The Sapphires was steep. “It was a huge task! Making a period film, with choreography, soul music, five actors every day – and three of the girls had very little acting experience – that was challenging. But now I  feel like I could walk on to a film set now with so much more confidence. I have learnt so much. Retained it as well. I just joke about how we fluked the film, but it was actually hard work and a lot of planning and good management.”

Cinematography – the quest for ‘a gorgeous feel’

There’s no doubt that having Warwick Thornton on board as Director of Photography was a boon for The Sapphires. The multi AFI Award-winning Indigenous director and cinematographer of Samson & Delilah (2009) had valuable experience to share and was a key contributor to the look and feel of the film.

“We wanted The Sapphires to look cinematic and we shot on 35mm,” says Blair. “It’s funny, people last night were saying to me: ‘That’s the last time you’re going to shoot on film’. And I asked Warwick about it – because we’re talking about a couple of other projects we want to do – and he said: ‘Ah, no, we’ll still shoot on film!'”

Director Wayne Blair (left) and cinematographer Warwick Thornton on the set of THE SAPPHIRES

“We wanted to make the film beautiful,” adds Blair. “We wanted to make Cummeraganja – the place which is the girls’ home – look like a home that you would love to go to. That’s how Cummeraganja was, and is today. Our resonating films were films like The Colour Purple, which has this farm on the outskirts of a plantation of the deep south, with colours that are just so rich – the reds and the purples and the oranges. Also, we wanted to show Vietnam. You’ve seen Vietnam through the eyes of American movies all the time, but you haven’t seen Vietnam through the eyes of these four Koori girls from country Victoria, in their reds and their oranges and their greens. We didn’t just want to make it pretty, but we wanted the colours to pop, to give the whole thing a gorgeous feel.”

L-R: Deborah Mailman, Miranda Tapsell, Jessica Mauboy & Shari Sebbens in THE SAPPHIRES.

The Irish Ingredient

Another coup for the film was the casting of roguish Irish actor Chris O’Dowd (The IT Crowd, Bridesmaids) in the role of Dave Lovelace, the failed musician who discovers the girls in a country town pub talent contest and becomes their manager.

“In the stage show Dave Lovelace was an Australian, but for the film we made him Irish,” says Blair. “And seeing how well it works, with all those Irish sensibilities coming into play, you just think, ‘Ah, he should have always been Irish!'”

As the only internationally recognised star in the film, O’Dowd was a key drawcard for The Sapphires in Cannes, when it had its world premiere to a standing ovation in May, boosted by the news that Harvey Weinstein had picked it up for international distribution. Blair remembers O’Dowd’s comments on the red carpet. “He said, Wayne, I’ve done work with many directors and many big films and I never thought this small Australian film I did in country Victoria would be at the Cannes Film Festival.’ He sort of jokes about how he only came to do it because he wanted to come and visit his sister, who lives in Melbourne, but he was great. While he was here, he had to go to L.A. a couple of time to shoot other things, so we only had him for three or four weeks of the shoot. We definitely worked him while we had him!”

Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd, left) and Gail (Deborah Mailman) in a scene from THE SAPPHIRES.

Some joy and some love, and a chance to feel human again…

The Sapphires touches lightly on a number of issues surrounding the history and treatment of Indigenous Australians. There is reference to the Stolen Generation’ and to the problems of being ‘half-caste’ and the inherent racism of 1960s Australia. But the fact that the story is predominantly a happy one – featuring a loving and intact family, beautiful music and an upbeat ending, has brought it in for criticisms of ‘glossing over reality’.

Such quibbles are mildly annoying to Blair. “It’s weird. You can’t please everybody. There has been that kind of feedback, and that’s OK. But this is the film we wanted to make.” He continues. “There are films like Ivan Sen’s Toomelah and Warwick Thornton’s Samson & Delilah, but why not this kind of film too? Look at the world today, the war in Syria and everything else that’s happening. Aboriginal people in Australia need some joy and some love and the chance to feel human again. With my people, comedy is the best form of healing. We wanted to make some positive role models, positive change, rather than negative stereotypes we see all the time. There are lots of different representations – like Warwick’s, and Ivan’s and Rachel Perkins’ Bran Nue Dae. With a film like this we can’t change the world in the way governments and laws can, but we can make a difference.”

According to Blair, the intention right from the outset was to make a film that was entertaining and sent people out of the cinema feeling happy. “We wanted to make a film like other films that make you shed a little tear, or make you want to fall in love, or want to ring your mum and say ‘I love you’, or go home and put some music on and dance. We didn’t want to make a film that made you feel like going into a dark house to have a cry and be by yourself for three weeks.”

Blair’s ambitions for the film see it reaching far beyond the inner-suburban arthouse cinemas. “The people that say ‘oh it glosses over this or that’ – they’re the half a per cent of people who watch film for a living, I suppose. But I want a packed cinema in Port Hedland, or a packed cinema in Gawler, South Australia, or Renmark, or Mt Isa. The people who watch the Olympics, or one-day cricket matches. I want people to go to the cinema again on a regular basis. Hopefully The Sapphires will be not only a continuation for Indigenous filmmakers, but also open it up for Australian filmmakers as a whole, because a film like this, out of 110 territories in the world, it’s going to go to 110. For a small Australian film with Indigenous content, we’re representing you, me, the people that are sitting over there. That feels quite nice!”

Does Blair feel he is part of a group, a movement, a family of Indigenous filmmakers who are making work together and creating a new reality? “Absolutely!” He exclaims. “United we stand, divided we fall. There’s this platform now, and more Indigenous stories are being told like Mabo and Richard Frankland’s Stone Bros., and the ABC series that I’ve been working on, Redfern Now.”

At the same time, Blair is careful not to get too excited, especially about the lack of Indigenous faces in mainstream media. “I think we’re a little bit stuck. It’s progressing, ever so slowly, but it’s nothing to celebrate just yet. Everyone goes ‘it’s a Renaissance!’ but we’re kind of doing it ourselves, and you need that support from people who have money.”

If he could fantasise about an ideal Australian film industry five years into the future, what would it look like? Blair laughs and says he’d love to see “something like getting Jess Mauboy and Shari Sebbens in a David Michôd film, or a film directed by Joel Edgerton. More black faces on the screen!”

He’d also like to see the dream run at Cannes continue. “The last three years we’ve had Samson & Delilah, Toomelah and The Sapphires at Cannes. It would be great to get another Australian film at Cannes with an Indigenous flavour.”

And then there are the budgets. A man can dream. “Sometimes you feel like people set you up to fail with the budgets,” he says. “I think it would be great to have an Indigenous film that had something like 30 million dollars or 40 million. Mao’s Last Dancer had 20 million… It would be great for non Indigenous filmmakers to cast Aboriginal actors in key roles, and also for Indigenous filmmakers to have budgets of 20 or 30 million a year, and a couple of those kind of films a year. Yeah, that’s what I’d like!”

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Fast Facts – The Sapphires

Key Cast: Chris O’Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens, Miranda Tapsell
Director: Wayne Blair
Producers: Rosemary Blight & Kylie Du Fresne | Goalpost Pictures
Screenplay: Keith Thompson & Tony Briggs
Director of Photography: Warwick Thornton
Editor: Dany Cooper
Production Designer: Melinda Doring
Costume Designer: Tess Schofield
Hair & Makeup Designer: Nikki Gooley
Music Producer: Bry Jones
Composer: Cezary Skubiszewski
Choreographer: Stephen Page
Australian Distributor: Hopscotch Films
International Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Budget: Approx AU$9.3 million
Facebook page
Twitter: @SapphiresFilm

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Why I Adore… Tony Martin

On July 18th a very special anniversary came and went – special, that is, to virtually no one but a small, insular group of super-fans (some might say nerds) with an interest in an influential but ageing gem of Australian TV.

It was the 20th anniversary of July 18th, 1992, the Saturday night on which The Late Show first aired live on the ABC, a cause for celebration, reflection and appreciation for a show still well-remembered by its fans long after it finished playing on television.

For me, the anniversary was an opportunity to reflect on not just the show, which I discovered relatively late in life, but one of its writer/performers in particular: the incomparable Tony Martin, who is entering his fourth decade entertaining and influencing Australians with his singular blend of high- and low-brow comedy in stand-up, television, radio, literature, feature film, and now even web video.

Tony Martin posing with a list of radio executives who will still take his calls.

I could go on all day about his legendary radio show Get This or his two books, but for this remembrance I want to focus on two of his most high-profile credits: The Late Show, through which most Australians first became familiar with him, and his 2003 “low budget cop movie”, Bad Eggs.

On that date back in 1992 I was seven years old, and though my older brothers would religiously watch The Late Show it never occurred to me to join them and find out exactly what they were on about when they would discuss such strange concepts as “Bargearse” or “Pissweak World” (which they compared, with some accuracy, to the eastern suburbs institution and source of much of my childhood disappointment, Wobbies World – home of the world’s slowest monorail).

A lot of the humour would have gone way over my head, of course, but now as a 27-year-old who believes Tony Martin to be Australia’s greatest comedy writer, I can’t help but think that if only I’d stayed up on just one Saturday night in 1992, I could have enjoyed two decades of Martin’s work as he was creating it rather than attempting to go back and piece it together after the fact – a task made possible (but not easy) with the aid of YouTube and an active culture of fans recording his work.

“Influential” is certainly an understatement when used to describe The Late Show and the team responsible for it. The D-Generation were a new breed of young, irreverent and disrespectful Australian comedians and theatre performers who assembled, Thunderbirds-style, in the 1980s and with acts like the Doug Anthony All Stars ushered in the demise of the relatively safe, prosaic Australian comedy that was dominant through the 1970s and (with a few exceptions) had scarcely developed since the end of World War II.

The Late Show, by contrast, was anything but safe. Absurdism, topical satire, slapstick, political humour and fart jokes would sit side-by-side, the show blending sharply-edited, high-quality pre-recorded sketches with live, in-studio pieces which could, and often would, go entirely off the rails and cause at least one performer to corpse (a delightful term derived from the theatre meaning to break character, such as to laugh during a scene).

While his quick wit, experience with stand-up comedy and rapport with Mick Molloy saw him introduce each episode and act as a sort of M.C. between sketches, the pre-recorded skits are where Martin’s talents really shone.

Apart from maybe Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant there are few writers in the world more willing than Tony Martin to actively hide their own jokes in a scene.

Sketches gave Martin an avenue to showcase his ability to work in a range of styles and with a range of topics, equally brilliant whether expressed as short, single-idea sketches or elaborate, high-concept sequences stretching over 10 minutes. He would often throw oblique references to art or pop culture into his work which, while not significant enough to spoil a sketch if you didn’t understand the reference, would make it that much funnier if you did.

One of my favourite examples of this is in “The Last Aussie Auteur”, a spoof of one or more stereotypically tawdry Australian film producers of the 1970s and 80s, personified by Warren Perso:

Hidden in the background of the sketch, barely catching seconds of visibility, hang posters for two of Perso’s films: Evil Angels 2: Lindy’s Revenge (tagline: “DINGOS BEWARE, SHE’S BACK – AND SHE’S MAD AS HELL!”), and Wuthering Heights Down Under.

These jokes aren’t central to the sketch in any way, but the fact that Martin surreptitiously placed these two posters into Perso’s office for those who happen to notice them (and understand the comment they make on the Australian film industry’s colourful history), says a lot about how much work he puts into a joke regardless of how many people would be expected to see or even understand it.

For most people those two jokes would fly entirely under the radar, but for someone that does catch them, that feeling of being “in on the joke” improves the scene immensely. Apart from maybe Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant there are few writers in the world more willing to actively hide their own jokes in a scene, forcing people to work hard to get maximum enjoyment out of their work.

Tony Martin… Canberra: Martin as Peter Harvey on The Late Show.

Above all else The Late Show was unpredictable – a quality appreciable even when viewing it for the first time many years after it first aired, as I had to do.

It was made in an era before entrenched home video, never meant to be viewed 20 years later, and certainly not viewed for the first time 20 years later. But it’s a testament to the strength of the show’s writing and the chemistry of its performers that – save for a few references to relics of the 90s like Tanya Blanco – it’s as relatable, hilarious and daring today as it must have been at the time.

The fact that a sizeable portion of Australia’s comedic output over the last 20 years has come from this single group of a dozen or so comedy performers is a testament to both their enduring talent and the risk-averse attitudes that Australian content commissioners have had towards comedy in the years since The Late Show went off the air.

After the show ended, most of its performers and writers split into two major camps, with one (Tom Gleisner, Rob Sitch, Santo Cilauro and Jane Kennedy) forming Working Dog Productions and the other, Tony Martin and Mick Molloy, moving into commercial radio and eventually writing and/or directing films of their own.

Bad Eggs remains a film I desperately defend to my film-snob friends for one reason and one reason only: it’s funny.

While I did spend all of my high school years incessantly quoting The Castle with my small cadre of outcast friends – an easy shorthand by which the school’s female population could discount us as potential suitors – it is Martin’s Bad Eggs to which I continually return and which, if pressed, I would name as my favourite Australian comedy.

Note that I say it’s “my favourite” and not “the best” – an important distinction because, while it is a surprisingly effective comedy-thriller given its budget, on a technical level it clearly doesn’t have the production values of, say, The Dish or Kenny, which are positively slick compared to the slightly rough-around-the-edges Bad Eggs.

Victoria Police entry requirements were a little lax in the early 21st century.

Budgetary constraints are evident from the very first scene, where a long and presumably expensive tracking shot follows a car – its driver passed out from an apparent suicide attempt – rolling down a street and through a busy shopping centre. This impressive extended shot is undone almost immediately when the car crashes into a fountain and what is obviously a plastic mannequin flies through the windshield into a conveniently placed convertible.

The scene is ludicrously over-the-top, but then again, this is a film set in a world in which someone of Mick Molloy’s physique could make it as a “top cop”, so gritty David Simon-esque realism doesn’t seem to have been Martin’s goal.

But what it lacks in budget it certainly makes up for in its alchemical combination of hilarious visual humour; endlessly quotable dialogue; understated, laconic lead performances (especially from Bob Franklin); inventive set pieces (including one of the least-exciting security camera hacks in all of cinema); and a raft of irresistable cameos drawn from Martin’s long career in entertainment.

The result is a film which is justifiably panned for many legitimate reasons (with David Stratton giving it a particularly bad review on The Movie Show), but will remain a film I desperately defend to my film-snob friends for one reason and one reason only: it’s funny.

And that’s what I love about Tony Martin more than anything else: his absolute commitment to “the funny”, deliberately less focused on any factor which doesn’t directly make the sketch or scene more effective comedically.

The shame is that, despite his past successes in a range of creative media, the only time we get to see much of Martin on television these days is when he turns up on a light entertainment panel show, over which he has no control.

He has dipped his toes into the world of online content in collaboration with Wayne Hope and Robyn Butler, but I hope he finds his way to creating more film or television brilliance in the future, if only so that future generations aren’t forced to delve into decades of history or the bowels of the internet to discover the treasure trove that is his body of work.

The 20th anniversary of The Late Show has given me a chance to reflect on how much enjoyment Tony Martin has given me and many like me over his career, and it’s hard to think of anyone who has contributed more to Australian comedy over the past three decades than he has.

It’s a well-worn cliché to note that many of Australia’s favourite film and television performers are, in fact, not Australian, but do any of us really appreciate just how well we’ve done at the expense of our pacific neighbour?

For every Taika Waititi – who has stayed in New Zealand to make two of the sweetest and funniest films of the past 10 years (Eagle vs Shark and Boy) – there’s a handful of John Clarkes, Sam Neills or Jane Campions who crossed the Tasman and saw their adoptive country champion their successes and disavow their failures, as we Australians tend to do.

For me, even accounting for what others describe as “failures”, the New Zealander who has given Australia more successes than any other is Mr. Tony Martin.

Tony Martin can be found on Twitter at @mrtonymartin or on repeats of Spicks and Specks. Scarcely Relevant, an e-book collection of his columns for The Scriveners Fancy is available from Tony Martin Things for $6.00. I particularly recommend “Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Laserdisc Player”, a reminiscence about an ancient device, and “Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy”, which is exactly what it sounds like.

Further Late Show clips that movie fans may enjoy:

About Bradley Dixon: Bradley J. Dixon is a web developer, writer and film lover who has been AFI | AACTA’s web coordinator since early 2012. You can find more of his film writings at his blog Cinema Quest or follow him on Twitter at @bradleyjdixon.

Read Previous ‘Why I Adore’ Posts:

Paul Anthony Nelson (the ‘Why I Adore’ godfather and founder) introduces the concept, and rhapsodises about Mad Max. AFI Membership Administrator Lia McCrae-Moore revisits the lyrical beauty of One Night the Moon and Clem Bastow reminisces about a childhood spent watching the television show Round the Twist. Or you can read Anthony Morris flirting with disaster in his adoration of Romper Stomper, Annie Stevens going bridal with Muriel’s Wedding, or Popzilla bowing down before the altar of literary screen adaptations. More recently, Lia McCrae-Moore showers affection on SBS’s high-octane police thriller, East West 101, Rochelle Simienowicz delves deeply into the ground-breaking television series, Love My Way, and Simon Elschlepp discovers a fondness for stylish and audacious futuristic noir, Dark City. Thomas Caldwell rhapsodises about Richard Lowenstein’s anarchic and playful 1986 film Dogs in Space, John Bailey remembers a strange fascination with Big Brother Up Late, Hila Shachar explains why Cate Shortland’s Somersault moves her so, and James Madden explains how Lantana won him over. Briony Kidd explains why she loves to be horrified by the Australian classic Picnic at Hanging Rock, Glenn Dunks reveals himself to be a Kidmaniac in his celebration of Nicole Kidman, and  David Evan Giles explains how Bliss changed his view of Australia. Most recently, British film critic and sportswriter Scott Jordan Harris defends Aussie soap opera Neighbours.

Contribute: We’re currently looking for more ‘Why I Adore’ articles devoted to Australian film and television. Send a one paragraph summary to editor[at] afi.org.au and we’ll get back to you with more details.

A Sense of Wonder: Julia Leigh talks about Sleeping Beauty

I’m interested in Wonder Cinema. I wanted to make a film where the audience responds with ‘Did I really see that?’ and ‘Did I really hear that?’ and ‘Can such a thing really exist?’. Holding the breath. Eyes wide. A response of intense wonder rather than shock. Cinema as wunderkammer, wonder-room. – Julia Leigh in her Director’s Notes for Sleeping Beauty.

Julia Leigh, writer/director of Sleeping Beauty

Julia Leigh, writer/director of Sleeping Beauty

Who is Julia Leigh? There’s a whole lot of curiosity about this first time Australian director whose debut feature film, Sleeping Beauty, made it into Official Competition at Cannes this year. Add to this the fact that Jane Campion, the Cannes-annointed elder stateswoman of auteur cinema, has supported Sleeping Beauty, adding her ‘Jane Campion presents’ imprimateur to the title. Oh, and then there’s the nudity – lots of it – and the film’s tagline: ‘an erotic fairytale’.

Starring the luminous Emily Browning, Sleeping Beauty tells the story of a young woman who is drawn into a particular kind of prostitution, requiring her to be drugged, unconscious and unclothed in a chamber where she’s visited by elderly admirers. It’s creepy and intriguing; brave and stylish. So who is the writer and director from whose mind this strange story sprang?

Julia Leigh was 29 when her first novel, The Hunter, was published in 1999 to international acclaim, including being named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Her novella Disquiet (2008) won the UK Encore Award and was an LA Times Favourite Book. Then, in 2008 the script for Sleeping Beauty was named on the Hollywood Black List – an annual list of Hollywood’s most liked unproduced screenplays.

Sleeping Beauty key art Australia

So how does a successful novelist turn into a screenwriter and then a director? The answer perhaps lies in the fact that Leigh is uncoventional in a multitude of ways. A qualified lawyer who has never practised, she holds a PhD in English from the University of Adelaide. She’s studied and taught abroad (including a stint as Adjunct Associate Professor at Barnard College, Columbia University). Now 41, Julia Leigh would love to make more films, as well as write more books. But it’s clear she’s an artist working to her own timetable – and one who is choosy about answering questions that attempt to explain her work. As she writes in her Director’s Notes, “It is dangerous for me to explain the meaning of my work. Like gouging out my own eye. Like pinning down the viewer and gouging out their eye.”

Here we chat to Leigh about the move from solitary novel-writing to colloborative filmmaking; about working with her editor Nick Meyers, and the fruitful collaboration with production designer Annie Beauchamp. Leigh also talks about the importance of beauty and of living in the creative “risk zone”.

AFI: Filmmaking is such a collaborative endeavour. Was that something you enjoyed, a change from the more solitary nature of writing a novel or a novella?

Julia Leigh: It’s very interesting shifting between the two, but novelists and filmmakers both need to have something they want to explore. That is the most important thing. They both create complex characters and full detailed worlds, and they both work with the flow of time. In  a way the perceived loneliness of the writer is not so dissimilar, actually, to the situation of the director, because I do feel the director is the only one who holds the whole film in her head. I really did enjoy the collaborative process, however, and the strong relationships you have with the actors, and the heads of department, and the people on set. They’re actually still quite close one-on-one relationships rather than this big group of people that you’re talking to.

Sleeping Beauty 1

Eden Falk, Emily Browning & Rachael Blake in 'Sleeping Beauty'.

AFI: One of the closest and most intense relationships would have to be between the director and the editor, who both shape and create the story together in the cutting room. Can you tell us a bit about how this worked with your editor Nick Meyers?

Julia Leigh: Oh, I had a great editor! I was just so lucky to work with Nick Meyers [whose other credits include The Bank, Balibo, The Boys and Mrs Carey’s Concert]. I hadn’t met him before. I gave him the script to read and we met for a coffee. You know, in those initial meetings with people, for all my head of departments, I tried to gauge how people responded to the script and if the project resonated with them truly.

Jamie Timony and Emily Browning in the lab in 'Sleeping Beauty'.

Jamie Timony and Emily Browning in the lab in 'Sleeping Beauty'.

There is this strange thing, it’s very hard to talk about expressedly, but you know, it’s a person’s energy or vibe and how that comes across when you’re meeting them. So yes, so Nick came on board and one of his roles during the shoot of course was to look at the footage as it comes in each day. We watched the rushes and he spotted what we call pickups. You know, he said: “You might need to go back and shoot this exterior.” And we did, and it’s in the film, so you know, that was one of his jobs there. We didn’t actually have a budget to do an extra day of pickups. So we had to jam them into the existing schedule, so that was pretty tough.

AFI: What was the shooting schedule?

Julia Leigh: We had a 29-day shoot.

AFI: And what was the budget?

Julia Leigh: Ah… I’m not at liberty to discuss the budget. I think that’s something people don’t talk about, you know. It’s just so low-budget or whatever… Yes, so Nick and I went into the edit room for the process of the edit and you know, it’s very strange, it’s a very close working relationship. When you see the film you see we have an unusual shooting style. Scenes are sort of covered in one long shot, which might seem that there were very few editorial choices. Often a film is made where shoot a lot of coverage, which means you shoot that scene in wide and then you go in and you shoot one of the actors all in close-up, and you cover the scene from lots of different angles. Then in the edit you piece it all together and pick and choose from performances and decide where you want to focus on, all those sort of things. But in this case, we actually did not shoot traditional coverage and some people may think that that means there was not a lot of work to do in the edit. But in fact there was and we selected our performances very carefully.

An initiation - Emily Browning and Rachael Blake in 'Sleeping Beauty'.

An initiation - Emily Browning and Rachael Blake in 'Sleeping Beauty'.

AFI: It sounds like having such an experienced editor working on the shoot really helped to keep it within budget.

Julia Leigh: Yes, Nick also had some great suggestions for some sort of secret tricks that we used, that I cannot reveal, that made the film viable. It was a very short script actually, an unusually short script for a feature film. It was something like 67, 68 pages. And I thought that every single scene would be completely essential in such a short script. But in fact, in the edit, we did drop some scenes. So Nick was very helpful in working out what to let go. And in the edit, it’s very, very fine choices that you’re making. You’re working with the flow of the film.

AFI: How important was it for you to be making something that was beautiful to look at?

Julia Leigh: There’s no harm in beauty! [laughs] I really admire women’s beauty, you know. And I love male beauty too… And yes, this film is quite beautiful and I think that marries with the subject matter of the film, so it’s appropriate.

The Sleeping Beauty Chamber

The Sleeping Beauty Chamber

AFI: The film is very beautiful and stylish from a production design point of view too. Can you talk about that?

Julia Leigh: I loved working with our production designer Annie Beauchamp [whose other credits as art director and production designer include Moulin Rouge, Praise and Disgrace].  She was one of my first collaborators to come on board and she just did an amazing job, especially considering our small budget. We went out on location shoots together really early in the process, and pooled images and defined our colour pallette. I really enjoyed that part of things, and I think the look we got was quite amazing.

AFI: There has been some talk about it being difficult to get the film funded and supported officially because of the explicit nature of the material. Was that the case?

Julia Leigh: Look, as far as the funding goes, we got government funding from Screen Australia and Screen NSW. And I do really want to pay tribute to those brave people within those organisations who fought to support the film. I have no idea exactly what went on behind closed doors. But all I know is that it’s a very competitive environment and any film that gets up has to have its internal champions.

Rachael Blake and Peter Carroll negotiate the deal over the sleeping beauty.

Rachael Blake and Peter Carroll negotiate the deal over the sleeping beauty.

AFI: And do you think the film will shock or offend viewers potentially?

Julia Leigh: I don’t really want to address that in this interview. You know, I hope people watch the film with a sense of wonder and I hope the film allows them to use their imaginations.

AFI: You’ve said in the press notes that you’re comfortable ‘being in the risk zone’.

Julia Leigh: Yeah, I’m very comfortable in the risk zone. In fact I like to be in the risk zone. I think in fact with all good projects, you are in the risk zone. If you’re not in the risk zone, there’s probably a problem.

Emily Browning and Ewen Leslie in 'Sleeping Beauty'.

Emily Browning and Ewen Leslie - lonely friends in 'Sleeping Beauty'.

AFI: Did you always imagine that you would be a writer when you were a little girl?

Julia Leigh: I have always been somebody who has been formed by literature. I mean, I was a big reader. Yeah, I think a reading life is part of the writing life. And actually, this thing about this shift from literature to film, it all comes from the one place, which is your sensibility. And your sensibility is formed by so many different things. So I do resist this habit of typecasting people into one medium or another.

AFI: And yet it is quite unusual for a novelist to turn director.

Julia Leigh: That’s true. Actually, there probably aren’t many novelist-filmmakers. I can’t think of any.

AFI: Can you tell us about your involvement with the film adaptation of your novel The Hunter, releasing later this year?

Julia Leigh: Yes, it’s directed by my friend Daniel Nettheim, he’s a director. And I opted not to read the screenplay and I opted not to go to the screening room of the early cuts of the film because I’m waiting for the glorious day when I can just sit down in a cinema with an audience and see it myself as a very surreal personal experience, which will be a great day I think. That film is also coming out later this year. But I did go down and I visited the set in Tasmania and that was wonderful.

AFI: How did Daniel come on board with the project?

Julia Leigh: Dan is actually a really close friend of mine. We edited the student newspaper together in 1989, Honi Soit. There was a close little group of us and that was a great early collaborative experience.

AFI: It’s often mentioned that your script for Sleeping Beauty made the Hollywood Black List. How does that actually happen?

Julia Leigh: I have an agent in America at UTA, Bec Smith, and that’s how that happens.

AFI: That must have been very helpful in getting the film up?

Julia Leigh: I think it was an element. It’s very hard to get a film up, there’s so many important elements and that was probably one of them.

AFI: Best wishes with the film’s release, and thank you for talking with us.

Julia Leigh: Thank you.

Sleeping Beauty is in national release from 23 June, 2011.

To see an interview with Julia Leigh, conducted at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and filmed by Screen Australia, click below.

Production Notes

Sleeping Beauty is written and directed by Julia Leigh, produced by Jessica Brentnall and executive produced by Tim White, Alan Cardy and Jamie Hilton. Distributed by Transmission Films (Aust/NZ). Filmed in Sydney, 2011. Shot in 35mm. 101 min.

Director of Photography: Geoffrey Simpson ACS
Production Designer: Annie Beauchamp
Editor: Nick Meyers ASE
Costume Designer: Shareen Beringer
Composer: Ben Frost
Casting Director: Nikki Barrett
Sound Designer: Sam Petty
Associate Producer: Sasha Burrows

No Short Cuts. A conversation with documentary filmmakers Bob Connolly & Sophie Raymond

 

Sophie Raymond and Bob Connolly

Sophie Raymond and Bob Connolly

A great teacher manages to push students to heights they never imagined possible. This kind of miracle is at the heart of Mrs Carey’s Concert (releasing 28 April), an observational feature length documentary by Bob Connolly and Sophie Raymond.

The main character, the formidable Karen Carey, is the director of music at MLC, a Sydney girls’ school. Every two years, the students perform at a special concert at the Sydney Opera House, where the goal is to have every girl participating, whether she’s timidly singing in the chorus, or performing a virtuosic violin solo. Tension is high, drama abounds, and there’s the odd tantrum – these are teenagers after all. Lives are changed and much beautiful music is made.

The word ‘veteran’ should be used more Mrs Carey's Concert Postersparingly than it is, but Bob Connolly really is a veteran documentary filmmaker. Beginning his career at the ABC, he directed more than 30 documentaries in the 1970s alone. Then, after leaving the ABC, Connolly and his wife and working partner, the late Robin Anderson, worked together to make a number of seminal and award winning feature documentaries, all of which received theatrical release. A number of these were made in the wild highlands of Papua New Guinea, including the Oscar nominated First Contact (1983), Joe Leahy’s Neighbours (1989) and Black Harvest (1992).  All three of these won the AFI Award for Best Documentary. Then there was the fascinating and often hilarious insight into local government in Rats in the Ranks (1996) and the poignant Facing the Music (2001), set in a beleaguered university music department. It was poignant not just because of its expose of the tragedies of economic rationalism, but because it was the last film made by Connolly with Robin Anderson before her untimely death, leaving Connolly to raise their two school-age daughters on his own.

A ten-year break from film directing ensued, yet it was in this period, while focusing on his children’s education, that Connolly found the subjects for his next film – the extraordinary music teacher Mrs Carey, and the adolescent girls in her charge. Mrs Carey’s Concert sees Connolly teaming up with his new partner (in life and work) co-director Sophie Raymond.  Raymond is an animator and singer/songwriter whose previous work includes writing and producing the highly successful short animation It’s Like That (which was nominated for an AFI Award for Best Short Animation in 2004), and as assistant animator on Adam Elliot’s Harvie Krumpet. Raymond’s work on Mrs Carey’s Concert included not only co-directing, but also managing Sound and Editing (along with editors Ray Thomas ASE and Nick Meyers ASE).

Mrs Carey’s Concert premiered in February as the opening night film for the 2011 Bigpond Adelaide Film Festival – a gala event in that included a surprise live performance by the film’s young star violinist Emily Sun. The audience in the Adelaide Festival Centre responded with a standing ovation, and when we caught up with Bob and Sophie the day after, they were still on a high from the film’s rapturous reception.

 AFI: Congratulations on the film’s world premiere. It was a very special opening night, with the surprise performance at the end.

Sophie Raymond: Thank you! Yes. It was kept pretty secret. It was [Adelaide Film Festival director] Katrina Sedgwick’s grand plan, I think, to really get a special occasion, a big grand opening.

Bob Connolly:  She’s got a magic touch, that woman!

Sophie Raymond: Yes, we are very grateful to her, and to the festival, because a lot of the reason we are here is to do with the Adelaide Film Festival Investment Fund. They got behind the film at a crucial stage. We were at the end of the budget really and we needed an injection of help to finish it properly and so we sent it to Katrina and she just completely greenlit it, and that set off the green lights for the rest of our funding bodies.

Sophie Raymond

An accomplished musician and short filmmaker Sophie Raymond co-directed the film as well as doing sound and editing.

AFI: Did this mean that any of the film had to be made in South Australia?

Bob Connolly: Well, there is a requirement that where possible there be some kind of post-production, but in our case it just wasn’t convenient so they were flexible on that.

Sophie Raymond: Obviously the festival tries to encourage that exchange. They encourage works to be made in South Australia, but it’s not restrictive. And that means it becomes a festival that can really represent the work of a nation. And let’s face it, our distances are large but our population isn’t, so there’s this lovely sense that it’s everyone’s festival.

AFI: At what point did the Festival fund come on board?

Sophie Raymond: Oh, we’d fully done a rough cut and we’d gotten it down to 100 minutes. The film was well into the final stages of editing.

Bob Connolly: But we only had funding for a one-hour film.

Sophie Raymond: Originally, we’d marketed it as one hour documentary, but when we saw the cut we realised it really did need to be feature length. The ABC and Screen Australia saw that same cut and said “Well, yeah, we can see that,” but it’s difficult, given their structures, the way they’re organised, for them to just suddenly change it to a feature-length film.  By getting Katrina on board, that obviously ensures that it’s going to have its premiere in Adelaide and various other bonuses, for being associated with the Adelaide Film Festival. And so, when she got on board, then the rest of them were able to then to put in a little extra as well so we could get a fine cut editor in to really polish it up, and do the full 5.1 sound mix that you heard.

AFI: So what kind of budget are we talking about for the film?

Bob Connolly: About $520,000. Which isn’t really very much, not for three years of work. So we didn’t get paid very much, but that’s the deal. We’re distributing this film ourselves, which is a big deal. You take on a huge, huge load. But we’ve got confidence in it.

AFI: Bob, all your previous feature documentaries have been theatrically exhibited?

Bob Connolly: Yep.

AFI: Is that something that’s really important to you? Is that something that you always aim for?

Bob Connolly: Well, there’s a number of levels to this answer. From the filmmaker’s point of view, that’s why I make films, to have people see them. I think an obligation of all documentary filmmakers is the same as any other filmmaker, which is to create something that makes people spellbound in darkness, and you know, laughing and crying, which is what all cinema is really supposed to do. It’s supposed to take you somewhere and make you lose yourself. And the best place to do that is in a cinema, because of the facilities.

Bob Connolly shooting Mrs Carey's Concert

Bob Connolly on observational documentary technique: "You never ever direct the action. You never tell people what to do."

From the commercial point of view, a cinema release guarantees publicity and press and reviews. Serious people write about it, and that’s very important as a means of propelling your television release. So, from the filmmaker’s point of view it’s lovely to have people see it in the cinema, and from the distributor’s point of view it’s great to have it in the cinema. Documentaries do find it hard to make money in the cinema because you don’t get those multiple screens, and we don’t get eight slots a day and there aren’t the marketing budgets, and there’s not a real tradition of people going to the cinema to see documentaries. But I happen to think this one could break the mould, and last night’s reaction confirmed that. It was the best reaction I’ve had to any of my films.  Rats in the Ranks screening at the Wellington Film Festival in ’96 was the second best screening I’ve ever been to, that was wonderful. But this one was special… Because I think it touched a chord in people, you know. I think everyone could relate to it. Someone said to me last night: “Anyone who’s been a teacher or been taught is going to connect with this film.” And of course, that encompasses everybody.

AFI: I suppose one of the ways into the film for me was as a parent of a child at a public school. ‘Privilege’ is the word that comes up a lot in the documentary – these amazing opportunities that these private school children are given. In Australia, we have a complex relationship with that. I imagine there would be a lot of parents looking at the film and thinking,  “Well, I would love for my child to have access to resources like that and to have teachers like that who can really focus on something so specialised and so rarefied as classical music.

Sophie Raymond: Well, the teachers are able to support the kids because they are supported within that school. You’re right though, I think a lot of parents look at the film with those kind of eyes. It is interesting in Australia, because sometimes we don’t like people achieving too much. The whole ‘tall poppy’ thing does exist in its strange way, whereas in this film they’re saying, “just go for it!”

Bob Connolly: But there’s a counter-argument. For example, in Finland, where it’s all public education, they put tremendous resources into classical music education in their schools, because they recognise, “lightbulb, lightbulb”, that it is colossally important in the intellectual, creative and emotional development of children. And so these are choices that education authorities make.

Sophie Raymond: Yes, but in Australia, we do grapple with allowing people to shine in particular ways, in particular with performance and music, which is different to the purely academic arena. Interestingly, the guy at [New York’s] MOMA [Museum of Modern Art], where they’re doing a season of Adelaide investment films, when we asked him “Should we come? Do you think there’s a good audience for this film in New York?” He said “Well yes! Because New Yorkers really love struggle and achievement, and the idea of people really trying to be extraordinary and creating things that are extraordinary.” That was interesting and heartening to hear.

Bob Connolly: The bottom line also is that we were not looking at the divide between private and public schooling. We’re looking at a bunch of kids wrestling with a huge talent. The background to that is the fact that’s it’s an all-girls school; the fact that it’s probably 60% Asian; the fact that when you look at the demographic, a lot of these parents are probably burying themselves to put their kids into a school like that, because they figure it’s really good that they’ve got access to that sort of education, you know. But we made a very conscious decision that we were simply not going to enter that sort of political arena. It was going to be about these kids.

Sophie Raymond: And it was going to be about the music, you know, and what the music does for them. We didn’t want to get too far away from the music at any point, otherwise it becomes a film about something else.

Bob Connolly: And you should remember that this is a very different school. Admittedly it’s a private school, but where it’s placed in Sydney, it’s in the inner west, about 15, 20 kilometres from Sydney. The demographic is Western Suburbs Sydney, and these are very often first generation immigrant families who came here with nothing, who built up a shop or a restaurant or a business of some sort. And the minute they’ve got enough spare cash, they’ll send their kids to this school. They would never in a million years send their kids to Pymble Ladies’ College or Redlands or the rest of them, which are Anglo-Saxon, you know, rich man’s, Sydney’ girls schools of privilege. I sent both of my kids to this school and it just completely lacks pretension, you know, which is what I really liked about it. It’s also worth mentioning that almost all the girls we follow are on full scholarships, and they’re getting $120K worth of education. That’s a lot.

Emily Sun

Emily Sun, one of the talented young 'heroines' of Mrs Carey's Concert.

Sophie Raymond: That’s part of the way the music department works too, is that the scholarship kids are role models. You’re not just here to serve yourself, you’re here for everyone, and the younger kids are inspired by it. And Karen Carey recognises that the best role modelling a kid is going to get is from another kid. That’s part of her approach.

AFI: Another issue the film raises is that question of how much pressure should be put on kids to strive for achievement.  There’s a fine line, isn’t there, between how far you push someone and how far you just let them be who they are? It’s by being pushed that we stretch ourselves, which is obviously the philosophy Mrs Carey subscribes to.

Bob Connolly: What’s that line from the film?  “Smile. Be brilliant… No pressure!” [laughs]

Sophie Raymond: Yeah she’s a really great study in that, because she really does get a good sense of each individual kid and what they need. She doesn’t treat everyone in the same way. And she just sees where each kid is at and just offers them the next level. So with Emily, a hugely talented musician it was “We know you can play beautifully, we know you have this ability, but your next challenge is to actually find words to articulate that, so you can bring that orchestra with you and have that language.” Whereas another girl like [the rebellious and completely unmusical] Iris, her challenge was just to open her mouth and sing, just be a tiny part of the performance. And both of them achieved that.

Bob Connolly: And my daughter, the indifferent clarinet player, her challenge was to basically get the notes right at the back of the orchestra in one of the big orchestral pieces. Not to play like a genius in front of 2,000 people, but just to sort of merge in. And the discipline of doing that is terrific. But it wasn’t as though Karen was hitting her on the head and saying “You’ve got to be brilliant.” She was saying “You know, just do a little more practice if you can and try your best.” It’s meeting every child where they’re at.

AFI: As filmmakers, how did you manage to make yourself unobtrusive in the class room? I  imagine that the girls – and the teachers – were quite fascinated and distracted at first?

Iris the rebel in Mrs Carey's Concert

Iris, the resistant 'rebel' in Mrs Carey's Concert

Sophie Raymond: Yeah, they were pretty funny actually, at first, very preoccupied with how they would do their hair etc, but when you’re there for 18 months… And they get busy, you know. We just became like an element in the music department, and they stopped really concerning themselves us.

Bob Connolly: That’s actually the most commonly asked question and for us the least problematical thing. Because this is the sixth long film like this I’ve done. All of them shot over at least a year. It just varies. If you go out with a police patrol on a riot, people will forget you’re with them in half an hour. If you go into a couple’s home, who are having a break up, it’ll take six months to get the level of observational intimacy that you need. If you go to a girls’ school like this, probably after two months. Certainly after a month, Karen [Carey] stops coming in with her hair done up and dressed to the nines, and comes as she is.  You just wait for that. You know it’s going to happen. It’s just a question of waiting. I call it, ‘passive activism’. I mean, there’s a technique to it. For example, you never, ever direct the action. You never tell people what to do. You never get them to say something over again.

Sophie Raymond:  Often in the early stages, they do look to you and go “Do you want me to say that again for the camera?”And you don’t answer. You just indicate that they should keep going with what they’re doing, and eventually they just get on with it.

AFI: The sound in this film is amazing – as you’d want it to be in a film about music. Sophie, as the sound recordist, what the particular challenges here?

Sophie Raymond: I had a setup of four radio mics, but I also had a boom and a couple of very, very good Neuman cardio mics that were were for the orchestra. I had a four track mixer that recorded at a very high bit rate, so that meant that we could record a big range of sound, which meant that I could keep the volumes pretty low and not lose any information. Then in the mix, you could lift up the sound and not get [background] noise.

AFI: It was just the two of you on location, with you holding the camera Bob?

Bob Connolly: Yes, basically. Sometimes, Sophie would shoot second camera as well as doing sound. The opening scene of an earlier concert was shot by a brilliant cinematographer Bonnie Elliot, and she did exactly what we asked her to do, something that I learnt when I was shooting Facing the Music. She held the shot. The tendency is – because the shot doesn’t change, it’s just one face, someone playing something – there’s a tremendous temptation to move the camera. What she did was just stay there and hold that shot. And then we had this footage of the performer just waiting for her turn to play, with all the anxiety going across her face. It was gold. That’s the beauty of observational documentary filmmaking.

AFI: Sophie, you edited the film along with Ray Thomas and Nick Meyers. When did Nick Meyers come in?

Sophie Raymond: He came in with the really fine cut. The structure was all there but it was really just trying to get the flow to make it more cinematic. We needed a fresh eye, and chose him because he’s a drama editor. It was good to be offered a whole bag of different ways of seeing and he just offered lots of lovely solutions. And Ray Thomas has worked with Bob on all his other films and it was great having those really two different skill bases or perspectives, you know, because Ray is a documentary editor, and he had that touch. His years and years of editing that kind of material and that gives him an amazing] understanding – working out how to make sense of an 18-month process and put it into a 95-minute kind of logic.

AFI: One last question for Bob: You’ve had a substantial break between your last film and this one. Was it a good feeling to be back doing it again? Was it like getting back on the horse again?

Bob Connolly: Yeah …

Sophie Raymond: It was like you were back in the saddle again! I remember you heaving the camera up on your shoulder and you’re like, “I can feel my muscles again.”

Bob Connolly: Yeah, but you know, this is such a hard thing to do. This was three years, and they’re a very long process. There’s that little tiny light at the end of the very long, dark tunnel. And you don’t really know what you’ve got until the end of it. You can’t rush it. I used to do quite a lot of film doctoring of other people’s  films. And so often, they’re just at that point where you have to think hard about the film and it needs about another four or five or six weeks of work, but they’ve run out of money. And for lots of lots of complicated reasons, so many films of great potential aren’t as good as they could be, because of bureaucratic and financial pressures. They’re locked off before they should be. Robin [Anderson] and I always made a vow and that we would never ever lock off a film until we thought we couldn’t do anything else to improve it. And it’s the same with Mrs Carey’s Concert. All the people who worked on it were on it were experienced, professional filmmakers and there’s not a single excuse that we can offer. It’s as good as we could possibly make it.  It looks seamless and simple and straightforward, but it’s bloody well not. It’s massively, massively difficult and daunting, and it doesn’t get any easier.

[addressing Sophie] Remember I warned you?   I mean, not that you’re a neophyte or anything, but I remember saying, you know, these are grinds! There’s nothing glamorous about it all until the premiere, and you don’t even know if that’s going to happen. But the one thing you do know is that unless you put in those hard yards, that’ll never happen.

AFI: Presumably, the more experienced you are, you become more confident that if you wait long enough, something interesting will happen that you can catch on film. The threads will emerge that you need to pick out?

Bob Connolly: That’s very true, but you see, experience also tells you that you go in there 18 months early. I can remember on our film, Joe Leahy’s Neighbour where we lived in a grass hut up in the mountains in New Guinea for 18 months, and then we spent 18 months editing it… You know, and someone came up and he said: “I loved that film. I want to make a film exactly like that, but we don’t have the luxury of spending 18 months on location…so do you think six or seven weeks will do the job?” And I said: “Just go away!” You know, I mean, please. There are no shortcuts. None at all.

Sophie Raymond: We looked for them! They’re not there!

AFI: Thanks so much for your time, and best wishes with the film.

Mrs Carey’s Concert releases 28 April.