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

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.

It’s on! The 2013 AACTA Awards Cycle is launched.

The search is on for Australia’s most outstanding film and television performers, practitioners and productions, with the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) calling for entries for the 2013 AACTA Awards.

Enter the AACTA Awards

Entries are now open across all categories: Feature Film; Short Animation; Short Fiction Film; Television; and Documentary.

The 2013 AACTA Awards include more than 50 Awards — recognising excellence across screen crafts including screenwriting, producing and acting, through to cinematography, composition and costume design. This year we are also introducing a new Award, the AACTA Award for Best Reality Television Series.

For information about 2013 AACTA Awards categories, eligibility criteria, deadlines and fees, and information on how to enter, click here.

Join a Jury

We are also now seeking AACTA Awards jurors – screen professionals from a cross-section of crafts, who come together to determine the nominees and winners for various Awards in the following categories: Feature Film Pre-Selection; Documentary; Television; Visual Effects; Young Actor; and Short Fiction Film and Short Animation.

AACTA Awards jurors determine AACTA Awards nominees and winners across a variety of categories, which many jurors find both rewarding and educational.

As the AACTA Awards are industry-assessed, jury positions are open to AACTA members only. This ensures that jurors are: screen industry professionals who have gone through an accreditation process to verify their experience and expertise; and those best qualified to recognise excellence in their field. It is not too late to become an AACTA member in order to join a jury.

To read more juror testimonials and to apply to become an AACTA Awards juror, see the Join a Jury page on the AACTA website.