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

Here I Am: In conversation with Beck Cole, Kath Shelper & Marcia Langton

Beck Cole, Marcia Langton & Kath Shelper

Director Beck Cole, actor Marcia Langton and producer Kath Shelper on the set of 'Here I Am'.

– By Rochelle Siemienowicz

As an interviewer, I love the intimacy and focus of the one-on-one chat. The more people you add to the group, the harder it is to maintain the thread. But when I met these three impressive women the day after the premiere of their film Here I Am  at the Adelaide Film Festival in February 2011, it was a pleasure to join in their conversation, and witness their easy humour and obvious affection for one other.

Beck Cole is the film’s writer and director. The story of a beautiful young Aboriginal woman remaking her life after jail, Here I Am may be Cole’s first feature, but she’s long been an Indigenous filmmaker to watch. Cole directed the AFI Award

Warwick Thornton & Beck Cole on set 'Here I Am'

Partners in life and work - cinematographer Warwick Thornton and director Beck Cole on set of 'Here I Am'.

winning SBS documentary series First Australians: The Untold Story of Australia, and has made a number of remarkable short films like Wirriya: Small Boy and Plains Empty. She also directed and produced the documentary Making Samson & Delilah, tracing the progress of that groundbreaking film, alongside her partner (in life, work and parenting) Warwick Thornton. It’s a partnership that continues to be productive, with Thornton taking direction from his wife this time, bringing his considerable talent as cinematographer to Here I Am.

Samson & Delilah producer Kath Shelper continues her long association with the couple: she produced Cole’s short film Plains Empty, Thornton’s short films Green Bush and Nana as well as various other projects, including Sally Riley’s sly AFI Award winning short film Confessions of a Headhunter.
Lead actress Shai Pittman and producer Kath Shelper - 'Here I Am'.

Lead actress Shai Pittman and producer Kath Shelper - 'Here I Am'.

Marcia Langton completes the trio. Appearing on screen in the film, she plays the tough and terrifying mother of the central character Karen (Shai Pittman). To be honest, it’s not much of a stretch for Professor Marcia Langton, who is surely one of the most formidable women in Australia. An anthropologist, geographer and long time advocate of Aboriginal rights, she was made a member of the Order of Australia in 1993, and since 2000 has been the Foundation Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne. With her fiery stare and luminous white hair, she has natural screen presence – and in fact this isn’t her first appearance on film. Langton previously acted in Tracey Moffatt’s short film Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy, which screened in competition at Cannes in 1990.
Marcia Langton on set "Here I Am'.

Don't mess with Marcia! Langton plays one tough mother in ''Here I Am'.

The three woman are actually a little bit frazzled when we meet. They’ve just been over the road being interviewed on camera for the ABC’s At The Movies. And as Shelper jokes, ‘to quote Samson & Delilah’s star Rowan McNamara, “Wow, this is serious!”‘ Nevertheless, they settle in for a very relaxed coffee and a laugh. Read on for a window into that conversation.

AFI: Congratulations to you all. It was such a warm audience reception last night.

Kath Shelper:  Yes it was wonderful. Sometimes at festival screenings it’s all just industry people and invited guests, but the festival said they actually sold more than 350 tickets, so the fact that it was a mixed audience made it even more gratifying.

I think the tide has definitely turned on people being afraid to go and see Indigenous films or feeling like it’s going to be homework and they’re going to be made to feel bad.
– Kath Shelper

Beck Cole: We actually had our cast and crew screening the night before, and it was all extended family of those involved in the film – cousins three times removed, including my own! It was a warm and lovely screening, with everyone laughing and getting the humour, and I think the premiere had that vibe too.

AFI: Here I Am is a very hotly anticipated film, and it’s wonderful that films from Indigenous filmmakers and with Indigenous subjects are actually becoming the films people want to see, and not just because it’s political or a fashion statement.

Kath Shelper: I think over the last couple of years, Indigenous films have definitely become a good brand [laughs]. There’s such a variety of filmmakers and so many different styles of films being made in different genres, and so many different voices. I think the tide has definitely turned on people being afraid to go and see Indigenous films or feeling like it’s going to be homework and they’re going to be made to feel bad.

Marcia Langton: The films that have come out over the last few years have people all over the world talking about them in animated terms. I went to Paris, London, Cambridge and other parts of Europe after the release of Samson & Delilah and people were so excited by it. And I’m still getting emails about that film. And then when Bran Nue Dae came out, people said, ‘There, you see! They can no longer say that Indigenous films are just sort of exotic, minor, marginal. It’s not possible to say that any more.’

Beck Cole & Shai Pittman on set for 'Here I Am'.

Director Beck Cole with lead actress Shai Pittman on set of 'Here I Am'.

AFI: Beck, you’ve said before that you wanted to make this film to celebrate the strength and beauty of Indigenous women. Something I like about this film is that it’s an Australian film with women at the very centre of it, with men peripheral. That’s not something we see too often.

Beck Cole: Yeah, it was really fun to do that and to create these characters. I know each of these women from my own life, it was great to create them on the page and then bring them to life on the screen. But I did also want to create the beautiful men, who actually say these kind and heartfelt things. I wanted to have these two lovely kind Indigenous men in the film. Even though they’re small parts, they’re important.

Kath Shelper: And we did make sure they were very handsome men. They had to be hot! [laughs] There was this funny thing with the casting, where Beck had written this casual description about the character of Jeff  that was quite blunt and explicit, and just supposed to be an internal memo….

Bruce Carter plays 'Jeff' in 'Here I Am'.

Bruce Carter plays 'Jeff' in 'Here I Am'.

Beck Cole: Yeah, I said that he was charming and needed to wear thongs and be a rough diamond, maybe a few acne scars, but he had to ‘fuckable’! And this description accidentally got printed and given to all the men auditioning. And when I realised and asked Bruce Carter, the actor who eventually got the role, I was like, ‘Oh my lord!’ How embarrassing.

Kath Shelper: I think I’m going to put those notes on our website!

AFI: You have a reasonably large cast with some fairly inexperienced actors. Was that a challenge?

I couldn’t see why she wanted me. And then I realised after the fact: ‘Oh, it’s because I do “grumpy” so well!’ You know, I can do grumpy in my sleep.

– Marcia Langton

Beck Cole: Yeah, there’s a real mix of experienced actors  and newcomers. Pauline Whyman, who plays ‘Skinny’ does loads of acting and has great comic timing, and our lead Shai Pittman has had a little bit of experience with things like All Saints, but this is her first big role. Then there’s Marcia, who is no stranger to the camera, though I did have to try very hard to convince her to do the part. But everyone was very supportive of each other and it was a matter of getting them all comfortable and confident in front of the camera, you know when it’s right in your face. Getting rid of that shame factor and gigglyness and shyness. Everyone was really brave.

AFI: Marcia, you were reluctant to take on the part of this tough and disgruntled mother?

Marcia Langton: Well, as I said to Beck, there are plenty of good professional actors around who could do the job better than I could. I couldn’t see why she wanted me. And then I realised after the fact: ‘Oh, it’s because I do “grumpy” so well!’ You know, I can do grumpy in my sleep.

Kath Shelper: And now Marcia’s happy to be typecast as the grumpy woman so she can get more roles. She wants to play the matriarch of a big drug family [laughs] and maybe win an Oscar!

AFI: Marcia, what was the way into the character for you?

Marcia Langton & Quinaiha Scott

Four-year-old Quinaiha Scott and her on-screen granny Marcia Langton in 'Here I Am'.

Marcia Langton: I think when I got to the set of the women’s shelter I thought, ‘Right, I know what this is all about,’ from having visited women’s shelters throughout my life for various reasons – visiting friends, taking people there, that sort of thing. Also, there’s a particular tension between mothers and daughters where drugs are involved, and I have a lot of friends who’ve been through that. It’s the worst thing a mother can go through, trying to get kids off drugs. It drives women crazy, because drugs are stronger than people, stronger than their willpower, stronger than love. I reminded myself of how difficult that was, and that helped me build up the hardness of the character. And also, thinking about those terrible tweeny years when young girls can be so monstrous. It wasn’t that hard to tap into really!

AFI: How long was the shoot, and was it always going to be in Port Adelaide?

Kath Shelper: It was a six week shoot, and yes it was always going to be in Adelaide.

Beck Cole: I always wanted it set in Port Adelaide, right from the start.

Kath Shelper: It was always written as being set in Adelaide, which made it very easy for my financing through the Adelaide Film Festival. They like films to be made here and set here – even though they do support films which aren’t. Also, there are a lot of films shot in South Australia that aren’t necessarily set here – it’s an anonymous location, or they’re shot for somewhere else, taking advantage of the diverse landscape. Whereas this project is set here, and it’s about the community here, and the people here. So that’s very special.

Key art Here I AmMarcia Langton: Actually, that’s one of the things that impressed me when I went to the Temple House location [the setting of the women’s shelter featured in the film]. I thought, ‘This is great, this is really about this particular place.’

AFI: How much did the festival invest in the film, and what was the total budget?

Kath Shelper: I think it was about $180,000 – a significant amount of the $2.4 million budget. It certainly completed the financing, and the other great thing about the film festival fund is that it gives you a date to premiere. You know what you’re working towards. Sometimes when you make a film it’s all unknown, and you’re working in a vacuum, whereas here it was wonderful to be able to say to the girls in the cast that this film is going to be in the Adelaide Film Festival next February and that’s a solid date look forward to.

AFI: The budget on Here I Am is a bit more than you were working with on with Samson & Delilah [$1.6 million]. What were the differences in that regard?

Kath Shelper: We made the film in a similiar way but just upsized it a bit. There were so many more cast and locations. We had grips and gaffers this time too, for instance, because there was so much more to be done. But we still worked in a very simple, fast and economical way.

AFI: Kath and Beck, you two have worked together for many years, along with Warwick. You’re all friends, you hang out together. Does each project get easier as you know each other better?

Beck Cole: Every film is a battle. It’s always hard work. But we do support each other tremendously.

Kath Shelper: Warwick and Beck and I have been working together for about seven years, and we do have a really good foundation that we’re working off. But each project is completely different and brings a whole new set of challenges. It doesn’t get any easier – to write the script, or find the money or shoot it and put it together. We’re really lucky though that we do have a strong bond, and that we like each other.

A cold night shoot in Port Adelaide with Warwick Thornton & Beck Cole.

A cold night shoot in Port Adelaide with Warwick Thornton & Beck Cole.

AFI: Beck, you’re a mum and a stepmum of young kids. What are the challenges of directing and being on set with kids and how do you manage that?

Beck Cole: Nannas! Nannas. Did you see the list of Nannas in the credits? Look, Warwick and I have been so blessed with our families helping us. My family take months off at a time just to some and support us in what we do.

Kath Shelper: But at the same time, Beck’s on set directing and then she comes running down to me and says ‘Shit, I’ve forgotten to pick up Luca [Beck and Warwick’s daughter] from school!’ So I have to jump in the car and drive down there.

Beck Cole: Yeah, poor thing. Having to get up and be with us on set in the freezing cold at 5am, and doing a whole term at a new school while we shot the film. It’s not easy on her. She’s great though. She doesn’t know anything else but this way of life. But yeah, Nannas are essential.

AFI: Marcia and Kath, can you describe what Beck is like as a director?

Marcia Langton: She has a real vision, and it’s her vision, and sometimes we don’t exactly know what it is. She’s a very nice person and we’re all trying to please her and give her what she wants, but sometimes it’s a mystery!

Kath Shelper: Beck’s latest favourite expression is ‘honest to a fault – but not my fault!’ She’s a very funny person and she has a great sense of humour. She’s also an acute observer of people and how they tick. She’s made a lot of documentaries and I think perhaps that’s something that she’s learnt from them, or maybe it’s why she was drawn to them in the first place – the observational side of things. She also has a great sense of character and drama, and how to bring that to the screen.

AFI: Beck, did you always know that this would be an uplifting kind of story rather than a grim and depressing one?

Here I Am releases nationally on 2 June 2011.

Beck Cole: There were many different versions of the story over the years, but it was always going to follow this woman in the weeks following her release from prison as she tries to reconnect with her family, and her young daughter, and it was always going to be about her gaining insight and vision. I think it is important that you come away from it and feel hope and joy, and that you feel like she’s going to be okay.

AFI: Best wishes with the film’s release and thanks for speaking with us.

Production Note: Many of the team behind Samson & Delilah can be found again in the credits of Here I Am, including Director of Photography Warwick Thornton, Editor Roland Gallois, Sound Recordist David Tranter, Sound Designer Liam Egan, Costume Designer Heather Wallace, Make-up Artist Carol Cameron, and Associate Producer Fiona Pakes.

You might also be interested in this interview with Warwick Thornton and Kath Shelper from 2009, when they spoke to the AFI about Samson & Delilah.