Wayne Blair‘s adaptation of Tony Briggs’ stage-play The Sapphires is one of the most highly-anticipated Australian releases of the year, and it earned that designation even before debuting to rapturous acclaim at Cannes, where notorious super-producer Harvey Weinstein suggested it would follow in the footsteps of The Artist. Weinstein later disputed the precise wording of his comparison, but the “damage” was done: this little Aussie musical about four Indigenous songbirds (Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens, Miranda Tapsell) performing for troops during the Vietnam war had big-time international buzz. I spoke to director Blair about finding the four ladies in an “Australian Idol way,” recruiting Chris O’Dowd to play the quartet’s Irish manager, getting nervous around Harvey, and almost running out of film in Saigon.
SM: This is your first feature film, as a director. Were you apprehensive at all about taking on a pretty beloved play – and what has become a fairly significant Australian production – as your first?
WB: Yeah, look, I didn’t realise it was going to be this significant. I just wanted to make the film the best I could, and just make every day on set. Shoot the call sheet. But no, it’s been a lovely journey thus far, and this is just another part – as I’m learning – this section of the journey is just another part you have to do. I’m enjoying every moment of it. Once we got the film up, to writing the script, to getting the script much better with Keith [Thompson] and Tony Briggs], to casting, I haven’t sort of had a chance to stop. Since the film has finished being made, and since we went to France and got back, I haven’t had a chance to stop. So I’m looking for that chance to stop. It might be around the corner.
SM: Well, surely the next project is coming up, so you’ll have to squeeze it in soon.
WB: Oh yeah, I’m reading and just writing. But I’m spending time with my girlfriend really.
SM: That’s important. That’s very important. Before we get into the future, let’s get back to the script. I must admit, I’m not all that familiar with the play. Working with Tony and Keith, what changes did you have to make to make this cinematic?
WB: Ah, well, we wanted to flesh out the story much more to see the young girls; to see them at their youth. Of course, we see much more of the town that they came from. The character of Dave Lovelace was initially Australian. Then we made him English, and then we acquired Chris O’Dowd, and it was kind of a no-brainer to make him Irish. Like 75 per cent of the songs have changed. And a couple of the storylines, especially with Kay’s character – who Shari Sebbens plays – changed quite dramatically. So there was about three or four things that changed, but it just gave Tony and Keith a chance to explore more and flesh out some detail that wasn’t in the stage show.
SM: Tell me about getting the cast together, and specifically Miranda Tapsell and Shari, who are relative newcomers. Was that through open auditions?
WB: Yeah, and Jess [Mauboy] and Deb [Mailman] were both through open audition calls as well. We wanted to see who we could unearth, in a kind of Australian Idol way; to see who was out there. But I knew, because they were both NIDA graduates, I did know of Miranda and Shari. I had worked with Miranda in a Bell Education Show, and they were just quite beautiful girls. Lovely; lots of energy; great actresses. It’s funny, because I didn’t think of them initially in those roles, because you get the call from casting – Nikki Barrett – saying, “Oh, so and so’s coming in today,” or, “Check out this test tape.” They were on the same test tape, because they were friends. And I thought, “Oh, Miranda and Shari, I know those two. Out of respect I’ll watch them.” Then, “Hey, look out, that could be a little Cynthia and that could be a little Kay.” So, I just went, “Wayne, just get rid of your bias and your prejudices and just go with the flow,” and they ended up in the film. In Bangarra Dance Theatre when we were rehearsing, and they were cast, I said to both of them, “You guys have done some short films. What TV have you done again? Have you done Packed to the Rafters or All Saints or something?” “Oh, no, we haven’t done nothing.” “What about short films? What short films have you done again?” “Oh, we’ve done nothing.” “Documentary?” “Nothing.” “Film?” “Nothing.” “So you’ve done nothing?” “Yep, that’s us.” And I just went, “Oh, s*** I should have read their CVs.” But they auditioned five or six times, and over the audition process they just got better and better, as did Jess and Deb. Deb was always good; it was just getting her to have Gail’s sensibilities. But with Shari and Miranda, it was just… yeah, I was a little bit prejudiced towards them at the start, but by the end, “Thank you for auditioning!”
SM: You worked with Deborah on the short film Ralph, though she directed that. Was it – I don’t want to say ‘tough,’ or ‘a struggle,’ – but how was the working relationship on set where you are now the director and she’s the actress? Was it easy to slip into those roles?
WB: We’ve been best friends since ’96, ’97; we’ve partied together, we’ve worked together, we co-wrote the short film Ralph together. I went to her wedding, you know? We’ve just been good friends. But you’re right, there is that sense of professionalism; a working relationship. Yeah, you’re right. It was just like we were friends as well. She had a lot of trust in me, and vice versa, and we just had to make Gail and Dave and the girls the best they could be. It wasn’t the working relationship, but it was a lot of the unsaid stuff between us as friends that paid dividends, now that I think about it. Yeah, it was easy. There were no fights.
SM: That’s the worst thing. When you’re friends with someone, and you don’t have that ability to work with them, and no one is willing to answer to the other.
WB: If I had a dollar bill for every time when the producer and director don’t talk together, or the director and the editor don’t talk, or the lead actress doesn’t talk to the director. There’s so many times that that happens, just in examples of Australian films I know of. I think, “Wow.” But here, everyone is still friends. There’s a sense of family now, and with the reception of the film thus far around the world and the test audiences in Australia, it’s growing stronger. It hasn’t happened yet.
SM: I hope it continues to not happen. How long was the shoot?
WB: We had seven weeks, but we had a week off, so it was a six-week shoot.
SM: And how much of that time was spent in Vietnam?
WB: One week. We shot one week. We finished the five week shoot in Australia. Then we had one week off. Well, it wasn’t really a week off. I think we finished on Saturday night, and we flew over on Sunday; myself and a couple of crew members. The rest came gradually. And so we were there for a week of pre-production.
SM: That’s not really a week off.
WB: Yeah. We worked every day actually.
SM: There are bad days on the set of every film. Was there any scene or moment you struggled against, or where the environment played against you?
WB: I remember there was a day in Saigon… actually, no not really. The weather was pretty good. The environment was great. I remember Chris O’Dowd was shooting a Judd Apatow film at the time.
SM: This is 40.
WB: Yeah, yeah. So, he had to go back a couple of times. We missed him for three or four days there. But I remember in Saigon one day, we shot 16 hours a day, we had three foot of night film left, and we were shooting the hospital scene [SPOILERS] where Deb and Chris get back together. Sorry, spoilers. [END SPOILERS] They said to me, “We’ve got this amount of foot of film, so we’ve got to be careful here.” We always did one or two takes anyway, but instead of shooting the girls individually, or whatever, we just had to do a four-shot. Always a four-shot. By the time we finished that scene, “Brother, we’ve only got one take left here.” I think it was Chris or Deb['s closeup].
SM: An emotionally charged moment as well.
WB: One of the biggest scenes of the bloody film, and by the time we called cut, “Thank you, that’s a wrap.” And we called it a night. We had three foot of film left, and that was it. If we had over shot the film, we wouldn’t have had that last scene. We would have had to come back for more, or get half a million dollars from somewhere. So, those two examples come up instantly. Things maybe were on our side.
SM: Going back to getting Chris on board. Did you send an offer to him? Did you get him to send a tape over?
WB: Basically we sent the script to him, and he read it and got back to us in a week or something. He sent an email to his agent saying he’s interested in the film, and these things need to be worked on and just to have a conversation with me. So, we just had a couple of conversations and a couple of Skype meetings and talked on email about the character. Tony and Keith did some work, a couple of times, overnight, and then we’d get an email at 10 o’clock in the morning and they’d work until nine, get another script out at 11 o’clock at night. He read it the next day, and then came on board. As simple as that. It wasn’t that simple actually. We worked our butts off to get him. Bridesmaids had just opened and made X amount of dollars and was going off at that time, so we just got him on the verge of riding that wave. He was actually on the wave then. A surfboarder at the top of the wave getting the breaks and we just got him at the right time.
SM: It’s not for naught. The film was a big hit at Cannes where it screened. Tell me, were there any Hollywood moments there?
WB: Not really, no. Harvey was there.
SM: Was he everything you hoped or imagined he would be?
WB: Yeah, yeah, he’s great. He’s the only person I really get nervous around in the world. My left leg still shakes when I meet him, but it sort of suddenly goes when we’re talking business. I walked past Alec Baldwin, in the hotel, The Majestic. I walked past Macy Gray at a party, and she smiled. They were my only two Hollywood moments. Oh, no, my big Hollywood moment: I met John Hillcoat. We had a good conversation actually. We had the same two after parties – he had Lawless - and he was leaving, and I was just getting there. “Hey Wayne!” We just talked for ten. His minders were trying to get him out. I had no minders. But his minder was like, “Come on John.” “No, I want to talk to Wayne.” So, we just talked for fifteen minutes and had a great chat. That was my Hollywood moment.
SM: That’s great company to share an after party with.
WB: Oh, shivers yeah. It was on the steps of this place and I just went, “Oh, there’s John Hillcoat.” That was great.
SM: Speaking of Harvey, he made a pretty big splash when he compared The Sapphires to The Artist, and then he…
WB: Retracted that.
SM: Retracted that; he disputed the wording. The point being, it made international news and was reported on the movie blogosphere. The Hollywood Reporter. Deadline. How does it feel, again, going back to this being your first feature, to be scrutinised not just by local media but internationally? It was one of the most discussed films of Cannes.
WB: Oh, wow, look it’s been built up a bit I think. Essentially, the point of difference is so unique, and that’s what I love about it. To get a nice standing ovation at Cannes, that doesn’t happen a lot. I think Harvey was excited, as we all were, but I just know that with the Weinsteins on board, we just want to get it to as many people around the world, and in America, as possible. So, we’ll have the opportunity to do that. Whether it has that end-of-the-day strawberries and cream moments is another thing. I just know he loves the story and he just wants to get it out to the world as much as we want to get it out to Australians.
The Sapphires arrives in Australian cinemas August 9, 2012.