Apart from the issues of racism, the movie would have been tough to make because it is a period musical, which are two really difficult genres. Plus, you had a limited budget, isn’t it?
Yeah, it’s interesting that when we started, the budget was about $ 13.5 million and then every six months, the budget went down by half a million. So bloody hell, you just want to shoot the film but the budget would keep going down, you know. But I think it’s first about getting the script to a state where it is strong and then just isolating the big moments of the film. We shot the film in 33 days, so ultimately, it all came down to the preparation and casting. One of the key reasons it worked was because we had a great cinematographer, Warwick Thornton, whose film, Samson and Delilah had won the Camera d’Or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Usually cinematographers come eight weeks before shooting, but we spent 3-4 months talking about the film. We watched movies like Ray and The Tina Turner Story and The Color Purple to prepare, and we sort of became cohorts through the film.
The other major reason it worked well was because we auditioned for eight months. Usually when an actor auditions, they only have 2-3 scenes to do, but since we had to filter down from 120 girls to four, by the time we completed, the shortlisted girls had done around 15-20 scenes. So, in a way, we had already shot most of the film before we shot the film and by the time the actors came on the sets, they had already lived and breathed their characters for eight months. And that’s lucky because we were shooting on film and not on digital, so we could only do 2-4 takes for a scene. It all worked out well, but when I look back now, (chuckles) I’m surprised how ambitious it was for a first film. At that time, though, all I was thinking about was completing the call sheets every day.
You were an actor in the play of the same name, on which the film is based. Did your relationship with the original Sapphires help during the making of your film?
Yes, the play is written by Tony Briggs and is based on his mother, Laurel Robinson, and his aunt, Lois Peeler, who are two of the four original Sapphires. So I have obviously interacted with them a lot and it was beautiful, because they trusted us implicitly. And of course, since Tony was also writing this, and he and I were interacting every day, I was sort of in the belly of the beast, in a way. So whenever I had to make decisions on the set with regards to the character and dialogue, it was a no brainer, because we knew we had their trust and blessings. The four ladies are very humble but also very strong, so if I would have screwed up, they would’ve been on me very quickly (chuckles).
You’ve been an actor for a long time before turning director, having been directed by the likes of Phillip Seymour-Hoffman on stage. Did your insight as an actor make it easier to director other actors?
Yes, I think the most important thing I learnt from working with the various actors and directors is the importance of communication. You just have to have a way to communicate your vision to each individual on set and off set, and of course, everyone is different, so you have to have a level of communication which is different to each individual. From acting in theatre, I learnt that your creation has to have a connection to the truth and what you want to say to the world. That what you do has to be real. Phillip, in specific, had an attention to detail and a heart that was laid out on the table from the day I met him. He isn’t a cerebral person but he is a man of heart and a man of truth, with a soul that is fractured but that is also very real.
So where do you go from here?
I’m not too sure what I’m doing next but I do know that I’m fortunate to be part of the indigenous Australian community that’s been breaking out in front of the world of late. I’m just a cog in that wheel but I will continue to tell our stories with humility and generosity, so I can give something back to my own community. What I loved about films I grew up with was that they had love and heart and truth, and I admired stories about being a fractured human being in the world. That’s exactly what I’m after too. I’m after stories of fractured human beings who teach us that it is alright to be both sad and happy because that makes us human. But I like treating my work in a lighter way because I believe I’m part of one of those cultures in the world – along with Indians and the Irish – who appreciate love and joy than normal!
Nikhil Taneja is doing a year-end series of interviews with the people behind some of the most interesting indie films of 2012. Coming up next is a conversation with Danish director, Mads Matthiesen, on his film, Teddy Bear. You can tweet good, bad and even ugly comments (if you *must*) to the piece to Nikhil on Twitter: @tanejamainhoon.