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2012 in Indie cinema: Wayne Blair on 'The Sapphires'

If you didn’t catch The Sapphires while it played at the Mumbai Film Festival, you definitely missed one of the most likable, charming and heartwarming movies of the year. Australian actor-director Wayne Blair’s first full length feature film, The Sapphires is about four talented indigenous Australian girls who form a music group and travel to Vietnam to sing for troops in the year 1968, when racism was still rampant in Australia.

In an exclusive interview, Wayne tells us about dealing with racism through comedy, the responsibility as an indigenous Australian and why movies about fractured souls appeal to him:

You’ve dealt with the sensitive issue of racism in The Sapphires. In 1968, racism was still quite rampant around the world, but you still hear about it in Australia today. How did you go about tackling this in the film today?

You know, tackling the subject of racism was sort of the mission statement of the two writers, Tonny Briggs and Keith Thompson. As you said, racism still resonates in Australia today as it did in 1968. It is just inherent in the society that we live in Australia, and it sort of rears its ugly head when you least expect. So, it is a truth and we just wanted to talk about the truth and remind our own country of where we stand in 2012, you know.

We could have gone much harder in dealing with this theme but we chose to deal with it through comedy because I suppose Tony Keith wanted some balance, some love and some joy in the film. Also, because while we wanted the film to resonate with the non-indigenous people who come to watch it, we wanted to do it in a way that it is a subtle way rather than in a weighty or hard-hitting way. Subtlety has an undertone of humanity and with that humanity comedy, which is great medicine, you know. We just wanted to tell a beautiful story that when you can walk away from it, you have a little tear and a little laugh and it makes you feel human again.

We’ve not seen too much of the indigenous Australian community on film. Since you are indigenous too, what were the challenges for you in trying to represent the community respectfully?

We just wanted to show that that aboriginal people did exist in the world back then too, and whether it was through soul music or the Vietnam war, we did participate. And that all we’ve wanted in the end is just love, respect and most importantly, to be considered equal. While everyone knows about the civil rights movement in America at the time this story takes place, there was a civil rights movement in Australia that mirrored that. That even in Australia aboriginal people did exist and they were fighting for the same rights as the non-aboriginal people, and perhaps still continue to do that.

Director Wayne Blair. Image courtesy: Goalpost Pictures.

Being indigenous, you just have a responsibility to your own stories. Because if you don’t tell them, who else is going to? Perhaps if a non-indigenous person may have directed the film, he may not have treated it the same way as I did. For example, if I walk into in an Indian restaurant and I see Italian people serving it, it would make me question it, you know. The food may still probably be good but there’s something about the authenticity if it came from the real people. So I have this responsibility, and I understand that, and I will continue to deal with this subject, because sometimes, you have to leave ego and ambition at the door.

You weren’t looking to make your debut with The Sapphires, and the movie just happened to you. Is it the kind of movie you always wanted to debut with?

No, I actually had another film that I was trying to debut with for the last three-four years, but that didn’t work out. But when The Sapphires came on to my table, its premise was so strong that I just had no choice but to partake in this adventure. It was one of those things when I was in the right place at the right time. It just felt right, you know. I didn’t really weigh the pros and cons or strengths and weaknesses as one really should do in these big things in life. And when Chris O’Dowd and Deborah Mailman, two actors who have a warm heart and a generosity of spirit, came on board, I knew I couldn’t have been involved in a better first movie.

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.

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