We chat to the director of Chris O’Dowd’s new Australian comedy

When it comes to ‘The Sapphires’, art has imitated life, this simple story about 4 talented Aboriginal women, living in 1960’s outback Australia, who dream of taking the world by storm with their singing abilities has gone onto be a global success, with a massive box-office haul and talk of Oscar nominations. We caught up with directory Wayne Blair on a recent visit to Dublin to talk musicals, awards and Chris O’Dowd…

Hi Wayne, how’s it going?

I’m in Dublin for the first time and just loving it! We had a beautiful reception at the premiere, and you can’t hope for anything more. I just wish I had a few more days here.

It’s good to come over with a movie you believe in, and you’ve come over with a gem – congratulations! When you saw the script for the first time, did you ever think it would resonate with audiences all over the world the way it has?

Well … no. When you tell a story, I dare say, you want people to see it, like I just thought I want my mum to see it and if she loved it, that would be good enough for me. But of course, you need a few more people to see it.

You know when I read the script for the first time, it was a stage play back in Australia. But when I did read the script, you know it went through many a draft, even three or four weeks out before the shoot, when Chris O’Dowd came on board, to bleed in his Irish sensiibilities, but it always had that heart, and that joy, there, especially on the backbone of soul music.

It was my first film and I thought someone has to do it, so step up to the plate, but after I made that decision, after we got the money, it was just a matter of doing it. And I suppose, you didn’t have time to think. And now I think about it, it was quite ambitious, but we got there in the end.

 

You said it, it is very ambitious for an Australian film and you’re right. Australian films don’t usually the budgets of American films, so it’s hard enough shooting in Australia, but you decide to take this international, and you decide to throw choreography into the mix. When you were walking onto set, on that first day, did you feel daunted? Was there ever an overwhelming feeling for you?

A little. The Sunday night, before the Monday, that’s the first time I felt a bit of apprehension, when that nervous energy comes into your body. But that was really the only night. I didn’t really sleep well that night. I made a couple of calls to friends and to other directors, and then on Monday I was on set. You know, I touched the ball for the first time, I got onto the field and had a bit of a run, and I just loved it – well not loved it, but there was work to do. So we just had to complete every day. You know there was big money, well not big money, but money enough to complete stuff. So yeah there was that time, but I didn’t really have time to think, and only when I got to the edit suite, I mean Warwick Thornton (Cinematographer) and myself just worked our butts off – as did everyone else. But being at the head of the ship, you had no time to think. But at the end, I remember sleeping so well in Saigon – the last day of the shoot. And then I got into the edit suite and I’ve gone, ” Gee, we’ve got a good little film here.” You know, because you just don’t realise it, I saw sequences, but once you put everything together, I just went, yeah I think we’ve got a nice little film for the world., I think ignorance is bliss. But in the end I just went yeah ok, but now, in giving the film to the world, then you realise how much it means.

People are talking awards, and I know that Harvey Weinstein was misquoted, when it was written that he said at Cannes, “this is the next The Artist”, but even just to have Harvey Weinstein on board – that’s huge!

Well they bought the film, so it is great. I mean the awards are the awards, and I am not too sure about that to be honest, but to have a film guru like Harvery on board, and we’ve had a great relationship this past six months, it’s been beautiful. He’s very smart and clever and we’re just trusting him.

Let’s talk about the casting process. In an Australian film how do you think to cast Chris O’Dowd?!

Yeah, I know! Well the original character was an English person, so we sort of had a little look around the world, but that didn’t eventuate, And then we were getting closer to shooting and I was like, “Shivers, we’ve got to get a bloody guy here!” So, the producers flew me to LA and i met with a number of agents, including Chris’. She put his photo forward. Bridesmaids had just opened in America the weekend before, and she said, “Watch this guy.” I said, “OK, his OK.” But then I watched the trailer on her little computer and I thought. “Yeah, I’m liking him”. But then I went and saw the film that afternoon and I immediately made a phone call to the producers and said, “We’ve got to get this guy”. I knew then that we would have to make this guy Irish. The writers and producers said yes straight away. All that was left to do was get Chris on board. And you know, he could have done anything, I don’t even know why he said yes! He says that he had a love for the period, and for the script, but I wonder if we offered him the film now, where his career’s at, would he have said yes? But he was brilliant. As soon as I had that first Skype meeting with him, I think he was in a British Airways lounge, travelling to the New York premiere of Bridesmaids. I thought he would be a bit more of a larikin, laid back, haivng a Guiness in his hand but he wasn’t, He was straight up, just going over notes in the script. He said after that first phone call he thought he would probably never hear from me again. But we worked on the script, the 24 hours after that first phone call, and we got a script back to him and his agent, and he was like, “WOW, these guys mean business.” And then it took another week for contractual stuff, and then he said yes.

 

What was Chris like on set? Because we do think of him as this larrikin.

That’s what I thought because I had viewed all the youtube clips before I had even spoken to him. But, no, he is so clever, and such a trooper and a professional. The way he and I worked together was great because he just wants the best from every scene. The scene might be there on page but he is always mining for detail. With Deborah Mailman and him on board, because the other 3 girls are relatively new to the whole game, but having those 2 as the leads of the film, and as people to look up to, their talent and their professionalism just went down to everyone else.

You mentioned the girls, they came across like they has know each other for a while. If there was no chemistry between them, it doesn’t matter how good this film was, it wouldn’t have worked. How did you go about making this work?

We did choreogrpahy for 2 weeks and then we did some rehearsals for another 2 weeks, but when they did the choreography, of all of the dances in the film, that’s when they actually really connected, and I’d do that for the next film actually – whether it be a dance piece or not, because what it does is, your defences are down, and you just all have to work together as a little team – it’s great for bonding. So that’s the best thing, and then they were like a dynamite family throughout the whole shoot. I was seriously waiting for someone to moan and complain about someone else – you know what actors and actresses are like, they’re sometimes selfish, sometimes fractured, but it never happened. It was quite the opposite, and sometimes that scared me a little bit, because it was actually too good. Everyone was getting on well. The crew were loving it and everyone was laughing everyday, I was thinking, can someone hate eachother, give me some grit. I was a bit scared because sometimes shoots go really well and you end up with a crap film. But luckily it turned out for us!

A lot of Australian films don’t make it onto the world stage. Besides films by Baz Luhrman, the last Aussie film that people really took to their hearts was Priscilla Queen of the Desert. What is it about The Sapphires that has made people connect with it?

With those films, there’s one about 3 homosexuals, one’s about ballroom dancing, and then you’ve got this film – 4 Aboriginal girls in 1968, who’s going to see those 3 films, who cares? I don’t know, they just seem to resonate, because the people are real, it just has a heart to it and it has a simple sense of joy and a sense of what it is like to be human. I mean, all the films I grew up with in the 80s, the ones I loved, you laughed and left the cinema with a tear in your eye, but I suppose when you leave, it makes you feel human again or it touches on some emotion that doesn’t get touched on every day of the week by a Hollywood blockbuster. So it’s just these simple stories that just have a little bit more heart. A little bit more joy and they just give you a little bit of a life lesson.

Wayne, how do you top this experience? Are you nervous about your next feature?

No not really, to be honest. I just want to sign up on the dotted line. When the film came out in Cannes, I had no idea how much it would travel around the world, so now I am just trying to keep everything simple. There might be a project out in the UK, but I am not too sure. I just want to do something again that has a really good story. If you try to do it for other reasons it just doesn’t work.

THE SAPPHIRES is now showing in Irish cinemas
Words : Sarina Bellissimo