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The Sapphires - Wayne Blair interview

The Sapphires, Wayne Blair

Interview by Rob Carnevale

WAYNE Blair talks about directing The Sapphires and his journey from appearing in the original stage play to taking it around the world as an Australian film phenomenon.

He also talks about filming in Saigon and Vietnam and why he thinks tone was one of the most important things the film had to get right.

Q. This is based on a true story, so how aware were you of the true story before you did this film?
Wayne Blair: Basically, the stage show back in 2004-2005. Until then, it was just [screenwriter] Tony Briggs’ immediate family, so the story had been unearthed. I think it was about 30 or 35 years, so I was one of the first people after 35 years to hear about it.

Q. Did you always think it had cinematic potential?
Wayne Blair: At the time I had to pay the bills in Sydney and I was working with Deb. So, I didn’t see that, to be honest. But I think straight away when the season sold out in Melbourne and it sold out in Sydney, Tony got a number of offers from producers… and not only from Australia but around the world and then I saw the potential.

Q. How did you go about casting the film?
Wayne Blair: Well, it was a process of a couple of years. We went everywhere in Australia basically and we saw arguably between 120 and 150 ladies and indigenous women that could sing, act and dance. It was that process and nailed it down to these four. But we went everywhere and eventually got three Darwin girls and a Mount Isa lady.

Q. This is a film about racism and war that works as a comedy. How difficult was it to find the right tone and were you constantly aware of that?
Wayne Blair: Of course, yes! Going into production, or pre-production I always had a close association with the two script-writers, Tony Briggs and Keith Thompson, just to talk about what we wanted to actually make. It was great because we wanted to firstly say that in 1968 that Aboriginal people did participate. These are four females that had the same wants and needs as non-indigenous females and not to be heavy with that. Secondly, to suddenly put them in this world where they just want to travel and to sing songs to the Vietnam troops – not that they knew that at the time. The catalyst at the time was this sort of Irish roustabout.

So, yes, a little bit. We looked at tone a lot. But it was one of those things where we just had to shoot what we had planned every day and only in the edit suite did I realise what we unearthed and then we dipped into that. It just worked really, really fine. Tonally, that’s one of the things I’m most proud about and now the film has sold all around the world, to everywhere you can sell a film I think except for Japan. It’s great just to have been able to represent the Aboriginal people and to give something joyful and beautiful to the world. I think tonally we got it right.

Q. How easy was it to shoot in Saigon and, in particular, get a US army vehicle back on the streets?
Wayne Blair: [Laughs] Good question! We were there for a week but we did a lot of preparation with this film. It’s ambitious and it’s big but we were prepared, so we made a couple of trips over there with the cinematographer and the production designer. So, to get a couple of vehicles in Saigon was up to the producers, I suppose. It was relatively easy on my part. But we had a great time over there. We had five or six locations over five or six weeks and it just worked beautifully to what we were after.

But over in Vietnam we could also work longer hours with Vietnamese crews, so we were doing 14 to 16 hour days, which was… you think you’re going to get it all but it’s like you’re cramming everything into an exam for myself and the behind the camera people. We just worked our asses off because of the nature of the film. I remember in the Rex Hotel on the last night that I slept like a baby… every other night I was a little bit pensive and a little bit here and there. I remember these guys kept partying but I was in bed by 10pm [laughs]. It was the first Western film in about 10 t0 12 years that had shot over there, so it was great. It was an experience. And they welcomed us with open arms.

Q. Was there actually a marriage between the two main characters?
Wayne Blair: It’s funny, the original script had the guy down as an English character but then Chris came on board and we thought ‘let’s make this guy Irish’ and just went for it. But it’s funny, the uncle that Chris mentioned had been in their family for 45 years and still is there. It’s funny how things come full circle because back then you had this white Irish uncle back in the ‘60s marrying this Aboriginal woman and they had one of the first pubs in Port Melbourne back in the day. So, they were a little bit of a force to be reckoned with and they’re still together. So, unknowingly it happened in our script but at the start it was one of those things that the stars were aligned.

Q. How much of an influence has Harvey Weinstein been on the success of the film?
Wayne Blair: Yes. He picked it up before Cannes this year and it’s been a journey since then. It won the Aspen Audience Award a week and a half ago, it’s opening in San Diego. It’s been to San Francisco, Hawaii, Telluride and Toronto, so they’re running with it, the Weinsteins, which is great.

“Read our review of The Sapphires

Read our interview with Chris O’Dowd