Wayne Blair is sitting in a hotel room on the 42nd floor of the Sofitel, in Melbourne, tapping his thumbs on the table. Outside in the hall there’s a hoard of PR agents, all of whom come to a hush when Blair stands up, closes the door and moves over to the window, looking down on Collins Street and over to the eastern suburbs.
It’s been a busy year for The Sapphires director, who is still immersed in marketing the film that received a standing ovation at Cannes Film Festival in France earlier this year.
Originally written as a stage play by Tony Briggs, The Sapphires is based on a group of Indigenous Australian soul singers who toured Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Briggs’ inspiration for the story came from his mother, Laurel Robinson, one of the original Sapphires, and explores themes of inequality and loss in a cultural mash of black Americans, Aboriginal Australians and an optimistic white Irish manager.
After its run on the stage in Melbourne and Sydney, Briggs adapted the script for film, before offering Blair the director’s role. As part of the original stage ensemble, Blair was a noticed for his production work off screen.
The Sapphires opened the Melbourne International Film Festival a couple of weeks ago and Blair and the movie’s starring actresses – Deborah Mailman and Jessica Mauboy – were all in attendance, along with Briggs’ grandmother and the original Sapphires.
As we make small talk on the 42nd floor, Blair’s gentle, unassuming nature is immediately evident, and it’s little wonder The Sapphires is such a resounding success. “To receive such a reception in Cannes was a surprise and a relief. It was good that 2000 French people got the story – a little indigenous story from country Victoria,” says Blair, who moves from the window and takes a seat opposite. “But first and foremost we wanted Australian people to take ownership of the story. If people fall in love with the story in the little towns in Australia, then we know we have something authentic,” he says.
It’s Blair’s inclusive style of directing that has the film’s entire cast, including Mailman and Mauboy, singing his praises in media interviews around the country. Blair is endowed with an innate sense of empathy and engaging people management skills. “The girls got on famously,” he says. “I was waiting for the day when Miranda went ‘Deb is doing this or Shari’s doing this’ or ‘God I hate Deborah, she’s such a bitch’, but it never came. And I usually understand if they get like that, because it’s a hard industry and there’s a lot of standing around.”
Shot across five locations – Camden, Campbelltown, Albury, Sydney and Saigon – over six weeks, the film’s production was short and rigorous. “We had five people in most scenes, from all different backgrounds and they were singing and dancing. It wasn’t just two guys in a hotel room,” Blair says, swaying back and sinking lower in his chair.
Blair and director of photography, Warwick Thornton (Samson & Delilah), spent long hours on location compiling the shots. The entire shooting process ran smoothly. “Me and Warwick were under the pump, because we only had six weeks to shoot. But we got everything done, we just had to.” With such a positive shoot, it’s only a matter of time before the superstition kicks in and Blair explains that you’re never really settled until the film comes out. “I thought it might all be happy families and happy with ourselves and then the film would be shit. I said to Rohan Woods from The Boys, ‘I heard your film was really hard to make?’ and he said, ‘Nah Wayne, everything went really well, we were organised and planned – it was such a good shoot.’”
For him, the biggest surprise on the set came from Chris O’Dowd (The IT Crowd, Bridesmaids), who “always seems to have a beer in his hand” in interviews. O’Dowd gives the film spark in the slow middle parts, with the sort of zest and outrageous energy that’s rare in Australian films. His professionalism came as a surprise to Blair, who admits that it takes a great deal of organisation to make a film look easy.
“When we met, it wasn’t general chit-chat or laughter. It was the opposite. He wanted to talk about story and character and to massage the script. He looks like he’s doing everything on a dime – he’s organised and relaxed.”
It’s the kind of professionalism that Blair himself is picture of. In the middle of talking about O’Dowd, the PR agent walks in. Blair stands and politely thanks me for the interview, before moving tirelessly onto the next room. Like his film, this is a director going places.
The Sapphires is currently showing in cinemas around Australia.