"The Sapphires" director Wayne Blair: "You can walk out of the theater feeling a little more human"

The new musical dramedy The Sapphires has been a huge hit in its native Australia for close to a year now. It surprised audiences at the 2012 Cannes (where it was picked up by the Weinstein Company, and after its first screening had a standing ovation) and Toronto International Film Festivals, and even made a brief appearance in Minnesota, last October at the Twin Cities Film Festival. The Sapphires opens Friday, April 5, at the Lagoon Cinema, and its director, Wayne Blair, was in the Twin Cities last month to discuss this true story of four Aboriginal women who traveled from Australia to Vietnam and in other countries to perform for American soldiers.

Blair, 41, acted in the original Sapphires stage show written by Tony Briggs, whose mother and three aunts were the real-life Sapphires; the group was Australia’s answer to the Supremes and other Motown artists. The Sapphires originally sang country-western tunes, until an Irish talent scout and manager named Dave (played by Bridesmaids's Chris O’Dowd) convinces Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy), Kay (Shari Sebbens), and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) to turn their music styles into R&B and the Motown sound. The film is not only about the love for great Motown tunes, but delivers a little unseen history lesson in the way that Aboriginal population were treated by their fellow Australians until 1967, when Aboriginals were finally given full citizenship.

Blair and I started off the conversation by talking about Prince and Blair's love of sports, and how he has slowly been getting into American sports like NFL football and NBA basketball. When he was younger, he played cricket and rugby; he describes cricket as “similar to hockey, but less contact,” and is surprised to know that Maya Rudolph’s Prince tribune band Princess was playing at First Avenue the next evening. “Ah, I’m leaving this afternoon, but I’ve got to let Chris know that, since he and Maya are friends from Bridesmaids.”

We settled into the interview and Blair is all smiles, as his film has been receiving nice reviews. 

You originally starred in the theater version of The Sapphires that was written by Tony Briggs before there was ever a film being made.

I was. It sold out in Sydney and Melbourne and it was a hit. Tony asked me if I was interested in turning the play into a feature and if I wanted to direct it. At the time, I was making short films and did a little TV, and I told him that I was interested. And that was basically it, the film got made over the course of the last five or six years from money that came from all over the world, and we did it. But it was even longer than that—we spent eight years trying to make this film.

How much of the play was translated into the film adaptation?

It changed quite a bit. The original character of Dave Lovelace was Australian, but for the film he became Irish, when we hired Chris. The songs changed. The character of Kay and her back-story of the stolen generation was massaged into the film. To see the young girls as eight and nine years old, that was something new to the film. So there were maybe four or five major changes [made for] the film, but ever so slightly. The essence of about 65% of the stage show remained in the film.

Growing up before The Sapphires became a hit play, were you familiar with the story?

No, I wasn’t—and no one was really other than Tony’s immediate family and friends. And he didn’t even realize that his mum went to Vietnam and sung for the troops. It was one of those things sitting in his home in Sydney when his mum brought up, “Yeah, that reminds me of when I went to Vietnam and sang soul music.” And he had to ask her about, “What was that about singing for American troops in the cold face of the war back in Saigon?” So that’s how it started and how Australia got to know the story about the Sapphires.

So would you say that most Australians find out about the story through the play or through the film?

A little through the play, but that was only in Sydney and Melbourne. Once the film came out last year, it’s already made $15 million and they sold many CDs and DVDs, so they are better known now through the film.

Your background is also as an actor and short filmmaker. Talk about going from being an actor and then becoming a feature length director and some of the challenges you had.

Well as an actor you can concentrate solely on yourself to a certain extent, whereas [when you're] a director you have to concentrate on everything and be a good communicator.  That’s were I found the acting did for my directing, I became able to communicate with all the heads in different departments, along with every actor. Being a director, there’s nothing like it. It is stressful, but you still love it and you don’t want to do anything else. It's really funny.

Moving forward, do you still want to be an actor and director—or do you have a preference of one over the other?

I love acting, but I love directing more at this time. It’s kind of like “the grass is always greener,” and I say that now. I have really enjoyed my time as a director, but if someone came along with the right acting role, yeah, I’d think about it.

What kind of liberties did you have to make sure you captured the accuracy of the story, especially with Tony’s mother being one of the singers?

I had known the ladies in the stage show for a while and I am a good friend of Tony’s; there was a lot of trust. Because I knew the story quite well, and Tony and Keith [Thompson] wrote the film script, I didn’t waver off the path that much.  Even casting Chris O’Dowd and changing his character from an Australian to an Irish man, all my decisions were backed up. And Warwick Thornton, who shot the film—we were looking for someone who had experience with shooting a musical, but we ended having Warwick shot the film since he is a wonderful cinematographer. So every decision was supported along the way, and as the director, I followed the script, which served as my bible for the story.

Talk about the casting decisions. How hard was the audition process to find the four lead women to portray the singers, and how long was the shoot?

For the girls, there was a long period of about six to eight months in finding the right girls for the parts. And with Chris, he was the last person cast in the film. We were after a few actors from around the world and we got Chris and he was brilliant. The casting of Chris and the four girls were the best part of this film. As for Julie, the lead singer of the Sapphires, played by Jessica Mauboy, she was the Australian Idol runner-up, so she was our Beyoncé and our Diana Ross, and she was great. The three other girls are singers too, but Jess had the experience of singing solos and she rocked it. We chose some of the songs to suit her voice, including The Jackson 5's “Who’s Loving You”; [that] was one we knew would fit her vocal and take advantage of her great voice. And we shot the film in six weeks, even though I should have asked for eight.

Was music important to you growing up?

I wasn’t necessarily a musical junkie growing up, but country-western and soul music were big in my house growing up. I listened to Charley Pride, Merle Haggard, and George Strait.  And lately I have been singing. [sings] All my exes live in Texas.... I’ve been singing it as one of the publicists on this tour is from San Antonio, Texas. And as far as soul music, it was Aretha Franklin, the Four Tops, the Temptations, and the Drifters. That’s what mum listened to, so we listened to what mum liked until our teens. I tried watching more musicals and music films when making the film and the one I kept going back to was Ray with Jamie Foxx, which was beautifully done.

What do you hope audiences take away from the film after seeing it?

You can have a laugh, you can have a little cry, you can walk out of the theater feeling a little more human, that’s what I love about this film and it has a sense of hope. There are a lot of shoot-em films and madness in the world, this film ain’t that. This film has a heart, a sense of joy, and a sense of you can be who you want to be. So that’s a start and it says it all to me.

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    Jim Brunzell III's picture
    Jim Brunzell III

    Jim Brunzell III (djguamwins [at] yahoo [dot] com) was born in the 70's, went to school in the 80's, played sports in the 90's, and has been writing on film for the Daily Planet since 2007.  He is also the Festival Director and programmer for the Sound Unseen Music/Film/Art festival in the Twin Cities, lead programmer for the Flyway Film Festival in Pepin and Stockholm WI, the creator of "The Defenders" series at the Trylon microcinema and has been working on a novel since finishing college.  You can follow Jim on Twitter at (@JimBrunzell_3).