Harvey Weinstein called at midnight: The Sapphires’ Wayne Blair

08 August, 2012 by Sandy George

This article originally appeared in IF Magazine #147 (June-July 2012).

Two of director Wayne Blair’s most vivid memories of Cannes are being driven to the midnight screening of The Sapphires – “just breathe, just breathe,” he kept telling himself – and the sight of the Aboriginal Australian flag being flown at the Grand Hotel.


He’d been to the world’s most prestigious festival once before: in 2010 when the producers, Rosemary Blight and Kylie du Fresne, were financing the musical.

“It was one of those little fantasies you have: to get the money in Cannes and then be able to go back and present the film,” said Blair, one of 15 Australians who travelled to the South of France specifically for the film’s out-of-competition midnight screening.

This time around Blair was in Cannes for 10 days instead of three and, despite having to do between 20 and 30 media interviews, he said he enjoyed himself. He knew six weeks prior that The Weinstein Company had bought the rights to many territories, including North America, although it was not announced until Cannes.

It was “one of those pinch yourself moments” when Harvey Weinstein called him at around midnight in a hotel room in Katherine to confirm the sale. (The film had already been sold to Diaphana for France, Lev Films for Israel, eOne for Canada, Lusomundo for Portugal and Cinesky for airlines.)

“The best thing was that he was from the US and related to the film in the way we relate to it, and wanted to share the film with the world,” said Blair, who met with the legendary distributor several times during Cannes.

“People think the subject is unique and that it is a beautiful, unique and charming film, and a breath of fresh air,” said Blair when asked what reactions he’s been getting. “They have seen films about the Vietnam War through many eyes but not through the eyes of four Koori women. That’s what makes the film different.”

Blair says the film explores themes of family, love and the notion that anything is possible: after all, the four sisters (played by Jessica Mauboy, Deborah Mailman, Shari Sebbens and Miranda Tapsel) who go to Vietnam to sing for the troops are from a remote mission in Victoria. The film is set in 1968, just after a referendum had officially given Aboriginal people the vote, but the young women are given direction and encouragement from a “knockabout” Irish guy with a big heart (Chris O’Dowd), not from an Australian.

“It was crazy but in a good way,” Blair said of the production period. He was so nervous on the night before filming began that he rang Jindabyne director Ray Lawrence. “It didn’t help: I still didn’t sleep,” he said. “But I did after that. All I had time to do was get it done: scene-by-scene, beat-by-beat. It wasn’t until we all came back from Saigon [where the last week of filming occurred] that it hit me what we had done.

"'Things of value are only obtained through pain and sacrifice',” he laughs, quoting Newcastle Knights coach Wayne Bennett. “I love the fact that we achieved what we set out to achieve seven or eight years ago and I love the fact that the co-writer [Tony Briggs], cinematographer [Warwick Thornton] and I were all indigenous and that the whole team – from the producers through to the caterers – were brought together because of this film.”

Briggs first wrote a stage play based on his mother’s real-life story, later collaborating with Keith Thompson on the film script. According to Blair, the success of the stage play meant there was a lot of expectation on the film.

“I just knew we had to get it right,” he said. There were other pressures too. “When an Aboriginal film goes well it opens up more opportunities for Aboriginal people.”

Hopscotch/eOne releases The Sapphires locally on August 9, a week after it opens the Melbourne International Film Festival, but Blair has already shown his mum the film.

“I showed her a version at Christmas time and she loved it. And I know indigenous people will love it and hopefully it will be embraced by everyone because we made it for everyone.”