About the Production
When THE SAPPHIRES director Wayne Blair, who is also an acclaimed actor, starred in the
original production of the stage play of the same name in 2005, he had little idea of the
extraordinary presence this amazing story, inspired by real events, would have in his life over
the coming years.
The stage play was written by writer/actor Tony Briggs to tell his own family's story and was
an immediate hit, playing to packed theatre audiences across Australia. Actress Deb
Mailman, one of the leading ladies in film of THE SAPPHIRES, also starred in an early
production with Wayne Blair - and Tony Briggs himself took over Wayne's role when
Wayne was invited to the Berlin Film Festival with his short film The Djarns Djarns
(produced by Goalpost Pictures' Kylie du Fresne who with Goalpost partner Rosemary Blight
are producers of THE SAPPHIRES).
Wayne returned from Berlin, with the Crystal Bear Award for Best Short Film in hand, and
the emerging idea of directing a feature film based on THE SAPPHIRES play.
"After the early success of the play Tony Briggs began thinking about a film as he had been
approached by a number of producers. He'd always thought of me as the director and, as
Kylie had produced THE DJARN DJARNS, she and Rosemary came on board as producers and
Tony began to work on the script with Keith Thompson," Wayne says.
"The film has taken a few years, and we've all been doing other things in the meantime, but
THE SAPPHIRES has always been there as a touchstone."
For Deb Mailman, who plays Gail in the film, the journey has also been a heartfelt one.
"Having been in the play in 2005, I knew then how wonderful the story was and to finally see
it come to the big screen and the fact that I'm here in it, is just amazing. I don't take this for
granted at all. It's just been an incredible journey. They are extraordinary women and it's
really great to see their family story represented on the big screen," she says.
"THE SAPPHIRES to me is a story of empowerment, especially for our younger generation. The
story gives us an understanding of what it was like in Australia in 1968 for Aboriginal people
and to understand what these women did -- with their strength and their humour - to just
move through that and become singers and embrace the opportunity. It's really inspiring."
For producers Rosemary Blight and Kylie du Fresne, the story immediately felt distinctive
and cinematic -- with emotion, humour, drama and music -- and it came to them in a number
of ways. They were already working with Wayne Blair, Tony Briggs was an actor in THE DJARN DJARNS and their regular writing collaborator, Keith Thompson, now head of the
Goalpost Pictures development arm -- had also discovered the magic of the original Sapphires
story and shared it with them.
Rosemary and Kylie brought on Australian and international partners including Hopscotch as
Australian domestic distributor, Tristan Whalley from Goalpost Film, their sister company in
the UK and IFS Capital in Singapore.
Then came the enormous job of casting four lead actresses and a lead actor.
"It was a challenge because, for the girls, we were looking for four really distinct characters
and they had to be Aboriginal and, ideally, at least one of them had to be an amazing singer.
As well, we learnt about the balance of voices that you need for a four-girl group and that
voice balance was equally important as the acting chops. So we had probably about two or
three extra elements that we were looking compared to a usual casting process," producer
Kylie du Fresne says.
Rosemary Blight continues: "It was the longest casting process I think we've ever done! It
was always going to be about the four girls and obviously we had the various stage play
productions and their combinations of girls to consider, but Wayne, who is brilliant at
casting, wanted to be really rigorous about this process and make sure he got the right on-
screen Sapphires. So we set up a website and through our casting director Nikki Barrett, we
got messages out to all the Aboriginal communities around the country and all the acting
schools asking girls to up load test scenes and songs onto this website. Then we'd scour to
see who had emerged. It was very exciting."
They began with around 150 actresses to audition -- mixing and matching for week after
week, scene after scene, before deciding on the amazing cast of Deborah Mailman, Jessica
Mauboy, Shari Sebbens and Miranda Tapsell as The Sapphires.
Wayne says that after multiple auditions, intense drama rehearsals as well as dance rehearsals
with the renowned choreographer Stephen Page, from Bangarra Dance Theatre, the bond
between the four was unbreakable.
"It was not something that we scheduled - they just chose to hang out as a foursome and
really bonded. I think they knew that they had to get to know each other well to play sisters.
They just wanted to hang out and having the generosity of Stephen Page was a catalyst for
good things. There was me, our drama coach Rachel Coopes, Keith Thompson, Rose and
Kylie and all egos were left at the door. We did some hard physical training together, we sang
together, we ate together and we rehearsed the scenes together. Even Warwick Thorton, our
DOP, came down to Sydney from his home in Alice Spring for a couple months before we
started. So before we even shot one scene, everyone knew each other well and there was a lot
of trust," Wayne says.
Rosemary and Kylie can't speak highly enough of their four leading ladies.
"Deb is just one of Australia's greatest actors and she brought heart, a depth of experience,
'grounded-ness' and absolute soul to this piece. Her role is to play Mumma bear. She is the
one who has got to take her little cubs through Vietnam and keep them alive while in her
sight lines there's this gorgeous man. She has to work out how to look after her family as
well as fulfill where her own heart is going. Deb Mailman does it with such beauty and grace
and I just can't wait for everyone to see what she has done with Gail," Rosemary says.
Kylie continues: "Jessica Mauboy, who plays the youngest of the four, came into the casting
process quite late. We'd been looking around for quite a while and we realised that the
character of Julie had to have an extraordinary voice as we didn't want to have to go into
voice replacement. Jessica had only done one film before which was Bran Nue Dae, and
finally, just as we were about to make some decisions she emerged and agreed to audition for us. Jessica is a very big name in the music world so that's a big thing. When she auditioned
Wayne could see something really exciting about her -- a real spark -- and we already knew
that she was an amazing singer. And Jess is made to sing soul music!
The production made two exciting discoveries in Shari Sebbens and Miranda Tapsell for the
roles of Kay and Cynthia. Both, like Jessica Mauboy, are originally from Darwin and both
are graduates of the Western Australian Academy of the Performing Arts and NIDA, so they
knew each other well.
They auditioned several times, together and separately, for the roles.
Kylie says: "Afterwards, the girls told us because they grew up together they went through
the audition process supporting each other, although there were points when they were too
scared to tell each other that they'd gone to the next stage. But they just kept on practicing
and reading against each other before they came into the test room with us, so their journey
has really been behind the scenes from the beginning as well as being on camera."
The last major role to be cast was that of Dave, The Sapphires' roustabout Irish talent
manager, played by rising international star Chris O'Dowd. Wayne was a fan of his work in
THE IT CROWD and, on a casting trip to LA, saw the smash hit comedy BRIDESMAIDS, in which
Chris also stars. Wayne felt that Chris had all the qualities required for Dave and
immediately contacted Rosemary and Kylie who readily agreed.
Chris worked closely with Wayne and the writing team on honing the character and, while
simultaneously shooting a Judd Apatow film in the US, THIS IS 40, enthusiastically embraced
the idea of coming to Australia and Vietnam to film.
"When I read the script I had never really read anything like it before. It was covering things
I was unfamiliar with which I was kind of attracted to and it was a genre of music that I love
which really helped. I thought it was interesting to play that kind of character - I'd never
played a character that was capable of doing anything before!" Chris laughs.
"In terms of what I knew about Australia, my brother had travelled around a lot and when I
was young he told me loads of great stories, so I was always conscious of wanting to come
over here to see what it was like. And people who come here seem to love it and never leave.
"I knew bits and pieces about the Vietnam War. I have a degree in politics and it was
something that I had majored in back at the time. So I thought that world was interesting to
go and look at. And I had never done a war kind of a thing before because I look so
ridiculous in uniform so this was a good opportunity."
Chris wasn't aware of Wayne Blair's background but he did his research and realised they
had worked with some of the same people, such as Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who spoke
very highly of Wayne.
"I talked to Wayne several times on the phone and it all then happened very quickly. He was
very on the ball, had great ideas, so I really warmed to him," Chris says.
Director of Photography Warwick Thornton is both a DOP and a director. As a director, he
won the Camera d'Or at the 2009 Cannes International Film Festival for his film SAMSON & DELILAH. Wayne visited Warwick at his home in Alice Spring while working on another
project but the conversation turned to THE SAPPHIRES.
"We were talking about actresses and cinematography and, at the time, I thought to myself
that I should ask Warwick to do it, but I didn't ask him that day. It came back to me a week
or so later. I read the script again another couple of times and mentioned Warwick to
Rosemary and Kylie and it was like a light bulb had gone off in their heads," Wayne says.
"Warwick's been in the industry for longer than I have. He's very experienced, he began
making documentaries at CAAMA* when he was 15 or 16. So I wasn't sure, with his own
directing career and experience, how he would react to being asked to shoot THE SAPPHIRES.
But he was really excited when the producers called. Then I went up to Alice Spring for a
weekend and we were just like two kids in a lolly shop. The film wouldn't be what it is today
without our friendship and the professionalism that he brought to it. The schedule was tight,
we had 14 songs we had to shoot, three relatively inexperienced leading ladies beside Deb
Mailman, we had many locations - Saigon, Albury, various locations in Sydney and on its
western outskirts, we had helicopters and guns -- and all set in 1968, to it was period as well!"
Other heads of department are among the most experienced in the Australian film industry --
Melinda Doring as Production Designer, Tess Schofield as Costume Designer, Nikki Gooley
as head of the Hair and Makeup department, Dany Cooper as Editor and Ben Osmo as sound
"The production designer was really important and key to the success of this film. We're
lucky in Australia to have a really healthy talent pool of designers so we met lots of people,
but Melinda has got an eye for detail quite unlike anyone else. Her research was just
impeccable. In our discussions, she knew exactly what every one of these characters would
be doing, what they would be wearing, what rooms they were staying in, what a chair looked
like, what magazines whey would have - her attention to detail is extraordinary, you can see
that in the film," Rosemary says.
Once Wayne, Warwick and Melinda came together, one of their starting points for the look of
the film was the mission on the Murray River where the girls had grown up. Kylie du Fresne
continues: "They wanted a film that was beautiful, a world that was welcoming and was
somewhere you wanted to live. It's not necessarily how Aboriginal missions have been
portrayed very often in cinema. Wayne spoke a lot about THE COLOR PURPLE as a kind of
reference - that there was beauty in everything, regardless of where."
Melinda Doring's sets included US military bases and hospital, built on the outskirts of
western Sydney which doubled as Vietnam for some scenes, and she transformed a nightclub
in contemporary Kings Cross, Sydney, to one set in 1968 Saigon. Other scenes were filmed
on location in Saigon, where the cast and crew stayed at the landmark Rex Hotel.
Costume Designer Tess Schofield is renowned for her work in opera, theatre and film.
"We just fell in love with Tess Schofield - she's just an extraordinary, crazy, wonderful
genius type I think. She just kept going harder and harder, she was constantly trying to make
it better. For example, she created a whole look for one musical sequence, but then once we
did a camera test on it, she looked at us and said 'it doesn't work' and then she rebuilt it
again. She has an incredibly free way of looking at things." Rosemary says.
Choreographing the film was Stephen Page, Artistic Director of Australia's acclaimed
Indigenous dance company, Bangarra; and the Music Producer, who worked with The
Sapphires in the studio to record the classic 1960s soul tracks that underscore the film, was
Bry Jones, founding member of Australian music legends The Rockmelons and a successful
record producer in his own right. Byron was brought into the production early in the process
to work with Wayne and the producers on the music selection.
Music in the film includes some of the period's biggest hits -- 'I Heard it on the Grapevine', 'I
Can't Help Myself/Sugar Pie Honey Bunch', 'Whatta Man' and 'Land of One Thousand
Dances' amongst many others.
"The great thing about this era is you're not looking for a needle in a haystack. You're
looking for the best song in a pile of gold," Bry says. "The golden era of 60s soul had an
incredible supply of brilliant songs and incredible singers. It was a timeless soundtrack to a
tumultuous period in history that reset the board in terms of popular music and society's view
of itself. When you record these songs - you realise they are as good as it gets. Real soul
music is no place for the faint hearted - it's raw - funky - digs deep and absolutely rocks."
Reflecting on the creative team gathered for THE SAPPHIRES, Rosemary says: "We got the A
team -- it's a simple as that. Together they brought a wealth of experience virtually
unmatched on any recent Australian feature film. They were a wonderful team around Wayne
in his feature film directorial debut.
"It was incredibly challenging for all of us -- after all, we were recreating the Vietnam War on
the outskirts of Sydney -- and none of us were interested in compromise."
The quest for authenticity was further challenged by having to recreate the American side of
the Vietnam War -- with American military vehicles, helicopters, uniforms, weapons etc. The
Sapphires were flown to Vietnam to perform for US troops, not Australian soldiers.
Dozens of local extras from in and around Albury were excited to play residents of the
Aboriginal mission, while Sydney's multi-cultural population, including a burgeoning
Sudanese community in the city's western suburbs, were recruited to play hundreds of
African-American soldiers. The days when The Sapphires were performing for the troops
were huge, but a party atmosphere regularly developed with extras clearly delighting in the
performances of some of the world's best known soul music.
"There was some pretty mean dancing going on," Rosemary laughs. "It really was a
After several weeks in Australia -- on the Murray River and in Sydney -- key crew and cast
moved to Saigon where, in a city of 18 million, they managed to stop the traffic while
shooting on a bridge in the middle of town.
"Filming in Saigon was a once in a life time experience. Saigon is a pretty crazy place to
make a film, particularly when it's period. When we arrived we discovered that we were the
first foreign film allowed to shoot in Saigon in 10 years and probably the first foreign film
ever about the war. So it was a really big deal to be there and tremendously exciting for all of
us," Kylie says.
Rosemary concludes: "THE SAPPHIRES was huge film to undertake on every level and Wayne
Blair took it on with incredible aplomb. Now we're all looking forward to taking it out into
the world and are hoping that people love it as much as we do and fall in love with these
beautiful girls and this crazy Irish man."
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