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THE SAPPHIRES

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 recordist.

"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 wonderful atmosphere."

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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