The Sapphires film sings into America! Interview with director, Wayne Blair

Wayne Blair, 41, is an Indigenous Australian writer and actor, and director of the award winning film The Sapphires. A story about an all-female Aboriginal music group that entertains US troops in Vietnam in 1968, check out The Sapphires trailer. Billabout caught up with the talented Australian at the B_Space store in New York. The Sapphires opens in the U.S. on 22 March.

Where is home for you these days, Wayne?
Sydney is home at the moment, but Hervey Bay and Fraser Island, Queensland were originally.

Can you explain the influence of American music in the film?
In the 1960’s the association with the Black Civil Rights Movement, James Brown and people like that, were of great influence to Aboriginal people in Melbourne and Sydney. All of the footage of the protests that I have is all original footage.

How did The Sapphires story come your way?
It was originally a stage show, a musical, and I’m an actor and was involved in the original production. We were young and doing our thing working at the Melbourne Theatre Company.

Tell us how the film has been received so far?
So, it’s won five audience awards. It was first played in Cannes, but it was a different cut of the film back in those days. [Harvey] Weinstein saw a preview in Berlin last year and then he sent someone to Australia to see it, acquisition people, but they didn’t see it because we hadn’t finished it. He eventually saw it at the screening in SoHo when we finished it and he was the first acquisition person to see. It’s been great because he’s been very positive.

What are some cultural differences between Australian and American filmmakers?
When you meet a young American filmmaker or young director in Australia, Americans are just so into themselves. It’s business, it’s part of their vernacular. It’s not them being up yourself but it’s, “I’ve got a product. I’ve got a solution for you. Here I am! I’m a director! Please hire me because I’m the best!” and that’s just being honest. In Australia, it’s more humble and you just stand in the background. When The Sapphires won those actor awards and it was on Twitter and Facebook there was a time when I was sick of people talking about it. It was like “Fuck! Talk about something else!”

Can you tell us a bit about your background? How did you get into film making?
My old man was in the Army, he was the first Aboriginal Regimental Sgt. Major in Australia back in the 1960’s. I got brought up on football and cricket, and came to the arts later. I started acting at 23, but I originally went to Qt (university) in Brisbane and studied business and marketing. Directing sort of came off the back of acting; I came late to that as well. I used to go to the Australian Film Television Radio School (AFTRS) a lot. My friend from Queensland was an assistant there but was also the best editor. I used to hang out with her in the lobby and watch films. Then this Indigenous filmmaker place called Metroscreen opened in Paddington in Sydney and was looking for people to shoot 5 minute films. So I put my hand up and wrote a story. It was called The Lester Bus Stop Scheme.

What was the first performance you did?
I just wanted to act, it’s always been something in me. I did this routine with my cousin where we went to this place in Rocky called The Dreamtime Cultural Centre, it’s Australia’s largest Aboriginal cultural center and we did a set called Didgeri-don’t; I can play the didgeridoo but I haven’t for ages. Didgeri-don’t was a little comedy routine that we toured Australia with.

When was the last time you were in New York?
I did Cloudstreet over here in 2001 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), post September 11. I then went to NYU the following year and I’ve been back and forth a little bit.

What do people from your hometown make of your success?
You go back home and you meet the kids and they cut you down to size. I think that’s the secret. You can be with Lindsay Lohan at a bar, but it means nothing if you can’t make a fire or fucking hammer some nails into some shit, or keep electricity on in your house, you know? When The Sapphires premiered in Melbourne I got all my mates tickets and they loved that. They keep you honest, your mates and stuff.

Check Fandango for viewing times.

Interview by Pete Maiden.

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