It's been over a decade since Tony Briggs first conceived The Sapphires based on stories told
by his mother, an original member of the soul-singing quartet of Aboriginal
women that entertained Vietnam troops in the 1960s.
First developed as a 2005 stage play, then a feature film that screened at last year's Cannes Film Festival, The Sapphires will finally reach U.S. audiences this Friday March 22 when it opens in theaters.
As the filmmakers are on a whirlwind tour promoting the release, I had a chance to chat briefly with Briggs and director Wayne Blair about making the movie, and what we can look forward to seeing.
JT: Tell me about how the project came together, and the process of developing the play and the feature film?
TB: I wrote the play in the late '90s. I was having conversations with my mother and she kept on mentioning it, so I took a lot of notes. She didn't know at the time that I was thinking about writing about this.
JT: How did she respond when you told her you were developing her story into a production?
TB: [Laughs] She was quite blown away by it actually. She said, "Good luck. When are you going to get a real job?" Once we got into production and I brought her into the rehearsal room, it started to sink in for her and for me too. But her reaction was supportive as always.
Just by chance I met an old friend from the Modern Theater Company and I told her what I was thinking of doing, and the following week I got a call from the Modern Theater Company. I ended up in a program for new playwrights and from there it just sort of snowballed. Next thing you know, potential producers were coming to the opening night.
JT: How has the project changed since developing it from a play to a film, and what can we expect from the movie?
TB: We added a lot more malenergy in the feature film. I always wanted to create more of a balance, and to have love interests. You can do so much more with a film, and take away what doesn't work and cut around it. A stage play is a very linear process.
Also with the character Kay (Shari Sebens), the theme of a fair-skinned Aboriginal person had never been fully explored before in Australian film and I really wanted to approach that. That's something that was very different, and it created a particular dynamic between her and the Gail character (Deborah Mailman). That really opened it up for us as writers. It was really exciting.
JT: It's been said that actors and artists of color in Australia struggle with limited opportunities, similar to those in the U.S. Do you see your film having an impact on that?
WB: Firstly, it's great to have positive [images] in our own country of females of color. And that's become the one of the missions of Tony and myself, to tell these stories, if people aren't going to give us a go - whether actors, directors or writers - to tell our own stories. The Sapphires is a great example of that, where you have four Aboriginal female actresses who probably wouldn't get a chance in the mainstream, but are now definitely [reaching] mainstream and the world.
JT: How did you approach bringing some of the heavier subjects, particularly issues like colorism, to the film? And what's been the response?
TB: As a writer, when you're talking about topics like this you have to talk from the heart, and be honest with yourself first in order to be accessible to your audience. An important thing is also to allow the story to be accessible to non-indigenous people. Not to be standing on my soapbox and pounding them over the head with it, but to open my arms wide and say, I have a little yarn to share with you. It'll make you laugh, it'll make you cry, it'll make you angry, but it'll definitely make you think.
That's what's happened in Australia. We as Aboriginal artists always want to share the joy that we experience, but it's been a process. This story had to be told in this way. And I think Australian audiences and hopefully the rest of the world will really embrace that. They definitely get it in Australia.
JT: What else can we expect from the movie? Would you say it bears any similarity to other musical dramas like Dreamgirls or Sparkle?
WB: Dreamgirls doesn't have a smoking ceremony in it, nor does it have any other language but English in it. Dreamgirls is really about the Supremes. This story is about Aboriginal women who went to Vietnam to support American troops and Australian troops. This is nothing like Dreamgirls.
The Sapphires opens in theaters this Friday March 22.