Robert Connolly Interview

Blueback in a new Australian family film being released to start 2023 and I recently spoke with director Robert Connolly (The Dry) about the interesting project…

Matt:  I remember talking to you a few years ago about family movies and how Aussies tend to rely more on American imports instead of making our own.  Is Blueback an attempt at balancing the ledger?

Robert:  Yeah.  We know there’s been a great success of Australian films here going right back to my own childhood with Storm Boy.  We’ve then had movies like Red Dog and my own movie, Paper Planes, which did really well.  I think Australians love taking their kids to films that reflect their own world and are familiar to them.  It’s fantastic that Blueback continues that tradition. 

Matt:  I know you’re a fan of Tim Winton having produced The Turning about a decade ago.  What was the spark that made you think Blueback deserved a cinematic adaptation?

Robert:  I read it when it came out back in 1998.  It’s such a great book about the ocean and Tim calls it a “fable for all ages”.  It’s a beautiful, optimistic story about the ocean and our responsibility to it while also being about a mother and a child, and a fish.  It had all these elements which spoke to me.  Australians flock to the sea and we swim on amazing coral reefs and we just love it.  A film like this is a rare gift to get to make.

Matt:  So when did you first approach Tim about making it into a movie?

Robert:  When the book came out in 1998.  I couldn’t work out how to do it though and so I took some time off and returned to it after the success of Paper Planes.  Eric Bana and I had some discussions and we went and made The Dry which was successful but we wanted to make another film and bring it to audiences for our families. 

Matt:  The central character in Winton’s book was a boy but here it’s been changed to a girl.  Any reason behind that?

Robert:  Yeah, I’ve got two daughters and they were giving me a bit of grief about having another male protagonist like Paper Planes.  They were right actually.  I spoke to Tim and he said “go for it” and explore the idea.  It’s a universal story about a child and the power of a mother to instill a value system in that child about the environment.  I think it speaks to both young boys and girls but it was fun changing it for my daughters.

Matt:  The book is 25 years old.  Were there many other alterations you and Tim felt needed to be made to reflect today’s way of thinking?

Robert:  Yeah, it’s a really good question.  The book deals a lot with biodiversity and we know that a many marine reserves have been established which has had a beneficial impact on our oceans.  We stopped hunting whales and now the ocean is full of them.  They are wonderful stories about how when you change your ways, the ocean can heal itself.

The big thing that’s happened since the book has been the continuing dangerous curve of climate change.  That’s something Tim and I spoke about to reference and address in the film.  Particularly when you think about our great coral reefs which are under threat from the rising temperatures of the ocean’s waters.  That was a new element that Tim and I intertwined into the film but with a sense of optimism to show there is a path forward through activism and change.

Matt:  The story in the novel is told in chronological order but with the film, you mix that up.  What was the motivation behind that creative choice?

Robert:  I’ve always loved that going back to my earlier films and I know people did with The Dry.  I have this feeling that cinema is a great form to show how the past and present are “hand in glove” in our lives.  I remember someone asking in any given day, how much time do we spend between thinking about the past, the present, and the future?  It’s probably in equal measure because we live our lives in three different time frames.  Cinema is an amazing artform in that I can blend those timeframes together in a poetic, lyrical way.  It’s a credit to my editor that it’s so seamless and easy for an audience to follow.

Matt:  Without giving too much away, I’ll like to get your thoughts on the way death is covered in the film.  Particularly in terms of what is seen and what is not seen.

Robert:  Yeah, it’s a family film.  Babe director Chris Noonan was a great mentor when I made Paper Planes and he said there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of sadness when it comes to family movies.  Walt Disney knew this and the Pixar films are the same.  I want to offer a range of emotions but not in a confronting way.  There’s no point about being graphic because if you’re targeting this audience, you need to make sure they can trust it.

Matt:  Movies often rely on make-up artists to help age characters but you’ve gone with a different approach here with Radha Mitchell playing the younger Dora and Liz Alexander playing the older Dora.  Was consideration given to the same actor playing both roles?

Robert:  I think actors are amazing and there’s this tradition of different actors playing different time frames.  I sometimes feel it’s artificial if you take a 40-year-old actor and age them to look like a 70-year-old.  The role of Abby is played by Mia Wasikowska, Ilsa Fogg and Ariel Donoghue – these three women play the one character and I think when you watch the film, you effortlessly move between them.

Matt:  Where was this shot?  It looks like a stunning part of Australia.

Robert:  It’s in Bremer Bay in Western Australia between Albany and Esperance.  It’s an incredible part of the world which is about a 6-hour drive south-east from Perth.  Some days its beautiful and idyllic and other days it’s tough and visceral.  It has an incredible marine life.  We lived there for many months while making the film.  It takes the audience to somewhere they’ve never been and I love that about cinema.  We’re above the water, beneath the water, we see Bremer Bay, and we see the Ningaloo Reef.  I have to pinch myself that I get to direct these films because it’s very exciting.

Matt:  The house in the film is fantastic as well.  Did it have to be constructed or was it always there?

Robert:  We built the house.  Clayton Jauncey was my amazing production designer and we stood on that plot of land overlooking the bay and he said “I can build the house for you here.”  A lot of American films do stuff in a studio whereas in this, we see young Abby come from inside the house and step onto the verandah and we follow her out and there’s the view.  You get a sense of what it would be like to grow up there and have that as your view every morning when you wake up – looking out at the clouds and the whales beneath your house.  Building the house was a critical choice we made.

Matt:  A fair chunk of this film is shot either on a blustery coastline or under the sea.  Did things go to plan or were there unexpected challenges?

Robert:  I’ll be frank – it was pretty tricky.  It’s not easy… but making films shouldn’t be easy.  We took the crew there and taught these actors how to free dive so they could do their own stunts.  Ilsa dove 20 metres down and swum along the bottom of the bay.  It did have its challenges.  We had shark mitigation drones looking for sharks for example.  We pushed the film to the edge of what was possible but I’m delighted with what we were able to achieve.

Matt:  There are some beautiful underwater shots.  Did you end up in the water yourself or was that left to trained experts?

Robert:  I did but I don’t scuba dive.  The first thing we shot were the whale sharks on the Ningaloo Reef and that was incredible.  I was with Tim Winton and our underwater camera operator and they said if a shark turns towards you to get out of the way.  A shark then turned our way and my adrenalin went through the roof.  It’s the most incredible thing to see this majestic marine creature in front of you.  We also spent time with the titular character, blue gropers like Blueback, in Clovelly in Sydney.  They’re called the “puppy dog of the ocean” because they come right up and you can pat them.

Matt:  Central to the story is the blue groper which I’m going to assume is special effects?

Robert:  That’s for the audience to work out (laughs).  The only thing I would say is that we didn’t do any VFX.  There’s a tradition of puppetry which goes back to E.T. and Yoda in Star Wars that families love.  There’s so much VFX in some movies now that it’s almost like animation.  As spectacular as that is, I’m more old-fashioned and I like the idea of putting actors in the real world.

Matt:  You’ve got three recognizable Australian stars here in Mia Wasikowska, Radha Mitchell and Eric Bana.  How did you settle on them being the right fit for the roles?

Robert:  It was during the heart of the COVID pandemic and they’re all my friends.  They had to do two weeks quarantining to be able to film.  They are three of this country’s great actors and they really gave me 150%.  I can’t thank them enough.  Eric Bana did two weeks quarantining to play that small supporting role.  We haven’t seen him do comedy for a long time and it was fantastic.  There’s also a great love of Tim Winton which helped lure them in.

Matt:  It’s not a big role but I’m always impressed by Eric Bana.  He comes across in this film as a very chatty, fun character.  Was that part of your instruction to him or did he create that himself?

Robert:  He’s very clever.  He did a lot of research and grew the hair and the beard.  He learned how to drive boats and tried to understand what an abalone fisherman would be like.  He’s a detailed performer who went right into the heart of the character.

Matt:  What are you working on at the moment?  What will we see from you next?

Robert:  Eric and I are current finishing the sequel to The Dry called Force of Nature.  We’ve finished the shoot and are currently in post-production.  Sometime next year I’ll be chatting to you about that.