Director Glendyn Ivin delves into the making of inspirational, true story Penguin Bloom
Penguin Bloom is the true story of Sam Bloom (Naomi Watts), a young mother whose world is shattered after a near-fatal accident leaves her paralysed from the waist-down. An unlikely ally enters the Blooms’ world in the form of an injured baby magpie named Penguin. The bird’s arrival makes a profound difference on the family’s life and ignites an emotional healing journey for Sam Bloom.
Ahead of the cinematic release of the film adaptation, which is in cinemas now, we spoke with director Glendyn Ivin about working with animals, filming in the character’s actual house, and the importance of representing people with disability on screen.
What drew you to want to tell and direct the Blooms’ story?
There are two parts to this. Years ago, I'd made a wish out loud to my agent and said, ‘I would love to do a film or story that had an animal in it.’ It was partly because there were films I grew up with that became part of who I am that had animals in them, and there was something very special about them as a kid. It’s still special. I always wanted to have that experience. There's something very cinematic about dealing with main characters that can't speak. How you use the language of cinema to create their story [is important] in a way because you can't have them speaking lines. So, I was always interested in that as an exercise because it felt like a very cinematic thing to do.
More so, in the last four or five years I’ve worked on TV series including Seven Types of Ambiguity, Safe Harbour and The Cry and they were all heavy and dark shows. When I got the call about Penguin Bloom, I was deep in the middle of the edit for The Cry, which is a very dark show, and I felt the weight of that. Even just the idea of doing a story that was based in and around hope and generosity, and having this sort of positive outcome, felt like the right thing to do at that time. As much as I'm drawn to dark material, and I love it, I needed a breather and this story came into my life. There is some darkness in this story, we go there, but ultimately, it’s a much more uplifting story.
The film was shot inside the Blooms’ actual home in Sydney’s Northern Beaches. How did this change the dynamic in your directing and the acting for the cast themselves?
I loved [how we shot the film]. We are telling a true story but of course it's an adaptation, so everything is changed. It's not like we're making a documentary. I loved the idea of using their house. First and foremost, from a physical point of view, the roof plays an important part of the storytelling. She had such an active lifestyle before the accident and now she was trapped. It’s all still out there - but she couldn't connect. In this way, there was an important narrative role to the house being there. For me, there was just something about setting our story within the walls [of the Blooms’ home]. If the walls could talk, they would tell the story. The DNA of the story was there. You can feel it in the house, all the good stuff and the bad stuff that had happened, and it worked. It was a very suitable location [in a practical sense] and we didn't really make many compromises. The story kind of fell into the location.
It’s a gorgeous home and you can feel the authenticity. I heard the characters even wore some of the Blooms’ clothing and Sam was very generous and offered up her journals to Naomi Watts. Did this really change how the actors took on those roles and embody the characters who were real life people?
That’s the thing about this story, it's so personal. We're not only telling the story of Sam Bloom, but it's also her husband and her three children. We shot it in their house and it’s inescapably personal. We used some of their clothing, jewellery, so there's all these very real details built into the fabric of the film, and I was very wary of that. You need to be respectful of what you're doing and not take advantage of it. When you're telling a story, even the most accurate documentaries, it takes on a life of their own; it's still cutting and you’re still threading a story together.
With a narrative story like this, you have to make the story work which sometimes means drifting well away from what actually happened. But the Blooms I know are very happy with the film. My very first conversation with them was ‘hopefully when you see the film, nothing that happens on screen happened in your life but hopefully, you'll see it and you'll say, it's truthful and it represents the bigger truth’.
Penguin is such a key character to the film. What were the challenges in capturing the right moments with Penguin, the magpie?
That’s a story in itself. Magpies are everywhere but you can't keep them as pets. They're not trainable; they’re a protected species. Even getting birds that we could train was a whole process. Most of them came from the Northern Territory or South Australia and we had to complete an incredible amount of paperwork and permits to even bring them in. We had this amazing trainer, Paul Mander, who just works with birds. He had never worked with magpies before, but he was really confident that he would be able to get the different behaviours that we needed on screen. He had so much confidence that it gave us confidence to move forward. Of course, it wasn’t always as easy as that.
Some of the birds had been trained for months in advance to do a certain thing and of course, they'd be on set and they wouldn't do it but then other things we'd sort of make up on the spot, they’d do first time. I kind of love the randomness of that. It goes back to that documentary thing where you can plan all you want, but really, when you've got a bird on set, you have to do what the bird wants to do. You can't force it. There you go, what's the bird doing? What does it want to do? And how can I best tell the story that we're wanting to do now with this bird? You have to adapt to the bird. That's not only me as a director, it’s even more so for the actors. They had to improvise in and around this wild thing and I loved it. I loved watching the actors work with the bird, and I loved that wildness that you couldn't really control it, you're really at their disposal.
The real Penguin wasn't a pet and it was important for us and for the Blooms that we did not portray Penguin as one but rather that he was free to come and go as he pleased. Hopefully, it feels like that in the film. Penguin was a free spirit and could have flown away at any point, and they would have dealt with it.
It is incredibly refreshing that, like the book, you tell the Blooms’ story in an authentic way and really communicate to an audience Sam’s journey of acceptance to living with disability. Why was this so important to you?
I’m hesitant to say that she [Sam Bloom] has accepted the injury. This is what is important for me in the film. There is a genre of films about people who are overcoming adversity, particularly physical injuries, and [the ending is] now life is better than it was before. You want to have that arc in a story, otherwise a character doesn't change but Sam Bloom isn't that person. She says she will never accept the injury. She still has incredibly difficult times, very dark times, so, the arc of the story for me is, ‘I wanted to die but now, I don't think I do anymore’.
It’s not a huge arc and that was a really hard balance in the film to get right. I hope people don't see it as an anticlimax because that is actually the truth of the story. With Sam Bloom she hasn't been delivered into this redemption at the end, but I hope there's redemption in the film. I think the journey she has is incredibly beautiful and you can see that she's a different person, but she was at the beginning and you know, she hasn't accepted it fully.
I think that was important to acknowledge, particularly for Sam Bloom, because she would give up everything to have that day again. She has found some new life that she never knew she had, but every day she wishes she could not just walk, but go to the bathroom normally and just stand. That moment where she does stand in the film, it’s about standing - it's not about anything else. It's about an able-bodied version [of herself] and her existing version, acknowledging that they are the same person but they're in a very difficult situation.
The young actors playing the three brothers are incredible and display an authentic sibling bond. What was the casting process like when selecting the three young male actors? What were you looking for?
Originally, we set out to find kids that could surf because all the Bloom kids were able to surf, and we wanted that to be part of the film. We did this really big casting call where we looked at probably 1000 kids. We did these sessions and drama groups and really narrowed it down. And ultimately it was less important to have surfing kids than it was to just have the right energy amongst the brothers. Those three boys come from really different places and yet they formed this bond that you could really put them in any situation, and they would just hang out. I joked about how it was kind of like having three birds on set. You could never get them to do the same thing twice. I loved putting them into with experienced actors and seeing what happened, and how they reacted to them. It was a beautiful process. Yeah, I love those boys.
What is the key takeaway you would like audiences to have after watching this film?
I guess what drew me to the story was, and it sounds cheesy to talk about it, the healing power of nature. Penguin is there as a metaphor for lots of things. Some people see Penguin as an angel, spiritual, like it's God that came into her life. I guess that’s how I see it: There’s something about how looking at nature, being generous to another person or having empathy for someone else, opens up something in your heart that is healing; it changes you. Particularly [being generous] to people, like a sick bird that isn’t going to help you back. You’re just there to help them. It's about giving. I think that's really what happened with Sam Bloom; it was the spirit of generosity that changed her not anything else. It was about having something to look after and to care for and in doing that, it opened up her life to a different way of thinking that there were other things out there, which is nature to me, like it's the power of nature. That's how I see it.
There is a lot of generosity in the film. Even Cam’s relationship to Sam, his role as the carer. You don't often see that role and it is a truly supportive role for the actor. Cam Bloom looks after Sam Bloom day-in-day-out, even though she's very independent. The carers aren't often acknowledged. When I look at Cam Bloom, I think, I don’t know if I could be that person. He really gets me thinking about how I can be more generous and accepting of others and do more without wanting anything in return.
Penguin Bloom is in Australian cinemas now. The film will be released on Netflix internationally in 2021.
Screen Australia provided major production investment and the film was financed with support from Screen NSW.
Image: Naomi Watts and Glendyn Ivin on set of Penguin Bloom. Photo by Joel Pratley.