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It’s been 11 years since Glendyn Ivin’s last feature film, Last Ride. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been busy.
Ivin is behind some of Australia’s most celebrated television shows like Gallipoli, The Beautiful Lie, Seven Types of Ambiguity, Safe Harbour and The Cry. A rather impressive resume.
We caught up with the talented director to talk about his latest film, Penguin Bloom. Ivin also discusses his love for magpies, how he was inspired by the Bloom family, working with Australian film legend Jill Bilcock, and his favourite Australian screen animal.
“I don’t have a spinal injury and I haven’t had a little bird come into my life, but that story touched me and it touches a lot of people.”
Interview by Matthew Eeles
Magpies are beautiful birds. They’re fearless when it comes to protecting their young. Do you have your own magpie story like so many Australians do.
Well, as a kid, as my mum reminded me as I went into this film, I was petrified of magpies, and I was one of those kids who was always chased. And I remember one time in particular, I was chased down and could not move and I was flat on the park field just being swooped over, and over, and over again, screaming out to my mum. And I remember my mum and my older brother just being on the edge of this field just laughing at me. And I don’t know whether I’ve channeled some of this in this film or not, but I’m glad I like magpies now. I definitely don’t have the fear I once had.
So your opinion on magpies has definitely changed since making Penguin Bloom?
Yeah, they’re beautiful. I mean, when I was going into it I thought they were beautiful, but the amount of time I’ve spent looking at magpies, and listening to them, and watching them on screen patting Penguin. Whenever I see a magpie now out walking, I just stop and look at it and just appreciate what it’s doing because I’ve learned a lot about magpies and I love them. They’re beautiful birds, and I love how they’re everywhere. They’re in everyone’s backyard.
It’s very common for Australian filmmakers to have long gaps between feature films. In your case, it’s been 11 years since Last Ride. You’ve done amazing work with television in between, but how good did it feel to be back on a movie set?
It felt good. I knew this question was going to come up occasionally, but I’ve sort of chosen not to make films and actually chose to go into television. Like, just after Last Ride and the years after that where I was thinking about what I’d be doing next. We kind of are in the golden age of television at the moment, and the stories that I was drawn to, and the opportunities that I was presented with were in television. If I’m directing a TV series, I don’t put a different hat on to when I’m a director on a film. It’s the same job. You’re still there, I’m still seeing it the way I see it and telling the story I want to tell. And generally, I’ve been lucky with the television work that I’ve done. They’re my shows and I feel like they’ve got my fingerprints on them. So I’m doing a TV series after this. Not rushing back to make another film. I just think all stories have their place. And I knew when I read the book Penguin Bloom years ago, I thought, “No, this isn’t a TV series, this is the film and it wants to be a film.”
It’s an inspiring story, but what was it about the Blooms that made you want to tell their story?
When I read the book, I was really touched by the simplicity and the beauty of that story. It is genuinely a very simple story. And I thought there was something quite metaphorical in it all. It was definitely universal. I don’t have a spinal injury and I haven’t had a little bird come into my life, but that story touched me and it touches a lot of people. You might’ve lost a loved one, or you may have a broken heart or something terrible has happened in your life, depression or something, and you can’t see your way out. What Penguin Bloom shows is that it can be the most random thing that can happen and your life can change. And I think that’s why a lot of people respond to the story in the way that they do. It feels representative of what could happen in anyone’s life.
We know that Naomi, Jacki, and Andrew are going to be great. They’re excellent in everything they do, but you’ve unearthed some serious talent here with the three young actors who play the Bloom boys. Can you tell us about casting Griffin, Felix, and Abe?
We originally set out to find boys that are a lot like the Bloom boys, they’re surfers, and they’re super active, and skateboarders, et cetera. But I ended up getting a kid from inner city Melbourne, a kid from country Victoria, and a kid in the inner West of Sydney. And regardless of their skillset, I think what I was looking for was the right energy between the boys. And they just got on, they got on like brothers and they sort of fought like brothers. And in the end, you could just send them into any scene or any situation and they would just play out their role. They would just be brothers, and I love that. It’s a bit like the kids and animals thing. You can’t really control them, and all you can do is embrace them and what they’re doing, and I love that. I love the chaos that they brought to set. It’s almost like having three birds on set when you had those three boys on set. [Laughs].
The production design is incredible so I wasn’t surprised to learn that it’s shot in the Bloom’s real house. That was your idea, right? To shoot in their real home?
Yeah. [Laughs]. I was already thinking about where we would set the film because you can see geographically it’s important where it needs to be. After the accident the house was almost tormenting Sam in that she was someone who was used to being outside and was always in the water, and riding a bike, and playing soccer, and was a huge, huge outdoor person. And now she was stuck inside, but every window had this incredible view of the world and the ocean. So when I went and saw the Blooms for the first time, I just saw the house and was like, “We have to shoot it here. It’s so specific.” And they were into it, luckily. I liked the veracity, I think, that it brings. There’s an authenticity that if those walls could talk, they probably wouldn’t tell our story, but they would tell a similar story. And I would often stand in that house and could feel the energy, what was happening in that scene, a version of that had happened in this house. But we did change the house a lot. The production designer did get it right because nearly every inch of that house was re-skinned for the purpose of the film. We didn’t change the architecture or the layout, but every surface, like the wood panelings not in the house, and it’s different colours, and we changed the kitchen. And that’s not because the Bloom’s house isn’t amazing, it’s just not a house. 85% of the film happens in this house, and so you want every corner of it to be rich and textured. As you said, you wouldn’t necessarily call a film that happens in a house to be incredibly beautiful, and yet this film is.
There’s no railing on the rooftop, and as a father with two children, that almost gave me a heart attack. Is there really no railing on the roof, or was that designed to play into Sam’s story?
[Laughs]. No, there’s no railing, and what we do in the film is nowhere near what those kids do in real life.
They’re literally jumping off the roof onto a trampoline.
[Laughs]. But I kind of like the irony that we’re telling a story about a woman who had a very serious fall off a rooftop in Thailand, and yet the kids in the real story, and definitely in our film, have no fear when it comes to jumping off roofs and Sam Bloom kind of embraces that. She doesn’t restrict the kids from doing anything and participates as much as she can in their active lifestyle. You’d never be able to find a house that’s got a roof like that and a view like that. I always say this could’ve happened to anyone, the story of the Blooms, it could’ve happened to someone who lives in a block of flats in the Western suburbs somewhere. But luckily for us, visually in our film, it took place in a very spectacular part of Australia.
Naomi has said that you created this playful space on set. How important is it for you to create a relaxed environment when making a film like Penguin Bloom?
It’s important to me because I think that’s the way that people work best, particularly between action and cut. It’s a pretty serious time. I always call it like it’s a sacred time on set. But outside of that, it can’t be too tense, it can’t be stressful, and I try and remove any stress from the set. So actors feel like they can do what they want to, particularly when you’ve got kids and animals where you can’t really control them. Like with Penguin, she’s a wild bird, she’s going to do what a wild bird wants to do. So a relaxed environment on set allows you to adapt to that and embrace what’s actually happening as opposed to trying to force something to happen. Even though film sets can be incredibly stressful, I feel most relaxed when I’m on set. It’s where I feel most comfortable.
As a staunch Australian film buff, I have this slight obsession with Jill Bilcock. I’ve interviewed her in the past and I’ve studied her work. I’m interested to know what Jill’s role was here as a producer. What did Jill bring to the film?
Well, my editor of the film, Maria Papoutsis, is an amazing editor, but she hadn’t really edited a film by herself before, and I’m a huge believer in choosing people not for their CVs but for who they are as people. And I had a very strong feeling that Maria was right for the film, but we needed, I guess, some guidance, so everyone else felt comfortable. And Jill, I love Jill. I’m a huge fan of her work and she’s a really inspiring character. And she came on and kind of just came and looked at cuts, gave us, not so much tips, but just a little bit of guidance now and then. And when we were editing the film and we went into lockdown, which we were cutting through last year, we actually went overtime. Maria was pregnant, she had to go and have a baby. And then Jill sort of stepped in and spent a few weeks cutting with us. I loved cutting with Maria, but it was amazing going in and cutting with someone with Jill’s experience and just hearing the way that she thinks about story and character. And she’s someone who cuts always with the audience in mind. She watches it and she cuts like she’s the audience. And I learn a lot in working with her. I mean, I’ve loved her since Dogs in Space. In fact, generally when she was in the room, I was grilling her about Dogs in Space and her time making those films. [Laughs].
She’s a national treasure.
Who’s your favourite Australian screen animal?
It’s pretty easy for me. It’s Mr. Percival from Storm Boy. That’s the film I saw when I was probably six or seven in the cinema. And when I saw it, it was like a direct hit on my heart. And I would say it’s one of the bigger reasons why I’m a film director now is because I saw that film and it stuck with me ever since that point. So, yeah, Mr. Percival.
Penguin Bloom is in cinemas January 21.