Tim Winton’s Blueback takes on new life as a feature film

More than 25 years after it was published, Tim Winton’s bestselling novella about a mum and child’s fight to save a wild blue groper and the reef where it lives has been adapted into a family film starring Eric Bana and Mia Wasikowska.

Dec 22, 2022, updated Dec 22, 2022
Blueback: There's magic in this film, especially in the relationship between a little girl and the big, wild fish she befriends. Photo: Roadshow

Blueback: There's magic in this film, especially in the relationship between a little girl and the big, wild fish she befriends. Photo: Roadshow

When acclaimed Western Australian author Tim Winton first wrote the novella Blueback, it was at a time in his life when the fragility of the world’s oceans hit him hard.

He’d moved from a seaside country town to the city and was, he says, “mourning the proximity” to the water, so he turned his attention to marine conservation.

The talented writer – he has published 29 books for adults and children including Shallows, Cloudstreet, Dirt Music and Breath – says he wrote the bestseller Blueback within a week.

“Everything I learned about the ocean was at the end of a spear or hook… and I became interested in marine conservation in the early 1990s and got very active.

“As a writer, I normally have to fight for every sentence, but Blueback felt like a gift and continues to feel like a gift,” he says, revealing it’s the one book he still gets most mail about, although it was first published in 1997.

It’s a gift that keeps on giving.

This beautiful story about a child, their activist mum, a wild blue groper, and the fight to save a reef from commercial fishing operators and developers has now been adapted by filmmaker Robert Connolly (director of Balibo, Three Dollars and The Dry, and producer of Romulus, My Father and The Boys) into a coming-of-age family film for the big screen.

“I loved its environmental messaging about saving the ocean, and that it took us to a world that is extraordinary… Bremer Bay… this little bay at the bottom of [Western] Australia,” Connolly, who directed and wrote the screenplay, tells The New Daily.

The film crew on location at Bremer Bay in Western Australia. Photo: David Dare Parker

“[Tim] is just a deeply humanist storyteller… it’s very moving … it’s fun and optimistic, but it’s also got deep elements about a life lived.”

Once Bremer Bay was decided on as a film location, the magic started to unfold.

“[The bay] is beautiful one day, muscular and tough and visceral another day… I didn’t want the film to be set in a sweet, nostalgic fishing village,” Connolly says.

“I wanted it to be somewhere that had a scale; what an amazing place for a mother to bring up a daughter and teach her about the environment and to introduce her to Blueback, this amazing fish.”

The storytelling came via stars Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) and Eric Bana (The Dry, The Forgiven), and a young cast including Ilsa Fogg, Pedra Jackson and Ariel Donoghue.

“Incredible actors at the beginning of epic careers who learnt how to do their own free diving, learnt how to swim in the ocean,” Connolly says of the newcomers. “It’s absolutely stunning; there’s absolute magic in it.”

But there’s a twist in the lead role. Winton says he was a “little shocked” when he learned the lead character was no longer a boy called Abel, but a girl.

“It was interesting changing the gender,” Connolly says. “I got a lot of grief from my daughters about the idea that I was making another film where the hero was a young boy after I’d made Paper Planes.

“They said, ‘You’ve got two daughters, Dad! What’s going on?’

“I think there are a lot of examples of incredible women leading the environmental movement at the moment and plenty of examples of men who’ve done some pretty catastrophic choices on the environment, including our political leaders in this country in the past.

“I also feel the universality of it is beyond gender. It’s a film about young people having great agency for change, [and] the inspiration they get from their parents, so even though I changed the gender I feel it’s a film for all young people.”

Melbourne-based actor Eric Bana on a mission. Photo: David Dare Parker

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So what did Bana – whose international career goes back to 1997’s The Castle – bring to the project, when cast and crew found themselves filming off Ningaloo Reef’s warm waters with whale sharks and oceanic manta rays?

Connolly describes him as a “wonderful man to work with”.

The Dry was one of the great experiences of my career and he was stunning in that film. This is comic; a heartfelt role. We haven’t seen Eric do this for a while.

“He did two weeks [in] quarantine to play a supporting role. Also, it’s a role that subsumes itself to the women who drive the story, which I think is also another fantastic quality that he has as an actor.”

Winton says the journey of adaptation to the screen “has been a long one”.

Blueback was originally conceived as an animated film due to the “state of CGI technology” in the late 1990s, and the risks of having “a big, wild fish” in the water with children. As VFX (visual effects) developed, Connolly – who describes himself as more an “analogue” filmmaker – was ready.

“I wanted to make the film in an analogue way. I wanted the actors to do their own swimming rather than stunt people. I wanted very limited VFX. I wanted to work with the real, natural world.

“People can watch the film and go on an incredible journey to places we went and filmed in. It’s very exciting to take the audience there.”

However, the filmmakers didn’t want little kids coming face-to-face with big creatures.

“We did as best we could to made sure that didn’t happen. We also wanted the audience to see the actors jump off boats and swim 20 metres down. The training of the cast was so critical.

“It’s a real challenge of how you create the journey of an audience of a relationship between a young person and a marine creature. I am delighted by the magic that those performers were able to give.”

Young actors Ilsa Fogg and Pedrea Jackson on set. Photo: David Dare Parker

The film is heavily anchored in messaging about conservation, the environment and saving our planet in the best way we know how.

An optimistic Robert Connolly hopes his audience is as passionate as he is about these core issues.

“If we change our ways, small or big, we can all collectively impact the environment. [As Jacques] Cousteau said: ‘If you can make people fall in love with something, they’ll care for it.’

“I hope the film can inspire an activism about the health of our oceans.”

Blueback premieres in cinemas on January 1, 2023.

This story was first published on The New Daily.

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