We all deal with trauma in different ways – for real-life Sydney couple Samantha and Cameron Bloom and their three young sons, a tiny little bird helped heal the wounds of a tragic accident.
A lifelong outdoors enthusiast, surfer, and world traveler, Sam Bloom’s 2013 family vacation in Thailand resulted in tragedy when she casually leaned against a wobbly balcony railing, sending her tumbling to the ground and shattering her spine.
Wheelchair-bound and depressed, she struggled to find hope until a tiny baby bird entered her life after her boys rescued an injured magpie at the nearby Northern Beaches.
As a professional photographer, Sam’s husband Cameron Bloom documented in an extraordinary book, how this bird – who they named Penguin – brought his wife through her darkest hours.
Inspired by her new feathered friend, Sam’s life took on new trajectories, including kayaking, thanks to lessons from Gaye Hatfield, a boating expert who would become both friend and coach as she won national kayaking titles at international para-canoe championships, winning a World Adaptive Surfing Title in California.
In chronicling Sam and Penguin’s story, Cameron’s book would become a worldwide phenomenon claiming the attention of Aussie producers Emma Cooper and Bruna Papandrea, and director Glendyn Ivin.
With Naomi Watts signing on to both co-produce and portray Sam Bloom, Jacki Weaver and Andrew Lincoln needed little persuasion in joining her in telling this uplifting story.
Meeting with the cast, producers and Sam and Cameron Bloom at Toronto International Film Festival, they discuss this remarkable journey into hope and redemption.
What’s it like to be upstaged by a bird?
Naomi Watts: That was the thing that made me the most nervous – like, how do we get a performance out of a bird? Magpies are famously not super friendly. The filmmakers walked me through it, explaining how they’d do it with trained birds and a little bit of animatronics and CGI. But we ended up with only a little CGI and animatronics and maybe 97% of it was the real birds. They absolutely stole the scenes every single day. It was just a matter of getting used to them.
How was your experience with these birds and also the children?
Jacki Weaver: The logistics got quite complicated with those birds and, on top of that, we had three little boys who were incredibly energetic.
Andrew Lincoln: They always say, never work with animals or children and the reason is, because when they’re good, no-one’s going to be looking at you.
How was the bird-wrestle for you Glendyn, working with multiple birds of different ages?
Glendyn Ivin: We first introduced a baby bird which had fallen out of a tree and we follow her story right through until she’s an adult. We had multiple birds playing all those different age groups and each bird was trained as well as you can train a magpie, which is a wild bird. Each of them was able to do different things, so we substituted different birds depending on the scene. They’re trainable, and they’ve been trained weeks in advance, so sometimes they wouldn’t do it on the day and other times, they’d hit it straight away. The birds would regularly do things we didn’t expect which would often be much better and the cast would have to adapt to whatever the bird was doing.
Sam, how did this bird pull you from your depression after this horrible accident?
Sam Bloom: We found Penguin about three months after I got home from the hospital, and I wasn’t in a very good head space. I hate the word depressed, but I guess I was.
Cameron Bloom: When Penguin arrived, things were really grim. It was an awful time for all of us. The fact that this little wounded bird needed us, I think, was a turning point in all our lives. I’d see Sam looking out the window with Penguin on her shoulder, or Penguin would scurry around the kitchen as Sam was cooking. I could tell that the presence of Penguin near her was really important for Sam.
Sam Bloom: I looked after Penguin all day, every day; she was always on my lap or shoulder. Looking after her slowly gave me a purpose.
How did you find the filmmakers to tell your story?
Cameron Bloom: We sent a book to Emma [Cooper, producer] who was friends with Naomi and it happened organically that way. Naomi loved the book and eventually so did Andy [Lincoln].
Emma what appealed to you about the book?
Emma Cooper: First and foremost, it was an incredible true story and this tragedy is something I responded to and connected with right away. Cameron’s photos immediately gave you that access into that world so it was there right in front of you. And then this story of the bird that literally fell out of the sky in her greatest hour of need, is a story that everyone can respond to. I’ve known Bruna a very long time and immediately sent it her.
How challenging was this, Bruna?
Bruna Papandrea: Making movies is challenging full stop and it’s got more and more difficult to get these beautiful independent movies made but with this one, the wind was on our backs – I think penguin was on our backs – and every collaborator came together very easily and then just with the generosity of the Blooms, it was actually quite a fast process for an independent film. When you have something so distinctive, because it’s really not like anything you’ve seen before, and it’s hard for people to put this movie in a box, that’s what excited us the most. The actual making of it was quite dreamy.
What was the hardest part in making this film?
Glendyn Ivin: As a filmmaker, it’s always remembering that this is a real story and that the people who we’re making the story about – this is a story that deeply affected them and they’re still around. And we’re not only making a story about one person – it’s a married couple and their three children, and we shot the film in their house. So, on one level, it was incredibly invasive and exploratory as far as the filmmaking process goes. So, I guess it was all about reminding ourselves that we’re telling a real story and Cameron and Sam were very generous in handing their story to us. But the logistics of working with kids and animals is something that you don’t really know how difficult it is until you’re on set and it’s actually happening in front of you.
You’ve played some very emotional roles such as in The Impossible. What attracts you to these difficult roles?
Naomi Watts: The story of Maria Belon in The Impossible, yes there’s lots of suffering, but also hope and resilience and love. Ultimately, as an actor, you’re looking for a journey that travels to all kinds of places emotionally and this was representative of all those things.
Is there anyone in your own life who helped you overcome any personal fears?
Naomi Watts: There’s been many people in my life who I’ve had a really great connection with at different times of my life. It’s interesting that you can draw in people who have a powerful impact on you in life with certain things and they stay with you.
How did you properly depict the reality of life in a wheelchair and what mistakes do non-disabled actors make in this arena?
Naomi Watts: I had an accident when I fell out of the chair backwards which was quite scary. But mostly for me, it was the getting in and out of bed transfers because it’s very hard in your brain to tell your legs not to move and use your core. I felt very self-conscious about getting that right, especially when Sam was there, so we did lots of lessons beforehand and obviously Sam is very strong in her upper body. I was trying to get that right and it was much harder than I thought. For the most part, I got around on that wheelchair a lot and we had it at home to practice so I could get used to it.
Sam Bloom: I think the only hurdle you have to overcome is trying to stay in the wheelchair and not fall out.
In portraying Sam’s mother, how did you develop this complicated relationship between the two women?
Jacki Weaver: I think all women and their mothers have conflicts at times, even when your mother adores you; you get that mother-daughter clash. Without getting too personal, I guess I draw on that a bit – how mothers can irritate their daughters without even meaning to. I haven’t got a daughter – but I had a mother!
Did Penguin Bloom make you reflect on what it means to really love someone as absolutely as Sam and Cameron clearly do?
Andrew Lincoln: I love the idea that overnight it changes the love that they have, changing from two people together to one person being a carer and someone being cared for. My grandfather had that experience, so I was always very moved by the ‘in sickness and in health’ aspect and I hadn’t seen that expressed on film before, that transition. And also, the challenges it poses when the person you love is physically compromised as well, so they’re having arguments but basically, they need each other. I loved every part of this job because I’m a hopeless romantic, because when it’s all said and done, what else is there?
Naomi Watts: The way I interpreted this story, was with the connection Sam and Cam have and I think Cam had to put all of his emotional strength into Sam’s journey and the family. There were lots of things that were constantly heart-breaking for Sam, that she wasn’t able to participate in their life in the way that she used to, and that it had been taken away from her in an instant. There’s not much you can do physically except live in your head, and it’s a dark place for Sam to be and it took a lot of strength with the great support from a wonderful husband and family.
Naomi, how did you enjoying working with Jacki?
Naomi Watts: I’ve been a big fan of Jacki’s for such a long time. I knew she’d be fantastic, so that wasn’t surprising. But what was surprising was how mischievous and naughty and fun she could be! Thankfully, Glendyn created a space that allowed us all to play a little bit. Family dynamics are all about trust and chaos and history, so you want little bits of storytelling to come through without it necessarily being on the page.
Penguin Bloom is in cinemas January 1, 2021