'Penguin Bloom' starring Naomi Watts
(Credit: TIFF)

The making of ‘Penguin Bloom’, a deeply emotional film spearheaded by Naomi Watts

'Penguin Bloom'

This deceptively simple family drama, which recently premiered at the 2020 Toronto Film Festival, began with real events. In 2013, Samantha (‘Sam’) and Cameron Bloom and their three children left their home in Australia for a holiday in Thailand. While taking in the view from a rooftop, a railing broke, and Sam fell to the pavement, fracturing her spine. She became permanently paralysed from the chest downward. Formerly an active, athletic woman, Sam felt as if she’d lost herself; she became depressed, bitter, and withdrawn. 

More than a year later, the children found a baby magpie that had fallen from its nest. They named it Penguin for its black and white plumage, nursed it back to health, and adopted it as a pet. Caring for the little bird had a cathartic effect on Sam, and turned out to be the impetus that brought her out of her long period of hopelessness and allowed her to work toward enjoying life once again. 

“We found Penguin about three months after I got home from the hospital,” Sam Bloom related to Screen Australia, “and I wasn’t in a very good head space. I hate the word depressed, but I guess I was.”  

Cameron Bloom recalls, “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 our lives.”

At the film’s TIFF press conference, Sam Bloom described at more length how the little bird brought the first bit of light into her dark situation, in which, she says with regret, she was “making everyone sad”.

Cameron Bloom, with co-writer Bradley Greive, wrote a photo-illustrated memoir outlining these events, describing his wife’s gradual recovery from depression and withdrawal and the remarkable effect of their pet magpie on the process. Published under the title Penguin Bloom: The Odd Little Bird Who Saved a Family, the book found its way into the hands of film producer Emma Cooper. She passed on the book, along with photos and video of the Bloom family, to the producers at Australian production company Made Up Stories who were impressed by its potential. One of them, Bruna Papandrea, remarked in an interview, “At Made Up Stories, we really focus on female-led projects, and Penguin Bloom has an amazing woman at its centre. I’m always looking for something that feels like it’s something we’ve never seen before, and this was so unusual – it’s dramatic and it’s about something very serious, but then there is an amazing lightness to it because of the interactions with the bird.”

A second producer, Jodi Matterson, agreed, remarking on the importance of “showing complex female characters onscreen. Sam Bloom was just an ordinary Australian woman, then had a terrible accident that could have happened to anybody, and her life changed immeasurably.” The producers were agreeably surprised at how quickly the proposed indie film received backing. Emma Cooper concluded that the simple explanation was, “the story had appeal,” especially because it involved real people and events.

The process of turning the Bloom family’s story into a film was approached carefully. Acclaimed, award-winning actress Naomi Watts (Mulholland Drive, Eastern Promises, Diana, The Impossible) actually came on board before the screenplay had been written, offering to be a producer on the film as well as playing the lead role of Sam Bloom. She had read the story of the Blooms with her family and described having been “blown away by the powerful images, and by the relationship…between the bird and the Blooms.” Watts commented on her role in the making of the film, “I’ve been a producer before on other projects, but on Penguin Bloom I was involved in every creative decision that was made.” In a TIFF press conference, Watts remarked on the “almost magical” quality of the animal and its impact on the family.

At this point, the writing of the script had to be assigned and, in the end, a team of two writers, working in tandem, were chosen: television scriptwriters Shaun Grant (Mindhunter, Berlin Syndrome), and Harry Cripps (Supernova, The Dry). Producer Emma Cooper says, “We were very lucky with our writing team,” referring to their varied experience, one specialising in family films, the other accustomed to darker material, a combination that was perfect for Penguin Bloom

The production team were cautious about the handling of such a personal and intimate family story, allowing for input from the Blooms throughout. Sam Bloom describes the family’s involvement with the process: “The writers and the producers all involved us. If we gave them feedback, or if we didn’t want something in it, we could tell them. We were incredibly involved in the development process.” Naomi Watts also spoke of the necessity of doing justice to the tragic aspects of the story without making the film grim and depressing. Watts remarked, “It was important in the script to get it right, with enough humour and levity, so the story doesn’t have too much suffering and has a honest balance of hope and courage, to see how one family repairs itself.”

With the choice of director Glendyn Ivin, a major name in Australian television including the series The Cry, Gallipoli, and Safe Harbour, the film’s production team was complete. Ivin saw the book as “unusual source material. It felt like a story for absolutely everyone, and there’s not many books like that.” While considering how to approach the production, Ivin says, he recalled discussions with his children about the films that had affected him when he was a child and recognised the impact animals can have in certain films. Ivin said: “I wanted to do something like that. With Penguin Bloom, I could use cinematic language to tell a story in a different way.”

The casting of the production was also done with care. Naomi Watts was on board from the film’s inception, preparing for the role by meeting and talking with Sam Bloom, in order to get a better idea of the person she would be portraying. “One of the things I talked about with Sam,” Watts recollects, “was who she was before the accident, what she lost and what she had to let go of, the simple things about who she was; and then what it felt like, what it meant, to have to get rid of all those things, and how she managed to shift her life back to a place where she can accept it.”

Director Ivin spoke highly of Naomi Watts’ work on the film, describing her as “willing and ready to do whatever the role requires.” He notes that some things came through subtly which were not in the script, but came from Naomi Watts’ conversations with Sue Bloom. During the part of the film in which Sam is in a very dark place following her accident, Watts used the insights she’d gained during meetings with Sam. In these scenes, Ivin says, “She [Watts} brought the darkness out, particularly when Sam is by herself.”

Watts describes the difficult balance necessary when playing real people, between a literal portrayal and one which may be less technically accurate but which offers some interpretation. She concludes, “You need to serve the bigger story.” The producers went to considerable effort to stay true to the original account, even using the actual Bloom family house as a setting for the film, and some of Sam Bloom’s own clothing for Naomi Watts’ wardrobe in the role. Director Ivin described his thinking in using the actual Bloom house: the site was close to the ocean and “nestled in nature,” serving as a constant reminder that Sam, prior to her accident, had been constantly outdoors and in natural settings, hiking and surfing, something that she felt was now closed to her. “The DNA of the story was in that home,” Ivin concludes.

“I was stoked that Naomi would be playing me,” Sam Bloom said. As preparation for the role continued, Sam was open to answering Watts’ questions, even letting the actress read her diary, “something which only a handful of people have seen,” Sam admits, “to help her know how I was feeling at various times.” The diary entries were used throughout the film to provide background. Sam also remained on set much of the time, advising the actors and crew about details that hadn’t occurred to them before – such as how a paraplegic gets dressed, or how certain chores are performed from a wheelchair. In an interview at TIFF, Sam concluded, “I was grateful they kept it real and honest.”

The casting of Sam’s husband, Cameron, was also vital to the film’s success. Actor Andrew Lincoln (Walking Dead, Love Actually) was a choice the entire production crew were happy with. Speaking at the TIFF press conference, Lincoln said he found great drama in Sam and Cameron’s overnight change from equal partners, to the roles of patient and caregiver, and the challenge of seeing the ‘in sickness and in health’ clause brought to life. He was intrigued by the “incredible challenge” to a previously close relationship, as the wife goes through such a dark experience. Of Cameron, the actor says “his steadfast support could be called romantic.”

Like Naomi Watts, Andrew Lincoln had already read the book on which the film is based, which was quite popular in Australia. Lincoln appreciated not only the Blooms’ relationship with one another, but their love of nature, which impacted on their care of the adopted magpie, and would later be an additional factor in Sam’s recovery. 

The remaining cast includes the versatile actress Jacki Weaver as Sam’s mother, Jan, who helps with the household while struggling to reach her despondent daughter; and who, according to the director, brought a needed touch of humour to the story. The three Bloom children, Noah (Griffin Murray-Johnston), Reuben (Felix Cameron), and Oli (Abe Clifford-Barr), round out the cast. 

As filming began, one obvious challenge became apparent: working with live birds. At the TIFF press conference, Naomi Watts made clear that they had relied very little on CGI or other effects, but were using trained magpies in the ‘role’ of Penguin. A bird trainer who could supply Australian magpies was located, but it was discovered that the film schedule had to work around the natural reproductive timetable of the birds: in some scenes, a very young magpie was required, and magpies hatch only in the spring. In addition, baby magpies need to be fed hourly, requiring regular breaks to provide the small cast members with food. These things were allowed for, and filming continued. In all, eight magpies played the part of Penguin at different stages of its life. 

The finished product tells the story effectively, not only by being true to the original events but by using cinematic skill to show multiple perspectives, sometimes ironic or tragic, sometimes hopeful, occasionally funny.  Although the primary story is that of Sam Bloom, and her relationship with her husband, the film takes the interesting approach of showing the opening scenes which introduce the Blooms’ ‘pre-accident’ life, and the disastrous accident itself, with a voice-over explanation from one of the couple’s three sons. The boys, their reaction to their mother’s disability, and their ongoing lives are made a significant part of the story throughout. While Sam’s struggle is central, other lives continue on the periphery of her period of sadness and un-involvement. Brief, passing bits of footage often express a great deal, such as Sam’s nightmare of having her children move too far away to hear her voice, when she is unable to follow them; or Sam hearing one of her children in the next room, very sick and being cared for by his father, while she listens, unable to help or even see what is happening.

Sam’s attempts to care for the injured bird, her eventual bond with the creature, and the way it brings her out of her depression are handled plausibly. Often it is seen from the perspective of others: during that period in their lives, Cameron Bloom recalls, “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 to Sam.” Her slowly changing attitude are not described primarily through dialogue, but are shown through images of her dreams and imagined fears, and indirectly through things like Sam’s reaction to using a handicapped parking spot, and her intense dislike of photographs of herself when she was able and active. The relationship with Penguin is further explored by whimsical scenes shown from the bird’s point of view. A significant crisis in the action also involved the children: Sam discovers her son’s video diary, which includes his feelings of guilt over the accident, his sense that he is partly to blame. Called out of her slump by the need to reassure her son is another turning point for Sam. 

The film briefly chronicles Sam’s return to a happy and active life with new interests, and the reconciliation of the family, paralleled by the bittersweet next stage in Penguin’s life. It’s a sometimes sentimental, but generally honest and heartfelt account of an incredibly difficult and frightening odyssey, by one woman and her family. As Naomi Watts describes it, “It’s about facing the unknown, about understanding and accepting that unknown, and moving on in a whole new way.” 

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