It's always a special treat when films that tell true stories conclude with stills of the real people at the heart of those stories. One of the most commercially successful Australian films of recent years, The Sapphires, and writer/director Sean Penn's deeply affecting Into the Wild, which screens at 9.30pm this Saturday on SBS One, are two such films.
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At the end of The Sapphires there are photographs of the four Aboriginal women who inspired the film: sisters Laurel Robinson and Lois Peeler and their cousins Beverley Briggs and Naomi Mayers. This foursome really did go to Vietnam to entertain the troops with soul music in 1968 and most of the photographs were taken back then but one is from the present day and, via text, we learn that for more than 40 years these women have also been active community leaders who have worked tirelessly to improve health and education for Aboriginal people.
The Sapphires is a loose interpretation of truth; there was no such character as the one portrayed in the film by Chris O'Dowd for example. It is also so stylised and resolutely feel-good that it is easy to lapse into thinking it is fiction. Getting a positive, albeit fleeting, update of the four real women is like a beautiful PS, a reminder not only that this extraordinary tale is grounded in reality but that these women continue to bring joy and hope to others' lives.
Into the Wild is the story of Christopher McCandless, a bright young American who turned his back on his family and society and dropped off the map. When the photograph of this thoughtful young adventurer appears at the end, because actor Emile Hirsch so inhabits the role, my first thought was: “Who is this stranger?” And it made me curious about the casting of Hirsch. In this transcript, Penn says: “You used to be able to get some pretty intriguing brooders, you know, out of the young generation… And then today you can get the clever and the witty and the sexy and the charming and the this and the that, but none of those things happen to be the proper tool for this kit. I needed somebody who had a talent and a mug and a will, and also to photograph somebody going from boy to man, so you're catching somebody on that cusp. So it was all those things that Emile had that I don't know another who has.”
It's no wonder Penn has described Hirsch as his “magic blessing”. But as he says here there were practical considerations too. He needed to be sure that Hirsch could live “a monkish existence” for the duration of the filmmaking process and also that he would be able to live up to the physical demands. The writer/director also wanted to be sure he would be able to maintain his affection for Hirsch!
Casting is always so crucial to the creation of a great film. When real people seem like imposters and actors seem like real people, it's a pretty sure bet that the creative team has got the casting right.