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Since his first short film won the Palme d’Or in 2003, Glendyn Ivin has established himself as one of Australia’s most exciting film and television directors. The forthcoming Penguin Bloom, starring Naomi Watts, brings some light to his dark meditations. By Stephen A. Russell.

Film director Glendyn Ivin

Director Glendyn Ivin.
Credit: Hugh Stewart

For many artists, achieving their dreams begins with one guiding light at high school: an adult who truly believes in them and nudges them along the way. It didn’t quite work out like that for celebrated Australian film and television director Glendyn Ivin.

He can pinpoint the exact moment he fell in love with the moving image. When he was growing up in landlocked Tamworth in north-east New South Wales, the fabled home of Australian country music, his mum took him to the cinema to see the original Storm Boy (1976), adapted from the Colin Thiele novel about a young lad who bonds with an injured pelican.

“I had a clear feeling at that point,” he says. “I didn’t know what it was. I love that story, but more than that I liked the way that it made me feel. Whatever Storm Boy did to me, it was a direct hit on my heart. I’ve been trying to emanate that same vibration.”

Similarly inspired by the magic of Jim Henson, he sat down with a career adviser at school, announcing his intention to become either a puppeteer or a filmmaker. “I remember them looking at me blankly, going to their filing cabinet and saying, ‘Look, there’s nothing under “F” for filmmaker, but what about a fitter and turner?’ ”

Thankfully he wasn’t dissuaded, though his road to making award-winning movies and TV programs was more circuitous than it might otherwise have been. Rather than turning to the machinist trade, he studied graphic design at the University of Newcastle. After moving to Melbourne, where he now lives in Brunswick, Ivin took up a postgrad degree in documentary filmmaking at the Victorian College of the Arts. “I left there thinking I wouldn’t do drama,” he recalls. But he soon realised the best fiction spins from a kernel of truth, with his debut short film, Cracker Bag, the explosive proof.

According to a recollection of his mother’s, a key factor in his love for filmmaking announced itself with a bang on cracker night. The young female protagonist of his debut short is analogous with Ivin. It depicts, with a gentle emotional depth, a young girl, Eddie (Edith Cattell), diligently collecting cans slyly loaded with pebbles, which she recycles for coins to splash out on fireworks. Her determination fizzles out on the night when the fireworks accidentally go off all at once while still in the bag on the ground.

She is Ivin. “Everything in that film is as honest as it gets,” he says of his childhood memories, “even down to the neighbourhood, the house and car that was used. It actually took six months of wading through Trading Post classifieds to find the same Datsun my mum drove.”

She insists he turned to her, as they were driving home that fizzer of a night, and announced, “I’m going to make a film about this one day.” And so he did. Cracker Bag was selected for the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, where it went on to scoop the top honour, the Palme d’Or, in the short film category.

He made waves on the Boulevard de la Croisette while cradling his then barely three-week-old daughter. “I was incredibly naive and I didn’t know what to expect,” the 48-year-old recalls of the whirlwind that followed. “That was a wild ride, because you’ve got this baby and you’re getting your head around what it means to be a parent, but it was grounding at the same time, so it’s something I’ll never forget.”

In many ways, this beautifully shot musing on the mishaps of youth is all about memory, melancholy and the bond of family. These themes tinge all of his subsequent work. They’re there in his debut feature, Last Ride, the first of Ivin’s films to go to the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), which stars Hugo Weaving as a violent crook on the run from the cops with his young son in tow. And those ideas coil around his lauded TV mini-series The Cry, Safe Harbour and Seven Types of Ambiguity.

Like Storm Boy, his latest feature – the Naomi Watts-starring biopic Penguin Bloom – features a wounded bird that has a remarkable effect on its carer. It premiered online as one of only 50 films selected for the digital TIFF this September, before it opens in Australian cinemas this coming January.

Watts plays real-life nurse Sam Bloom, whose life altered dramatically while on a family holiday to Thailand. Leaning on a rotten wooden railing that unexpectedly gave way, she plummeted six metres headfirst onto concrete. Almost fatal, the fall severed her spinal cord and left her paralysed from the waist down. She sank into a deep depression while adjusting to life in a wheelchair back home in Sydney, but began to open up after her son Noah discovered an injured magpie chick whom he named Penguin.

That journey was put on the page by Bloom’s husband, Cam – played in the film by The Walking Dead’s Andrew Lincoln – in a best-selling book co-written with TV presenter and author Bradley Trevor Greive. In bringing it to the big screen, Ivin worked from a screenplay adapted by Shaun Grant (True History of the Kelly Gang) and Harry Cripps (The Dry).

Ivin was finishing the edit on the Jenna Coleman and Ewen Leslie-led mystery show The Cry when he was offered the director’s chair on Penguin Bloom. He had read the book about a year beforehand. “The Cry was an incredibly dark piece of television and while this was still emotionally based work, which is where I feel most comfortable, there was a lightness in tone,” Ivin says. “Ultimately this is a story of hope, and I really wanted to explore that, because I’ve been making dark drama for a very long time.”

Penguin Bloom, he says, is about generosity and the healing spirit of nature. “I’m always going to approach things from a dark place, that’s sort of how I see the world, but it was lovely to have a real story that does find the light in the end, albeit done in quite a subtle way.”

Sam Bloom was adamant her story shouldn’t be a happy-ever-after fairytale. “She’s an inspiring woman, but that said, she would change everything in her life to be able to go back to the way she was,” Ivin says. “And at times, she’s incredibly dark and suffers depression still. It needed to be grounded in a place where she still struggles.”

The decision to film in her Sydney north shore home was part of that grounding. “I’ve always liked the idea that if the walls could talk, you would get this version of the story, so it felt like we were wrapped in the DNA of the Blooms,” Ivin explains.

Penguin Bloom is a version of a book that is, in turn, a version of the truth that’s still fresh in the Blooms’ family memory. “You’ve got to make a story, potentially, which real life doesn’t always present,” Ivin says. Listening to the family talk about the result, if anything he now thinks there’s probably more truth in it than he remembers. It’s also a film that has the confidence to sit in silence, to strip out dialogue and let the imagery do the heavy lifting. A lighthouse on the crest of a hill becomes, at first, a tower of despair, out of reach of the injured Sam, then a beacon to aim towards. Watts, in perhaps the film’s most quietly affecting scene, deliberately nudges a jar of honey off the kitchen bench to shatter on the floor below, presaging the fall that is, at first, only hinted at in haunted glimpses. Later, she rescues the pesky maggie from a slick of the amber goo when it, too, breaks a jar.

Ivin was in awe of Watts’ wounded performance, and the ease with which she could slip in and out of Sam’s struggles. “She’s an actor who has a very transformative power,” he says. “You see her sink into another place where that character exists. There’s an intensity, and on cut you see her emerge, almost like she’s coming up from under water and taking a breath. She can laugh or take a note as Naomi. You’re not talking to Sam Bloom who just five seconds ago was in tears.”

Ivin was also taken by the parliament of magpies who stepped into the role of Penguin, though they were trickier to corral. He’s reminded of the possibly apocryphal quote associated with comedian, actor and writer W. C. Fields: “Never work with children or animals.”

“I always thought that line was from a director’s point of view, because you can’t plan, or they’re just tricky to work with and don’t do what you say,” he says. “But it’s more about regardless of how good an actor is on screen, the moment you have a child or, in this case, a bird sharing the screen with them, you’re not looking at the actor anymore. You’re looking at the bird.”

Scene-stealers or nay, it’s also true that, despite having a trainer on the case for months, wild animals are wont to do as they please. “You would stand there for an hour and nothing would happen, or it would do the exact opposite. And then there were other things that we’d make up on the spot, and they would nail it the first go.”

Luckily, Ivin’s the sort of director who revels in surrendering to performance, human or animal. “I always believe, even when actors are playing characters, that they, as humans, know what to do better than I do. It’s my job, as a director, to create an environment for them to feel most comfortable to be themselves. You harness that energy and it’s always once the story is up and running and you’ve got that path, then the story should be unfolding by itself.”

The same was true of Penguin’s antics. “With a wild bird like a magpie, you really have to hand yourself over to them. And really, what they’re doing is the right thing. You can’t call cut and have a chat to them and then have another go. You’ve really got to see what does this bird want to do, and how can I use that for this scene? And that’s a credit to our cast as well, that they had to respond to what Penguin wanted, as opposed to what was scripted.”

Premiering online was, he says, bittersweet. “Releasing a film really does feel like having a baby. You’ve been loving and cherishing it, and you want it to have its best life. Being chosen as one of only 50 films at TIFF is an enormous honour, and you feel incredibly lucky because I’m imagining there must be a lot of great pieces of cinema out there and we’re all looking for a home at the moment. But at the same time, you can’t be present to see it go out into the world, and that is very strange.”

While he’s at pains to stress he’s not comparing finishing the film at the beginning of the pandemic to Bloom’s spinal injury, there are unexpected echoes. “Everyone who watches this film now will have experienced what it’s like to have your life change overnight. Sam shuts herself off from friends and family. But ultimately, she comes out the other side and says, ‘I’m different, but I’m the same.’ And I think that that’s a continuing experience we’re all going to be having over the next few months or a year. We will come out of this, but things are going to be different. We’re not going to be the same person that we were beforehand, for better or for worse, but hopefully we learnt something along the way.”

It’s been a long road from Tamworth to Toronto, but Ivin’s on the right path. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 12, 2020 as "A blooming career".

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Stephen A. Russell is an arts writer and critic.