STACK chats with Samantha and Cameron Bloom about bringing their extraordinary story to the screen in the new Australian feature, Penguin Bloom.
Eight years after a family holiday in Thailand ended in tragedy, Sydney couple Samantha and Cameron Bloom pinch themselves in amazement at how their lives have changed since that fateful day when Sam accidentally fell through a rotting balcony, shattering her spine and consigning her to a lifetime in a wheelchair.
But what happened next was nothing short of miraculous when, months later, the couple’s three sons brought home a wounded baby magpie, fallen from a tree near their beach home. The injured chick couldn’t fly, let alone hop, the family nursing it back to health and naming it “Penguin”. Sam and Penguin would become inseparable.
As a professional photographer, Cam Bloom’s Instagram stories and subsequent book about their new feathered housemate became an instant hit, documenting how Penguin enabled his wife’s recovery from the depths of depression. Serving as an inspiration, the little bird helped surfer Sam glimpse a happier future, encouraging her to get back into the ocean – this time in a kayak.
The story of “Penguin Bloom” would take on a life of its own, finding its way into the hands of Aussie producers Emma Cooper and Bruna Papandrea, and director Glendyn Ivin, with Naomi Watts immediately coming on board to portray Sam.
Now a feature film, co-starring The Walking Dead’s Andrew Lincoln and the inimitable Jacki Weaver, Sam and Cam Bloom talk to STACK on the eve of Penguin Bloom’s Australian premiere.
Revisiting those dark days eight years ago, Sam says her worst moments were when she first came home from the hospital.
“I think that’s when the reality really hit and I was like ‘This is my new life…’ And to be honest, I didn’t really feel like it was my home anymore because I couldn’t just run around and do mum things like clean the house, make the beds and go shopping,” she tells us over Zoom with Cam at her side.
“I felt very disconnected from everything and everyone and from the local community. Because we live so near the beach, everyone is very outdoorsy and spends so much time at the beach and surfing and I just felt like I was no longer a part of that. I hid myself at home a lot at first because it was almost like I was protecting myself in my own little bubble. And when people would pop in – which was really lovely – they would say things like, ‘I just had the most beautiful swim at the beach’, and I just didn’t want to hear that. I felt really ripped off because I should also be down at the beach having beautiful swims.”
But when Cam began to document Penguin’s story on Instagram, it brought a new focus for Sam – even if she didn’t want any pity, always insisting that Cam leave her wheelchair out of the pictures.
“I sometimes snuck it in,” Cam tells us. “But I never made light of the fact of Sam’s accident – it was just very much focused on the bird and Penguin’s interaction with our family.”
When news networks got hold of the story, everything changed.
“That’s when it started getting a bit crazy. Like I’d go to the shops and people would come up and go, ‘Are you Penguin’s mum?’ I thought it was nice. It didn’t bother me at all because people were so lovely,” says Sam.
If Penguin signalled the beginning of her recovery, then kayak instructor Gaye Hatfield (portrayed by Rachel House) had a huge impact on her life, enabling her to get back in the water and even entering into the world of competitive paracanoeing.
Ultimately she would return to surfing again – in 2018 she was selected as a member of the Australian Adaptive Surf Team, winning gold in both the 2019 and 2020 World Para Surfing Championships.
Despite all her successes, Penguin Bloom does not necessarily celebrate them.
“When I spoke to the producer Bruna Papandrea, I said, ‘I want it to be real and honest’, which they’ve kept to. I didn’t want it to be all happy, pretending that everything’s great because that’s not how I feel. Yes, it gets better, but it will always be a bit of a struggle,” says Sam.
But she appreciates how far she’s come since her accident. “I’ve been very lucky. I was lucky I got into the kayaking after I got home from hospital. That was a bit of a lifesaver – and then with the surfing, which is great because Cam and I are almost like a team because we compete together and he pushes me on the waves.”
Cam is just happy to see the smile back on his wife’s face. “What’s really fun is that we get to travel again because I guess after Sam’s accident, she thought she’d never travel again and that was always something we loved doing. It just proves that having that goal and determination – and Sam’s pretty feisty – means that we can still get to do what we’ve always loved doing and that is traveling and seeing the world and meeting people.”
“Meeting people is huge for me,” says Sam. “That’s the beauty of it all and my favourite thing about the World Championships in San Diego is to be with people from all around the world. Everyone had a different story and there was just the most amazing energy.”
Naturally the Blooms were delighted their story would be made into a film.
“Of course I was stoked that Naomi would be playing me,” says Sam enthusiastically, noting that she and Watts began corresponding prior to filming. “Before the production started, I sent her my diary, something which only a handful of people have seen, to help her know how I was feeling at various times. And Naomi wanted me to be on set; when she had to get dressed in the wheelchair, she wanted me to tell her how I got dressed, all of the details.”
Welcoming the cast and crew into their own home in Sydney’s Northern beaches, Sam says. “They were the nicest people and so compassionate and mindful and down-to-earth.”
Adds Cam: “We couldn’t ask for more beautiful people to play us. They didn’t act like stars or anything – just nice, family people like us with kids of their own so we’re very grateful to have them be part of our journey.”
And Cam had no complaints that, instead of being portrayed by an Aussie actor, he is instead played by Britain’s Andrew Lincoln. “He’s super good looking so of course I’m happy. To be honest, it all felt like serendipity. Andy had the book and knew the story so we were very lucky,” he says.
Since Penguin’s departure, the Blooms – together with their sons Rueben, 19, Noah, 17 and Oli, 15 – have continued to nurse birds and currently have another baby magpie.
“It’s been really lovely continuing on the relationship with nature,” says Cam. “We named our latest magpie Van because he was found on the day Eddie Van Halen died.”
Penguin Bloom is in cinemas on January 21