A 2013 family holiday in Thailand for real-life Sydney couple Samantha and Cameron Bloom and their three young sons ended in tragedy after Sam accidentally fell from a balcony, shattering her spine and confining her to a lifetime in a wheelchair.
But what happened next was nothing short of miraculous when, months later, Sam’s sons brought home a wounded baby magpie that had 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”.
As a professional photographer, Cameron Bloom’s Instagram stories and subsequent book about their new, feathered housemate instantly became a hit, documenting how Penguin enabled his wife’s recovery from the depths of depression. Serving as an inspiration, the little bird helped 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 Cameron.
Now a feature film, co-starring The Walking Dead’s Andrew Lincoln and the inimitable Jacki Weaver, Penguin Bloom premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival this week, where Watts laughs as she talks about being upstaged by a tiny bird.
“On the first day, the bird was on my head, chirping away, and next thing you know, I feel a nice warm sensation trickling down my face. It trickled all the way down and landed straight in my mouth,” says the two-time Oscar nominee, who also serves as a producer.
“The bird 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. But they 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 per cent of it was the real birds, who absolutely stole the scenes every single day.”
Filmed on location at the Blooms’ own home in Sydney’s Northern Beaches, Watts immediately bonded with Sam Bloom.
“Sam was so incredibly generous and open and willing to give me her journals and it was golden to be able to have a relationship with Sam and hear all of these intimate details of how she walked through this period of her life,” says the actress, who brought her own two sons to the set.
“It’s very daunting taking on the role of someone who’s still around and very much in the picture. You have a great responsibility and you want to tell the story in the most authentic way.
“Sam was often on set so I was able to just ask her questions and she would give me a new idea and new perspective.”
When Sam joins us, she recalls how Penguin changed their lives: “When we brought Penguin home, she brought an excitement and happiness into our house which was very lacking. When I came home from hospital, I had a little dark cloud following me around everywhere that made everyone sad, so Penguin just brought a little joy into our lives, which was lovely.”
For Lincoln, bringing on an Aussie accent was the toughest challenge. “I guess everybody in England thinks they can do an Australian accent, until they come to Australia. So I did a lot of work with that. But then working with three children on my first few days was probably like working with Meryl Streep – there was a lot of improv.”
Fundamentally, Lincoln was drawn to the film’s love story. “The beautiful thing about meeting Sam and Cam was how it was instrumental in everyone clicking into a different way of honouring their story and trying to do it justice with honesty and love,” he says.
While Watts became fully fluent with the language of using a wheelchair, it was her water scenes in a kayak that gave her the most trepidation. “I had a near-drowning experience in Bali on my way to Australia when I was immigrating. I was 14 years old and got caught out in a terrible rip-tide and so I’ve never felt comfortable in the water since then actually,” she admits.
If the Blooms were delighted to open up their home to the filmmakers, the reality was unexpectedly emotional. “The first day on set was upsetting and we were both quite emotional and I started getting all teary, and then Sam started crying and I think Naomi walked out and she was in tears too,” recalls Cameron Bloom. “But to realise they were actually making a story about us, was really special.”
Echoing her husband’s sentiments, Sam adds, “It was very surreal to see Naomi playing me. Everyone was very compassionate and I loved the fact Naomi would actually ask us to come to set. I was just grateful that they kept it so real and honest. Naomi was amazing.”
• Penguin Bloom is releasing in Australian cinemas on 1st January 2021