"Take yourself to the ocean": "Blueback" star Radha Mitchell on how to care about the environment

Radha Mitchell spoke to Salon about her aquatic "Blueback" costar, doing her own diving and a dream about a dolphin

Published March 2, 2023 4:00PM (EST)

Blueback (Quiver Distribution)
Blueback (Quiver Distribution)

"Blueback" is a gentle and beautifully filmed ecological-themed drama about a mother, Dora (Radha Mitchell), and her daughter Abby (Ilsa Fogg as a teenager) protecting the waters in Australia where they live.

"You have this charming lead character, who is not any of the humans in the story. He is this beautiful blue groper. He is not an animated fictious Disney character."

The film, directed by Robert Connelly ("The Dry"), who adapted Tim Winton's novella, toggles back and forth in time as the adult Abby (Mia Wasikowska) returns home to care for her mother (Elizabeth Alexander), who has recently suffered another stroke. In several extended flashbacks, Abby recalls Dora (Mitchell) teaching her to dive in the bay for abalone but to only take one for every three to prevent overfishing. 

Abby also befriends Blueback – a big-mouthed Australian fish known as a groper that lives in the water – and tries to protect him from danger. Her experiences — along with her activist mother's fight to stop developers from buying her land and stripping the reef of its fish — influenced Abby to become a marine biologist and save the waters from harm. 

The ecological messages in the film may be obvious (the film is geared to families) but "Blueback" raises awareness of issues about conservation and sustainability as Dora and Abby check in on Macka (Eric Bana), who fishes in the bay. (Bana, who coproduced, is charming in his few scenes.) They also keep tabs on the developers who want to change the local ecosystem to suit their greedy needs.

Connelly and Mitchell spoke with Salon about "Blueback" and its themes. 

Robert, what was the appeal of Tim Winton's novel that you wanted to make a film version of "Blueback"?

Robert Connelly: Tim described the book as a fable for all ages, and I was looking for something cinematic that had a kind of poem about the ocean. I love "The Old Man in the Sea," and the elegant nature of that book. The challenge as a filmmaker was how to make a work that has narrative but is not really propelled by narrative. The book tells the story about a life lived. Trying to have a jigsaw puzzle of all those pieces in a compelling way, was engaging for me. I love the politics of saving the ocean.  

What prompted you to change the story to be about a mother and her daughter? Abby was Abel in the novella. 

Connelly: I made a family film, "Paper Planes," a few years ago about a boy. I have two daughters, who are now 18 and 20, but years ago, when I started developing "Blueback," one of my daughters gave me a lot of grief, "You have two daughters, and the heroes in all of your films are always boys. What are you doing?" Tim, [Winton, the author of the book] said, "You optioned the book for a long time, why haven't you made it?" I told him I was getting grief from my daughters, and asked, "How do you feel if I changed the protagonist to a girl?" And he thought that was great because it is a universal story about young people being empowered. It worked well for the film.

Radha, how did you identify with Dora? She's described as "fearless" by one character, but she is also very stubborn and protective. What observations do you have about her and her as a mother?

Mitchell: I was drawn to the film because it has this subliminal and emotional element. It's something you feel. To understand Dora, you have to understand the ocean, so I was personally compelled to face some of my own anxiety about the ocean and global warming, and how to confront that creatively. Dora is all about taking it on, on a personal level. She isn't intellectual about it. It is innate to who she is; she lives it, and she is living in it. 

I had a dream where I was walking along a pier in Melbourne and I was in my 20s, during a time of crisis, and this dolphin invited me to the bottom of the ocean there. I felt I wasn't ready to go down to depths, and the fish swam away. I felt I missed this opportunity because I am weak and felt wasn't ready, and the dolphin turned around on the horizon, like Flipper, and goes [Mitchell makes dolphin noises], and it was like an invitation.

Connelly: You just watched "The Big Blue." [Both laugh; Jean-Marc Barr, who starred in "The Big Blue" costarred with Mitchell in the feature "Big Sur," and the short "Whoever Was Using This Bed," based on the Raymond Carver story.]

Mitchell: Dora is a compelling character as a positive demonstration of a mother who is not a perfect woman, but a steward or a role model to her daughter. You don't always see mothers in that active role. Women are usually stuck in the kitchen. So having an emancipated free spirit was amazing.

Robert, can you talk about the challenges of filming underwater and on boats, and with the gropers, which are some of the best sequences in the film? And Radha, did you get to do any of the diving? 

Mitchell: Yes, yes, yes. That's why it was a challenge. I was actually afraid because I had a bad experience diving and was actually intimidated by that. Rob said, "Don't worry, it's just going to be in a swimming pool." But none of it, other than a small part, was in a swimming pool. Mostly, we were in the ocean. We did all our own diving.

Connelly: There were no stunt doubles. I wanted the authenticity of shooting the actors in a boat diving and then panning down, watching them without editing so the audience could lose themselves in belief that it was the characters. There were safety people in the water. But it was tricky. A scene where young Abby (Ariel Donoghue) retrieves a wedding ring, we had a shark mitigation drone looking for sharks. They said there were no sharks, then I called "Action," for her. Technologically, it was an adventure. There were weather issues. Radha had to get a boat license for the film, and she was out there with a dinghy, and a pod of dolphins appeared, and she took off with dolphins. 

Mitchell: I thought it was a good shot!

Connelly: Filmmaking is such an industrial process. You look for the magic. We filmed an oceanic manta ray in one scene, that is rarely filmed, and we weren't expecting that, but when you are exposed to the natural world, you lose a bit of control. If it's a stormy day and it was meant to be bright and sunny, you have to work with that. Working with the fish was a whole other story.

Blueback is the name of the groper that is a symbol of the bay's wildlife that is endangered by predatory developers. He requires significant efforts to protect. You show how Abby — and by extension Dora and Briggs (Pedrea Jackson) — connect with Blueback and that emotional bond inspires their activism. Is it really a simple matter of connecting to animals and marine life that will encourage folks to protect the environment? 

Connelly:  You nailed it. It's not about saying, "It's all a disaster, and we have to fix it," It is the opposite; it's about making people love it. Jacques Cousteau said, "People protect what they love." The film shows if you experience it and if you love it, you feel compelled to save it. There's a big shift in the environmental movement of activism based on optimism. If you tell people the Great Barrier Reef is going to die because of climate change, people are just going to curl up in a ball and do nothing. But if you tell them that scientists have found ways to make coral more resilient with climate change, then people get a twinkle in their eyes. I didn't want "Blueback" to feel like a political lecture but that it does inspire activism. It's a finely calibrated journey.

Mitchell: To know you is to love you. I'm talking to the fish. [Laughs] You have this charming lead character, who is not any of the humans in the story. He is this beautiful blue groper. He is not an animated fictious Disney character. He is a real fish. That was inspiring about the story.  

BluebackBlueback (Quiver Distribution)

There are messages on respecting nature, using only what you need. The bay gives, but can also take back. Losing something can also be a way of saving it. These are important points about coral bleaching, stripping the reef and overfishing. Can you talk about raising awareness about these issues?

Connelly: It is interesting that when the novella was [written in 1997], biodiversity was the big issue — if we lose that, the environment is going to start collapsing — so it was all about protecting species of animals. But since writing the book, climate change has become such a big issue, so with Tim Winton's help, we created the adult Abby story of climate change and its impact on the temperature of the ocean and coral, which was a bigger issue than when the book was written. So how do we mesh the bigger impact of climate change with biodiversity, which says take one of every three abalone. The film could not have not spoken on the impact of climate change and species of coral. It is devastating when you see these bleached sections.

Mitchell: We can't know, and we don't really know. We are still figuring it out and still learning. You can see "Seaspiracy," and might never eat fish again. It opened a big conversation globally. We don't know the impact because we don't have enough knowledge and how all these things interplay. The film is drawing focus, and the more we engage the more we know we will make it a priority and will find solutions.

Given the activism on display in the film, what inspires you to stand up and speak out and take risks — even if your efforts might go unrewarded? The film certainly shows that doing nothing is often not an option.

Mitchell: It's almost philosophical. I stand for love and peace and a consciousness about my behavior and how it impacts others. I try to make personal lifestyle changes that align with changes in how we act collectively. I have solar panels, a water filter. I try not to use plastic bottles or buy lots of things. I could go on. Keep your mind open and keep educating yourself.

Connelly: Economic inequality is so extreme, and it is really doing more destruction at the moment than we can imagine. The economic inequality of the world is disrupting something. I don't know the solution. Australia, sadly, used to be one of the most egalitarian countries in the world, and we've gone down to more of an unequal model. I know there are films like "Triangle of Sadness" and "The Menu" and could be satirical about the uber-wealthy. 

Another area of real interest to me is generational change. How do we empower young people to have a stronger voice? 

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There is an economic aspect to the story in that greed is driving developers to despoil these areas because they see profit. How do you address this greater issue after the credits roll? Is funding marine sanctuaries sufficient or stopping the practice of overfishing, beach erosion, polluting the oceans. Your film is a call to action. How can people help create change?

Mitchell: That's' the question most people want an answer to. It is so personal. We can't tell everybody what to do. We're trying to align with organizations that want to align with us and have people work in those frameworks. 

Connelly: What can people do as a product of seeing the film if they feel compelled? A young girl at a screening said she wanted to become a marine biologist. But not everyone is going to do that. 

Mitchell You can get familiar with your natural environment. Don't go shopping, go hiking. Take yourself to the ocean, and that will take you on a journey. Have a personal, visceral experience. If you take someone into the natural world, you talk about the birds and engaging with things that become part of your consciousness and what you value. 

"Blueback" opens in theaters on wide release March 3.


By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Blueback Ecology Environementalism Fish Interview Movies Oceanography Radha Mitchell Robert Connelly