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Naomi Watts said co-starring with a live magpie in Penguin Bloom at first gave her the jitters.
“That made me nervous. How do we get a performance out of a bird and, you know, magpies are famously not super friendly,” she told a press conference for the family drama at the Toronto Film Festival on Saturday.
Watts, who plays Sam Bloom, a real-life active mother in Australia who becomes paralyzed after a tragic accident, eventually took to her feathery co-stars, a collection of live birds that played an injured baby magpie named Penguin who helps heal a broken family.
“They absolutely stole the scenes every day,” she recalled, including early on in production. “On the first day, the bird was on my head, chirping away, and next thing you know you feel a nice warm sensation trickling down my face,” Watts remembered.
Penguin Bloom used the live birds in around 90 percent of the scenes in which they appear, with computer graphics and animatronics used elsewhere in the movie. Australian director Glendyn Ivin had to ignore the Hollywood adage not to make movies with kids or animals when he shot the indie drama.
Ivin instead on set orchestrated both the live birds and the three children of Sam Bloom — Australian newcomers Griffin Murray-Johnston, Felix Cameron and Abe Clifford-Barr. “Well they always say never work with children or animals, because when they’re good, no one’s going to be looking at you,” a grinning Ivin told the TIFF presser during a session that was webcast.
The movie is based on a book by Sam and Cameron Bloom about their real-life experience. Penguin Bloom, set on Sydney’s northern beaches, follows a young family struggling to come to terms with a near-fatal accident that left Watts’ character paralyzed.
As her family learns to live with her new life, an unlikely ally enters their lives in the form of an injured magpie chick. “When we found Penguin, she brought a bit of excitement and happiness in our house. I made everyone sad, so Penguin just brought a bit of joy in our house, which was lovely,” Sam Bloom told TIFF’s online media contingent.
Besides the magpie’s calming presence, Watts said the injured mother and her family were able to heal mostly because of the bond between Sam Bloom and her husband, Cameron. “The only way through was that connection between Sam and Cam, and Cam really had to put all of his emotional strength into Sam’s journey of repair, and for the family,” said Watts, who appeared remotely from northern Ontario where she is in quarantine ahead of a shoot for her next movie, Lakewood, directed by Phillip Noyce.
The ensemble cast for Penguin Bloom also includes Jackie Weaver, who plays Sam Bloom’s mother, Rachel House, Leeanna Walsman, Lisa Hensley.
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