The long awaited biopic paying tribute to the incredible feats of Jessica Watson has finally been realised, highlighting the struggles she overcame to become the youngest person to sail solo and unassisted around the world.
The film True Spirit was mostly filmed in south-east Queensland, with Jessica Watson’s courageous feats navigating some of the world’s most challenging stretches of ocean now tapping into a worldwide audience through Netflix.
Speaking to me by Zoom, Jessica Watson tells us on Streets of Your Town how the movie has taken many years of development with director Sarah Spillane and working closely with the star Teagan Croft, but she’s thrilled with the final results.
“It’s weird because, it’s me, but it’s really not me as well,” Watson said.
“So it’s its own beautiful character and it’s its own beautiful thing, which I really, really love. It’s nice to have it as the story, but it’s also something else that Sarah and Tegan and everyone else involved has really brought to it, so I love that.
“Obviously Sarah and I have known each other for many years now and making me remember all the different kind of adventures we’ve got up to through the early drafts of the script—and then obviously when Teagan came on board, getting to spend a bit of time with her was fantastic as well.
“I don’t envy the task Teagan had, that’s for sure. But she’s done such an incredible job and I really love that she’s brought some of herself to it as well.”
Watson said it is chilling for her to relive when her boat “Pink Lady” was swept underwater by a gigantic wave, shown in the movie with her character tumbling around inside.
She said it takes her back to that moment.
“It’s a really long period of time the boat’s underwater for, and maybe it wasn’t quite that long in reality, but it’s true to the fact that time sort of stopped in that moment,” Watson said.
“It’s a little bit of movie magic, but they really captured that. It’s so true to how it was to the experience, so yeah, a little bit scary.”
Sarah Spillane paid tribute to Watson and the cast for overcoming challenges along the way to bringing the film to the big screen. She said Queensland’s Village Roadshow Studios provided the sophisticated technology needed to plunge the audience into the ocean alongside Watson on her travels around the world.
“When I was first approached to come on board it was a little bit intimidating, a story about a 16-year-old girl alone at sea for 210 days is not a slam dunk in terms of how to adapt that as a film,” Spillane said.
“The wave sequences were challenging. To be honest, most of the story takes place on the water.
“We only shot a few days open ocean because most of the crew and our lead actress, Tegan Croft became very seasick.
“And so we had a number of sets and rigs and gimbals built, which was so much fun. One of them in particular reminded me of the old pirate ships in an amusement park kind of thing, like this replica of the Pink Lady up on a gimbal and rotating around.”
Spillane said part of her process of transforming Watson’s story and autobiography into the movie script was getting a glimpse of how truly alone Watson must have felt on her world record setting journey.
“The more time I spent with Jessica and realised how spiritual and philosophical and emotional the story was then it did become pretty obvious that this was something that I wanted to do and a story that’s really important to be told,” Spillane said.
“I think part of the writing process for me, I obviously spent a lot of time with Jessica, but then when I really sit down to write something, I try to create an environment that is as close to Jessica’s as possible in this case. I didn’t trust myself captaining a boat, so I did the next best thing, which is to rent a sort of random shack in the middle of the desert where there was no one else around and I didn’t see another person for weeks. And that’s where I got to somewhat replicate that sense of isolation.
“I connected very deeply with Jessica’s story from my own experience growing up as a tomboy in Australia. I had a dream that led me to a fairly male-dominated field and I was often told no, whether it was me wanting to play football when I was young at a time that girls did not play football or rugby league, whether it was that or whether it was now pursuing a career in the film industry.”
The hurdles that Watson overcame with media opposition to her quest became a central part of the film.
“There were so many roadblocks, and what I really connected to with this story, and Jessica as a person is that refusal to accept, no, you can’t do this,” Spillane said.
“There’s a public perception that would’ve been really difficult, I think, to overcome, especially at that age.
“So I wanted to start when Jessica first had that inspiration and that dream first became a reality for her in terms of, I'm going to work hard and I’m going to do this because I do think it’s symbolic for so many people. For Jessica, it was sailing. For other people, it’s an artistic pursuit or an athletic pursuit, [or it] might be going to space. There are just so many parallels to this story that I hope people can resonate with.”
Watson said she hopes now more than a decade after her amazing feat that if another young woman wanted to do something like this, she wouldn’t have to face the same obstacles.
“It’s fantastic. I think increasingly, every time we go down to yacht clubs, it’s just there are more and more amazing female sailors,” Watson said.
“It really has and is changing. So that’s just fantastic. And I understand where a lot of the criticism was coming from. People were concerned, and that's lovely—but let people have adventures and take these things on. It’s so important to live fully.”
My other big news is that I’ve had a play and rejigged my thumbnail image for Streets of Your Town on the podcast providers!
It was great to take stock and look back at all the stories that YOU have supported me to find by travelling around this magnificent country of ours, whether that’s in Mildred the cantankerous kombi or by plane or meeting someone at the local cafe. I love that you never know when you’ll stumble upon your next great story.
And it also made me realise that we are now up to episode 92!! I’m keen to know what you think I should do to celebrate the 100th episode?! I think a party is in order. And who should I feature? Is there anyone who you’d love to hear how they’re going now who I should revisit?
Just reply to this email and let me know—would love to hear from you all.
Your Wandering Journo,