Life imitates art as Netflix steers Sarah Spillane’s ‘True Spirit’ to global audience

Teagan Croft in 'True Spirit' (Image: Netflix)

In 2009, Jessica Watson set out to sail around the globe unassisted as a 16-year-old, going on to complete nearly 23,000 nautical miles across seven months, during which she was forced to withstand a series of knockdowns resulting from extreme weather.

The journey to bring her story to the big screen has taken a similarly arduous path, beginning in 2012 with an announcement from Brookwell McNamara Entertainment and Australia’s Sunstar Entertainment that production was due to begin. However, the film only came to fruition nearly a decade later via Netflix, which will release True Spirit next month.

Director Sarah Spillane, who boarded the project in 2015, said it was hard to ignore the parallels between the production and the quest it is centred on.

“Like Jessica’s journey, the making of this film was a challenging journey and a very ambitious project, which really could have sunk for many, many reasons,” she said.

“It was really when Netflix came became involved that it then accelerated and it became real.

“We had some false starts because it is a very difficult film to finance in the sense it’s not cheap – there’s a lot of visual effects and there’s also a lot of unknown to finance this movie in the traditional way, which often involves big stars being attached.”

Spillane wrote the script with Cathy Randall and Rebecca Banner from Watson’s memoir of the same name.

Teagan Croft and Director/writer Sarah Spillane on the set of True Spirit. (Image: Julian Panetta/Netflix)

The LA-based writer/director was meeting with Netflix executives in 2019 in relation to another project she was working on with eventual True Spirit producer Deborah Martin Chase when she put forward Watson’s story, piquing their interest.

“I pitched the story to them in the room, completely unprepared, and I just felt this incredible synchronicity,” she said.

“The room of executives at Netflix happened to be all women… and once I told them about Jessica’s story, they could see how important it was to tell.

Netflix officially announced its involvement midway through 2020, with Chase confirmed as producer alongside Resonate Entertainment’s Susan Cartsonis and Sunstar Entertainment’s Andrew Fraser.

Nearly a year later, Teagan Croft was confirmed to star in the film, which would be shot across NSW and Queensland in late 2021 and also feature Josh Lawson, Anna Paquin, and Cliff Curtis as Watson’s parents and mentor, respectively.

Croft’s preparation included sailing with Watson herself, with the now 29-year-old encouraging the young actress to do more than recreate her own memories.

“I wanted her to sort of bring something of herself to it as well,” she said.

“So the character is me, but it’s not really me; it’s also her and it’s also a lot of Sarah’s writing and directing, as well as every single one of the hundreds of people involved [in the production].

Teagan Croft and Jessica Watson on the set of ‘True Spirit’. (Image: Julian Panetta/Netflix)

“All of them brought something to it so it’s kind of weird in that it’s me, but it’s also not, and I really love that it’s something more.”

As in 2009, Watson’s nautical exploits will reach a global audience, with Netflix releasing True Spirit to more than 190 countries, spanning 30 languages.

Spillane commended the streamer for being “the vessel” for the cinematic version, describing the company as hands-on but also trusting.

“There was a lot of back and forth and they were incredibly respectful when there was something that was quintessentially Australian that I wanted to keep in there, like carving the Christmas ham with an electric carving knife.

“I explained why that’s important and they were always respectful of that.

“When it came to production and shooting, they gave me a lot of freedom once they saw the rushes come in.

“They gained a certain amount of confidence really let us run with it and make the movie we wanted to make, so I’m very, very appreciative of that.”

True Spirit will be available on Netflix from Friday, February 3.