Filmmaker Sarah Spillane Makes Waves as ‘True Spirit’ Becomes Netflix Hit

The Los Angeles-based Australian filmmaker is ready to rock the boat in Hollywood after a decade in the biz and her second feature film’s big debut

Filmmaker Sarah Spillane is having a serendipitous moment. Her new sailing adventure film, True Spirit, is the culmination of a relentless, decade-plus effort to prove herself as a captain capable of steering studio productions from concept to completion. And last week, she learned her second feature, which is based on the true story of the youngest person to ever sail solo, non-stop, around the world, is a hit.

“The reason I had to delay our chat is we just got word yesterday that True Spirit is now the number two Netflix movie in the world,” she tells LAMag in the middle of February, a day after our originally scheduled interview. “So, all of a sudden, my phone blew up.”

And now, after interviews with publications around the world, the offers are flooding in — from strangers, hoping she’ll direct their sailing story for her next project. She shares one of these direct messages off of social media with a laugh, “Some dude reached out to me yesterday, ‘I want to sail around the world in the laser boat. I’ll give you the opportunity to do this movie first.'”

With Netflix’s algorithm pushing the film front and center in subscribers’ feeds and a 79 percent approval rating from critics counted on Rotten Tomatoes, it does appear that Spillane has the wind in her sails.

Sarah Spillane on the set of “True Spirit,” courtesy of Kick Pictures

A decade after the Australia release of her prior feature film, Around the Block, a coming-of-age drama about an Aboriginal teen, she’s now made her big Hollywood splash. So, it’s not hard to imagine more waves of opportunities flowing in—perhaps even to helm some big-budget Hollywood adventures.

“I feel, well—lucky is probably a stretch—but I feel fortunate, is probably the better word,” she says. “I write as well, so being a writer and director, I am always working. Someone could look at my IMDb profile and say, ‘Hey, she didn’t do anything between 2016 and 2020.’ But hello, I cannot tell you the last day I had off.”

True Spirit adapts the inspirational true story of Australian teenager, Jessica Watson and her 2009 voyage around the world at the age of 16. Actress Teagan Croft (Titans) stars alongside a strong supporting cast including Cliff Curtis (Fear the Walking Dead) as her mentor, and Anna Paquin (True Blood) and Josh Lawson (Mortal Kombat) as supportive but worried parents. In the film, Before she even sets sail, Watson, who is dyslexic, encounters disaster on a trial run while only a few miles from shore; skepticism from the news media, public mockery, and government outrage follow as social service authorities condemn the idea of a child risking her life to set sail on such a voyage.

Instead of just following a girl on a boat for 210 days, Spillane effectively navigates between the past and present, flashing back to formative moments in Watson’s life that inspired her journey—like her mother using a book about 17-year-old Zac Sunderland’s record-setting sail around the world to help the little girl overcome her learning disorder. As her family had lived on a boat for a period, it was not long before Watson dreamed of accomplishing the same feat. She first, of course, had to learn to sail, then convince both her family and her mentor she was capable of accomplishing such a feat.

“For me, on a personal note, it just is quite serendipitous,” Spillane says of the parallels between True Spirit and her own journey as a filmmaker. “What it takes for her to get there—the hard work and preparation, the perseverance, the standing up to people who said, ‘no she couldn’t do that’… She left Australia to sail around the world and pursue this dream and this goal of hers the exact same month of the exact same year that I left Australia to move to Hollywood to pursue my dream.”

Sarah Spillane on the set of “True Spirit,” courtesy of Kick Pictures

Spillane “absolutely” relates to her protagonist’s struggle, both inwardly and outwardly. “A lot of the movie really looks at how isolated she feels, and she falls into a depression where there’s no wind,” the filmmaker explains.

The wind that pushed Spillane through her career in Los Angeles was the regular writing gigs and work on other projects she was able to land, and the people who would ultimately help her complete her biggest cinematic accomplishment yet.

“It is so much about networks and the people you meet; one project might introduce you to someone who introduces you to someone that gets you the next. And that’s exactly what happened with my current movie,” she says. 

Ultimately, however, getting the green light from the studio to actually make True Spirit was a voyage in itself. One of the biggest hurdles she had to clear was convincing Netflix executives and producers to believe in her vision, she says.

“It was considered a very ambitious project; it’s not a cheap project,” she says. “I had to put a lot of work in. I probably had to do more pre-production work than most directors would ever have to do, in terms of showing storyboards; animatics they call it, almost like animated storyboards of how I would create certain sequences in order to show these people that this can be made. It can be done.”

But the complex process to get a green light in the studio system is getting worse, she says.

“It’s very hard for people to take risks now,” Spillane says. “Unfortunately, writers have to basically write the scripts before they’re sold. And filmmakers almost have to make the movie before it gets greenlit.”

With all of these hoops that filmmakers have to jump through, it’s beginning to feel extraordinary that a movie like True Spirit is produced at all. The film’s title can apply to both Watson and Spillane. “In my case, it’s filmmaking,” Spillane says of the parallel journey, “and in her case, it was this extraordinary mission to sail around the world.”

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