Sarah Spillane Directs the Extraordinary Story of Sailor Jessica Watson in True Spirit


Director Sarah Spillane adapts the extraordinary true story of Jessica Watson into an uplifting feature film. Watson, a 16-year-old Australian teenager, became the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe as a solo sailor. True Spirit follows her epic and incredibly dangerous journey, but also shows Watson as a child. Flashback scenes accompany the voyage to illustrate the relentless pursuit of her dream from an early age. Titans star Teagan Croft plays Watson with supporting roles from Anna Paquin and Josh Lawson, who portray her parents, and a scruffy Cliff Curtis, instrumental as her tough sailing instructor.


True Spirit was primarily shot at the Village Roadshow studios on Australia’s Gold Coast. Spillane reflects on the difficulties of such a technical filming process. Water tanks, elaborate rigs, and gimbals were used to recreate the ocean scenes. The cast and crew spent just 2 days on open water where they all paid a queasy price. She likens the process to building a “theme park.”

Spillane’s personal path to becoming a filmmaker paralleled Watson’s arduous feat during the same timeframe. She speaks frankly about the “sharks” in Hollywood. Watson’s achievement was born from a fierce determination to defy all odds and convention. Spillane modeled the early character’s attitude from the classic television character Punky Brewster. True Spirit praises Watson’s remarkable skill and sailing prowess, but also has an emotional core of overcoming every obstacle. Spillane delivers an empowering film loaded with heart and adventure.

An Important Story

MovieWeb: Jessica Watson is a national hero in Australia. Were you aware of her before? How did you become attached to this film?

Sarah Spillane: It’s interesting, I had a somewhat parallel experience to Jessica, in terms of the timeline. She sailed out of Sydney harbor in October 2009. It was that exact same month that I flew out of Australia and went to Los Angeles to pursue my dreams; which was to make movies. Although I didn’t have to deal with 60-foot waves and epic storms like she did, I had my own challenges in Hollywood. Some would say I had to fight off a few sharks along the way (laughs). I was actually approached several years after she returned by her management. One of the managers, Andrew Fraser, is a producer on the movie. He had seen my last Australian movie, Around the Block. He approached me to write, direct, and adapt Jessica’s story. It wasn’t a slam dunk for me. It was challenging. How do I make a movie about a teenage girl alone on the ocean for 210 days? The more time I spent with Jessica, the more time I reflected on her journey, beyond the physical sailing aspect, I realized how important of a story this is.

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MW: Teagan Croft is great, but I really liked the flashback sequences with the younger actress that played Jessica as a child. It was very effective seeing her as a scrappy little kid prodding Cliff Curtis for help.

Spillane: The actress that plays young Jessica is Alyla Browne. She’s fantastic. I was interested in incorporating these flashbacks. That may also be an inch of my childhood there. We have a costume designer, Justine Seymour, we talked a lot about the young Jessica. I don’t know if you remember the series Punky Brewster back in the day.

MW: Of course, a classic show.

Spillane: That was my reference for young Jessica. I loved the go get ’em, spunk, can do attitude of Punky Brewster. I grew up on Punky Brewster. And so she wears this little red vest with patches all over it. That was our nod to Punky Brewster in the flashback sequences (laughs). It was important to incorporate them. It goes back further than a teenager. She was a kid with a dream. I love that, the innocence to pursue a dream at that age. For better or worse, without being concerned about the danger and physical ramifications of sailing around the world, I love the “I’m going to do this no matter what.” Alyla just nailed the character. She really got the role.

A Difficult Process

true spirit netflix

MW: You tell an uplifting story, but this is also a very technical film. Talk about shooting those harrowing ocean scenes.

Spillane: Despite the fact that most of this story takes place on the ocean, we only shot on open water for 2 days among a 44-day shoot. That was a couple of reasons. First and foremost, almost the entire crew got seasick (laughs). Including our lead actress Teagan Croft. But beyond that it’s so difficult. You obviously can’t control the elements out on the open ocean. It became very clear to me, early on in the pre-production process, that we’d have to build replicas, rigs, gimbals, and all the rest of it. So we could control every aspect of what the boat was doing in any particular moment. We shot a number of sequences on a gigantic water tank that they have at the Village Roadshow Studios on the Gold Coast of Australia. It was interesting because the water tank is great for calm sequences. When it came to the epic storms, if we’re going to replace water around the boat, then we might as well replace all the water. We ended up building a couple of enormous rigs in the parking lot of the studio. They looked like a giant theme park ride. The boat is on a gimbal moving around. I think Teagan loved it. It was like being in a theme park every day for her. It was a lot of fun.

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MW: What was the best day filming True Spirit?

Spillane: The best day for me was filming the Starman sequence, for obvious reasons. It features a cover of the David Bowie song Starman. It’s the only fantasy sequence in the movie. She’s coming out of a lull, no wind period. She’s sailing in very still water. The stars are perfectly reflecting on the ocean. It looks like she’s sailing through space. We shot that on the water tank at night. We had the song covered by Sarah Blackstone, an Australian vocalist. We had it blasting through the speakers. I kid you not, half the crew was in tears. It was so beautiful.

True Spirit premieres February 3rd exclusively on Netflix.

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