“The script I read was different to the movie that we saw last night,” says Bryan Brown in Venice after the international premiere of Sweet Country last year at the prestigious Venice Film Festival where it went on to win the Special Jury Prize. “How it was told, I wouldn’t have known from the script. That’s the sensibility that Warwick brings to it. It’s definitely the same narrative, but his viewpoint is what made it a Warwick movie.”
One view that Brown contributed was to his character, the law of a small outback town. “The initial thing I read was that he was quite racist,” he admits. “‘I’m going get that black bastard’, things like that. In the beginning of the movie he’s quite a racist character. I said to Warwick we can’t just have the same characters. I’d like to lose all that and just say ‘this man is the law and it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white. If you do something wrong, he’s going to go after you.’ Other people might view that going after a black man as being racist but I’m viewing that guy as a murderer, he’s killed a soldier. I’ll get him. My character knows what it is like to be a soldier and respects what you give up as a soldier and he’s going to honour this man by finding the man who killed him, so he’s driven in that respect. That’s my job, so we honed it down to be very much that’s his thrust.”
When we suggest that he’s kind of like John Wayne, Brown agrees but adds, “But probably not as heroic. He’s got a lot of warts.”
Sweet Country has an audacious but classic style to it that will be particularly savoured by movie lovers, with an extra bit thrown in around the mid-section when a travelling picture show is set up to screen The Story of the Kelly Gang, arguably the first feature film ever made. Bryan Brown acknowledges that is a deft touch, and one that wasn’t in the original script.
What was in the script are the underlying themes. “The things that Warwick was saying in the movie is about a change that is happening. Before it would have been ‘get that black bastard and shoot him.’ Now, it’s got to be ‘we have to give justice to everyone now’. Matt Day’s character, a judge, represents the new younger people, who are studied. Doesn’t mean they’ve solved the problems, but a new Australia has started to come in and talk about what is legal.”
Does he feel this will resonate with the current debate in Australia over indigenous rights – after all, the film is being released just in time for the controversial Australia Day celebrations? “I think those sorts of things might get talked about. We didn’t discuss those things when making the film. We discussed getting that story right. Those characters behaving in the relationships, that kind of thing. What it means to other people will be once it’s out there, but we’re just telling a pretty good fucking story.
“But it’s going to resonate,” he says. “That’s what a good movie does. It’s specific to its thing. If it’s touching things, real truths about humanity it’s going to resonate with what’s going on in the world, and there’s plenty that’s going on with the world. This movie will resonate I would think.”
Bryan Brown first worked with Warwick Thornton on his unconventional docu-drama The Darkness, in which Brown played one of various characters discussing indigenous related ghost stories. So, what’s he like as a director? “Very communicative, very respectful. You got a problem you want to talk about, he’s there to talk about it. Something doesn’t work for you, let’s change it. But I think the thing is you sort of trust him. You figure he knows what he is telling. He knows what he wants to tell in his story. You’re also going along for the ride. You’re not really protecting yourself from anything.”
Shot in the outback, does Bryan Brown, famous as an inner-city Sydney dweller, relate to the life depicted on the screen? “I got cattle,” he tells us, adding that he has a 200-acre property on the northern coast of NSW. “I’ve got horses. I ride. I like doing that shit.
“But God yeah. Work hard, drink hard, fight hard,” he adds about the lifestyle of the early 20th century in Australia, particularly Alice Springs where the film is set. “You would have worked out how to survive. It seemed brutal, but you’re on a brutal part of land. Still today, if you wander off 10 kilometres in Alice Spring, you don’t know where you are, you could die. Three weeks after we left there, two German people flew into Sydney, changed planes, flew to Alice Springs, hired a car. Within 24 hours they were dead. They went off the track and left their car and walked. The heat got them. It’s brutal.”
Sweet Country is in cinemas January 25, 2018. Read our review here.