“After Samson and Delilah, I still thought I was a bit of a fraud,” says Warwick Thornton about the buzz surrounding him after his debut feature won the Camera d’Or at Cannes and the offers started flooding in.
Since then, Thornton has made festival films such as the documentary/drama hybrid The Darkness and the impact documentary We Don’t Need a Map, and has worked as cinematographer on Wayne Blair’s features The Sapphires and Septembers of Shiraz among other low profile gigs that hones his craft.
But finally, Sweet Country got him back in the feature film director’s chair. It was the first film Thornton had directed that he didn’t write, with Steven McGregor and David Tranter’s screenplay catching his eye with its story of early 20th century Australia.
“It’s called Sweet Country which is the irony,” he says when quizzed about the hard life that his characters have to endure to survive. “Where you are born is kind of what you love. You see the beauty in what you know and that was important. There’s no score in the movie which was important to me to give the landscape its own voice rather than the director throw the score on top of the landscape. If you get rid of all that – which is a classic western cliché, the score – the camera rises up and the director is dictating.”
Apart from the magnificent cinematography by Thornton himself, another brilliant touch in Sweet Country is the use of flash-forwards, which was something that the director added to the story’s structure. “The flash-forwards I started creating on set,” he comments. “The crew was saying ‘what do we call these?’ We went with ‘Wark’ because that’s my nickname, so you have Wark1, Wark2…
“It’s important for me for the audience to be working,” Thornton continues. “I want the filmmaker to challenge me. Not abuse me but keep me interested. I love films like that. I make films I want to watch. They’re not there for financial advantage, though that’s always part of the deal. If they give you a million dollars, they want five million back.”
And what’s next? Would he ever consider a non-Indigenous story? “I wouldn’t mind, if the story presents itself. As a craft for storytelling, as an Aboriginal, I can’t wash that out. I will always be Aboriginal but there are non-Indigenous stories I really love.
“The ego wants 20 films under my belt but the reality is if I can make four or five beautiful films, they’ll blow twenty shit films out of the way,” he says when questioned about the 8 year gap between Samson and Delilah and Sweet Country. “The time and respect for storytelling are more important than ego.
“There’s one ready,” he assures us. “I’m just waiting for the producer to be ready. It’s called Far from the Sun. It’s set in the ‘40s. It’s about an aboriginal boy who’s found in the desert by himself and he’s sent to an orphanage run by a Benedictine monk. All hell breaks loose. It’s very much a Pan’s Labyrinth kind of world.”
Sweet Country is in cinemas January 25, 2018. It also screens at the Adelaide Film Festival.