“This is my second Led Zeppelin album. Some would say the second Kiss album,” the ever-unassuming Warwick Thornton tells us at the picturesque Venice Film Festival. Wearing his trademark snakeskin jacket, Thornton looks more like a rock n roller than one of the most exciting cinema talents on the planet.
Warwick Thornton’s feature debut as director, Samson and Delilah unveiled at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009 to rave reviews, taking home the prestigious Caméra d’Or for Best First Film. This was off the back of award winning short films such as Green Bush, and working as a DOP on films such as Radiance and numerous documentaries.
If you thought that Samson and Delilah was a revelation, wait until you see Thornton’s much anticipated sophomore feature, Sweet Country, recently premiering on its home turf at the Adelaide Film Festival, which helped fund it. The Australian bow follows Sweet Country’s triumphant world premiere at the Venice Film Festival where it picked up the Special Jury Prize and the Toronto Film Festival where it won the Platform Prize, awarded to filmmakers who push artistic boundaries.
Thornton is once again doing double duty as director and cinematographer, working from a screenplay by Steven McGregor and David Tranter, the latter telling his ancestor’s story of Sam (Hamilton Morris), an Aboriginal slave of kind-hearted man of God, Fred Smith (Sam Neill). When Sam murders the ‘mad’ and irredeemable whitefella Harry March (Ewen Leslie) in self-defence, he hits the road with his wife, pursued by a posse led by lawman Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown).
Working within the confines of a genre – it’s an Australian western through and through – the cinephile Warwick Thornton produces his best work to date. For cinema trainspotters one of the best moments comes when a travelling picture show man projects The Story of the Kelly Gang – arguably the world’s first feature film – in the godforsaken town where the final act takes place.
Is Sweet Country a western to you first and foremost?
After the first read, I was very intrigued and excited about the script but basically, it’s a classic western that could’ve come out of ‘60s Hollywood. After more reads, I slowly started to try to deconstruct the classic western concept; started ripping them out and getting rid of them which makes a film more difficult to make but gives it a much more original voice which was important to me.
Let’s talk about the relations between the white characters and the black characters in the film. It’s a very specific story to a very specific time but at the same time it feels contemporary; did you have that in mind?
Totally. One of my pet things is history keeps repeating itself. It’s huge. Why haven’t we learnt, whether it’s world wars or its cold wars or racism? It’s a funny old thing. The idea if you learn anything from your past, the knowledge you gain from that you choose to have a better understanding of what to choose for the future. Looking at the past is really important to me, I like to do that in a film.
The Aboriginal actors overshadow the much more experienced white actors in the film.
They’re so good. If you told Sam [Neill], he would be so proud of that. But it’s quite apparent because between Sam, Ewen Leslie, Bryan Brown and Matt Day they really nurtured the indigenous cast who have never been on a film set before let alone acted.
As much as the actors were nurturing, how did you work with them?
There’s no such thing as a bad actor only a bad director and that’s because it gets boiled down to casting. You get an actor who can’t get that character out, it’s because the director put the wrong actor in the character. So, when working with non-actors, the most important thing for me is to start with a blank canvas and just to empower them and make them feel as positive as possible as soon as you can get people to fill that range, find people who are related to that character. If you want someone to play a truck driver and looking for a non-actor, cast a truck driver who’s never acted. They are going to bring stuff you as a director have no idea about.
How did you find having the non-actors mixing with veterans like Sam and Bryan?
I think it’s a really great dynamic; I like it because they feed off each other. As a director, that’s your craft to understand what Bryan and Sam and Hamilton need. That’s a craft for a director to recognise the need to find that character and to keep that character the level of the story and making sure you bounce off each actor, be a different director to each of them.
Sweet Country will be released in cinemas on ‘Australia Day’ 2018