Sweet Country, Sour History, Great Moviemaking: Director Warwick Thornton on Sweet Country

“Australia was built on free labour. 180 years of free labour,” says director Warwick Thornton. He is talking, of course, about the white settlers, who made their fortunes off the backs of the Aboriginal people. “That’s the story of my family. The land was stolen from them, and then, if they wanted to stay, they had to work for free for the person who stole it.”

It’s a familiar refrain, particularly here in the United States.

Behind the filmmaker’s laid-back persona, dry sarcasm, and keen love of cinema, there’s an equally unmistakable anger. It’s a rage that simmers beneath the rapturous visuals, deliberate pacing, taciturn tone and unsettling air of fatalism in Thornton’s newest film, Sweet Country.

Set in the 1920s in Australia’s Northern Territory, the story, characters, and setting have far more in common with the 1820s of the U.S. West. That’s no mistake. Thornton borrows the language and landscapes of the American Western—including hard-driven riders and a dusty saloon—to tell the tale of an Aboriginal farmhand (Hamilton Morris) goes on the run with his wife (Natassia Gorey-Furber) after killing a white settler (Ewen Leslie) in self-defense. Racial tension and rough justice are played out against a backdrop of ravishing vistas and backwater lawlessness. It’s a film with beauty in its heart and fury in its soul.

The film—which also stars Sam Neill and Bryan Brown—won the Toronto International Film Festival’s Platform Prize and, along with his previous film, Samson and Delilah, has quickly established Thornton as an essential voice in Australian Cinema.

We sat down with Warwick at this year’s Sundance Film Festival where he was dressed in his trademark black jacket, jeans, boots and hat, and was struggling to get used to Park City’s cold and snow.

Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country. Image courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

Jeff Meyers, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Let’s talk about the Western, a genre that’s as close as we get to anglo-American mythology, as a vehicle for exploring the marginalization of indigenous people…

Warwick Thornton (WT): The funny thing is the film is actually based on a true story. It actually happened in 1929, so it came with all its baggage intact. If I set it in space—space is a great place to set something—it would have been something different. But it came with all of that, so it very naturally progressed into a Western. They did have guns, they didn’t shower very often, there were no women and there was no law.

MM: But what made it right for the story you wanted to tell?

WT: Well, the Western has always represented that gap between what we know and what we don’t know. Thats not just a cinematic thing, it’s a human thing. It’s been passed down from pre-word, from oral history. There’s a Western in oral history—the fear of the unknown, the place over there you’re not supposed to go to. And there are always those people who want to make that journey—but who can’t help but bring with them the things that make them feel safe. Which is why Western people have to have some kind of law, because that constitutes a kind of democracy. But there’s also the second part, the desire to control. To tame.

MM: When I think of who loves Westerns—my 75-year-old uncle, for instance—they’d probably be the least likely audience for a film that tackles racial injustice. Your film is rather subversive in spirit, isn’t it?

WT: That’s the whole point, isn’t it? You want to watch a Western? I’ll show you a Western. It wasn’t all nylon strings and petticoats. I’ll show you how the West actually was. Ironically, the West wasn’t full of caucasian cowboys. It wasn’t full of twenty women and a hundred white cowboys. It was actually fifty Mexicans, fifty black Africans, fifty Native Americans, and five white guys. Thats the Western no one talks about.

MM: Yeah, they all seem to be about the lone man standing up for some code or another. But often they were just killers.

WT: Like Ned Kelly with his silly hat. Which Australia actually puts up on a pillar—a criminal who shot a lot of people. It’s a funny way that society works. It doesn’t matter if you do bad things, if you’re a badass, if you get a tattoo on your soul, kick against the pricks, you’ll suddenly get propped up. It’s ironic that the same town that wants the blood of the innocent Aboriginal because they see him as criminal, cheers on a murderous thief like Ned Kelly.

MM: What’s wonderful about Sweet Country is the way you reveal your characters, layering what we learn about them and then accenting things with those lyrical POV shots and flashbacks and flash-forwards.

WT: You get people to be a little more dynamic, a little more questionable…not just to create shades of gray but to keep the audience engaged with the characters. Suddenly the law abiding citizen is not what he seems.

A scene from Sweet Country

MM: It reminds me of Akira Kurosawa, in Rashomon. It becomes clear that whatever you’re seeing at any given moment isn’t necessarily the truth. Or, it might just be one person’s view of the truth.

WT: Which is a lot like in an oral history. They’re telling the tale, and the tale can change depending on who’s telling it.

MM: The casting in this film fascinates me because you’ve got pretty big stars, like Sam Neill and Bryan Brown, playing alongside a lot of first-time performers.

WT: Yeah, there are actors who have never been in front of a camera in their whole entire life. This was Natassia’s first time in a film. But I do it all the time. It’s important to me to cast people from central Australia, who are Aboriginal.

MM: What’s your process for directing someone who’s completely inexperienced?

WT: When you’re on set, you figure out how different actors need to be directed. Some people need nurturing, and some people need abuse—

MM: —Abuse?

WT: Well, not in the ways some might be thinking. It’s more what they put themselves through. But they enjoy that. That’s how they need to be directed. You’ve got six of these folks in the same scene, and they’re all different. So there’s that kind of way of working actors, and there’s developing or looking after the characters. You teach them. There’s the boring crap like: Remember your lines. And, of course, there’s different ways to remember those lines. For some people it’s a visual form. Some people need to read it and read it. The thing is to make sure they sound like actual people. You know, “less is more.” …Crikey….all that wonderful stuff that’s like page one of the little golden book of “How to Act.”

MM: Must take a lot of patience.

WT: I’m a director that after five takes if it’s not right it’s not the actors fault, it’s mine. There’s something wrong with the way I’m directing, there’s something wrong with the dialogue. I’m not an obsessive, where you just torture people. A sadist. Like Kubrick. That must have been what that’s about. Is there a millimeter or a millisecond of a nuance that’s different, is that really what you’re looking for?

MM: What about when it’s not working for you?

WT: I’ll reset the scene, and try it from a different angle. Maybe that’s the problem. Its sort of like, if I’ve got a problem, I jump in and try things I’ve probably never done before. When I make a film, when I read a script—whether I’ve written it or not—I have to recreate how I am as a director. Just press purge, put my head on a massive magnet, rearrange how to direct, and then just go. I need to learn new tricks, because every film needs a different form.

A scene from Sweet Country

MM: Let’s talk about the film’s rape scene. What amazed me about how you constructed that scene is how, quite literally, nothing is shown. It’s all about how he closes the shutters. When the room goes black I don’t need to know anything else.

WT: Yeah, there’s no visual thing. Just him closing the windows and doors as slow as possible, a real creepy bastard. Like it was his right. I was in complete denial about that scene until the day before [we shot it]. I didn’t want to think about it. And didn’t want to do it. If I had the chance I would have ripped it out of the script. When it comes to nudity and lovemaking—that stuff is very difficult for me. If it’s not important I just pull it out. But it’s a complete turning point in the film and it had to be there.

MM: When you were preparing for the shoot were there films you looked at—classics or maybe directors—that you took inspiration from?

WT: I don’t have any…There’s so many films out there. There’s all sorts of weird references in the movie, but never one clear inspiration…maybe a little bit of the Italian Westerns, or The Searchers, or something. The irony is that the opening sequence— where Sam Neill is sitting there and this bad guy just walks up— is a reference to Night of the Hunter. We all think we’re auteurs, but it’s all been done before.

MM: You were on location in Alice Springs, which is pretty far out in the boonies, shooting on with limited budget on a limited schedule. How did you make that work?

WT: I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody because it’s ridiculous. It’s all about pre-production and knowing exactly what you’re doing. We shot it in the town I grew up in, so when I was reading the script, it was like, I want to shoot it there, I want to shoot it here, and I want to shoot it there…because i knew the town better than them.

MM: You know who I’ve been told is like that? William Friedkin. Producers have told me he knows how he wants it set up, that he’s been doing this for so long that he doesn’t get precious about particular shot.

WT: It’s survival. There are more important things. Somebody walking into a bar is not really important to me, what they say is what is important to me. I might do one take of them walking into the bar and then focus on what they say. If you got it the other way around—do twenty takes—you’ve completely missed the point of the storytelling, and the story is the entire thing.

MM: What’s your approach with the crew? Are you collaborative by nature, or more top-down?

WT: I grew up carrying boxes, loading, focus pulling, being a cinematographer—I was a cinematographer way before I started directing. So I empower the crew. My idea is it’s like going on holiday with your best friends…

MM: Do you still take gigs as cinematographer for other directors?

WT: Nah. No one wants a cinematographer who thinks he’s a director. So it’s like I’ve killed that career. It’s a lament! When I’m behind the camera, dealing with lenses and depth-of-field selection, it feels like home on the range, like, “can I go home now, Mom? Back to cinematography to hide behind the camera and just have a great old time.” You’re king of the set, more so than the director. That’s a wonderful world. I completely miss it. The only place I can get it is if I actually make my own movie, because then I can shoot the movie. But there will come a point where then budget gets higher, and the demands will become bigger, and I’ll actually be doing a disservice to the movie because I need to actually invest 1,000 percent in the story and actors and can’t give as much as I’d like to the textures, colors and composition. MM

Sweet Country opened April 6, 2018 in select theaters. All images courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films. 

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