Interview: Sweet Country director Warwick Thornton on the importance of storytelling as an Indigenous filmmaker

In cinemas now, Sweet Country director Warwick Thornton sat down with The Iris’ Peter Gray to talk about the film and the importance of storytelling as an Indigenous filmmaker.

You’ve been involved in other projects since Samson and Delilah, but would you classify Sweet Country as your official follow-up?

Yeah sophomore project.  The second album, the second movie, the second book, the second recipe…(laughs)

Was there a reason for the break in between the films?

There’s a little bit of fear in writing your next movie, people might see you’re a complete fraud.  But i’m lucky cause i’m a cinematographer too, so I can run away and play with the circus.

This time around you’re working off someone else’s script, how did the project come about for you?

A mate of mine, who I have known for a very long time, he said he had a great idea a couple of years ago for a movie…and I told him to go away and write it.  And he did.  It wasn’t very well written so we brought someone else in to write it, I mean it was a great idea…but it was about empowering himself and getting off his arse to write something!  And then when I read it, it was something that made me angry, made me sad, makes me really happy, makes me proud…and I thought this will be perfect, I can make this.

Was there anything originally written that didn’t make the final cut?

Oh yeah there was lots of stuff that didn’t make it, and there’s actually a lot of scenes in the film that weren’t written at all.  I go fast on set so that I can have more time to play, and make stuff up.

And was this quite a short shoot?

Yeah, 22 days.  Ridiculously fast.  We just didn’t have the budget to flounder around, it was incredibly hard work in the middle of summer in Central Australia…but all the crew loved the script so that’s why they all worked so hard.

Would you prefer to work with a bigger budget?

You give me more money and i’ll just screw it up!  One day I’d love to make a couple of $100 million films, and I will, but for now I like to create barriers for myself cause then you can start getting creative.  If you have too much money you’ll just make a mess.  If you have no money, you learn to get creative.  You look at the essence of the story and honing down to make something clearer.

With this film did you have a personal connection to the story?

Yeah, i’m from Alice Springs, born and bred exactly where it (the story) happened.  This story is universal for all Indigenous people of Australia, you know the taking of the land…

Do you feel there’s an importance to share these stories as an Indigenous filmmaker?

Absolutely! It’s a responsibility that I have, it’s incredibly important…these movies cost a lot of money to make and when I get the opportunity to tell a story, I really have to think about its importance to this country, and what’s the importance to Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people…how can I make it inclusive enough so that everyone can relate to it.

You have both Bryan Brown and Sam Neill in this film, how did they become involved?

I know Bryan really, really well.  I’ve known him for a long time and I rang him and asked him to read the script, and he read it and said yes right away.  And he even had projects lined up that he pushed out of the way so that he could make this.  Same with Sam, he read the script and moved some dates around to film it, because they both thought it was incredibly important.

And Hamilton Morris is just extraordinary in this, how did you find him?

I’d seen him in a TV show and I just recognised this great spirit that came across on camera.  And we tracked him down, brought him into town…I didn’t even really do any casting, didn’t make him read lines or anything like that…as soon as he walked in I just asked him would he want to do this movie.  There’s just this essence to him…like Hamilton is incredibly shy, which really worked well with the character.  I was more interested in his connection to the land over his ability to act.

The character of Philomac was played by twins (Tremayne and Trevon Doolan), how did you find those two?

Found them at a school, a little Indigenous school.  One of them walked around the corner, then suddenly another one did that was the spitting image (laughs).  When the first one did I thought “Wow that looks like Philomac”, and then the other one walked around and I thought it was perfect because you work for 12-14 hours a day in 45 degree heat…and when you’re working with children, you forget that they’re young…

Because isn’t it a set amount of hours you can work them?

In the Northern Territory you can work them as hard as you want (laughs) but I wouldn’t do that because you’re just going to get a crap performance.  But it worked well for us cause one of them is an extrovert and one of them is an introvert, so whenever we had a scene where Philomac was stealing something we could use the extroverted one, and then when he was caught for stealing we could put in the introvert.

Are there plans to take the film internationally?

Yeah, it’s going to be in cinemas everywhere in the world, it’s been sold to every region…North America, Paris, London, the whole of Germany, Turkey…everywhere!

Do you think the Western genre aspect of the film will be one of the big selling hooks overseas?

Yeah, Westerns are quite rare around the world, so when they come along…people tend to like them.  We needed to create that genre because even though it’s a true story and it’s set in 1929…Alice Springs still thinks it’s the Wild West (laughs).

Sweet Country is now playing in cinemas.