Rewriting the History Books: An Interview with Warwick Thornton

In his 2009 debut feature Samson and Delilah, Aboriginal Australian director Warwick Thornton explored the marginalisation of an Aboriginal community in contemporary Australia. For his third feature Sweet Country, Thornton is looking once again at the rarely-seen-on-film Aboriginal experience, but this time in 1920’s Central Australia.

Aboriginal farmhand Sam Kelly, played by Aborigine actor Hamilton Morris, goes on the run after being accused of murdering a white slave-owner in self-defence. With a cast that mixes indigenous non-actors with veterans Sam Neill and Bryan Brown, Sweet Country is a brutal and tactile Western, but one that eschews the clichés of the genre. We spoke to Warwick about making a Western, filming with an Aborigine cast and crew and the importance of creating a better knowledge of Australia’s dark past. 

We spoke to Warwick about making a Western, filming with an Aborigine cast and crew and the importance of creating a better knowledge of Australia’s dark past. 

What were the origins of Sweet Country?

Thornton: It came from David Tranter (co-writer), who is actually a sound recordist who has pretty much worked on every film that I've done. We met when we were six years old. We grew up together. I started as a cinematographer, he started as a sound recordist, doing documentaries and being assistants, and we made movies together. And then I started directing.

Sam and Lizzie against Rockface - Sweet Country

A couple of years ago he said to me “I’ve got a really good idea for a film. It’s my grandfather’s story” and I said “Oh, ok” Occasionally on sets I get "I've got a really good idea for a film!" from grips and gaffers and make-up artists, and I don’t want to be dismissive because you never know, but usually I say “Well go an write it” and then 99.9% of the time I never hear of it again. But then suddenly David Tranter comes back to me years later after doing films together and he says “Hey, remember that idea? I’ve written it”. So that’s where it came from. It’s based on a true story about David’s grandfather. He’s aboriginal and I’m aboriginal, from central Australia.


Can you talk about bringing This part of Australian history to the screen? 

Thornton: It’s interesting because a lot of our history books that I grew up with in school are basically written by colonisers and they were written to say how wonderful they were, which wasn’t true. There is an incredibly dark past to Australia. Britain’s got a lot to do with it, taking over countries, looking for resources, competing with the French and the Spanish to have the biggest empire in the world, all that stuff. By doing that, between the French, the British and the Spanish, they destroyed a lot of really beautiful indigenous cultures that were multicultural and sustained in the country. They came along and obliterated all of that and created a different world.

Sweet Country

Australia has that history, and it hasn’t been written well in textbooks and so as an indigenous storyteller, when I get an opportunity to tell a story I like to tell the truth about what actually happened. Not necessarily with a baseball bat or a cricket bat over the back of the head, or pointing fingers and blaming people, more to try and create better knowledge of who we are and where we came from. There's a romantic and beautiful idea that if you know more about your past and you know about the tragedies of your past you can make better decisions about your future. So that’s the dream of what I do. 


Let’s talk about the assembling of the cast, it’s a nice combination of veterans and lots of new faces.

Thornton: Yes, a lot of first time actors. Hamilton (Morris) had been in a television show but for about one minute, so he’d seen a set before. I love Sam, I love Bryan, they’re sort of old friends. I’d done stuff with Bryan before , but I’d never worked with Sam. They’re unbelievably amazing actors, they fit the roles perfectly. It’s a small budget film and so to have big name actors really does help, not just with getting the story across and making a beautiful film, but it helps a film to get them on the bloody poster. It's sad to say that about Bryan and Sam but that’s the truth of it.

Sam Neill in Sweet Country
Bryan Brown in Sweet Country

Trying to find that balance of world renowned Class-A actors and first time actors is an interesting one. I made sure that I cast in Alice Springs so that everyone in the film, all the indigenous actors, at least had knowledge of the country and the history that we’re telling. This has happened to every aboriginal family in Alice Springs. The land grab and colonisation, the missionaries who come in and try to get rid of our language and our culture, all of that’s happened to basically every person in Central Australia. I wanted people who had come from Central Australia so they had a connection to the story, more so than an acting ability. I have a saying; "There’s no such thing as a bad actor, there’s just bad directors," because if you get someone in a role and they can’t produce that character for you, it’s not their fault it’s your fault for casting them in the first place. So it’s the director’s fault. That’s how I feel. 


Did you audition people from these places? or did you see a face an instantly feel like they were the right person to cast?

Thornton: I’m a visual person, so the first reaction to the cover of a book, the face, is really important to me. It’s like “Oh my god, there he is”. With first-time actors it’s a process of breaking down all those inner fears and that inner shyness and getting them prepared in front of the camera, and then all that basic performance stuff. 

Sweet Country

There are a lot of aborigine people on front of the camera, what about behind the camera? 

Thornton: There were a lot of aborigine people on set, both behind and in front of the camera. When we make a film, if we do have to bring in a non-indigenous make-up artist or costume person or grip of gaffer we ask them if we can put [an indigenous person] on with them who is interested in this form of art in that piece of cinema. We try to get them to teach other while they’re working, which they’re always very happy to do.

In Australia people get excited about this kind of story because they are very rare and they are telling a different point-of-view of history, not the textbook version of history. People are open minded, especially film crews, so they want to make these films and they want to do the best job. It's not about the financial gain. 


I assume you filmed all on location? 

Thornton: Pretty much every location we went to we had to get permission from the traditional owners of that area. Thankfully they’re all my uncles and aunties! It’s still all due process and we had to make sure that we got everything right because we’d go and shoot somewhere and they’d say “Not you, you little bastard!”, so we made sure that everything was done properly with all the land councils. Alice Springs is a desert, so everyone there has grown up on Westerns and to make a Western out there in Central Australia got everyone excited.

Sweet Country

Was it an active stylistic choice to make a Western genre film or did that imagery just come with the territory?

Thornton: It came with the territory, but it comes with its clichés too. Whether it’s Peckinpah or Ford or Leone, they come with that, and you could have read the script and made a very basic western. After reading the script myself, I started pulling out all the clichés. If there’s a book called ‘How to make a western’, I pulled out all the pages and started making barriers for us. It’s not like we created our own genre, I’m sure this sort of thing’s been done a million times, but we just tried to find a unique voice.

There’s a stylistic choice in the film to show a flashback and flash-forward of a character, can you explain this approach to the editing?

Thornton: That really came from the classic western style. The Italians are a lot better than the Americans with Westerns. The anti-heroes are broken characters and the bad guy is the good guy in a way. Sweet Country was written with ‘good and bad’ characters, which is very much the John Ford way. In the first week of the shoot we started looking at different ways to get past this idea of black and white. We wanted shades of grey in the film. We started shooting the flash forwards to fears of the future and the flashbacks to the darkness of the past, and rewriting the script as we went along to try and give characters more shades of grey.

Sweet Country

Even a really bad guy has got a little light of hope inside them, so we’ll go and find that in their future. We all as humans think about the future and we think about our fears, our dreams and our hopes, so I was just playing with those ideas to lighten up characters and give a little bit more insight into why a person is bad or really good. They might be good because they’re just naïve about what’s going on around them, like the Same Neill character, a Christian who thinks “God will save us all” But when you’re dead you’re dead, so we’re looking at Sam Neill’s character and using those flash forwards to create that naiveté for a more complex character.

Sweet Country is playing now at Curzon Aldgate, Curzon Bloomsbury and Curzon Soho.

Sam Howlett