“Sweet Country” Director Warwick Thornton On Documenting Australian History Through Indigenous Eyes (Interview)


SweetCountryUTR1Samuel Goldwyn Films

The Western genre has many fans in the United States, particularly in the rural regions outside big cities. Because of that, it’s a shame that the Australian Western hasn’t really taken off in the States, because there’s a wealth of historical knowledge, especially in the case of Sweet Country, the new film from acclaimed Australian filmmaker (Samson & Delilah).

It takes place entirely in the outback region of Central Australia in 1929 when the tense relationship between the whites and Aboriginals explodes when a recent arrival, Harry March (Ewen Leslie), begins mistreating a family that’s he’s borrowed to help on his farm. When a ranch-hand named Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) kills Harry in self-defense, it begins a chase across the primitive Australian wasteland before Kelly is caught and put on trial.

While Sweet Country works quite decently as a straight Western, it’s also an important account of how the indigenous people of Australia were treated by the Westerners that colonized the continent, and at times, it comes across like an Australian version of 12 Years a Slave. This might be why it won a number of awards out of the Sept. festivals where it premiered. Thornton’s new film also stars Australian mainstays Sam Neill and Bryan Brown, giving it far more veracity among their countrymates.

The Tracking Board got on the phone with Thornton for the following interview, which proved to be quite educational when it comes to Australian history, something that isn’t taught at all in the States. 

I feel like the Aboriginal’s place in Australian history hasn’t been covered very much in films. With this and Samson and Delilah, you’ve found a nice niche to show the world from their perspective for once.

: A lot of our history wasn’t written properly. It would be a hard task to see any of this kind of information in history or taught in curriculum or in a library. For Australia’s indigenous , when we do get an opportunity to make something for the screen, we don’t want it to be a history lesson, but it’s an opportunity for us to actually talk about stuff we know orally as history, because it’s passed down through our families’ oral history. But actually, the world doesn’t know, so it’s almost like every time we make a movie in a way, we’re trying to create a point of conversation about history and about indigenous people.  It’s important to try to get the truth out there, because a lot of the truth hasn’t been out there.

There have been Westerns set in Australia by Australian , but the indigenous people of Australia aren’t really in them most of the time or they have very small parts. I don’t know if you’ve found the same thing.

Yeah, exactly. It’s just a strange conundrum. As indigenous , when we get an opportunity, we need to say, “Right. we need to put ourselves in the movies because we’ve kind of been left out.” Which is ironically, probably, that’s the case with most Westerns in a way. The crazy idea that in Middle America, you see all these Westerns where there’s all these towns full of white people, and there’s no Indians and there’s no ex-slaves and there’s no Mexicans. The ranchers are five white guys, but if you look at the history of how the West was built here in North America, for every one white guy, there was 20 Mexicans, and there was 12 black American ex-slaves and only one white guy, but you don’t see them in the American version of a Western, as well.

SweetCountry3Samuel Goldwyn Films

As Americans, we don’t really learn about Australian history. It’s not taught in our schools, so you really have to do some digging or reading if you want to learn anything about it. I didn’t even know when Europeans came to Australia, what year that was. That’s how little knowledge I have about Australian history.

It’s quite a young country in that sense. It was 1788. In a strange way, that makes our country incredibly young, but the irony is that indigenous people have been in Australia for hundreds of thousands of years, so it’s one of the oldest, living unbroken connection to man in the world. So it’s exactly the oldest country in the world. It’s sort of this really weird balance as one of the youngest countries, but really, if you made it an inclusive rather than the exclusive idea, you connect the indigenous population and then you’re the oldest country in the world. 

I was curious about that date, because Sweet Country is set in 1929, and I wondered how far along in history that was after the colonization.

Well, that’s the thing, because that colonization, because Australia is a very dry continent, it took a long time for the missionaries to actually move into the center of Australia. It took a long time for the country to be overtaken or colonized.

I read that you were friends with David Tranter, who co-wrote and co-produced Sweet Country. Had he been working on this on his own and brought it to you or did you know about it while they were developing and writing it?

I kind of knew about it in , but I hadn’t read anything. It’s the first time I’ve directed something that I haven’t written, and I’d heard about it. The was coming along and people were asking me to read it, and I was a bit wary about reading it, because David’s a really good friend, and if I don’t like it, I’d tell him it was sh*t, and that would hurt our friendship. I was very wary of it, and I was steering clear of it, and then I plucked up the courage and got what was probably the third or fourth draft, and I read it, and I went, “Wow, this is awesome.” It’s got some problems, but it’s really got a fantastic background, and a real, true reason to be made. [It’s] something important for our country, something I can completely connect to, not only as a filmmaker or a director, but as a human being, coming from that country. My family had been connected to the land grabs and the massacres and all that kind of stuff. Everything just sort of really, really gelled. It was really nice.

I understand that this is partially based on a true story and stories David heard from his grandfather. Is that true?

Yeah, it is actually his grandfather’s story. His grandfather was Philomac, the young boy in the movie, and that’s his real name. The trial and the ending, that sort of stuff, has been slightly changed for a bit more of a classic three-act structure, but it’s based on a true story.

How do you research something like that where it happened so long ago and was passed down through generations? Is the Outback still the way it was back then or is it more developed now?

It’s got the internet, but it’s still a bit moronic like the Wild West. Someday it will grow up. You have the oral history, which you listen to your entire life, and then there’s – because in the small towns, the history was written by the policemen or the priest, the missionary, so you research that stuff. There was a court case that actually did happen, so there’s court files about that sort of stuff, so there’s a bit of research there, and a bit of research through the traditional oral history. And then from there – and that’s why it’s “loosely based” – so you gather all that up and you suddenly you go, “Okay, this is fantastic” but really, as a structure for cinema, it’s got some major holes in it, so you have to start rebuilding the whole thing, but using history and other ideas of how history happened and how stories were told, all of that.

SweetCountry2Samuel Goldwyn Films

Screen Australia is one of the top financiers in the country, but is it hard to get a movie like this financed or do they understand right away why it’s important to make it?

I was very fortunate that Samson and Delilah did really well, and it did really well around the world. It won all sorts of silly awards and la-la-la, and it made a whole lot of money, so it’s not a poster child, but I can get money quite easily to make a movie. Screen Australia has always looked after me, but that’s me. It’s more difficult for other , obviously, for younger . Money’s not a problem anymore. Good stories are the problem.

I assume that they helped get the likes of Sam Neill and Bryan Brown, two Australian veterans, on board, or did you know them beforehand?

I’d worked with Bryan once before, and because of the success of Samson and Delilah and other films that I’ve done, Sam knew who I was, so after they read the , they agreed straight-away. It was a really nice bit of trust from them [that]to work with me might be a good thing for them. They agreed pretty quickly, which was fantastic.

How easy or hard is it to find the actors that played Aboriginals? Is there a pool of indigenous actors to pull from or do you find local people? What was your approach to casting those roles?

We have our own version of A-list Aboriginal actors, and most of them are incredibly amazing, but with this film, I wasn’t looking for a well-known established indigenous actor in Australia. I wanted people who actually came from the country, who came from Alice Springs in Central Australia, who kind of had the same connections that I had to the film. Their families’ land was taken away, their families were massacred. It’s a different kind of knowledge. You can teach people to act very, very quickly, about breaking down the barriers, the third wall, and the idea of them looking into a mirror and not being afraid of who they are. All that kind of stuff can be quite easily taught, but that sort of knowledge of country and that connection spiritually, that was really important for me, and I can’t really teach that. You either have it or you don’t. We all have a connection to somewhere, and that’s stuff I don’t think you can be taught. You actually have to own that… your town or the forests next to your house, that’s yours, that’s what you own, and that’s something I can’t teach. That’s what I was looking for more, people how actually had a spiritual connection to the land. They can either remember lines or they can act angry.

Speaking of remembering lines, the language they’re speaking in the film, I’m not sure if it was different for different indigenous tribes, but it seemed partially derived from English.

No, it’s slightly broken, because it has bits of English in it. The language of Arrernte is a very, very old language, but even after ten years of colonization, suddenly the English words are put in there, because a lot of those words were traditionally what’s around. The idea of a “cup” or a “hat,” those kinds of words aren’t in the Arrernte dialect, so you actually have to embrace certain parts of the English language, because this new product is placed in front of you, and you don’t have a word for it in your traditional language, so you just use the word that comes with it, through it being an English object.

Is it hard to find locations out there for the film? Did you have to build some of the houses?

We built a lot of houses, and we built half that town for the film. No, you can walk through any back door in Alice Springs, and there’s this incredible mountain rage. The landscape, the locations, are incredibly easy to find. The builds cost a lot of money, because you’re in the middle of nowhere, but that was pretty simple, pretty easy.

SweetCountry4Samuel Goldwyn Films

Has the movie played in Australia yet, and how was it received there?

It’s been playing in Australia for eight weeks, and it’s on 250 screens in Australia. I think it’s turned over something like $2 point something million in box office, which is doing really well. It’s pretty much sold out on some great screenings, where it’s selling out every day, and then there’s some terrible screenings where there might be one or two people watching it, but the usual suspects as far as screen-averages and all of that. It’s doing well. Australians are embracing it, which is fantastic.

Do you find people are embracing it due to an interest in the Western genre or for the historic aspects or both?

Yeah, both. I guess it’s both. For an Australian, you’ve never heard about these stories, so why wasn’t I taught about this stuff in high school or university? Why is this stuff that’s coming out in cinema that is teaching about who we are and where we come from. We have this wonderful saying, “The more we know about our pasts, the better choices we can make about our future.” Australia is going through this really weird, nationalistic idea of itself at the moment, building our own walls and barriers and all that kind of stuff. With refugees, and all that sort of stuff, it’s good to remind us as a country, that this stuff has been going on for a long time, and we don’t want to keep doing what we did in the past.  Our mistakes of the past, we should learn about them and make decisions about this bloody future we’ve got.

Since Sweet Country was at Venice and Toronto last year, have you figured out what you want to do next yet? Are you developing something else?

Yeah, I got three or four that I’ve been writing. One of them’s pretty good and two of them are pretty terrible at the moment, but that’s only because I haven’t written them very well. I’ve got those, and I’m in negotiations with AMC for a series. There’s all sorts of strange things happening.

So you’re still developing your own stuff rather than going to Hollywood and making a superhero movie.

Yeah. (laughs) There’s plenty of time for that later. [I want to] get some of my own stories off my chest first.  I probably got another ten films in me if I behave myself. 

Sweet Country is now playing in New York and L.A. and will expand to more cities on Friday, April 13.

  | East Coast Editor

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