Reinventing the Western: Warwick Thornton’s ‘Sweet Country’

‘Sweet Country’ (Photo: Mark Rogers). 

Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country had its world premiere in competition at the Venice Film Festival in September, opening to a standing ovation, and has had a blessed run since.

It went on to win Venice’s Special Jury Prize, and around a week later, also won the Platform Prize at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Since then, it’s also collected Best Dramatic Feature film at the ImagineNATIVE Film Festival, the Adelaide Film Festival Audience Award for Best Fiction Feature and the Asia Pacific Screen Award for Best Feature Film.

Paolo Bertolin, regional consultant for Venice Film Festival, told IF in October that Sweet Country was among the best Australian films to ever screen in Venice.

“I believe in the case of Sweet Country or other very important films, it’s a mutual pleasure and an honour for the festival and the filmmakers to establish a relationship,” he said.

“Of course, Venice provided a platform for Sweet Country. But Sweet Country in my opinion is such a great film that it will be, in years to come, a prestigious and important thing for Venice to say: ‘We had that film in our selection’.”

Thornton is conscious of how important gestures like awards and recognition from festivals can be for lower budget films that lack financial clout.

“If I win an award somewhere in the world, Australia looks at it and goes, it must be good because it won an award somewhere else.

“It’s sad, but it’s the reality and we need that; the smaller films need to be in festivals to remind Australia that, actually, we do make really beautiful films,” he tells IF.

Sweet Country‘s success on the festival circuit has given local distributor Transmission confidence to release it in the competitive – but potentially lucrative – summer holiday season (one which served it very well last year with Lion).  The film will initially release on January 25 on 40 screens, with an expansion plan for the two weeks following that will take it up to 80-100 screens.

“Once the January school holidays end we’re able to get into more of the locations we aren’t able to in January. Word of mouth will be excellent and we want to ride that by executing a ‘classic’ platform release strategy,” Transmission MDs Andrew Mackie and Richard Payten tell IF.

“An Indigenous version of a Western.”

Sweet Country is director Thornton’s first narrative feature since his debut, the 2009 Camera d’Or winning Samson and Delilah.

Set in the 1920s in the Northern Territory’s MacDonnell Ranges and inspired by true events, the film follows the saga that unfolds after an Aboriginal stockman (Hamilton Morris) kills a white station owner (Ewan Leslie) in self-defence. It also stars Sam Neill, Bryan Brown, Matt Day, Thomas M. Wright and Natassia Gorey Furber.

The film is the first that Thornton has directed which he didn’t write himself; the screenplay is the work of David Tranter and Steven McGregor. Tranter, a co-producer of the film, has been Thornton’s long-term sound recordist.

Producer David Jowsey also has a longstanding relationship with Tranter, and he first approached him around five years ago after writing an early draft via Screen Territory’s Ignite initiative.

“It was quite amusing that I had worked with Dave Tranter for so long as a sound recordist and Dave stumped up with a quite excellent script that he’d produced with [script producer Stephen] Cleary – it was a complete revelation.”

One of the projects Jowsey had worked with Tranter previously on was documentary Willaberta Jack.

“This story had elements of the Willaberta Jack story in it, mixed up with elements from Dave’s family,” Jowsey tells IF. “I knew that it was a powerful story about the conflict at the colonial outpost of Alice Springs.”

Jowsey says the development of the film was largely producer-led. He brought on Stephen McGregor to work with Tranter on the script and when Greer Simpkin, his partner, left the ABC in 2015, they then set about finalising the film’s finance.

“It was very late in the day that we brought Warwick on,” says Jowsey. “He was an obvious person, but we wanted to have the script right and we wanted to know that it was more or less finalised.”

For Thornton, one of the appeals of the script was in the fact it was both a Western – he had grown up in Alice Springs watching lots of old Westerns on VHS – and an Indigenous story.

“As an Aboriginal person, it made sense to me and lit a little fire in me.”

However, Thornton has thrown out a lot of the Western’s conventions where he felt they didn’t add to the film. Among the elements canned was the big score; there is no music in the film .

“I was like ‘Well, why does this film need a score?’ and it’s like, well it doesn’t need a score. Actually, it’s probably stronger if it doesn’t have a score, because it’s really based in the reality of the time and place, and I’m not dictating to an audience then how to feel. I don’t want to tell the audience how to feel, I want the audience to feel it themselves without any emotional trick that I’ve played on them.”

In the end, Thornton says it was a sort of reinventing of the genre; “our version, an Indigenous version of a Western.”

“The opening sequence is not a wide shot; it’s a shot of a billy can boiling. The black tea goes in and then the white sugar goes in, and it all gets boiled together; it’s a metaphor for the landscape and the society and a time and a place.”

Shooting the landscape

Thornton was also Sweet Country’s DOP with his son Dylan River, who was also second unit director.

Warwick Thornton and Sam Neill on the ‘Sweet Country’ set.

They shot the film with two cameras, ARRI ALEXA XTs, but each of those had another camera mounted on top that was programmed to shoot full spectrum; ultraviolet, infrared and normal colours.

In post-production those two images were overlaid, creating what Thornton describes as “a basic travelling map, a rotoscope of the whole film.”

Through that, he changed all the grain structures. Elements that were natural, like plants, air, sky and rocks, each have different grain structure. Man-made structures and human skin have no grain.

“Warwick wanted to create a visual difference between what was native land, and what had been touched by white people and affected by white people,” explains Gingerbread Man’s Craig Deeker, the film’s online and VFX supervisor.

The UV/infrared camera was “pure experiment” and there wasn’t enough time to completely R&D it before the shoot, says Deeker. That meant some of the grain structures had to be altered in post using a program Deeker developed called ‘aether’.

“That created this energy source that was just in everything,” says Thornton, explaining he wanted to give spirit to the landscape.

“It’s a visual thing but it’s actually an emotional feeling that you get when you watch the movie.

“It’s very subtle in the film. But I think it helps with the landscape; giving it character and giving it a soul.”

As for the lenses he used, Thornton “dusted the cobwebs” off old Panasonic anamorphics from the 60s and 70s.

“They were just really beautiful and sexy and they really did suck up that landscape. In a strange way those lenses, they’ve got their own character and they’ve kind of got their own little traits. They’re almost alive in a strange way.”

“A bold filmmaker” 

Almost of all of the Aboriginal cast came from Alice Springs and had little previous acting experience, as Thornton was keen to work with people who were from the local area and had a personal connection to the story, particularly for the character of Sam.

For that role, he chose Morris, who had previously had a small part in ABC series 8MMM Aboriginal Radio.

“There was a real openness to who he was and how he performed. I really recognised that. So that was the beginning.”

Jowsey says the decision to use first-time actors was a risky one, but in the end agreed it added authenticity to the film.

“Warwick is a bold filmmaker and that’s part of the excitement of working with him.”

Thornton, who is of the belief that “there’s no such thing as a bad actor, there’s just bad directors” adds that the experienced cast – Brown, Neill, Leslie, Wright and Day – spent a lot of time working with the first-time actors on the film.

“They remember the first time they were on the set, the first time they stood in front of a camera and how shit scared they were.

“They recognised their journey through cinema and they were really supportive of everyone… which was really beautiful.”

Simpkin says it was a delight to work with Thornton. “His ideas for the script and what he did in the film was wonderful. It was a terrific partnership between all of us.”

Out of its festival success, the film has sold into almost every territory via sales agent Memento. Simpkin posits that it has resonated internationally in part because of its specificity and acknowledgement of the past.

Jowsey adds: “The thing we talked about a lot in pre-production was using a very accessible vehicle, i.e. the Western – a genre that audiences could understand around the world and relate to. But also then also having a deeper cultural element that gave you access to, if you like, a unique or exotic world.”

As for the local audience, Thornton says Australians needs to hear different points of view of who we are and where we have come from.

“All our history books were written by colonisers, and they were written to shine a light or a favourable light on the coloniser. Now you’re starting to see this different point of view of Australia’s history. And it’s from people who were colonised.”

“It’s important for us to tell these stories and to tell the truth and get ’em right. As hard as the image can be, it’s still important to tell the truth and not whitewash it. Excuse the pun.

“We need to tell the truth so that we can all recognise our past so that we can have a better future.”

 Sweet Country opens nationally January 25, 2018 via Transmission Films.

An original version of this story appeared in IF Magazine #180 December – January.