Warwick Thornton doesn’t really care what you think. And that’s what’s helped him become one of Australia’s most revered and respected film-makers. His two features Samson and Delilah and the currently screening Sweet Country, which follows an indigenous man who’s forced to go on the run after shooting a white man in self-defence, have earned him international audiences and acclaim. In late February his documentary We Don’t Need A Map, directed and presented by Thornton, will be out in limited release. Pelican Film Editor Finnian Williamson sat down with the man himself to talk Australian cinema, getting back at internet trolls productive ways and the importance of telling difficult stories.
Finnian: You’ve worked as a cinematographer, run photography exhibitions and of course written and directed your own shorts and features. Was this artistic expression fostered from your family or community?
No. Definitely not. To be in artist it’s the individual journey and choice, really. You can learn guitar but it doesn’t mean you’re going to become a rockstar. It came from me wanting a voice. There were some films that inspired me, but one minute I’d love the film, the next minute I’d hate them. It’s like painting and artists in general, y’know. They’re all dickheads, but they’re all amazing.
A mantra to live by.
Yeah (laughs). I kind of started really early. And more importantly there was a point where I realised not everything should be a film.
How’d you realise that?
You just grow up. You forget that…well, you realise that one day, if you have an idea, it could be a country western song, it could be a chant, there’s so many others versions of storytelling in the world. Your version of storytelling isn’t as important as you think. Storytelling is universal. It could be a painting, it could be a photograph, it doesn’t have to be a bloody movie. I found that really important. And that excited me, because I might have to learn three chords if I wanted to tell a story through a country western song.
I work at a cinema where Sweet Country was playing and I served an Aboriginal guy and asked how the film was. He said it was great, but what caught my attention was that he said he grew up with stories like the one in the film. The story to me is so foreign and wasn’t taught in my history class. How has the reaction for Sweet Country, or Samson and Delilah, differed between white and Aboriginal audiences?
Sweet Country, I don’t know yet. Ask me again in six months. But Samson and Delilah is a hard film. A lot of indigenous people don’t want to show their dirty laundry. But I’m Aboriginal, and if people say that to me it’s too hard, I basically tell them to get fucked. Because this is actually the way it is. I want to show parts of our existence that are actually….terrible. The problem you have not knowing these stories is because the curriculum’s failed you. If we keep thinking that way, that the stories are too hard, and I don’t do anything about it, I’m kind of failing cinema in a way. You’ve just got to harden up.
Is it the importance of telling the story, or perhaps the shock factor, that makes you keep going?
The importance. I could totally clean this movie up, make a great western and a shit ton more money, but what’s important about that? That’s not storytelling. That’s ego. Nothing to do with something important or good or useful. Ok, I don’t know if it’s good, but it’s useful. Are you going to have a useful life or are you just there to rub your own nipples and make money? What’s your reason for being?
You’ve got another film coming out at the end of next month, We Don’t Need A Map, which you put yourself at the centre of –
I detest documentaries where some wanker director opens the film and goes “Hi everybody” and becomes all self-important.
And so you did that.
I did exactly that. The sad thing is, it’s one of those arsehole films where I don’t know any other way I could’ve made it. I always rolled my eyes at directors that did that. Like, in that film Searching for Sugar Man where the producer is driving around Capetown at the beginning and I’m like “oh, you fucking idiot, it’s not about you”. You know what I mean? And then suddenly I do the same thing and it’s hilarious.
Can you watch yourself on screen fine?
Yeah, I can. I grew up. I found this was the only way I can make this movie. Now looking at the producer of Sugarman, I kind of worked out well, it isn’t about him, but it’s a drawcard into it. It’s hypocritical, but it’s something I actually had to do.
Obviously, We Don’t Need A Map is a very personal story as well.
I got into a lot trouble saying that the Southern Cross was the new swastika. Well, I was worried that the southern cross was going to become the new swastika. And y’know, everyone got very hysterical about it. So it is a personal journey.
How long did it take you to be like, fuck it, I’m going to make a film about this after the initial reaction?
I was nominated for Australian of the Year in 2010, 2009, I can’t remember. And I made this film last year, so about six years of it brewing in my head before going alright, I’ll pick myself off my arse. Rather than go hiding and let all those dickhead trolls taunt me and I was like, nah, I’ll show you, you can write what you want about me on the internet but I’ll show what I want to write about you on every screen in Australia.
Better to make a film which can influence so many people –
Yeah, absolutely. And yeah, it’s a bit of propaganda. It’s completely biased. It’s not like a documentary with a balanced view.
Did you prefer directing with yourself on screen or –
No, I hated it. Hated it. I hate being in front of the camera. It’s ridiculous.
And so you made this entire film in front of the camera. Was it a lot more stressful then? And Sweet Country, that was shot in 22 days, and that whole experience seemed incredible full on –
But you still preferred that?
Well, I like documentaries. Then I hate them. Then I like drama features. Then I hate them. It’s ebb and flow. I have the attention span of a cockroach, y’know. Life’s too short to do one thing.
I saw your son helped out on these films as the assistant Director of Photography. Do you have any hopes for what Australian cinema will be like in 20, 30 years, when your son could be directing features?
I don’t know…doing exactly what we’re doing now, but a shit load more. That’d be great. I think there’s amazing films out there but people don’t watch them because, y’know, they don’t have the clout to fight against the American films that’s just spent $5 million on advertising in Australia and created their own hysteria about their self importance…for some shit popcorn film. Then you have this little $1 million, $2 million Australian film that’s actually important for Australia, that no one will ever hear about because they’re completely left out of the loop. Commercial television, Fox, all them mob, they’re all actually interlinked to different movies because they’re owned by companies that are distributing the movies in Australia.
Disney owns the world now.
Exactly. It’s all a monopoly. And there’s incredible films out there, we just need more of them.