Outback Outlaws: Warwick Thornton's acclaimed 'Sweet Country' tracks an Aboriginal couple on the run

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Ever since his feature debut Samson & Delilah won Best Film at the Australian Film Institute Awards in 2009, Warwick Thornton has been garnering international acclaim as a director and cinematographer. Sweet Country, which revolves around an Aboriginal couple running from the law in 1920s Australia, has proven no different. The period western was lauded in 2017 with the Platform Award at Toronto International Film Festival and a Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival. Samuel Goldwyn Films releases it in U.S. theatres on April 6.

The project afforded the native of Alice Springs, Australia the opportunity to cast renowned veteran actors Sam Neill and Bryan Brown as a kind preacher and a racist army sergeant, respectively. “I’ve worked with Bryan before, but not with Sam. They’re old friends and had collaborated together on a television series called ‘Old School,’ playing a retired criminal and a police detective. Bryan and Sam are very good at what they do. Sam said a funny thing to me halfway through the shoot. He said, ‘I agree to do this film.’”

The indigenous cast, including leads Hamilton Morris and Natassia Gorey Furber, were first-time actors. Identical twin brothers Tremayne and Trevon Doolan portray the character of Philomac, who triggers the killing that starts the manhunt. “I worked out that one is an extrovert and the other is an introvert. Whenever Philomac is in trouble I used the introvert, but whenever he goes stealing or creates the trouble I used the extrovert.”

A pivotal rape scene takes place involving cruel former soldier Harry March (Ewen Leslie) and Lizzie (Furber) where he gradually blocks out the windows. “I wanted it to be slow, methodical and creepy,” Thornton explains. “The character believes that he is allowed to do this. He doesn’t have to be violent about it. He doesn’t have to be quick. That’s even more evil. I was in denial about that scene a couple of days before we shot it. I didn’t know how to do it. I’m not interested in nudity in films. I don’t find it necessary. The visualization of rape in cinema is an incredibly horrific thing. Natassia came up to me the day before and said, ‘I’m getting worried about this.’ I said, ‘I’m greatly worried about this as well.’ I went down and I walked through the location. The whole idea of getting darker and darker, and starting to use sound rather than image, was an epiphany.”

Not all of the white settlers are cruel, most notably Neill’s Fred Smith. “There are good people out there, and that was important for the balance of the film. You could go completely relentless by building a wall between the protagonist and antagonist, but the audience would switch off if you gave them those kinds of characters.”

Flashbacks and flashforwards are incorporated into the narrative structure. “They’re the internal monologue of the thought process of the characters,” notes Thornton. “The fears of their past as well as their dreams of the future—that kind of idea. It wasn’t written in the first draft that I read, but I needed something more from the characters. They are bad and good. We started writing that stuff while in pre-production.”

Playing with genre conventions is a big part of the creative process. “What I do with a script is you put it into the position of being a classic love story or romcom or western or science fiction or thriller but then start ripping ideas out of the film and creating roadblocks and problems for me as a director; that’s when the creativity begins.”

Alongside his directing career, Thornton has been acknowledged as a cinematographer, twice nominated for the Golden Frog Award at the prestigious Camerimage festival. “Cinematography is a pleasure. Directing is hard and slow. By being the DP and director, I can do all of this crazy stuff and play with ideas.”

Camera operating has become more difficult for him, he confides. “I’m getting old and have a bad back, so anything handheld I throw to younger people.” There are no storyboards or a shot list. “It’s all in my brain, which makes it difficult for the poor crew. I like to work fast because I get bored quickly on set. I always start with the dream shot that I want. I only do the wide shot and close-ups in case the dream shot doesn’t work.”

The ultraviolet sensors from Blackmagic cameras were paired with anamorphic lenses to create different grain structures within the imagery. “We shot the film on the latest model of the ALEXA XT and used vintage Panavision anamorphics from the 1970s. I wanted zero grain on humans, a hard grain on the rock system and a different grain for the air. On top of that we put the ‘ether’. It’s like a subtle heat haze. The 35mm was the widest lens that I had, with 200mm being the longest. Ninety percent of the film was shot on 50mm or 80mm.”

Principal photography lasted 22 days, with Dylan River serving as co-cinematographer. “It was all shot on location, but there were sets,” Thornton states. “It’s in Alice Springs, where I was born. Logistics and finance were the hardest things because there are some amazing locations 100 kilometers out of town but we had a boundary of 50 kilometers. Every 10 kilometers more that the crew drove was literally another half an hour I couldn’t shoot. I had to keep that in mind when I was reading the script.”

A surreal moment takes place when Bryan Brown rides horseback across a large endorheic salt lake situated in Southern Australia known as Lake Gairdner. “I call it the Jimi Hendrix Experience. It’s almost like an acid trip! The scene is there to wake up the audience because we’re going into the last third.” A specific color was considered to be important. “The word we talked about when we were grading was tobacco. A burnt, brown orange. That was the landscape. I had an amazing colorist, Trish Cahill, who did The Hobbit. We also talked about metallic for the skin tones, which is a weird one. There was this sheen that we kept on discovering.”

“I’m fairly confident in what I do,” observes Thornton. “The sun rises and sets. I can’t stop that. I know that you have 12 hours in the day. I don’t have tantrums when I don’t have enough time. That’s the way it is. You have to say, ‘Lets go for it.’”

The conclusion of Sweet Country conveys a harsh reality. “Our past has been written by other people in a shining light kind of way. Whether in Australia, North America or South America, we all have dark pasts. It’s important for indigenous filmmakers to tell the truth, because it becomes our version of our history in a way. That creates realities. Even in fiction there is a documentary-based reality for filmmakers. There’s a truth that they need to tell. The truth is more important than the Hollywood ending. I find the ending of this film incredibly refreshing.”