Sweet Country: Revisiting the Western

Warwick Thornton is the Australian director who made an impact with his debut, 2009’s Samson & Delilah. In the interim, he’s made shorts and even plied his trade as a cinematographer, shooting The Sapphires. But now he returns as director with Sweet Country, a taut Outback western that stars Sam Neill, Bryan Brown and Hamilton Morris, as the Aboriginal farm-hand on the run after killing a man in self-defence.

ASFF: You didn’t write Sweet Country, so how did you approach the script when you got it?  
WT: After the first read, I was very intrigued and excited about the script but basically, it’s a classic western that could’ve come out of 1960s Hollywood. After more reads, I slowly started to try to deconstruct the ideas of the western concept. Started ripping them out and getting rid of them which makes a film more difficult to make but gives it a much more original voice, which was important to me.

ASFF: How physically difficult was it to make this film? Presumably, you weren’t shooting near any major towns?
WT: We were 30km from Alice Springs. We couldn’t really go further than that because time is money on a film set. Another hour out of town is an hour less of shooting a day. We shot it in 22 days which is a three-week shoot – a ridiculously fast “television” speed but I’m happy with that. The good thing is 46 degrees in central Australia is a baking heat, it’s not a tropical heat. If it was 46 degrees and 99 percent humidity, like you would get in Darwin…that’s evil. 46 degrees in the desert is easier.

ASFF: How do you find casting non-actors opposite veterans Sam Neill and Bryan Brown?
WT: I think it’s a really great dynamic; I like it because they feed off each other. As a director, that’s your craft to understand what Bryan and Sam need. What Bryan needs as direction is different to what Sam needs from a director and what Hamilton needs is very different to what I need. That’s a craft for a director to recognise the need to find that, making sure you bounce off each actor and be a different director to each actor.

ASFF: The film deals with racial issues in Australia in the 1930s, but it feels very contemporary. Was that your aim?
WT: Totally. One of my pet things is history keeps repeating itself. It’s huge. Why haven’t we learnt, whether its world wars or cold wars or racism? The idea is that you learn from your past; the knowledge you gain from that should give you a better understanding for the future. Looking at the past is really important to me. I like to do that in film.

ASFF: You keep the audience guessing right to the end. Was that important?
WT: It’s important for me for the audience to be working. I detest films where I know the ending. I want the filmmaker to challenge me. Not abuse me but keep me interested. I love films like that. I make films I want to watch.

Sweet Country opens in cinemas from 9 March. For more details, click here.

James Mottram

1. Still from Sweet Country.