Interview with Warwick Thornton, writer/director of Samson & Delilah
Few first-time feature filmmakers are greeted with the kind of accolades bestowed upon Australian director Warwick Thornton, whose triumphant Cannes-selected indigenous drama Samson & Delilah has prompted a gushing response from critics the country over. The film tells an at times heart wrenching story following the two titular characters, who live in an impoverished rural community outside Alice Springs. Painfully realistic performances and beautiful cinematography are among the film’s virtues; to read the full review click here. During a busy week Thornton took time out to sit down and have a yak with Cinetology, shortly before flying off to present the film at Cannes.
I opened the newspaper this morning and saw yet another five star review for Samson & Delilah. There’s 101 minutes in your film, reckon you could chalk up 101 five star reviews?
(Laughing) We wish! We’ll run out of reviewers in Australia before then.
Buzz has circulated around the film’s release for months. It’s been selected for Cannes and lavished with all sorts of accolades. Are you surprised at all the hoo-ha Samson & Delilah is generating?
Absolutely. I set out just to make a really important film to my mob – a teenage love story and something really close to my heart. When you’re making your first feature, you kind of shoot down those grandiose ideas that something like this could go this far. You just try and keep really positive and really strong about the truth behind what you’re doing and the reason you’re making the film. That’s the most important thing. It’s a little film with a big name. I made it for my mob but I made sure that it can work with a wider audience as well, and it’s just been incredible that it’s been completely embraced by a much wider audience. It’s interesting because as soon as you knock down that black wall between Aboriginals and white Australia, a film like this does become an Australian film and an Australian story. Not an Aboriginal story but a story about Australians, in a sense. It’s just as much a white story as it is a black one when you get to that position.
When you’re making a feature film, especially your first, there is always a bit of trepidation about how people will respond to it. Were you nervous?
For sure, especially since I have gone down the classic path that everybody has been complaining that Australia does – that we make these dark, insular, slightly depressing films. I knew that when I was writing the film, that it was going down the path everybody was complaining about, but this path was more important than trying to reinvent the wheel. It was more important to be truthful.
At what point in time did you realise that Samson and Delilah was going to be so well received? Was there a moment when you sat back, breathed a sigh of relief and thought yep – people are really going to get this movie?
I think it was after Adelaide (Film Festival). I screened it to my mob in Central Australia but only in a couple of communities, for the cast and crew that were in the film. I got complete approval from families as well as the community. There was a big sigh of relief there and it was very important to get that approval. The first screening at Adelaide was incredibly emotionally charged – there was a standing ovation and all that sort of stuff. After the third and fourth screening we then had to put on a fifth screening because of the popular demand. They were all sold out. It was like wow this is working, this is actually going to work; Australia is interested and hungry for these kinds of stories. People haven’t had the opportunity to see a film like this before. It’s always been – and I hate to use these kind of variants of it – the 7:30 Report or the 60 Minutes version that they’ve been given. They haven’t been given a drama in this kind of form, and I think Australia is really hungry for it. The door is open and audiences really want to step into this world.
On the subject of great films that have been made about indigenous Australians, when I think of good examples I think of a couple of solid films recently from Rolf de Heer – Ten Canoes and The Tracker – and in the 70s I think two of the best were made: Walkabout and The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith. But one of the differences this time around is that your film is about indigenous society and it’s told from the perspective of an indigenous filmmaker. How important do you think this difference is? Could Samson & Delilah have been made by a white director?
I don’t think this film could have. They (white directors) could have made just as good a film but you’ve got to be careful because of realism and respect and that sort of stuff. I think a film like this could quite easily get shot down if you had a white writer, because of not having that – what do you call it? – the 100% beef mark. That kind of concept. It would be very dangerous for a white writer or director to do this film, but I truly believe we have enough stories to go around and non-indigenous writers and directors today are incredibly savvy.
On the subject of making a message or emphasising a point, did you go into production purely wanting to tell a story or did you have a particular message in mind?
It was always based on a teenage love story between the two kids. One is a sniffer and one is not. It was designed for Central Australia because we do write these kids off there. Not only in town, where the headlines for the newspapers every second day is about ‘the problem,’ ‘the teenager problem of kids wandering the streets’ and ‘why don’t we send them back to their communities’ and that sort of stuff. Then there’s the other side of it. Elders in Aboriginal communities have been taught that kids who sniff get brain damage, so as soon as they see a kid sniffing they think ‘well they’re rubbish now, they’re brain damaged.’ So the elders are writing these kids off as well, as in ‘they are brain damaged so they’re no use now, they’ll be in wheelchairs for the rest of their lives.’ This is not true, it’s just information for elders that hasn’t been given to them. That is the world I was working with. I wanted to show two incredibly beautiful children who have fought all their lives just to breathe and how incredibly strong they are and how we should be celebrating them and backing them up. I wanted to show that to Central Australia, and if the rest of Australia or the world get involved that’s fantastic.
In a recent interview you described yourself as a “hopeless romantic” and a lover of romantic comedies. But in my review of Samson & Delilah I called it one of the least sentimental romantic films the audience will ever see.
Yeah, it’s tough love and it’s real. There’s beauty in these two children and there is romance but it’s the realism of the day. It’s something you can’t look at with rose-tinted glasses because then it wouldn’t be truthful, not only to the characters in the film but to the audience.
In the opening scenes the chemistry between the two characters starts off with them throwing rocks at each other! Is this sort of dynamic true to life? Does it emerge from your own experiences?
I couldn’t talk to girls when I was 14. When you’re that age you’ve got all this emotion and electricity and sparks happening in you towards a girl, and you can’t explain it. It’s uncontrollable. The Disney version of you being able to walk up to this girl and go ‘Hi my name’s Warwick and your eyes are incredible’ and start monologuing about how you feel is complete bullshit to me. This is real life. It’s the energy between you that you share. The distance between you and whether you sat close to her or further away, all that kind of thing. It’s something you can’t actually articulate at 14 years of age. That’s realism for me.
I know you grew up in Central Australia, but how does the community you were raised in compare with the hometown depicted in the film?
It’s a much darker place now. Back then everybody kept an eye on kids all the time and doors were open. We never had a lock on our door when I grew up. Now the fences have got higher, the dogs have got cheekier and there’s two locks on your door. It’s better the devil you know and when we grew up we knew the devils. Nowadays you can’t pick them in a sense. When I grew up Alice was quite small, tourism was quite small, and today tourism is this mega cog in Alice Springs and so the dark issues are swept under the rocks to keep tourists happy because it’s a trillion dollar industry. Whereas when I grew up it was a town that serviced Aboriginal communities. Now it survives without servicing Aboriginal communities and it just runs on the tourist dollar.
So far critics have responded very well to Samson & Delilah but what kind of response has it drawn from Aboriginal people? Can you recall any particularly memorable reactions?
At one of the screenings, an old man – and we’re talking old as in 50, because we don’t live very long anymore – he came up to me with tears in his eyes. He said ‘that’s my story, that’s what happened to me.’ He said ‘I was a sniffer, a petrol sniffer, and I went to town and got in a lot of trouble and then I had to go right out bush to my country to get my soul strong and my head straight.’ He was crying when he was telling me this and that’s incredible bloody powerful. He was saying this is a hard story but it’s a good story. People need to know this story.
I assume that moment meant more to you than five stars in a newspaper?
Absolutely. That’s what you want. Films like this are designed to create a dialogue and I’m happy if someone doesn’t like the film and they tell me why, because we’re creating dialogue. We’re talking about this stuff and taking a step forward. That’s important.
Samson and his petrol sniffing addiction is a substantial element of his character. Over the years have you had a close relationship with people who have had similar problems?
Absolutely. It’s not just sniffing. The interesting thing about a teenage love story with substance abuse is that it could quite easily be set in North Shore, Sydney. Whether they are sniffing petrol, sniffing glue or taking heroin – as a teenager you’re going to be offered some form of drug in that 13-19 period. We’ve all been offered drugs as teenagers. Whether we took them or not is the strength of who we are. It’s that relationship that Australia or the world can have with these two kids.
Like the most authentic films, Samson & Delilah feels at many times like it wasn’t even written, which I think is a great testament to the sense of realism you build. So I’m wondering, how closely does the film follow a script?
It’s interesting because some people come to me and say ‘oh yeah, so what – the script was about 10 pages long’ and they believe I kind of just made it up on the day. It’s an 80 page script and every look and every step is written. It makes you feel not very good as a writer that people think that… that you sort of got these kids and made this mockumentary thing out there and just made it up as you went along. This absolutely wasn’t the case. Even every single song in the film was written into the script before we shot it.
The two central performances from Rowan McNamara and Marissa Gibson are stunning. As a director you couldn’t have asked for better acting. How did you find them and did you audition for the roles?
Yeah, we auditioned for the roles. We started in the schools around Alice Springs, in the town camps and the community, talking to principals and chairmen and families. We explained we were making this film Samson & Delilah. Everybody knows my other films so I’ve kind of got a good ground base…people started suggesting names and then we talked to their families and got their permission to take a photo and do an audition, and that’s where it started.
I can teach acting to anybody. Acting isn’t rocket science. There are different formulas and ways of getting stuff out of people. But I was looking for that kind of aura of a kid, that feeling they can give when they walk in a room. Both of those had it – his aura is all sparky and a bit crazy and hers is really warm and mellow. That’s what I was really looking for because that’s something you can’t teach, it has to come out of their soul, and it is something cameras recognise and something that cameras love.
The second half of Samson & Delilah is when the film dramatically takes off. I think one of the reasons the events resonate so strongly is partly because of the patience expended in unravelling the day to day details illustrated in the first half. Do you agree?
Absolutely. The opening shot I call the sense of place. I think it’s important in cinema that when you sit down to watch a film the opening shot needs to say to an audience where they are and what is going on. This opening shot, the song is juxtaposed to what is happening and the audience is like ‘we’re not in Kansas anymore – this is going to be demanding.’ If the audience accepts that, they can then go a journey with the kids.
Yes, it is demanding and harsh – but at the same time also hopeful and beautiful.
If you go down the road with these two kids you really do need hope. Society needs hope. If it was like Romeo and Juliet and they both died, well, there is no step forward for the audience to believe there could be a brighter day. So it was important that there was hope at the end…the two characters took over the writing process and it was like they said ‘don’t you dare try to kill us. We’ve struggled so hard.’
Encompassing all facets of production – writing, shooting, editing etc. – what would you say was the hardest thing about making the film?
It took me a long time to write it because I think, I don’t write. I’ll think about a film until it’s completed in my head and then I’ll just spit it out over a week and do 10 or 15 pages a day. It took a long time to get there but it wasn’t that difficult. Making the film was kind of painless. We finished shooting the film early, which is pretty much unheard of in the cinema. We were two days early and had two days spare. Post production was scary, the actually editing was scary. This is where you can reinvent the wheel and you ask yourself ‘do we actually have a film?’
When the hype and the buzz eventually dies down, you’ll need to plan where to go from here. Do you have any idea about where you’ll head professionally in the future?
I’m booked for the next two years. The next thing I’m doing is a three one-hour series for the ABC called Art and Soul, about contemporary indigenous art which is going to be fantastic…it’ll have the whole gamut of contemporary Aboriginal art and how incredible and amazing it is. That’s going to take at least a year to make.
And after hours, maybe that brain of yours will be quietly piecing together the next film?
I’ve written the next film already. It’s an incredibly fantastic idea if I do say so myself, but it’s a pretty bad script. I’ve got to rewrite it again because it’s really clunky.
I think a lot of people will be expecting great things from you.
That’s the thing – with the strength of Samson & Delilah and the love people have for it, I’m going to have to really pull my finger out on this next one. Not take a step up but maybe be on the same page as Samson & Delilah as far as the audience loving it. It’s quite scary and daunting. To write something and make something you just have to truly believe. The fire inside you. That’s the beginning of it all.