The Australian film director on his stunning new Outback western Sweet Country
Congratulations on Sweet Country, which seems to be collecting awards left, right and centre. Thank you. Yeah, all fun and games. It’s good for the film, bad for my ego.
Can you tell us about the real-life events the film is based on?
It’s based on my sound recordist David Tranter’s grandfather’s story. We grew up together in Alice Springs and he’s done sound on every film I’ve ever made. He said, “I’ve got a really good idea for a film.” I kinda get that a bit from grips and gaffers and the occasional make-up artist, you know, “I’ve got an idea for a film.” And you go, “Okay, well go and write it.” That’s how I kind of get out of it. But then David did something about it. He sat down and he bloody wrote it, and the script was there. Another man named Steve Mcgregor came along and helped work on it with him and made it really beautiful. It’s based on a true story set in the late 1920s in Central Australia. It’s been changed a fair bit to help with the dramatic arc and three acts. Some of the Indigenous characters in the film want to stay connected to their cultural heritage, and others feel like they have to assimilate. Was that something you wanted to examine from the outset? That was there from the outset to examine that, yeah. That’s based on reality, really. After World War I there was a massive land grab through the desert. A lot of places full of cattle station owners made a lot of money in World War I because of the price of cattle, the price of leather, the price of horses. Everything sky-rocketed by a thousand percent. They all made a lot of money. People pushed to claim a stake of Australia, and obviously Indigenous tribes were living on that land and had been there for 40,000 years. There was two ways you could actually act about it in person. If you wanted to be connected to the land that you actually were spiritually a part of, you either had to stay and conform, or you left. You know what I mean? A lot of people actually stayed and conformed. That was sort of the way there was a lot of free labour because aboriginal people on these cattle stations and sheep stations didn’t get paid, they got rations from the government. To stay and to be connected to the land you had to work on that land, which was quite difficult.
The film feels like it’s really shining a light on a lot of Australian history that has been swept under the rug and not talked about…
Yeah, you don’t read about any of this sort of stuff in year 8 in school, you know what I mean? That’s the great thing about cinema. Having that access to your screens and having access to an audience. You wanna have a rollicking great old western, and you wanna have a rollicking great old romantic comedy, but as a filmmaker you wanna give the audience access to stuff that they have never been privy to before because our education doesn’t actually have it in the curriculum.
A bold stylistic choice in the film is that you have no music at all…
We just wanted to keep a sort of realism. As the director I didn’t wanna start dictating to the audience to be happy or sad, or start dictating the emotional journey through music. I decided to pull the music out so that it felt like you’re listening to the landscape, and you’re listening to the desert, or you’re listening to the voices — you’re not listening to the director trying to tell you, “You’ve gotta be sad right now. You have to be happy right now” because of a piece of music I play. It made the producer happy because they didn’t have to pay for it!
You also decided to cast a lot of Indigenous people who’d never acted before…
I wanted Indigenous people who actually had a connection to the country and a connection to the story. So I said, “I wanna cast the whole film with Indigenous people from Alice Springs so that this story is their story,” because all of these people grew up on cattle stations, the land that was originally theirs, their grandfather’s had to work for free and all that kinda stuff. So I wanted people who emotionally and spiritually actually were connecting that way, because I saw that was more important ... I can teach people to act, because that’s pretty easy. That’s just about confidence, and about breaking down the barriers. That’s something that I couldn’t teach, that connection to country and spirituality, which I think shines through between Hamilton Morris and Natassia Gorey-furber... When they’re walking that country there’s a real ownership of the land, even though they are on the run. That was more important to me.
What’s next on your slate?
I’m promoting this at the moment but I’m in negotiations at the moment to do a 10 one hour vampire series set here in Australia, which could be really exciting. Completely out there, total rock and roll. Set in Coober Pedy. That’s gonna be interesting. We’ve basically written the script so maybe at the end of next year there’ll be something really exciting on television.
SWEET COUNTRY IS IN CINEMAS 25 JANUARY AND IS REVIEWED ON PAGE 26
Sergeant Brown), Sam Fletcher (Hamilton (Bryan Morris), Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-furber) and Fred Smith (Sam Neill) in Sweet Country.
Director Warwick Thornton.