The Aus­tralian film di­rec­tor on his stun­ning new Out­back western Sweet Coun­try

Empire (Australasia) - - Preview - WORDS JAMES JEN­NINGS

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.


Sergeant Brown), Sam Fletcher (Hamil­ton (Bryan Mor­ris), Lizzie (Natas­sia Gorey-furber) and Fred Smith (Sam Neill) in Sweet Coun­try.

Di­rec­tor War­wick Thorn­ton.

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