Indigenous Australian director Warwick Thornton talks being his own cinematographer on Sweet Country, shooting on Alexa and UV, and developing the film’s aesthetic.
Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country is not your typical western: it centers the perspectives of its Indigenous Australian characters, meaning it will necessarily break some of the rules of the genre. It works as the story of a man-on-the-run. When Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris shoots a drunken white colonizer in self-defense, he knows he’s in trouble. But what unfolds is a story of the trauma inflicted on Indigenous Australian Peoples by colonizers who refer to them as “black stock” and regularly treat them as near-slaves — even when they happen to be, generally through rape, the colonizers’ own flesh and blood. It’s an emotionally wrenching story in which the “sweet country” is both gorgeous and dangerous. Thornton’s framing makes us constantly aware of who has a claim on the territory.SWEET COUNTRY was one of the very best films at #TIFF17, yet it’s still floating under the radar.Click To Tweet
Sweet Country has already picked up prestigious awards at the Venice Film Festival (the Special Jury Prize) and the Toronto International Film Festival (the Platform Prize for best feature in the competitive programming stream). It was one of the very best films I saw at TIFF this year. Yet it still feels like it’s floating under the radar: the film is still seeking North American distribution, and many at TIFF hadn’t heard of it prior to its win there. It will continue on the festival circuit this fall, stopping at the London Film Festival and again in Toronto at the ImagiNative festival. After the North American premiere at TIFF, I sat down with Indigenous Australian director Warwick Thornton to discuss his visual approach to the film.
Seventh Row (7R): What did you want to make sure you raised at the beginning of Sweet Country?
Warwick Thornton (WT): For me, the sense of place, the style of the film, the pacing of the film, are really important at the beginning of the film.
Right at the beginning, there’s the [closeup of a cauldron with] boiling water: black tea goes in, white sugar. It’s all represents humanity, black and white, they all go into boiling water, and it all boils over, which is kind of the whole story in a way — black-white relationships. It’s a very hot country. It’s a closeup of a boiling water on a fire. That’s not how you’re supposed to make a film. Page one of making a western is a wide shot with sweeping music and a huge crane. But you’re not watching a normal western.
Then, suddenly, we go to a flash forward of him in court, and there’s all this murmuring, mumbling words, and then suddenly the words transition into clear audio. It goes, “Mr Kelly, do you understand”? As an audience member, I don’t understand a thing! What is going on? All of that, for me, is a sense of style, sense of pace, sense of place. This film is not going to be normal.
I like films that make me think. I’m intelligent, and I want a filmmaker who actually thinks I’m intelligent, as an audience member. A lot of films treat the audience like they’re idiots. A lot of cinema does that, and it’s so sad. If we’re going to play with flashbacks, we should also play with flash forwards. If you want to get inside characters’ minds, we don’t just think backwards of our fears. We think forwards of our dreams.'I like films that make me think. I want a filmmaker who thinks I’m intelligent, as an audience member.'Click To Tweet
7R: You wanted to set up that this is not going to be a normal western. Were there specific rules that you were thinking of following or breaking?
Warwick Thornton: We could have made the film like page one of “How to Make a Western”. But that’s boring to me. Let’s get rid of all the cliches of westerns. Let’s start creating our own genre.
Let’s get rid of all the music in the film. That’s what we do: we chuck music over it. The director is god, god-fearing hand, touching and dictating everything. That’s what music does. You’re sitting there, watching a movie, and there’s a cello, and you’re “Oh, I’m supposed to feel sad.” There’s nothing wrong with music. But I hate when, as an audience, we’re treated so badly by filmmakers like “you have to feel sad right now.” I can feel sad for myself! If it’s a good scene, and the script’s working, you don’t need music.
Get rid of all that crap. Get rid of the crane. Obviously, audiences can’t fly, so let’s get rid of helicopter shots of the film. Let’s create some roadblocks for ourselves.
7R: So much of how Sweet Country is shot really emphasized the idea of property, the way it’s shot from people’s verandas, or through the bar from across the street.
Warwick Thornton: People don’t step off their veranda. It’s their domain, especially the colonizers. They walk to the edge of their verandas, and they look out. So I tried desperately to stay on the veranda with them as their point of view, their world.
With the Indigenous People in the film, they’re always off the veranda. They’re not allowed on the veranda of the house. So their point of view is in the desert looking at the house.
We had this guy called Ned Kelly, an outlaw in Australia. He used to wear this stupid fucking helmet, with a little slit, like a perfect little anamorphic frame. We used the idea of the veranda as the kind of Ned Kelly point of view of the world.
I tried to make sure that the whole film was shot under people’s eye-lines. We were always looking up slightly, just under people’s eye-lines, just to empower people. It’s the basic, page one of film studies: to disempower someone, you look down on them; to empower someone, you look up. I didn’t want to disempower anyone in the film. There’s an equal footing of humans, even though there are incredibly racist people. But everyone’s on equal footing as far as the camera is concerned. We only ever looked up at every single person in the film.'We were always looking up slightly, just under people’s eye-lines, to empower people.' -ThorntonClick To Tweet
It’s more important to see the reaction of someone who’s listening than seeing someone just talk shit. I’d rather be watching the person listening than watching the person talking.
7R: How did you end up as your own director of photography? How does that help?
Warwick Thornton: Rather than translating from the director to the cinematographer, it’s easier if I just do it myself. I’ve been a cinematographer longer than I’ve been a director. I started off as a cinematographer. The reason why I got into directing was because I started writing films that I wanted to shoot. I only wanted to shoot them, had no care in the world to direct them. But then I started getting money to get them made, and the people who gave me the money said, “We’ll give you the money if you actually direct them.”'Rather than translating from the director to the cinematographer, it’s easier if I just do it myself.'Click To Tweet
I love cinematography. That’s why I still shoot my films. I can do wonderful things that I’ve always wanted to do. I can make up styles, forms, colour palettes, or compositions that are unique to the film that I wouldn’t have a chance to do otherwise.'I can make up styles, forms, colour palettes, or compositions that are unique to the film.'Click To Tweet
7R: What did you get to play with, regarding cinematography, in this film?
Warwick Thornton: The film was shot on Alexa cameras. We had this idea about how the country should be a character and creating a way of looking at the country slightly different to generally how films work.
We shot the film in UV (ultraviolet) with a Blackmagic camera that had been reprogrammed just to shoot ultraviolet, as well as in normal 4K/5K. We shot it in really vintage, old anamorphic lenses. They’re all beautiful Panavision lenses from the sixties, but they all have their own little characteristics about how they bend, warp, to do with the glass. Then, we had to create a program to rematch the Blackmagic lenses with the anamorphic lenses.
For every single shot in the film, we could put a UV of exactly the same image over the top of the normal 4K image. It creates a traveling map so you can change the grain structure of different elements, or put something we called ether on. It’s sort of like every shot’s been rotoscoped.I could change the grain structure on the rocks. The grain structure in the rocks is different to the grain structure of the sky, which is different to the grain structure on a human being: much more grainy on rocks, less grainy air, and then minus grain on humans. It made the country harder. It made people feel like they’re soft in a really hard country.
We created this thing called ether, which is kind of like a shimmer, a heat haze in the grass and trees, through the whole film. It’s to try to make the landscape like an actual character, alive, rather than just rock and tree. There’s an energy flowing through everything, and it rises.I like old lenses. They’re soft and gooey and sexy.Click To Tweet
7R: What made you want to use the old lenses?
Warwick Thornton: I like old lenses. They’re soft and gooey and sexy. I don’t understand new lenses. I grew up where the fastest you could get was 2.8. Now, they’re 1.2. Obviously, everyone likes old lenses. Maybe if I was doing sci-fi, brand new, really sharp lenses, like chisels, would work. But this is a western, a genre film, so I used old ones.
7R: How did you play with colour palettes for the film?
Warwick Thornton: The woman who colour graded the film was an incredible colourist, Trish Cahill. She’s done lots of big movies, but she’s a good friend. So I talked to her before the film.
We didn’t look at styles. We just came up with words. The film is like tobacco, cigarette tobacco: brown, golden browns, pushing that spectrum of light.'The film is like cigarette tobacco: brown, golden browns, pushing that spectrum of light.'Click To Tweet
We talked about how people’s skin tones would be more metallic, like a metal sheen, trying to find that balance. The grain structure of people is incredibly soft, but they are kind of like hard, metallic-y colour humans. We talked about how it’s a front: we all look hard like metal, but really we’re soft as all shit.
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7R: What are your feelings about shooting digitally?
Warwick Thornton: It’s the way it is. Get over it. Do it. Everybody laments film. Fuck that. This is the way it’s gone. Get over it. Let’s just do it.'It’s the way it is. Get over it. Do it. Everybody laments film. Fuck that. This is the way it’s gone.'Click To Tweet
For me, it’s not about the camera. It’s what the camera is looking at, the way it listens. The compositions are 10x more important than whether it was shot on a 65mm or the new Arri or the new Panavision or an iPhone. Story is more important.
This interview was originally published on September 17, 2017.