"As indigenous people we need more doctors, and more lawyers, and more teachers, and more surgeons, and more truck drivers and more librarians and more politicians. All of that, but we need more storytellers"
Warwick Thornton, director of Samson and Delilah, talks to Film In Japan, about: his labour of love, Australia and the problems facing it.
FIJ-What's going on in Australian cinema at the moment?
WT - Commercial stuff, comedies, that's all we will have; and that's not really a representation of Australia, of what Australia is about, let alone for the rest of the world to see, for us to see.
FIJ-I haven't seen that many Australian films recently, I saw The Proposition awhile ago, and Jindabyne, which is on a similar topic.
WT - Yeah, Jindabyne, and he did Lantana before, a great film. There's that sort of vigour in Australian cinema, but then there's that smaller kitchen sink drama, and that's the way I see it. I see it as cultural maintenance,a big shield against all this... The Americans make great films but they also make an awful load of shit, and we get all the shit and that's the irony of it. The funny thing is that for every American film you see, there are another 1000 that made it to DVD, and just made it to DVD, they didn't see a cinema...They do make a lot of crap.
FIJ - Did you go to the Sundance festival with Samson and Delilah?
WT - I've been to Sundance with my short films. I never went with Samson and Delilah. There's all that sort of exclusivity there, and in places like Cannes.
FIJ - You won at Cannes though, right? Congratulations.
WT - Yeah, It's very much, you make a film and you sort of gamble. What film festival you think it's going to get into and all that kind of stuff.
FIJ - Could you give us a brief description of what Samson and Delilah is all about, for anyone that doesn't know. You must have had that question a 1000 times now.
WT - Yeah, but it changes as you get older, you know. You fall in love with your film, and then you see it so many times you absolutely detest it. Later in your life, you fall in love with it again, and it's been three years now.
Samson and Delilah is a teenage love story about two kids growing up in central Australia. and that's about it. It's a really dark and depressing little film. But it was important to make that kind of film, you know.
FIJ-I was watching it and, I was sitting there and, I didn't sense the real big moments coming, and they really took me by shock. I knew it wasn't going to be flowers and rainbows everywhere but, it really hit me.
WT -Just when you think you can't go any further into the depths, you fall down a well.
FIJ-But, like you said at the beginning, it's a dark film but there is that light at the end of the tunnel.
WT -Yeah and you know, that was important that light at the end of the tunnel. I needed that. When I was writing it I needed it, you know what I mean? This thing was heading straight towards Romeo and Juliet, just an absolute tragedy, a teenage love story tragedy, and I said, "No, no, I don't want to go there." That's not what these two kids were about. There struggle is better than that.
FIJ- I was glad you said that actually, because I was dreading having this horrible ending. It was nice the way it did end, especially going back to the home country and stuff like that, that was cool.
WT -Yeah, yeah getting back there was important.
FIJ-The actors were non-professionals right? I thought they were amazing, Gonzo and the grandmother as well.
WT -Well Gonzo was my brother actually. He's an alcoholic so I wrote the part for him. He always wanted to be in a film, so I thought I'll write a part which matches your persona and character perfectly. That's my brother in real-life. And the same with the nana, her name is Mitjili Gibson, we didn't choose her for it; I wrote that part for her. I'd done some documentaries with her out in the middle of the bush. She walked out of the bush in something like 1962, with children on her hips, never seen a white person before. Didn't even know what a car or plane was, or electricity. Just walked straight out of the bush. So she is a pretty amazing woman.
And Rowan and Marissa [Samson and Delilah], I'd met lots of kids like that, but I didn't actually write the film for those two. We went on a big casting journey to find them. The producer of the film looks after Mitjili and she is actually Marissa's grandmother. It was a short journey but we had to go a really round about way to get there. It's almost like the girl next door. I'd travelled the world looking for the perfect person and she was there all along.
FIJ-I thought the grandma has just got this amazing face, looks like a hundred years worth of stories in it.
WT -It's interesting, people who really freak about her are always Russians animators, you know "Oh my god she's incredible!", who think she's got this brilliant face, and want me to send them copies and for her to pose and stuff. Turn her into a grandma comic book star you know.
FIJ-One of the things I wanted to ask you about was the music, the song choices. In particular that opening one. What was the idea behind that?
WT -Because there's not a lot of dialogue I had to be careful about the music. So every song in the film was actually written in the script. It wasn't one of those, "here's how much money we've got left." So they are all written in, so when he's sniffing petrol, the song is sunshiny day, when he's sitting in the grey. Getting these juxtapositions. I tried to find great cowboy songs and country and western songs.
FIJ-The soundtrack was really top notch. The other one I want to talk about was the one where, Delilah, you can see her sort of starting to fall in love with Samson. The dancing scene where he's got his music and she's got hers and they blend together. What was the idea of that?
WT - I mean you can see instantly, and it was easily written when he falls in love with her, when the spark happens. She gives him some food you know so it was like...
WT -Yeah, bang! Really is that simple isn't it? Whereas her it was much harder to write. So we thought let's do it as a musical piece. All she needs is a spark, just a spark that she might be interested. It's not like that high school Hannah Montana, where you just fall completely head over heels...It's, "Well there might be something okay there and I'll keep an eye on it" you know what I mean? And that's that music sequence where he's got his shirt off and he's dancing.
FIJ-Especially the way you mixed the songs together so they became almost one song. That really worked.
WT -Yeah, He's this crazy rock and roll, and trying to annoy the shit out of everybody and her, that's her idea of love. The music is by this lady called Dana Gabriella, who's an incredible Mexican country and western singer. I had no idea what she was singing about, but you could feel the love and, well, that's kind of perfect. That's how we, as an audience will probably be, about these two kids in this strange community speaking a language we don't know. But, if we heard that song we'd kind of feel it. So I thought that's the perfect way, looking for songs that work in that kind of way, just through the feelings they give.
FIJ-Without the words...
WT -Yeah, exactly. you know it's Mexican right? Unless you're Mexican, or you can speak Spanish you have no idea what they're talking about...
FIJ-So, the lack of dialogue, but there's not a lack of communication, was that a key point for you?
WT - Yeah, yeah, absolutely. In Aboriginal community there's a whole hidden language to do with movement, lips, it's almost like body language.
Pointing with your lips, that means that way, you don't actually have to lift your arm...
WT -Laughs - Yeah exactly. And using that kind of stuff is, when you're thirteen years of age, you are throwing rocks at girls. You're not walking up and having these huge monologues, that's the Hollywood version. The Hollywood version is the kid'll walk up, "I like your eyes" kind of thing and he'd do this paragraph that is so perfectly poignant, and you know it's written by a forty year old guy who's gone through three marriages, four kids and is reflecting on all the shit he should have said to his first wife. Yyou can just see it, and it's coming out of this thirteen year old's mouth. And you just go, this is so wrong, this is not life, this is not real. Which is great if you're making Barbie, but it's no good if you are making Samson and Delilah. So, these kids, when you're that age you're super shy, you can't talk to the girl, all you want to do is get noticed and for her to notice you, so what do you do? You throw rocks at her. So that's reality based.
FIJ-The two kids, they're just so natural, even though it was their first film I never felt that they were aware of the camera on them.
WT -I kind of tried to break up that whole line of: here's the crew and you act on that side of the line and the crew will stay on this side of the line. That's why there's actually a lot of crew in the film, you know, opening doors or in cafes, all over the place. I kind of tried to break that line and just turn it,a sort of, sideshow. you don't know the difference between crew or acting, blend it all together. So if the camera turns around the crew could be there drinking coffee, keep turning around and you're in the scene again. And for the kids, they haven't acted before, so it made it a much easier place for them to act. It was just kind of like, everyone around them was in the film. There wasn't that,you stand over there and get really shy and we stand over and will film you.
FIJ-It's set in Central Australia, what kind of place is it, for someone with little knowledge of it?
WT -It's probably one of the most beautiful deserts in the world. It's full of angels and it's full of demons. It desperately tries to balance itself, with indigenous issues and tourism. It tries to hide the problems we have as an indigenous people, hide it behind rocks.
FIJ-You know saying that I've seen those adverts in England. The Australian tourist ones which puts everyone together smiling, and some kangaroos, too.
WT -Yeah, I know and we're just seriously starting, indigenous people, well I can't talk for everyone, I just talk for myself; just getting so pissed off, with seeing that we are portrayed to the world as one happy bunch of black folks. With tourism, we're going for the next World Cup, get all the black fellas, in a community in the desert doing taps on a soccer ball. And enough's enough. you've really neglected us, you've really...
We've got an intervention happening at the moment, they've taken away all our rights, all that sort of stuff, Australia is up in court with the UN...And they've still got us happily kicking footballs and dancing. I'm kind of sick of it and I'm kind of at a point now with Australia, this has gone on for too long. I reckon all of us black folks should pull out of any commercial, you know, [it's] our ideas, our motifs they use to sell Australia to the world. It's just become a joke, how badly you treat us, but they way you drag us out everytime to tap dance under the stars to get tourists, or to say how happy this country is, and it's a bit sickening.
We've got a new government and we're all really looking forward to this government, we think it's going to be a really good government, I do anyway, and they just seriously need to pull there finger out and stop using us as these props to make Australia look pretty, because it isn't pretty at the moment. Not where I come from anyway.
FIJ-The film looked at the problem of petrol sniffing, what other challenges are facing Aboriginal communities.
WT - It's a hard one you know because their is a gap. Aboriginal people die twenty years earlier, these kind of simple things: education, we don't have enough schools, the schools in the towns are very hard. I mean you got these little Aboriginal kids and Australia can be a very racist place they don't want to go to school. Can be that simple. So it's ingrained and it's been going on for way too long.
And the irony is that, petrol sniffing is one of the ones that is starting to clean itself up. Somebody really smart decided to get rid of all the lead based petrols in central Australia and use this new petrol where if you sniff it you just get a headache. That fucking simple. It's fantastic it's happened but it should have happen. Long term neglect, long term problems.
And a lot of them the government can't fix. Aboriginal people, we have to fix them ourselves. It's an ingrained cultural problem that we have to sort out ourselves. There's a lot of that.
FIJ - The film gives the idea of the Aboriginal village and the big city as being completely separate and disconnected, is that how it is?
WT - Yeah it is, and you can see the divide in a sense. A divide through neglect, where state and central government isn't investing in the communities and dumping it all into the towns, because that's where the power is and that's where the voters are. These smaller communities, which might have twenty to fifty people, they just completely neglect.
FIJ - Is that a common trajectory what happens in Samson and Delilah, young kids heading off into the big city and getting in trouble?
WT - Yeah, and it's everywhere. Kids in China, all the people in the country moving to the cities, huge migration. That's natural for any teenager. They want something bigger and better than the boredom and the neglect. So they go to the city either for a new life and a job, or to party, all those classic things. Catch a train to wherever and rock on. Then go home with your tail between your legs, to mum and dad. That's kind of classic teenage stuff.
FIJ - You were just talking about the boredom, that band in the film playing the same riff, over and over again. Is that what were supposed to get from that this repetition and boredom?
WT - Yeah, yeah exactly. This sort of Groundhog Day-esque feel and it is that sort of draining repetition, boredom. But you have to feel some apathy for the band. They're practising to get out, that's there bus out of town. They want to become a rock band or a skanky reggae band.
FIJ - They sounded cool but...
WT - Yeah, enough's enough! Right at his window.
FIJ - Are there any other films on Aboriginal issues you can recommend?
WT - Hmm...What is there? For the love and the power of it? Australia. Another really good Aboriginal film but people don't realise it is, Avatar. Very fucking Pocahontas, but...
FIJ - Wow. Didn't expect you to say those two.
WT - There's others as well, Brand New Day a musical, which is kind of interesting. There's a new one out in a year called, Here I am, not going to say like Taxi Driver but, a hardcore chick flick.
FIJ - You were saying earlier that you see Samson and Delilah as an allegory for dependence on oil. Having spoken to you now, I think I know the answer to this question, but I'm going to ask it anyway. Do you feel a certain responsibility as a film-maker to tackle big issues and affect your audiences way of thinking?
WT - For sure, for sure. I was huffing and puffing, and growling and kicking the shit out of Hollywood and all that kind of stuff. But, you learn their skills and their way of storytelling and you grab that, and you'll be able to hide some of the most important issues in your life into a film. Millions of people will come and see them, and not even know that you're trying to tell them something. I think a lot of people went away from Avatar not even realising there is another level to it.
You find your niche too, as indigenous people we need more doctors, and more lawyers, and more teachers, and more surgeons, and more truck drivers and more librarians and more politicians. All of that, but we need more storytellers, and I think I've found my little journey in life, as an Aboriginal person, and that is, to tell our stories. Try and tell them truthfully and that's incredibly important. Pretty much every Aboriginal person in Australia saw the film, either empowered or appalled that's their personal opinion, but I opened that door to my own people to go and see a story about them. You can come away from it with your own opinion, did you like it or not, but at least there is an outlet. Just trying to tell stories is really important.
FIJ - I asked you earlier about the white Australian audiences to Samson and Delilah. How about with the Aboriginal community?
WT - Obviously, I don't know everyone's opinions but the good 90 percent was just overall thrilled and absolutely loved it, a pride...The one I was mostly worried about
: we had a free screening in Alice Springs, three and a half thousand rocked up, Aboriginal people. This huge football field, giant screen and just filled it up with anyone who wanted to see it. We had buses come from all the communities and everybody absolutely loved it.
FIJ - Was that the crowning achievement of the whole thing?
WT - Yeah, Is this going to be a lynching? or....Just keep the car running.
That was the most important thing, that people loved it. People were coming up to me and telling me: that's my story, that's my grandfather's story, that's my son's story. And that was our story, and that was were it all started. It was great, that was the first screening we had and I could move on and talk to people like you, with a little more confidence that my people weren't hunting me down.
That's the other thing too, if everyone did jack up in Alice Springs. You're not blindfolded in this town, you know everything that is going on. Here it is.
FIJ - As an Australian filmmaker do you feel part of a group or a movement or has making an Aboriginal film seperated you from that?
WT - It has, and it hasn't. Good storytelling, is good storytelling and I don't care where you're from. I get blown away by good films from anywhere in the world. Whether, they're indiginous or not. I loved Avatar, I can go beyond that. I know people who say that it should have been made by an indiginous person. Well, no, shit, the reason it is such a great film is because the reason it is such a fantastic film is because it was made by a great mind. I never had that wall or line in the sand about what's what. I kind of like that. I think other people should make films about indiginous people, just as I should be allowed to make films about them.
It's open territory. I'm doing my research to make sure I don't offend anyone, and any person making a film should do the same.
FIJ - One last question, what's your next project?
WT - I've got a period film, a sort of thriller. It's interesting. I don't want to explain to much, it's a good idea. I haven't written it very well though. I'm on the third draft, but there's still a lot of loose ends, a completed film though. I'm actually writing it in the hotel room now. When you've got a week in a hotel, I have kids, it's work time. It's a bit of a sort of Days of Heaven, set in an orphonage with Aboriginal kids and monks.
FIJ - Well, I'll let you get back to it. Really enjoyed the film. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today.