On Tuesday 10 March 2009 I interviewed writer/director Warwick Thornton and producer Kath Shelper in the JOY 94.9 studios in Melbourne. The pair had just begun promoting Samson and Delilah, a film that has since generated an enormous amount of interest and was recently selected to screen in Official Selection at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.
Listen to the interview:
Thomas Caldwell: Samson and Delilah is being described as a love story and yet it is not exactly what audiences expect when they hear “love story”.
Warwick Thornton: It’s an Indigenous story from Central Australia. What’s the best way to see a film about teenagers living in an Aboriginal community than through love? Because with love there are no barriers, there are no walls, it’s not black and white, it’s not male or female. Love works absolutely across the board. It’s soul rather than issues. As far as getting a film about the kids in Alice Springs out there to a wider audience, I think love is the best place to set it.
Thomas Caldwell: Is that where you are from originally? Alice Springs?
Warwick Thornton: Alice Springs born and bred and I live there still today.
Thomas Caldwell: And the film was obviously shot on location.
Warwick Thornton: Yep.
Thomas Caldwell: I can’t imagine how else you would get those incredible visuals.
Warwick Thornton: Yeah, we went to LA and the whole thing was done in a studio –
Thomas Caldwell: – in a massive postproduction house. If you look closely Nicholas Cage is in there somewhere.
Warwick Thornton: He has a cameo as Gonzo.
Thomas Caldwell: Speaking of Gonzo – he is a significant supporting character who appears in about half an hour of the film. He’s an alcoholic homeless man. He’s based on your brother (Scott Thornton) and your brother plays him in the film.
Warwick Thornton: Yes.
Thomas Caldwell: What was that like? Writing this very challenging part, which is based on somebody incredibly close to you, and then directing the same guy in the film?
Warwick Thornton: The journey of Gonzo in my head has been a long and arduous one. He is in a sense the audience. He’s trying to breakdown the stereotypical image of a parky but he also represents all of us beer and wine drinkers who frown upon the other drug users in the world.
Thomas Caldwell: There is that great scene in the film where he turns to Samson, tells him off for sniffing petrol and then he takes a huge swig of wine.
Warwick Thornton: Absolutely. The idea of Gonzo all started out when my brother – you know, I’ve been making films for quite a long time now but this is my first feature –
Thomas Caldwell: You have done a lot of shorts though.
Warwick Thornton: A lot of short films, a lot of documentaries and I’ve shot a fair few features for other people. But my brother had always said to me…And my brother has been an alcoholic for most of his life, he is pretty much a parky and he’s homeless except for winter when he moves back in!
Thomas Caldwell: And “parky” is an expression for these guys who live –
Warwick Thornton: – in a park, in a street, in a lane. In the Northern Territory they’re called long grasses and that’s because where the long grass is, is where they can live. Where they can hide.
Anyway, basically he said, “When are ya gonna give me a role in one of ya films?” He’s been doing that for years and years, and when the character of Gonzo arose in the film I thought this was an opportunity for my brother, Scott, to actually be in the film. He can play the part and I wrote it on the basis of what I know about him. But the other side of it is I said, “Right, if you want this part you’re going to have to go to rehab because I’m not having you drunk on my set. It’s that simple. You have to go to rehab, you have to sober up, you have to sort yourself out and if you do a really good job then there’s a career for you in this brother.”
Five rehabs later – he lasted two days in the first rehab and then he lasted a week in the second rehab and then he lasted two weeks in the third and it kept on going until he finally finished his course. He came out when we were shooting. He was in Cairns so he flew straight out of rehab into Alice Springs and then the next day he was on set and he did it.
Thomas Caldwell: All your actors are non-professional and all of them give remarkable, authentic and genuine performances. Was that your reason for choosing non-professional actors?
Warwick Thornton: Yes, because they would. There is nothing wrong with completely consummate actors who have done 50 films but to take them to Alice Springs would have been a 3-week intensive workshop to mould them into community people. It’s so much easier and so much stronger to get people from within the community to actually be in the film because they own these stories. They’ve seen and have absolutely lived these lives. That’s the perfect actor.
Thomas Caldwell: It’s something that Ken Loach does a lot and he gets a similar feel in his films. You are not watching actors who are acting really well – you are watching people who are these parts, who own the stories.
Warwick Thornton: Absolutely.
Thomas Caldwell: Let’s talk about some of the other actors because we haven’t touched on the leads yet and they are the strongest part of this film I think. Rowan McNamara, who plays Samson, is remarkable. Is it just me – I may be totally off the mark here – but does he have a certain physicality and energy that evokes a young Heath Ledger?
Kath Shelper: Wow. I thought he was more like Charlie Chaplin.
Thomas Caldwell: He does have that prankster aspect about him. But there was something about the end of the film – there is a particular look he gives the camera and there was this intensity in his eyes that ran a bit of a shiver down my spine and I thought, “Wow. There’s that thing that Heath Ledger did so beautifully.”
Warwick Thornton: Rowan’s an incredibly special human being. Even when not playing Samson in the film he just has this incredible energy and this incredible vibe. It’s almost that when you are around him you want to be naughty and run amuck!
Thomas Caldwell: Ah ha, he’s that sort of guy is he?
Warwick Thornton: He is. He’s wiry and quite sporadic –
Kath Shelper: He’s very cheeky and charming –
Warwick Thornton: You just want to be a part of that.
Kath Shelper: He’s also one of those kids who is just a natural actor. He’s spent his life getting out of trouble by acting his way out of situations or into situations. When we first met him to consider him being in the film, he did the biggest acting job on us! When we look back at that casting tape, that’s not Rowan that we met, that’s Rowan acting the actor to get the job. He’s really smart and he’s been practising acting his whole life. And he loved it. It’s probably the first thing that he’s been really good at that he’s been rewarded for, for all that cheekiness, energy and everything that he’s naturally got. So, he had a really great time making the film.
Thomas Caldwell: He has some very difficult things to do in this film. He plays a habitual petrol sniffer. Is that something he had encountered before? Had he seen other people doing that?
Warwick Thornton: Absolutely. I’d talk to him about sniffers and he’d say, “Yeah, I’ve seen them, ” in his community and he’s watched them.
Kath Shelper: Even in Alice Springs you don’t have to go very far to see that on the streets.
Warwick Thornton: We hardly did any workshopping of that idea because he’d seen it and he knew how to play it.
Thomas Caldwell: It’s remarkable that you’ve portrayed this in a way that’s not sensationalised but it is just there. It’s in this film as a reality of what is part of this kid’s everyday life. That must have been intentional.
Warwick Thornton: Absolutely. This film isn’t The Doors version of drug abuse with psychodelic anything. It’s something that we didn’t want to manipulate –
Kath Shelper: Or even draw attention to.
Warwick Thornton: Yeah, it’s life in a sense. It is interesting because the film could probably be translated to any street in Melbourne, let alone an Aboriginal community, as far as the drug use and issues of abuse and starvation. It’s sort of worldly in a sense.
Thomas Caldwell: Now let’s talk about the other lead actor, the absolutely mesmerising Marissa Gibson who plays Delilah. What was it about her that made you say, “Yes, she’s the one”?
Warwick Thornton: It was interesting because as soon as Rowan walked in he was this wiry footballer with an absolute edge. What we were looking for with Delilah was an inbuilt strength and a woman who would be able to look you in the eye and kill you!
Thomas Caldwell: There is a look she gives. There is something in her eyes.
Warwick Thornton: And the inner strength. We needed that inner strength. We looked at a lot of girls and in fact one of the first girls we looked at was Marissa. We then did this complete full circle back to her, realising that she was absolutely perfect.
Thomas Caldwell: Her actual grandmother plays her grandmother in the film.
Warwick Thornton: Yes, Mitjili Gibson.
Thomas Caldwell: Why did you choose to do that?
Warwick Thornton: It was fate. When I wrote the film Mitjili was already cast to play the grandmother because I had worked with Mitjili before.
Thomas Caldwell: OK, so you knew her already.
Warwick Thornton: Yeah, yeah.
Thomas Caldwell: And it just happened that Marissa –
Warwick Thornton: Yeah, that Mitjili was her real grandma.
Kath Shelper: We actually made a short film called Nana –
Thomas Caldwell: That was the film you did before this?
Kath Shelper: Yeah, and Mitjili played Nana in the film Nana. The little girl who plays her granddaughter in Nana is actually Marissa’s younger sister and it was just purely coincidental that it worked out that way.
Thomas Caldwell: Mitjili’s a gorgeous performer and I love that scene where she is teasing Delilah about Samson and she just keeps laughing. That was a hilarious scene and I got the impression that you just left the camera on, stood back and said, “Go for it.”
Warwick Thornton: Mitjili does whatever she wants.
Thomas Caldwell: I got that vibe and boy it worked.
Warwick Thornton: We’d load big thousand foot magazines of film and just roll and roll and roll. English is Mitjili’s sixth language and it’s off in the ether. She can’t speak English very well. And English is Marissa’s third language I think –
Thomas Caldwell: The other languages are Indigenous languages?
Warwick Thornton: Yeah. But Marissa speaks Japanese too. Quite fluently as well!
Kath Shelper: Yes, of course she does!
Warwick Thornton: So when Marissa is in a scene like that she became co-director and talks to Mitjili in another language, prompting her as well. I’d understand little bits of what she’d be saying but not getting the complete piece of dialogue. Just rolling and rolling… And Mitjili’s doing things like saying, “No Delilah, he’s not for you – he’s for me!” And Marissa’s saying, “No! You’ve got to say he’s for me!”
Kath Shelper: She’s very cheeky.
Thomas Caldwell: Are we going to get some of those outtakes on the DVD?
Kath Shelper: Bec Cole (Warwick’s partner) and I are making a documentary about the making of the film, through the eyes of Marissa and Rowan, which is going to be on the ABC later this year. A lot of the back-story stuff will be in the documentary. A lot of outtakes of Nana being naughty.
Thomas Caldwell: I’m looking forward to seeing that. What are you hopes for this film?
Kath Shelper: My hope is that as many people in Australia as possible see the film and want to see the film. That’s the most important thing to us. It’s a film that we’ve made for Australian audiences to see. I guess there’s no way of anticipating what people are going to make of it. You make a film like this, you put a whole lot of love and care into it, and you put it out into the world and hope that people find that connection to it. It premiered at the Adelaide Film Festival and we won the audience award!
Thomas Caldwell: The word from Adelaide is good and that film festival is really important to Australian filmmaking.
Kath Shelper: Yeah, and they were investors in the film through their investment fund. So that was our world premier and that was really exciting for us because it is a tough film in lots of ways but people who have seen it so far are really engaging with it emotionally and it takes people on a journey. I think that’s all people want when they go to the cinema. I also think it’s a very cinematic film and the sort of the film that you want to see in a dark room with other people, on the big screen. It’s definitely a cinema experience.
Thomas Caldwell: And for most Australians it’s looking at aspects of Australia, both socially and in terms of the environment, that I think a lot of Australians don’t see.
Kath Shelper: And otherwise wouldn’t get the privilege to go and see. Without a film like this it’s very difficult to access that sort of world.
Warwick Thornton: I truly believe that audiences will make their own minds up. If they come and see this film they’ll take away very diverse points of view. But I think if you come and see this film you’ll walk out of that cinema a slightly better human being, which is a big call but this is what cinema does!
Thomas Caldwell: Were you deliberately trying to make a film with very little dialogue or did it just work out that way?
Warwick Thornton: It all came from the basis of it being a teenage love story. I’ve watched way too many films where 13-year-olds girls and boys are talking about love like they’ve gone through 5 marriages and 17 children. When I was a kid and I was really falling in love with someone, there was no way that I could talk like that! I’d throw rocks at girls to get their attention and grunt. The first two or three girlfriends you had, you held their hand. You didn’t actually talk! You couldn’t. It was just too emotional. If you opened your bloody mouth you might say something stupid so you didn’t say anything. So that’s teenage love. That’s how I grew up so that’s how I wrote this film. It all came from that basis of love and how it’s unbelievably hard to articulate. It’s unbelievably hard to articulate now when you’re my age let alone when you were 14 and had all those bloody hormones floating around and electricity in the air.
Thomas Caldwell: And that intense fear that you’re going to screw up and say the wrong thing. And of course that brain freeze. All those brilliant lines you rehearsed the night before just go nowhere.
Warwick Thornton: I’m sure Samson’s not rehearsing any lines! His idea of love is a bit neandertholic. Delilah’s idea of love is the beautiful Anna Gabriella song from the film, with the violins and that beautiful voice. That’s the way Delilah sees it. Samson sees it as swags and rocks.
Thomas Caldwell: That brings me to my final question about the importance of music. If I had to pick one scene that was the definitive scene in the film it is the scene where Samson in dancing to his music and Delilah turns off her music and watches him. There’s that moment where they both connect through their love of music. How much is music important to you and how much did you want to express that through the film?
Warwick Thornton: My whole life is music. If I’m writing a sad scene I’ll play something sad. It just gets all those emotions happening. There are times in my life when there was a song I was listening to when I was breaking up or getting together. So I use that music always in my life and I use it to write and to feel those raw emotions that were happening to me. So I always love that idea of using music like that. They don’t say very much in the film so it was incredibly important to me that if a song came on, those lyrics would represent the way they felt at that time.
We call that the sexy dancing scene.
Thomas Caldwell: Well he shimmies rather nicely.
Warwick Thornton: Absolutely. He shimmies very nicely at 48 frames per second.