It’s not uncommon for actors, singers or bands to have “riders”, certain conditions that they write into their contracts which the hosting venue must fulfil. Queen once asked for a mud-wrestling ring outside the dressing-room to provide them with some post-show entertainment. Punk icon Iggy Pop once requested “somebody dressed as Bob Hope” to do impersonations of the dead comedian. Most famously, the rock band Van Halen demanded that at every show a bowl of M&Ms be provided in their dressing room, with the brown ones removed. Failure to do so would result in the show’s summary cancellation.
Filmmaker Warwick Thornton’s needs are more prosaic. “When I’m on location, I always ask the producer for a unit with a stove, or a house with a kitchen,” he says. Thornton is no diva – he’s not going to start smashing cameras if he doesn’t get access to a hotplate – it’s just that cooking makes him work better. On shoots, he has been known to make meals for the cast and crew as a sign of his appreciation. He cooks for people to engender familiarity, to foster creativity and, on a more personal level, as a reset, “a way”, he says, “of erasing the day. If I don’t cook at the end of the day, I’ll lie awake worrying about what I’ve shot.” And we’re not talking about throwing together a French omelette or a 10-minute stir-fry. “I might go to bed at 11pm, because it’s taken three or four hours to cook a meal.”
It seems to be working for him. Over the past decade or so, Thornton, who is 49, has emerged as one of the strongest voices in Australian film. His first feature, Samson and Delilah, a tough love tale set in a remote Aboriginal community, won the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009. His second major release, the brutal western Sweet Country, in 2017, won prizes at two of the world’s leading festivals, Venice and Toronto, and took best film at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards. Thornton has also made short films and major art installations, and is, to boot, a talented cinematographer, with a “warm, fresh eye”, as actor Bryan Brown puts it, “and a gift for producing scenes of mesmerising beauty”.
He also has a gift for excess. “I live a pretty fortunate life through cinema and art, so I can have a rock ’n’ roll party every bloody night if I want to,” Thornton tells me. “I love the after-party, the bar stool, the pool table, the conversation. It’s all just too exciting.”
We are sitting at a glass-topped table on the cracked concrete landing of a house that his older sister Erica rents in Annandale, a much sought-after suburb in Sydney’s inner west, where Thornton lives when he is not out making movies. I’d been expecting a tastefully appointed terrace house, boho meets Vogue Living, but this place looks more like a student bedsit, with blankets over the doors and garage-sale furniture. There’s a jumbo-sized packet of Coco Pops on top of the fridge, right next to a bottle of Tanqueray. “It’s not the anal-bleached version [of an Annandale home],” he says. “That’s not my thing.”
Thornton is an intimidating figure, standing well over six feet tall and dressed almost entirely in black; black jeans, black cap, black boots, black cowboy shirt. The only exception is his T-shirt, which is brown. He is fearsomely hairy, with a beard and swarming neck growth that appears, at least from where I’m sitting, to have grown into and become part of his T-shirt, giving him the aspect of a chain-smoking grizzly bear. “I’m like the ogre under the bridge,” he says. “Sometimes they have to drag me out to have a shower, and then I go off to work.”
His internal ogre is abetted, to some extent, by his encumbered lifestyle: he has three kids – Luka, 16, Rona, 23 and Dylan, 27 – by two different women, but he lives alone, providing him with ample latitude to over-indulge. “It’s drinking, mainly. I love it,” he says. “I’ve had little interventions, from mates and my two sisters. They were like, ‘Hey Warwick, I love you, and I want to grow old with you and for us both to be 80 and sitting on the verandah having a beer, but the way I see your life going, that ain’t going to f…en happen.’ ”
A reality check was required, a spiritual and physical detox, which is how he ended up making his latest project, The Beach. Part nature documentary, part memoir, part rehab chronicle, The Beach, filmed in May last year, follows Thornton’s transformation as he spends more than a month in a tin shack on a remote beach in Western Australia. In six half-hour episodes, we watch Thornton reckoning with his past, his time growing up as an Indigenous kid in Alice Springs, his flaws, his strengths and his many scars, both internal and external. “We didn’t really go out there with any preconceptions,” he says. “I just knew I wanted to do it, I had to do it.”
The Beach follows in a long tradition of wounded souls who seek redemption by submitting to the wilderness. In Thornton’s case, this meant a one-room shack on the tip of a sand spit surrounded by the dunes, mangroves and ocean of the Dampier Peninsula in the state’s north-west. As settings go, it’s outrageously beautiful. Viewers spend a lot of time in the hut, which was built with help from the local Indigenous community of Lombadina and which, despite the Robinson Crusoe conceit, is a minor- or masterpiece of scavenger chic, with wicker baskets propped against the walls, and coils of old rope hanging from the corner posts.
Those expecting the bare-knuckle narrative of Sweet Country will be disappointed. The Beach is slow television, with plenty of long takes and cryptic silences. The effect can be either meditative or maddening, depending on your mood. Not surprisingly, cooking is a big part of it. Thornton brought along three hens for eggs, not to mention an extensive collection of condiments and sauces, together with an array of vintage cooking implements – an iron griddle, some enamel tins and a blackened brazier.
He was, however, expected to catch all his other protein. “That shack didn’t have a fridge or any power,” he says. “So if I didn’t catch anything that day, then I’d have been having steamed rice.” We see his faltering, farcical attempts at spearfishing and cutting coconuts open. His patience wears thin, especially at the beginning, due to boredom and lack of booze. His only vice: cigarettes. “We were already struggling with there being no alcohol and me not being the great black hunter. If I hadn’t been able to smoke, I would have stabbed the whole crew to death.”
When Thornton likes something, he calls it “rock ’n’ roll”. Even things that might not seem especially great, like depression, can turn out to be “rock ’n’ roll”.
After a time, the therapy worked. “I could see the transformation in Warwick,” says co-producer Michelle Parker. “He started to drop some weight. He became lighter, brighter, fitter, happier. His eyes were clear and twinkling. He was even doing yoga.”
Parker was part of a skeleton crew, which included Thornton’s cinematographer son, Dylan River, who shot the whole series. The crew spent most of the day filming with Thornton, before returning at night to Lombadina, about half an hour’s drive away. “We didn’t know how Warwick would handle the whole experience,” says Parker. “Whether he would be angry, upset or have severe withdrawals. Sometimes he would just say, ‘I’ve had enough, just leave me alone,’ and we’d retreat.”
The poise of River’s cinematography is a joy in itself. But among the most affecting elements are the stories, or impromptu soliloquies, that Thornton addresses to camera.
One of them concerns a man he calls Uncle Kingy. Kingy was a ngangkari, a traditional healer, whose job was to help people whose spirits had left them due to illness or accident. Kingy would go out, catch their soul and put it back in their body. When Thornton was growing up, Kingy was hugely respected and much in demand.
Years later, Thornton was driving down the main street of Alice Springs when he saw him walking along, drunk, yelling and screaming. Thornton thought he should offer him a lift, but he didn’t. “I thought, ‘I’ll leave him, because he’s pissed and he’ll want to bludge money off me, and then make me drive him around everywhere.’ ” The next day, Thornton flew out to a shoot. The day after that, he heard that Kingy had died. Thornton was riven with guilt: “The last time I saw old Kingy, I didn’t want to pick him up.”
Thornton became so angry with himself that he went and bought a “big knife”, took it back to his hotel room, and started slashing at his upper arms. Every time he cut himself he thought of Kingy, “what an amazing man he was, and what a f…en dickhead I am”.
When I heard Thornton tell this story on The Beach, I thought it might have been embellished. So when I interview him, I ask to see his arms. The scars are there, all right, more than a dozen of them, thick and raised like lengths of cord buried in his skin.
Thornton grew up the youngest of five children in Alice Springs, a notoriously tough town that sits like a blistered bullseye in the centre of the continent. “Alice in the 1970s was a small place with not a lot to do,” says his sister, Erica Glynn, who is also a filmmaker. “We’d swim in the town pool in summer. Mum took us to the drive-in cinema. There was also a walk-in cinema. Back then, and also now to an extent, it was a racist little town, and so it was a difficult place to be for Aboriginal people.”
The family lived in a small single-storey fibro house, with a backyard that was so full of bindis you couldn’t play in it. For his seventh birthday Thornton asked for, and received, a huge pile of dirt. “It was the best present I ever had,” he says in The Beach. He played in the dirt pile for two years, making tunnels and fortresses in it, until it spread out and the bindis came back.
When he grew older Thornton rebelled, spending most of his time causing trouble and racing motorbikes with his mates on the claypans out of town. His mother, Freda Glynn, was a pioneer of Indigenous film, TV and radio, a co-founder of the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA), which includes Imparja Television. In an effort to straighten her son out, she sent him, at the age of 13, to school in New Norcia, Australia’s only monastic town, 132 kilometres north of Perth.
When he returned, two years later, he got a gig as a DJ on Green Bush, one of CAAMA’s most popular radio programs. Green Bush played music, “a lot of requests, mostly from prisoners”, Thornton says. But it was more than a radio station. It broadcast to remote communities that might have had only one telephone box and where many people didn’t know how to read or write. Rather than simply playing music, then, the station became like a bulletin board or open telephone line. “You’d get requests like ‘G’day Warwick, can you play My Cheating Heart by Hank Williams, and can you tell my daughter that I’ll be out in three months and can she give me a call because I need to find a way of getting back to my community.’ ”
In 1983, CAAMA started a mobile video unit. By the late 1980s, Thornton had joined as a camera trainee, working alongside other future luminaries, including the sound recordist David Tranter, and Rachel Perkins, who would go on to direct hits such as Radiance and Bran Nue Dae. (Asked in an interview years later to describe what Thornton was like, Perkins said it was hard to say, since “he just used to grunt and not speak much”.) CAAMA’s film teams travelled widely “to all sorts of obscure places”, says Thornton. “We’d take swags, sleep by a campfire, getting bitten by scorpions and centipedes, and spend days filming as many stories as we could.”
“Warwick is a grumpy bastard. He’s not into small-talking or pleasantries. He’s a deep river, and spends a lot of time in his own private story world.”
David Jowsey, producer of Sweet Country.
Thornton and his colleagues often found themselves documenting vanishing worlds in real time. “You’d sit down with some old lady who’s living in a corrugated-iron humpy and she tells you her life story and then sings you a song that probably hasn’t changed in 30,000 years. And she’s got her great-granddaughter next to her, to teach her, ’cause she hasn’t sung that song in 30 years and she realises that she’s the last custodian. To see that happen, in front of you, that’s a privilege.” He says that filming in remote communities was a way of saying “You are worthy”. “You could see people’s eyes light up with the knowledge that someone had taken notice.”
In 1993, Thornton went to Sydney to study cinematography at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. While still a student, he made Payback, a short black and white film about a fictional inmate, Paddy (George Djilaynga), who emerges from a long stint behind bars only to face tribal law. The film, which screened at the prestigious Telluride Film Festival, was followed by his work as a cinematographer on the documentary, Marn Grook: An Aboriginal Perspective on Australian Rules Football. He also worked as the cinematographer on Perkins’s directorial debut, Radiance.
Then, as now, he had a reputation for gruffness. “Warwick is a grumpy bastard,” says David Jowsey, who produced Thornton’s feature film, Sweet Country, and who worked with him on the television series Mystery Road, three episodes of which Thornton directed last year. “He’s not into small-talking or pleasantries. He’s a deep river, and spends a lot of time in his own private story world.”
Thornton’s range is unusually broad. His short films can be tender, even funny. Nana, a six-minute film he released in 2007, paints a whimsical portrait of a no-nonsense matriarch as seen through the eyes of her granddaughter. Mimi, in 2002, featured Sophie Lee as a clueless collector of Indigenous art. But his two feature films, Samson and Delilah, about a blighted love affair between two petrol-sniffing teenagers, and Sweet Country, about an Indigenous station hand who is put on trial for killing a white man, are so tough you could break your teeth on them. With its mix of bracing realism and a painterly aesthetic, Sweet Country made Thornton’s name. When the film was shown in Venice, it was lauded as a landmark for Indigenous filmmaking.
“I remember being in that cinema in Venice with Warwick when it was shown,” says Bryan Brown, who played Sergeant Fletcher in the film.
“When it ended, everyone turned around to where we were sitting and applauded for five minutes. I thought, ‘Wow, when Warwick was a young fellow running around Alice Springs in bare feet, we’d all have thought he had a 50/50 chance of being dead or in jail by the time he was 30. But here he was on one of the most sophisticated stages in the world.’ It was him saying, ‘You know what? I don’t have to give in to what everyone else expects. I can be different.’ ”
When Thornton likes something, he calls it “rock ’n’ roll”. Making films is “rock ’n’ roll”. Cooking is “rock ’n’ roll”. His family is “rock ’n’ roll”. After-parties are, needless to say, “totally f…en rock ’n’ roll”. Even things that might not seem especially great, like depression, can turn out to be “rock ’n’ roll”. Winston Churchill called his depression the “black dog”. In The Beach, Thornton describes it as his “little black puppy”. He explains how every now and again, “sometimes it’s three years, sometimes it’s three times a year”, he will hear that little black puppy outside, at the foot of his door, mewling and moaning, wanting to come in. But Thornton doesn’t answer it. The puppy gets hungrier and hungrier, and it scratches harder and harder. But still Thornton resists the urge to let it in. He has learnt that to accommodate that little puppy, to feed it, entertain its needs, would be inviting disaster. Better to lie in bed and wait until it stops scratching and crying.
“And when I know that’s happened,” he says in The Beach, “the puppy’s dead, and I can open the front door. And then I can go back out into the world.”
Sitting in his sister’s backyard in Annandale, I suggest that the “little black puppy” might have something to do with booze. “No,” he says. “I don’t blame that on alcohol.”
“But booze is a known depressant,” I say.
“Nah. [The depression] is just rock ’n’ roll, you know what I mean.”
“No,” I say, “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Well, it’s got nothing to do with alcohol. If I stopped drinking I’d be f…en eight times more depressed.”
This might sound ridiculous coming from anyone else, but with Thornton it has a certain Hemingway-esque plausibility. At one stage he tells me that if “someone says anything bad about me … I just go punch them in the head. It’s horrific. We don’t live in that world any more. [But] that’s how I grew up.”
“We’d all have thought he had a 50/50 chance of being dead or in jail by the time he was 30. But here he was on one of the most sophisticated stages in the world.”
He has a similarly muscular, two-fisted approach to his work. In 2010, he told a journalist that he was concerned that the Southern Cross was becoming “the new swastika”. The Nazis appropriated the swastika, which had for millennia been a Hindu symbol for good fortune, and made it synonymous with fascism. According to Thornton, right-wing nationalists in Australia had done the same thing with the Southern Cross, turning what for Indigenous people has long been a cosmological beacon into a racist emblem.
His comments, which came following his 2010 nomination for Australian of the Year, caused an uproar. “I went and hid in a cupboard for a while,” he later told the ABC. “And then over a couple of years, I got angry.” In 2017 he emerged with a documentary, called We Don’t Need a Map, that examined Australia’s fraught relationship with the Southern Cross and its use and abuse since colonisation.
“Warwick is very conscious of the history of Australia, and what has happened to his people,” says David Jowsey. “He also has an ironic, sardonic, witty take on White Australian culture.”
Take Ned Kelly. “If Ned Kelly were alive today,” Thornton has said, “he’d be a meth-head holding up a 7-Eleven.” For this year’s Biennale of Sydney, Thornton made a film installation deconstructing the bushranger’s legend, showing Kelly robbing a 7-Eleven, overlaid with readings of jingoistic White Australia-era poetry and verse. (The installation was on show for 10 days before closing due to COVID-19.)
Making this kind of art takes a certain self-confidence, or at least a thick hide. “People say he’s got a big ego,” says his sister Erica, “but he’s a leader, and one of the requirements of that is that you have to self-sell. I want to run and hide from all that, but he’s really taken it on, and it’s one of the reasons he is where he is.” She mentions The Beach: “That’s courageous, exposing yourself like that, but probably more than that, exposing a little bit of arrogance thinking that people would care enough about it.”
To an extent, whether audiences take note is beside the point. One of an artist’s chief obligations is to take risks, and Thornton has delivered on that. Besides, The Beach was always going to fall somewhere between art and therapy. “It’s important to slow down and look at your life,” he says. “To think about who you are – the empowering moments and the absolute f…ups that I’ve made, and how they are all part of who I am today. And The Beach gave me that space.”
It also allowed him more clarity, and to be more honest with himself about what he can change and what he can’t. After a month in the wilds, Thornton returned to civilisation, which in this case meant Broome. One of the first things he did was go to the pub, put some trifectas on and order a beer.
“That’s the reality,” he says. “But you know what? I didn’t stay at the pub till I was maggotted, or until I’d had 12 beers. I stayed for three beers. I lost the trifecta, walked out of the pub, went to a restaurant and had something to eat with a glass of wine.” His internal ogre had found a degree of peace. “Maybe. It was just that I didn’t need to get f…ed up. I didn’t need it, and that was the most important thing.”
The Beach airs on NITV and SBS on May 29 at 7.30pm.
Tim Elliott is a senior writer with Good Weekend.