Compassionate and hard-hitting, Warwick Thornton’s Cannes-winning Samson and Delilah returns to cinemas this week following screenings at the New Zealand International Film Festival. He talks to BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM.

AUSTRALIAN director Warwick Thornton’s début film, Samson and Delilah, has been causing a stir across the ditch. A hard-edged film about teenage love and despair in Central Australia, the film shows the “lucky country” in a completely different light to that seen in the “where the bloody hell are ya” advertisements. Its protagonists are social misfits, Aboriginal youngsters who are abandoned by their families and society in large. Thornton’s assured direction and understated visuals has also won favour overseas too – he won the prestigious Caméra d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival for best first film, and his film is to be Australia’s entry in the Best Foreign Film category at the Academy Awards next year.

Alice Springs born and bred Thornton never really planned film as a career initially, instead starting off as a DJ and the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association. “I didn’t really care about film, it wasn’t like I grew up in a video shop or my grandfather was a projectionist like every other director. I wanted to travel. I had a video crew at the radio station I was working for. They’d drive off into the sunset and go to the most exotic places and come back with incredible stories and I’d be sitting there with a microphone and a clock, playing records and doing a request show called Green Bush and I just said ‘I want to get the hell out of this room and go to exotic places and come back with special stories’.”

Thornton worked in the film and TV industry for over twenty years before deciding to make Samson and Delilah. Despite the film’s immediate success, Thornton hasn’t suddenly appeared from nowhere. “I had to learn this. When I started I had no idea. I didn’t have this boy genius journey, it actually was hard work. Directing is hard work and I had to do a lot of short films, and make mistakes to learn how to do it.” Samson and Delilah wasn’t his original idea either for a début film. ”I was writing another script at the time, a bigger, much more epic period film. Samson and Delilah was in the back of my head nagging the shit out of me, driving me mad. I literally had to put the other script out and write this one. I had the opportunity to make my first feature film – I had shot a lot of features for others as a cinematographer – there was that question ‘have I got something to say?’ ‘What do I want my first film to be?’ It was Samson and Delilah.”

Thornton wrote, directed, and shot the film himself, and worked with predominantly non-actors in the film. He wasn’t overwhelmed by the experience either, particularly with shooting and directing at once. “The two kids were first-time actors, [it was a] small budget, really small crew, it was just easier and more personal for me to shoot it. I had the camera on my shoulder, the kids were only ever two feet away from me. I could talk to them while I was rolling. It was very personal. They didn’t have a director and a cinematographer and a d.o.p. telling them what to do. It was a one stop shop for them. It kinda made it a lot easier on them. As far as it being hard, it wasn’t really. I truly believe in pre-production. Everything creative, everything you want to do, how you light that room, or how you light that street, you do it all in pre-production, so that on the day it’s just nuts and bolt, it’s sort of meccano work.”

The film itself is spare, and little seems wasted. The actors (the titular leads are played by Rowan McNamara and Marissa Gibson respectively) are also given a lot of space, and they respond particularly well. “I like the idea of really fluid, flowing, simple shots, where actors work harder than the camera, they move more than the actual camera. That slower languid kind of sequences, I like that, they’re a bit more thought-provoking.” Working with non-actors helped according to Thornton to elicit the film’s strong performances. “If you have somebody who’s done fifty feature films, they’re very stringent about the way they have to get to their performance. It takes a lot of time, you have to work around their needing to get to that pivotal point, and it can be quite painful. Whereas, if you’ve got these two kids who have never acted before, and you’ve broken down the shyness, letting them go for it, it can be quite easy.”

The protagonists’ love/hate relationship in the film however proved to be based on fact. “They fought like cats and dogs. It was a classic life imitating art. Rowan kinda started to fall in love with Marissa, and she was like ‘get the hell away from me’ in real life. They’ve become close friends. They hated each other by the end of the shoot, but they’ve become really close friends now. They’ve travelled the world, from Cannes to New York together.”

“I like films that let an audience think for their bloody selves. It’s so easy for a person to walk into a scene and go ‘I’m angry because…’. Dialogue’s really cheap in cinema nowadays. It’s wall to wall crap. Every second has to have something profound said. Life’s not like that. We don’t say perfectly witty profound things every second of our life. We sit around and think and grunt.”

There is very little dialogue between the characters, and Thornton was keen to use silence and body language as a way of building a relationship. “When you’re a kid and you fall in love for the first time, you can’t talk to that girl. You’re just a completely mortifyingly shy, and that’s truthful to me. You don’t talk to your first love really. You see these Disney films where these twelve-year-old girls have these six page monologues about love, and you see that it’s been written by this forty-year-old guy who’s got six kids to five wives, that kinda thing. It’s not truthful. I like films that let an audience think for their bloody selves. It’s so easy for a person to walk into a scene and go ‘I’m angry because…’. Dialogue’s really cheap in cinema nowadays. It’s wall to wall crap. Every second has to have something profound said. Life’s not like that. We don’t say perfectly witty profound things every second of our life. We sit around and think and grunt.” Instead, music acts as a voice for the characters, and the music ranges from Mexican singer Ana Gabriel to Thornton’s own compositions.

Thornton also cast his own brother to play the alcoholic vagrant in Alice Springs. This touched on a tough personal story for Thornton. “I was worried because he’s been an alcoholic all his life. The deal with him was that he had to go to rehab if he wanted to be in the film. It was written around him. I wrote thinking of him, and then the decision was to cast him as the alcoholic. It was easy in a sense because he just had to play himself, and just embrace it and ham it up and get a little bit louder than he is. It was really nerve-wracking – he had acted in a short film five years before, and he was atrocious, he’d [woodenly say] ‘hello, how are you doing’, an absolute wet-blanket. And I thought ‘oh shit’ is that what he’s going to rock up with. I did about a day of rehearsing with him, but he was just off the chart, running amok. He had a new lease on life.”

The film has transcended its art-house leanings, and gained resonance in Australia’s multiplexes and commercial cinema. Thornton says audiences have “been quite shocked. They’ve had Samson and Delilah, access to a very truthful story, to a world they’ve never been to. A lot of Aboriginal people haven’t either. A lot of Aboriginal people live in cities and never go out to the country. It’s been hard. I apologise all the time, but that’s the way it is. You’re a better human being if you’ve seen the film and learned about the country. I say to them, ‘it’s not an Aboriginal story, it’s an Australian story. It’s our kids. If you get rid of the black and white divide, it’s our kids.’”

Contemporary stories about Aborigines are rare in Australian cinema. The usual film with Aboriginal protagonists, Thornton says, allows audiences to say “that was then, this is now, so everything’s cool. That was very confronting for people too, and it’s quite confronting that the kids survive. They’re still there, and they’ve still got a future, so the audience can’t walk away and go ‘oh that was Romeo and Juliet, they’re dead anyway, let’s move on.’”

And in the process, Thornton has started a debate in Australia with the film, aided by the polarised reactions by its audiences. “I’m good at shit stirring. I knew that was going to happen. But it’s happened in a really beautiful way. It’s not a rejection. The wider population in Australia, generally when they get confronted by something they just reject it. They just push it away and bunker themselves into their world again. The really beautiful thing that has happened with this film is that they’ve opened up. Australians have gone what gone ‘what can I personally do about it’, not just point the finger at the Government and say ‘spend more billions on them’. Audiences are taking it much more personal.”

He has also enjoyed the divided opinions on the film, suggesting polarised reactions are the best way to provoke discussion and dialogue. “You get worried when everybody loves it, or everybody thinks it’s absolute shit. When you’ve got people saying ‘it’s shit’, and people saying ‘no, it’s the best thing ever made’, I think that’s great. That’s perfect. Who you are, how you grew up, where you come from all that kind of stuff – when you go and watch Samson and Delilah you’re going to bring your existence to it and make up your mind from where you come from. I don’t have any answers. The film does not give any answers or how we can solve anything, it just asks shit-loads of questions. The answers come from dialogue. We weren’t having that dialogue last year, we are having that dialogue this year, and that’s the best thing that could happen.”

The film premiered to 2,500 people in Alice Springs in an outdoor venue. “That was pretty scary. It’s hard on that town, Alice Springs, I grew up there, and all that business, and grew up in the streets, so screening it to all that mob is pretty hardcore. It could have turned into a lynching mob, ‘where’s the rope’. But they loved it. There were a couple of people who were like ‘I don’t get it, don’t know what it’s about’. But that’s cool.” For Thornton personally, this was an important thing to do. “I screened it to a whole lot of my communities first, Aboriginal communities. I just didn’t want it to be released outside of Alice Springs and it to get these reviews and all that kind of stuff and Alice Springs hadn’t seen it yet. I wanted to give them a heads up, so they know what the rest of the country is watching, whether they like it or not, at least they’ve had the opportunity to see it first.”

Thornton certainly didn’t expect an international reaction to the one the film has received. “Two teenage kids who don’t talk, one’s a petrol sniffer who’s a bit of a bastard – pitch that to a Hollywood exec, he’d chuck you out the door. It’s not really the kind of film you would think would be very successful. And it has which has been really fantastic.” He described Cannes as “it was affluent and effluent. It was just the most bizarre place.” The award however has proven useful. “It’s been fantastic for the film, and given the film a bit more push in Australia and worldwide. A lot of people know about this film purely because of the Caméra d’Or and Cannes, so it’s been fantastic in that sense.”

Thornton’s film tells a dark, disturbing story about contemporary Australian life. Thornton doesn’t mind however, being labelled as an “Aboriginal filmmaker”, rather than simply a “filmmaker” or an “Australian filmmaker”. I think it’s really special. I am Aboriginal, whether I make films or am your local plumber, I’m still Aboriginal. I’ll always be Aboriginal. I think we should embrace it. I am an Aboriginal director. There’ll be the day when I make a film which doesn’t have anything Aboriginal in it. When that happens, I don’t know, that’ll be a question after that. But at the moment, I am what I am. You want to be respected by your peers, I think that’s fantastic to be an Aboriginal director, rather than just a director, because I love my culture and I love my people.”