Monday, 5 April 2010

[325] Warwick Thornton Interview, continued.

I had to cut down my interview with Samson & Delilah writer-director Warwick Thornton when it was published over at Film4, in terms of both length and swearing. Here are the segments that were chopped. As I said earlier, I thought this interview was a good one, with Thornton - despite jet-lag - managing to speak with a lot of authority and insight. After speaking about the film's use of documentary-style shooting, and its look at Aboriginal culture, we also spoke about the role of music in the film, and the flashes of poetry that occur throughout.

You can read my review of the film here. It is certainly a powerful piece, and worth checking out.

While this is about Aboriginal issues, you instead focus on this strange little romance between Samson and Delilah...

Well, first and foremost it was a teenage love story, and they use whatever love it is to survive, to overcome those barriers.

So do you think love is the way that we can get through it all? They do suffer for it in the film...

Yeah, you use whatever you can to survive. They use that bizarre kind of love. He's kind of neanderthalic. She listens to these Mexican love songs, that's her concept of love. It's bigger, and slightly fairy tale. And neither of them are right or wrong, it's just the way to get through it all.

This is your debut feature. Did your previous short films prepare you for this stripped down feel, with you multitasking and having a skeleton crew?

Yeah, but I've made five minute films with a hundred people on set. For this film, this was the way it needed to be made. The next film I'm writing, you might have a hundred people on set. It's a much bigger, much more demanding film. Whereas this one didn't need that many people.

While there is that sense of realism to the film, it also has this sense of poetry to it, with the repeated motifs of the two characters daily routines, or in the images, such as the village's phonebox, which always rings, but no one ever answers. And also in the way the film looks at violence...

Absolutely. Even when I was writing it, I knew to keep with that structural style. I didn't write in other scenes without Samson and Delilah. You know, cutting to other characters, or the big truck coming over the hill. Everything happens in real time. And whenever something happens to Samson and Delilah, whenever they meet someone, or they got hit by a car. It would happen at the same as for the audience, they audience were there in the sense. They didn't know the car was pulling up, they didn't know anyhting. Just like Samson and Delilah. And not to use that trick of keeping the audience one step ahead. You know, it's a very classic Hollywood trick. As an audience member, you know what's around the corner. It's a very safe, numbing way of making cinema. And I don't like it. I like the idea of not knowing what the hell's going to happen. Because that what happens in life.

But, equally, the violence and exploitation that the characters suffer - say the car accident, or when Delilah is abducted by a group of men late in the film - is not made explicit, was that a conscious decision as well?

Yeah, we know exactly what the fuck happened. And your imagination, as an audience member, is about ten times better than my directing. So, why don't we use that to our advantage?

And you do. For example, in the scene where Delilah is hit by a car, you instead focus in on Samson's reaction, which is quite cloudy and subjective.

Yeah, absolutely, you go to a point of view, in a sense. You go to Samson's point of view, or the back of his head. That stuff is slightly there to annoy you. You know, 'turn around, you dickhead! Go and help her!'. And it's the realisation that he's gone deeper and deeper into the substance abuse.

There's a way of thinking about drama, that the darker moments make the lighter moments seem more vivid. Do you think the film's ending, where Samson and Delilah are bruised but together, is happy?

Yeah. Well, they're alive. It's actually a darker ending, in a strange way. In Romeo and Juliet, they die. You walk away, and go 'well, I can't help them, they're dead'. There's nothing there for them tomorrow. But since they lived, it actually hurts a lot more because, well, what's going to happen tomorrow? And, can I help? What can I do now? There's Samsons and Delilahs in London, they're not aboriginal. They're teenagers who are in love, and they're neglected and they're homeless.

So do you think the story transcends that culutral specificity, then?

I fuckin' hope so! You know, if an audience can't click with that... What happened when you went away from the film, did you think about what was going to happen to them next, or what?

Well... it is interesting, watching international cinema, or watching films from other cultures, because there is that specificity to it. I've not seen many Australian films, but not many of them deal with that community, but as you say it happens and it must be there. So that does play on your mind, even though there is the connection to the characters and the story, and the emotional resonance. Speaking of this international feel, the music of the film is very interesting as well. You have the Ana Gabriel ballads, the Verandah Band who play a sort of Ska...

Skanky reggae, I thought...

...And then you have Tom Waits as well. And you did some of the music yourself, too. So is the music an integral part of the film?

Yeah, having hardly any dialogue, I needed to find songs that the audience could relate to the situations of the characters. So the opening song is 'Sun Shiney Day', and Samson's sniffing petrol in squalor. It's a sense of place, it's creating a position for the audience in the first five minutes, and they go 'okay, we're not in Kansas any more, and we're watching a very different film from what we'd be watching normally'. So I set that up, using music more to create narrative than emotion. A lot of films, and I'm a big partnership to this crime, you finish the edit, and you fill it full of - now this is a sad scene, so if we're going to make it sad, let's chuck in a sad song. Using it for emotion, not for proper storytelling. On this film, I purposefully wrote it, and in the script I had all the actual songs. I listened to the songs, I worked out the lyrics. And thought, how can I use this to tell the story, rather than just create some quick emotion. So that was really nice doing that. I find music incredibly important in films.

It shows, as all the characters seem to have their songs, or what they use as their own expression or escape.

Yeah, their theme songs.

And that image of a young boy listening to the radio, looking outside of his immediate surroundings, is quite powerful.

Radio is used in Central Australia as like a telephone. Information is passed through radio, as a lot of telephones don't work in communities. So people will write letters of request, and do strange things to feed in information to different communities. So he's listening, and he's listening for information - when does his father get out of jail, that kind of information.

And it carries that subtle subplot...

Yeah, not just spoon feeding them information, but giving enough to keep people happy.

Because in a different film, that could have been a major plotline...

Or a reason why he's a dickhead! But it's not a reason why he's a dickhead, it's just the way it is. You can put kids through the best schooling in the world, with 24/7 parenting, and they still come out dickheads. [laughs]

Samson & Delilah is currently screening at selected cinemas, and will be touring the UK throughout April and May. For a list of locations, visit here, or for more information, check

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