“It's like painting or writing. It's got a really quick creative flow to it mentally. You start placing different ingredients together. ‘Would that work with that?'."
By
Kylie Walker

29 May 2020 - 11:05 AM  UPDATED 29 May 2020 - 10:22 AM

Filmmaker Warwick Thornton left most of his life behind when he moved to a beach shack on a remote part of the Dampier Peninsula for almost two months. But one familiar comfort came with him: cooking.

“If you cook for people, it's a form of love, it's a form of caring and connection,” he tells SBS.

“Food for me is a respite from reality, or from my day job … Every film that I do, I make sure that the production in a house or a unit which has a kitchen, so I can cook. 'Cause generally, by the end of the end of the day, I'm not caring about what film we're making, I'm worrying about what I'm going to get from the shop and what I'm going to cook. It changes the subject, you know?”

The Beach, Thornton's band-new mesmerising three-hour documentary film brings the two together and is a timely exploration of what happens when he steps outside the hustle and bustle of everyday life and takes a reality check. It's a quietly gripping journey of discovery, recovery, and pet chicken therapy.

Thornton, born in Alice Springs and now based in Sydney, is internationally acclaimed as a director and screenwriter. His debut film, Samson and Delilah, won the Caméra d'Or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival; 2017’s Sweet Country (streaming now at SBS On Demand) won a special jury prize at the Venice Film Festival. NITV is this week featuring a slate of his work as part of Reconciliation Week 2020

But the Thornton who drives up to the corrugated iron shack in a rusty Jeep at the start of The Beach is tired, sad, angry. This self-isolation is an attempt to find a new balance in his life.

He’s picked a spectacular spot to do it: seemingly endless stretches of pristine sandy beach, clear waters, star-studded skies (the project was a collaboration with Thornton’s son, cinematographer Dylan River, and the result is glorious). But his shack has no electricity. Thornton cooks every meal over coals, in an ingenious brazier he sets up, and if he wants protein, he hunts for it in the sea and the mangroves surrounding his temporary home, relying on his own skills like his ancestors, the Kaytetye people of central Australia.

Cooking is a creative outlet for Thornton. “It's like painting or writing. It's got a really quick creative flow to it mentally. You start placing different ingredients together. ‘Would that work with that?'.

“It’s like writing a song in a way - you place words together, or you place ingredients together, and what comes out of it can be quite awesome or it could be absolute shit.”

“It’s like writing a song in a way - you place words together, or you place ingredients together, and what comes out of it can be quite awesome or it could be absolute shit.”

“I don't pretend to be the greatest cook in the world and I don't see food as a performance. I don't like television shows where it's performance-based."

He’s being modest about his cooking talents. In the first episode, he makes his own tofu – “it takes me three hours to make one teaspoon of bloody tofu!” he laughs. What follows – when he gets better at hunting and gathering – is a parade of impressive seafood dishes, cooked over coals.

If this sounds like an idyllic little holiday, a chance for Thornton to chill, kick back, and play chef amid breathtakingly beautiful scenery, the unfolding of The Beach soon makes it clear this is something entirely different.

“When I wrote the couple of pages of outline to get the actual [funding] to make it, I said it was the most important thing I'm ever going to do. And that [wasn't really the truth at the  time, but] then actually after making it, I realised it is the most important thing I've ever done.”

His time at the beach provides a lot of time to think about his past, and his future. Sitting outside the shack, he tells stories of growing up, of family, of regrets and mental health challenges; of what happens when the pressures of life get too much and of the ‘black dog’ that sometimes appears in his life. 

“There are lots of different stories there," he says. "There's empowering ones about childhood and then there's dark ones, and questions about your future. That’s part and parcel of what I wanted to do. Honesty is important.”

He talked to his chickens a lot.

“I didn't want to talk to the audience. Chickens are great shrinks. They're beautiful listeners. They don’t talk back, they don't ask you questions."

“I didn't want to talk to the audience. Chickens are great shrinks. They're beautiful listeners. They don’t talk back, they don't ask you questions. They're beautiful company - and they give you eggs,” he says.

Warwick Thornton (and a chook) on the beach.

At the start, Thornton struggles. He struggles to catch fish, he struggles to sleep, he hits a complete block when he tries to write his next film. But quietly, slowly, some things change. He takes up yoga; he starts to play the guitar. And every day, he cooks.

A lot of what he makes has an Asian influence, but Thornton says he cooks and loves all cuisines.

”Because I do so much travelling, and I do so much work not where I live, what I cook generally depends on what kind of IGA there is [where I am]. Because the managers of the IGA might be Greek or they might be Malaysian or they might be Italian, so you always have that one little aisle that has really specific specialities of a region in the world … so then you go ‘well, okay, let’s go down that path, they've got all those wonderful ingredients there to do with their region’ and so you embrace that.”

The Beach was a little different – the Asian palate reflected the fact that the Dampier Peninsula isn’t that far from Asia, he explains.

The untamed wildness of this part of Australia is as much a star of the documentary as Thornton, from time-lapse shots of the night sky to overhead views of sweeping swathes of sand and underwater shots of schools of fish. The shack has its own quirky charm, from the mosquito-net covered bed to the jars of neatly labelled cooking supplies.

Keen cooks might wonder about the serious, big wooden-handled knives Thornton uses; one has been used and sharpened so much that it’s almost spear-shaped.

“They're all Green River knives, from small town in America. They're pure carbon, so you have to look after them. After you use those knives you have to oil them, or they’ll just rust. You can sharpen them to better than a razor blade or a scalpel, that's how brilliant the steel is in them. But they're like a wok; if you leave moisture in a wok, all of a sudden, all the food you cook in that wok will have that sort of metallic taste in it. So it's all about keeping respect for your implements

“I love those knives and I've been collecting them since I was about 18. They're beautiful. Because if you buy a new one, they're quite big and then over owning them for 30 years, you kind of watch them become pencil thin, because you've had them for that long. I really like that you buy something and then you keep it forever.”

His time at the beach, you sense, will be with Thornton forever, too.

The Beach screens in a special three-hour TV event across NITV, SBS and SBS On Demand on Friday May 29 at 7.30 pm. From 1 June, NITV will screen the The Beach in six parts at 7.30pm each night. See more of what's on NITV, SBS and SBS On Demand during Reconciliation Week May 27-June 3 on NITV here and On Demand here

More from The Beach
Filmmaker reveals intense production behind new documentary 'The Beach'
Filmmaker Dylan River takes us behind the scenes of stunning new documentary The Beach.
On the beach at the end of the world with Warwick Thornton and his unruly chooks
Getting back to basics, filmmaker Warwick Thornton exorcised his inner demons in remote WA.