Regularly stepping into the role of both director and cinematographer, filmmaker Warwick Thornton (Sweet Country, Samson and Delilah) has one of the finest eyes in the country. Which is why he hated looking at himself while tucked away in the editing suite of stunning slow TV documentary series The Beach.
“That’s when the vanity starts,” he chuckles, recalling working alongside editor Andrea Lang. “Look at the size of my belly. I look like shit. Don’t use that shot. And then you have to go, well, no, we have to use that shot because visually, that’s telling the story much better.”
The six-part show sees him go it (almost) alone for two months in an artfully dilapidated shack on a beautiful but unforgiving beach in Jilirr, on the Dampier Peninsula in remote north-western WA. He shot parts of the latest series of Mystery Road here, alongside The Sapphires collaborator Wayne Blair.
A warts-and-all look at Thornton’s ambitions and inner struggles, it unpicks tougher times behind the stellar success of his movie-making career. Feeling disconnected, the Kaytetye man, originally from Alice Springs and now based in Sydney, wanted to bring it back to basics. He would live off the land and the “IGA of the sea” while a tiny crew captured his exploits discretely. Son Dylan River took on cinematographer duties.
Part wilderness travel inspiration, part cooking show, Thornton tackles some intricate culinary feats while spearfishing and hunting mud crabs. Tofu bests him. “What did I get? A tablespoon out of two hours of work. What fun. But the failures are always the things that empower you.”
Combining the extreme and the ethereally serene, long, meditative sequences are interrupted by occasionally cranky monologues and musings on the gender politics of his three unruly chooks. “I don’t know if there’s any other show out there where there’s a man and his three chickens, talking about his past and his fears of his future,” Thornton says. “There’s a point where you really need to realign your mind, body and soul and have a conversation with yourself. The best thing about chickens is that they do a lot of listening, and they don’t do a lot of talking.”
While River and the crew kept their distance, his son knew when to rein him in, Thornton says. “He’s one of those sort of people where he could say, ‘dad, stop being a dickhead,’ and I’d listen. Whereas if it was some strange cinematographer I didn’t know, I wouldn’t.”
No fan of being in front of the camera at the best of times, it was confronting for Thornton to unravel his experiences of mental ill-health in front of River. “I never talk about it, so it was incredibly hard, but I was like, ‘well, why am I here? What’s the point of this?’ If it’s just a hunting show with some amazing dishes, I might as well be in an anal-bleached kitchen.”
That dubious image bomb sparks uproarious laughter before we return to seriousness. “Some of this stuff my son’s heard for the first time, and I think he’s incredibly proud of me for speaking up,” Thornton says. “I’m not a victim when I tell these pretty dark stories. No, they’re empowering to me, because you turn them into positives, not negatives.”
River’s been accompanying Thornton on his filmmaking journey since the young man was a toddler. “When we made Samson and Delilah, he’s five years old, walking around on set. And then when he was 10, he started helping out properly. He’s just been there forever.”
Not that River’s just a chip off the old block. “You know, he found his own groove and his own voice as a cinematographer, which is really, really special.”
In some ways, the solitude of Jilirr prepared Thornton for riding out the COVID-19 lockdown. He sees these crazy days as a reminder of our duty of care to one another. “You clean your hands before you go to the shops, because you might have the virus and give it to someone else. That’s a really important lesson for us as humans, and it’s something that I’ve found incredibly empowering. You’re doing it for other people, not for you, and that’s a really great mental pillar to have in your life when this virus goes away.”
But solitude also requires striking the right balance between stoic resilience and self-care. “While I was bored shitless in a shack in the middle of nowhere, I thought I might as well write a movie,” he recalls. “And then you just sit there staring at a blank page for a month. And I remember how that hurts, how that disempowers you.”
You can have too much empowerment, too, he suggests. “Don’t think that you have to learn Mandarin or bar chords. You don’t have to write the next Kerouac On the Road kind of novel. Don’t hurt yourself, just chill. It will come if it comes. It’s better to be mentally strong and just keep on keeping on, rocking in the free world. Don’t pressure yourself to become something that you’re not supposed to be yet.”
The Beach screens in a special three-hour TV event across NITV, SBS and SBS On Demand on Friday May 29 at 7.30pm.
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