• Warwick Thornton, The Beach (NITV)Source: NITV
Filmmaker Dylan River takes us behind the scenes of stunning new documentary The Beach.
Emily Nicol

22 May 2020 - 10:33 AM  UPDATED 24 May 2020 - 1:55 AM

A renowned chef amongst his family, friends and industry peers, filmmaker Warwick Thornton has toyed with the idea of a cooking show for years. So when the chance of leaving city life behind to be immersed and secluded in nature on his own terms became a reality last year, his unique take on food and life was captured with the help of his son Dylan River as Director of Photography.

Packing his FJ45 Toyota Jeep, aka a Bull Catcher - with his cooking supplies and little else, Thornton headed for a picturesque shack on the Dampier Peninsula, the north-west coast of Western Australia.  

"(Warwick) has grown up loving to cook for film crews and family and friends, and through doing that he's become quite good at it." River explains.

"His nickname is actually Wok. It's interesting because if he's not writing scripts, he's watching these kind of shows, and that was mostly the catalyst behind this project." 

The shack, itself an island with ocean to one side and mangrove to the other, in its remote location becomes a refuge from the fast paced career and all of its pressures award-winning creative Thornton had been grappling with for years. 

There is minimal dialogue throughout, with Thornton revealing small snippets of his life in daily chats with the three chickens that he has brought to the shack with him. Funny and irreverent, it's a kind of therapy for Thornton.

One of the main reasons for the project was also for Thornton to abstain from alcohol. The rest of the crew decided to do the same, and didn't touch a drop for a month.

"That was something that we as the crew wanted to follow. Warwick said that we didn't have to (go without) like him, but we all did that together, which was quite nice."

River reveals that working on the project as a father and son team, was a journey for them both.

"It was difficult at times because I was provoking him to do things and say things when he didn't want to." River says with a laugh.

"He's very self conscious being in front of the camera, so firstly it was getting over that and ignoring that we were there, and I think he definitely got there and warmed up to it. I kept saying to him 'this is all for you!' But it's a personal journey for him and even though it's subtle, hopefully people can work out what that journey is."

In true Warwick Thornton style, nothing is handed out to you on a plate. You need to work for it as an audience and use your brain.

Being in such a remote location brings many challenges in itself, and with the centre of the show being based around freshly caught food, the small crew were often at the mercy of the weather and Thornton's fishing skills.

"He had a dream list of dishes he wanted to cook when we got there, but they were dependant on whether we caught the thing he'd cook with, or whether we would have the supplies," says River.

"That's why the first episode starts off without any fish or any crabs. And then the second episode, he starts to find some pippies. Then he's trying to get that fish that he can't catch, and it sort of progresses from there."

Thornton gets the hang of it and adapts to his surrounds, using techniques of hunting and spearfishing that he had, like his cooking, picked up along the way without any formal kind of training.

It's a similar story with the guitar that Thornton brought along for the introspective journey.

"He can play guitar but he can't play any chords. He never learnt how to play a G or a C chord. So he goes' well that sounds good," RIver laughs.

"He just picked it up and made it up in the same way he's done that with cooking, you know. And it's quite endearing."

With the blessing of the local community,  River says they all felt at ease on the land and experienced some serendipitous moments during the shoot. 

"We had this one amazing, quite spiritual sort of scene. The wind was howling through the shack when we were filming Warwick cooking something, and we kept hearing this ringing noise. We couldn't work out where it was coming from. Then we spotted the guitar that was up against the wall and wobbling. And it was actually the wind blowing across the strings and the harmonics in it ringing.

"It was something very natural, and from there on, for a few days while the wind was blowing, we would kind of position the guitar in this one spot and got a whole bunch of scenes and music just out of that."

The series starts with a kind of rigid uncertainty, but by the last episode seedlings that Thornton had planted have thrived, there is more movement, light and life in the surrounds of the shack and in Thornton himself.

It's a soulful experience, which seems to be the perfect kind of viewing for the times of isolation and introspection most of the world is currently navigating. 

"How many people at the moment in the world are making their own kombucha and baking sourdough and doing all these things like pickling and making jams? All of these lost arts," says River.

River says that as much as he loves winding down after a hectic day with a show like Masterchef, what The Beach offers is something far more satisfying. 

"Times have slowed down. We are all doing less. And I feel like I want that same (kind of pace) on my TV." 

Neither just a cooking show, or a nature show, it's an amalgamation of several genres that with a delicate balance and expert handling delivers much more than each of it's separate elements. 

Warwick Thornton's The Beach, an exclusive three-hour network event premieres on NITV, SBS and SBS On Demand on Friday 29 May at 7.30pm.

It will be re-aired on NITV from 1 June, with episodes airing at 7.30pm each night, as well as on SBS On Demand.