Breaking down the cinematic genius of Warwick Thornton

From ‘Samson and Delilah’ to ‘We Don’t Need A Map’ and new vampire series ‘Firebite’, we run through the Kaytetye auteur’s career so far

In the new vampire series Firebite, director and co-creator Warwick Thornton reinvigorates an old moth-eaten genre with fresh ideas and a spunky attitude. The Kaytetye auteur’s Aboriginality is core to the show’s original perspective, based in a version of Australia where British nosferatus arrived on the First Fleet and developed a taste for Indigenous people, who fought back with an army of clandestine “bloodhunters” escorting them to hell via boomerangs to the heart.

Thornton’s tweak to the vampire formula represents a universe of new possibilities and implications. To say that Thornton has never shied away from making bold political messages is an epic understatement: they run throughout his work, sometimes with naked explicitness, sometimes lingering in subtext. Another core feature of his oeuvre is beautifully sculpted visuality, which Firebite eschews for a rougher, more lived-in look.

The multi-hyphenate filmmaker (a writer, director, cinematographer and producer), who’s in his early 50s, hopefully has lots more gas in the tank. Two feature films, several documentaries and a few TV shows in, certain aspects of his legacy are already clear: namely that he is not just one of the best Australian directors to have emerged this century, but among the greatest of all time – a rare and unique voice, matching expert control of visual language with challenging and provocative content.

Firebite vampire show Warwick Thornton interview
‘Firebite’. Credit: AMC+

Prior to Thornton’s breakthrough with his 2009 feature Samson and Delilah, to which those cliché but apt words “once seen and never forgotten” apply, the filmmaker cut his teeth in the usual way: directing short films. Among them is 2005’s Old Man and the Inland Sea, a 20-minute doco about Norman Hayes Jagamarra, an elderly Aboriginal man who is a “noodler”, a person who fossicks through piles of rocks looking for opals. Like Firebite, it was shot around Coober Pedy.

Explorative camerawork contrasts mega close-ups – of a button and bullet holes lodged in the side of a rusty old car – with mid and long shots of the desolate landscape. The film’s tone and texture are impressively earthy, imbuing Jagamarra’s reflections with visual warmth. It’s clear, however, that Thornton’s cinematic lens and his talents were still being developed.

At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, it’s difficult to overstate the impact of Samson and Delilah: a “survival love story” (according to the director) following a young Indigenous couple living in a remote community near Alice Springs. It arrived with an electrical charge, leaving viewers with the feeling that our national cinema would never be the same.

The confronting craftsmanship of Thornton’s direction is apparent from the first shot: a dimly lit long take of Samson (Rowan McNamara) slowly awakening. He sits up in bed, buttoning a shirt as the breeze through the window ruffles his hair. Then he reaches for a can of petrol, kept at his bedside, from which he takes a long sniff, while Charley Pride’s ‘A Sunshiny Day’ plays, coating the scene in a thick, uncomfortable layer of irony.

Warwick Thorton and cast of Samson and Delilah
Warwick Thorton with ‘Samson and Delilah’ actors Marissa Gibson and Rowan McNamara at Cannes Film Festival. Credit: Kristian Dowling / Getty Images

Hard-hitting messages about poverty and systemic discrimination of Indigenous people are inseparable from the subsequent narrative. But the film never feels preachy, its political discussions arising as natural responses to the tragedies and injustices of this world. The romance between Samson and Deilah (Marissa Gibson) is expressed mostly through body language, McNamara and Gibson’s taciturn performances contrasting the chatty style of most on-screen romantic relationships.

Thornton’s painterly flair comes not just from overarching directorial vision but specific command of the camera. For the vast majority of his directorial work to date (including Samson and Delilah) Thornton has been his own cinematographer. Occasionally major directors also double as the cinematographer or director of photography (Quentin Tarantino, for instance, was the cinematographer of Death Proof, and Paul Thomas Anderson was the co-cinematographer of his new film Licorice Pizza) but it remains a rare combination.

In the eight years between Samson and Delilah and Thornton’s second narrative feature as a director, Sweet Country, he shot a small bunch of projects directed by other people: Beck Cole’s gritty drama Here I Am, and two pictures helmed by Wayne Blair: the loosely historical musical drama The Sapphires and the Iranian Revolution-set melodrama Septembers of Shiraz. The latter has a dusty, timeworn colour scheme not dissimilar to Firebite, though the framing and editing is starkly different – with a wobbly handheld style uncharacteristic of Thornton’s work.

Thornton’s art, while reliably impressive, has an air of unpredictability; you can never be sure what he’ll throw at you next

In this period he also shot and directed a segment of the Tim Winton anthology film The Turning as well as two documentaries: The Darkside and We Don’t Need a Map. The former is in essence an oral history project, the director recruiting actors to tell ghost stories submitted by Indigenous Australians. Full of monologues and told with a piecemeal structure, the format of The Darkside is a little exhausting though it’s well composed, Thornton framing the various segments in visually elegant ways.

We Don’t Need a Map – which opened the 2017 Sydney Film Festival – finds the filmmaker at his most pointedly political. There is a provocative question at the heart of it: has the Southern Cross become a symbol of racism? The answer, simply put, is yes, a conclusion arrived at through examining various forms of violent nationalism (for instance the Cronulla riots) and other factors, including the rise of Pauline Hanson.

And then in 2017 came Sweet Country: a stunning neo-western morality fable about an Indigenous Australian farm worker (Hamilton Morris) who kills a violent racist (Ewen Leslie) in self-defence, then is chased across unforgiving but magnificent landscape by a hard-bitten police sergeant (Bryan Brown). Thornton’s direction again is hooked on the truism that actions speak louder than words. Like Samson and Delilah, Sweet Country is visual storytelling through and through, embracing the “show don’t tell” dictum to striking effect. Both films could be watched and enjoyed with the sound switched off.

In the years since Sweet Country, Thornton’s directorial work has spanned three TV shows: the bloody good Firebite; episodes of Mystery Road season two; and the entirety of SBS’ six-part series The Beach. His auteurial voice took a backseat in Mystery Road, with Thornton building out the noir-ish plotlines entangling gruff detective Jay Swan (a gravitas-radiating Aaron Pedersen) rather than telling stories that bear his fingerprints.

As if to counter that, The Beach gave us the fullest impression yet of Thornton’s personality and life experiences. Arriving early in the pandemic, it was one of those productions that seemed peculiarly well timed, tapping into a fantasy ripe in the public imagination: of escaping city life to spend time in seclusion in nature. The premise is simple: Thornton absconds to a beach shack on the Dampier Peninsula, where he walks, cooks, hangs out with a bunch of chickens, and opens up to the camera about his life and experiences.

Boy, does it look good. The Beach has a calming, meditative quality befitting its picturesque settings. Like in Old Man and the Inland Sea, Thornton contrasts small things with large open spaces: tiny crabs scurrying around, for instance, and a cowboy boot lodged in the sand. There are similarities between The Beach and his early films, as well as big differences: for one thing, the series looks exquisitely cinematic in a way his earlier efforts don’t.

The more rustic, banged-up aesthetic of Firebite is a reminder that Thornton’s art, while reliably impressive, has an air of unpredictability; you can never be sure what he’ll throw at you next. His track record clearly suggests that whatever it is, you won’t want to miss it.

Firebite is available to stream on AMC+, with new episodes every Thursday

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