If there was a phrase to summarise how Warwick Thornton approached his new series Firebite, it’s ‘no fucks given’. “If we get fired by AMC, we’re doing our job,” the Kaytetye filmmaker (Sweet Country, Samson and Delilah) tells NME of how he and his team made the new vampire-desert horror series. Luckily for audiences, Firebite will still premiere today (December 16) on AMC+, the streaming platform of the network behind Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead.
With grotesque prosthetics, a striking desert backdrop, and a messy, hearty surrogate father-daughter relationship, Firebite is a fun, comical romp with a sombre history buried in its foundations. “It’s like rock n’ roll: you can dance to it or you can read the lyrics and learn from it,” Thornton says.
In Firebite, two Indigenous vampire hunters Tyson (Rob Collins) and Shanika (Shantae Barnes-Cowan) cruise around dusty Opal City in a beat-up Subaru WRX. Chaotic but lovable, the duo protect Blackfullas from the predations of the last remaining vampire colony, who lurk in deserted mine shafts.
Firebite’s vampire lore traces back to the First Fleet’s arrival in 1788: the British Royal Navy concealed vampires on-board, setting the pale bloodsuckers loose on Indigenous communities to aid the empire’s land-grabbing aspirations. This fantastical tale is an allegory for an ugly truth: on the First Fleet, Irish naval surgeon Dr John White brought vials of smallpox variola matter into a continent where Indigenous communities had no previous exposure – and therefore, no immunity – to the highly spreadable, deadly virus.
While the history of the smallpox pandemic that devastated First Nations populations in 1789 remains contested, Thornton – who created Firebite and co-directed alongside Brendan Fletcher and Tony Krawitz – is among many who believe the British’s intended use of these vials was a sinister one. “It’s like someone knowing they’ve got fucking COVID going to a Christmas party,” he says.
Read on for the filmmaker’s candid conversation with NME about how the score by members of The Drones and Dirty Three inspired the series, the importance of Firebite’s emerging warrior figure Shanika, and getting to the “festering sore” of colonisation.
“The song remains the same, but it’s just turning it into a different key that’s more palatable to a wider audience”
I heard Dirty Three drummer Jim White and The Drones’ Gareth Liddiard and Dan Luscombe scored Firebite. Did you work with them directly?
“I instantly went to them to do the whole soundtrack. For me, Tropical Fuck Storm, The Drones, Amyl and The Sniffers: they’re the epitome of the best shit in the world at the moment. Gaz and Dan brought on Mr. White because they’re close friends; Dan’s done a lot of amazing soundtracks, so he was the go-to. What he’s done is insanely brilliant. You could go for that slide guitar stuff, that sort of natural desert blues, but no, we just wanted obnoxiously awesome punk rock ’n’ roll.”
What were the tonal references for Firebite?
“I think the music dictated the style. Like: ‘Right, what we’re gonna do is we’re gonna get Australian music only, and if it’s a band I’ve never heard of, I’m interested’. I had a saying: Let’s just wreck it. We’ve got shitloads of money off the Americans, let’s just try and get fired. And that was the attitude walking into the writers’ room, let alone the actual directing of it.”
- READ MORE: Tropical Fuck Storm: “The anxiety we were exuding for so many years caught up with the rest of the world”
What drew you to vampire mythology to tell this story about the vials of smallpox that were brought over with the First Fleet in 1788?
“When I learnt about that, which wasn’t that long ago, 10 or 15 years ago, it made me incredibly angry. When we talk about Australia Day, well, that was a day these bottles of smallpox rocked up. It’s a pretty dark day for us.”
The fact that a disease was carried over in vials seems like an intentional move…
“Absolutely. I’m sure there are plenty of historians out there that have a much straighter reason for it. It’s like, yeah, whatever. The history books are always written by the coloniser. So it pissed me off, but I’ve made a lot of worthy films so I was kind of like: What can I do with this? Well, what if I turn [those vials] into 11 vampires?
“I love all forms of genre – except for torture porn shit, I hate that crap – so it was kind of like: Turn that anger into an energy. The song remains the same, but it’s just turning it into a different key that’s more palatable to a wider audience.”
Vampire stories have such a large following.
“There’s an overreaction to these sort of pouty teenage fucking guys with eyeliner – and there’s nothing wrong with wearing eyeliner, guys: that’s total rock ’n’ roll – but the real wet blanket kind of vampire.” [laughs]
Firebite’s vamps are freaky; I loved the heavy prosthetics.
“Yeah, the beautiful vampire is not what we were after. We wanted the ugly ones in high-vis.”
Shanika is funny and fierce. She seemed like an emerging warrior figure.
“Her’s and Tyson’s is a dysfunctional relationship. He’s just a dickhead. And there’s a lot of me in Tyson. My job in life is to embarrass the shit out of my children. They just roll their eyes now. Shanika is this teenager turning into a woman turning into a warrior, which is incredibly important to me.
“I hope young teenage girls see a power in this young girl that they can take into their lives. And it might not be hunting vampires, but they probably are fighting monsters, a different kind of monster. And it’s important that they see an empowerment there. She’s fragile, you know what I mean? She doesn’t know what she’s doing but she’s just fucking awesome at it.”
It seems like Shanika and Tyson learn, if they truly want to protect their community, they’ve got to go underground and get to the root cause of the vampire infestation. Was that an analogy for direct action in the face of ongoing colonisation?
“Totally. I mean you can dance around the issue or you can go straight to the festering sore – which is a dangerous place to go. That’s humanity in a way; it’s our psyche. It’s kind of like [pauses] we don’t go down. You have to go down if you want to do it properly, you know what I mean?
“Colonisation is generational: loss of language, loss of dance, loss of song, all of those things. Why are you who you are now? It’s because of a generational cause and effect. When your mother and father have been put down, and your grandfather and grandmother have been put down as n*****s and Blacks and gins and coons, and suddenly you’ve got this next generation and you see the follow-on effect, it’s like: let’s go back to where we started, and let’s talk about that.”
Firebite premieres on AMC+ from December 16, with new episodes every Thursday