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The healing powers of cooking and Country: Warwick Thornton on 'The Beach'

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After years of "excess, neglect and self abuse", director Warwick Thornton (Samson and Delilah, Sweet Country) decided to embark on an eight-week journey of self-imposed "isolation" in the stunning Dampier Peninsula, on the north coast of Western Australia, to reconnect with himself and with Country. In his new six-part documentary, The Beach, we see him fish and forage for food, prepare an array of mouthwatering dishes and reflect on moments from his past that shaped him.

Thornton spoke to Dilan Gunawardana about the making of his candid and visually mesmerising work.

Dilan Gunawardana: So, I just binge watched The Beach last night, all six episodes …

Warwick Thornton: You poor bastard. Did you fall asleep?

DG:  No! I was captivated the whole way through. I really liked how meditative it was and how it captured the beauty of the spot that you filmed in – Jilirr, in the Dampier Peninsula (WA), I understand?

WT: Yeah, near Lombadina.

DG: What drew you to that spot? 

WT: I’ve been up there twenty times over the last thirty years, shooting mainly docos through that peninsula, so I knew the area. There are multiple reasons why I chose it. One of them was because straight after this I was going on to Mystery Road season 2, and we were shooting that in Broome. Because I was the director and DoP (director of photography) of Mystery Road 2, it was really good for me to spend a couple of months up there [Jilirr] beforehand, to look at the country, the light, and just be in that same area. I could have shot The Beach in North Queensland, I could have shot it in Arnhem Land, but I thought, let’s just stay close to where I’m doing the next film. 

Lombadina’s an amazing place. I went up there and spent some time with Darrell and Rhona, the bosses of Lombadina, the owners of that country, and found that beautiful beach, and said “well, do you mind if we make this here and can we build a shack?” What we decided was rather than going and looking for a shack on a beach, let’s just find the right beach in the right place, and let’s just build one.

Talking to Rhona, we said to her, “If we build it and if you like it, we’ll leave it and you can keep it”, because it’s her country, “and if you don’t like it, we’ll pull it down.” When she saw it finished it, she said, “I love this” and she kept it.

DG: That’s really surprising because the shack looks so lived-in, like it has been there for generations. Did you have a hand in the design and what you wanted to place in there?

WT: Yeah, totally. Herbert Pinter, the designer of the shack, was the designer on Mystery Road 2 and I’d never worked with him before, so it was a nice little preview. I worked out how he worked, and he worked out what I like. 

Lombadina’s one of those wonderful places where they have this great collection. They’ve built a lot of new houses there, but they’ve kept all the old houses, the old verandahs and the old wood, so they could do cool things with them, rather than throwing it all out at the dump or burying it or burning it. They kept it all and looked after it, all that stuff [in the shack] like the old corrugated iron and that beautiful wooden floor, which was from a verandah of a Queenslander house that was up there in the 50s and 60s … it helped us a lot. If you had to transport all that stuff in from Perth or Broome it would have cost a fortune, but it was only 20 kilometres away from the beach.

DG: And you spent eight weeks in the shack?

WT: Yeah, two weeks of building and six weeks in the shack. I was there most of the time, but there were days where I was just so sick of it and had to go back to Lombadina because I had a fan there. It was a respite for when the sandflies and the mosquitoes started killing my ankles …
 

Still image of Warwick Thornton in the shack in The Beach

DG: Just thinking about your reasons for making this doco – was there something in particular you wanted to achieve for yourself?

WT: I wanted to clear my head; I was drinking too much, I was snorting too much, I was running amok, I was talking a lot of shit. And sometimes you need Country, you just need to get the hell out of whatever cycle you’re in … and the way to break that cycle is to get on to Country – go back home in a way, even though it’s [Bardi Jawi country] not my country. I’m freshwater, from north of Alice Springs. 

DG: Is getting away from it all something you do regularly?

WT: No. I like to go fishing and that sort of stuff, but I don’t really have time for this in my life. I’m too busy. So, to get someone else to pay for it is kind of awesome – to get NITV to pay for me to “go back to Country” … It’s a double-edged sword …

DG: Did you have to learn a new set of skills for this doco? 

WT: No, I’ve been very fortunate. From Cooktown to Broome, I’ve done so many documentaries with old people … actually, old ladies taught me how to throw net and all the young kids taught me how to spear. If you hit a community that might be a couple of km’s from the beach or somewhere special, and you’ve got diesel and a Toyota, the people want to go and take you to Country. So, when I’ve been doing documentaries there’s been a lot of fishing and a lot of learning from old people, and young people too. All the young boys walk around with little spears, and they’re the ones who teach you: “No! you gotta point below the fish!” Then when the old ladies realise you know how to use the throw net, you’re there throwing it in all day because they want bait.

DG: Do you catch more fish with the spears or the nets?

WT: The throw net. If you want a big fish, you need the spear ... but I’m not very good at that.

DG: Speaking of food, the dishes you prepared on The Beach looked delicious. You mentioned in one of the episodes that your grandmother was an amazing cook – did you learn from her? 

WT: No, I never met her. She died when I was about two or three. But everyone told me she was an amazing cook. She cooked for a lot of people in Alice Springs, back in the 60s and 70s. I never knew her. But when you hear that they're an amazing cook, or an amazing dancer, or an amazing singer, it makes you want to do the same; it instantly creates a legacy, it empowers you ... if you do what they did well, you’ll appease their spirit, in a way. Because we all feel that our ancestors, our grandparents, or our great-great grandparents, are all looking down on us and judging us all the time … and applauding us. So, if you hear that your grandmother cooked for kings and queens, princes and paupers, you go, “If I learn how to cook and she’s watching me every day, maybe she’ll be happy with me”… bringing a little peace to your ancestors, especially if there’s a brokenness in your culture.

Still image of Warwick Thornton in The Beach

DG: It’s interesting that in the doco you talk about preparing dishes in the same way you go about making a film – you’ve got this vision and ingredients and you put them all together to produce something artful. Does your love of cooking inform your love of filmmaking?

WT: Absolutely. They’re both incredibly creative arts. It’s the same for writing music or learning chords. In writing a movie, it’s all about ingredients, all these different scenes – hot and cold, spicy, bit more chilli in that scene … food and storytelling are so intertwined in that way.

DG: This is a bit of a change for you, being the focus of attention in a film, rather than being behind the camera – were you comfortable with that? 

WT: No … no, I wasn’t. I was incredibly fearful, and having a camera in front of you … I don’t know why I agreed to do that … and it was me who created the idea! I just thought “you idiot, you’re a dickhead. What do you want to stand in front of a camera for, you moron?” Careful what you write, because you just might have to make it. It took a week of that camera being present, for that [fear] to finally go away. It was after the second week of that six weeks that it finally left my periphery, and then I could just be normal. 

The edit was really, really interesting, because of my vanity. I’m directing and looking at these shots of me and I look like shit. And you start of going “don’t use that shot, I look like shit”, but then you realise, actually, yes use that shot, because I do look like shit and I’m supposed to look like shit, and that’s actually the best shot. So, you have to get rid of your vanity and your portrayal of what you think the audience should have. You should give them all the worst cuts, the worst images, because that’s actually what it’s about. It’s not about you looking like some great black hunter standing on top of the hill, looking all deadly with a six-pack. I’ve got a beer belly and a big beard, gravy eyes, teeth missing – that’s me. 

DG: It is a very intimate study of you. Do you think at the end of the eight weeks your perspective on yourself and the world changed?

WT: For sure. It changed a lot.

DG: You mentioned that one of your aims was to drink less – was that an outcome of this project?

WT: Yeah, but I don’t have fantasies about that. I like alcohol and parties – and I live in a world where there’s a party every night and then there’s an afterparty after that party every night. But it’s about choosing, it’s about not going to every single one. When I used to go to the pub, I’d drink twelve beers, but now when I go to the pub, it’s three beers ... and that’s my choice. I’ll probably keep drinking for the rest of my life, I’ve just got to control it and grow up. I’m never going to give it up because I enjoy it too much, that’s the reality. The fantasy is that you just give it up and never drink again.

DG: I suppose it’s better to have a healthy relationship with whatever your vice is …

WT: Yeah, absolutely.

“you have to get rid of your vanity and your portrayal of what you think the audience should have”

DG: The Beach will premiere during Reconciliation Week this year (27 May – 3 June). What kind of message are you trying to convey with the film – and does that message differ for First Nations and non-First Nations people?

WT: I tried not to make this with a [sense of] “right” and “wrong”. It’s not sponsored by some cleaning product, or King’s curry [powder]. I wasn’t trying to sell something. I’m always making things for us blackfellas first and foremost, and I make things that I want to watch as a blackfella. So, the first port of call for me is the strength of our country and remembering that we can use Country to become stronger. The point of understanding an abusive cycle is to break it but understand that you probably have to live with it [the effects] for the rest of your life. Realigining is important. That journey for me is not for sale … but maybe you could see a little bit of your life in it. Or maybe you’ll just enjoy the entertainment of it … I got stronger for it.

It’s a bit selfish and a bit romantic that I did it all for myself to make myself stronger, but hopefully other people can see something in themselves and use it to advance or to help. I’m not one of those interventionists. The last thing I want is to prop myself up and say, “don’t drink, don’t smoke” – I’d be such a fucking hypocrite. I’m never going to tell someone that they should or shouldn’t do anything. But I can tell myself that I should or shouldn’t do anything, because it’s me and it’s my body.

DG: I guess the film has come about at the perfect time with everyone in lockdown; they’ve got some time to reassess their life …

WT: Yeah, that’s the irony – we didn’t know this [COVID-19] was coming when we made it … and it [The Beach] is a very romantic lockdown, being on the beach eating mudcrabs, prawns, crayfish, pippies … I chose to do that, whereas everybody now, the poor bastards, didn’t choose to get locked down …

DG: Finally, let’s say you were given your own cooking show like Food Safari or Chef’s Table, what sort of format would that take?

WT: I’d try and get sponsorship from King’s curry and it’d be something like “300 Ways to Make Bully Beef”.

 

A three-hour presentation of The Beach will premiere on NITV, SBS and SBS On Demand at 7.30pm on Friday 29 May. From 1 June it will be reaired in episodic form at 7.30pm each night on NITV and SBS On Demand.

Dilan Gunawardana is ACMI’s Website Coordinator. He is an arts writer and digital publisher, and a former Deputy Editor (arts/digital) of Australian Book Review (2017–18). Follow him on Twitter.