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Samson and Delilah

Warwick Thornton talks about making his first feature film, the joys of working with a small crew and receiving Tom Waits’s seal of approval

Since winning the Camera D’Or award at Cannes last year, Samson And Delilah has gained a steady buzz. The tale of two Aboriginal teenagers living in contemporary Central Australia is both an unconventional love story and a hard-hitting depiction of life for some members of the country’s indigenous population. It stands out for its non-judgemental approach and its sparse use of dialogue, as well as for being one of the few films to come out of the Aboriginal community.  

Dazed Digital: The film has had an amazing response. It’s showed at Cannes, Toronto and London film festivals and now it’s getting a release in cinemas across the world. What has that journey been like?
Warwick Thornton: If I had made a list of all the things I wanted it to ever do before I had made it – bar winning an Oscar – it’s done them all. It’s been the most amazing journey. It’s been incredibly hard work and it's made me feel really strong about what I do – about storytelling, not only as an Aboriginal person but also as a storyteller.

DD: You shot the film yourself, without a cinematographer and with a very small crew – what was that like?
WT: I shot it myself but I’ve been a cinematographer for about 20 years. This is my first feature film but I’ve been in the industry forever. Over those years as a cinematographer, I’ve met all these really beautiful people who are make-up artists and wardrobe designers and focus pullers, and they’re the sort of people who become really close and fantastic friends. So I tried to get them all back to make this film with me and we made it incredibly small. It was almost like going on holiday with my best friends rather than actually making a film. I kind of set it up that way because I don’t like the pressure of filmmaking, it’s full of a lot of piss and wind and it shouldn’t have to be that way. You find the right crew and keep it really small and you can do really good things, so that’s the way I work. There were only eight or nine people and that’s all we needed. I did it on purpose as well for Rowan and Marissa, who are the two kids (who play Samson and Delilah), so it wasn’t a 120 people standing around and watching them act.

DD: Why did you choose to use such little dialogue in the film?
WT: For me it’s just truthful. When I fell in love for the first time I threw rocks at the girl I liked and I couldn’t talk to her, I was just too painfully shy and embarrassed.  And I like it when people act rather than speak, there’s too many cheap words in cinema. I much prefer watching a film where people are not saying anything, and as a member of the audience you can make your mind up. There’s no right or wrong because it’s your perception.  I reckon it’s a very beautiful way to work.  

DD: Music plays an important part in the film.  How did you go about selecting the soundtrack?
WT: Because of the lack of dialogue it was really important what songs were put in there – you’re not hearing words from the main characters, so instead you start listening to the lyrics of the song. When I was writing the script I was listening to a lot of music and choosing songs and actually writing them into the script and they’re the songs which are in the film. And not just to give emotion but to tell a story through the lyrics. The opening song is ‘Sunshiny Day’, it’s a very happy uplifting song and then you’ve got this kid in squalor who lives on the floor and starts sniffing petrol, it creates a sense of place and gets [the message] to the audience very quickly that this is not going to be a normal film, it’s going to be a bit different so settle in for a different ride.  

DD: And you had to get the rights to a Tom Waits song that the character Gonzo sings at one point in the film?
WT: Yeah, that was pretty beautiful. Tom Waits doesn’t give his songs out willy-nilly so he has to read the script. It’s not like you go to his publicist or whatever major record label he’s under and they just go yay or nay and it will cost you $80,000 for the song. He actually has to read the script and approve that he thinks the song should be in the film.  So he did and he let us use the song.

Samson And Delilah is released on April 2