Shooting the award-winning ‘Sweet Country’ in the Australian Outback

Director Warwick Thornton and cinematographer Dylan River chat to Australian Cinematographer Magazine about taking audiences to Alice Springs for their new film, Sweet Country.

By Meredith Emmanuel and David Heuring.

Sweet Country, a feature film that takes place in the 1920s on the Northern Territory frontier, brought home the International Critics Prize for Best Film in the main competition at the 2017 Camerimage Festival of the Art of Cinematography in Poland. The film also earned prizes at Venice and Toronto. Co-photographed on a minimal budget, in and around their native Alice Springs, by the father-and-son team Warwick Thornton and Dylan River, the story is inseparable from its physical setting. 

We shot the film in twenty-two days, but a beautiful desert looks just as expensive as a $100 million film,” says Thornton, who also directed and had a hand in tailoring the script. “The script made all the right connections for me. It lit a creative fire inside me, the wrongdoing toward my people of that time. I loved Italian Westerns as a boy, where the good guy is not an idiot and the bad guy has character… and what cinematographer doesn’t like the idea of shooting a Western?!

Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) and Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) in the film ‘Sweet Country’ – DIR Warwick Thornton, DOP Dylan River, PHOTO Mark Rogers

In the story, Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) goes on the run with his wife after a tragic incident. A posse of British colonisers pursue the couple against the backdrop of the MacDonnell Ranges and their once-fertile land, which serves as a silent but enveloping reminder about all that’s been stolen. The cast also includes Sam Neill, Bryan Brown, Natassia Gorey Furber, as well as a number of Alice Springs locals with little or no acting experience.

Thornton’s debut feature, Samson & Delilah, earned the Camera d’Or at Cannes in 2009. Since then, he has shot and/or directed a blend of documentaries, shorts and features around the world. For Sweet Country, he pulled together a budget of around $4 million. That allowed for two ARRI Alexa cameras shooting in ARRIRAW mode, along with a set of older E Series Panavision anamorphic glass as well as extra 50mm and 75mm lenses. The approach he developed with River was necessarily simple and direct. 

Creativity comes from the lack of cash,” says Thornton. “The way we shoot, 99.9 percent is on the 50 and the 75. We can make a whole movie that way if necessary. If you want a 110mm lens, take five steps forward with the 75 and open the iris up a little to get a little less depth of field. We don’t have the money for full kits, so you have to think. The lenses had all these crazy idiosyncrasies and geriatric traits that were really beautiful. They really sucked up a lot of the electricity in the data. The edges are gently, almost thermally softened up with these beautiful old lenses, which was really exciting.

A scene from ‘Sweet Country’ – DIR Warwick Thornton, DOP Dylan River, PHOTO Mark Rogers

Long, sixteen-hour summer days prevented the filmmakers from shooting sunrise to sunset. “Starting around 11am,” says River, “we would identify what needed to be shot at twilight or magic hour, and then do all the nuts and bolts stuff, any pub interiors for example, during the day. Most days, we’d shoot two day scenes, two sunset scenes, and two night scenes.

A and B camera usually worked together during the day, and often split up as magic hour approached. “Right before dusk, I’d give Dylan a two-hander scene at a nearby location,” says Thornton. “I would do a two-hander at the current location, something romantic, in that beautiful bit of light. We’d double up and knock off two wonderful scenes, with really simple, direct coverage. 

River adds, “A lot of the big dialog scenes, we’d do together, and for slower stuff, we’d separate. I did a lot of walking and horseback work. But it got interesting in the edit, because scenes cut together were actually shot at the same time in two different places. So when you see the posse of white fellows, and then cut to Sam and his wife, it’s actually real time because that’s the way we shot it.”

Filming Natassia Gorey Furber who plays Lizzie in the film 'Sweet Country' - PHOTO Mark Rogers
Filming Natassia Gorey Furber who plays Lizzie in the film ‘Sweet Country’ – PHOTO Mark Rogers

The camera style for Sweet Country avoids obvious tricks or clichéd shot choices, like the push-in as a character comes to an important realisation. That approach was strengthened by a complete lack of music in the film. 

We wanted the truth,” says River. “You can’t start playing too many director or cinematographer ‘tricks’ on the audience. They’re too savvy. All those sorts of things do not exist in this film. We threw that out so it feels like you’re just there and it’s happening. You’re not being manipulated. 

Thornton adds, “The camera was completely grounded; dolly, track, but no crane. We don’t want the idea that the audience can levitate! No drones, no helicopters. We don’t want an eagle point of view, because the audience aren’t eagles. The camera was generally between five and six feet high, slightly beneath eye-line, so everyone is on the same plane. No one is empowered or disempowered.

Warwick Thornton (sitting) and crew filming 'Sweet Country' on location at Simpsons Gap near Alice Springs - PHOTO Mark Rogers
Warwick Thornton (sitting) and crew filming ‘Sweet Country’ on location at Simpsons Gap near Alice Springs – PHOTO Mark Rogers

We had one 32mm lens, but I don’t like wide angle lenses,” says Thornton. “When you throw in a 32 or a 35, it breaks all the perspective. There are a few in there, but we tried to hide them by using depth of field. Sometimes you’re in a tight corner and you need a little more perspective for light.

Thornton and River weren’t shy about the smashing contrast of the desert in summer. They generally shot at a 5.6 stop, but at night sometimes had to adjust to a 2.8/4. We’re not afraid,” says Thornton, “If you’re standing under a veranda and it’s 12 o’clock sun, it should be bright. We welcomed that sort of darkness and hotness. That helps the film be as real as possible, not dictated by a director. When someone’s talking, you’re not looking at the background… you’re looking at the face. 

The greatest cinematic saviour for this film was the cowboy hat, because we could shoot at noon,” says Thornton. “It just knocked off the light. I could rebuild shape underneath. You take that hat off at noon, everyone looks bad. You put that hat on and you’ve got a beautiful blank canvas to start working with again. You can work at noon and still cinematically have a beautiful image. It was the hat that saved the film.

Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris), Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) and Fred Smith (Sam Neill) in a scene from 'Sweet Country' - DIR Warwick Thornton, DOP Dylan
Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris), Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) and Fred Smith (Sam Neill) in a scene from ‘Sweet Country’ – DIR Warwick Thornton, DOP Dylan River

That doesn’t mean the film wasn’t lit; flags and reflectors were used, as well as 4K and 6K PARs extensively. LEDs saved the day when AC power was unavailable. The look also benefitted from a fresh technique the filmmakers helped develop with postproduction. 

As we go through the postproduction process, we asked ourselves what kind of grain structure we wanted to wash the entire film,” says Thornton. “But instead, I wanted the rocks to have a different grain structure to the trees, and the trees to be different to the humans. I wanted to play with the idea that they are soft, fragile humans in a really hard landscape.

Tiny Blackmagic cameras modified by Panavision were mounted over or under the Alexa cameras and used to simultaneously capture a UV image. Craig Deeker and The Gingerbread Man post-production house wrote software to match the different sensors and helped make Thornton’s idea filmic reality. 

Dylan River and Warwick Thornton on location with ‘Sweet Country’ – PHOTO Mark Rogers

We used the UV to create something like a rotoscope of the entire film,” says Thornton. “That allowed us to give the rocks an 800 ISO grain structure, the sky a 400 ISO grain structure, and the humans a ‘minus’ grain structure. We didn’t use it everywhere, and it was different in each shot. It’s related to the idea that everything, even inanimate objects, has energy. And I wanted to give the country energy. It’s like this little heat haze, this little wobble. It’s very subtle, and I could add it working with Trish Cahill in the grade. The point is to feel it, not see it. I’m guessing that someday you’ll be able to do it in camera. But we were able to make the country a bit more of a character, in a way, rather than just a one-dimensional background behind the actors. It’s an interesting idea that I’m going to keep playing with.

Sweet Country is an especially personal project for both Thornton and River, and an opportunity to show the world their home. Their roots in Alice Springs are deep, where Thornton’s mother (and River’s grandmother) Freda Glynn is an actress and journalist who co-founded the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association Group of Companies (CAAMA) and IMPARJA, the first Aboriginal commercial radio and television stations. That legacy, along with the oral traditions of the Kayteye people of the region, gives both Thornton and River confidence. 

I come from 40,000 years of storytelling,” says Thornton. “Celluloid, or in this case data, is just the next step. We had a campfire once. It’s something I use to empower myself. I think we all need to use any tools we can to strengthen the belief that we are good at this.

Meredith Emmanuel works for Emmanuel Bates Communications, has more than thirty years experience in film, television, music and media, and is a valued contributor to Australian Cinematographer Magazine.

David Heuring is a former-Editor of American Cinematographer Magazine, has written more than one-thousand articles about cinematography for Kodak’s InCamera Magazine, and is a regular contributor with Variety.

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