Sweet Country is inspired by real events. How closely did you stay to the original story and why?
Life doesn’t work in three acts. It’s inspired by a true story that actually happened and that’s why it’s set in that time and place. It’s a Western, it’s set in 1929, it’s about injustice, which are all true. It’s about a prosecuted human being which is true.
What kind of research went into ensuring the 1929, outback setting was historically accurate?
As an indigenous filmmaker when you get access to the cinema there’s a whole lot more history that actually wasn’t written by us, it was written by colonisers and basically they always write with a shining light on who they were and how they claimed us, and the truth of the matter is that when we make movies we need to tell the truth about what we went through and witnessed, so we have to tell the truth and we have to get it right. There’s an empowerment out of making sure we tell the truth, and so a lot of research goes into it. We need to make sure that what we’re saying tells the truth of Australian history.
The Northern Territory outback is the backdrop for Sweet Country. What techniques did you use to highlight its importance?
I was born in Alice Springs, so I had that connection instantly. When I read the script I knew exactly where we were going to shoot it, I had an understanding of the landscape. The landscape is really important to me and for me it almost came to be a character. Whether there’s a camera there or not, if I just stand in the desert or I stand in a forest you’re always listening. to the landscape rather than looking at it. There’s actually no music in the film at all, that was important to me, because it helped when are watching the movie to listen to the wind and the trees, the birds and the rain.
What is the main message you are trying to present with Sweet Country and how did you achieve this?
It’s a film about injustice but it’s a film about telling the truth as well. It’s a difficult film to watch, it’s got some hard questions as well – it kind of doesn’t answer questions, it creates questions. It’s important for me for an audience to have their own answers and have a dialogue in the film. It is about injustice and a truth and how Australia was developed, and how Australia developed its own psyche in a way.
The film is described as a period western. Can viewers expect all of the elements of the western genre, e.g. the frontier?
Absolutely, the frontier is generally a lawless place and about colonisation and creating your own law. You can take it just as a simple western or you can take it more like To Kill A Mockingbird, that idea of injustice and the rightfulness and the morals that humans leave behind when they go into the desert or the lawless frontier, we sort of change. It is a classic western but it’s got darker undertones.
Sam Neill plays one of the key characters in the film. Did you already have him in mind for the role, and what was he like to work with?
When I read the script I thought of Sam Neill. Sam’s a wonderful man, he’s great to work with.
What were some of the challenges involved in the making of Sweet Country?
You’re shooting in a desert, it’s 45 degrees, it’s very hot, the locations are a long way away from each other, there are scorpions…but the real challenge of the film is trying to create shades of grey for the characters. A normal western has the sort of concept of the good guy wears the white hat, the bad guy wears the black hat, but that’s not humanity to me, we’re all bad, we’re all good. Trying to get that right in the film, to give the bad guys reasons to be bag and the good guys reasons to be good. That was the bigger challenge, and trying to get the script on the actual screen.
With that character construction, how did you get to the point where you were happy with it?
You’re never really happy with it, but you get to a point where you can understand it and feel you’ve done your best. Trying to create dynamics and a conversation the audience can have with themselves and the film that’s the really important thing.
Lastly, why is Sweet Country important in 2018?
More and more people are interested in their past, the classic saying, the more you know about your past the more you’ll make about your future. Australian and the world has made a lot of mistakes in the past, and hopefully we won’t forget about them because we might make that mistake again. That’s what this film is about, it’s about trying to remember the past so that we don’t make these mistakes in the future. I like cinema where you come away and think about the film for the next week, and hopefully audiences will have that with this movie.
What’s next for you, any more films in the works?
Yeah, there’s lots of films.
Sweet Country opens in New Zealand cinemas April 12. Rated R16 for violence, sexual violence, offensive language & content that may disturb.