‘We’ve never met. Let’s make a movie together’: When Cate called Wok

Key points

  • Warwick Thornton will soon start shooting a new feature, New Boys, with Cate Blanchett starring as a nun.
  • The film is set in the 1940s at an orphanage for Aboriginal boys in South Australia.
  • This weekend Thornton will present two double bills, each featuring one of his films and a film that inspired him.
  • Despite his acclaim as a writer-director, the 52-year-old says he still thinks of himself first and foremost as a cinematographer.

Some time near the start of the age of COVID, Warwick Thornton got a phone call from a number he didn’t recognise. On the other end of the line was Cate Blanchett.

“Wok, we’ve never met, but life’s too short,” she said. “Let’s make a movie together.”

Warwick Thornton at the Light: Works from Tate exhibition at ACMI.Credit:Scott McNaughton

That must have been a pretty good phone call to get.

“It’s a rock’n’roll phone call to get,” he agrees.

In the two years since they have talked maybe 50 times on Zoom – “we still haven’t met” – about books, about music, about real-life characters. “We kept going around in circles in a beautiful way, kind of more getting to know each other rather than actually business,” the Alice Springs-born filmmaker says, adding, “I never see this as business, to be honest”.

Two months from now, they will start shooting The New Boy, in which Blanchett plays a nun in an orphanage for Aboriginal boys in the mid-1940s, “the kind of nun who would have burnt down the convent,” says Thornton. “She’s kicking against the pricks – if you were in an orphanage she’s the kind of nun you’d want.”

Cate Blanchett is “probably the greatest actor in the world”, as far as Warwick Thornton is concerned. Credit:AP

He wrote the first draft of the screenplay more than 20 years ago, he says, long before his debut feature Samson & Delilah won the Camera d’Or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and marked him as one of the most distinctive talents of Australian cinema. The Blanchett character was originally a monk, but he wasn’t wedded to that idea, or much else.

“Hey, I wrote it, but it was a pretty shit script, and then the second draft was even worse, and the third draft maybe should have been burned,” he says. “They take time.”

With Blanchett onboard, though, the pace quickened. “I still had to work on the script a lot more, but she opens a lot of doors as a star,” he says. “She is probably the greatest actor in the world as far as I’m concerned – a chameleon, a vessel who can just create amazing characters with air.”

Thornton’s preferred medium, though, is light. We’ve met at ACMI (formerly the Australian Centre for the Moving Image) in Melbourne, where he is guest of honour at the exhibition Light: Works from Tate’s Collection this weekend. On Friday night he’s in conversation with Margaret Pomeranz. On Saturday and Sunday he’s presenting double bills featuring one of his films and one that inspired him: Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law (paired with his own Sweet Country) and Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (with his Samson and Delilah).

Both were shot by the legendary German cinematographer Robby Muller. And despite his acclaim as a writer and director, Thornton still sees himself as a lensman above all else.

Harry Dean Stanton in Wim Wenders’ film Paris, Texas.

“The writer and the director are purely there to serve the DOP [director of photography, or cinematographer],” he says. “The writer in me slaves to write stories that the director has to slave to make, so that the cinematographer in me can just be a wanker and play with his ego. That’s pretty much how it goes.

“I started writing because I wasn’t getting any films to shoot,” he continues. “And then I was told by the film funding bodies, ‘Well, you wrote it, you’ve got to direct it as well.’ I was dragged kicking and screaming, very reluctantly, into directing.”

He will acknowledge, though, that he’s proud of the work he’s made, and that the work of Indigenous filmmakers has played a major role in reshaping the conversation about race relations and our country’s past, present and future over the past 15 years or so.

“There was a hunger for it because what you were learning in primary school and through high school was bullshit, and then suddenly there were these new history books written, but they were actually movies,” he says.

“We were rewriting the curriculum because Australia was so hungry for information and they just weren’t getting it.”

Warwick Thornton is in conversation with Margaret Pomeranz on Friday at 6.30pm. He will present Sweet Country and Down by Law on Saturday from 12.30pm, and Samson and Delilah and Paris, Texas on Sunday from 3pm. Details and bookings at acmi.net.au

Email the author at [email protected], or follow him on Facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on Twitter @karlkwin

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