Digging Up a Script for Cate Blanchett and Finding the Next David Gulpilil: Warwick Thornton Chats 'The New Boy'
The Kaytetye filmmaker's latest masterpiece was originally about a priest, and French actor Jean Reno was once interested — then Cate Blanchett called.
July 07, 2023
Few great things spring from being sent to boarding school, but Warwick Thornton's The New Boy is one of them. Decades have passed since the Kaytetye filmmaker was taught by Spanish monks at a remote missionary-style school after getting into trouble growing up in Alice Springs, but he now reflects upon the experience in the type of film that he's made his own within Australia's cinematic landscape: a deeply felt, stunningly shot, hauntingly acted and searingly impassioned tale of First Nations survival.
When Thornton's feature debut Samson & Delilah arrived in 2009, it too pondered the subject. Winning the Cannes Film Festival's coveted Caméra d'Or for Best First Feature, it cemented Thornton as one of the country's best filmmakers working today. Sweet Country similarly wowed and blistered as it tackled the nation's long history of racial prejudice — and, premiering at the Venice International Film Festival, earned more international attention. With The New Boy, Cannes came calling again, then Sydney Film Festival's opening-night slot, and now a countrywide release during NAIDOC Week.
"I'm Aboriginal — every day is survival for us," Thornton tells Concrete Playground. "Successions of governments have been trying to get rid of us for a very long time, through the last 200 years… So unpacking survival, and learning, and trying to work out what the fuck just happened, it's me. It's part of my life. It's what I do. And I've got a voice. I get money off the government to tell the government they're terrible. That's bizarre — that happens, and that's what I do."
The New Boy isn't autobiographical, but it always feels personal. Set in the 1940s as the Second World War rages abroad, it sees the film's namesake (newcomer Aswan Reid) get scooped up by outback law enforcement and delivered to a church-run orphanage, where his Indigenous culture and spirituality comes into conflict with Christianity. It's a story about forced conformity and assimilation, and fighting back however one can. It's history in a microcosm. It also teams Thornton with another Australian cinema icon: Cate Blanchett.
"Rock 'n' roll! Aren't I very lucky! Isn't this amazing? Shit, Cate Blanchett's just called me and wants to make a movie — life's too short" — that's how Thornton reacted when two-time Oscar-winner and 2023 nominee (for Tár) gave him a call. "It's good for the ego, obviously. Then you go 'god, I've got to do something. I've got to come up with some brilliant idea right now that we can go and make while I've got her on the phone'. And obviously that doesn't happen. You slow down, and you take your time, and you're thoughtful about it. You don't just pitch any shit to Cate Blanchett, because she might go 'oh no, he's an idiot, that's a terrible idea'. So you've got to think about things, and plan some kind of attack on making yourself seem like you're really cool and you have lots of great ideas."
Thornton did have something up his sleeve: an 18-year-old script inspired by those boarding school days, but featuring a priest. In the project's past life, French The Big Blue and The Professional actor Jean Reno had been in talks to star. Swapping the character to a nun gave Blanchett a part — which Thorton tells us about, alongside drawing from his own life, finding the next David Gulpilil in Reid, sharing tales of Indigenous survival with the world, balancing tragedy and hope, Adam Sandler movies and the full cinema experience.
ON REWORKING AN OLD SCRIPT FOR CATE BLANCHETT
"I hate writing. I think it's incredibly painful, and it takes me years. So if you do want to go down that process, well, we wouldn't be here having this conversation — I'd still be writing something. It takes a long time, and it's horrible. Writing is full of pain and angst — and you would rather go to the pub than actually write any words, because there's so much fear in a blank page, so much danger in it.
And, so much you happiness as well, but I'm so scared of the blank page — I write with pen and paper, I don't own a computer, I don't know how to type. So you just stare at a blank page and go 'ohh this it's going to hurt'.
Then, three years later, you come out of it and you've got something. Then it takes maybe another year to redraft it and get people's opinions. So remembering that I had that script kind of saved my arse, in a strange way, because I didn't want to go down another three-year process.
I've got other scripts, but they just they they wouldn't be right for Cate, that I have been writing. So it was either that script or I write something new — and we wouldn't be here talking, I'd still be writing, if I was actually going to write something."
ON SPARKING THE NEW BOY FROM EXPERIENCE
"You use your experience in life to to get the foundations of what you think might be a good idea for a movie. I'm 52 years of age. I've lived, I've loved, I've died, I've cried, I've divorced, I've married. So you dwell on your own shit.
I don't know if I'd be very good at writing a movie about a gecko because I've never been a gecko or goanna. So you just dwell on your existence, and that's where your foundations come from. I think all writers do that — nothing special to me.
The reason why it took so long for it to be made, or to get to this point, was because it was actually a really bad script. [It was] pretty clear it wasn't working. Protagonist, antagonist, the arcs are all arse up — and it took someone like Cate to come along to empower me to fix it.
But is there any writer who doesn't dwell on their own existence, and how they felt when someone said 'I don't love you anymore'? All that kind of shit? I'm sure every writer does that — it's kind of part and parcel of writing."
ON SWAPPING A PRIEST FOR A NUN, BUT LEAVING THE OTHER CHARACTER DETAILS
"That was very clear from Cate, because I thought 'well, we will have to do some some serious drafting to rebuild it to do it with the nun'. And she was very adamant — and, really, she's so bloody smart. I didn't see it. But she's seen it straight away: 'don't change the arc of of the character and what the character actually does'.
So it's a nun having to do a priest's job and, obviously in that world, nuns can't do priest jobs. They're not allowed to actually do priest jobs.
That created such such a great dynamic for for the character, and she was very clear about that. 'Don't go mucking, don't go fucking it up now Warwick! — because that stuff really, really works well for Sister Eileen'. It's like 'of course it does'.
It it easier for me — I didn't have to write as much."
ON CASTING DEBORAH MAILMAN AND WAYNE BLAIR
"Deb and Wayne are really good friends. I shot The Sapphires for Wayne [which Blair directed] back in the day. And I shot Radiance for Rachel Perkins back in the mid 90s — crikey — one of Deb's first feature roles.
So we've always been good friends, and I've always wanted to do something really focused, and I thought they were the best actors to be those characters.
I told them that I was writing something and they're in it. And they were like 'bring it on, no worries'. So they knew.
When it was the older draft, with the monk, I'd already cast them — I wanted them to play those roles even back then. So they were cast even before Cate."
ON FINDING ASWAN REID
"I was beguiled and freaked out. He looked perfect. He was exactly what the image in my head was of the New Boy. But with that comes a lot of fear because, first-time actors, children on set — they can do the first week, they do the first day, and then go 'I don't like this, I don't want do this anymore', and then just walk away. And you just can't make them do it.
So it created more fear because he looked perfect. But that created a lot more fear about 'is the universe going to look after us, are we going to be okay?'. Because you're not casting just a child — you're casting the family. How's his mum and dad? Are they sensible human beings? Because they're going to be on set with us a lot as well.
There's so many things come into play when you cast first-time actors, especially kids from communities where making a film is not necessarily that important to them. I think there's a lot of children in LA whose mothers tell them that this is the most important thing they're ever going to do, but for a kid from Kiwirrkurra — I don't know, is going and making a movie that important? I don't know.
He had a great time. And he wants to make more movies now, which is fantastic. I think it was a year that we lost Gulpilil and we found Aswan. I think it's one of the most beautiful, strange worlds we live in."
ON SHARING FILMS ABOUT INDIGENOUS SURVIVAL WITH THE WORLD
"There's a hunger out there for Indigenous storytelling. We still run on a three-act structure — an arc of three acts, beginning, middle and end, which is, ironically, life: you're born, you live, you die. Everything works that way.
So that we could transcend these kind of conversations, but from an Indigenous point of view — I think people are getting interested, because we used to make films, especially in Australia and actually in America as well, we made a lot of movies from the suburbs looking at the the mountains. And the fear and the darkness, and wild west and badlands, in a way. It was always from the veranda, from safety, that we would look out at that — and Australia did it a lot, and so did North America.
Now people are interested in a different point of view — and that other point of view is from the mountains, from the forest, looking at the people sitting on the veranda. And from our point of view, which is from the badlands or the wild, but looking at and studying these people who are too afraid to come up to the veranda and meet us.
That's the way Indigenous people make movies, in a way. That's our point of view. And I think people are interested in that, so that's why I think the films did quite well around the world.
There's a duty of care — when we make stories, it's a very big duty of care about what we say and what we portray about who we are as Indigenous people. It's a big point, and there needs to be a lot of honesty from us about that. And I think people enjoy that and they feel that when they see our films."
ON BALANCING TRAGEDY AND HOPE — AND MUSING ON FAITH
Well, The New Boy does represent who we are and what happened to us being colonised — but, you know what, we're still here.
So there's hope. We're still here. So, obviously, he is what happened to us. Christians came in. Colonisation came in. New laws came in, new rules, new regulations. We had to fit in. We lost a lot. But we're still here and we're gaining a lot now because our form of spirituality is evolving. It's not a bunch of commandments banged into a rock. We have to evolve, and we have to move with the times, and that's what we're doing. And so it is hope and it's survival.
There's room for all, I guess is what I'm trying to say. I think the religions that actually believe that there's either their way or hell, and anybody who does not become part of conforming to what they think will burn — and there's only two two options, right or wrong — it's a very dangerous place.
Actually, that kind of concept will die one day. That will actually kill itself because it won't move and ebb and flow, and it's not evolving properly."
ON WHAT MAKES A WARWICK THORNTON FILM — AND THE FULL CINEMA EXPERIENCE
"All my films have Adam Sandler in it, and they go 'oh, it must be a Warwick Thornton film'. I reckon that'd be really good. It'd be really funny, and tragic.
I like him. If you see Adam Sandler on the poster, or a film by Happy Madison Productions, you know what you're going to get — you know when you buy that ticket, you know what you're going to get, and so don't expect anything else and just enjoy it for how stupid it is.
Life, cinema, has room for pure popcorn and milkshakes. And then it has room for red wine and biscuits. There's so much scope in the arts, and everyone has a right to have the most ridiculously stupid films to the most blinkered, depressing auteur crap — like what I make. There's room for it all. It's such a beautiful medium.
You can go to a cinema and have a mindless laugh. Or you can go to the cinema and have, not go into a lecture, but be entertained but actually walk out with a lot more knowledge about humanity, and existence, and points of view from countries and cultures that you'd never have access to in real life — but you do, cinema gives you that access. So it's such a beautiful, special place."
ON JUMPING BETWEEN FICTION AND DOCUMENTARIES
"Whatever it is, it's horses for courses — not all stories are documentaries, and not all stories are fiction and features.
So you get to a point where you go 'I'm so over a crew of 200 and blowing ridiculous amounts of money, and having that minute frame-by-frame control'. And so I want to go with David Tranter, sound recordist, to just go into the bush and make a beautiful documentary about someone or something — and live around the campfire, and cook rice and curry on a campfire, and just really focus and become this nurturing little unit.
Then, after I do that, I'm covered in mosquito bites and rashes, and probably about to lose a a toe because I stubbed it and then it got infected — and I go 'I want to go back to features, I want to go back to catering'.
You get bored with one, and then the grass is always greener on the other side. At the moment, I'm obviously doing fiction and features — and the grass, the greener grass at the moment, is in documentary for me. And when I get there, I'll realise that the greener grass is in fiction."
The New Boy opened in Australian cinemas on July 6. Read our review.
The New Boy images: Ben King.
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