‘A battery drain on my mind, body and soul’: Warwick Thornton on why he needed to escape in The Beach

The Samson and Delilah and Sweet Country director had to break with his hedonistic lifestyle – so went to a secluded shack for a month to film something very different

It seems almost trite to say it at this point, but the director Warwick Thornton’s visually serene and philosophical six-part series The Beach arrives perfectly timed: taking audiences to a secluded beach shack at Jilirr, on the picturesque Dampier Peninsula, on the north-west coast of Western Australia. 

Shot with a small crew in April and May last year, the series captures the acclaimed film-maker – who is the only human presence on screen – practising isolation before it was cool (or compulsory). 

“It’s a romantic idea of self-isolation,” Thornton tells Guardian Australia, “with lots of hunting and gathering, some tears, and a bloke standing on a beach near a bush shack that looks like it’s from a beautiful novel. It’s kind of romantic fiction. It’s Mills and Boon for blokes! With bull catchers, vintage Green River knives and a bunch of chickens to spill your guts to.”

That description makes the show sound a lot more eventful than it is. In fact the Beach often feels more like slow TV, with a calming and meditative quality – albeit a tendency to change tones unexpectedly. It is full of conceptually simplistic but ravishing images captured by the cinematographer, Thornton’s son Dylan River – boots in the sand, crabs scurrying along the beach, an upright guitar rocking in the wind next to an open door.  

Warwick Thornton
Warwick Thornton absconded to the Dampier Peninsula to ‘realign’ his hedonistic lifestyle. Photograph: SBS

Every once in a while the film-maker treats the camera as a kind of quasi-confessional booth, reflecting on various aspects of his life: moments of profound regret, for instance, as well as depression, and even self-harm.

Then he’ll return to joviality by cracking a joke (to the chickens) and resume day-to-day activities in this idyllic place: walking, hunting, writing in his journal, cleaning, preparing meals.

The Beach evokes powerful sense of presence: as if we too have travelled to that lovely, slightly rustic shack. 

 The film-maker’s primary motivation for creating the series and absconding to Jilirr was to “realign myself” after a hedonistic, party-filled lifestyle caused “a battery drain on my mind, body and soul”. He says after he returned from the Dampier Peninsula he went to the pub “and had three beers rather than 12”.

He believes arguments about the benefits of moderation should apply not just to food and drinking but also to TV entertainment: “Binge drinking and binge eating have always been said to be very bad for us. But suddenly we’re binge watching. Why is that not bad for us too?”

A large focus of The Beach is on cooking, with Thornton preparing various dishes, from fish and poultry meals to omelettes and noodles. His favourite moment involves meticulously washing and cleaning a mud crab, which the film-maker recounts as “a slightly religious experience, like washing someone’s feet”.

Those familiar with Thornton’s oeuvre – which includes two of the greatest Australian films of the 21st century, Samson and Delilah, and Sweet Country – won’t be surprise to learn that The Beach doesn’t play out like an episode of MasterChef. Or any other food program involving participants cooking sautéed this and chargrilled that, for hoity-toity judges to drop down their gullets.

“Food is about nutrients,” he says. “If you don’t eat, you die. It’s pretty clear. But now it’s been turned into this competitive performance. 

“‘I win, you lose. I am better than you!’ It’s completely the wrong attitude to have towards food. That’s not what food is about. Food is about: if you don’t eat it, you will die.

Warwick Thornton
Thornton lived in the small shack for a month, and ‘spilled his guts to’ his chooks. Photograph: SBS

“I hate that about humanity, how people create games and platforms out of something that’s like air. One day we’ll turn air into a performance game. Someone will be better than me at breathing.”

Thornton continues: “The greatest chefs in the world are the mothers and fathers who have their 18-, 19-, 20-year-old child leave the house healthy. They just spent a couple of decades putting food on the table and feeding this child. They are the greatest chefs in the world. Appreciating cooking is not about making up a new word for potatoes.”

Thornton says he was more or less given carte blanche to make the show as he pleased; NTIV, SBS and Screen Australia “had no idea what I was doing” but “to their absolute credit, they all said, ‘We believe in you, Warwick.’” 

He adds: “One of the most important things about the show is that it … doesn’t have that sort of general television reason for being. It’s not trying to sell anything. I make a lot of mistakes in it. And I try to be as honest as possible about who I am and why I’m there.”

The second most striking thing about The Beach, at least from this critic’s perspective, is how beautifully shot it is – even when Thornton and River explore only the small space inside the shack.

If a production intended for the small screen can look so cinematic then what does that word even mean?

“It means even if it’s boring as batshit, fuck it looks good!” Thornton says, laughing. “It means you can have a meal just by watching.

“But yes, that word is a strange one. However there is no reason why, in any place, or in any shape or form, you can’t be cinematic. There’s no reason why you can’t have a visual feast.”

• The Beach premieres on SBS on Friday at 7.30pm


Luke Buckmaster

The GuardianTramp

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