‘She scares me’: Warwick Thornton on working with Cate Blanchett

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Warwick Thornton is stressed. The Australian writer-director best known for Samson & Delilah, Sweet Country and The Beach is racing to finish The New Boy before leaving for the world premiere at Cannes Film Festival next week.

“I’d completely forgotten that I had this script sitting in the bottom of a cupboard so I said ‘have a read of this’,” director Warwick Thornton says.Credit: James Brickwood

In a break during sound mixing, Thornton raved about working for the first time with Cate Blanchett, who plays a kindly nun who takes in an orphaned Indigenous boy at a remote monastery.

“Cate’s a rock star,” he said. “She scares the shit out of me.”

The two-time Oscar winner was not being intimidating on purpose. “She’s just super highly intelligent and totally driven by story,” Thornton said. “Sometimes as a director, I can be quite lazy. She’d ask me questions on set and I’d go ‘I need a week to think about that’. Your ego gets a bit flat but it’s really empowering to work with people like that.”

Straight after Cannes, The New Boy will be the opening-night attraction and screen in the $60,000 competition for “audacious, cutting-edge and courageous” cinema at Sydney Film Festival.

Festival director Nashen Moodley, who announced the program at Sydney Town Hall on Tuesday night, called Thornton’s film “an absolute masterpiece”.

“When I saw the film, there were many moments that I wanted to cheer,” he said. “It’s really a profound work.”

The 70th festival runs at the State Theatre and nine other venues from June 7 to 18.

It features films from such notable international directors as Wim Wenders (Perfect Days), Wes Anderson (Asteroid City), Kore-eda Hirokazu (Monster), Anurag Kashyap (Kennedy), Jafar Panahi (No Bears), Aki Kaurismaki (Fallen Leaves) and Kleber Mendonca Filho (Pictures of Ghosts).

Jane Campion with the Oscar for The Power Of The Dog in 2022.Credit: Getty

A new documentary from France’s Julie Bertuccelli, Jane Campion: The Cinema Woman, will set up a retrospective of the great New Zealand director’s films that includes Sweetie, The Piano and The Power of the Dog.

Campion’s daughter, actor-director Alice Englert, is in the festival as well with her debut film, the dark comedy Bad Behaviour, screening in competition.

Other buzzy films include the American eco-terrorism thriller How To Blow Up A Pipeline; American-Korean romantic drama Past Lives, about childhood friends from South Korea who reunite years later in New York; and Australian director Daina Reid’s Run Rabbit Run, a psychological thriller starring Sarah Snook as a troubled single mother.

Sarah Snook stars in ‘Run Rabbit Run’.

Likely to spark debate when it screens in competition is Allan Clarke’s The Dark Emu Story, a documentary about Bruce Pascoe’s view in his bestselling book that Indigenous Australians were farmers with their own systems of food production and land management rather than just hunter-gatherers, which has been contentious in some quarters.

Producer Darren Dale of Blackfella Films said it was important that a First Nations company was telling the story. “It’s us trying to reclaim some of the debate around the book,” he said.

The $10,000 documentary competition includes Rachel Ward’s Rachel’s Farm, about the actor-director’s move into regenerative farming in northern NSW, and Matthew Bate’s The Defenders, about the campaign to free refugee footballer Hakeem al-Araibi from detention in Thailand.

Moodley described it as “a very well-rounded program” that included smaller-scale Australian films that showed new filmmaking talent was emerging.

“We know the number of people going to the cinema has not yet recovered anywhere in the world to pre-COVID levels,” he said. “That’s the same for festivals too. We feel that this is a program that’s going to bring people back to the cinema and back to the festival.”

The New Boy shapes as a rousing festival opener, especially if it plays well at Cannes.

Aswan Reid, who plays the new boy of the title, on the set of Warwick Thornton’s film.Credit: Ben King

Thornton said it had been “fast and furious” making the film after Blanchett suggested they work together.

“She rang me and said ‘life’s too short, let’s make a bloody movie’,” he said. “We talked for a couple of weeks just on the phone – she was in London and LA and I was in Annandale in Sydney – about books and other movies and photography.

“I’d completely forgotten that I had this script sitting in the bottom of a cupboard so I said ‘have a read of this’. She liked it then I spent another six months rebuilding it.”

Thornton said he was a big fan of the Sydney Film Festival.

“Over the many millenniums, or however long the thing has been going, they’ve built a really good audience,” he said. “It’s not full of lumberjacks and car dealers. It’s really highly intelligent people who love good storytelling.”

Email Garry Maddox at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @gmaddox.

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