‘I don’t have a computer; I have to write the way I write’: Warwick Thornton’s authentic approach to writing is a revelation

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‘I don’t have a computer; I have to write the way I write’: Warwick Thornton’s authentic approach to writing is a revelation

Image courtesy of Melbourne Writers Festival
Words by Jacob McCormack

Warwick Thornton is far from your typical contemporary screen writer. He doesn’t own a computer; he doesn’t adhere to production deadlines, and he avoids series’ writing rooms. What Thornton lacks in conformity he makes up for in authenticity, conviction, and cinematic brilliance, in all its facets.

In suitable fashion Warwick will be speaking at the 2023 Melbourne Writers Festival opening event. Although it’s hard to know what to expect from Thornton featuring on the panel for the evening’s event, as he never plans what he is going to say, rather he decides upon a strong conclusion and improvises to arrive at that destination.

“They asked me to write for five minutes, and I thought fuck that, no way,” says Thornton. “If I plan too much when I do keynote speaking it will be an absolute disaster. You just get too nervous about trying to come up with some great punchline. I have a beginning and an end, but I have no idea what will happen in between.

“I know how I’m going finish up, just like the way I write. How I get there will be determined by how I feel that day, whether I have had one red wine or two red wines. People love to hear other people speak about the pains and tribulations of what they do. I’ll keep it really loose. I’ve got an ending so I will be fine.”

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To some this may seem blasé, but to Thornton it is an important approach that involves understanding himself. A gentle, yet profound skerrick of advice for aspiring writers.

The approach Thornton is having to the upcoming panel discussion is one that has permeated into his writing practice. However, it is hard to know which influenced the other. Within his writing he sets out to construct an ending but allows for openness to establish the ark that moves towards a conclusion.

“You have an idea, and I think about the idea for a couple of years,” he says. “I don’t really want to waste my time on something. I never want to write on the basis that I don’t know where it is going. If I start and I don’t know where it’s going to end up that is so painful.

“But you’ve got to keep your options open with character gender and all that stuff. Going through the scenarios and keeping it open is important. The film could have a different ark, and a different journey to get to that same ending. That stuff is really exciting.”

Thornton employed this exact approach for his most recent film New Boy. The original script was adapted to include Cate Blanchett acting as the protagonist, that had once been written as a male priest.

“I’ve just shot another film, called New Boy,” says Thornton. “I started talking to Cate Blanchett. She rang me one day and we started talking about ideas, she said ‘life is too short, I really want to make a movie with you’, which was totally rocking for my ego.

“That one, New Boy used to be called Father and Son. It was originally about a relationship between a boy and a priest. I said to Cate ‘I’ll send you this script, and just imagine it’s a nun, not a priest’. She loved it. I rebuilt it, did a couple more drafts and we shot in November last year.

“It’s cold and dead with the wrong character, then you turn a priest into and nun and see where it goes from there. It’s interesting how something you would never want to watch, becomes something you do by changing the gender and keeping the whole platform of the ark of religion can completely rebuild and realign, making a story bloom.”

You don’t just suddenly get a call from Cate Blanchett asking to do a film with you. Thornton has been working at his craft for decades now. It was his film Samson and Delilah, that he wrote and directed, that won the notable Camera D’or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009.

However, Thornton doesn’t ruminate on that too much as he prefers discussing the process involved in his writing practice.

“I wrote Samson and Delilah, but I didn’t write Sweet Country. In Samson and Delilah, they don’t say much, but you have to write a lot of big print. I found that really enjoying.”

And when Warwick says he writes, he truly means it. He doesn’t own a computer and doesn’t write all the time. He only writes when he feels ready to translate a whole idea into a script.

“I write with pen and paper; I don’t own a computer. I find that typed panel in front of it very frustrating and way too slow. I write with pen and paper in some weird free hand that only I can read.

“Writing is such a painful process for me, it’s so debilitating that I need to think of the whole film, the ark, the whole idea, the beginning, middle, end, loose ideas about the characters, but an incredibly strong structure so I know where it will end. I spend years thinking about it. Sitting in a bar and drinking a beer and going that’s a good idea for that film.”

Although, that seems to be his generalised approach for a recent project entitled The Beach, Thornton merely submitted a synopsis to be approved for funding and then the project took shape following on from the monetary grant.

“The Beach was an interesting one which had an ending – me getting healthy mentally and physically. That one involved writing a one page synopsis and we got the money to make it.

“We winged a lot of that, which is especially the case when you’re hunting and with what I was cooking. I didn’t know what I was going to catch. We couldn’t say ‘today we are going to make a lobster bisque’, because first you’ve got to catch a lobster ya dickhead.  So, if that didn’t happen then you’ve already set yourself up to fail.

“It was a beautiful journey in that sense. You get together all the ingredients and you don’t make it you haven’t failed because you can still make it tomorrow. Writing is like that too. Getting all the characters, ideas together and figuring out the end, what you want the finish to be, but whether it is a lobster or a prawn it doesn’t really matter in the bisque.”

Warwick Thornton is compelling and upholds a strong sense of conviction. Listening to him speak is equal parts inspiring, insightful and engaging.

Catch Warwick Thornton speaking at the opening event for Melbourne Writer’s Festival on May 4.