Four years after his acclaimed debut feature Samson and Delilah, filmmaker Warwick Thornton returns with The Darkside – an anthology of firsthand Indigenous ghost stories, gathered through a public call out and then reinterpreted for the screen by some of Australia’s most recognisable actors. We caught up with Thornton to talk about the film, in which the NFSA makes a cameo.
Did you grow up surrounded by stories of the other side?
Yes, I grew up with that being part of everyday life, with spirits and ancestors being around you always. It’s not something really specific to Indigenous people, but perhaps it’s much more prevalent in our communities; the idea that when you go for a walk in the bush the trees have souls and spirits, and your ancestors are watching you all the time.
When you’re at home you feel the presence of your family who have passed on and keep coming back occasionally to check in on you.
What kind of stories were you looking for?
Initially we were looking for the really scary stories, the scarier the better! When the first stories started to come through we found they were more about love, family and looking for meaning when someone dies – whether there’s a place that dead people go to and whether they have access back to this side. They became questions about life, the universe and everything, more so than ‘can we make a scary movie?’ That was really beautiful, much more powerful than just being scary.
Hearing other people’s comments, are there any stories that seem to be standing out?
I can’t put my finger on one that’s outstanding in everybody’s mind. Some people are interested in the scary and others are looking for the connection with family and ancestry. Whoever you are as a human being is what dictates which story you like the best.
Did the actors hear the original recordings? Did that influence their performance?
It was really important to be respectful because people had given us their stories for us to use. Most stories were a lot longer, so I slightly condensed and edited them, to make them flow in a three-act structure, but I had to be careful not to play around too much.
Each of the actors was given the original recording so they could hear the voice, and I talked to the cast about keeping that sort of truth, because you’re playing a real character. It was good because it helped the actors focus; they’d listen to the recording and received a re-scripted version of the transcript, and then we’d work off that.
You’ve created The Otherside website for people to upload their own stories. How will those be used?
Hopefully it will be like a hub of Indigenous ghost stories, which will grow over time. The perfect scenario is that other storytellers, whether they’re novelists, photographers, or artists in general, can hear these stories and get in touch with the people behind them. Great collaborations could come from that – a series of paintings about ghosts, or perhaps another filmmaker could create a film based on these stories.
Indigenous cultures have a strong oral history and storytelling tradition. The Darkside seems to be a continuation of that same tradition.
It’s basically like seeing oral history pre-colonisation … sitting under a tree, telling a story that will be passed on to the next generation. That’s the way I see it, so that’s why the film is so simple. We tried to steer away from storytelling, special effects and all the necessary buttons that you have to press to get a cinema audience. Let’s try to get back to the core of what story is, so it’s basically someone telling a story and keeping it real in a sense. The stories become much more truthful when you keep them simple like that.
How did you combine the oral nature of these stories with the visual nature of film?
I wanted to be true to what was really important about the stories, whether it was someone sitting there telling it directly to the camera, or a voice-over combined with a painting or archival footage. The stories told me how they should be directed and portrayed; I didn’t have rules about how everything had to be. There was a lot more freedom to play and I really enjoyed that. When they watch The Darkside, I’d encourage people to close their eyes and listen, which is a strange thing to say when you’re at the cinema. With this film you can close your eyes, switch the picture off if you want. The stories are just as powerful as an audio-only experience, which is really lovely.