Rowan McNamara as Samson (Photo credit- Mark Rogers)
Samson and Delilah is the feature debut of Warwick Thornton, who wrote, directed and photographed the drama. The film earned the Camera d'Or for best first feature film at the 2009 Cannes International Film Festival. Thornton's work has previously been honored with his film Green Bush winning Best Short Film in the 2005 Panorama at the Berlin International Film Festival. He also won the 2008 Crystal Bear for Best Short Film in the Generation section of the Berlin Festival for Nana.
Thornton was born in Alice Springs, near the geographic center of Australia, and worked as a DJ at a local radio station. There, he saw film crews going out on shoots and decided it looked intriguing. He became an intern and eventually enrolled at the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) in Sydney, where he studied cinematography. He has photographed more than a dozen features and documentary projects, but is drawn to writing and directing as well.
Director Warwick Thornton. In the background: Rowan McNamara as Samson (Background), Marissa Gibson as Delilah (Photo credit- Mark Rogers)
"I am inspired by humanity and a good story," he says. "I need to have a passion for the subject, and I soak myself in it in order to make the film."
Samson and Delilah unfolds in an isolated community in the Central Australian desert. Tragedy causes the main characters to embark on a perilous journey away from home. Alone and lost, the characters find that their love is what really matters.
"The important thing is that they survive through their love for each other," says Thornton. "They save themselves and solve their own problems."
Thornton says that the look of the film was first formulated in his mind as he wrote the script. He envisioned a handheld camera, high-contrast images and straightforward composition.
Marissa Gibson as Delilah (Photo credit- Mark Rogers)
"I like really classic composition - simple and not distracting," he says. "I don't like cinematography that draws attention to itself. I wanted people to feel like they were there in the frame with the two kids. I had very minimal lighting - two mirrors which I used during the day for some extra bounce, and a box of Redheads and a couple of flame bars for nights. I wanted the desert to look how it looks, and to be real, so I kept the colors and the lighting very natural. We didn't have grips or gaffers, so everything had to be very simple."
Thornton shot the entire film handheld. "I wanted to have slight movement in each shot to give a feeling of immediacy," he says. "But not wobbly-cam - it was very restrained. Because I was shooting and directing, it was easy for me to intuitively follow the actors where they went, rather than having to block everything out and make them stick to it. We did block and work things out, but it didn't matter if things varied from the plan."
The camera was a Millennium XL from Panavision. The package included three Primo lenses: a 27mm, 50mm and 100mm. "I had a really clear idea about how I wanted to shoot it, so I didn't need more than those three," he relates. "The camera was superb and really easy to shoot - a beautiful camera."
Thornton says he chose to shoot film because of its superior capture capabilities. "We decided that film was the best format for the desert light and to give us the best capture," he says. "We made the film for a very small budget and decided to concentrate our resources on the best capture format we could afford."
Thornton chose KODAK VISION3 500T 5219 film for night situations and KODAK VISION2 50D 5201 film for daytime scenes. "I love the 50D and always have - it's a beautiful stock," he reports. "I chose the 500T because it tested right and worked extremely well in low light. I was shooting it at night with a flame bar in a campfire as the only light source, and I couldn't get a reading on my light meter. But when it came back from the lab, it looked amazing.
"I rated the 500 at (E.I.) 250 and the 50 at (E.I.) 25 just to have that extra stop up my sleeve," he says. "We did a DI process, which was amazing for grading. The color grading we were able to do was really an eye-opener for me. The colorist, Trish Cahill, did an amazing job. It just looks really natural and re-creates how it actually looks out there in the desert. We were very lucky to get a great 6K scan and then a Super 2K record out from Deluxe/EFILM in Sydney."
Thornton's disciplined approach helped make 35 mm film the right choice for the project, according to producer Kath Shelper. She says that the decision to scan the images at 6K resolution was made in consultation with their collaborators at EFILM. "EFILM's team was amazing," she says. "We tested various scans and 6K was the best result. The 6K scan was so clear and crisp, it felt like you could dive into the image and start swimming. Warwick's advice to filmmakers considering a similar workflow would be to buy the highest quality capture medium and post path that you can afford within your constraints."
Thornton manipulated the frame rate, exposure and shutter phase in the cameras to visually underscore story points. The opening shows Samson rising in the morning and as he slowly awakens the frame rate changes and becomes normal speed.
"There are a few shots like that, which include very subtle effects," he says. "People don't necessarily notice consciously, but subconsciously it makes them feel a little off-kilter, and gives them the sense that this isn't going to be a Disney movie. It tells them 'We're not in Kansas anymore.' I wanted all the effects to look really natural and organic, so I decided to shoot them in camera rather than doing them as post-effects. All the fades-to-black were done in camera."
Thornton says that his success at Cannes hasn't really hit home yet, partly because he is back in the desert shooting and directing a new three-hour documentary series about Aboriginal art.
"I find it really exciting to swap between drama and documentary," he says. "Either way, it's a great feeling when you know that people are watching and loving what you have done. It's such hard work making a film - it's amazing when it pays off and you know that people like what they see."