|Beck Cole and team; R: Warwick Thornton and team, The Making of Samson and Delilah|
photo April Goodman
“Making of...” documentaries have become a necessary add-on in the age of the DVD, but rarely do they achieve notable artform status and most are simply promotional tools. Exceptions include Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper’s feature length Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991) documenting the making of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). But that film was made well after the event, drawing on Eleanor Coppola’s footage from the original shoot. More modest ventures, like James Thomas’ 2001 35-minute account of the making of Phil Noyce’s Rabbit Proof Fence, made for Channel 9’s Sunday program, can be illuminating, in this case revealing challenges inherent in directing non-professional child actors and, most chillingly, the stress for the Indigenous performers involved in the reenactment of the child abduction scene.
Beck Cole, a formidable filmmaker of short dramas (Plains Empty, Flat) and documentaries (The Lore of Love; Wirriya—Small Boy; First Australians), followed the filming of Samson and Delilah with camera in hand and an ear for detail and circumstance that allowed the finished documentary not so much to stand on its own as to provide a dynamic counterpoint to Thornton’s film; together they make a great pairing.
Cole follows the chronology of the making of the feature film from the auditioning of young adolescents for the principal roles to the shooting of some of the key scenes and, finally, the win in Cannes. Much to his astonishment, Thornton finds his Samson (Rowan MacNamara) very quickly, though wonders “will he last” the challenge of the filming. Asked later if he’s happy about being cast by Thornton, Rowan smiles, “I like the bit where he said ‘famous’.”
Finding a Delilah proves more elusive. Among the painfully shy 13,14 and 15 year-olds are faces for a camera to fall in love with. “Can someone be too beautiful?”, asks Thornton when reviewing the audition of one youngster. Producer Kath Shelper suspects the delicate relationship at the film’s centre might then become “about lust, not love.” They’re finally attracted to Marissa Gibson, young but with a certain air of maturity and not conventionally pretty. But to secure her, Thornton, Shelper and translator and casting assistant Peter Bartlett have to travel the long distance by road to Papunya, suffer a flat tyre on the way, and convince the girl’s family. It’s worth the effort, as the first reading reveals; they’ve found a “grounded Delilah.”
Parading in a string of briskly edited costume tryouts, Rowan reveals a throwaway sense of presence—a quick oscillation between self-consciousness and proud self-possession. Thornton meanwhile is not planning to shape the actors, he’ll let them be the characters: “they own this already...I’m not going to fill their heads with Samson and Delilah back stories.” In a glimpse of an informal workshop he simply asks Rowan to sneak a sideway look at Marissa. It’s a telling and apt look.
But before filming can commence, Rowan has to face people from whom he stole and seek to be released from associated legal obligations. Soon we see him performing for the camera, Thornton instructing off-camera, like a silent movie director for a film largely without dialogue. It’s exciting to witness the filming of the pivotal scene where Samson dances—the suddenness of the shift into focused performance is gripping. Later, there’ll be sulky reserve and resistance, but at this stage Thornton can confidently assert, “We’re going to have the best six weeks of our lives.” He’s relieved, “These two can act!”
The filmmakers take over a deserted fringe town near Alice Springs where they are joined by Mitjili (Nana in Thorntons’ short, sharp comedy of the same name and also in Cole’s Lore of Love). Cole cuts away to an exhibition about the woman’s life and family. It’s revealed that as one of three wives to one man she is related to Marissa as a grandmother. Back on location, in the filming of the funny scene where Delilah’s grandmother encourages the girl to form a relationship with Samson (“He’s your skin”), Mitjili is focused on the reality of the scene, not the fiction. Encouragement and intepreting ensue and, suddenly, she’s got it.
It’s fascinating to watch the filmmaking team at work, good humoured, alert and often funny. Kath Shelper’s laughter and good sense is contagious and translator Peter Bartlett quietly ubiquitous—responsible, as the company website puts it for “casting, acting, organising, animal wrangling, driving, translating, and snake-removal...”
Despite a short break for Rowan to travel to be with his family and attend church, his mood is darkening and he’s not happy to be documented, fleeing the camera as soon as he can. Marissa’s rare moment of dissension comes when she has to cut her hair after the death of Delilah’s grandmother. Cole focuses tightly on successive stages of despair, barely restrained tearfulness and, then, Marissa’s quiet pleasure in her new look.
Cole’s documenting of the supermarket shoplifting scene (the actors overhelmed by “too shame”at having to enact such behaviour with people witnessing it) and a key late scene in a petrol station reveal the range of pressures on both director and actors. (It’s amazing that the latter scene works given Rowan’s behaviour and the lack of connection at this stage with Marissa.) Thornton’s disappointment with Rowan is more evident in his face than in words, although they’re strong enough.
But the success of Samson and Delilah at Cannes lifts us out of momentary gloom. And in between we’ve had the pleasure of meeting Thornton’s brother, Scott who plays Gonzo, a homeless alcoholic. Scott explains that, at Thornton’s insistence, he had to “go into re-hab” to get the role, and is grateful for it. Like the feature film, The Making of Samson and Delilah too has its moments of redemption and miracles large and small. As for its own making, the documentary’s informality, humour and insistence are virtues that subtly belie the significance of what it has to say about the very difficult art of filmmaking, not least where the director has fashioned his own rules for making and is working within, and beyond, the limits of his own culture.
Beck Cole is to direct her first feature film, The Place Between, in 2010 from her own screenplay. The Making of Samson and Delilah premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival, screened at Wellington in the New Zealand Film Festival and will be seen on ABC TV in late November.
The Making of Samson and Delilah, director, camera Beck Cole, producers Kath Shelper, Beck Cole, editor Karryn De Cinque, sound recordists Ray McGinnes, Vance Glynn, music Cliff Bradley, sound design Liam Egan; Scarlett Pictures 2009, 55 minutes.
See interview with Warwick Thornton and review of Samson & Delilah in RT90
RealTime issue #93 Oct-Nov 2009 pg. 28
© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to firstname.lastname@example.org