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Sam Talks “Sweet Country,” His Pursuit of the Western, and the Link Between Wine & Movies

As is the case with many a beloved screen actor, everyone has their own mental image of Sam Neill. For some, it’s of the prickly paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant from Jurassic Park. For others, it’s of desperate, spiralling Mark from Possession, or grumpy Uncle Hec from Hunt for the Wilderpeople. (For my mother, it’s “the man who raises those pigs”; for my New Zealander best friend, “our national treasure.”) His latest role — as a religious rancher dealing with the fallout from the murder of a white man by an aboriginal farmer in Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country — is just as indelible as any of those, not least because the film itself is so thoughtful and delicately crafted. (It continues screening this week at the IFC Center.) It’s as much a simple western as it is an indictment of Australia’s checkered historical conflicts between colonizers and the indigenous population.

How much research did you do in preparation for this role? Your character doesn’t play a huge part in the film, but he is present throughout.

Warwick doesn’t see any of his characters as particularly black or white, though this is a film clearly about black and white relations. My guy is a rancher. He’s also deeply religious, and he believes in certain verities like the dignity and equality of man. But you should be cautious, because he, of course, is one of the characters instrumental in bringing Christianity into remote places like this, and that was not necessarily, in the long run, enormously beneficial to the indigenous people that were scared of him.

You’re from New Zealand. How much did you already know about the history of Australia with regard to the indigenous people before you came onto the project?

A certain amount. This film is part of a wide discussion, in that there is quite a bit of Australia’s dark past that has become increasingly the subject of discussion, and it’s really only now that people are becoming aware of what happened. It’s not dissimilar to the United States. It involved land clearance; it was not just chopping down trees. It was also eliminating the people that lived there, and in the drive West, that’s what happened. People drove West in the United States, and it involved dead people, and the destruction of cultures. This film, made by an aboriginal director, is part of that discussion. It’s only really in the last ten years that, as an outsider and a non-Australian, I’m aware of people really talking about the massacres that took place.

How did you end up involved in the project to begin with?

How do you get involved in anything? I knew of Warwick Thornton’s work — not just as a cinematographer, [though] I knew it would be a beautiful-looking film. He made a real landmark film called Samson and Delilah [in 2009], and I thought that he’s one of the truly original voices in Australian cinema. I was keen to work with him. It’s not just polemic; I’ve always wanted to do a western, and this is definitely a western of sorts. It takes all sorts of tropes from the western genre, like posses and a hanging judge and all those things, but it kind of subverts and turns them on their head. I think it’s a very interesting film, one of the best films that have come out of Australia for many years.

That rainbow was quite a thing, wasn’t it? I think the greatest stroke of luck that we had, and we were very lucky in many ways, was — you can get completely ravaged by flies. I’ve worked in the outback many times, and one of my vivid memories is of Meryl Streep [during the shoot for A Cry in the Dark], covered from head to foot in black flies, trying not to scream. That’s one of the things that can happen. [But we had] a relatively fly-free environment.

Do you think about genre a lot in the projects you take? I feel like you’ve done almost everything at this point.

I’ve always wanted to do a western. I’ve always loved westerns. It’s one of the genres that, of all the American genres, probably travelled best. And just on a sort of daily basis, I love working with horses. They’re really fun [films] to make.

I know that you own a farm as well. Do you have any horses? I’ve seen a lot of pictures of the pigs.

I’ve got almost every animal. I’d love some horses, but I’m away a lot. I’m starting a new film [this week], and I’m going to be doing two films in a row. My work takes me away from the farm a lot, and I would dearly love horses, but there’s no one on the farm that really understands horses, and of all animals, they need the most care and attention.

I’m hoping that Sweet Country has a wider reach outside of Australia. Do you think about the impact a film will have? Jurassic Park, for instance, is now this juggernaut franchise, and an all-time classic.

Well, this certainly won’t be a franchise [Laughs]. I think it’s an interesting film, because you can read it on one level as a simple, very straightforward western, and it can be completely enjoyed at that level. But you can also read it as a very profound and political manifesto. It works on a number of different levels, and if you just want to look at a great western, there it is, but if you want something that’s thought-provoking, it offers that as well. Speaking of westerns, I’ve become a big fan of this thing called Godless, on Netflix, which I recommend. I absolutely loved that. So perhaps we’re seeing a revival of westerns. I hope so.

number of different levels,” Neill says of Warwick Thornton’s film. Michael Corridore

Do you have any thoughts about returning to sci-fi? There was a period in the Eighties and Nineties — with In the Mouth of Madness, Possession, and Event Horizon — where you were in pretty strange science-fiction–y movies.

You’ve also done some writing. I read the column that you did for the Spectator a few years back. What led to that?

There was a woman who thought I might be able to write things, and I did that for a few years. That was fun.

Would you consider doing it again?

I’ve found once a quarter is about right. I don’t have a lot to say about many things. [Laughs] Once every three months, I come up with an idea. I kind of liked writing for them. Although its politics are rather different from my own, I’ve always found it a very entertaining magazine.

Have you ever thought about writing a book or a screenplay?

I have, and then I’ve quickly shelved it. [Laughs] I think 2,000 words is my limit.

You seem to be doing well with 280 characters as well, as you’re very active on social media. How did you get on Twitter to begin with?

I preferred it when it was 140, actually. Brevity is the soul of wit. Given that I’m on a coast, looking at an azure sea, I haven’t been on Twitter for about 24 hours, but I’m fine now. I’m hopping back on it.

Speaking of mediums, you’ve done a lot of TV as well as film. Have you found that you prefer one to the other?

When I started in movies, it was like, if you’ve done any television at all, you’ve kind of placed yourself. You were never allowed back into movies. But now, people are sort of moving with ease and grace between one medium and another. There are so many platforms now; you’d be a fool to be too precious about it. Something like Peaky Blinders, I loved doing that, and you wouldn’t get a chance to do work like that in the movies, necessarily. I’m very happy doing some television.

Do you find that people recognize you more from one thing or the other?

You’ve been making wine for over a quarter century. Where did that interest come from?

I’ve always loved wine, and my family were in wine and spirits for 150 years before I started to grow wine, so it seemed like a fairly natural thing to do. It’s engaging. I’m away from the vineyards a lot, but I love being there and being involved in all parts of the process. Finally, we’re getting the sort of recognition that I think we deserve. For the second year in a row, we got 95 points from the Wine Spectator in New York. That’s very satisfying. Movies and wine have that in common: We like nothing better than a good review.

Do you read reviews of your own work?

I try to avoid them, but sometimes they come up! I’ve read very little about Sweet Country, but I keep getting messages from Warwick going, “You gotta read this.” There’s been a fantastic response to this film.

Has there been any review of your work that’s stuck with you?

Only bad ones. One of my closest friends is a film critic; he reviews on radio in New Zealand. Years ago, I just happened to be listening to his reviews that week, and his phrase was “woefully miscast.” I’ve never let him forget that. [Laughs] I’ll be in Wellington, and I’ll call him up and say, “It’s your woefully miscast friend. Would you like to get a coffee?”

How does he respond to that?

He’ll go to his grave with that tattooed on his heart. I’ll never forgive him.

One’s called Ride Like a Girl. Rachel Griffiths is directing. The great horse race in Australia is the Melbourne Cup. It’s like the Kentucky Derby. And it’s about the first woman who ever won that, something like three years ago. And the second film is called Palm Beach, that will be filmed in Palm Beach, north of Sydney, with lots of very old friends. Bryan Brown, Rachel Ward, Richard E. Grant, Jackie McKenzie. And then after that, I’ll be free in August. So, all those nice indie directors in New York, tell them I’m available.

Source: villagevoice.com


Interviews - Sweet Country

‘My Bond audition? It was like a bad dream’

In a few weeks, Sam Neill’s acting career will break the 80-film barrier – but until now, he has never appeared in a western. In Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country, the New Zealand actor plays a missionary making a new life for himself on the Australian frontier in the 1920s, until he’s drawn into the search for an Aboriginal stockman, Sam Kelly, who against a backdrop of simmering racial tension becomes implicated in the death of a white farmer.

On the morning of Sweet Country’s world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, I sat down with Neill in a quiet courtyard of the city’s Excelsior Hotel to discuss the film, and how he found its provocative story striking all kinds of chords with his own life and beliefs.

From there, it was only a short conversational stroll to some other deeply serious topics, including wine, comedy, his disastrous James Bond audition, and Jurassic Park.

The Australian landscape and climate play such a central role in Sweet Country, both in terms of its look and also the way they reflect what’s going on beneath its surface. Sometimes it almost feels too perfect – in one scene, there’s a rainbow just hanging in the sky above your character’s head, lending an extra sting of irony to the scene that couldn’t have been any better planned.

That was absolutely real. And when opportunities like that present themselves, you have to seize them with both cameras. We certainly didn’t have the money for a CGI rainbow.

Did it actually happen on the day you were supposed to be filming that scene, or did Warwick have to suddenly scramble the cast and crew to get the shot?

I think it was the same day. You know, it barely rains out near Alice Springs, and while we were there we had a downpour like I’d never seen it. A once-every-ten-years things. We were driving back from set and what had been dips in the road that morning had become pools of water so deep they came halfway up the doors of our Land Rovers. But nothing is done by half measures in Australia.

I mean, talk about an upside-down world. Everything is entirely different from anything I’m familiar with at all: I was born in the UK, I live in a green country, New Zealand, and faced with the enormity, the aridity, the profound age of this weathered place, I was in a state of agog-ment. Is that a word? It’ll do for now.

It’s a beautiful landscape, but a deadly one too.

Alice is right in the middle of Australia, and we were never more than two hours away from there, and yet we were able to shoot everything you see in the movie. But the gorge where our characters’ search party meets the Aboriginal warriors – in that same gorge, a few weeks after we left it, a German couple were there on holiday, went walking, got lost, and died of dehydration.

The temperatures there hit more than 40 degrees. They left Hamburg, flew to Australia, then to Alice, then travelled to the gorge, and they were dead within 48 hours of leaving Germany.

The film pulls no punches in its depiction of the tensions between Aboriginal Australians and white settlers, yet it doesn’t feel like a “message movie”. Did you feel duty-bound to make the film in a way that would address this still very live issue, or were you mostly concerned with honouring the story at hand?

It’s all very complex, particularly because the story is based on something that actually happened in Central Australia in the 1920s. [The film’s lead character, Sam Kelly, played by Hamilton Morris, is based on an indigenous stockman from the Northern Territory called Wilaberta Jack: if you want to remain spoiler-free, don’t look him up yet.] Look: at the end of the day it’s a movie, it’s a western, it’s entertainment. But anything that touches on a the relationship between white settlers and the traditional owners of that land will have a political dimension to it.

How controversial is it for an Australian film to depict this kind of material so frankly?

We are in the middle of a history war in Australia, just as America is. There was a Captain Cook monument defaced only this week in Sydney’s Hyde Park, and that shocked me when I saw it – it’s a wonderful statue of Cook, whom I personally admire. But I know he didn’t discover Australia, yet on the base of this statue it says “Discovered these territories, 1770.”

Australian history did not begin in 1770. It’s widely accepted that Aboriginal people have been there for 80,000 years, and there’s a chap currently working on a theory that it may have been 125,000 years. So we are talking about a presence there 123,000 years before Christ. And theirs is a fascinating culture, one that treads lightly on its environment, that cares for its country and its community, and that saw no reason to build great monuments or buildings because they lived in harmony with their surroundings. And this film deals with a very violent episode in which all of these things are impacted.

You’ve played characters with cowboy-ish tendencies before, not least Dr Alan Grant in Jurassic Park. But this is your first full-blooded western. Has the genre always appealed?

I’ve always loved them. I ran into Clint Eastwood a few years ago, and we were chatting away, and I said, “Clint, you know, I’ve made a lot of films but never a western, and it’s a bit of an unrealised ambition.” And he demystified it totally. He said, “You just wear a big hat

And no-one does it better than Clint! There’s something of his hard-bitten westerns with Sergio Leone in Sweet Country, I think – particularly the idea that it’s possible that the morality of this frontier world isn’t as simple as white hats and black hats…

…or good cowboys and bad Indians. My first encounter with westerns was through Roy Rodgers, where things were always pretty clear-cut, if not clean-cut. But Leone and Clint signalled a sea change. And I suppose this film takes certain tropes from those films and turns them upside down again. I think if there’s a single thread running through my work, it’s that I’ve always looked for the dark side in bright characters, or some brightness in dark characters, or some humour in someone who is leadenly serious. Because I think there’ no such thing as white hats or black hats.

Your character in Sweet Country, Fred Smith, is a preacher, and almost certainly thinks of himself as a good man – or at least someone who is doing the right thing by bringing the word of God to the Aboriginal people. But we often get the impression that his faith is somehow absurdly out of context in this place – like in that wonderful scene in which he sings verse after verse Jesus Loves Me This I Know around the fire, to the growing dismay of his campmates.

Look, I don’t want to sound like I know everything about this – the older I get the more I realise the less I know. But my observation is that Christianity, or at least the church, has not done a great deal of good for indigenous people around the Pacific. I’ll be sent to hell for this, and of course there are good and bad missionaries, but missionary work, though it’s by and large carried out by well-intended people, they’re not necessarily doing the best thing. So I’m slightly troubled by my character’s faith. I don’t have any particular faith.

Were you ever religious yourself?

Growing up I was Anglican. What I’ve always liked about Anglicanism is that it’s not very dogmatic, although having said that, there are fundamentalist Anglicans in Australia. But I think what distinguishes Fred from the other so-called whitefellas is he actually sees the Aboriginal people as human. You need to bear in mind that Aboriginal people did not get the vote in their own country until 1967. They have only been recognised as citizens of their own land for the last 50 years. That is something I just cannot get to grips with. So at least he’s a humane man who recognises humanity.

As well as acting, for the last 25 years you’ve been producing wine in New Zealand at your vineyard Two Paddocks. Has that business given you the kind of respect for the land that seems to elude some of the characters in Sweet Country?

Oh yeah. I mean, without sounding like a wanker – though I appreciate I probably sounded like a wanker fro the word go – I love the Aboriginal idea that you don’t own country, country owns you. And increasingly that’s how I feel about my farm: it’s the place in the world that doesn’t belong to me, but I belong to it. I’m very happy in the slow rhythm of life in that place.

On your Twitter and Instagram accounts you often post affectionate pictures of you livestock, many of which seem to be named after other actors. How did that start?

I don’t know, really. But I’ve found that if you’ve got a new calf called Laura Dern, with the best will in the world, you can’t eat Laura Dern. [There is a long pause while Neill grins.] I’m not going to go there. But I only name them after friends I’ve worked with, really. Apart from Amy Schumer. I don’t know Amy Schumer, but there was a chicken that just struck me as being like Amy Schumer. I told her, “You’re Amy Schumer!” And there was a blink of recognition.

The New Zealand sense of humour seems to be having a bit of an international moment right now – not least thanks to Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, in which you had a cameo after starring in his Hunt for the Wilderpeople the year beforehand. Can you pin down exactly what it is?

One of the farmers in Sweet Country has what we’d identify now as post-traumatic stress disorder – he’s come out of the trenches of the First World War and is very, very damaged. And my parents’ generation who’d been bombed, or people like my father who’d fought in the Second World War and seen things that people should never have to see in their lifetime – that entire generation was damaged by that. Just the sound of a car backfiring after that must have been alarming. So having been through all that, the dullness of a sleepy suburban afternoon in New Zealand must have seemed like all you could ever want.

No. Don’t ask! It was all a bad dream. The lesson I learnt that day was never be bullied by your agent into going along to something you don’t want to do ever again. That was the last time.

The role didn’t feel like you?

Absolutely not. And it’s been really interesting being here at the film festival – my friend and I Bryan Brown, we can go into Venice and do whatever we want. We can live a life. And without naming names, some of the people who have been our hotel for the last couple of days, there is no money on earth that could compensate me for the lives they have to live. There are guests on my corridor with six security guards outside their door. Six! And those are the people they now live with.

When you get there, you’ve lost all semblance of life. So I’m very comfortable with whatever career that I have. Because it’s permitted me great privilege with very little loss. But to be a movie star at that level you make a covenant, an agreement with some hellish angel that you cannot get out of. And I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.

After the success of Jurassic Park, did you have to take stock career-wise? Were there any further hellish angel offers?

Actually no, I just muddled along, like I’m muddling along now. But Jurassic Park was always going to be its own thing. It was Steven Spielberg and it was dinosaurs. We had a very good idea when we were making it how it might be received. But it made me realise that sometimes the fabulously popular entertainment can also be the art that endures.

It’s like prog rock versus the pop music of the same era. The very serious music dies off, but the pop of the same time? You cannot kill it. Of course not all blockbusters endure, just like not all art films die. But these things are unpredictable.

You have a very fetching tattoo peeping out from the bottom of your shirt sleeve. Can I ask what it is?

It’s a Maori design. The tattooist is a friend of mine, Gordon Toi, who I met when I was filming The Piano. [He plays one of the Maori characters, Te Kori.] I was filming with him again not so long ago and I just decided to ask him on the spur of the moment if he would do me something, and he said “What do you want?” And I said, “Gordon, you’ve known me for 25 years, you know better than me.” But the symbol is about mapping my journey. Again, at the risk of sounding like a wanker, my origins are Anglo-Saxon and Irish, but I really am a man of the Pacific now. It’s an identity thing, you might say.

Source: The Telegraph

Interviews - Sweet Country

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