Filmmakers / The Guardian

‘I turned 11 vials of smallpox into 11 vampires’: Warwick Thornton on his ‘wacky’ anti-colonial series Firebite

Kelton Pell as Indigenous vampire hunter Jalingbirri in Firebite
Kelton Pell as Indigenous vampire hunter Jalingbirri in Firebite, a TV series shot in Coober Pedy in South Australia. Photograph: Ian Routledge/AMC+

Sunrise across the Australian desert. Headlights blazing, a silver Mack truck accelerates towards its destination, kicking up a trail of dust in its wake. In the driver’s seat is Jalingbirri, a “blood hunter” – the only one of his kind left standing. For years, Jalingbirri has defended his people against the monsters the first fleet deliberately unleashed. Now he has a date with a vampire king.

The truck, driven by an implacable Kelton Pell, sets the tone in the first few minutes of Firebite, Warwick Thornton and Brendan Fletcher’s hotly anticipated TV series for streaming service AMC+. Named for the bite that converts a mortal person into an immortal monster, the show reinvents the vampire genre for the Australian outback.

Starring Rob Collins (Total Control, The Drover’s Wife) and Shantae Barnes-Cowan (Total Control, Wyrmwood: Apocalypse), Firebite was born when Thornton learned how members of the first fleet transported vials of smallpox onboard their ships. His anger at that felt consuming, and it was something he wanted Australians to know – except he didn’t want to share it in the style of the “gut-wrenching, important pieces of storytelling” he had become famous for in films such as Sweet Country and Samson & Delilah.

“I was a bit tired of making films like that so I turned the 11 vials of smallpox into 11 vampires that the British brought over to wipe us out,” says Thornton, who wears many hats on Firebite, including executive producer, co-creator, director, co-writer and director of photography.

The show, fuelled by a team of First Nations creatives, kicks off when the last surviving vampire from the original 11 arrives in the remote mining town of Opal City, where an abandoned warren of mines lie beneath the surface. The 270-year-old vampire king, played by a cold-eyed Callan Mulvey, is determined to expand the only remaining vampire colony and bring the bloodsuckers out from their underground hiding place.

Standing between him and his goal is an unlikely duo – Tyson (Collins), a charming yet reckless failed blood hunter, and his 17-year-old adopted daughter Shanika (Barnes-Cowan), a badass who absorbs all Tyson’s lessons on how to capture and kill the “pests” around them.

While sequences were shot on location at Coober Pedy in South Australia, Amy Baker, the show’s head of production design, reconstructed the unique area inside Adelaide Studios, creating an elaborate network of tunnels where that distinctive white soil (trucked in from Coober Pedy) crunches under your feet.

Coober Pedy’s lifestyle and landscape seemed to Thornton one that would give any vampire a great cover story – “You portray yourself as miner, so you’re down in the mine all day, and then you come up to the pub and you drink all night, and that’s kind of what vampires do. They sleep all day in the mines and then come up and feed all night in the pub.”

Baker also created a wall of skulls (note the fangs) inspired by Europe’s catacombs, as well as cave paintings depicting the history of vampires in Australia and a lair with a throne of bones.

One room offers unrivalled insight into the world of Firebite. A secret door opens into Jalingbirri’s hidden lair in the Mack truck. Inside, a wall is dominated by the hunter’s collection of weapons, including the chopstick machine gun that spits out lethal little stakes, flashbangs that deliver a blinding dose of “daylight” and an assortment of boomerangs, sharp and perfect for killing vampires.

Tyson and Shanika in a vampire’s lair beneath Opal City
Tyson and Shanika in a vampire’s lair beneath Opal City. Photograph: Ian Routledge/AMC+/See-Saw Films

“Boomerangs are an alien concept to many people and I’m really excited that the extended world gets to just see a person who is using one as a warrior in a contemporary context,” Baker says.

It’s a reflection of Thornton’s determination to not create another Mad Max or Burning Man-esque production. “We wanted to keep everything grounded in this wacky, fantastic reality,” he says.

Opposite the weapons is a wall of missing people – potential “bleeders” being kept alive by vampires to be slowly drained for food. Rather than police posters, Baker chose to use detailed sketches and photographs (cheerfully donated by their sound designer and Thornton’s family) to represent the victims, underscoring that Jalingbirri is working with the communities to find their loved ones. Something, it’s implied, the authorities don’t care enough to do.

The whole thing, Baker notes, is “very Warwick”.

Unlike Sweet Country, which used no music, on Firebite Thornton opted for a pounding original soundtrack that reunited members of the Australian rock band the Drones along with the Dirty Three drummer, Jim White.

“I’ve always loved punk music because it is anger, and anger is energy,” Thornton says. “And there’s a lot of important information coming out of those three-piece bands with long hair. There’s a lot of education about society coming from there as well.”

In keeping with the music, “Let’s just wreck it!” became Thornton’s mantra. “The show is about kicking in the door and turning up the edge … It’s just a fun ride.”

Tony Krawitz, Warwick Thorton and Brendan Fletcher
Firebite’s three directors: Tony Krawitz, Warwick Thorton and Brendan Fletcher. Photograph: Ian Routledge/AMC+

The emotional heart of the show is the relationship between Tyson and Shanika. The latter is one in a long line of complex female characters created by Thornton, who has a predilection for plotlines that confront and subvert the patriarchy. He thinks it’s the inevitable result of growing up with an “Amazonian” mother and sisters.

“It’s subliminal for me, because that’s the way I was taught by powerful women, you know, to respect and love and to disagree and to argue but to be open-minded about all points of view.”

Thornton also recognises himself in the character of Tyson. “Dickheads come in every shade and Tyson’s a dickhead, he’s an idiot,” he says, laughing. “There’s a lot of me in Tyson. There’s a lot of my daughters in Shanika … It feels truthful to me – my role is to embarrass my children as much as possible.”

Though the series is uniquely Australian, its themes, in particular the impact of colonisation on Indigenous communities, feels universal.

Thornton figures someone could do a spin-off in India, Hong Kong or North America and it would work equally well. And though it’s been a crazy year, the film-maker still has more rock’n’roll to give. “I need a couple of weeks to sit in a stall at the pub, and then I’ll be ready to do it again.”

  • Firebite premieres on 16 December on AMC+, the new streaming bundle available via Amazon Prime Video channels and Apple TV channels

First published in The Guardian on December 16, 2021. Pix courtesy Ian Routledge/AMC+