River rises

River rises

By Michael Pickard
June 10, 2024

The Director’s Chair

As his journey making outback road trip drama Thou Shalt Not Steal enters its final stages, co-creator and director Dylan River tells DQ about creating a series rooted in his home town, his rules for filmmaking and why storytelling is in his blood.

A road trip from Alice Springs, in the heart of Australia, to the city of Adelaide in the south of the country can take up to 16 hours by car, with the route stretching out across more than 1,500km. It’s a daunting drive, but it’s more than familiar to filmmaker Dylan River, who has made the journey on multiple occasions – and has now placed it at the heart of his latest television project.

Thou Shalt Not Steal, an eight-part series set in the 1980s, follows Robyn (Sherry-Lee Watson), a young Aboriginal delinquent who escapes detention to seek out the truth behind a family secret. After he teams up with awkward teenager Gidge (Will McDonald), they flee her small central desert community on a perilous journey across the outback – but hot on their heels are Maxine (Miranda Otto), a sex trafficker whose taxi Robyn stole, and Gidge’s domineering father Robert (Noah Taylor), a fraudulent preacher.

When River speaks to DQ about the show, he’s deep into post-production on the road series, which is set to debut on Australian streamer Stan later this year.

He’s not just the director, however. River also co-created the project with executive producer Tanith Glynn-Maloney, continuing a partnership from their 2019 drama Robbie Hood, which similarly is set in River’s hometown of Alice Springs, following a young troublemaker who has a habit of breaking the law, despite trying to do the right thing.

Robbie Hood was an idea River came up with as as example of the kind of story he would want to watch, but initially he didn’t want to make it himself. It was producer Ludo Studio (Bluey) that partnered with him and then persuaded him to step behind the camera on the 6×10’ shortform comedy-drama.

The son of filmmakers, Dylan River has been keen to earn his own place in the industry

Happy with the outcome, they then decided to reunite on a longer series, with Thou Shalt Not Steal running to eight half-hour episodes that tell a story rooted in River’s own childhood.

“I grew up in Alice Springs, where there’s a lot of stigma around Aboriginal kids and youth and the crime that they committed,” he tells DQ. “I’m very interested in exploring the reasons why they commit those crimes and what their backgrounds are. All kids are innocent, they’re just a product of the upbringing and their situation, and it’s nice to look at that and have a laugh along the way.”

The son of filmmakers Warwick Thornton and Penelope McDonald, River initially worked as a cinematographer before making his directing debut with 2013 documentary Buckskin. He then made numerous short films before Robbie Hood, and has since collected directing credits on Mystery Road: Origin and The Australian Wars.

“It’s definitely in my blood. My mum and dad are a great storytellers, and I grew up around the industry, but I shied away from it for a long time,” he admits. “Nepotism is quite a strong thing in Australia, so I try not to get given things. It’s always about making sure you’ve earned it. That’s probably a big reason I shied away from it and still do, to a certain extent. I don’t want anyone to think I’ve gotten a free pass because my parents are filmmakers.

“In the same breath, I feel that it’s only made me strive to do the best I can and prove I make films because I want to make films and I want to tell stories. I’ve never done anything else. I don’t have a fallback. I’ll just keep cracking at it.”

River also wrote Thou Shalt Not Steal – which is distributed by DCD Rights – with Glynn-Maloney, though he describes himself as a “struggling writer” and somebody who much prefers to work across a project in its entirety, from developing an idea to seeing the finished product on screen.

River says Thou Shalt Not Steal “has definitely got a lot of myself in it”

“That’s why I try to be a part of the whole process. I struggle as a writer, but I know I’m a much better director for having written the things I’ve written,” he says. “If someone else gives me a script to direct, it is quite a challenge for me to understand the nuances that are in it. If I’ve written it, there are a lot of subconscious things on the page that aren’t written which I understand, which I can then explain to the actors I direct. So I feel like I’m a better director having written the things I write, but I love the whole process.”

River – who previously featured in the DQ100 – actually began writing the series during the first wave of Covid, dipping in and out of other projects along the way. He started with a treatment than ran to approximately 200 pages, “and most of that’s been thrown in the bin.” But he always knew it was going to be about a road trip with “some cool cars,” set between Alice Springs and Adelaide during the 1980s.

“Tanith and I originally wrote that up and then Ludo and the producers came in and we did a few writing rooms,” he says. “Sophie Miller, who’s a writer and director herself and a story producer, came in to help us in the final stages of putting scripts together. Then it was just a really fast process from being greenlit to writing the whole series in four months.

“It was fast and furious,” he continues, “but the beauty of directing what you’ve written or what you’ve come up with is you can freestyle a lot of stuff on the day. You can get scenes to a point where you’re happy with the geography of it, what rough things need to be said. But then when you get there with the actors, you can make it up, which is fun.”

That geography proved to be one of the challenges in filming, as the show essentially follows two different road trips – one with Robyn and Gidge, and a second with Maxine and Robert who are following behind.

River found he had to let go of his own experiences driving the Alice Springs-to-Adelaide route, which follows much of the Stuart Highway, beginning in Darwin in the Northern Territory and finishing in Port Augusta, 300km north of Adelaide. He did drive the entire route several times during pre-production, but with a crew of more than 100 people to support, filming in isolated stretches of the outback wasn’t feasible. Instead, shooting had to take place closer to Alice Springs, and backgrounds were found to match real locations along route, taking the 1970s and 1980s vehicles with them to shoot at various towns.

His other directing credits include fellow Oz drama Mystery Road: Origin

“We were a moving caravan and it was logistically very challenging. I’m learning as I go and I learned a lot on it. I learned that road trips are hard,” he notes, with the show’s period setting responsible for other production hurdles.

“I knew our production team and our art department would be able to cover all the things we needed to do along the highway because we’re in the middle of nowhere. We probably only needed two vehicles and the actors in their costumes, and it looked like it’s 1980. But when you come into the towns, it’s more of a challenge.”

Behind the camera, River describes himself as a very visual director who wants his work to both look and sound good while never showing the same shot twice. For every project, he also creates rules for the world of the show, which go some way to dictating where he will put the camera or why he might cover a scene in a certain way.

On Thou Shalt Not Steal, one rule was determining whose perspective each scene would be shot from, whether that’s Robyn or perhaps even a background character watching the protagonists.

“Once you create those rules, it’s really easy to follow them,” he says, “and you have a blueprint for how it’s going to look based on those. That’s my biggest thing as a director. Every production is like, ‘Here are the rules of the world. This is why we’re going to shoot the way we’re going to shoot,’ and we just follow that.”

River also has a certain way of working with actors, but it’s a method built less on rules and more on collaboration. “I’m not really big on rehearsals, but I do like sharing scripts with actors early on while I’m still writing,” he says. “As soon as they’re involved, I get them involved in the process because I feel the actors know the characters better than I do. If we create a relationship early on while I’m writing about the character, I can put their ideas in there that I agree with and that creates trust.”

That star Watson also hails from Alice Springs proved to be a fortuitous coincidence, and River sought to tap into her understanding of the show’s Central Australian community – and its often playful, “cartoonish” tone as the show inherits his own “dark” sense of humour.

It also added fuel to his belief that telling “stories from home” is a unique proposition, and can offer Australian viewers an insight into a part of their own country they may not have seen on screen before.

“I feel that authenticity is what really draws an audience to something, showing them a culture they don’t understand and don’t know,” he says. “Someone else telling this story in Australia might not see the sense of humour I see.

“For me, where I live, a lot of Australians have never been there. All the news about it at the moment has been that it’s a crime-ridden town, but it’s also a very beautiful town. The most common thing I get is like, ‘Oh, you’re from Alice Springs. It must be hot there.’ Well, actually it’s really cold as well – and it’s hilly. It’s not flat.”

Though the director admits Thou Shalt Not Steal has been a difficult production, he’s now looking forward to the part he finds most rewarding, when audiences get to see the series.

“We can see the finish line,” he says. “This has definitely got a lot of myself in it. It’s a lot of my humour. It’s a lot of my own personal experiences twisted into other characters’ experiences. Like a musician releasing an album, I’m extremely nervous about being vulnerable about what this is. I know some people will really dislike it and some people will love it, but I’m ready for whatever comes.

“The fallback,” he adds, “is I make films for myself. I make them because I like to make them, and I make them so I can watch it once when it’s done and then never watch it again. That’s what I tell myself anyway. But I know that if I make something I like, someone, somewhere is going to like it as well.”

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