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Culture, Movies

The Audience is Down Syndrome

by Roger Young / 06.08.2011

Part One.

Oliver Hermanus’ Shirley Adams was an assured debut, his follow up Skoonheid is a far maturer and bleaker work. Skoonheid is an important new work in the South African canon because it starts a process of interrogation that has been lacking in local film for so long. We had a lengthy chat with him at the DIFF about the process of making the film, the state of film as art in South Africa, funding and the perception of Skoonheid as a “gay” film. Here is part one.

Oliver Hermanus: My first film was an experience and this is an extremely different experience.

Mahala: But you wouldn’t have been able to make this second film without that first film, do you think?

It’s hard to say because for me personally, no, but from a financing point of view, possibly. Because the producer of this film wasn’t motivated by my previous film to make this one, he was more motivated by the fact that I was writing this film with the Cannes Residence, that was the more convincing element. But for me, I know that I wouldn’t have been able to direct this if I hadn’t directed that. Just because of the challenges.

Was Skoonheid a different work ethic from Shirley Adams?

Well, you do what you feel like you can do. Obviously it mustn’t be list a complete walk in the park but definitely in terms of schedule, I learnt on my first film what I can do in four weeks and I knew I could only do this one in five weeks and then you also know what kind of actors you need to work with so I know that I can’t really work with people who are not actors.

Do you ever work with non-actors?

I had a scene in this film that was a real chore for me. There’s this scene in this kitchen of this farm house where I had two actors and I had three guys that weren’t actors and it was like paint by numbers for me having to cut it up into extreme pieces.

But you had three actors in the kitchen?

There ended up being six actors in the kitchen.

Six people.

Seven people. The main character arrives.

But the guy that arrives with the coloured boy, he’s an actor?

He’s an actor and the guy who’s running the party, he’s also an actor and the guy that Francois ends up having sex with, he’s also an actor. But the other three guys are not actors. But they were cast on the fact that they were prepared to bang each other in front of an entire film crew. But for me that was difficult because then I have to think that I need to get reactions so then I would shoot shots with them and just keep talking to them like “and he does this now”.

Working with non actors is a totally different head space.

It takes time. It’s not directing and it’s not rehearsing, it’s kind of massaging into situations and you have to exact all the technicality from it. The self-conscious is what seeps through. It’s acting and not being. But sometimes you just get lucky. Sometimes you get great performances from people that are not actors because they just have it but it also takes time to find. I’m quite old-fashioned. I prefer to have trained actors. But Deon is not trained he’s just experienced. The one thing with directing, you must know your limitations and you must also know how you operate. Because then you must find the actors in relation to what you know you can do. That how I operated on my first film.

Part of directing is…

Casting. 90%.

So you’re a fan of Mike Leigh?

Yeah. Mike Leigh for me is like Father Christmas. He comes to school and he gives you classes but we all know that Mike has a very particular style of filming and that it’s not the norm; not even for the most Avant Garde film student who likes six months of rehearsals and having scripts. Mike is not like that. What I like about Mike Leigh is that he’s approachable and a really amazing teacher and her simplifies it for you and he really makes you understand what directing is through his process. He really is like Father Christmas because he looks like Father Christmas and he’s really engaging and giving. I really like his new film.

Which one?

Another Year. It’s my kind of film, although it was kind of long, there’s this one performance that you only get because of Mike Leigh’s methods. I like actors and he likes actors. But some of his other stuff is just so draining.

So he works with actors but he does intense rehearsals?

He workshops. So basically they construct their own characters. He kind of is directing for nine months because he doesn’t know in which direction he is going.

And he keeps it very rooted in the common man.

He’s part of a collective. He’s part of the Ken Loach, Stephen Frears, Mike Leigh band. The three of them. Lez Blair also. Their whole system is in reaction to the BBC system where they all come from. Which is this onstage, very dry, obviously British, that whole context wasn’t real, it wasn’t socially real hence they invented the kitchen sink drama basically. I love that fact that when Mike Leigh makes a film he still has the same problem as the rest of us, fundraising and a lot of other complications because even for someone like him, the British don’t really watch his stuff. He had a high period with Secrets and Lies and Topsy Turvy and then he sort of became an auteur again. But I think Another Year, that one performance is totally worth it because you don’t see that much in English language cinema. You don’t see that kind of vivaciousness.

Do you think that’s because English language cinema has become pure entertainment?

Yes, but I think Another Year works because of the way that performance relates. That’s not scripted dialogue. It’s just that the actress has so much knowledge about what she’s feeling and what she’s trying to communicate that it’s direct and it’s clear and it’s authentic. Whereas the construction of scripted dialouge and trying to unpack the construction as the actor, is not always as great and I think French cinema, I think it’s also the language, the way that the language is is more expressive than English as is German as is Latin language. So you find that the characterisation is a bit more advanced in that sense but American cinema, I can’t think of a single contemporary American film director under the age of 30 who is very exciting and doing something very original. This is no independent cinema in America anymore. No one pays for it. Hollywood has completely sucked it dry. Even Sundance has become one of the most commercial places you can go to and in fact one of the hardest countries in the world to become an independent film maker is America. You have no NFVF or you have no DTI. You can’t just like take a camera and go. You can’t get money from anywhere unless it’s a private person or producer and that producer is in Hollywood. So it’s painfully depressing.

And the Sex, Lies and Videotape period, was that independent?

That was a boom. That was a very big boom in the late nineties or mid-nineties, including Tarintino, but that also happened because there was a Miramax.

It wasn’t really independent.

Because Miramax was this champion of independent but then it became an institution and this is the same with Spielberg and Coppola and Martin Scousese, they were independent but right now you can’t think of a young American company. I mean even Christine Vachon who was like this bastion, she was this New Yorker and she makes these very hectic films, even she’s been confined. She has this deal with Focus Features now and even for her it’s become harder and harder to make something else. No matter what’s happening in America they still make these millions and millions and millions of dollars at the box-office for junk and New York Times is trying desperately writing editorials trying to explain why boring is not boring. These long essays by the two main film critics trying to refocus their horizons of the country on the fact that you’ve got to broaden your horizons because the Hollywood marketing machine has taken over and the audience does not relate to the film anymore, they relate to the marketing.

And the European audiences?

They kind of the same to a degree. People have this assumption that France is this really educated audience and only watch the best films but they are equally hard to please and they are also very American-focused. Like any country in the world. I think Germany is the hardest right now to be independent in because they are also struggling to keep that independent spirit right now. They also don’t have a name. They are struggling to get a brand.

An identity.

Like France still has like these up and coming guys but it’s not like Romania where the collection of film makers there are just really anti-establishment and they develop a serious following.

So do you think in South Africa we’re kind of lucky because the audience isn’t really entrenched?

In fact the audience is kind of Down Syndrome.


Basically you’ve just got to educate them. We are lucky because there is room to grow. It’s not like having to un-teach bad habits, they just don’t have any other options, but it’s good to be able to say to them “oh, you can go this way and there’s something else at the end of that road”.

I had this thought after a couple of the early South African screenings at DIFF, I was like ‘wow, all these films are like genre education pieces’.


Yeah, they’re textbooks to the audience and I was like maybe this isn’t such a bad thing that these films are so basic at this point.

I don’t expect to reach an audience with my second film, I expect to develop an audience. Like a twitter name. Gain as you grow. So you have to have that mentality. Pedro Almodovar didn’t start out making these big brand international films worth 18 million dollars .

You’ve got to learn by making mistakes.

And to make mistakes you’ve got to make a film. So more importantly the audience comes as long as you keep providing quality material, you develop an audience. But you can’t just then try and apply what you think your audience wants to watch. Which the NFVF assumes is Hollywood genre stuff. Because let’s face it, if you go to the cinema and you’re faced with some random low budget film and some really expensive 50 million dollar film, you’re going to go for that, not because it’s a better film, just because the marketing of that film is five times the budget of the South African product.

So why compete?

You can’t compete with the products and you can’t compete with the marketing. So give it up. You either have to make something that’s not comparable and the audience therefore has a direct different option as opposed to trying to put two things very close together. It doesn’t happen because that’s how Hollywood survives. They don’t get taken out of the equation. It’s not like we’re going to eradicate them with our own big blockbusters. Goodbye James Bond, Hello Simphiwe. It’s not going to happen. Other film making countries do this. I mean, Mexico never really had a brand, never had an image, never had a film business and the government was kind of like we’ve got 50 million dollars, we’re just going to like gooi it.

Australia did that as well in the 70s.

So it works. It doesn’t mean you’re going to get a hundred film makers, you’re going to get five.

But that’ll count.

It’s worth it because the film makers become a commodity for the country and it creates narrative and the audience is created so now Mexico does watch Mexican films as opposed to before when they watched nothing.

OK, so social realism, right?

Social realism, yeah.

There’s a scene in the restaurant where he’s eating on his own and it’s just that one shot and it looks like all the lights are off in the restaurant, but you’ve just chosen to subdue it. When you talk about social realism how in sync with it is that ethos to manipulate the lighting?

To be honest I wouldn’t even describe Skooheid as being social realism. My first film was social realism because it’s more of a document about a truth and a plot. This film, the approach was far more classical. Locations were chosen on the basis of their aesthetic qualities and their harmonious structure. It was a very constructed film in terms of colours and design. That night when that scene was shot it was also a game of where to put him versus how many colours to have and the temperature of the light so we didn’t feel obligated to walk into a space and not touch it. Some places we did because we chose places that were exactly what we wanted but this was a far more construct film. The plot line is meant to be cinema rather than pseudo-documentary.

So the Bronx scene…

Cause Bronx doesn’t look like that.

I’ve been in that bar at 4am feeling exactly the way that he felt. I know that situation.

Exactly but also when you walk into Bronx, you can’t actually shoot Bronx without those lights because it’s that dark and when you ask Bronx “Can you turn up the lights?” they’re like “We don’t have lights”.

So I was watching him in that situation thinking I know this but it didn’t look like this.

Yeah, that’s a perfect example where from a creative point of view; me and the photographer and the designer, we walk into it and I want Bronx because that’s logical for me. Somerset road is logical for me. But then you walk into Bronx and you turn the camera on and you get a whole bunch of… We actually went into Bronx and it was open that night and Bronx does have a bunch of strobe lights and blah blah blah and we were like we’re going to have to just pump this element up but then they kind of went a bit crazy with the like snake lighting so when you go into the bathroom, there’s like this big halo. But that was like half technical requirement for the camera and a production design solution for that. For me to be able to use that location, to have some sense of authenticity of Cape Town. But the like Clifton for example, you’re not allowed to close Clifton but through the producer talking to the city of Cape Town, I threw this tantrum, I was like “Look, do you have any fucking films shot on Clifton that was meant to be Clifton?”and not the south of France or the south of Spain and they were like no. Well now’s the time for you to think about the tourist implications of me finally putting on the international screen Clifton as Clifton. So they were like that’s a good point.

Did they have any idea what the script was at that point?

No, not at all. No one knew. This was the most tightly kept secret, this script. Fuck. I’m waiting for the lawsuits to come in. So we did close Clifton but even then when you’re trying to reconstruct something like I know what it feels like to go to that beach and I know what it looks like and then when you actually have to reconstruct it, it’s kind of weird because you’ve got like eighty extras and I’m looking at a frame, an empty beach and then moving person by person into that frame and then the designer comes with the umbrellas and moves colour by colour across the frame. So you can’t believe you’re looking at a frame and going, are we happy? Whereas in Shirley I would have never thought about that. The whole point was that the camera just follows and I would never not do something because I felt like it was the wrong colour. This was a completely more gay experience. Also because of the title ‘Beauty’. We chose the photography and the stylistic to be the beautiful element.

It doesn’t happen so much at DIFF but it has happened in films in previous years, like when Uzulu Lami was screened, people recognized elements of the landscape and cheered and like ‘Oh, there’s so and so’, and I’m not quite sure how you’ve achieved it but there’re so many familiar elements in your film that they just became subsumed in the story as opposed to…

Those standing out.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Do you think that’s the function of the way you designed it or do you think about that at all?

When writing this film and plotting his events and I was thinking OK, what would he do now and I was like OK he wants to go to a bar and then OK, it’s Bronx and then why does a Christian come to that braai? Ok, he’s gone to the beach because it’s a hot day and that’s what Capetonians do and then OK, he goes to Clifton. It’s all logical for me and it’s all very real for me. And then in trying to create it on the screen, I think that maybe people are so distracted by what’s going on cock-wise that they don’t have the time to go ‘Woo -hoo. Look!”

The only time in the entire screening when I heard someone react that way was when
somebody behind me went: “Oh God, it’s Chase!”.

I think my first film was so claustrophobic. The house and the streets and here, definitely, even the hotel that we shot in, because we shot in a hotel for three days, in Eastern Boulevard. It was chosen for the fact that the décor was so depressing. We couldn’t afford to redo a whole hotel room so we had to find a hotel that was suitably depressing and bam, there it was. It was the right green tone for us and continently it had the really great view of the harbour. That was based purely on a budgetary requirement and then at the same time the hotel was really excited about the idea of him saying “Oh, I’m staying at the Garden Court” and then like 20 minutes later he commits a crime in their hotel. They still don’t know.

They’ll know on Friday.

But also the family who’s farm we shot on in the Freestate.

Which one?

The sex farm. That man was uber excited about Skooheid coming to shoot there.

OK, that’s interesting. Is this film meant to do any real work? That family is obviously going to react badly because they’re from the same environment as your character is from.

Yes, the family has two choices. They either going to feel really robbed because they didn’t know that content was going to be shot in their house but we asked them ‘Do you have any problem not knowing what we’re shooting?’ and they were like ‘No, but is it political?’ and we said ‘No, it’s not political.’ And they were happy. So we kind of set them up to shoot themselves down. Because we said to them we can’t tell you what we’re shooting for the security of the plot or whatever but if you have a problem with that then we won’t do it and they said no we don’t have a problem with it as long as it’s not something about you know, Julius Malema which is an interesting main priority. I don’t think they ever assumed it would be about this. But I’m really interested to see what Bloemfontein thinks because we did shoot major sequences there. That Spur is like a Bloemfontein icon.

That scene! I don’t know, obviously it’s written but it’s so unexpected, suddenly the message that came across in that scene and you said this in the Q&A, the different milieus but you didn’t really highlight it until that moment. That’s when you really drove it home, it was heartbreaking.

I really have always wanted to shoot something in a Spur because even when I wrote that scene I was like what is he going to eat? Monkeygland burger. It came so naturally to me, all of the detail, in terms of like a Spur and the beach and it was so important for me. There was a moment when I was like it must be the Spur.

Have you spent time in Bloemfontein?

We did.

No before?

When I was much, much younger.

Cause there’s like a little jibe at the Mystic Boer as well.

She’s going to the Mystic Boer.

Yeah but it’s her. It just made it seem like an insult.

But everyone goes to the Mystic Boer and I mean where else is she going to fucking go? But I was insistent on that Spur because there was the option to shoot that scene in Cape Town and it could’ve easily been cheated but Bloemfontein would know that it’s not Bloemfontein. Bloemfontein will never know if the house that we shot for Francoius house is in Bloemfontein because unless they know every house in Bloemfontein they won’t. But the Spur was important for me because I wanted them to go “oh he really is here”.

Oh God, he’s among us.

That for me is a very important social element. I wouldn’t shoot major events in Cape Town, in places that you wouldn’t recognize.

But there’s been a couple of local movies at the festival, examples where local knowledge, and not just this year, in other years too, like I’ve seen a movie shot in Durban substituted slightly North coast stuff for slightly South coast stuff and it’s one or two shots in a sequence and people freak out.

It’s kind of down syndrome in that way because they assume that everything they seen that’s shot in America, that’s all accurate spots. I think that New Yorkers by this stage, they totally accept that Toronto is actually New York because whenever people are walking down the street in movies in New York, every person from New York goes ‘That’s not New York, I’ve never seen that fucking building’ but no one complains because it’s just part of the shooting because it’s too expensive but it really is Toronto, sometimes it’s Cape Town. So you kind of have to get over it. When you’re making films you can only shoot where you can afford to shoot so if you have to cheat them you have to cheat but you have to cheat right. I took me a long time to be convinced to shoot both houses in Cape Town and then I was like Ok that’s fine, we’ll cheat the Bloemfontein house in Cape Town but surely because the other house is set in Newlands, we should set in Newlands. It turns out that it’s really impossible to shoot in Newlands because these Newlands families are so used to charging R80 000 a day for a commercial. So then they were like why don’t we start looking in Somerset West for Newlands as well, turns out Somerset West is everything in this whole country. You can shoot Boksberg in Somerset West. You can shoot fucking Cape Town. You can shoot the South of France. And bam we found two houses, almost right next to each other. One of them has Cape Town architecture, late 80’s and the other has very early 60’s, late 70’s stuff. You cheat responsibly. You cheat and don’t get caught. Just like anything else in life.

End Part one. 
Part Two tomorrow: Marketing, Funding, Gayness and Awards.

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