For South African filmmakers, the 2000’s may be remembered as the decade where their contributions to film were recognized far beyond their borders.
In 2005, Tsotsi became the first South African film to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Tsotsi is about a gang leader who steals a baby from a mother whose car he stole. Interestingly, the film’s director, Gavin Hood, went on to direct X-Men Origins: Wolverine, released in May 2009.
In August 2009, District 9 premiered in theatres. Promotion for this film can best be summed up in three concepts: aliens, Johannesburg, and producer Peter Jackson, best known as director of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. District 9’s sci-fi interpretation of South African apartheid was widely praised as one of the most original films to come along in years. And, the film was comprised mostly of South African cast and crew.
The success of District 9 arguably put the South African film industry on the map for good. And even though building it up to becoming an industry that can compete and exist on the same playing field as Hollywood and Bollywood won’t happen overnight, it is possible with the kind of talent S.A. is starting to foster.
I recently caught up with groundbreaking South African filmmaker, Simon Hansen, who has been on the boil of activity since the early 1990’s. His résumé is hard to top within the borders of his homeland, South Africa, having been involved in a number of hefty productions performing a number of roles – from producing, to digital effects, developing new cameras, to writing and directing. In 2005 he co-produced the short film, Alive in Joburg, which is what District 9 was based on. The other co-producer was Sharlto Copley, who stars in the feature-length District 9. Neill Blomkamp directed the original short and the feature film.
From the living room of his busy home in Vredehoek, Cape Town, Simon talked about the state of the South African film industry, the making of Alive in Joburg and the upcoming release of his new film, Spoon.
The Leader World:Can you tell us a bit about your influences as a filmmaker? What got you interested in the business and how you got started?
Simon Hansen: Well like so many people as a youngster, five years old and watching Star Wars was obviously a major event for me. To experience that, you know to have been alive when the world turned toward different style of filmmaking and the blockbuster generation. That was probably the most memorable point. Superman was probably the first that influenced me, and still today I refer to. Pretty much I tell people there is very little you can’t learn from Superman, in terms of making films. It’s got everything in it – really good performances, directing, everything is very well crafted. Those are the very first things that influenced me, at a very-very young age. Then as I got older, obviously there were more other complex influences that came into it. The latest probably being M. Night Shyamalan’s movies. I think he was very directional in terms of taking the massive blockbuster concept that we’ve seen for the last twenty-five years that had inspired me to be involved in films, and reinvented that in a more subtle, humanistic kind of way. And I think a combination of those kind of influences had a lasting effect on me.
It’s an interesting question. So often movies we want to make aren’t the sort of movies we want to watch. They’re not always the same thing. And I think that stems from the fact that ultimately you get something from a movie that you didn’t have before. So if it’s a movie you’re going to make, you probably have that aspect, and you don’t need it from somewhere else.
TLW: Regarding ‘Alive in Joburg.’ As far as South African Sci-Fi goes, it’s on another level. When and how did the idea to make the short come about? Did you right away that you were on to something big with it? Can you talk a bit about your relationship with Neill Blomkamp and how you started working together?
Hansen: When Sharlto and I worked together, we started out to achieve the impossible. We were going to leave the country, or do something here. And we chose to stay here. The country was changing; we had a new government, there was talk of new T.V. channels. So we got involved in all of that. And we tried to basically redefine the industry. And in that process very early on, trying to put together a TV channel we ended up meeting Neill Blomkamp – who was still at school. We were one of the first companies to go digital, and had a small digital set up. That was something we recognized very early on (that digital was the way to go). So we built our own edit station and got 3D animation up and running, in the very, very early days – the mid nineties. And Neill was obsessed with 3D animation and films, and wanted access to this gear. So we struck a relationship where at sixteen we started to mentor him and look at what he was doing. Because he was incredibly creative, and straight away with 3D, from every aspect (not just being able to generate effects, but from a directors eye point of view within 3D he was directing from the very first clip he made. He would go and watch a movie like True Romance or Batman and a day or two later he would have recreated a scene from the movie in 3D, with all the camera moves, the effects and music. And this was incredibly impressive to us. So the relationship started there and then he ended up emigrating. And we’d worked on a short film, which Sharlto and I had boarded and he couldn’t finish before he left, but finished in Vancouver. That short got him into Vancouver film school where he finished top of his class.
And what happened throughout that period was we all stayed very close. Neill would come out for holidays, shoot some stuff, and we would facilitate it. We’d bounce ideas around, we created E-TV (the first privately owned TV channel in South Africa) and had our own brand on them called Dead Time, which ran overnight. And Neill was just incredibly passionate about that idea as well, so he would make clips for Dead Time, very much in the spirit of we wanted to create the whole brand. We wanted talent to come forward and participate – much the same way you see Youtube unpacked now. That was the idea, but it was a bit ahead of its time.
The interesting part about that was that he was in the First World and we were in the Third World, and our discussions invariably were always about that contrast: Neill’s frustrations in trying to explain things about South Africa to the first world; that they couldn’t really understand. They had this view of it, and things they latched on to, but they could never really sink their teeth into the conflict. It was frustrating for him. We would be living here romanticizing the first world, and Neill ended up romanticizing South Africa, having left it. It was like all those triggers that we feel when we’re not here. So he’d always want to come back and shoot stuff here, but he never felt like he could succeed in South Africa. We tried to shop his work around here and couldn’t, so it was a massive issue here for us because we all had this frustration: there wasn’t an understanding of talent. What was talent supposed to do? We’d always complain that people would leave, or other companies would film here and bring their own talent, but then when it came to the actual nation recognizing and supporting talent there wasn’t a structure for it. So we really tried to be that in the local industry and those few things developed over the years, and I had gone to various locations to shoot some footage for Tetra Vaal (http://kotaku.com/193567/tetra-vaal), which was basically an South African Police (SAP) robot, also done mockumentary style, you know the first of its kind in the world – this robot designed for the ultimate policing force in a third world environment; it was durable, lasting, easy to maintain, all shot with handheld cameras. That was sort of the mid point of the development for the idea (for Alive in Joburg), as far as Neill was concerned, because he really developed it. A lot of the sensibilities came from our discussions about South Africa. We were just facilitating him as a talent, because we just knew from the very first day we saw him that we’d be doing exactly what we’re doing today. It was undeniable.
Eventually after a whole bunch of time went by, and Neill had been scouted and was busy doing commercials, he had this idea of doing an alien movie in the townships and delving into all of that stuff we discussed; the third world frustrations and take the world view, and United Nations on how this was unpacking, because it was always different to how we could see it locally. There were all these dynamics that you couldn’t see if you were somewhere else - the things that we as South Africans know. So he was really keen to make sure it was authentically South African, not an American Hollywood film that came here and distorted that South African thing to such a degree that it was unrecognizable to S.A. people. And that’s why it was so important to him that South Africans make the film. So we produced the short for him, and basically made it happen. He came out here with a few bucks and an idea and we put it together. With Sharlto and I producing, put it all together and created the short that went on to shots. And once it was on the Internet it started gaining momentum, and the rest of it was how we landed a deal – Halo falling though, and then Jackson suggesting something else. And there was Alive in Joburg sitting there. I always believed that an independent approach from a talent like Neill would be the most empowering thing. And I think he played it very well in terms of how he’s done it. Because he did get a kind of independence by going through Peter Jackson. TLW: What was it like seeing Alive in Joburg make the transition from a short film into a full-length feature that has done so phenomenally well. What was it like working on the feature, compared to the film?
Hansen: It was quite a bizarre experience, especially because the scale of the production was so big, and the degree of acceptance for this content was so high. It was the short film on steroids really. The difference was that you suddenly had all these resources around you; specialist things that make it so much better. From our perspective on the unit where we shot the documentary style footage, in between all the action it was very much the same. We had a very small team, we got in a van and went through the townships and we got people in those townships to participate. And it was a very liberating and exciting thing to do, because people really embraced the project. But for the action side of it was a scale of production with real edge to it. And then to watch Sharlto’s performance come to life, you know from the characters we developed during the various pilots. To see the world receive that was one of the most bizarre and interesting things I’ve ever seen. Especially because of all the debates we’ve heard in South Africa over the years: Can we make good movies? Is the South African accent the problem? Do we need to have American accents in our films? And one of the most bizarre things was that Sharlto and I had debated that single thing for fourteen years. And here he was, playing this character which would be come such an icon in film history. And its almost because he had a South African accent that I think the whole experience, with Jackson being involved and the notion of doing something properly and doing it well, really reemphasized what I’ve always believed – it doesn’t really matter what the accents are. Just look at Apocalypto and Passion Of The Christ (both Mel Gibson movies) – neither of them are even in English. But if it’s made well, got a market and tells the story properly, the foreign aspect of it all just created more appeal for the film, and I think that’s what happened with District 9. Everything is first classed, which just enhanced the South African-ness of the film and made it even more appealing then if we made it about aliens in South Africa, and a Navy Seal team that comes and they go in Jerry Bruckheimer style to shoot them up. It wouldn’t have had the same effect.
So that’s my take on it – what I think was so exciting about watching it unfold was the growing South African popularity. I think that’s probably the biggest thing Jackson and the scale of the production brought. That legitimacy: Finally we are looking at, not just a struggle movie, but something truly compelling and watch-able in a pop-corn way. All the actors are South Africans, baring the Americans that played bits parts. And I think that’s a great achievement on its own. TLW: Yourself and Sharlto Copley seem to have a great working relationship. You were both involved with “What the Bleep do we Know About Anything!?” and more recently, “Spoon.” Have you been friends for a long time, or has it just worked out that your career paths have followed closely. How important are those kinds of relationships in the film business?
Hansen: In this country there is no support system, there’s no one you can go to fund your film or pay for your script. You’re pretty much on your own. And there are incredible down sides to that – there are incredible up sides to it as well, in terms of independence and freedom. But you don’t get budgets, you don’t get support. You know the conventional industry that we speak of, where we talk about how many billion a year we do in the film industry, has nothing to do with the industry I work in. That’s foreign films - service work. When you are the creative force of films in South Africa there’s very little support.
So your alliances, friends, colleagues, your partners, associates, the network of people you have in this small community are incredibly important. And Sharlto and I realized this right in the beginning, when we met and started working together. We had total respect for what we’d each done and thought that if we go together in this very difficult environment we have a way better chance of achieving something than if we’d been an island. Because already there was no cohesion in the industry. And that proved very effective. We worked as a producing team for fourteen years with a specific objective, and I think this is, I think the greatest achievement either of us can lay claim to, is the deliberate means by which we pursued this end goal, to be in this position.
TLW: Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming project, Spoon? Do you prefer being in the writer/ director role, rather than producing?
Hansen: Ja, totally. I want to write, direct and produce. I want to be behind camera, and most importantly I want to innovate within the film industry. We created, with two companies in America, these cameras that we shot Spoon on, which we then used on Slumdog Millionaire, which won the Oscar for cinematography. So I want to do more of that. I want to be on the cutting edge of ideas, which is my strongest point in film, but also how films are made. For me, that’s my area.
In terms of Spoon, it’s still not released. We held it back because of District 9, which was exactly the right thing to do, because the project’s profile has now been massively elevated. We’re looking for a much wider release now with Spoon that we’d ever anticipated before District 9.
I don’t want to say too much about the story, but it’s a supernatural thriller about a young man who takes medication for a condition. And when he stops taking the medication, some strange things happen and he makes a remarkable discovery about himself and who he actually is. So that’s really the basis of the film. We’re in the final stages of polishing and readying it for output next year. We’ve begun to enter into festivals, and we’re hoping that by the first quarter of next year to have it on the big screen.
TLW: Where do you see the future of South African filmmaking heading?
Hansen: I think that’s a double edged sword. It’s the same with Spoon. It makes me incredibly nervous - the notion of having the spotlight on you. It creates an interesting dynamic. The one is that it raises the expectations and the profile, which puts incredible pressure on what you’re going to deliver. And it’s so important that people have realistic expectations about what they’re going to watch, because it changes how they feel about it. If you go into a film expecting the best movie you’ve ever seen, and its only half of that you’re going to rate it really low. Whereas if you go expecting nothing and you’re blown away, because it exceeds your expectations, you’re going to rate it higher than you would have. So films like District 9 and the Oscar winner, Tsotsi, has put incredible pressure on our industry to deliver a standard that is really, really high. And many people don’t understand that District 9 is a Peter Jackson film first. It’s not a South African film first. So it’s got the backing of a very established, successful, competent, international film maker, who has put his weight and resources and contacts behind the marketing, which we’re not going to have. We’re still going to have these million Rand, 5 million Rand films. (Roughly between 89,000 to 450,000 Euro). We’ve got to compete with a 30 million dollar film, which even in world standards is a low budget for films like D9. So we have our tasks set out for us quite firmly and we have to deliver. So on Spoon I’m trying to say, “think of Spoon as a 6 out of 10 movie. Think of Spoon as better than 9 of the last 10 films Nicholas Cage was in.”
So its certainly challenging and we have to be very, very innovative, and we have to lift our game a lot top make sure that everything we starting to see out of South Africa is of a higher standard, and that we don’t let international audiences down for a second. You know, to say, “Oh, that was just because of Peter Jackson.” We’ve got to show them very quickly this is not just a flash in the pan; Hopefully Spoon will help do that. There are minds here that are driving this. Its early stages, but its gold rush time. Its time to start throwing some money at the territory. Not massive 100 million dollar budgets, but start producing 10, 15, 20 films a year, start to see that happen. And hopefully not struggle movies. Hopefully struggle movies will form a part of that film set, but it will be much wider. Just love stories, just comedies, some more science fiction – it won’t just be one type of film. I think that the trap we have to avoid in our industry. And it will be a struggle for another 5 or 10 years, but I think this is the most exciting time to get involved in the industry.