The next day, writer-director of Tsotsi, South African-born Gavin Hood discussed how he turned the gangster film on its heels by way of visual restraint, empathy of character, and social conscience at its core.
As has been pointed out, kind of ironic how a guy named Hood makes a tender yet stark gangster-crime film.
I must admit, I liked this guy. Any filmmaker who fought to use the South African ghetto/shanty town slang, Tsotsi-Taal, who fought to have a soundtrack dominated by the home grown hip hop flavored Kwaito music, even using one of its own stars, Zola, to play the nattily dressed boss, Fela, makes him easy to root for.
Besides, the Kwaito music is a lush score. The production’s ability to find an ensemble cast that brings famed playwright Athol Fugard’s (‘Master Harold’…and the Boys, Boesman and Lena) 1980 novel, his only one, so vividly alive, is a joy for viewers worldwide.
He’s a filmmaker who had to fend off persistent financiers eager to have a star “name” attached to the lead role, and a filmmaker just as comfortable entering honest discussion about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission during a Q & A session after the evening metro Detroit screening.
The screening had a surprising number of South Africans checking out how this homeland movie fared on the big screen.
The responses from South Africans in attendance were varied and discerning. To a question of whether some Johannesburg suburbs were actually shot there, Hood revealed they were not - in a last minute production shift, the scenes were shot in Pretoria. Another challenged the validity of the shantytown portrayal in relation to contemporary Johannesburg. Hood stood his ground, vigorously defending the realism captured during the production, saying the shantytowns were actual locations not studios, and lastly, an attendee responded to what in her mind was the film’s ability to carry the South African existential-like philosophy/idea of “ubuntu”, which Hood expounded upon during our brief but revealing meeting on the next day.
Gavin Hood makes you feel like he’s open, willing, and able to talk about his work, his ideas, and his thoughts about the state of the South African film industry. But more importantly, Hood shared his hopes to be part of the new breed that helps cultivate the product coming out of the homeland he so clearly dearly loves. As many in the film community have known, South Africa has the production resources, but as Hood personally exposes, it now has the production talent to reach the high plateaux other world cinemas have achieved on the international scene.
In a country where international cinematic acclaim is few and far between, Hood must have felt immense pressure. After the screening he revealed that South Africa had difficulty in the “dilemma” of selecting Tsotsi as the country’s official Academy Award representation.
According to Hood, Tsotsi’s budget was in the US$2.5 - $3 million range, while production took place for eight weeks during the rainy winter nights beginning in December 2004.
Although trained as a lawyer, Hood caught the acting bug then veered toward working behind the camera, attending UCLA in the early 1990s, then gaining valuable experience writing/directing award winning commercials about the HIV/AIDS epidemic ravaging South Africa. Hood made his feature debut with the little seen but critically lauded, A Reasonable Man (1999), which featured the late Sir Nigel Hawthorne and Hood himself as the other lead.
Amongst Tsotsi’s concerns were a cast needing to be found among locals after Hood eschewed the financiers’ call for the proverbial ‘name’ actor. Hood stuck to his guns and now reaps well deserved kudos for a film which leaves an indelible mark by its devastating final conclusion. Much of the film’s success is due to these “found” actors’ performances.
In the post-film Q&A session, Gavin was as honest, straightforward, and energetic as he was in our later interview. As Hood stopped in Detroit to spread the gospel of this “little film that could”, he was gregarious and expectedly upbeat. Now making his entrance as a new voice in the international cinematic scene, he is a talented, seemingly unpretentious filmmaker with a strong base in the written word. I must also say, with the limited time, as I told Hood, there was so much more to discuss about his lyrical, hard hitting film which at its heart, is genuinely affecting.
The film has an ability to take you inside the world of one particular criminal mind (without forced voice-over). It explores a breadth and depth of socio-economic and philosophical issues in South Africa, perhaps even the United States and other urban cities around the globe. The present day setting and the pleasant-to-the-ears Tsotsi-Taal shantytown patois has the ability to raise the novel above its dated 1950s to attain a contemporary acuteness.
Film world, say hello to Gavin Hood…
Julian Boyance (Movie-Vault.com): Now that you’ve had a chance to think back to when you went into production, what were your thoughts of the goals and where the film could accomplish itself in the film world. Because as you sit here now, the Oscar nomination, the success at film festivals --
Gavin Hood: Yeah.
Julian Boyance (Movie-Vault.com): Did you set those goals in your mind?
Gavin Hood: Well, I mean, that’s a great question. I think none of us dared to dream that we would have the kind of response, you hope for a response, but the truth is when we finished the movie and we were trying to get into festivals, we were just hoping that we would get into a festival because it’s not always easy to get your film into competition in a festival. So then there’s been many little hurdles along the way. I mean, you think, well, will we get accepted by Edinburgh (Film Festival), then we got accepted by Edinburgh, that was exciting. Wow, how does a movie from South Africa in Tsotsi-Taal, you know, that’s “gangster speak“ that we have, which is a mixture of eleven official languages that the inner city kids speak. This little movie’s gonna play in Edinburgh, that’s cool. And then we won the Audience Award, and we like, looked at each other like, wow, people really like our movie, that’s cool. And then we got into Toronto (Film Festival) which was a bigger festival and we were kind of playing on the fringe of the festival. We were like on the last day, I think, of the festival. And, you know, we weren’t in the main cinema, but there was some sort of buzz had come over from Edinburgh. So the screening was packed and we won the (People’s Choice) Audience Award at Toronto and that really shocked me. You know, that was amazing. Because suddenly we were on the map, and Miramax who are distributing the film, I’m pleased to say, saw the film in Edinburgh and made us an offer right then. So they’ve believed in the film before it ever won any awards. But my producers were holding out, and, ah, made them wait until Toronto. Because they got excited that we’d won the award in Edinburgh. So they thought ‘hey‘. And I was worried that we might lose the deal. And then, you know, we won the Toronto Film Festival and there were some significant offers coming in and suddenly we really were as they say, “on the map”. But it’s been a very exciting ride, it really has.
Julian Boyance (Movie-Vault.com): Are you based in Los Angeles or South Africa now?
Gavin Hood: Both. And it’s almost been necessary especially when I started in the business the South African film community, um, making our own stories, was very, very small. There are a lot of international productions and especially lots of big commercials which come to shoot in South Africa, so we’ve been lucky in that sense. Because a lot of, you know, you now can rent any gear you want there. So as a filmmaker in South Africa you can get hold of any film gear and the film crews are really good because they are used to working on big international productions, both commercials and features. But the thing that has been slow as it comes to the fore, obviously, is the screenwriting and directing because films that come to make films in your country are not coming to develop scripts, they’re coming to make a film. So your grips and your lighting guys are all very up there but the screenwriting is slowly coming up and I’m pleased to say, we’re now one of at least a dozen films a year that are getting made, which may not sound like much but for us twelve films a year is a big step from even five or ten years ago, when it was maybe one or two. So there is very much a body of work beginning to emerge. And one of the pressures you feel as a South African making a film in South Africa - you can’t help but feel a certain responsibility to the rest of your industry not to screw up. You don’t want to take that pressure, you kind of resent that pressure but you are aware that there are a lot of people watching you and going, “Don’t screw this up.” Because you don’t want to make a film, you know, that sets the dreams and aspirations of the industry back and by that I particularly mean, you try to encourage investors to invest in local product, and ah, and that means that local product, if it can make it’s money back or hopefully better, it encourages investors to invest in more local product. So that’s been one of the exciting things about Tsotsi, I mean, we really didn’t know how people would respond at home or abroad. So the response at home has been really gratifying and exciting and it’s doing well at the box office, and this is a wonderful feeling of relief quite honestly because you feel as if, okay, a lot of people are happy and you don’t realize how much stress you were carrying until it actually starts working, you go, “Oh, I can breathe.” You know?
Julian Boyance (Movie-Vault.com): Now, you can tell me this and I can keep this off the record if you want. Something I thought about when I heard about financing the film and financiers bringing up a name actor, could you tell me who those name actors were?
Gavin Hood: Um…I’d actually rather not…just because its…what I will say is this…what I want to say about the name actors, cause they were really nice people, I would have --
Julian Boyance (Movie-Vault.com): American or British?
Gavin Hood: American, yeah. And they were really great actors, they are great actors. They would have done a great job, but I think, here’s the issue…I mean, I don’t think any filmmaker should deliberately not get a name actor for their movie. This business is so hard to market a film. You need all the help you can get. So, here’s the perfect world, in a perfect world, you want a name actor, who would be right for role. And when we think of Don Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda, bang on. Unfortunately some stories, you just feel like the names are being tortured to fit with a paradigm that is designed to help the marketing. And the story has been distorted to accommodate some reason to have that name there. And audiences kind of smell that, when they smell something that feels slightly fake in some way, they don’t respond. So having a name doesn’t guarantee box office (success). And so one of the things that was inspiring to us and we are very fortunate to have the benefit of hindsight, there’s now been a number of films made in different ways, and there is by no means one way to do it, but if we, you know, sometimes a name can really work as in Hotel Rwanda but other times it’s less successful. So we then looked at what the South American filmmakers have been doing. They were really inspiring, the Mexican filmmakers and the Brazilian filmmakers who have been making there films in their own language, using local actors, and you can’t imagine a film like Central Station, City of God or Amores Perros or Y Tu Mama Tambien done with a name actor in English. Some truth is gonna be lost. And so we looked at both, and those films, relative to their budgets, have done well commercially and other films actually more films made the other way, have actually lost money. And then you go, there’s something wrong with the commercial paradigm here. Actually, the commercially sensible thing is to stick to what is best for this film. Now if it’s best for this film because of its subject matter, that this lead being an international name can fit, as I keep saying, you must take them. It’s crazy not too. No young filmmaker should do otherwise. But when it’s not gonna work and it’s gonna feel tortured, then you’ve gotta commit to doing it in a way that those guys have inspired us. Those South American filmmakers have inspired us and that’s where I took my inspiration from, and that’s what we did with Tsotsi. And once you decide you’re gonna do it in Tsotsi-Taal, well that kind of limits the number of name actors you can go to because not too many big name actors speak Tsotsi-Taal. So then you go home and you start casting and auditioning and then you worry you might not find the right person. And then we were very fortunate when Presley (Chweneyagae, who plays Tsotsi) came in and (was) just extraordinary and had this amazing emotional range.
Julian Boyance (Movie-Vault.com): Well, I love Meirelles, you know Fernando, and City of God, and that’s a film that’s been brought up in comparison to yours, and I’ll hopefully touch upon that later. But when you say using indigenous actors and native languages and the music, which I’m sure you’ve heard wonderful things about…
Gavin Hood: Yes.
Julian Boyance (Movie-Vault.com): I love that you’ve done that because it’s important that the indigenous countries keep a hold of their own cinema. And listening to the music of the soundtrack (during the film), with each song I was impressed, I loved the sound of it, and I just loved how the Kwaito music worked in concert with the dramatics.
Gavin Hood: Thanks for raising the music because I think one of the things one wanted to do is to give the film energy and pace. You know, you want this film to grab the audience in their seats and pin them in their seats and give them a really great emotional ride. And one of the things the music helps do is exactly that, it gets the film off to a great energized start. And then, precisely cause you’ve had that energy, it allows me those moments of stillness, it allows those counterpoints. You were talking earlier before we started about this rhythm and the change of rhythm and upping the stakes, and upping the ante all the time, and having being able to go from this driving music, when you need those moments of stillness, were its just him (Tsotsi) one on one with the baby, or him one on one with the girl. You feel you’ve earned the right to just take some time there and then you drive the film again so we were just…it’s fantastic, people say how did you find this music? We were just really fortunate, this is the music coming out of the townships. This is the music. It’s like what music do you want to use on your soundtrack about this story? Well, I want to use the music that’s coming right out of the place where I’m telling the story. It made our life very easy. And Zola (Kwaito recording star) most of whose songs we used in the movie, plays Fela. It’s great to have him in a cameo role.
Julian Boyance (Movie-Vault.com): Were you into Kwaito music before?
Gavin Hood: No. I mean, I confess that I’d listened to some but I would lie to you if I said I knew it well. Because while I was writing the script, I was not at home. I was not in South Africa. I was in L. A. and my producers were in L.A. and London. And so when I went home, one of the first things that I did with my producer Peter Fudakowski, was go into a record store and just get as much South African music, I mean I knew a lot of South African music, I’ve always kept up to date with South African music, but I had kind of been missing a couple of years. And one of the things we did was just go in and just get everything and listen to everything and the tracks you hear in the movie are sort of the ones which floated to the surface, as it were. And then we met Zola who is a fantastic guy with tremendous energy and a great deal of social commitment to his community. And just a great person, and he really supported the film. You know, some people have said, and I feel like I’ve gone on the record with this, you know, there are other Kwaito artists who are very good - how come more of them aren’t in the movie? I mean, honest truth was, is our budget, some of the record companies that represented those artists, and I won’t name them, wanted so much money per song, that like by two songs, we were done (budget), we had nothing. And Zola was the person who came in and said, “Hey, I want to support this movie.” And he kept certain rights to the soundtrack. So it was a good deal for everyone. If the movie does well, he’ll do fine. If it didn’t, he was supporting us and trying to get a South African film made. And I’m very grateful to him for doing that.
Julian Boyance (Movie-Vault.com): What really impressed me, outside of the lead actor, who blew me away with his expressive acting - but everyone had a great presence. It seems like the casting was perfect for each role.
Gavin Hood: Well, thank you. I have a fantastic casting director as well called Moonyeen Lee, who goes into community theaters and everywhere to find young talent. And so, she brought us tremendous people for the auditions and really, we were spoiled for choice in the end. You know, there were a number of actors for each role. Some were more difficult to find then others. And then in the end you find this wonderful ensemble that really works together, and I thank you for that because I think that they all play off each other, really, really well. There’s not a false note from any actor (Terry Pheto, Kenneth Nkosi, Mothusi Magano, Zenzo Ngqobe). I mean it’s a great ensemble, yeah.
Julian Boyance (Movie-Vault.com): I have to hear about your UCLA experience being a screenwriter-filmmaker myself, tell me a little bit about your UCLA experiences.
Gavin Hood: Well as far as UCLA, I owe a lot because I came to UCLA, I went to night school, the UCLA Extension program ’cause I was a little older to go back and start again in film school. So I went to night school and I learned a lot from the people in my class, and most classes, who were a lot of times older folks with different disciplines coming to learn a new discipline - writers coming to study directing, actors studying writing, and cinematographers studying directing. And us studying cinematography. So you’ve got a great mix. And so part of what you’re learning from is that ensemble group, again, of people. But what I really think is interesting is, I think what really helps is to understand that American film has been around a long time and the screenwriting structure has learned to give films energy and pace that audiences like. Now I say that because the trouble is that a lot of times it begins to become a sort of repetitive, formulaic, exercise. But I think it helps every young screenwriter to really study the conventional paradigm. Because then when you want to shift it as we do slightly in the movie (Tsotsi)…you know, I think the film has a rhythm and a pace of a mainstream movie, if I dare say. But I hope that its theme and ideas and then the way it ends, kind of subverts the convention. So you can’t really be subversive until you know what it is you’re subverting. A lot of people say, “Ah, I don’t want to learn that stuff.” I tell you what - it’s worth it. It’s worth getting into those great screenwriting books as I’m sure you have. Immersing yourself. And then saying, “Okay, well, now how do I still create something original out of that.” And at least that helped me. It helped me - it gave me a sense of security to know what the general thinking is. So that I could then twist it in a way to serve me, knowing that I was breaking the rules…a little. And yet sticking to enough rules that we know audiences like, in terms of rhythm and shifts and pace and getting all of your characters set up early on. Not introducing someone so late. I mean, those sort of things that are helpful.
Julian Boyance (Movie-Vault.com): What would you say about your style and influences?
Gavin Hood: My influences. A lot of people have talked about City of God, and I’ve always said, I think it’s a great film. But I was quite intimidated by it, because of the incredibly good way, how well it was done. But in a way, I was more influenced by Walter Salles and Ang Lee. I love the intimacy with their characters. I feel their directing style is restrained. I like their compositional work. And I have a background also as an actor and a still photographer. My dad was a great still photographer. And so I like a well composed image that’s well-lit but then captures the essential emotion. So I’m not inclined to move the camera around that much. I tend to favor what Walter Salles and Ang Lee do. Because a lot of people said to me Tsotsi’s a ghetto movie and a gangster movie, so it will be 16mm, hand held, very gritty. And as I say with great respect to City of God, I thought that film was brilliant and I’m gonna look like I’m imitating. So, but then the second thought is how are the two films different? And the truth is Tsotsi, although it’s set in a ghetto, it’s very quickly an intimate story about a young man and a baby…and a young man and a woman. And there’s many scenes where that intimacy is critical, and when you need to be able let that actor do their work without, showing that you’re in the room. And so the style then evolved out of that, that desire to look into his (Tsotsi’s) eyes and be quite still and not be boring. But actually earn those emotional beats. And I think that’s what something like Central Station was inspiring because again, it’s a grumpy elderly woman and a young person and their relationship is very one on one. So your style should suit the subject matter and in City of God, I hastily say, I think the style was absolutely appropriate - because you’ve got a whole lot of kids out of control - that you can’t keep up with. So Meirelles’ shooting style was perfect for that particular story.
Julian Boyance (Movie-Vault.com): What’s next?
Gavin Hood: I don’t know. I have some possibilities and options but I’m reluctant to say because so often one thing goes or another thing goes. So what I will say is next, is the next few months I’m focused on getting Tsotsi out into the world because we’ve been given this gift of a nomination (Academy Awards) that really helps us get the film out there. So the next few months I want to help get the film out there, so thanks for talking (laughs heartily).
Julian Boyance (Movie-Vault.com): Last evening a woman in the audience mentioned ‘ubuntu’ in relation to the characters, specifically the father of the kidnapped child and Tsotsi. Can you spell that for me?
Gavin Hood: (spells it on a piece of paper) Ubuntu, which basically is a form of humanism. And I like the phrase, “I am a person –
Both of us in unison: “Because you are a person.”
Julian Boyance (Movie-Vault.com): How’s it performing in South Africa?
Gavin Hood: Very, very well. And I can say you can go online now (on the film’s official site) and look it up. But it’s breaking box office records, which again, a huge thrill. That’s gonna be the next challenge in the States, is it gonna die in a week? I don’t know? I hope not, dude. Maybe it will come out and be gone. So…but at home, we’re pleased to say it’s going better, really better than we expected.
Julian Boyance (Movie-Vault.com): Right.
Gavin Hood: There you go sir…
Tstosi opens in limited release in the U.S. on Feb. 24th, 2006 and wider release there after.