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Desmond Denton on 'Spelonk'

Desmond DentonDesmond Denton has been telling stories and making films since he could hold a video tape recorder. From his school days, he began working on sets as a runner... eventually enrolling at AFDA film school, where he studied directing and writing. Completing an honours in Communication, a post graduate degree in psychology, he's currently busy with his masters in fine arts.

The recipient of over 16 international awards for his film work, Denton is currently in the post-production phase of his post-apocalyptic vision, Spelonk, which is set for international release. Spling interviewed Denton, who is carving a space for himself as a creative and passionate film-maker.

Can you tell us a bit about Spelonk?

The film is based on an old Afrikaans legend and the most exciting thing is that we get to bring this legend to life in a post apocalyptic future world. The world of Spelonk is one which we seldom see on screens, especially in South Africa. The beautiful Cape Town that we know and love is transformed as the backdrop of the futuristic apocalyptic film.

Welcome to a world undone. The Cape Town we once knew is gone, destroyed by the greed and carelessness of man. This is the story of Dante, a bounty hunter, without a cause - living to survive in a dire apocalyptic world. Water is the currency, the highest commodity and essential to survive. On a bounty hunt Dante finds himself lumped with two young children. The series follows Dante as he embarks on new bounties, having to deal with his responsibilities as a baby sitter. As enemies both old and new surface, he must endure far greater threats if he hopes to survive. Each mission is about surviving another day and keeping the children out of harms way. He travels into the depths of fallen lands, underground cities meets mythical creatures and fights for seemingly unwinnable causes.

What inspired you to write this story?

Spelonk's story explores how different characters deal with life during apocalyptic times, and brings about essential truths about human nature. Spelonk has been inspired by a big love for history, folklore, creating South African films that can bridge our borders...all these elements and yet one key component has been driving it all along.

We chose to depict Africa, South Africa in an apocalyptic fantasy landscape because we believe it is a land of magic, of great history, wonderful stories- and within this exploring a new avenue of film-making. We wanted to make the type of stories we love watching, the stories that inspires us to make films. Making a sci-fi post apocalyptic film in itself is a daunting task. We are truly excited to showcase South African films in a whole new way. Unique custom designed hand-crafted clothing, weapons, diverse culture, fighting styles - all come together in one epic story. Set in 2044, this is a gritty steampunk action film, what is not exciting about that!

A large part of writing Spelonk came from having my first daughter, Katelyn. It has been an incredible journey thus far and I feel like I am learning so much about myself, the world and finding big truths with her in the middle of ordinary moments. I have been fortunate to travel with her to countries such as the USA and Turkey and got a first-hand experience of how the world came alive to her. As I am a writer, director and storyteller, I ask myself what story do I tell little Katelyn about the world she grows up in. What hope do I grow in her heart? What fears and reality will she face?

Having produced various drama and romance films- specifically since there is a commercial market for these - I wanted to venture further, to dare to make the films that I love watching... the films that inspire me and drew me into film-making as a child. A quote from Steve Jobs rings true in this matter "Remembering that I’d be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."

With my little girl in my arms, with the big responsibilities of caring for this fragile new life - I felt braver than ever before... and set out to write to story of Spelonk, and what a journey it has been.

How difficult was it to create a post-apocalyptic version of Cape Town?

Spelonk has come a long way... from being selected at the Kyknet Silwerskerm festival for one of the top scripts, which was then further developed by the team into a feature. The script has been selected as one of the top African films in development with the Berlinale Talents program - presented at Durban Film market under mentorship of the incredible Sara Blecher, the concept was tested at the London Film Festival, developed with Euroscript panel, pitched and officially selected to represent South Africa at the New York Film Festival and is now ready to be fine-tuned as a film for market. We have in this process secured our international representative. The team has truly gone out of their way to bring this story to life, from the script, on set elements and currently the intense process of post.

Spelonk Movie Poster

From the start, we wanted to really delve into the genre of sci-fi, with a twist of western. We watched films, read scripts and theories to better understand the genre and themes. It was truly important for us to bring the themes, conventions, aims of this genre to life in Spelonk. In the process we didn't only write the script, but in the research wrote also the Spelonk Survival novel, which is written by 12 authors involved in Spelonk writing/research. This book is a creative comprehensive apocalypse survival guide that tells short stories filled with insights into the world of Spelonk. This book has been co-written by Edward Bennet, Tamzin Atkins, David Barbier, Jonathan Maree, Zolie Markey, Shervaan Baros, Fiona Fertyn and myself.

The film-making process itself has been about building on the strength of our team. We brought in weapons specialist, Anton Beukes, who is one of the best close combat trainers available. He came with new techniques that are unseen in most Hollywood films. Eric Uys, the lead actor himself is a specialist in various fighting techniques including sword fighting and was vital from the start in assisting in developing the story to have both an epic yet real feeling to it when it comes to the fight scenes. Lee Toffar, Jenny Ayumi and Johan Jordaan are incredible artists that brought another level of stunts to the film. The costumes were all made for the film. Artisanal knives by the incredible Dunn Blades and many more elements we were very specific about in bringing this world to life. A mix of experience at the top levels of South African film, and fresh, hungry young blood all came together in various departments to bring this film to life.

Part of the challenge of making this film was finding an authentic "South Africanness", balancing with the sci-fi genre... the balance between an entertaining apocalyptic film and an element of realness or a deeper message within. We did not want anything to feel fake, yet we wanted to take audiences into a world beyond their imagination with elements of their own lives, their own fears and hopes. We set out to achieve a lot with limited resources, a great team and a dream to make this film a reality.

Day Zero is a major element of the story... are you using Spelonk to convey a message beyond being a cautionary tale of what could be?

Clearly, humans are a force of nature, but unlike any other natural disaster, we are not only the cause of so much destruction, we participate in it - whether directly involved, or passively watching. The film in itself is an act of awareness... of our impact on nature, each other and bringing about the question of what future are we shaping or passively watching as it is shaped by others. The film brings about the best of a post-apocalyptic action film with a tale of caution to society, a testament to people who care about future generations.

Spelonk allows us to research, investigate the unique setting of South Africa and Cape Town, yet with very real concerns. "Our apocalypse is not caused by the "what ifs", it's caused by the "what if we don'ts."

What is interesting is that we started this research more than 4 years ago for this film. At that stage the Day Zero water crisis was not in public awareness. For me it was more a question of the future of South Africa, using fantasy to create a world that might seem way out there, but revealing some essential truths about things that could lead to such a world, as well as some human truths we find when we take away all the things we take for granted.

I am currently busy with my Masters in Fine Arts on this topic 'Post Apocalyptic South Africa - narrative leap into the future to discover key insights about today'. Spelonk has become my personal question - what world will my daughter grow up in, what world we are currently shaping and what will leave behind? It's a journey of hope and yet sometimes fear.

The question of a future South Africa, of the country we are part of and shaping. My story became really small as I thought upon this question and bigger story. This was the start of the journey of Spelonk, the post-apocalyptic adventure series. Reminiscent in textural, language, playing on stereotypes and imagery that are familiar to a South African landscape. Set in 2044, Spelonk brings the reality closer to home - the threat is real, the apocalypse is coming here.

Spelonk Movie Poster

Is there a specific film genre you’d like to specialise in?

I have worked on various different local and international films and commercials over the years. This includes various cinematic released films such as: Jagveld, Mooirivier, international films and series including the apocalyptic film, Planet of the Sharks, from the makers of Sharknado.

I really do enjoy the sci-fi genre and would love to extend more into that. It's definitely a very exciting space to create new worlds, or to delve into the past. We have recently produced a film called Circle of Fate_, which is a human trafficking thriller set in 1980.

What led to your interest in film-making?

I grew up inspired by stories. I am blessed to have grown in the house of a father who read me lots of stories, and inspired me with a love for a world beyond my own. Dr. Mario Denton, international author and industrial psychologist, was my first mentor. I used to read story books and sum them up to him to get a small allowance at first, but it didn’t take long for me to get lost in the world of books at the library. It wasn't long before I found myself telling stories through video.

In those days it was still video cameras with small Beta tapes. I filmed stories with my friends and used the video recorder (video tape player) to edit. Playing between the camera and the recorder, we use to cut together our own movies and handmade title sequences. Years later I was privileged to also work on 35mm film before the whole digital revolution started. I literally learned what it means to cut a film, frame by frame (non-digital) and see the colour grading process.

Another big influence was the world of theatre. As a child, my parents took me to see a theatre show. I saw people dressed up nicely, stepping into the big theatre. In front of my eyes the stage came alive, a world brought together with lights, backdrops and actors. I was in that world and I was taken away in this “make-believe” reality, moved by the characters, I went on a journey along with them. I was inspired by arts from a young age and wanted to find a way to become a master in this craft.

As interesting and glamorous as it seems, film is a skill one really needs to develop. It's not always as glorious as one often makes it out to be. It requires a lot of hard work and perseverance, but I would not choose anything else. Film allows me to explore stories of the real and imagined, to look at the world and imagine, to analyse every little bit of detail and best of all, bring together a group of diverse people to bring stories to life.

I wake up to see a world filled with drama, conflict, suspense, adventure and fantasy. I wake up to see the stories all around me. It makes me feel alive. Watching others meet and in conversation I overhear the exchange of stories as people narrate their lives to each other - trading tales. It makes me realize that this life is not merely an intellectual exercise and that people are not moved to action by an overload of data, technology, or spreadsheets. People are moved by emotion and the best emotions are usually engaged by the simple phrase... once upon a time. I am honored to be a descendant of an immense and ancient community of holy people... of troubadours, of traveling poets, kings, boer kommando – of storytellers. I tell stories in order to live.

Spelonk Movie Poster

You’ve worked with some of these actors before?

Yes. I have worked with quite a few of the Spelonk actors including Greg Kriek in the film Mooirivier where I was the production manager. Abduragman Adams was in my graduate film, Vaderland, and it was great to work with him again after all these years. He has done incredible work and can be seen in Suid Ooster on television nowadays.

Over the years, I have been really fortunate to work with incredible talents from world famous celebrities such as the Hairy Bikers/ Jamie Oliver, musicians such as Jody Williams, Hemelbesem (and internationals), various incredible actors such as Gys De Villiers, Albert Maritz, Amalia Uys, Milan Murray, Carishma Basday and many many more. Making films is a very collaborative process. As a director I have the fortunate role to listen to the voices of the various departments, to share the idea and to grow the story to something much bigger than I could ever do alone.

There has been many who have inspired and mentored me over the years. For these pioneers and legends I truly take my hat off. Special thanks to Herman van Deventer, Kofi Zwana, Dean Blumberg, Cobus van den Berg, Akin Omotoso, Jamil Qubeka, Meg Rickards, Jacky Lourens, Jan Hendrik Beetge, Sara Blecher, Greg Kriek and many others.

I understand you’re in the post-production stage with Spelonk...

The principal photography and rough cut are complete! We are beyond excited to finalise post production of Spelonk and take it to festivals internationally. Creative editing, colour grading, great sound design and an amazing score all play a vital role in the production of a professional-looking film. We worked really hard to make sure that the images we filmed are great and we want to honour that quality in our post production. We are currently reaching out to companies and key individuals to get involved to support us to finalise this stage and take the film to international festivals before release.

What’s it like getting a film together in South Africa?

Making a film in South Africa is incredibly hard work. Making a film anywhere for that matter is not an easy task - even fully funded studio films, as the team of Spelonk has worked on films such as Dark Tower and other internationals. South African films have grown in leaps and bounds and we are so proud of the various films that are doing well internationally. South African filmmakers have over the years worked hard on service jobs - such as Black Sails and other international features. We've honed our skills and I believe are now ready to tell our own stories in an exciting new way. This includes films such as Five Fingers for Marseilles, Apocalypse Now Now, Nommer 37 and so many others. We are very excited to be part of this wave of fresh South African films that push the medium of film-making, using what we have got and growing our industry.

Do you have a personal mantra as a film-maker?

From the moment of conception, when the light goes on and someone has the idea of a story... till the point where it reaches the audience. The whole process is one about problem solving. As a filmmaker, especially producer - the better at problem-solving you are, the better filmmaker you become. You get to work with different personalities towards a shared dream, you have to understand and best find ways to attract the investors and give them a return on investment, you have to balance the business and art.

Running after sunlight to make sure you get it all in the can for that day - and at the end of it all, we are crazy enough to go for it, production after production. There is something strangely surreal about it all. We bring worlds to life and in this creative family we share, we survive and ultimately we dream together. One thing I always say as my key lesson and personal quote “You have to learn the art of business, to truly understand the business of art”. It is the balance of the two worlds that helps you grow as an artist and industry.