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Jérôme Salle on 'City of Violence'

Jerome Salle - Writer/Director of City of Violence aka ZuluJérôme Salle is the writer/director behind City of Violence (aka Zulu), a gritty crime drama thriller about two detectives, co-starring Orlando Bloom and Forest Whitaker. The story is set in Cape Town, South Africa and based on the award-winning novel, Zulu, by Caryl Ferey. Spling sat down with Jérôme at the Mount Nelson hotel to discuss his latest film, which closed the Cannes film festival and is currently on circuit in South Africa.

How did you get involved in this project?

I first got involved by reading the novel. When I closed the book I thought to myself: this is a great novel, a great story, but I'm not going to do it because it's a South African story. So my first answer was no. So the producer called me and said why don't you fly to Cape Town and spend 2 or 3 weeks there.

That was my very first time. I spent three weeks meeting people and then changed my mind, because I had the feeling that being a foreigner could be a positive thing. When I talked to a black person, there were no ghosts around me because I didn't feel guilty and that makes a big difference. So I thought perhaps I can do it, but it would have to be as truly South African as possible, so that was the challenge.

What really attracted you to Caryl Ferey's book?

The balance between a strong, entertaining story and its universal themes of revenge and forgiveness. Everyone knows what it's like to have a feeling of revenge, perhaps here more than anywhere in the world. That's why I thought it was a strong story. I never would have done a movie with a specific South African story because it makes no sense for me.

It probably helped coming here as a foreign director that you were able to see it from an international audience's perspective…

I think that helped me a lot, I was talking to a friend about how he thinks it's normal to feel guilty. We had a long conversation about that, but now I understand what he means because if you watched your grandparents live with that, you have to deal with that too. It would be difficult to shoot a movie in Morocco or Algeria, which is a former French colony. When I talk to people there, I haven't done anything but my father was there during the war, so it also belongs to me, it sticks to me.

What was the greatest challenge in adapting the novel?

I think the challenge wasn't about the adaptation. The book wasn't written for a South African audience, so you have many pages talking about South Africa and back stories talking about what happened here, what happened to Ali. Why did he leave Kwazulu-Natal? It's a bit boring for you because you know about that. I didn't want to make it the Hollywood way, which would have had scenes explaining the entire history to the audience. It makes no sense, it becomes a Hollywood movie created for massive audiences all over the world. We had the release in Japan a few months ago, I wanted to show what was happening, so it was just about finding the right balance.

How would you say making this film has changed you?

Making this movie changed me as a person, living here, making this movie, trying to understand the culture... we shot everywhere, from Camps Bay to Khayelitsha. I've been through all of Cape Town, but I haven't done this in Paris. There are some very poor, diverse areas around Paris but I don't have any reason to go there.

…so now it's your second favourite city?

Yes, I feel at home. It's a very strange feeling. I came back here a few months ago for three days. That was a really weird feeling, landing here and feeling at home.

And what was it like having Zulu close the Cannes Film Festival?

Great in retrospect, because we had a great reception. I feel blessed - especially with this kind of movie, big-screen movies would come for promotion and then there are many alternate films, but this one is somewhere in-between. It feels incredible to screen your movie to a theatre with 3000 people. While I don't love Cannes as a person, screening your movie is amazing as a director, but there's incredible pressure. Often the media in Cannes are much more unfair than they are out of Cannes, especially when you're screening right at the end and everyone's tired. It's a difficult choice to go there.

Why was the movie title changed from Zulu to City of Violence?

I don't know. We kept the new title for most of the countries... we changed it for Sweden, it's about marketing or perhaps they were afraid people would be confused. What is Zulu? It takes place in Cape Town. Just to hear the pitch, two detectives in Cape Town, named Zulu... it doesn't make sense.

Djimon Hounsou was originally cast, what was it like working with Forest and how did casting him change the character?

Djimon was on-board with the movie nearly from the beginning, because the producer was already thinking about him because he's quite famous in France and speaks perfect French. It was interesting to have an African actor and we met a few times in LA. The truth is we had scheduling issues, and at one point I was here on reccie three months before the shooting, so his agent called me and said he had this big-selling movie he had to do and we'd have to push the shooting date forward.

At this point I had a choice, I could push the movie forward or recast. That same night I had a phone call from Forrest Whitaker's manager telling me I know you have some scheduling issues with Djimon, if something happens, I just want to let you know he is aware of the project and I'm sure he'll love the script. When you have the opportunity to work with Forest, you take it, because he's an amazing actor. Of course it changed because Djimon is younger, they don't have the same silhouette. Forrest is so gifted that he can do anything.

Orlando must have been pleased to have been cast as a hard-living character for a change, and what was it like working with him?

It was great, he was so happy to make this movie... that helped of course. I was looking for an actor who's never done this kind of classic character. If I think of a Hollywood actor who's done that 10 times before that's going to be difficult to repeat. So working with Orlando was interesting for the movie and for him, I knew he would be motivated because it was his first time making something so different and I think that was a big help for the movie too because the fact that in real life Orlando is someone very positive, a cool, friendly person. So the fact that he's playing a depressed, dirty, alcoholic guy, gives it something strange and different. I think he was very motivated and worked very hard.

Jerome Salle on the set of City of Violence

It features a large South African ensemble and I just want to know which of the supporting cast impressed you the most?

I can't tell you that, I'm very proud that we found all the other roles, except the two leads, in South Africa. It hasn't been so easy, we had some professional actors of course. We also worked with some street casting. I love the fact that it was a mess. We'd shoot a scene with Forest Whitaker on one side, an Oscar winner, and on the other side a guy from the rehab centre who we're supposed to follow because he can't be alone and that was great. So that's why I think it's such a great job sometimes, because you're working with all these people, who are all so different... they had the same goal and when it works, it's great!

Just out of interest, do you think the film could have also worked in Joburg?

It would have been a different movie, because I know Cape Town quite well. I don't know Joburg well but intrinsically it would be very different. It's more natural in Cape Town, but there's probably more segregation here than Joburg. Joburg has a totally different atmosphere.

You shot at some majestic locations around South Africa, what was it like working here, and more specifically, how do you think we can improve as a film-making destination?

It's a great place to shoot, it's a great place to work, and I'm sure we'll be back one day or another. Two of the four projects I have, are scheduled to shoot in Cape Town not because it's a Capetonian story but just because it's a great place to work with great crew. From a practical and technical point-of-view I think you're at the top. I've spoken with many directors from all over the world and we all think shooting here is wonderful.

How can you improve your film industry and your own movies? It's all about money. You have the tools: you obviously have the human tools, I don't know if you have the screenwriters, I guess you have the directors. You need to create a tax like in France, for every ticket sold, you take a percentage and you give it back to make movies. We still make 150 movies a year in France thanks to that.

Looking back, what was your favourite scene?

The last scene. We shot that in Namibia and honestly we were exhausted, we had a very small crew and shot all the scenes in two days but very fast. I don't know how to explain it, but we were living with this movie and these characters for three months so we were shooting the movie like it was in a dream. For me, one of the reasons I decided to make the movie was because of the end scene, because I knew it could be very strong and different, but that was very risky because it could be ridiculous, but I always try to make something different.

And what would you like audiences to take away from your film?

Well, I hope they will understand what we are talking about, the meaning, that talks about forgiveness, even if it's very violent, even if it's dark and gritty and I hope that here in South Africa people will forget the director is French and the two leads are American and British. Otherwise, the movie is South African... Orlando, Forest and I came here very humble and we worked hard to make it as South African and loyal to the country as possible. So I just hope they will have a clean and fresh look at the movie.