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Greg Kriek on 'The Recce'

Greg Kriek is a gung-ho South African actor and producer, who never shies away from a challenge and gets stuck in. One of the hardest working film professionals out there, he's constantly honing his craft, pushing the limits and committing himself to the art of film-making. When he's not on set or working his magic, he's preparing for his next role. A consummate professional and a gentleman - it's always a pleasure interviewing the rising SA star.

His latest film, a war drama called The Recce (opens nationwide 28 September), directed by Ferdinand Van Zyl, finds him getting down and dirty in a physically demanding leading role. Spling caught up with Kriek to find out more...


How did you come to be involved in this project?

I got the leading role in The Recce through the good old traditional process of auditioning - however it was a grueling waiting period of almost 2 months before they officially confirmed me. Between being optioned and booked really is actor's hell for so many (laughs).

Can you tell us a bit about your character - was there any resonance for you?

I play Henk Viljoen- a recce who is wrongfully declared KIA behind enemy lines. Abandoned by his superiors; it’s a race for survival in which his mental and physical abilities are pushed to their limits, as he navigates his way through the treacherous Angolan war zone in an effort to make his way home to his loved ones.

It was a tremendous honour to get to play Henk - I really resonated with his tenacity, his dogged perseverance, his deep sense of duty as well as his inner struggle of pursuing his passion and being with his loved ones at the same time, specifically the fact that sometimes these often are in conflict with one another.

The Recce - Henk Viljoen

How did you prepare for the role?

Ah man this was hands down the most physical preparation I have ever needed to do for any character - I went to a special boot camp with MILSPEC where they taught me tracking, special forces weapons handling, basic bush craft and sniper training.

In addition to this, I received horse riding lessons, stunt training and I also spoke to a lot of ex recces off-the-record and heard their harrowing stories, as well as family members of those who served.

I also read as many books as I could leading up to the film and watched numerous doccies and movies in between bulking up at the gym.

What did you learn from your time shooting The Recce? Would you be interested in doing more war films of this nature, why?

It was one of the most rewarding experiences to research, learn, immerse myself in the history and discuss all areas related to becoming and being a RECCE and a soldier.

I absolutely love this genre and really would love to do more films of this nature. I think so many men and women of war from across the globe have been misunderstood and have chosen to remain silent owing to various factors. I think film will continue to be a powerful catalyst in bringing about conversation and ultimately healing.

It looks like a labour of love involving blood, sweat, mud and tears - what was the most challenging aspect of your performance?

Firstly, my biggest challenge was to do as much research and preparation for the role - out of respect to all the recces and men that served their country. I wanted to bring the truest portrayal of a recce that has ever hit the big screen to date.

Beyond that my body was really put on the line - by doing most of my own stunts, dragging myself through rivers, mountainous snake-infested terrain, whilst truthfully incorporating my training in tracking, bush craft, weapons handling, horse riding and intel gathering. Beyond the physical challenge - to also truthfully immerse myself in the mental state that a recce or soldier truly needs - in order to survive in the bush.

The Recce - Henk Viljoen

What is your most cherished memory from ‘The Recce’?

It’s too tough to single out a specific memory as there were so many- but what I cherished so much was the camaraderie we formed as a film crew and cast under very tough and brave filming conditions. I think all the location moves, living and working together daily for over 6 weeks (in a war zone) brought us all together in a very deep way. We all knew that we were dealing with sensitive subject matter that needed to be treated with respect.

What do you think audiences will take away from the experience?

For audiences I would say that the movie is relevant and honestly explores how the war and the era - affected all of us no matter our gender or race. The one thing I really respect about the film is that there is no political agenda and I love the balance of how it explores how both men and women were affected by the war. It is both universal and local in that sense - and I think that we are finally ready for this film, which is told in a way South Africa hasn’t seen before.

Viewers can expect to see a raw and honest survival drama in the context of an action packed thrilling war epic. It showcases well-developed characters both male and female and delicately handles this sensitive subject matter that will hopefully spark conversation within families across the country.

Hanneke Schutte on 'Meerkat Maantuig'

Hanneke Schutte's film, Meerkat Maantuig (Meerkat Moonship), is a coming-of-age fairy tale drama about overcoming fear, growing up and pouring light into darkness. Spling now ranks it as one of his favourite South African films of all-time... and caught up with Hanneke to find out more.

Meerkat Maantuig - Hanneke Schutte

When did you envision Meerkat Maantuig - can you tell us about the journey from conception to final draft, how did the original idea evolve?

The film is based on a youth novella called ‘Blinde Sambok’ by Riana Scheepers. I’ve changed the book quite considerably, but I retained the central idea of a little girl living with a cursed name. When I read the book the first time I fell in love with this strange, dark tale of a young girl who thinks she’s going to die because of this old wives’ tale that she, and many people around her, believed in. It made me think about all the beliefs we cling onto that limit our lives.

Anchen du Plessis is a real find... such a fascinating face, am I correct in saying she was discovered quite recently - how did she come to be in your film?

You’re right, Anchen was an absolute blessing. She wasn’t originally cast as Gideonette, but we lost our lead two weeks before principal photography and we had to scurry to replace her. I’m a firm believer that if you can embrace these kinds of challenges/happy accidents during production and pre-production, they always end up making the film better.

Anchen played Young Killer in Vaselintjie so it was her second film and her first lead role.

The casting is superb... are the actors close to how you imagined them in your head?

The magic of great actors is that they bring so much of their own life stories and world perspectives to their roles. They imbue the characters with idiosyncrasies and vulnerabilities that help us to identify with them. So yes, each one of them brought something special to the role and they exceeded all my expectations.

There's a Studio Ghibli air of sentimentality and blend of nature/technology in the design of this production... is that an influence or a coincidence? Did any other films give you inspiration for the look and feel?

You’re the first person to pick up on that! I sent our Production Designer, Waldermar Coetsee, a picture of Hal’s Moving Castle as inspiration for the moonship. We wanted to create something magical, whimsical and childlike. It was important that the design felt like it originated in the mind of a child.

He sent me this tiny drawing of the moonship (we still joke about how terrible the drawing was) and I thought that’s it, that’s the naiveté we’re going for!

The farm setting is sun-dappled and magical... how did you come upon this beautiful eco-forest location?

I found that location online while I was still writing the film. The farm belonged to this amazing guy who was an avid gardener and blogger. I followed his blog for about two years and I completely fell in love with the farm. When it came time to make the film I had my mind set on that location. He was in the process of selling the farm and the sale fell through about three times, so we kept negotiating with people and then losing the location. Our producers wanted me to find another location because time was running out, but that was the one thing that I wasn’t willing to compromise on. Finally, after some long and skillful negotiations on the part of our producer, the new owners gave us permission to shoot on the farm.

There's a horror element at play, was this film meant to be darker or more in the realm of fantasy at any point?

From the start the intention was for it to be a fairy tale. A story that is set in no particular place and in no particular time. Fairytales, especially the very old ones, have very dark and macabre elements because they deal with children’s fears. I didn’t want to shy away from that - if you’re going to deal with fear, it should feel real. But I didn’t want it to tilt into a full on horror or fantasy either, which is the tricky line I had to tread.

You did a great job of obscuring story elements, keeping the sense of mystery and intrigue at the fore - how tricky was it writing it this way?

With every draft I tried to take out elements that were too obvious or gave things away too early. Looking back I realise I made some mistakes and I could’ve done even more to make it subtler and more mysterious, but that’s the lesson you learn with every film.

Willie Nel's cinematography is lush, sumptuous even... composing some beautiful shots, using textures such as mesh netting and glade sunlight... is the finished product close to how you imagined it?

Absolutely, it’s exactly what I’d imagined, which isn’t something you can say very often. We had a hidden Pinterest board with tons of reference pictures that we worked from. Inspiration for the mood, the tone, the textures etc. I still love revisiting that board because Willie really managed to capture exactly what we had envisioned.

Do you keep a scrapbook of ideas for film... there are subtle touches throughout the film that make it seem so?

Yes, back to Pinterest! While I write I collected hundreds of pictures that help me create the mood and tone and bring the film to life. I’m a very visual person and it really helps me to see the film while I write it.

I’m doing it again on the script that I’m working on at the moment. Whenever I feel stuck I just go back to the references and I immerse myself in that world.

What do you see as your greatest strength as a director?

I’m actually not sure, but I think it helps that I approach a film with no ego, which means that I stay open to people, to challenges and to my own mistakes. I’ve found if you stay open and vulnerable it creates a space where magic can happen.

What was the most enjoyable part of making Meerkat Maantuig?

Our time in Magoebaskloof was absolutely incredible. It felt like we were a bunch of kids at Veldskool. We laughed and cried and struggled through the rain and mud, it was truly a life changing experience.

What was the most challenging aspect of making Meerkat Maantuig?

It was the same thing that made it so memorable! It was incredibly tough shooting in a rain forest and dealing with spiders, snakes, mosquitos and mudslides. We constantly had to change the shooting schedule to work around the rain and we lost hours every day waiting for bakkies to get pulled out of the mud, but it helped us to band together and it created a wonder spirit of camaraderie.

Meerkat Maantuig informs the buoying tone of this movie, was this the original title?

The book was called ‘Blinde Sambok’, but we thought that Meerkat Maantuig captured the spirit and whimsy of the film a bit better.

How did South African audiences respond to this film?

To be honest, I think many people were a bit baffled by it! It’s not the type of local film audiences are used to watching and I think it probably leaned too far towards being an art film for it to really reach a wide audience. But that being said, I received so many emails from people, young and old, who told me that the film had deeply affected them. A few moms who told me that the film helped them to open up conversations with their kids about their fears. One mom even told me that it was the first time she’d seen her sixteen year-old son cry in a movie and that he wanted to watch it a second time! And that’s more meaningful to me than anything else.

How has the film been performing on the festival circuit?

We’ve been overwhelmed by the success Meerkat has had internationally. The film has been selected to screen at 17 international film festivals and we’ve received wonderful feedback. We’re incredibly grateful that our small South African story seems to really resonate with international audiences.

What's next for Hanneke Schutte? Have you got any upcoming projects that you'd like to mention?

I’ve just finished a final(ish) draft of my next screenplay called The Poem.

Unfortunately, it’s another sad one!

Simon Hansen on VFX, Filmmaking & the South African Film Industry

Simon Hansen is an influential VFX supervisor, screenwriter and director, who has collaborated with the likes of Sharlto Copley and Neill Blomkamp. Best known for producing Alive in Joburg and his work on productions such as Chronicle and Roots, he has developed international experience from his base of operations in South Africa. At his core, Hansen is a storyteller, who has honed his film-making skills over the years and is currently developing several projects for screen. Spling discussed his career, VFX, the local film industry and found out what we can expect from the man with a plan. Listen to a podcast of the interview

What inspired you to pursue a career in filmmaking?

I guess film has always been very close to my heart since I was five years old. My earliest memory was going to the movies to see Superman, probably the first film I remember that really had an impact, and then obviously Star Wars. I think having a very active imagination could be considered to be quite a tough upbringing. Escapism and the whole imaginative space was appealing to me from that period on. I never really thought of doing anything else. What I was going to do on film is another matter because your imagination runs wild, but ultimately as you grow up you start wanting to make content, express yourself and create... that's a process I followed in pursuing film.

I understand you've mentored some big names in the South African film industry can you tell us a bit more about that process?

Starting out in South Africa there wasn't a lot going on, there had been a lot of films made in the '80s with the tax scheme that the South African government had at the time, which was then abused and shutdown. When that was shut down, there was almost nothing going on. The thought of entering the film industry in South Africa was quite a daunting idea, you either had to lead or eke out an existence here and do that on your own.

In the early '90s I met Sharlto Copley who had similar ideas to me in terms of pursuing a film career and we started working together, pursuing what we considered to be a very large dream with a long journey to the place we both wanted to go, which is where Hollywood films were at that point - being told at every turn that you can't do that in South Africa and that it wasn't a viable place to do it.

Simon Hansen

Soon after that other people started being attracted to what we were doing, most notably Neill Blomkamp, who was still in high school at the time and would ride up on a bike to our offices in Blairgowrie opposite Video Lab. We had been playing a lot with computers, my dad was in the tech industry his whole life so I was exposed to computers and where that was going, so it was a natural consequence that we would dive into that as the world changed. Film changed technologically so really all those things coming together, people like Neill, Sharlto, myself and a host of others would collate around these ambitions, which first culminated in working quite closely on the bid to create e-TV. We created a brand called Dead Time taking the midnight to 5 AM slot and inverting the idea of dead time to create something positive out of it.

We became highly talent-focused as a result, developing our ability to not only appreciate and identify talent, which is actually an art in and of itself, but to nurture it and know what talent needed only because it started to make sense to us. We were in need of that nurturing and would know instinctively what other people would need in order to drive and develop their skills further. We ended up in that space as the film industry has changed for the better, through the service industry predominantly, over the last 20-25 years. That's really been a core underpinning of everything I've done.

You've kind of grown with the technology and it's come a long way because there wasn't a lot in terms of visual effects, especially in the computer-generated arena? That only really kicked off in about '83 with Westworld...

Absolutely, 25 years ago it was really early days and I was quite intimidated by the tech. I had two brothers who had been more inclined to go into that world and I ran away from it, found myself needing it and edging my way back into it, having to cut my teeth. But getting in so early made a huge difference. When you have your creative passion, which is driving you and you're putting computers together, you're pushing the envelope, pushing computer-generated imagery, which is almost always on the high end of computing. So that was quite a challenge, but at the same time without realising it after five or six years of doing that, you suddenly become an expert in something, which was ultimately your Achilles heel so it was a very good process, having that rooting in my family where I always knew theoretically how it works.

In terms of your development, it's constantly been a challenge in terms of keeping up with technology, driving yourself and letting your passion really take the lead?

Yes absolutely, passion is the underpinning of everything. If you don't have that will or desire to achieve some goal through which you have to do all other things you don't really embrace doing those other things. It's very seldom that people actually do stuff like that for its own sake. Being a creative person and finding the challenges along the way, and then the solutions, really is what starts to set you apart. You have this vision or creative idea, you have these obstacles in between and you have to slay them, so that's the driver... without passion you've got nothing.

While you're best known for your work as a visual effects supervisor, you also have some credits as a writer, producer and director, which aspect of the film-making process do you cherish the most?

I've always enjoyed writing the most, the idea of coming up with ideas and concepts, putting stories together... the freedom to create and engage people's imagination. Visual effects and the technical aspects of film-making are consequential to that ambition, so it works that way around for me and always has... I've never approached it from the point of view of wanting to make cool CGI imagery or do special effects make up.

Bringing it to life?

...with it having a purpose. If a visual effect or any aspect of film-making is created without a purpose it just becomes a pain and you see a lot of that in film today with form over function... the creative aspect of how the film is executed. The look and the technology is dwarfing the writing and you feel it straightaway.

Basically the Roland Emmerichs of this world?

...a host of filmmakers actually, it's a real trap. I think people get trapped by what they can do and it's like anything in writing... you can have all these great scenes, but what are the scenes, moments and beats that you have to have that actually make this film good?

Having formed Inspired Minority Pictures, Slaves Talent Management and Atomic Visual Effects, you've been very active and influential in the South African film industry... is this idea of mentorship and giving back part of your mission?

When people say "I'm giving back or contributing to an industry" it's kind of a misstatement to me because you can see it so evidently in Hollywood. When Sharlto and I started, we were condescended to because we had so much to learn and we didn't know what we were talking about. If you are in Hollywood you will see it's the young people that are entering the industry with new ideas. It's become such a young business and that's not an altruistic endeavour I can assure you - that has to do with capturing young, vibrant and energetic minds who are eager to create and express themselves. They come with a whole lot of energy and new perspectives and ideas.

So when I mentor people it's a double-edged sword. I do believe in it, I do like to see people grow and I'm pretty good at doing it and know what they need but at the same time it started because I understand that films are made by communities of creative people. You're never an island in this business even if you think you're the creative master of everything. If you think Steven Spielberg could have done in South Africa without what he had in Hollywood, you're mistaken, he just couldn't have done the same thing. It's a collective arrangement of talent... on scale in Hollywood. That's what makes Hollywood what it is. The world has got a lot more interesting now because it's diversified and shrunk so you can do things in a new way that's more decentralised and it's more possible, but it's still really really tough to compete with the number of creative people arriving in Los Angeles every day with hopes and dreams.

The mentorship part is really about putting yourself where talent is and particularly in a country like South Africa where you need the talent to grow so much more desperately. You have to mentor people, so there is an aspect of altruism to it because you need to give up a lot where the conventional business world will say that you shouldn't pay for it, it's too much trouble, leave it to the film schools, let someone else do it or poach them afterwards. That's the opposite perspective... so you can see there's altruism in it, but it's not that I have approached it from a giving perspective, it's that I have approached it with a vision of what I think I need and the universe in which I need to live in order to stay in South Africa and do these things. It's a consequential requirement of doing these things... you could even call it a responsibility. I think some people understand that, but I don't think a lot of business people do.

It's also relational because you're investing in those people and you are hoping that by helping them sharpen their own skills they're going to come back to you and stay with you for future collaboration?

Which they don't, but you have to keep doing it... it's about critical mass. I see it in Cape Town a lot, you take acting for example, a lot of actors do a couple of gigs here and they jump on a plane to go off to Hollywood to get their big break and I don't think they do the mathematics before they do it. The numbers of opportunities that exist here and the competition for those opportunities is way better in Cape Town than it is in Los Angeles.

Plus you get noticed more and you're not swimming in a tin of sardines...

Exactly, so there's a numbers game aspect to it as well and I don't think a lot of people think about it. At least we're at a point now where we are making international films here, some high-end international films in South Africa, so they've brought Hollywood to our doorstep. The same thing happens in visual effects... in all aspects of the industry, except maybe in crews. I don't think the crews are cutting their teeth so they can move overseas and do unit management in the States. There are cases where it has happened, especially HODs, production designers, solidly in the creative edge but the crews tend to stay here.

Almost all people finishing go overseas to work for a visual effects house with a big name in visual effects productions... that's the big draw. The feedback I've received from many of them, is that they're very disillusioned by it all because they're often trapped by their working conditions and work visas as imported labour. Their visas put them in a chair at that company and it's quite difficult to move or adapt. It's also sad... we get nominated for international effect work from over here. If I look at something like Roots, for which we received a VES nomination I'm very proud of... a lot of artists on that list have since gone overseas for bigger things. I'm left wondering, if you had a space at the very top of something that was award-nominated... we just need to push a little harder and will be all the way here.

Not realising it's more of a sideways shift into a bigger pool...

Don't get me wrong, working inside that Hollywood system, the number of creative people and volumes of scale of the projects... it comes with a lot of state-of-the-art everything, but then you also move out of this very adaptable, innovative environment where you stand on your own feet. You're a little bit more dependent on the guy next to you on the production line to give you the next thing so you can do your bit and give it onto the next person. And every one of those people are the best in the world and that's how they do it, but it's a bit of a different approach.

Speaking of that idea of actors going to Hollywood, where you think we could improve in the South African film industry?

In my mind, the South African film industry is only going to be an industry when the content that we make, vast majority of our crews and our business that is done is actually created here. Peter Jackson is creating his own film projects using the in New Zealand film industry... they are not creating a service industry for foreign productions. That's a big difference... so focusing on the writing, the development of content, that's not only good but checks all the check boxes to compete with international productions on that level. That's the goal and there's almost none of that happening here in terms of that kind of development.

It's something I've always been involved in because my passion lies in producing films myself, so I'm very invested in that, but the industry in general... it's very limited even though it has grown. Thankfully we are seeing a lot of films making their way into the international domain but it all sits in the art festival circuit in a sort of cultural expressionism, some kind of very limited and colloquial approach to film, whereas I think a lot of the opportunities we've had to make films that are seminal to the entire international community. A lot of these opportunities have fallen to the wayside and that's what I'm interested in doing, making films that go into the international market and the zeitgeist of what people are thinking around the world, not only in this little pocket.

A good story well-told is universal - doesn't matter what it is or where it's set, but I think our entire approach is made into this colloquial form rather than bending it into this universal form. You see that when Clint Eastwood is making Invictus, that's our movie but we need Clint Eastwood to make it. It's not a great example because it wasn't the greatest movie and didn't do so well, but you see it time and time again. Roland Joffe just made the Tutu film. Many of our stories and pearls, with the exception of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, were not homegrown. It also sets the bar, to make internationally and universally accepted films about those local treasures in storytelling is not easy.

What have been career highlights for you so far?

I watch people's careers and I think you're lucky, if at 25, you're doing what you want to do... you've turned the corner. It's been a long struggle, I'm still trying to establish what I believe I can in terms of making international films so to pick the points in my career that are most cherished... it has a lot to do with suffering... a whole lot of suffering until there's a turning point. That turning point has a huge amount of value to me. There were a few of those, the most notable... I had a very rough time from about 2006 to 2009 and two things happened, which meant my career was pretty much over. I was in debt, I couldn't function and the industry and world had hit me pretty hard and I had a lot of awkward endings in relationships that really de-stabilised everything that I was working towards. It cost me about 10 years of my career.

Two things happened that really set me back on my feet. I produced a film with a young director Wanuri Kahiu called Pumzi, which made it into Sundance and that was sort of like I made it when I had nothing. I put everything into that film just to get back onto my feet and establish myself in my own right. Then a year or two after that I did a film called Chronicle, which I supervised for 20th Century Fox and directed by Josh Trank. I had a key role and the producer and director were very generous in how they acknowledged me to the international industry. It put me on the map for the first time where no one could take that achievement away from me, so it was the long climb before that and the dips and troughs that really made that experience and moment really heartfelt and appreciated, reaching the first summit and seeing the top of the mountain.

It's tough, no one should underestimate what it takes, a lot of people like to pooh-pooh this industry and talk about its film stars having opinions and filmmakers having opinions and that they are not politicians. They're in this fuddy-duddy creative business where life is easy and it's all about aesthetics - people don't really understand the depth of what it takes to not only hang in there and be creative, but the diverse range of skills you need to make a film, it's insane!

To be more specific, which visual effects segment are you most proud of?

I'm probably most proud of the work I did on two productions, Chronicle and Roots. Chronicle's film structure was designed for me. I struggled to make these international films in South Africa with no money, no resources, trying to make stuff look like it was a blockbuster, using effects as the leveler. It was my whole angle and why I undertook this film for 20th Century Fox. It had a $12.5 million budget and they wanted to make a film that could compete at the box office, a high concept film and blockbuster. I was one of the engineers involved in trying to put that together for which I'm very proud.

I didn't produce the end work, I supervised it. Whereas on Roots, we produced all of that. We got a VES nomination for that and again our budgets were comparably lower than our international competitors. We had less to work with, we were in new territory doing water simulations with ships, which had never done before, it was our first effort and we managed a very difficult area of effects to get to that awards room. So I'm very proud of the work we did on that. Philip Noyce, the director, really has been a silent champion of ours over the years. I have done a few movies with him and he's a very tough person to work with. You won't really know that he likes you until you hear that he's fighting for you and he did that, which has been appreciated.

What would you say is the biggest mistake young filmmakers make when incorporating VFX elements into their films?

If you don't understand story or what you're trying to do with your film and its beats then you cannot bring any aspect of film-making to bear effect on that structure because you don't have a structure. If you don't know how important that moment is or what it should feel like, what's adding to or taking away from that moment and how it relates to everything else in the film, it becomes very difficult to creatively focus all aspects of film-making on that from lighting to wardrobe to make up. All of those things come to bear on how you present that turning point or moment in the film, the VFX are by no means an exception.

Every aspect of how you put those effects and shots together is in the context of the film. It has a moment that comes on a particular page number, is of particular importance and if you don't understand that then you can't ever apply effects or anything else to maximise that impact. I think that's what most filmmakers and VFX people don't apply themselves to this, they'll get lost in a long one shot with awesome visual effects. You can almost hear them pitching it in the boardroom, but how does that serve what you're doing when a hard cut might have actually done a much better job of it? I think that's the trick, is not to get lost in the tools of film-making.

I just find that some filmmakers don't get the balance right in terms of how much CGI they really need in the film, you almost want to have a few high quality bits rather than a lot of very average stuff...

You just articulated how we break our scripts down. That's the goal going into it. We know we're going to do an effects job, the producer has done a little pie graph and has split it into what is apportioned for each section. There's an amount of money inside that budget that that producer thinks they need to spend on visual effects and if you know that number, which is sometimes a journey because you sometimes don't, then you can go about maximising the value of what that money is as opposed to just quoting stuff. You can do so many versions, options or approaches to solving the problem and that ability to rob Peter to save Paul is a real art if you can take that budget and say "well, I'm going to get 80% of these shots done for nothing in a very cheap way, being innovative in how I construct them to save the bulk of the money for these five or six shots, which actually count".

No one's going to notice these other shots - they're not effects worthy shots. They have to be done, but they're not bringing the value. Often these non-value shots are the bulk of the budget, the second you make that cheaper, they say well can you do the cheaper ones. Then they go the next effects house to get that cheaper, I don't think a lot of producers understand what they are doing. It's like your production designer saying let's do this scene with two little flats and a basin rather than doing a whole apartment, they'll save a whole lot of money so that they can get this whole exterior shot set built so they can add value. They don't seem to do that in terms of their visual effects apportioning and essentially it's no different. A producer will think that's great money saving, but you're still making a world. The fact that you're not using a hammer, nails and set building, you're using digital resources is kind of a non-point.

And it's such a tricky balance, because you want to give them your best because you're putting your name on the production, but you also want to add as much value as you can to the production to flesh it out as well as you can because you're trading with your own reputation...

Absolutely, that's really how it feels on every job. If you don't have that understanding with the producer, you are trading with your reputation. Those decisions that are made around money are crucial. I understand where the thinking comes from, no one wants to waste money and many companies that don't have the creative at their fore in their thinking will take as much money out of the budget as they can and put it in a pocket. That obviously scares people away, when you do find those people don't function that way that really creatively focused and they say what is the best way we can spend this money to maximise the impact and strategically working at that level, you've really moved into a producer's role when you look at how many of today's films are digital.

I think at the VES Awards at one of the speeches they noted that more than 50% this year of what Hollywood spent or certainly of the Marvel films was digitally created so the focus on producing effects and being a visual effects producer has grown from being this organiser to more strategic thinking. It's helping but there are still a lot of producers who just don't get that.

I suppose it also explains why in terms of cost efficiency these days, a lot of visual effects supervisors are graduating to become directors, just because they understand how to get the balance right in terms of visual effects...

Exactly, that was probably a big opportunity that I had, which never really took when I was in my slump. I couldn't take that leap, even now it's still a huge thing... if you're visual effects minded and know what you're doing, you're still in demand, but a lot of the younger directors are coming VE ready and those VFX artists, although some have done really well, Neill being a notable one, some of them struggle a little bit beyond the form to get the writing and everything right.

Case in point, Maleficent...

Absolutely, it's not a strong enough story and the directing is not dramatically strong enough on its own, so you end up constantly landing in this form over function problem and I'm hoping that as I move forward over the next three years, I'm feeling very strong about moving into my directing career again, I've got a number of projects solidly in development so I'm really feeling strong about re-entering that universe in control of my form. Being able to demonstrate the deeper knowledge that I have of the writing development process of which I can bring all these other skills to bear again. Feeling very strong about that.

Can you tell us a bit about any projects in the pipeline?

I can't tell you about the one that's closest to going, but those people who worked on the development project will know what it is. It's been a long time coming, nearly all my projects have been through years and years of development in parallel. I shot a concept film in 2014 here in Cape Town to put that together and develop the project with the NFVF and I'm now at a point where that project is being shopped internationally to studios. If that comes together in the way I'm hoping that'll be my next big kick off.

Then on the back of that I've got two screenplays that are at first draft level, nearly all of them are in the science fiction arena but I don't limit myself to that space. There are a couple of passion projects that have got nothing to do with visual effects and science fiction, so there's quite a spread of stuff, so I'm hoping over the next two years I'll start to roll out some of these projects. I'm working with some really talented young film-makers like Willem Grobler, who did a short film called Hum, he's actually overseas now. I worked a year... actually 10 years on his project, but it had to go on hiatus for a long time because it wasn't working, we started reworking that a year ago and that's now on first draft level. I'm really excited about the project, so there are some very interesting projects and they'll be announced soon and start to roll onto IMDb.

In terms of the NFVF, are they very stringent on their policies on funding, is that a real challenge for you – did you have to adjust quite a lot to meet the requirements?

Not at all, I don't know how to say it without getting people's backs up, but I have had a very easy time with the NFVF. They've been very kind, generous and forgiving to me. I've made mistakes, I've had to learn tough lessons but I've always stuck in there trying to be as creative as I possibly can. I think somewhere in that institution through the years I've had some champions and I think people in the NFVF respect my abilities, so I've had a very easy run of it. They've been very supportive of me, so I find it very hard to say a lot of the things people say about the NFVF. Any state institution's going to have its problems.

You have to take responsibility for your position, a lot of writers in particular feel there is this big barrier that they are producing this awesome work and that there are people out there who are stopping them from breaking out. There are these gatekeepers and the funding is somehow cooked into this nepotistic plot against them, but the truth of it is that really good work is so rare. If you produce something that is really good, there will be people queueing to take that project and you can't really see that until you get to the point where you're pitching everybody. You think you're this young talent, the NFVF has paid for you to be at Cannes and you don't even have a script or your script isn't good enough yet and you've written one draft and you think you've cracked it and you give them the script and they never phone you back and then you make these charges of gatekeepers and anti-South African or anti non-American. There certainly can be elements of any of those things but the thing that drives this business is the ability to flip pages as you read the script and put bums on seats. At the core of the business that's what it is, even though there are other political agendas.

There does seem to be an air of naïveté especially from South African filmmakers, there's that deer-in-the-headlights kind of thing?

It's getting better, as film-makers are getting exposed. Some of them like Michael Matthews and Sean Drummond with Five Fingers for Marseilles, that's long-suffering that they've got there and I don't agree with every way that they approached their film. I might have done things differently, but it's succeeded in what it's done and it's created an opportunity for them. They've really proven themselves as formidable and people take them seriously because their work is on the level and that's becoming more common. Other films like The Wound are doing really well, but it's a process of exposure. The more exposure you can give your country's talent, the better, getting notes is part of the screenwriting process and you're not supposed to fight every note, you're supposed to listen and understand what you are not communicating in your screenplay.

Are you still running workshops?

I stopped running them, I had really great ambitions for pulling talent together and doing that. A lot of the frustration that I had is what we just spoke about. There's an inability to play an effective role in the creative process with young talent. They really need to go and be exposed and learn the hard way... that the help I was trying to give them was actually help. It's not interference, it's not trying to dominate them. I was doing for them what I needed someone to do for me and it's been very hard to find.

If I battle with one thing in this country, it's that there aren't any agents, management, legal protection or business mindedness that you can call on. For someone to take the sword and shield and go into a meeting room and help you battle it out. You're on your own in every respect. When you realise that and try to do it for other people, they think you're encroaching on their territory, it's a really interesting learning experience, because at the same time they are trying to get an agent or manager to represent them in Hollywood. They don't realise that's what those people do for you, so it's been quite a to-and-fro process with the workshops. I hope to do something like the workshops again, but they will be way more effective because people will understand the credibility that you bring to that process. I've been a theoretical film-maker for too long, I need to demonstrate the skills that I have now.

Lemogang Tsipa on 'Beyond the River'

Lemogang Tsipa is an up-and-coming South African actor best known for his TV roles as Dini Masilela in the detective drama series, Traffic!, and Smiley in Jab. More recently, Tsipa has been making a name for himself as a film actor with a supporting role in Gavin Hood's Eye in the Sky and a leading role opposite Grant Swanby as Duma in Craig Freimond's Beyond the River, which opens in South Africa on 28 April.

Can you tell us a bit about your character and how you came to be involved in Beyond the River?

The character that I played is a young man by the name of Duma, who is caught between two worlds. He's really poor, living a life of crime and gets pulled into something as part of his life that forces him to pick a side and move forward. They held auditions, I did as best as I could and got the role. Just tried to make magic from there.

It's based on a true story, did you get a chance to meet Pierce and Siseko?

Yes we did, originally it was a lot closer to their real lives and stories, however the writers discovered that Pierce is too nice, so we had to take a bit of creative licence to make the story more dramatic and more interesting. The same was true for the character that I played, based on Siseko. A movie about two really nice guys who come together after a few ups and downs isn't as dramatic, so we took a bit of poetic licence. We managed to meet the guys and draw from them as much as we could to tell their story.

What was it like working with Grant Swanby?

Even before shooting the film I remember seeing him and his work, he's a legend in this country, one of the best. I was initially very intimidated and excited to work with him... luckily we had a couple of months of training beforehand, so I really got to bond with him. He's a really amazing guy and phenomenal actor so it was a pleasure, we never clashed heads, we had great chemistry from the onset.

It's always useful to come across with a sense of history, it helps inform the characters and Grant has got such a wealth of experience, if you had to say one thing that he gave you... any nuggets of wisdom?

I received a goldmine from that guy. One thing I did note was his level of discipline and dedication to his work, I think what we do is both easy and not easy, depending on how much you commit. He taught me a lesson of how far you can push your commitment to your work while not being obsessed about it or letting it take over. Where you commit and give it your all, but don't let it consume you, which is a line some people often blur... lost in the work, they lose the initial vision of what it was they were going for. He's a master, who's balanced it quite well and I'm figuring it out slowly.

It sounds like you spent quite a bit time time with him, developing your character, how did you prepare in terms of rowing, your fitness and diet?

A lot of falling in the water initially, we just needed to know how to swim. Canoeing is hard... I always say that canoeing is similar to trying to ride a unicycle on a tightrope. The first thing we had to gain was the balance of sitting in the canoe. That had to do with our core strength, so sit ups, joining the boxing gym... as much of anything conventional, unconventional to get my core strong, the focus was on upper body.

Diet-wise I just continued eating clean... proteins, no carbs or at least non-processed carbs. I felt myself bulking up and I had an eight pack. As much as it would be good to get him to look like that, it's wasn't ideal. Realistically, being a guy from an informal settlement I didn't want to look like I had a Virgin Active membership and got food from Woolies everyday. I had to tone down a bit about a month before the shoot... I think I found a balancing point there.

There's a wonderful cross-cultural contrast between the co-leads. Do you think it's a uniquely South African story and will it travel?

Definitely I think it's uniquely South African in so many respects. The dynamics, looking at a poor black person and middle-class white person and the challenges we go through everyday. Even though much of it is universal, it's still specific to South Africa. I think it also has a strong universal message, which everybody will be able to relate to around the world.

What was it like working with Craig Freimond?

Craig is a crazy genius! He's amazing, full of ideas and is very creative, he's got a solid vision and knows exactly what he wants. He also gets you to give your input as an artist, to make it more collaborative. His body of work speaks for itself. He's a man that loves films... whenever I'd go to his place or have a conversation with him over coffee or tea, we'd discuss film. You can see he has a real affinity for it and that has such a great influence over his work. You are whatever you put into your system... he puts great films in and produces great films.

After doing this film, do you have any desire to do the Dusi in the future?

No, not at all. It's actually a very tough and grueling race. I have not done the Comrades marathon but I jog a bit. I would easily say it's tougher than the Comrades. It's not something you just wake up and decide to do, especially since so much can go wrong. When Grant and I were rehearsing, falling underwater, it's very dangerous and some people have lost their lives to paddling. I'm a super amateur and I wouldn't try and put myself in a position like that because I was even struggling with little baby rapids. I've seen some footage of the actual Dusi, there are some rapids you cannot avoid, you have to go down them and I would die, which is not something I'm looking forward to doing any time soon(!)

It features some spectacular backdrops in KwaZulu-Natal, did you have a favourite shooting location?

The Valley of a Thousand Hills is the most gorgeous place I've ever seen, bearing in mind I've lived in Cape Town for quite some time. You have amazing views here... Chapman's Peak, Signal Hill, the mountains are breathtaking but the Valley of a Thousand Hills… it's got a thousand hills, not literally but it seems like it. It's so untouched and the water down there is peaceful. I'm a KZN boy so I think I may be a bit biased. The weather was really hot, which I usually enjoy, but I think the next time I visit will be in winter...

The film was shot mostly outdoors, did this make it much more challenging?

We were fighting a lot of battles: with light, continuity of light, the elements... There was a stage when we were filming in Soweto Dam and one of the biggest Highveld thunderstorms I've ever seen rolled in. It started hailing and boards were falling off of the highway, it was crazy and pretty scary to see the clouds and lightning approaching so quickly.

And your favourite memory from Beyond the River?

There was a scene I did with Israel Makoe... it was just one of those moments that happens, it wasn't a thing I had any control over. I wish I could take credit for it but it was just one of those magical moments where the scene just took over and I wish I could work at that level every single time. I was bouncing off of Israel's energy and he of course is a legend in his own right. That was one of the highlights of my life.

So you've got two films down with him now, are you looking for a third, fourth or fifth?

Definitely, I remember when I worked on the second film with him him he kept saying that every time he works, I work. I really look forward to working with him, he's so much more than the characters he plays, charismatic, funny, smart and business-orientated. I think this film will unlock a number of different viewpoints on him and hopefully open up a lot more opportunities other than him just playing a gangster.

He is a human being with so much depth and he's an amazing storyteller. He plays a motivational guy, who is one of my mentors in the film. Just coming from that angle, he doesn't have to be one of these hard-core guys, but you really see him open up and be more vulnerable. He's an amazing actor, not just a one character, one dimensional man. He is a "full chicken" actor as I like to say!

If you could choose, who would you like to work with in the future?

One guy I have to work with is Edward Norton. He's a genius, the thing I love and respect about him is that he's very selective about his work, you can see he's a man who takes this craft very seriously. I could really learn a lot from him and his choices, what he brings to the table is quite amazing. Then Tom Hanks, I don't even need to elaborate, he is Tom Hanks! The third man who would push me to unlock levels I don't think I can, is Daniel Day Lewis, he is a god. By virtue of working with him it's almost like running a relay with Usain Bolt, the pressure of performing with such an amazing talent - it's motivating.

Unlike Usain Bolt, he won't be stripped of one of his Oscars...

Oh no definitely, there's no doping in acting as far as I know.

What do you think audiences will take away from Beyond the River?

I think the biggest thing that we should take away as South Africans is re-opening dialogue that seem to have been swept under the rug. Being a middle-class black African in South Africa I've been exposed to both sides of the world, black sides from poor to rich, white sides from poor to rich and I think there's a huge disconnect in us as South Africans. As much as the rainbow nation has healed, I think there's a lot more that can be done to bring the two worlds together and I think that's a strong message. At the end of the day we are all human beings and we can all learn from each other.

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