Celebrated Screenwriter Tertius Kapp talks about Griekwastad

The Griekwastad-murders are immortalised in the absolutely superb Griekwastad, with a well-crafted screenplay by Tertius Kapp and first-rate direction by Jozua Malherbe.

The film tells the story of the cruel acts which shook the world to its core in 2012, was filmed by the production company SCENE23 in 2019, and based on the book ‘The Griekwastad Murders: The Crime that Shook South Africa’ by Jacques Steenkamp. World renowned South African actor, Arnold Vosloo, delivers a strong performance as the investigator and a chilling performance from Alex van Dyk (The Harvesters/Die Stropers) as the son who is the only survivor in brutal farm murder.

Kapp talks about writing Gaia

Tertius Kapp, who wrote the screenplay for Griekwastad, attended one of the first workshops done by The Writing Studio in 1999 at the Longkloof Studios, hosted by filmmaker Dirk De Villiers. Based on the bestselling true crime novel by Jacques Steenkamp, Griekwastad is directed by Jozua Malherbe, tells the tale of the search to find the truth about what happened that night. Kapp also crafted the screenplay for Dis Ek, Anna, and received the South African Film and Television Award for his adaptation in 2016. In 2015 he was awarded the highest prize for literary achievement in the Afrikaans language, the Hertzog prize, for his published dramas. Visit his website

Daniel Dercksen shares a few thoughts with screenwriter Tertius Kapp, a proud graduate of The Writing Studio

It’s mind-blowing to think that we met 20 years ago during one of my first workshops in Cape Town and you still recall some notes on character and structure?

It’s great to be chatting to you 20 years after you introduced me to screenwriting, Daniel!  I was 18 years old when I enrolled in your course and I remember typing on an old school typewriter, for a combination of romantic and practical reasons, because not everyone had a laptop back then. Figuring out how to format dialogue etc. manually was quite a lot of fun. 

And yes, of course one remembers the first notions of character, structure, etc., especially when they are confirmed by experience. Thanks for the care you took in presenting the course. 

I remember the story I was writing (which I still have in hard copy) was called Sapiens and was about a guy who turned his back on society to go live on the mountain. I remember how you rightly interrogated his motivations, the underlying ideology, and the resolution of the story. About ten years later Into the Wild told a similar story beautifully. 

I think Sapiens evolved into the film Gaia, which we are shooting now. I also happened to read the book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari in the research. I think Die Spreeus grew more out of my love of South African ghost stories, via Langenhoven, P.G. du Plessis and the like.  

Tell me about writing the screenplay for Griekwastad, how did you get to craft the story?

I did what I always do: read everything I can lay my hands on related to the story. You reach a point where you realise your research has become procrastination and it’s time to get something on paper. What always makes a huge difference is getting out of the books and into real life. Along with Jacques Steenkamp, whose book was the basis for the film, I travelled to Griekwastad and met many of the people involved, which gave texture to all the things I’d read. We also requested a meeting with Don in prison, but never received any reaction. I spoke to various psychologists and people who knew Marthella and the family. 

A huge breakthrough was spending a weekend with the investigating officer, Dick de Waal, in Kimberley. That’s when I realised that this is the main character (who would go on to be portrayed by Arnold Vosloo). He was such an unassuming, intelligent detective, who went against all the cliches created by noir films and the like. For a man who experiences and processes so much violence in a country like South Africa, he seems to take none of it home with him. 

In the end, I basically found the logline in his choice of words at the bail hearing (paraphrased): 

“In my ondersoek moes ek na die feite kyk en alles uitskakel wat nie sin gemaak het nie. Ek het deur ‘n sielewroeging gegaan, ek kon dit nie oor my hart kry om te glo dat ‘n vyftienjarige seun tot die moorde van sulke geliefde mense in staat was nie. Ek het alle teorieë oorweeg. Daar was uiteindelik net een verklaring.” 

(“In my investigation I had to look at the facts and discard everything that did not make sense. I went through a torment of the soul, I could not fathom that a fifteen-year old boy was capable of murdering such loved people. I considered all theories. In the end there was only one explanation.”)

English is great for many things, but despite its enormous vocabulary, “torment of the soul” does not capture the connotations of a word like “sielewroeging”. 

Alex van Dyk

What do you think makes it such a powerful story?

For starters, it touches on so many topical issues in South Africa today: racism, violence against women, farm murders. 

But I think its true power lies in the way it resonates with themes of repression and the subconscious. The Oedipal is all over this, for example. Part of the challenge of writing the script was to connect that sort of content (which a film audience typically appreciates only when utilised indirectly) with a gripping, cop thriller sort of storyline. The power of deeper content is that it usually refers outward to the trending issues in interesting ways, maybe like the guide sketches you erase when you finish the final work.

Tell me more about how you managed to connect the deeper, introspective content with a gripping, cop thriller sort of story line, and maintaining the balance?

You take the structure of a detective story, where a cop chases red herrings while missing one obvious clue, but instead of the clue you use his own resistance to the truth, because of its horror.  

Arnold Vosloo and Albert Martiz

Was the adaptation a difficult process?

Yes. Not so much for the reasons above – that is what I love to do. But somewhere in the middle, as often happens, the project lost steam, and I ended up (once more) writing into a void, hoping that the film would still one day happen. That is perhaps the most difficult thing. 

Did director Jozua Malherbe have any input during the writing process?

He only came on board much later. Of course, I always work with the director around execution and to make the film doable on our local budgets. We also had some fruitful exchanges about added scenes, and the readthroughs always help to see how dialogue sits in a character’s voice. 

You manage to lure us into a story we think we know, then turn it inside out by delivering a story that is not only heart-breaking, but reveals an honesty that is sincere and heartfelt… your views on this. 

I think we are satiated with gore and sentiment. On many of our popular media platforms, we’re clickbaiting from a story about about a TV presenter’s problem with her self-image to one about a grandmother being hacked to death. We struggle to process this dissonance if we think of both people as real people of flesh and blood. Empathy must be one of the most crucial tools in a writer’s toolbox – spending the time with a character, one you love or hate, until you get a glimpse of what it must be like to be her or him. I try to do this with all my characters, especially when it’s based on true events.

How do you relate to the story personally?

In many ways, but perhaps let’s talk about one. 

Obviously, a story such as this presents issues that relate to your own experience. I discovered a fact in the research process which shocked me. Apparently, globally, the second highest rate of family murders per capita is in South Africa, among the Afrikaner population (white America is number one by quite a margin), which would include myself. There’s some interesting writing on this, such as The End of Whiteness: Satanism and Family Murder in South Africa by Nicky Falkof.  

No thinking Afrikaner has ever denied the violence inherent to their population group. There is such a thing as transgenerational transmission of trauma, which operates on victims and perpetrators alike. So the way this affected me personally was actually to develop a strange pity for Don, the clueless heir of a bloody legacy. Without making any sort of apology for him, it seems to me like he did not have the emotional capacity to deal with the problems he faced. And why would he? They were intense problems, and he was 15 years old. 

The only answer that did come to hand, was violence. Guns were available. Guns were how you solve problems. 

I am sure that the emotional impact of the story influenced you?

Yes, definitely. But there is a difference in doing adaptations of true events, especially when there has been due legal process. I think people like Dick de Waal, or judge Frans Kgomo, felt a much heavier burden than I did. The courts had found Don guilty, and that was the truth I used in narrating the story. I can only imagine how it must feel to be responsible for presenting that truth to the world. 

There are other theories I explored which actually carried a heavier weight. But I would not want to talk about those. 

It is always difficult walking away from the story once it is handed over to the filming process, do you prefer to keep your distance, or get involved during filming?

It is actually easier to walk away than to try and maintain some sort of control. There can’t be two captains to a ship, and filming locally is usually done under such pressure that there is little space for a writer’s involvement. I suppose in an ideal world I would like to stay involved, and occasionally I get the opportunity now, but usually it is not practical.  

How did it feel seeing your words in action on the big screen?  

I am one of those people who always feel very uncomfortable seeing my work on the screen for the first time. Somehow it gets easier with second and third viewings.  

Have you always wanted to be a writer? Where did it start for you? The desire to tell a story?

I did. It just took me many years to find a (sort of) financially viable way to do it. 

I started out writing poetry in high school, watching VHS films until the early morning hours. I remember writing my first stories in primary school – there was one about a bougainvillea serial killer, which apparently both impressed and scared the teacher! It seems like I always tended towards darker work, perhaps not so unusual for someone whose formative years were in the late 80s and early 90s. 

Writing is definitely a way to process the insane information that confronts us growing up. I mean, I don’t consider myself a dark person, but it’s taken me a long time to write some comedy, which I love now.  

You are well versed in film, television and theatre, is there a medium you prefer? Why?

I am not romantic about it. Actors tend to say theatre will always be their main love, and I get that – it must be a unique connection to form with a group of people that are present for an event that (if it is good theatre) transcends the everyday. 

As a writer, theatre is the toughest one and it places the greatest pressure on language. Also, for some reason, people tend to apply different sociopolitical critiques to theatre than they do to TV. 

I love television as a writer’s medium, whereas film is more of a director’s medium. 

What’s great about film is that, as a writer, it is the medium that allows you to spend the most time preparing every minute of screentime. 

You have enjoyed a successful career as a writer in South Africa. What inspires and motivates you?

Paying the rent is a big motivation 🙂

Every now and again I have a moment of awareness that I am actually doing this thing which I never thought would be possible. So that makes me appreciate the simple fact of working anew. Looking forward, I think we are moving towards a situation where the relationship to a global audience becomes much closer, in the sense that the audience will start to pick the content they like, no matter where it originates. We can never beat Hollywood at its own game, but it’s a situation that holds promise for us: even on our smaller budgets, we could make films that resonate with a global niche audience, which is suddenly not that small. 

Any advice you would like to give aspirant writers?  5 tips will be helpful

  • Don’t do it if you aren’t prepared to make major sacrifices. (If the idea of your friends being more successful than you scares or upsets you, rather follow them.) 
  • Seek experience, loads of it. (Find a way to travel. Do manual work. It is OK to do some things just to feel what it’s like.) 
  • Read good fiction and non-fiction. Learn to read academic writing, and to distinguish the bullshit.
  • Eavesdrop on strangers’ conversations.  
  • Don’t mistake social media affirmation for success. 

What do you think makes a screenplay marketable? A screenplay producers want to invest in?

It depends on the audience and target market, and crucially, on the producers you can access. So a big studio producer reads many, many scripts and might only look at the first few pages of yours. A local producer might rather look at an affordable story with a clear commercial angle, e.g. rom-com, or something with a proven track record, e.g. an adaptation of a best-selling novel.  

Most people think that writing is a lonely craft. How can it be dull if you spend so much time with all the characters you create and spend most of your time with?   Your views on this? Do you befriend the characters you breathe life into?

I am by nature quite solitary, so it bothers me less than others. And yes, you do develop emotional relationships with characters, although I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily friendship. And if you find it dull, then you can be sure your viewer will too!

Why do you think most writers are afraid to go the distance with their story and give up?

I don’t think it’s always a case of giving up. To be honest, I’ve given up many times. Sometimes the market is not ready for your idea, sometimes you have a blind spot of which you’re not aware, or for any number of reasons you can’t possibly know, the door is closed. You end up banging your head against the door, and repeating won’t help. I remember sitting with the script of the play Rooiland, knowing that it was not shit, but with nowhere to take it. I ended up going overseas for a few years, and while there it was given to Jaco Bouwer to direct. It became a multi-award winning play. Pure luck, it might never have been. There are so many great scripts out there that never got made. But you’ll go mad trying to change what you can’t. 

Do you agree that the problem with most stories arise when writers intrude on their subject matter, or characters, and not serve the story?

That is a very common problem. We see so many preachy scripts with lessons derived from a writer’s ideology rather than story or character desire. You’ve probably also found a lot that writers present a version of themselves as the main character. I don’t mean to look down on this, it has therapeutic and other values. But it will only make for one good film, and that’s if your problems are particularly interesting. 

 How do you see the future for screenwriters in South Africa, particularly after the corona pandemic?

I think we will overcome the corona pandemic and see a global celebration afterwards. Hopefully it will have had some lasting effect on our psyches, and hopefully that effect is one of greater consciousness and awareness of our fragility and dependence on each other. It is already exposing fools and weaknesses in the systems we assumed were unchangeable. The challenge is to interpret this new world and speak to an audience from a productive point of view. 

What do you hope audiences will get from watching Griekwastad?

Chills and tears.  

Tell me more about your upcoming ecological horror Gaia?

Gaia is a film we are currently shooting in the Tsitsikamma area. It’s about an infection that takes over the world, but it seems like Covid-19 is a bit jealous. We had to halt production when the lockdown was announced, but hopefully we’ll pick up filming as soon as lockdown lifts. 

I am always developing, pitching, trying to get the next thing while the current one is ongoing. I hope to do more TV series, hopefully ones where I can write explosions and car chases. I hope to keep working with the people I admire and respect and one day look back fondly on the stuff we are making now. 

Gaia is directed with Jaco Bouwer, the third teaming with Kapp – Bouwer directed Kapp’s gritty prison drama Rooiland (3 Fiësta awards – 2012, 5 Fleur du Cap awards – 2014), and Liewer.

Visit Tertius Kapp’s website

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