Interview: Ivan Botha and Donnalee Roberts talk about Vir Altyd

Daniel Dercksen shares a few thoughts with darling superstars of the local film and TV industry, Ivan Botha and Donnalee Roberts, who charmed filmgoers in Pad Na You Hart, and sizzle in their latest charmer Vir Altyd (Forever) which they wrote and co-produced.

An honest and sincere journey into the hearts and souls of two young lovers on the rollercoaster of love and life, it’s a heartfelt film about love and how Cupid’s arrows pierce the hearts of those who want to love but are hopelessly lost in their search for meaning and understanding,  and revered conquerors of love celebrating its joy and anguish.

Botha and Roberts wrote and co-produced Vir Altyd with Danie Bester, whose Johannesburg-based company, The Film Factory produced three of the top six highest-grossing Afrikaans feature films at the South African box office: the very successful teen comedy trilogy Bakgat!, Bakgat! 2 and Bakgat! 3; box office hits Ballade vir ’n Enkeling, Wolwedans in die Skemer, Hoofmeisie and Pad na Jou Hart; as well as the critically acclaimed Roepman and Verraaiers.

Vir Altyd-Ivan
Actor, writer and producer Ivan Botha is known for his work in the award-winning film Pad na jou Hart. The movie was awarded Best Feature Film of the Year and Ivan won Best Actor of the Year at the 2014 Tempo Awards. Together with Donnalee Roberts, Ivan was also responsible for the writing, producing and marketing of this film. Ivan is the co-owner of the Johannesburg-based production company 17 FILMStreet Media, which focuses on the developing of quality stories that promote the film and television industry. 17 FILMStreet Media specialises in the growth, production and marketing of films and handled the marketing for Ballade vir ’n Enkeling in 2014 and 2015. Vir Altyd is a new romantic adventure film of which Ivan is again co-writer and co-producer and in which he is the leading male actor. The film releases on 12 February 2016. Ivan received his National Diploma in Drama in 2006 from the Tshwane University of Technology where he specialised in directing and scriptwriting. He has acted in the following popular television series: 7de Laan, Villa Rosa and Getroud met Rugby. His film credits include Hond se Dinges, Superhelde, Roepman, Verraaiers, Bakgat 1, 2 and 3 as well as Pad na jou Hart. His theatre plays include Dis Ek, Anna (2006), Hel op Hemel en Aarde (2011), and Ben Babsie en Familie (2013).

Well done on a great film.  Where did you meet and did you know then that you would become team up as actors and writers?

Thank you so much, we really appreciate your feedback. We met on the set of 7de Laan in 2009. We worked together for five years and in the process discovered that we shared the same passion for storytelling and the film industry. We then started a production company, and developed and wrote Pad na jou Hart which was released in February 2014.

You mentioned that as writers, you are passionate about symbolism in your work.  In Pad na jou Hart you went on both a realistic and symbolic life journey with the characters.  And in Vir Altyd, the journey has transformed into more of an adventure as we travel through all the seasons of love in one’s life.  Tell me more about this?

Yes, it is exactly as you say, Pad na jou Hart was a literal and symbolic life journey whereas Vir Altyd is an adventure through all the seasons of love, relationships and friendship. We used the adventure to the island of love as a thematical binary and setting. Therefore this thematical binary becomes symbolically ironic to have our characters who are dealing with relationship problems and issues in an environment that is supposed to be synonymous with romance, love and happily ever after.

What inspired the screenplay for Vir Altyd?

As a writer one is always inspired by your own life, lessons learnt, experiences, dreams and hopes. You are also always in tune with moments all around you that inspire stories or characters. Working within the romantic genre with this film we started taking notice of relationships all around us. Couples that are still in the honeymoon phase, older couples that inspire when they still hold hands or even a middle-aged couple who go out for dinner and the only conversation they are able to have is about ‘the special on the menu’. We realised we wanted to open a conversation about relationships and that is how Vir Altyd was born.

Vir Altyd - Donnalee
The South African actress, producer, writer and model Donnalee Roberts is best known for her role as Amory in the award-winning film Pad na jou Hart, which she co-wrote and co-produced. This film received the 2014 Tempo Award for Best Film of the Year and the 2015 Natal Film Commission Sabela Award for Best Feature Film. Donnalee received the 2014 Tempo Award for Best Actress of the Year, as well as a SAFTA 2015 nomination for Actress of the Year. In 2015 she played Carina Human, the lead role in the feature film, Ballade vir ’n Enkeling – the cinematic remake of the well-known and iconic television series for which she won the 2015 Tempo Award for Best Actress of the Year. Apart from being the co-writer and co-producer, she plays the lead role in the romantic adventure feature film Vir Altyd, which releases in February 2016. Donnalee is the co-owner of the Johannesburg-based production company 17 FILMStreet Media. Other acting credits include her role as Cybil Ferreira in the film Klein Karoo and as Annelie in 7de Laan. Donnalee graduated in 2006 with a BA Drama degree from the University of Pretoria, after which she completed a two-year film school course at PALI (Performing Arts and Lifestyle Institute). In 2012 Donnalee studied at the renowned New York Film Academy where she received a diploma in Acting for Film.

They say that you should always write what you know: how do you relate to the journey of your characters in Vir Altyd?

We agree it does help to write what you know. However, a writer’s responsibility is also to explore and research the unknown. Just because we have not lived to be 70 nor have we been in a 50-year relationship like two of our characters, it does not mean we didn’t capture their journey honestly and realistically. As human beings, we can relate to all our characters’ questions and struggles with love and relationships. We explored universal themes and believe everyone will be able to relate to us and our characters.

Love stories will always seduce the senses and allow us to take an emotional journey into love and loving.  What is your view?

We completely agree. As mentioned in our previous answer, ‘love’ is such a universal theme. Whether you are a romantic or not, we have all been in love or loved someone or we’ve been hurt by it or aspire to it. Love as a theme still dominates the film and storytelling world.

Are you a hopeless romantic?

Donnalee: Yes I am a complete hopeless romantic. Within our writing team, I tend to write more from an emotional perspective and Ivan’s strengths can definitely be seen within the story structure and dialogue.

Ivan: Mmm, well I am part of the writing team that created ‘Pad na jou Hart’ and now ‘Vir Altyd’ two very ‘hopeless romantic’ sounding titles. Haha. So I am going for yes.

Were there any other romantic films that inspired or had an impact on writing Vir Altyd?

As writers, we rather try and stay away from watching other films for reference while writing our scripts. We believe this helps us stay true to the story we are trying to tell.

What do you think makes a perfect romance?

Great question. The person who has the answer to the ‘perfect’ romance please contact us, we would like to write the story for it. Haha. We suppose learning to speak each other’s love language helps the romance in a relationship.

Vir Altyd - beach

Do you think it’s possible to live without love?

No, we don’t. Love is something we all aspire to. Sure love does come in different shapes and forms, so what we consider love might not be our neighbours’ perspective on what love is. However the feeling, the emotion, and this love word is what make most things worthwhile in life.

You said that ‘’young people, in general, completely rely on a perfect wedding day instead of taking the life together after this event into account.” Tell me more about this?

One of the things we did during our research was spending time at a bridal expo. It was interesting to witness how young couples get carried away with what is needed to host the so-called perfect day. They become focused on superficial elements to try and make their day more special. Instead of staying focused on what the day really means and should be about, which is the promise, the beginning of a lifetime together.

You hope and dream that Vir Altyd will inspire people to study each other’s love languages, work on a strong friendship, never stop holding hands and not miss out on the moments in between.  Tell me more about this? 

We don’t want to pretend like we have the answers to a perfect relationship, because we don’t. But having researched love languages we realised it is actually such a simple conscience and practical application to help your relationship. We all already speak in different love languages, whether you know it or not, we all have a certain way of showing someone we love them and we have a certain way in which we feel loved. Love languages is not a foreign concept, we just believe people are not always aware of it. Hopefully Vir Altyd opens the conversation or sparks the thoughts in our audience, of how I can learn to speak my partners love language better or even fluently.

I fully agree with you that ‘’Sometimes it’s not the happy ending that matters, but the adventure on your way to the destination.’’ What do you think makes the adventure worthwhile?

The tagline of the film is ‘In ‘n oomblink…” In a moment. What we mean by this it is the little moments in relationships, the here and now that make up the happily ever after.

Vir Altyd kiss

As writers, it has always been important to you to ensure that the audience experiences your characters’ emotions – and also that something will remain in their hearts that they will be able to cherish for the rest of their lives.  Do you think you have fully achieved this with Vir Altyd?

We could not have asked for more. As a writer, you try and write as much life into your characters and their dialogue as you possibly can, but when actors step onto a set and make the words their own and share their souls with the characters, magic happens, it all becomes real. All our actors were able to identify with their characters and the struggles they were going through. This brought honesty to Vir Altyd that could not have been scripted, all the actors gave of themselves for our story and for that we will always be grateful.

As actors, you have a great understanding of what makes characters tick. Did this help you as writers?

It helps a lot. When we write we are constantly acting out scenes and playing the dialogue, even for the other characters. This gives us the opportunity to find honest dialogue with which actors can identify with.

Where did your love for writing start?

Ivan: My love for writing started in high school when I spent a lot of time writing poems and attempting to write songs. Very dramatic and self-indulging, haha, I suppose we all were at that age. The love for storytelling needs to be in you when you sell yourself as a writer.

Donnalee: I truly believe that there is a world of wonder that can only be found within the pages of books and those who do not read will never discover that world…I take it you can clearly see that I have a deep love for stories and at a very young age this love turned into a desire to create stories, I remember lying outside on the lawn for hours just writing and writing and writing and then in the evening I would read those stories to my mom.

Tell me more about working as a team writing Vir Altyd?

Being our second screenplay together the writing process was only a joy. We both have certain writing characteristics that are stronger than the other and we are aware of it and embrace it. We don’t allow ego into the writing process, if you feel strongly about a certain point we believe in convincing each other so that we can both feel as passionate about it. We allowed our director Jaco Smit into the writing process of Vir Altyd, and he in return allowed us into the directing process. It was a creative collaboration that worked. We kept focus on what is best for the story.

Was there a specific process you followed in creating the screenplay?

Yeah, we open the laptop and we start writing. Sometimes as writers we over think writing, so no there is no specific process we follow, we don’t want to clutter the creative process with unnecessary boxed in structure. However, we do believe in the process of research and planning before the writing process starts and we are open for change and the story to take its own shape.

You mentioned that you base the characters on people you have met or have noticed somewhere. Did you write the characters with any specific actors in mind?

Yes and no, because we are involved with all the aspects of the film we are constantly considering potential actors for the characters, but we do believe in auditions.

Are you satisfied with how your words were translated into film?

We could not have asked for more. We are not precious writers, if an actor brings a better suggestion to set we are more than happy to apply it to the script, once again, whatever is best for the story.

How much has the local film industry changed since you made your debut, and what do you think the future holds for the South African film industry?

Ivan: Since BAKGAT 1 the industry has grown into a serious business. We made BAKGAT for less than R1 million, it was all about the passion, there was no market, it has been an amazing journey to be a part of young pioneer filmmakers focused on building an industry and constantly exploring ways for it to grow and be better.

Donnalee: I had the privilege of making my film debut with the very heartwarming romantic comedy Klein Karoo, most of the team were ‘first timers’ so it was also very much a passion project, but I agree with Ivan, since then it has had to become more of a business in order to make it more sustainable for filmmakers. And yes it is a wonderfully exciting place to be at the forefront of pioneering an ever-growing and expanding film industry in which we can tell stories that are homegrown and make films that are truly proudly South African.

What advice do you have for writers who want to break into turning words into action?

Start writing… Sometimes we overthink typing that first word, chances are they are not going to be great, but luckily writing is about re-writing.

Keep writing… So once you finished the first draft, you are not done. Take a step back, but not for too long. Then keep writing.

Always be open to being inspired…by even the smallest of moments.

Vir Altyd couple

What do you hope audiences will get from watching Vir Altyd?

We hope to start conversations with people about relationships. As writers, our goal is not to give people answers but rather to ask questions.

Vir Altyd leaves us wanting more. Is there a sequel in the pipeline, or a third film to complete a ‘Trilogy of Love’?

We like that it left you wanting more. That is what we were trying to say with the film, that it is not about the perfect ending, the ‘happily ever after’. Its about each moment in between. There won’t be a follow-up. But yes we will be making more films together and love, romance; life and adventure will be a big part of it. However for now we are exploring some other themes and stories. So yes there is a new story being developed.

Tell me about your future plans?

We are expanding as a company and will be focusing on growing the marketing and media division of our business. As mentioned above we are developing Stroomop, it will be a strong female-driven cast with adventure awaiting the characters. Donnalee will be playing one of the leads and Ivan will make his Directing debut. Exciting Times!!