Daniel Dercksen shares a few thoughts with storyteller and storymaker Henk Pretorius about the epical Modder & Bloed, a commanding film that changes the face of the South African Film Industry.
Driven to create stories to understand the world better.
When we first met, you were a high school dreamer learning how to be a screenwriter and filmmaker in my workshop in Pretoria in the late 90s. Now, as a proud graduate of The Writing Studio, you are a high-powered writer, director and producer on top of the world. Are you living the dream?
I think “living the dream” to me is living a life full of constant obstacles and rising above them. In this regard I certainly am “living the dream”. Financial freedom may wink at me in the not too distant future, but money only matters when you don’t have it. I found a poem the other day that I wrote as a teenage boy and it states: “you can take anything away from me, but don’t take my freedom of thought”, in my case my thoughts become films and sometimes millions of people get to watch them, that to me is really cool.
So I guess I am living MY dream.
How important do you think independent training initiatives like The Writing Studio is in the South African film industry and how did it help you take your first steps towards that dream?
Learning is not only important, it’s crucial. I might have started my “formal” training at a short course in writing from The Writing Studio at fifteen, but I have continued my studies with a degree at AFDA, have read a library of books and a mountain of newspapers. Realising how little you actually know is so important when you create stories that might touch people to change their lives or ideologies about real world issues. It’s a responsibility that I don’t take lightly and would love to inspire people, if anything, to ask more questions and inspire them to search for those answers.
Courses like The Writing Studio are certainly important, but so is a library card and the curiosity to know more!
Tell me about how you evolved from filmmaker to producer?
I am comfortable with wearing different hats and understand the importance of all the coloboraters in making film happen as well as getting that film to a captivated audience. Producing is in short the ability to make money from the incredibly complex process of making a film. The entertainment industry is one, if not THE most difficult industries in the world to succeed in and it’s exactly this challenge that stimulates me to perform my duties as a producer better.
My incredible business partner, Llewelynn Greeff, has the ability to change this complex problem into a pleasurable challenge that we strategically solve at Dark Matter Studios.
I took producing up initially to make sure that everything that we create under our brand is provided with as much “stamina” as possible to travel, as well as reach as much audience members that we can muster.
Tell me about Dark Matter Studios?
I co-founded it with Llewelynn Greeff. It’s a multinational media company with office in the UK, SA and now the USA. We operate twenty-four-seven, throughout the world and in different time zones. We have a team of writers working for us, creating IP around the clock. We plan to invest in different facets of the media industry and plan to rapidly grow into a media powerhouse over the next five years. The idea behind Dark Matter Studios was to create a culture where filmmakers can become financially successful. We want to grow into creative giants with real power, both in the financial and creative arena.
Modder en Bloed (Blood and Glory) is an epic, grand scale masterwork that showcases the best of South African storytelling and storymaking? Your views on this?
Modder en Bloed is one of the most epic films to ever come out of South Africa. We didn’t skimp on budget when creating Sean Else’s film, we went all out. And as fate had it, we were supported by an incredible cast and crew. Everyone joined the party in creating a film that immense potential to change the landscape of South African film, making it almost bursts at the seams.
We will be selling this film all around the world, and if our strategy proofs successful, will do it again on an even bigger scale. We are not afraid to push the envelope and we are honestly excited about what we aim to create at Dark Matter Studios in the next couple of years.
We also credit Sean Else not only for his incredible script, but also his superb vision as director.
After your first-rate Leading Lady, you took a bold step forward with Modder en Bloed, tell me about this?
I have worked with people that feared progress because they didn’t know if they could live up to their future expectations. Leading Lady is a film I will always be proud of as a co-writer, director and co-producer. I think it opened lots of doors for us and aspiring international filmmakers, but was relatively small compared to Modder en Bloed.
Our culture at Dark Matter Studios is to grow aggressively. I firmly believe that Modder en Bloed will take South Africa and the world by storm. We aim to create even more epic films at Dark Matter Studios in the near future. We are excited about the future and approach it with vengeance. The entertainment industry allows us the incredible luxury to create our own destiny, so let’s see what happens when we push the limits!
Were you ever frightened about choices you made? What does fear mean to you in a cut-throat industry that relentlessly strives for ultimate success?
I have always believed that you are either motivated by fear or passion. I prefer being motivated by passion. Surely we get scared, but it never overrides the joy of progress and solving problems in real time, or in some cases, even before they occur. The culture of aggressive progress in the face of fear will always cut you from its imaginary ties.
What inspired you to embrace Modder en Bloed?
In short, Sean Else’s incredible passion for the subject matter. Sean really wanted to make this film and I feel that it shows in every frame. We committed to making it in collaboration with his company, Collective Dream. The entire film took us only a year and a half to create from concept to screen. This was a record especially if you take the quality of the end product into consideration. Even at concept stage it was clear that the film will draw an international audience, something that is cardinally important for our strategy. Read interview with writer-director Sean Else
What does success mean to you? How does it feel to compete in the international arena?
I measure success on various levels, but to me it means to acknowledge the place where you started from and compare it to the place you are currently at. For a multi-millionaire’s son, judged by society and the majority, it might be easier to achieve success than for the son of a pauper, but to me it’s always about what you do with the opportunities that you have been given.
I come from a middle class family with parents that loved me unconditionally. I have far to go to repay this great privilege in terms of my definition of success.
So, to answer you question, I don’t see myself as successful yet.
The international arena is massively competitive, but like in most industries, the more severe the competition, the more opportunities there are. I am excited about the next two years and will definately call myself successful one day.
Was it a difficult film to bring to life? Tell me about the obstacles and how you overcame it?
Llewelynn Greeff, co-producer, will tell you about the weather challenges Sean and our team had to face on set. It was definitely on-par with the film’s title. Modder en Bloed is also a film about a bunch of Boers trapped on an island under British rule. Imagine 60 actors on one set! It might excite some, but it’s a testosterone bomb waiting to explode. Our team’s management skills were tried and tested, but luckily it was a fun shoot for the cast and crew. And then there was the 170 pages plus script to get through.
What do you as a producer look for in screenplays?
A unique story that will emotionally touch its target market. It is as simple and complex as that.
I also look at the writer and ask myself one important question: Will I be able to work with this person? We have a very open approach at Dark Matter Studios and our employees often challenge us. We extend the same culture to the writers working with us.
A writer’s number one goal should always be to create the best film he/she possible can. To challenge and listen creates a fine balance that I believe is crucial in creating an emotionally accessible piece of art.
What excites you about film?
The moments that you rationally didn’t plan, but emotionally can’t forget.
Why do you think you are compelled to create stories? What drives and motivates you?
I am driven to create stories to understand the world better and in a way, self-actualise myself. I am forever searching for truth and I believe my films offer some alternatives to the harshness of real life. I might be a philosopher at heart, disguised in a capitalist cloak.
Who is the man behind the success? What do you do when you are not making or writing films?
I travel the world and try to surround myself with intriguing people from all walks of life. I have recently traded my martial arts hobby for snowboarding and want to take up a Spanish class this year. I am a hard and dedicated worker, I train vigorously, socialise and still make time to meditate every day. I challenge ideologies, especially my own and don’t buy into the status quo. I am mostly just grateful to be alive.
You also like to be isolated from the world where you can create stories and write. Tell me about your journey into the mountains in Los Angeles?
I can easily go months without talking to people. It’s wisdom I learnt when spending time on my own, writing. Although it might look like I contradict my previous answer, I enjoy spending a lot of time alone too. I think it’s a healthy balance living among people and then afterwards contemplate what those interactions mean to you.
I have written in Big Bear and Twain Harte in the States for months on my own. I was in a cabin and snow was falling outside the window. I was writing a thriller at the time and wrote myself into a superstitious panic on some evenings.
Any tips and advice you can give budding screenwriters and filmmakers?
Read a lot of screenplays and don’t buy into your egotistical ideals that you are the smartest person alive. Learn and read as much as you can and acknowledge that filmmaking is a skill, which means you can get better at it by studying it.
Tell me about your exciting upcoming projects?
Films of epic proportions in a bouquet of genres aimed at the world audience and produced for millions and millions of dollars.
If not, why not? #boom
More about Henk Pretorius
Henk Pretorius kickstarted his career in 2008 by writing and directing the South African box-office hit, Bakgat! He built on the runaway success of this teen comedy with an even more popular sequel, Bakgat! 2. He continued this success story by producing Bakgat! 3. This became South Africa’s first film trilogy.
Henk developed and partially financed Bakgat!, Hoofmeisie, and Wolwedans in die Skemer. He was the executive producer on all three these South African box-office successes.
In 2011, Henk took on the international film festival circuit and co-wrote and directed Fanie Fourie’s Lobola. To date, the film won three awards: the Audience Award at the 2013 Jozi Film Festival, the Audience Award for Best Comedy Film at the 2013 Sedona Film Festival, and the Audience Award for the Best Film at the prestigious 2013 Seattle International Film Festival.
Henk was nominated by Mail & Guardian newspaper as one of the top 200 most inspirational young South Africans of 2013.
He was also nominated as best director and co-writer at the 2014 SAFTA Awards for his work on Fanie Fourie’s Lobola.
Henk wrote and directed Leading Lady (2014), which made over R8 million at the South African box office alone and was in the top three grossing films in South Africa in 2014, while international distribution of the film continues to gain audiences in America and the rest of the world.
Leading Lady has been such a success that the official trailer has had more than 1.6 million views on YouTube, higher than any other South African film to date.