Interview with Die Ontwaking producer, writer and director Johnny Breedt

Die Ontwaking awakens South African Filmmaking

Daniel Dercksen shares a few thoughts with producer, writer and director Johnny Breedt

Die Ontwaking (‘The Awakening’), a grisly, action-packed thriller that investigates the mind and motivations of an acutely intelligent serial killer, and marks the directorial debut of acclaimed production designer Johnny Breedt (Paljas, Hotel Rwanda, A Long Walk to Freedom).

Hailed as a game-changer for South African film, Die Ontwaking is based on the first book of the ‘Abel’ trilogy, Abel se Ontwaking (translated into English as The Skin Collector), by well-known crime writer Chris Karsten.

Johnny Breedt 2

Well done on a film that really hits home and allows us to reconnect with the darkness that lurks in society.  Your views on this?

I learned from Anthony Minghella that making films either were about or had elements of the darker side of life, are way more interesting than most. He always chose this as an essential key to the projects that he took on and although he never made that many films, most were brilliant.

Die Ontwaking is an incredibly provocative and alluring title. Tell me about it?

The film is based on the award winning book “Abel se Ontwaking” by Chris Karsten. Even though it is quite clear from the book title, that Abel Lotz is the serial killer, I wanted to make it not as obvious in the title, so I dropped the first part and decided on “Die Ontwaking” instead. The publishers of the book then very cleverly brought the book out again with my title and Gys De Villiers on the cover.

What inspired you to write the screenplay, produce the film and then sit in the director’s chair?

I really wanted to be challenged as a film maker and wanted to do the same with my audience, take them to a place where they do not necessarily want to go. Honestly I did not think my first film as director would be a psycho thriller, but I did know that I was not going to make what everyone else was doing. Producing the film is an entity on its own, especially raising the funds and then delivering the film within that budget. I always wanted to be a director, way before I ended up designing films, so the transition was easy for me. I was also fortunate to work alongside directors like Phillip Noyce, Carrol Ballard, Terry George and Anthony Minghella, so I really learned from some of the best.

Was it an easy story to write?

No. At first I thought adapting a book would be easier than starting with an original screenplay, but boy was I wrong. I have written a number of original scripts and they seemed easier as I was the sole creator of the story and the characters. It was difficult to take someone else’s story and characters and try and make them my own. The way I got around it was I eliminated a lot of the backstory details that were in the book. These played off mostly during the Boer war and Ii figured that if a younger audience were going to be attracted to the story, then Ii should lose the Boer war story. I also changed some of the characters and added in some of my own ideas and this then started taking the shape that i was after. Chris Karsten wrote a beautiful, almost poetic novel and I butchered to make it work cinematically, but still kept the original concept in tact where possible. Chris was very impressed with the final outcome of the film.

Did you write the screenplay with any particular actors in mind? If so, how did this influence your writing of the screenplay?

No…Ii think that would be a huge mistake…..never write a screenplay for a specific actor. I actually spoke to a couple of actors about playing Abel Lotz, before deciding to go with Gys.  The screenplay must always come first and then the cast and rest follows, well that’s how I feel about it.

Tell me about your cast and how they influenced the film from page to screen?

I had a wonderful mixture of both experienced cast and some new actors. Gys definitely brought Abel’s character to life and he took a different direction than what I had originally imagined. At first I was a little apprehensive with that, but I soon realised that he was going to give me a character that people would be expecting for a film of this genre. Personally I think this role was made for Gys and it is one of his best by far. Paul Eilers did the same with his character , as did Gerard Rudolf and Morne Visser. The experience that they brought to the show was incredible and I could see how the younger actors were feeding off them during filming. We discovered some great new talent as well, including Armand Aucamp who is a star now in his own right, Juanita de Villiers who brilliantly plays the lead detective Ella Neser, Morne Visser who plays the suave David Eigelaar and Natasha Dreyer who plays one of the killers victims. The cast really brought interesting dynamics to the project.

You decided to not keep the identity of the killer as a secret, but rather takes us into his warped life and allow us entry into his mindscape. Still, you manage to maintain an incredible and tangible tension from start to finish. Your views on this?

That was tricky to do. I remember when I first shopped this around to a number of local producers; they all hated the fact that the killer was revealed early. I tried to change that and the result was that Gys’ character only made his first appearance in the middle of the second act and I knew that was going to sink me. So then, I changed who the film was about and made Ella Neser the protagonist and it became her story and how she and her colleagues try to solve this case. That way the audience know who the killer is, but the detectives don’t….that made a huge difference.

Did you set out to write and direct the film? Tell me about this?

Yes. I love writing and I love directing. Sure I would also direct other people’s scripts, but feel closer to the process this way.

Writing and directing a story you feel passionate about is ideal for any storyteller. Your views on this?

If you don’t have passion or you don’t follow that passion, you die. I follow this mantra in life, not only in writing and directing, but in everything I tackle.

The film has a hushed intensity, filled with whispers that set a sombre tone. Was this you intention?

Some of it yes…..I wish I had done that even more, but i was often left with 15 mins to complete a scene. The actors were great with this as well and I often kept rolling the cameras, even once the shot was completed and i was surprised at what actors do after they feel they have delivered what was expected on the written page. This is a technique I will keep using. For me reality is essential in my films and actors do very real things when they think you are not watching.

There is also a sense of a privileged and sterile existence? Your views on this?

I did not want this to look like an Afrikaans film and rather opted for an almost Scandinavian or European feel to it, but at the same time the language of the film and the story had to be South African.

The film is filled with incredible sadness and hostility between the characters? Your views on this?

This is life! Abel is a serial killer but we the audience will also have pity on the man. Ella loses the love of her life and then gets tossed into what she thinks will be a simple murder case, only to learn it is a serial killer, Fred Langer is pissed off with his boss as he made Ella the lead detective on his case and Silas Suals just wants to retire. I tried to create a sense of this young woman trying to fit into what is recognised as largely a “man’s world” and with that you get animosity, hostility and sadness.

Do you see yourself as a writer or director? What is your main focus?

I am a writer director, but as Ii said before I would do either. I am really a storyteller, but I do have an addiction too for carrying out both roles.

Do you find that your celebrated career as production designer has helped you in writing the screenplay?  Tell me about this?

Yes of course. I have worked on over 60 productions and have read hundreds of screenplays in the process. Production design is about creating incredible images that tell a story and we often forget that that is what a film is….moving images. Although good directors don’t have to have been production designers, they are still involved in a large way, in the overall look of the film. They achieve this together with the cinematographer and production designer. In my case I am able to use my design skills to my advantage, but what I will say, one can never be both on a film. I distanced myself more from the design job on Die Ontwaking and vice versa when I work as production designer on other projects.

Johnny BreedtHave you always wanted to be a filmmaker and where did it start for you? When was that first moment that you knew you wanted to be a storyteller and storymaker?

I knew at a very early age that I wanted to do this as a career. At first my father was not keen and of course today he is my biggest fan. I used to talk a lot of shit when I was younger and people were always amazed by what came out of my mouth and that has never changed. Oddly I would describe myself an introvert who has the ability to bullshit in a way that people listen.

What excites and motivates you as a filmmaker?

I like stuff that is realistic and I like to take risks, that really motivates me. I really the love of taking a script from concept to the end product, as designer or as director. Writing is where it all starts of course…..without the script we have nothing.

How do you see the current state of the local film industry?

I am excited to see new genres slowly creeping in and some great talent emerging. What we have to be careful of is making crap just because we can. Audiences are not as stupid as many distributors would like to think and they will start to demand great content. Of course there will always be a place for romantic comedies, but if we want to be more than just a nation that has talent, and rather be known as a nation that makes their own great films, we will have to get our audiences to appreciate local cinema more. Why will Afrikaners watch a horror in English but not in Afrikaans? That’s why i don’t specifically make” Afrikaans films”….I make “South African films” that hopefully can stand their own ground internationally, they just happen to be in Afrikaans.

What advise do you have for writers who want to break into the industry?

Never give up, have more than one script and don’t be afraid to rewrite!

What do you hope audiences will take home from watching Die Ontwaking?

I really hope that people still talk about the film and its characters a day or two after watching it. Although the film is graphic and dark, it is still just a film and i can only hope that people will enjoy it.

Tell me about your future plans?

I am currently busy writing on three scripts. “The Border” which is set during the Angolan bush war (also an adaptation), “Toorberg” (adaptation) and a personal story entitled “Hotel Boys” which depicts the life and struggles of two teenage boys growing up in one-star hotels in Apartheid South Africa

How difficult is it to produce a film independently in South Africa and then send it out into the world?

It is extremely difficult. It took me two years to get my film screened in my own country and we have only recently managed to get a foreign sales agent on-board. We just never gave up trying and now the rewards are great. When my films go to the cinemas on the 26th of Feb, I will truly feel like I have moved up into the position of director. I was extremely fortunate that I had Charon Landman, a local businesswomen as the benefactor on my film. If it were not for her financial role as executive producer, together with the DTI, this would not have been possible.