Daniel Dercksen shares a few thoughts with prolific television producer Anita Le Roux, who wrote the screenplay for the sensational Twee Grade Van Moord that won the Best Picture and Audience Award at the Indie Karoo Film Festival.Tell me about Twee Grade Van Moord, how did you get involved in writing the screenplay?
The story ‘came to me’ many years ago. More recently, when I decided to begin a career as a writer I realised that the story had withstood the test of time and I decided to use it as my first attempt at writing a screenplay. The hero of the story is a woman, however, during the process of writing I realised very quickly that the pivotal character is actually her husband. I realised that the ‘wrong’ actor in this role could destroy the story. I asked Marius Weyers to read the rough draft of the script and when he agreed to play the part, I continued to write in earnest.
Twee Grade van Moord is your first screenplay for a feature film. It is taken you 20 years, working as a producer on several TV series and a ghost writer. How has you experience informed the writing of the screenplay?
The first script editor I asked to give me feedback expressed surprise that I didn’t write the script ‘as a producer would’ because I didn’t spare any expense. For instance, I wrote in expensive, short traffic scenes; vista shots of Cape Town; animals; magical realism that might require special effects should the director choose to follow that route. Most of these didn’t make it to the screen of course. It is after all a low budget Indie film. But writing is a different world to producing. It’s a world in which anything is possible.
Is it an original screenplay?
Yes, but as with most original stories, its roots are autobiographical. Fortunately no-one knows which aspects of the writer’s life are being exposed. They may think they do, but they don’t. As writers we exaggerate events and we are quite masterful at disguising facts. With this film, for instance, Gerrit was absolutely certain that I based the one character on myself. He is quite wrong! I never tried to change his mind because his assumption amused me no end.
Was it an easy screenplay to write?
No, it has an intricate plot. Although there is a definite hero-story, it juxtaposes the stories of two women who each commit murder; the one is absolved, but remains in a prison of self-incrimination; the other is imprisoned, but attains personal freedom. As writer I wanted this dichotomy in the plot even though it made the writing process more difficult and ambitious for a first script.
How will you describe the story in your own words?
It is a story that highlights the Laws of a Higher Order vs the human laws we make. It shows how far we have come (by understanding the effects of abuse) and how far we yet have to travel (by not understanding the nature of Love.)
In essence it is the story about murder, but also the poignant story of a gay young man with his mother and father. Your views on this?
The character of the son showed up ‘gay’ in my psyche when I began to write the story. Simple as that. His parent are urbane, educated, emotionally sophisticated people. The fact that he is gay makes no difference to the way they feel about him or treat him. Both Gerrit Schoonhoven and Jan du Plessis (MNet) initially congratulated me that I didn’t make meal of the fact that the son is gay. Perhaps it is experienced as poignant exactly because it is a by-the-way aspect of the story.
How much has the story changed from first draft to screening on the big screen?
The story and the characters haven’t changed at all. The so-called ‘Major Turning Points’ of the story moved. For instance, in the first draft Ben’s heart attack happened 25 minutes into the film; in the final draft it happens 10 minutes into the film. All the characters that appeared when I began to write the story remained to the very end and they stayed true to themselves right the way through. There was a script editor who wanted one of the characters written out; tried as I might to please, it proved impossible. The character in question simply kept chirping in. So she stayed in. And she said what she came to say in the first place. Good for her.
Screenplays are brought to life by the interpretation of its director, tell me about your working relationship with director Gerrit Schoonhoven?
Gerrit and I started the journey as friends; he kept me involved right the way through on his terms, exactly as it should be, and we are still friends.
Tell me about how you and Gerrit worked together on the screenplay, or the interpretation of it?
When there is a Broadcaster on board as investor it inevitably means that they are the custodians of the contents of the script. This is true of Broadcasters anywhere in the world. Once the Broadcaster-investor is satisfied with the script, the script itself becomes the basis for their financial commitment. They will not agree to invest unless they are happy with the script. The result being, when a director veers too far off the written script, it is viewed as breach of contract – unless of course the director’s offering enhances the written script. So, in answer to your question, I never worked with Gerrit on the script. I worked with KykNet’s people, and because I understood the process so well (from my experience as Producer), I kept Gerrit involved of the changes I made to the script as we went along. I kept him part of the process until the contracts were signed.
It must feel great to see your words come to life through actors like Sandra Prinsloo and Marius Weyers?
Oh man! Gerrit invited me to sit in when the actors did the first script read-through. I had to exercise huge self control not to burst into tears when I heard those two read their lines. I was a drama student when Siener in the Suburbs was a hit. Sandra Prinsloo’s immense talent influenced my career decision to go behind the scenes rather than acting on stage. ‘It must feel great’ doesn’t begin to describe it.
Her talent is amazing. After working with her on this film, I felt inspired to try my hand at a one-woman stage how. She has first refusal, of course.
Marius’s vote of confidence in the story and the characters gave me courage to pursue the script writing process. From the moment he agreed to play the part of Ben, I wrote the character with Marius Weyers in mind. That was a most satisfying process.
One of the most valuable asset any writer for film, television or theatre can have is being connected to the actors, and working closely with them on a script without being too precious about it. Your views on this?
By the time the final draft is written, the characters usually have great integrity. Anything that was not authentic about them is stripped away. Only the traits that are true to them remain – even if the script editors don’t appreciate those traits.
Traits that are true to the character will survive the editing process.
When the actors ‘become attached’ to a characters, and especially in the case of experienced actors, the characters becomes whole. At this point dialogue often change, however, the sentiments of what is being said usually stay intact. It is a highly enjoyable stage of the process.
For instance, in the court room scene of the film, Sandra P felt that her character wants to add to the written dialogue. She lead me to Shakespeare’s Portia and the monologue she gave in her sentencing of the Merchant of Venice. With the result Sandra and I wrote a line that may well be one of the most significant in the whole film!
The only thing that can thwart this process of writer-actor-collaboration is when the actor doesn’t understand his/her ‘place’ in the story. In other words, if the actor wants to increase their character’s importance, or doesn’t understand the essence of a particular scene. This, for obvious reasons, pertain mainly to support leads.
Your background is mainly in television and you are now migrating to film, how do you see the differences between each medium?
The local film industry is small – the same actors and crew work TV and Films. Often the same Investors too. Incidentally, local writers earn more from a TV series than a screen play, ergo, I don’t see myself migrating too far away from TV.
Your views on the local film industry, how much has it changed for you during the last 20 years?
No change. Perhaps more openly gay people, but essentially same-same.
Have you always wanted to be a writer, or do feel more comfortable in the seat of producer?
Yes, I always favoured writing, but back in the day (late 70’s, early 80’s) when the industry was young, it needed producers. I loved producing, but it doesn’t beat writing. Nothing beats the process by which characters come to life and begin interacting with you as their channel. I love the solitude of writing as well.
Were you involved in the process of bringing the story to the big screen, tell me about this?
Yes, I was involved all the way through. I worked with Jan du Plessis of MNet personally to produce the final draft of the script. I chose the Leads, the Director, the Producer. Sandra Prinsloo and I raised some of the funds required to produce the film. Gerrit involved me with the auditions; he asked me to come to set on occasion. I regularly gave my feedback as the edits came through. And some of the mistakes that were made were made by me personally.
It is important for a writer to take full ownership of their story as you have done, working with the producer and director, actors and investors; what advice do you have for writers to not step on any toes?
You will step on toes and your toes will be stepped on. My advice for writers is to try and keep their focus on the story and characters and off the many personalities involved. Don’t try to analyze the motives of the people who give feedback. It will drive you crazy. If you are thrown off track by particularly cutting feedback, simply bring your focus back to the truth of your characters and story. It requires maturity on a writer’s part to get through the process without feeling wounded or wounding one of the other people’s feelings. Always bear in mind that there are as many opinions of you script as there are people. Absolutely everybody and anybody who reads the script will have suggestions, and you will soon learn that the readers more than often contradict another! Insist on as few as possible readers and stay true to your characters.
What do you hope audiences will get from watching Twee Grade Van Moord?
I hope audiences will be enthralled for 90 minutes. That’s all. I don’t want them to get anything else from watching the film.
My job, as I see it, is to entertain people, not to bore them with ‘messages’ I want them to get. It is up to them what they take and what they leave. I simply want to give them their money’s worth for 90 minutes.
What is the most exciting thing for you about seeing your work on the big screen?
The actors doing their thing is by far the most exciting. Actors are such brave souls. And then there is Marius Weyers. He is especially faithful to the written dialogue. He warms the cockles of my heart.
What advice do you have for first time writers who would like to get their screenplays produced?
Familiarise yourself with the standard script rules; stick to them for your first script; get writing. A written script is an asset, a commodity. Oh, and grow a second layer of skin.
Twee Grade van Moord makes it debut at the Indie Karoo Film Festival On July 1 and releases nationwide on July 22.
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