Producer-writer-director Sallas De Jager talks about his new film Dominee Tienie

Daniel Dercksen shares a few thoughts with producer-writer-director Sallas De Jager about Dominee Tienie, a new South African film that poignantly shows how true belief binds humanity.

A proud graduate of The Writing Studio, de Jager also enjoyed great success with his films Free State, Stuur Groete aan Mannetjies Roux, Musiek vir die Agtergrond, and crafted the screenplay for Dominee Tienie, based on the one-man play of the same name, written by Dana Snyman, also producing and directing the film.

Featuring Frank Opperman in the title role, who reprises on the big screen the role he played on stage, the film tells the story of a priest who needs to win back his confidence if he is to again become the light he once was for everyone around him.

After sixteen years as the pastor of the mother church, Tienie Benade is confronted with a steep decline in the number of churchgoers and a modern society that is rapidly changing. Do clergymen, or even the church, still have a role to play in this world? He is trying his best to adapt and make sense of the changes, but, in the process, he is alienating his wife and children. After an incident with a dying vagrant, Tienie finds himself at a crossroads. Would he be able to regain his self-confidence and win back the love of his family and would he be brave enough to provide guidance to his congregation in this new era?

The experience of being part of an audience at The Showroom in the heart of the Karoo at a preview screening clearly showed what lasting impact Dominee Tienie had on the audience; they laughed and wept wholeheartedly and undertook an emotional journey with the characters.

Thank you that’s a great compliment.  This is a skill I constantly work on and it will be something I will probably still work for years before even coming close to mastering it.

It is a combination of factors that come into play.  

It starts with loving every character in the story and having empathy for their individual flaws.

As a writer, you must then set up believable situations that will have a ripple effect on the story as a whole and gently manipulate the setting to set up clear goals and obstacles for each scene for every character in that scene.  This enables the actors to bring out the subtext.  Then you add the camera as our window into the scene.  

Myself and Eduan Kitching (Cinematographer) decided to use a back-to-basics approach on every shot we took in this film.  We used wide lenses for most of the scenes and because we did that, the camera needed to be extremely close to the actors.  This brings about a very intimate performance space for the actors because the camera is right there with them in the scene.  We also decided in specific scenes not to use over-the-shoulder shots which allows the audience to become part of the important scenes and not just mere observers of two people having a conversation.  Another technique we used was to always look down on Tienie until he makes his leap of faith and then we look up at him.  These subtle angle adjustments make a massive difference in the way the audience experiences the action.

Sallas de Jager with cinematographer Eduan Kitching

Did you have a specific audience in mind during the writing process and how important is it for writers to know who they are writing for? 

Yes, I do think it is important to know who you are writing for but I think it starts with really knowing what are you writing and why you want to tell the story.  If you can honestly answer these questions, the target audience should be a natural outcome if you stay true to what you wanted to write and why. Be prepared – it might be millions or it might only be a few thousand depending on the genre, the themes and a long list of bullshit.  It is very tricky because finding a target audience is not a writer’s job, it is a producer/distributor’s job.  Unfortunately, it starts with you who needs to convince them that there are thousands/millions of people who would flock to cinemas to see this story of yours on the big screen.  You need to know, or at least guess, who these people are because if you can’t convince your producer and he the distributor, you will probably end up watching your film alone, or at least three or four times with your family.

It’s hard when you start out, but you learn to grow into being conscious of these external factors.  It’s even harder when you are young because you want to make a stand (at least for the first 3 or 4 screenplays you write) about something you feel should be said and it becomes the focus, instead of just telling the story.  This was also true for my own attempts at the start of my career and what complicated it even further was my ambition to write South African stories for an international audience.  I often ended up half and half, somewhere in the middle. The toughest thing for an artist or then specifically a writer is to understand that doesn’t matter how good your screenplay is, some people will like it and a lot of people will not.  Their reasons have nothing to do with you or your story  – we all like what we like.

Sallas de Jager with Carel Nel

Theme is often a stepchild in many films, but with Dominee Tienie your thematic purpose resonates well with the audience, with universal themes of acceptance and redemption leaving plenty food for thought. 

I think the golden thread as far as the main theme is concerned is not to be afraid of change, it is inevitable. We all share the fear of the unknown and thus in basic terms, we fear losing control, something nobody can really claim to have.  But if we can be courageous enough to take a leap of faith for the right reasons it could change our lives for the better. That’s what Tienie reluctantly does in this story and not without fear and not without risk and that’s why we root for him!

The film poignantly explores the role of clergymen in our cyber world brimming with fake news and false ideals. 

I can only imagine how hard it must be for them. And it changed so quickly.  It takes a special kind of person to believe he can guide others through this maze of information or at the very least – just to be brave enough to try…

The film shows that true belief binds humanity …  

Interesting observation and a good one. The film does show that it should be the case but the film more importantly raises the question:  WHY is it not so in reality? The answer will be in the eye of the beholder…I guess?

What inspired you to bring a well-travelled and beloved local play to the big screen?

The premise of a preacher who lost his sense of purpose and being vulnerable enough to admit that he is not sure where fits in within our modern society intrigued me immediately.

I read the stage play before I saw it for the first time.  I saw the images and the people Tienie spoke about in his sermon immediately whilst reading it and knew I had to at least give the screenplay a shot and see what happens.

How difficult was it writing the screenplay, turning a dialogue-driven story into a visual medium?

It was harder than I anticipated.  It required going back to the basics of screenwriting. Starting with a solid objective and subjective structure and once that was done, make sure that you add action, add goals and obstacles for all the characters.

Also, make sure that within the combination of the context of the story and the intended target audience the stakes are clear and understood.

Little things like the causality of actions and understanding the characters so that you can give each one a voice of it’s own became the focus for me. In my mind, it was always clear that from a visual perspective the world of the story will be embraced to the maximum when we start our shot list. All the characterisation would be moulded using our colour palette, art design, costume design as well as camera angles and giving the actors a chance to get into the skin of their characters.

I, therefore, did not dwell to much on these issues during the writing process.

For me, the challenge during the writing was always to make sure that the characters are part of the day-to-day world of the church, for that reason most of the work went into writing interesting characters who speak and act authentically and they make believable decisions under pressure.

Sallas de Jager discusses a scene with Frank Opperman

Although the film deals with a priest confronting his life and role as a spiritual leader in a world where there is a decline in church attendance, it’s incredibly relevant as it deals with our lofty dreams and aspirations that not even those closest to us can fully comprehend.

To me, Dominee Tienie is a middle-aged male who needs to regain his confidence within a world that changed almost unrecognisable from the world in which he was raised.  I don’t think he is the only one.

How personal was this film to you?

It was quite personal to me from the start.  Having grown up in a small Afrikaans town in the ’80s and early 90’s I was incredibly moved by a “Dominee” asking: “Who am I, where do I fit in?”.

The child in me instantly asked: “If an Afrikaans Dominee doesn’t know where he fits in, where do I fit in?”

And I had to sit back and look at my own life, my own marriage, my kids, my career and the world around me and it quickly raised questions to which most didn’t have simple answers.

How do you relate to Dominee Tienie?

I am not getting younger and will move into my 40’s soon, I’m a father, a husband, and a leader when I have to be, working in an industry that changes all the time. I’m a teacher, a confidant and a friend. I don’t like confrontation. I’m not always sure what is expected of me from society. I always feel it is better to care more as suppose to do too little.

What do you think makes Dominee Tienie such a fascinating character?

He is supposed to have answers to the big questions or so it is believed by his flock.  It can never be true, but it makes everyone around him feels safe so and what an unfair burden to carry for a human being. It takes tremendous courage for him to be vulnerable.

You were also blessed working with Frank Opperman on this project… how much did he influence the writing of the screenplay, and the transformation from stage to film? 

It was an incredible experience. There is so much I can say about Frank but what meant a lot to me and it is something I aspire to be if I ever reach that place in my career where people recognise you as an icon – he respects the process as well as the structures of filmmaking. From day one he trusted me and it was an absolute joy to work with him.

The play is very different in dialogue as well as in structure and even though Frank did the play more than 250 times he had to start over for the film.  It was fantastic to go on this journey with him.

Frank Opperman and Sallas De Jager

It is interesting how you took us into the heart and soul of a world that seems far removed from our own lives, but is not that different from the struggles of our everyday lives.

Thank you for recognising this.  It comes back to a man regaining his confidence. For a typical or maybe it’s more accurate to say for a traditional NG Dominee the church grounds become a bit of an island and this to me was a fantastic metaphor for the comfort zones we create for ourselves.

We are all guilty of falling into a routine of going to the same places, and seeing the same people doing the same activities.  Once again we do this because it creates an illusion of safety.

We as humans however need to be part of something or at least have a need for a sense of community.  The danger, however, is the fact that the moment you get stuck in a comfort zone you often have little chance to grow and in fact, you are afraid of change because you are afraid of losing that feeling of safety whether it’s real or not.

How much has the local industry changed since you first started your career?

What changed the most is the fact that it became harder and harder to get finance.  What goes hand in hand with that is that our budgets seem to get smaller and our shooting days less because of the fact that money for film production is really hard to secure.

It takes a different approach where artistic expression and budget are hard to balance.  Not impossible but harder.

On the positive side, it is very encouraging to see the number of films representing South Africa at international film festivals.

What is more encouraging is the fact that the ratio of films getting international distribution deals because of festival exposure is picking up drastically!

Slowly but surely South African films are infiltrating the world cinema stage and soon enough we’ll stop being the token selections at big festivals.  This will also secure us more avenues for funding because we’ll be able to sell it on more platforms.  The next 20 to 30 South African films will be key to ensuring that this steady climb in festival exposure and international sales will build on this momentum.

Do you agree that the SA film industry is very much home to independent filmmaking, where filmmakers have to bring their own projects to life?

Absolutely, I don’t think it will change soon.  It’s difficult to predict the way platforms like Netflix and Showmax will influence things in the near future as far as South African productions go.  Think MNET is still going to be a big player for the next few years. But to come back to the question.  

I think independent filmmaking will be the norm in South Africa for the next few years.

How do you see the future for screenwriters in South Africa?

Screenwriters must be aware that there is a big move toward television series.  It seems to be the place to be if you want your writing to end up on the screen.

Film will always be there but don’t be afraid to dip your toes in the long format.  It might just serve you well.

South African screenwriters have a unique voice and perspective on the day-to-day human condition and it’s very much unexplored by the rest of the world.

We are one good international break-out film or TV series away from the rest of the world seeing this and then they’ll come knocking on the door looking for more.

Write your hearts out, it’s just a matter of time before they’ll shout at the door for fresh content, be ready.

What do you think is the core of a great story? It’s a hard question but to me, it’s two things authenticity and empathy. As simple and as complicated as that…

Tell me about the process from inspiration to the first audience, was it a difficult one and were there many obstacles?

After reading the play, the inspiration for attempting the adaptation to the screenplay almost came immediately. Firstly I phoned Dana Snyman and had a conversation about the possibility of adapting it for the big screen.  After getting the green light from Dana I started immediately to test the water with distributors, MNET, my partners at our production house, Bosbok Ses Films and Frank Opperman (who played Tienie in the one-man show).

Initially, I didn’t get an overwhelming response from everybody, but enough to sit down and write the script in an attempt to show the non-believers at that stage what I saw and what I believed it could be.  The moment the script was shared the support grew substantially.  This was about August, and September 2016.

My focus then shifted to promoting Jonathan which was set for release in December of 2016. Picked up on Dominee Tienie again end of January/ February 2017 trying to get finance in place and still it didn’t strike a chord with some of the gatekeepers.

It was only from about July/August and after I just kept on knocking on the door that the first domino fell and then the next one and we were all set to shoot in October 2017.

Then once again a big part of our finance fell through and once again it made things super complicated, but with a little luck and because of relationships built over the last few years the gap left because of finance loss, was fixed and production was set to start end of November 2017.

At the moment finance is surely the biggest obstacle as far as independent movies go and even for an experienced filmmaker your reputation or your good ideas are way down on the list when it comes to getting your project financed.

We were spoiled over the last few years with relatively easy access to production funding but it changed and for the better, I think.  You now have to be very aware of the market dynamics, audience behaviour, target audience needs and the needs on the various platforms.

You need to be able to do realistic sales forecasts based on the performance of similar films and films starring your lead actors in order to put a realistic value on the project.  If you can’t do this, find somebody who can.  All the normal obstacles like time pressure, budget constraints, actor availability, location restrictions and the rest will always be there, even if you have a hundred million dollars.  It is par for the course.

You need to understand the funding process if you want to even get close to the obstacles that production will bring and solving them is part of the job of the filmmaker and crew having the privilege to work on a film set.

Our biggest obstacle on Dominee Tienie once the production started was TIME.  We could only afford to shoot for 15 days.  Looking back on it now it was a blessing because the lack of production time leads to very intense and fruitful pre-production after which the crew and cast were super prepared.

Everyone knew what was expected from them and what was needed when.  During pre-production I tried to create an environment where all suggestions were welcome, it was discussed and either implemented or discarded.  This was necessary for two reasons –  One, the experience taught me that when everybody in a creative team feels they have the freedom to contribute to the creative elements and not just execute orders or plans, everybody feels that they add value. It is only then that their talent comes to the foreground.  Secondly, if ideas are flung around just before the camera setup of each scene, there is not enough time to consider it, it turns into an ego war very quickly and often leads to good ideas falling through the cracks.

The biggest danger of ideas at the last minute is having to many cooks in the kitchen – Once the clapper board is taken out, there is only one cook, the director.  We worked very hard during pre-production and we had a good plan. The major challenge was having the discipline to stick to the plan. We did.  Basic storytelling tools carried a lot of weight during this production and the execution definitely contributed to the end product. Then came the post and this was very enjoyable. But it has to be said.  The core of this film was the pre-production. Now we can’t wait for people to see the film! The wait from the finished film to the first weekend is probably the worst part for me of the whole process.

Tell me about your next project.

I have been working on a few things over the last 18 months but I don’t know which will happen first. What I can tell you is that I’ll be focusing more on directing for the immediate future.  

I had a very productive few years but it feels like I need to live a little again before writing again.

Well you never know, ask again tomorrow…