Daniel Dercksen shares a few thoughts with writer-director Craig Gardner, whose film My Father’s War will help facilitate healing for a generation of men, women and children (now adults) who were deeply affected by the South Africa’s Border War – on and off the battlefield.
The subject has been mostly taboo over the years, but the emotional scars have affected thousands of people in varying degrees – some of it extreme.
Tell me about My Father’s War, what is the story about?
It centres around the dysfunctional relationship between a 19 year-old young man (Dap) and his father (Dawid), who was a veteran of the Border War. Dawid has been very much of an absentee parent, and Dap resents him, holding onto a lot of anger. He also berates his father for being “a mercenary in a propaganda war”. There’s absolutely no hope for reconciliation between the two of them. Then Dap has a series of dreams in which he goes back in time and is a combat soldier in the war. There, he meets his father at the same age. Witnessing what his father went through being separated from his family, and their shared experiences in battle gives Dap insight and compassion, which leads to forgiveness and reconciliation in real life.
What inspired you to write the screenplay?
After Peter Lamberti and I decided to do a movie together, he expressed his desire to have to revolve around the Border War. After that “inspiration” came all the “perspiration” of how to turn that thought into a hopefully compelling narrative.
Tell me about your working relationship with Peter Lamberti?
It’s very collaborative. Peter was involved in the evolution of the project, giving his input on what he wanted to achieve through “My Father’s War”. As an ex-special forces soldier, he was my “go-to” guy for research. Once I had worked out the main characters and basic storyline, Peter and I worked closely together on the dreams. My intent was that they serve the story and advance character. Peter’s intent was that they reflected real events and real people, doing justice to what actual combatants went through during the Border War. In the end, it was a happy marriage of both. Together, we achieved a balance of real events with scenes that have dramatic purpose.
Was it a difficult story to adapt from real life to reel life?
The most difficult stumbling block was trying to figure out how to mix a contemporary father/son relationship drama and a period war scenes. Struggled with that for a couple of weeks. Many writers will tell you that their “aha!” moments come at the most unlikely times – in the car, in the shower, walking the dog, etc. Mine came while I was watching something random on television. Suddenly the idea popped into my head: dreams! It was an epiphany. Dap would go back in time during his dreams, and everything he witnessed would have actually happened, in real life. I would set the film in 2003, so that the dreams started in 1983, when Dap’s father received news of his son’s birth while on the border. After I crossed that creative hurdle, the rest was relatively easy.
It took you 7 weeks to write the screenplay? Tell me about the process you used?
There’s a book I really like using as my “mentor” while writing any screenplay. Of course, there are MANY to choose from, but I find Syd Field’s “The Screenwriters Workbook” very useful, to help keep me On Point. With “My Father’s War”, once I decided on the over-arching story and central characters I turned to whose story it actual was that I wanted to tell. I decided that it was both the son’s and the father’s, with a largest emphasis on Dap, who had the biggest emotional journey and character arc. I plotted his arc then hung my story and other characters on it, deciding that four dreams would be the right number to place emotional obstacles in Dap’s path, as well as provide the insight he needed. I always use index cards, on which I lay out individual scenes within the three act structure. I make notes on the cards, to remind myself of emotional “pointers”, set-ups and pay-offs, etc. They are my road map.
… Actually, it’s difficult to describe the writing process. It’s so organic. There are, however, certain “do’s” and “don’ts”. I don’t start writing anything until I’m 100% happy with my scene structure and character arcs. That’s not to say that scenes aren’t dropped and added or shifted during the writing, but at least – on paper – it’s working for me, going in. Then the organic part of the process kicks in as the characters actually tell me what should happen next. I get into their heads, feeling all their emotions. And I try never to force something onto a character or the story just because it suits me. As a writer, I take the journey with my characters. Sometimes they take me in other directions.
The most important thing is not to dawdle. Get the first draft down on paper. You can rewrite and refine later. I try and keep focused. Keep moving forward – one scene at a time. The cards keep me going in the right direction so I can free myself up to be surprised, creatively as the writing progresses.
Were you involved as director from the outset? If so, did you write the story with any actors in mind?
I always intended to direct. Although this is my first feature film, I had already directed countless hours of television. As far as actors are concerned, I didn’t write with anyone specific in mind.
Was it a difficult film to make? Tell me about the obstacles?
I had a dream crew who helped make the filming as easy as making a film can be – which is still extremely difficult. Time is always your enemy. We shot MFW in only 24 days. The biggest obstacles were presented by the filming of the dreams. After almost three weeks of shooting a domestic drama we were suddenly thrown into a week of war! It was as if we were making two movies at the same time. The dreams took much longer to film because of the technical side of things, like special effects and setting up shots for the VFX in post-production. I also created my own difficulties, like crafting a single two-and-a-half minute hand-held take done in one single shot.
You mentioned that this definitely not a political film. Tell me about this?
The SA Border War may form a backdrop to the film, but we don’t take sides, although we present both sides. Dap shares one view when he confronts his father about being a mercenary in a propaganda war. Dawid justifies his participation as defending the country against communism. Another character shares that Dawid had no choice but to go. Another states that the brave thing to do would have been being a conscientious objector. I feel that we’re balanced in our presentation of events. If there is a political stance taken it’s that – if one is against the war – the blame should be placed on the government at the time, not the soldiers. That said, I’m sure that viewers will have their own takeaway on the subject, irrespective of what I may state. That’s our nature. We see and believe the things we want to see and believe, regardless of what we’re being presented with.
You hope that this film will resonate with anyone who was touched by the war: soldiers, wives, husbands, children and parents to see it. ”
It will hopefully be a cathartic experience, bringing back memories, exorcising ghosts and helping to bring more understanding to viewers – even those who had absolutely nothing to do with the war. Anyone with parent/child issues has something to gain from watching this movie. It is, at its core, a statement that any relationship can be healed – no matter how “un-healable”.
That’s what we hope. Whether it’s true or not still remains to be tested after the film comes out. And although some may say there are relationships definitely beyond healing, if you truly want to forgive and reconcile, anything is possible.
You mentioned Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down as an inspiration, tell me about this?
Not an inspiration for the movie but for the way we approached filming the dreams. Both those films changed the angle of the camera shutter, to create a heightened realism – especially during explosions, so that the particles of debris are much more vivid, and you’re able to see them in a way you can’t when shot at normal speed. When we looked at how to make the dreams different from the present day drama, this was one device we employed. We wanted to make the dreams more “real” than real life.
You also shot the film in 2 languages, Afrikaans and English, shooting a local and international version at the same time. Tell me about this?
We won’t be showing two versions of the film. In South Africa, it will only be released in cinemas in its bilingual form – that is, about 40-50 percent Afrikaans (with subtitles) and the remainder in English. We did shoot all the Afrikaans scenes in English, so that we would have an all-English version, should an international distributor require it. We believe this is a first for this country. It certainly created challenges and chewed up lots of time during the shoot! I felt sorry for the actors, having to “give their all”, emotionally, then have to do it all over again in another language. But we’re pleased with the result, and it’s great to have the English-only version in hand when we need it.
From an actor in musical theatre to writing and directing your first feature film: Tell me about this exciting evolution?
Am smiling because you’re asking me to condense the last forty years of my career into a short answer. Arrived in SA as a performer who always wanted to write and direct. After some stage and television musical performances here I formed my own production company – writing, producing, directing and presenting inserts for SABC magazine-type shows and more corporate videos than I’d like to count. My low threshold for boredom led to moving into co-creating and writing/directing TV sitcoms like “Suburban Bliss” and “Joburg Blues”, as well as writing episodes of “Madam and Eve”, among others. Many years and countless episodes of “Backstage” and “Scandal” kept bread on the table. But through all this time, I wanted to move into feature films. Several of my screenplays were optioned by producers in LA. One, “Vanilla Gorilla”, was even three weeks away from filming here in SA, with Pierce Brosnan and Dakota Fanning starring, before the 2008 global financial recession forced the production (and the world economy!) to implode. As my career in television continued, unabated, feature films seemed to elude me. … That is, until three years ago when my producing partner, Peter Lamberti, said that he wanted to do a film about the South African Border War. Now… ALL I want to do with the rest of my career is make more movies as a writer and director. It’s become an overwhelming passion.
Do you see yourself as a writer, director or actor? Or do you find that all three disciplines compliment each other?
These days I see myself as a writer/director, but the acting I did earlier in my career informs my writing and my directing. I try and write dialogue that flows easily off actor’s tongues, and empathize with them while directing, having been both abused and encouraged by directors in my acting career. In our industry, I believe that everything that came before has an impact/influence on what we do now.
Your views on the local film industry?
We have many talented actors in SA. Our crews are world class. The technical quality of movies is top-notch. Beyond that, I’m not qualified to give an opinion on the state of our local film industry. I have my own views, but they could be without foundation, or fueled by ignorance.
What’s next for you?
I have several projects in various stages of development – all to be shot here in SA, but ones that will hopefully appeal to both local and international audiences. What I can state with absolute certainty is that I’m bitten by the movie bug. That’s all I want to do for the rest of my career. But first, I’m going to take a well-deserved break. Making movies is all-consuming and exhausting!