Daniel Dercksen shares a few thoughts with writer-director Judy Naidoo, whose sensational film Hatchet Hour marks her directorial debut and is most definitely a landmark on her 20-year journey as an independent filmmaker in South Africa.
A case of mistaken identity leads to murder in Hatchet Hour. The perpetrator, an ambitious lawyer, fears the impact the act will have on her career at a prestigious law firm and turns to her best friend to help her dispose of the body.
Fiery and ambitious lawyer Belle (Erica Wessels), mistakes an acquaintance for an assailant in her home and shoots him – killing him instantly. Knowing that a criminal charge will destroy her promising career at a top legal firm – never mind how her legendary lawyer father will react – Belle decides to get rid of the body and destroy the evidence. She turns to her best friend Jade (Petronella Tshuma) to help her destroy the body.
When Jade fails to convince Belle to report the matter, they heave the body into Belle’s car and drive up to the Kruger National Park, hoping to dump the body, leaving it – and the bullets which could pin the murder on her – at the mercy of scavengers and predators. The act sets in motion a chain of events that force Jade to confront the horror of the situation – and question her friend’s behaviour. When Jade’s boyfriend Izzy (Adam Croasdell) – no friend of Belle’s – starts to get suspicious, Belle must do everything in her power to stop events spiraling out of control.
Tell me about Hatchet Hour, how did it happen?
In 2006, I decided to do a short film-making course in NYC. I returned greatly inspired and determined to change my life in such a way that I could focus solely on my passion of making feature films. This decision set in motion a whole series of events that have today culminated in my first feature, Hatchet Hour. Upon my return from NYC my dear friend, writer/director Sofia de Fay offered me the option on a screenplay she had written, she could see my intense passion. The condition was that I rescue the script from an old dying computer. I moved heaven and earth to get that bloody script off that ancient machine and it was so worth it. I loved the story and I could see the potential in the work. This is how I inherited the option to the screenplay, this was in 2006. I spent years trying to make it but couldn’t get the funding together. But in 2012 in association with the NFVF, I finally got the opportunity to develop the screenplay further. It was a long process but it lead to a quality script that was revamped, updated and one which funders were happy to support.
Tell me about the alluring title?
The film is titled after the comedy show in the film. One of the lead characters, Isaac (Izzy) Friedman, plays a cynical, acerbic comedian whose show is called Hatchet Hour, mostly because he hacks into people with blunt truth. It seemed an appropriate title for the film.
What inspired the journey?
I could see potential in the work from the start. I also loved the premise of the original screenplay (which has stayed the same even though a lot has changed)
Was it a difficult journey from page to screen?
There were many challenges. Surprisingly raising the finance was not that difficult as the financiers believed in the script and the director’s vision, but in SA we make films within a certain budget range and this is not necessarily sufficient so we had to come up with inventive ways to make the budget work. Production had great challenges as well, shooting mostly at night, in the middle of winter, is not easy. Post-production was great, mostly because, as a director, I had great synergy with my editor. The biggest challenge to date has been actually getting the film onto screens. It is said that South Africans do not support South African, English-language films, so exhibitors are very skeptical of the film drawing an audience and it is therefore having a limited release despite having success on the festival circuit. The film recently won Best Foreign Film at the LA Femme International Film Festival in Los Angeles.
You wrote the screenplay with Salah Sabiti, based on an original screenplay by Sofia de Fay. Tell me about this?
Sofia’s trust and faith in me allowed me the freedom to shift and change the script as I desired. Salah was the original writer on the script and I chose him as we have very similar cinematic tastes and he writes brilliant dialogue, but he was unable to see the script through to completion and I took over from first draft stage. He had other work commitments.
Did you write the screenplay as a writer-director?
I was not a writer at the time. I was just a director/producer, desperate to make a film and it was taking forever. I could also see the pitfalls in the work and I was not willing to spend several more years getting a new writer up to speed to work on it. So you could say I started writing out of sheer desperation… It was through this process and working with an excellent script editor, Karima Effendi, that I discovered I could write. It was only after writing my second screenplay ‘Kings of Mulberry Street’ (my next film), solo, that I considered myself a writer.
The performances in the film are superb… did you write the screenplay with any of the actors in mind?
No. The actors only emerged later, once I had completed the script and started looking at the reality of making the film.
You mentioned that ‘’This story is an interesting exploration of how far ordinary people are willing to go to keep things in their life on an even keel, and if at all any of our actions can come without consequence’’. Tell me about this?
We wanted to explore the issue of responsibility. Responsibility being our ability to respond… and then the consequences of that response or action. If we do not take responsibility for all our actions we will pay in the end… or will we? This was the key question that drove the writing of the screenplay and though a decision was made in the script on providing an answer to this question the story evolved in edit and the directorial decision differs somewhat from the script.
We wanted the film to be a journey for the audience, and we were playing around with the thriller genre. There are elements of dark comedy in the film but I wouldn’t label it a dark comedy… I don’t think. The idea was to take the audience on an emotional journey and starting from a point of comedy/ ‘comical’ gave us the opportunity to escalate the stakes as we propelled the story forward and we literally wanted the story to move forward at a pace and not linger and labour.
‘’Opportunities for a young, black, female Wits graduate in directing 20 years ago, were non-existent. It has taken me the longest time to get to this point of directing my first feature… and the journey has been full of challenges…”” Tell me about this and how much the industry has changed for you?
The industry has evolved albeit at a slow pace. Organizations like the NFVF have made strides towards rectifying the imbalances in the industry by funding more and more female projects, but still, only a handful of us have managed to make our films. I think we (women) need to support each other in developing and producing our own work, and we need to develop the industry, which is growing, but is still quite small.
Do you see yourself as a writer or director? Why?
At heart, I have always been a director. Ever since the bug bit at university. It’s the thing that has driven me to push and find ways around challenges to make things happen for myself. I have a Masters Degree from NFTS in the UK in producing and even this was a means to an end. I knew I had to learn the business of film if I wanted to make the films that express my voice. BUT, now that I’ve discovered this new ability to write, I actually enjoy it. I find myself yearning to be alone and have time to write. I’m co-writing what I hope will be my 3rd film and I am dying to start writing my 4th film. So now I do see myself as a director/writer.
What excites you about being a filmmaker?
The process of going from imagining, to realizing characters and the world of the story. I love working with actors. The rehearsal process for me is the most exciting because nothing can go wrong and it’s all play… it work, but it’s playing at work.
When was that first moment in your life that you knew you wanted to be a filmmaker?
At university, I directed my first play and received a standing ovation for it, I knew directing was what I wanted to do, but I only discovered a year later that I loved telling stories through the lens of a camera, more than on stage.
How do you see the future for screenwriters in South Africa?
The future looks promising, though there are some challenges. Writers are often caught between writing for TV to earn a living and trying to write screenplays. The latter takes time and unfortunately, the money is not that great, especially if writers are doing it part-time, over a long period of time. There are very few writers who are solely dedicated towards writing screenplays. The Writers’ Guild of SA is doing some great work in developing new talent and I’m sure their efforts will pay off in the future.
What do you think are the ingredients for a screenplay that will attract the attention of producers and distributors?
There is no substitute for a good story, that’s well told. People have tried to follow commercial trends and base their films on popular genres, but these hardly ever work. A well-crafted, engaging story will have legs, no matter what. I don’t prescribe to any particular recipe for telling a story but I do believe that as a filmmaker you must have something to say, in your own unique voice.
Our reviewer Carol Martin stated that: “As a South African-made film, Hatchet Hour doesn’t have to have Hollywood scripting or acting to be engaging from beginning to end…”Your comments?
The film has a definite South African flavor, but it also has universal appeal. This is an engaging, character-driven story, it’s the type of film I would go to the cinema to watch myself… The fact that there are no international stars or names attached doesn’t impact on the story at all. We have top-quality SA actors who carry the story beautifully. A good story, well-told and crafted, will always find its audience.
What do you hope audiences will get from watching Hatchet Hour?
I think the film works on many different levels and each audience member will take whatever he or she chooses, this is up to them. What I would like for them to leave the cinema with, is a feeling of satisfaction – that this film is a memorable cinematic experience for each person. That is my goal.
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