Writing Studio graduate Sallas de Jager conquers the world with Free State

It’s a good thing to look back and realise how much we’ve grown.

The Writing Studio’s proud graduate Sallas de Jager is winning the hearts of audiences worldwide with his sensational Free State, which he wrote-directed and produced, garnering the Best Director award and Special Jury award for scriptwriting at the Luxor African Film Festival in Egypt last month, as well as Best Cinematography at the Garden State Film Festival in New Jersey, New York.

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Sallas de Jager discusses a scene with Leleti Khumalo during the filming of Free State.

It’s inspirational to see passionate writer-directors like yourself partake in one of my workshops and then catapult into a highly successful international career.  Your views on The Writing Studio as an independent training initiative to educate storytellers and story makers?

It seems such a long time ago, but I remember that after that weekend I had a much better understanding regarding the basic principles of writing for film.  With a good foundation you give yourself the opportunity to explore any genre.  I’m for that reason extremely grateful for what I learned at your workshop.


A born raconteur, Sallas has been telling stories through music as a member of the famous Afrikaans group, Klopjag, since 2002. He is not only a magician with lyrics and music, but he has also established himself as a competent writer, director and producer of music videos, theatre productions and full feature films. Besides all of the music videos he has thus far produced for Klopjag, as well as many other musicians, he has also won an MK video award for the music video Kopskudkinders that he made for Die Tuindwergies. Some of the theatre productions Sallas has been involved with over the years include: Sestien Stawe op my Spoor, Droogland 1, 2 en 3, St Tuiglik, Baby as ek Verby Ry, Stuur Groete aan Mannetjies Roux and Hier Huil jy net Twee Keer. He has worked as a producer and a writer in many of them. Towards the end of 2008 he was one of the founding members of Bosbok Ses Films (BSF). BSF started work on an adaptation of the book, “Roepman” and Sallas with Jan van Tonder and Piet de Jager wrote the screenplay. The film, Roepman, was released in 2011 under wide critical acclaim. The film was a co-production between BSF and Danie Bester’s company, The Film Factory. During this time, the NFVF chose him as one of nine young writers to partake in the Spark workshops in Cape Town in 2010 and due to the success of his involvement; he was further selected to continue with the NFVF’s Sediba Masters Scriptwriting program in 2011 and successfully completed it in 2012. Sallas was also the producer and scriptwriter of the celebrated Boer War drama, Verraaiers. After the massive critical and commercial success of Verraaiers he made his directorial debut with the award winning drama Musiek vir die Agtergrond in the first half of 2013. In the second half of 2013 he produced Stuur groete aan Mannetjies Roux, which he also co-written with acclaimed South African writer Christopher Torr. Roepman and Musiek vir die agtergrond was sold for release in North America. Musiek vir die Agtergrond was also sold and released in Australia and New Zeeland. Stuur groete aan Mannetjies Roux is sold to be release in Australia, New Zeeland and the UK during the latter part of 2014. Musiek vir die agtergrond was an official selection for the Mumbai Film Festival (MAMI) in the “Above the cut”-section. It was the first Afrikaans language film ever to be selected for MAMI. To date the four films he wrote or co-written the screenplays for, won 14 awards so far and numerous nominations, a testament that he understands character and writing for cinema. He won “Best African Director” at IIFFSA 2014 for Musiek vir die agtergrond. Having proved himself as one of the best dramatic screenwriters of his generation and delivering on expectations with his directorial debut, Sallas is set to become one of the biggest writer/directors to rise from African shores!

Your passion as a storyteller and storymaker has fueled your success and allowed you to live your dream. Tell me about this?

I have been blessed by great opportunities.  What goes hand in hand with these opportunities is the fact that you have to be ready to take the responsibility that comes with getting your break or chance to show that you can do it.  You have to do the hard work in terms of learning your craft and making the sacrifices that comes with it. You have to be as ready as you can be.  I had this passion for as long as I can remember and I’ve been involved in more scripts that didn’t become movies than ones that actually did.  I think the key lies in the way you deal with those disappointments. It’s a cut throat industry and there is no time for sulking.  You have to analyse every project objectively and then you find that you learn so much more from mistakes and disappointments versus the ones where everything works out.  I learned as a musician that the songs coming from the heart and from an honest place were the ones the audience wants to hear again and again.  I always apply this lesson when I start on any project.  Once your story has an honest soul, you have to trust your gut and DON”T be afraid to FAIL!

You have also managed to break into the international market  with Free State, receiving many awards. Tell me about this?

I think it locks again with the fact that myself and the creative team involved in the project came together at a time when we were ready to take on such a big premise.  A lot of factors came into play.  Firstly the core creative team have worked together on a few projects. We knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and we knew how maximise the strengths and minimise our weaknesses. Over time we have all earned each other’s respect for our pieces in the puzzle and more importantly every person took responsibility.  Secondly, the objective influence of the international team members, led by Rajiv Terwadkar, brought about a good balance in our approach to telling this story.  Thirdly, with detailed planning, it gave us time to concentrate on execution without having to worry about logistics.

Because of this the film has won Best Director award and Special Jury award for script writing at the Luxor African Film Festival in Egypt as well as Best Cinematography at the Garden State Film Festival in New Jersey, New York.

Nicola Breytenbach and Andrew Govender in FREE STATE

Free State is set in 1979 and tells the story of a forbidden love affair between Jeanette – a white Afrikaans girl – and Ravi – an Indian man. The lead characters are played by debutant, multi-talented former supermodel, Nicola Breytenbach, as Jeanette and former Mr South Africa and Top Billing presenter Andrew Govender, as Ravi. The

What do you think it is about Free State that speaks to the world?

I think it’s the universal dilemma of the characters within a landscape and a social order totally unknown to them; the combination of familiar emotional choices in an unknown environment.

It is also a film that will most definitely speak to South Africans?

Absolutely, and more or less for the same reason that it resonates with international audiences.  The political environment of the 1970’s in South Africa seems so far away from our current way of life.  It’s a good thing to look back and realise how much we’ve grown.

The film explores the predicament of a parent and child relationship within three families when they are confronted by the ripple effect of the forbidden love affair between Ravi and Jeanette. The parents are confronted by the need of a parent for your child to find true happiness versus the need for your child to uphold the way of life taught to him/her from childhood in order to fit into a community as an adult. The ruthless punishment for breaking society’s rules is something that every parent wants to protect his/her child against.

The possibility of true happiness of which love is the foundation, will always outweigh the sanctions of society, governments and religion – therefore making one person’s love towards another the most powerful human experience. Not even the tragic nature of forbidden love is enough to stop good people from risking everything just for a taste of something that is bigger than them.

As a director you never intrude on the story, but allow the beautiful romance of Free State to blossom on its own? 

With this story my approach was to be a fly on the wall.  We decided to set a stage for the actors in every scene and just allow them to become the characters and move around in the space as natural as possible.  To accomplish this, most of my direction work as far as the actors were concerned happened in pre-production.  We had hours and hours of group and individual table read sessions where we discussed every beat in every scene.  This resulted in every actor knowing where their characters were in terms of the bigger story and within their own individual story arcs; we shifted the focus from concentrating on dialogue to crawling under the skin of the characters.

It’s a tearful journey but never becomes sentimental. 

The forbidden love story as a master plot has always been a cautionary tale and I respected that as writer.  It warns society that no one can’t choose who you fall in love with. Any attempt to stop this romance because of personal or communal prejudices will result in a situation where everyone will pay a price.  Having said that, I do feel that the story ends with a glimmer of hope…

How much of the story is personal?

I’m the father of two daughters now 8 and 5.  The catch 22 of wanting them to find real happiness one day in love, and in their personal lives, and at the same time protecting them against the vicious reality of social orders and prejudice, is the greatest challenges for me as a father, and I suppose a lot of the inspiration for the story came from this personal fear.


Was it a difficult journey from inspiration to the big screen?

Strangely enough, it felt easier than previous films.  I suppose experience and lessons learned helped a lot. Once again I have to give a lot of credit to Piet de Jager, Rajiv Terwadkar and Danie Bester and the incredible team around me.  Because of their dedication and skill it felt to me much easier than it actually was.

As a screenwriter you have written the unforgettable Veraaiers,  and now as screenwriter and director you bring us another meaningful and emotional human drama with Free State.  Tell me about your fascination with exploring these intricate human stories?

I’m truly inspired and fascinated by human behaviour and if you combine this with one of the basic principal of story writing – Real character is only revealed when under real pressure – you put yourself in a position to create an experience for the reader/audience to really have empathy for the characters.  Without empathy – not sympathy – an audience can never be pulled into an emotional experience (which by the way is what they paid for). I think on a personal level writing screenplays to me is first and fore most search for truth or at least the possibility of truth with the hope to try and make sense of the world around me, always asking why things happen before what happened?

Do you see yourself as a writer or director?  What excites you  about each discipline?

At this early stage of my career it is hard for me to separate the two.  I see myself as a storyteller.  The process from paper to screen to me is the biggest adrenalin rush and I think I might be a little addicted to it.  I love writing for screen.  It took me years and many failed attempts to understand the craft of screenwriting.  The moment I started approaching it as a blue print of a house I started to feel comfortable in my own skin.  Writing is a very lonely journey but the moment you realise that you are creating a blueprint or a shell for experts in their fields to finish the house and make it a home with paint and windows and furniture and a garden etc. it is extremely exciting.  All you need to do is give them the ideal space to do their thing.  Filmmaking is collaborative art form and it begins with the screenplay and it’s the responsibility of the screenwriter to create within the story space for the 150 people that will be adding value to this screenplay from the moment the script is approved for shooting until the point it reaches the audience.

I think directing appeals to the musician in me and my absolute need to be surrounded by artists and the privilege to conduct everyone like a symphony and try to get all the parts and instruments to harmonise and complement the melody.

Tell me about bringing the story to life and finding your great cast? 

Once the concept was approved by our Indian co-producers and the Bosbok Ses Films team, I had to do a lot of research. Especially as far as the Hindu culture and religion was concerned.  It was important for me to know as much as possible because the next step was to apply this knowledge within the period where this story is set. Once the script was developed and written we were blessed with the fact that all the cast and crew on the wish list were available and keen to come on board.  We were really lucky in terms of the crew.  As far as the cast was concerned it was quite a process.  I met Nicola Breytenbach six months before writing Free State.  We were booked on a project that got postponed, but we did spent a few days working on the character for that film.  After the first camera test it was clear that Nicola is extremely talented and the moment I started working on Free State, I just knew, she must be Jeanette.  I phoned her and she immediately said yes.  Initially we wanted to cast Bollywood actors for all the Indian characters and so we sent the script to about 10 or 15 Bollywood actors including Indian National award winners Nana Patikar and Amruta Subhash.  They all read the script and wanted to do the film.

We hoped 2 or 3 actors would reply…  So me and producer Rajiv Terwadkar went to Mumbai and had meetings with all of them as well as with distributors and film producers in Bollywood. It was during these meetings we were advised to reconsider bring in Bollywood actors and try to keep it as authentically South African as possible.  We then decided only to go with Mangesh Desai and cast the rest of the Indian characters in South Africa.  What good advice this was because we then met and worked with the wonderful Hemali Juta-Pillay, Andrew Govender, Keith Gengadoo, Nalini Subrayen and Suraya Rose Santos.  Full of confidence after the India trip I decided to take a chance and just email the script to Leleti Khumalo, an artist I have been a fan of for a very long time.  She phoned me back two days later.  That phone call was one of the highlights of my career.  She loved the story and her character and said she would love to do it!  Deon Lotz, Paul Eilers, Rolanda Marais Quentin Krog and Johan Baird are also actors I have a lot of respect for and it was a lovely experience to have them on set.  I learned a lot from them and it was easy and daunting at the same time to direct them.

I also have to mention that the film was cut by the multi award winning editor Abhijeet Deshpande and it was also a very pleasant and insightful experience to work with him.  Working with Milind Matkar was also an absolute pleasure.  He is the man behind the wonderful artwork for our poster, billboards etc.  He is real genius.  Another aspect of the process that I really enjoyed was working with the online time.  Dawie de Jager (music), Janno Muller (Sound design), Andre Calitz and Eduan Kitching (Grading and final deliveries).  They are four Ninjas in their own right!

What excites you about being a filmmaker?

Everything.  Everyday on a well-oiled film set is a blessing.

How much has the local industry changed since your first introduction?

It has only been six years but the growth has been enormous.  The skill level of our technicians and actors has grown in leaps and bounds.  Filmmakers have moved out of the safe zone and we are definitely on our way to a lot of interesting genre films and the big positive is that South Africans are slowly but surely returning to the cinemas to watch their own stories.  As long as this is the case South African films will just get better and better.

Sallas 4Your views on the state of the South African film industry at present? 

I think the DTI, MNET and the NFVF invested a lot of time and effort and money in developing filmmakers in this country and for the last 12 months the results started to show.  Everything from scripts to production value to marketing campaigns has been improving almost on a film by film basis.  Our industry as a collective has much to learn but we have been given massive leaps over the past five years.

How difficult is it for first time screenwriters to get their words turned into film?

It is extremely difficult.  The reason for this is the fact that the industry is so small.  The current role players mostly develop their own projects.  The reason for this is the massive risk involve in financing a film in South Africa.  At the moment the NFVF is the only institution funding development and this needs to change.  If we want to keep on growing we need to develop scriptwriters.  This need comes up very often in discussions on the way forward for the South African Film industry.  I think it will just be a matter of time before someone wakes up and start investing in stories and the script development of these stories which will lead to more and better opportunities for writers in the near future.

What advice do you have for new screenwriters?

Practise and write as much as you can.  Read as much as you can.  You should not only have read but you have to understand the principles laid out by Mckee in “Story”.  You have to know and understand the three act structure.  You have to know and understand the Hero’s Journey.  Read “Save the cat” by Blake Snyder.  Attend as much workshops as you possibly can.  Become a master of your craft and surely when the time is right you will be ready when your opportunity comes along.

What do you as a producer look for in screenplays?

Universal stories about real people in an interesting time and place.  We look for characters that will not only be interesting to watch, but also provide challenges for actors.

Who is the man behind the filmmaker? What do you do when you are not making films?

I am a husband and the father of three children. When I’m not somewhere in make believe land I love to spend as much time as possible with my family and friends.

What’s next?

I’m currently shooting “Jonathan” an classic underdog action comedy.  We are having a lot fun and I’m once a again working with an incredible team. We are having a lot of fun making this one…

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