Writer-director Gavin Hood talks about Oscar-winning Tsotsi

 Writer-director Gavin Hood’s Tsotsi won the 2006 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and was nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film in 2006. Set in an Alexandra slum, in Johannesburg, South Africa, the film is an adaptation of Athol Fugard novel of the same name and tells the story of Tsotsi, a young street thug who steals a car only to discover a baby in the back seat.

Daniel Dercksen shares a few thoughts with writer-director Gavin Hood

Shortly after winning the Oscar for Foreign Film in 2006, everyone wanted to talk Tsotsi.

This was one of those crazy interview sessions where you are crammed into a press conference with dozens of other journalists looking for the same story.  It was only out of persistence (and having a great contact person) that I managed to sneak in a one-on-one with Gavin Hood. This is where you have to make sure that what you get out of the one-on-one is unique for your publication.

What do you think makes a great writer?

Someone who is passionately interested in ideas. You are first and foremost a storyteller. You have core ideas that you are exploring. Arthur Miller once said to write until you discover your theme, and when you discover your theme, type what that central theme is and stick it above your typewriter. Go back and make sure every scene conforms to that theme so that you know what it is you are writing about. Not the story, but what the story is grappling with at a thematic level.  What is the central idea that you are struggling with? In Tsotsi, it’s redemption and forgiveness. It’s a story about redemption and forgiveness, it’s not a story about gangsters. You have to think about it that way around. You don’t say: ‘I want to make a gangster movie.’

What do you think are the elements of a great screenplay?

The most important element is a central thematic idea, and that has to be worked towards or around with extremely good characterisation. Stereotype characters are a big no-no. You should go through your script, once you have written the first draft, you should go through it and each time you read it, read it from the point of view of a different character.  Ask yourself whether each character has been properly developed. Even if they have a couple of lines, ask yourself whether what’s coming out of that character’s mouth is original in some way. Not the style of it. Do they feel like fully formed, preferably flawed human being? 

Don’t use characters as mouthpieces for your point of view. Your point of view has to emerge and preferably should be hidden and leave the audience to discover what it is you are saying. But, given that you start with a thematic idea that you, hopefully, are not too sure about yourself, like the question of redemption – how do you feel about forgiveness? Can you forgive someone who has really wronged you? – if that’s a struggle for you, then you are writing a story that struggles with it, and every character in that story in some way helps you to debate that for you. Not through their words, but through their very presence.

Do you have a particular writing process? Any advice for aspirants and upcoming writers in South Africa?

Write and re-write, and re-write, and re-write! Too many South African writers get a script down and want to get it made. I have 41 drafts of Tsotsi. Every draft is very different. I go through each draft and say: I feel that I have nailed the character of Tsotsi, but I don’t feel that I have done enough on the character of Morris in the wheelchair. Have I really looked at the scene? I have looked at it from Tsotsi’s point of view, now what about Morris? What do I need for Morris? Have I given Morris enough personality? Then I’ll go through the script again and ask the same question to every character in the script.  Does this character respond? Be that character while you do that read. Then when you do another read, be the other character so that you are constantly re-arguing your points of view. In too many of our stories,  I feel, the characters all feel like mouthpieces for the writer, and therefore they are not uniquely themselves.

Do you agree that the script is the starting point in the creative process?

Yes. Without a great script, you will never make a great movie. With a great script, you might still make a bad movie.  You will never make a great movie with a bad script,  it’s just a complete fallacy.  I feel that one thing we have to do more in South Africa recognises that a camera, sound, music and even actors are tools for the telling of the story. And if you don’t have a great story, it doesn’t matter how beautifully you shoot it, it doesn’t matter how great music you compose for it,  it doesn’t matter how good individual performances are. It is about the structure of the story, not just the story, but the way the story is told.

Directors are not camera people, they are storytellers, and they understand rhythm, pace, and human emotion. Everything should serve the central story that you are telling. A ‘cool shot’ – if hear a D.O.P (Director of Photography) say ‘this is a really cool shot’ – it’s not a reason to use it, in fact, it is a reason to run away from it! The question is: Does the shot serve the telling of the story? It’s no good if the shot looks cool in a moment, it must serve the emotional beat that you are trying to generate in that scene. What you are really trying to do is to get an emotional response from an actor. How does the camera help the story, not how does the camera make the film look cool?

How do you think Tsotsi and your achievements will change the future of the South African film industry, particularly for young filmmakers and writers?

I’m so scared to answer that question because my answer will make me sound like I know more than anyone else and I don’t. I only know what I have been learning over the last twenty years and I hope I got better at my craft. One thing I can say unashamedly is that I believe I’ve worked very hard at my craft starting with Educational television, learning how to structure a story, and how to use the filmmaking tools – camera, lighting, production design, actors – as tools to tell a story. If Tsotsi in any way can be inspiring, I think it’s a film where each department has done its very best work in service of the story. I keep saying that. The great thing about working with a director of photography like Lance … is that he is interested in the story, his photography is designed to help me get the best story that I can. When it’s a wide shot, it’s the need for loneliness or emptiness and the centre of the city brooding over this character, when we’re in tight when they eye line is tight, it’s because I want the audience to see inside Tsotsi’s head. , and see what’s going on in his head, and their eyes are lit because everything in this particular story is going on inside Tsotsi’s head. Everything is designed to help us get inside Tsotsi’s head, including the colour pallet of the film, which is limited so that you don’t get distracted by excessive business in the design., and stay focused on the character.

What motivates you as a storyteller?

To take on subjects that frighten me. You know there’s a terrible phrase that we were taught at school that says you must only write what you know. This is a good and bad thing. It’s good because you shouldn’t write about things that you don’t know. A lot of times people take it that you may not write about subjects that are outside of their immediate experience. I would actually say to write if you are interested in something. Write about anything you like. If you don’t know, go and find out.

I write because I want to grow. It’s a very selfish thing. I want to grow as a human being, and the way I grow as a human being is by looking into worlds and places that I am not necessarily that familiar with. And then, being a bit little frightened, go into that world, and immersing myself into that world, and finding out about that world so that I can come back with something to say as a craftsman about that world.

Remember, remember, that screenwriting and directing are crafts that you get better at the more you work at them. Great directors like Ang Lee – who comes from Taiwan –  are as comfortable telling a Taiwanese story as they are telling an American or a British story. Master your craft and then go and tell any story you want. You’ll learn something that makes sure you do know when you come back . So you must know what you are writing about, but don’t be inhibited to go and find out about things you don’t know.

COPYRIGHT ©  2006 Daniel E. Dercksen

Published with permission in the South African trade magazine CALL SHEET for its Cannes Festival Edition promoting South African films at Cannes, March/April 2006.

Daniel Dercksen talks to producer Paul Raleigh about scriptwriting and filmmaking.

This is one of those interviews that happened without planning it. It happened during the press conference and discovered that Paul Raleigh was wandering around the foyer. I was quick to corner him.

As a producer, what are you looking for in screenplays?

A good screenplay; they are tough to come by. Really good, well-crafted screenplays are difficult to find. It’s the story that moves me. Does it make you laugh? Does it make you cry? Do you like the characters? At the end of the day, the screenplay is about the characters. Television is different; it is about issues. We may be dealing with issues on a film, but that tends to be the canvas. The painting is really about the characters. One thing about Tsotsi and all of Athol Fugard’s work is that the characters are so well drawn.

What I enjoyed working with Gavin is that he comes up with challenging subjects. They are not easy stories to tell, and if not done right, you can lose your audience. What we are looking for is something the studios can’t do. If Hollywood had made Tsotsi, what would it have looked like?  I knew they couldn’t make Tsotsi the way we could make it. That to me was definitely a good sign. 

If you look at films like Whale Rider, Rabbit-Proof Fence, City Of God, and Central Station, which all have challenging subjects, but they are all films made by people from their country, and they were made with passion, and they were made in a way they could never make them. If you make something from the heart that is genuine, there is a market for it.  So in a way, those were the films that we said: why were they successful? Because they were honest, they were made with integrity, you are not pretending you’re somewhere else. I’ve worked on films where we turn downtown Johannesburg into New York. That may happen for a reason. Continually we are making films where you are pretending to be somewhere else. I think the other thing is that we have the confidence now

Do you think the world looks differently upon South Africa and its filmmakers now after Tsotsi’s Oscar?

If we can maintain the standard, I think they will. Film Funding of course is a complicated subject. It’s difficult to fund bad scripts. If we focus our attention on development, good scripts will always find the money. You can put 10 million into a bad film, whereas you can put a million into a great script. Why do you want to lose the 10 million if you can invest a million, and make it grow ten times. For me it’s a focus on writers’ labs, and workshops, to make sure that we have the mechanism in place to put young writers through the process, and allow them to deliver good scripts that are well developed.

Do you have any advice for aspiring screenwriters?

Screenwriting is tough because it’s a lonely job. It’s very hard. Generally, producers do not have the access to funding. You can’t expect anybody to write for nothing. Most people end up writing in their spare time. I don’t think that’s the way it should be. I’m hoping that we can use the momentum of Tsotsi to re-look at ourselves and say: How can we get to the point where every year we have a film entering the Oscars.

For me, I don’t even know if we are going to have a film next year, simply because it should be in production now. It may be two or three years before we have another film even making it into the next five. I would like to see more money going into the serious development of screenplays, with people brought in from around the world to do these workshops, but not just for a workshop and disappear, but for script editors to work continually with our writers so that people can start writing fulltime and make a career out of writing, and not a hobby.

Are you looking for new scripts, or new concepts?

Talk about something new. I think every damn story in the world has been told. What’s new in our business is technology, new innovations, IT and telecommunications, but in terms of storytelling, we’ve told all the stories that there are. We have a huge amount of stories to tell. Tsotsi is going to give people the confidence to say: I have a character that speaks Zulu and not English. So what? We do come from a country that has 11 official languages. Why have we insisted in the past that everyone speaks English? The world can watch and read at the same time.

And if writers can come up with a sequel to Tsotsi?

We certainly haven’t thought about that. I think Tsotsi is a once-off and is going to stand on its own. This is not a franchisable thing. We have so many stories out there. I think in a way the political thing has played itself out now. I think generally what the response from the rest of the world was, was that it is great to see a film that does not deal with issues. I mean, we do refer to AIDS, and we talk about poverty, but it’s not an overwhelming theme that bombards the audience.

What about the issues in Tsotsi dealing with crime and carjacking? Surely they are heavy issues?

I don’t think it’s in your face, because of the way it has been changed, because of the age of the person playing it, because of the circumstances.   The audience realises that this is a film about forgiveness. The audience has the capacity to forgive. In the end, they cry or are moved and it tells us something about our humanity. The biggest gift we can give another person is forgiveness. If you don’t forgive, it will eat you up. We’ve seen it with the TRC and any relationship if someone does something wrong. If we bear that grudge for the rest of our lives, can you imagine what world we will live in?

Any last word of advice for aspiring writers in South Africa?

Write what you know. Talk about what you are comfortable with. Don’t feel that you have to go and tell other people’s stories. We have got so many good stories of our own to tell. Be comfortable. Don’t get out of your comfort zone. If you need to do something that needs to be researched, off course you do.  What we have experienced with Tsotsi is that the people living here made it. Whatever you may criticise about it, there is something about it that is real.

COPYRIGHT ©  2006 Daniel E. Dercksen