Michael Ashton’s screenplay for The Forgiven began as a stage play, which he wrote while completing a prison sentence. Ashton used his time in prison to create this historical fiction about a brutal war criminal seeking amnesty from Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
The post-apartheid story, Written and Directed by Roland Joffe and Co-written by Michael Ashton is based on Ashton’s play The Archbishop and The Antichrist. The drama follows Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s (Forest Whitaker) work as President of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa, and his struggle with a brutal murderer Piet Blomfeld (Eric Bana) over concession and redemption.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu finds himself morally and intellectually challenged by Piet Blomfield, a convicted murderer serving a life sentence in prison and seeking redemption for the atrocities he committed. Tutu must fight to hold together a country threatening to tear itself apart once again without losing himself in the process.
The Forgiven was shot completely in Cape Town, South Africa, where principal photography commenced in November 2016.
Mostly filmed in and around the city, the film crew on many occasions had to endure long days and nights in one of the world’s most dangerous prison facilities, Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison, where Nelson Mandela himself spent his years between 1982 and 1988.
Based on the play, The Archbishop and The Antichrist, Roland Joffe, together with Michael Ashton wrote the film’s original screenplay. Craig Baumgarten together with local South African producing partner Zaheer Goodman-Bhyat from Light and Dark Films, and with blessings from the Archbishop himself.
The Archbishop himself has given the project his blessing, saying: “This timely, compelling and intelligent film, movingly, and above all humanely, captures what it felt like to be working with those selfless members of the TRC who strove, often against the odds, to help bring both truth and reconciliation to the ordinary people of South Africa. The film is a tribute to the remarkable and healing power of forgiveness and the outstanding compassion and courage of those who offered love and forgiveness as an antidote to hate and inhumanity. This is not only a film about a certain time and place, it is a pean of hope to humanity at large.”
Playwright Michael Ashton Mined His Own Prison Experience to Create ‘The Forgiven’
The Forgiven is based on a play you wrote, The Archbishop and the Antichrist. What inspired you to write a stage play about post-Apartheid South Africa?
Well, you must know that I went to prison. While I was in prison, I wasn’t going to waste my time. I took a Master’s Degree in Research Methodology. My thesis was on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. For free, once a week, I attended a playwriting course. The people who ran the course, Synergy, they wanted you to write something for the end of the course.
It was the best thing I ever did, for myself and others. I wanted to avoid writing about gangs and drugs and such things, so I chose something dear to my heart. I had a lot of source material on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which sat to hear cases of abuse during the apartheid years with the hope that the nation would be healed of its wounds.
And unlike the other guys in the class, I didn’t want to write about cooking and bitches. I wanted to write about what brought people to prison. When I was sent to prison, I was an absolute wreck. And I was a wretched creature. I mean, what caused me to commit my offences? Because I was a practising lawyer. I was completely gone for years on alcohol and drugs. I had destroyed every relationship you can imagine. I mean nobody wanted to know me. When I went to prison, I didn’t get any letters, visitors, nothing.
When I started to think about what I was going to write about, I was racked by guilt, tormented by guilt. I started to wonder about forgiveness and redemption. How do you deal with these issues? And when you are sitting in a prison cell by yourself, you only got yourself. So, when I started to write, I wanted to write something meaningful. And I realized that Desmond Tutu was overlooked. You have films about Nelson Mandela, but Desmond Tutu, the man who worked hard and was in the front line for many years, was overlooked. Hence my story.
I was fascinated by Desmond Tutu’s story but a little dismayed he had been largely overlooked by the entertainment industry. Hence my stage play “The Archbishop and the Antichrist” was born. One thing I did not want to primarily focus on was the Archbishop’s life itself. That is a story which probably does need to be told but I wanted a story rooted in fact that highlighted his love of the principles of forgiveness and redemption, which is of course what the TRC was all about. My own experience of some quite unsavoury people around me in prison became the model for Piet Blomfeld, the eponymous Antichrist of the story.
And of course, I had to invent a protagonist for Tutu and that was the white supremacist Piet Blomfeld. And curiously, I must have done a good job because a lot of people think he’s real. And of course, he’s not.
I invented him. I don’t even know if I’m real.
It is important to embrace the principle of the healing power of art within the prison. Accept any offer of education and learn from those who are prepared to pass on their expertise and experience, and this is particularly true when it comes to mastering the art of playwriting and screenwriting. I decided to mix my experience of being a prisoner with my desire for my own salvation and my love for human rights issues.
How did you get inside the head of a character like Blomfeld?
My research for the character was drawn from both real life experiences within the prison in which I was a prisoner and reading about people who appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. There were a number of truly unsavoury characters in the prison with me. I observed their interactions and how, especially in the case of one man, despite lengthy sentences to be served, they considered themselves a cut above.
I also studied and read everything on one particular individual who was refused amnesty by the TRC and was later sentenced to a prison term of 222 years. Reading about his take on his crimes and his justification for apartheid was utterly fascinating, and I encompassed much of that within the fictitious character of Blomfeld.
The relationship between Blomfeld and the 28 is an interesting one. Can you tell a little but about how it works, and how you developed it in the script?
My starting point was my own experience within the prison, where I was able to observe the gang structure that surrounded me. The gangs tend to dominate a certain part of the prison, and in England, the gangs are not definitively racial. For example, Muslim prisoners will welcome anyone into their gang regardless of ethnic background, so long as they embrace Islam. Inside a prison, gangs tend to be isolated from the outside world, so that when people are released in the main they drift away from the gang. This is not the case with the 28s in South Africa.
The 28s are a gang that maintains its power base outside in the community as well as within the prison. They are rigidly structured and their influence within the prison reflects a racial division which harks back to the days of apartheid. It is therefore natural that someone like Blomfeld would be an antagonistic opposite of the 28s. It was easy to write the scenes between Blomfeld and the 28’s, as I had both Blomfeld and Mogomat [the leader of the gang] firmly in my head, and I knew that there would be mutual respect running alongside the hatred. Characters should be multi-faceted, and that should be a guiding principle when writing them.
You got to work with a renowned director in Roland Joffé, who co-wrote the screenplay for the film. How did you two meet and what was it like collaborating with him on the film?
It was absolutely fantastic! I loved Roland and I think he reciprocates. He’s a very special human being. He liked the stage play and I was introduced to him by Tony Calder, who in the 60’s and 70’s had managed The Rolling Stones, The Small Faces, Peter Frampton, and others. He introduced me to Roland and we started working on the screenplay. It was mind-blowing working with Roland. He’s a very careful and cautious person. Despite the fact he had secured Forest Whitaker for the film in 2011, he didn’t really want to get into the nitty-gritty of shooting the film until he was absolutely ready.
I’ve written a lot of stage plays across the U.K. and won numerous awards. My last stage award was last May, so transitioning from the stage to the screen, was not easy. Roland is a very patient and kind man, so he was able to help and he overlooked some indiscretions. For instance, having Asperger’s, I tend to fire off and I sent e-mails to people and get all riled up. I told them I was never speaking to any of them again, ever. The following day, I sent another e-mail apologizing and Roland tends to forgive all of that. He would point out what wasn’t cinematic so we cherry-picked the dialogue scenes, which were quite long in the film from the stage play, but that was from Roland’s excellent, spaced-out, guidance.
When it comes to plays, I get introduced to the actors on day one and then after the read-through, they don’t want me to come back because of the fear that if they change the dialogue, I will get mad. Roland’s patience with me is boundless.
Were you involved in any casting of the film?
Eric was right up there because I just loved his first film, Chopper. He played a chopper and his character was in prison for a while in the film. I actually have a couple of Chopper posters. Eric was right up there by choice but I suggested two actors.
The other actor I wanted was actually Joaquin Phoenix.
I actually spoke to Eric after one of the performances at the London Film Festival and when you’ve actually written something and you see it come to life in film or on the stage, it is hard for the writer to appreciate an actor of Eric Bana’s stature to where you tell them that this was the kind of role actors would kill each other to play.
You have quite the prolific output as a writer. You have written over 30 plays including the award-winning ‘The Archbishop and the Antichrist,’ which you adapted into a screenplay, The Forgiven. What drives you?
I hadn’t written until I wrote The Archbishop and the Antichrist in 2009. When I was a practicing lawyer – before I went to prison – I specialized in human rights issues.
I was diagnosed as being high on the Asperger’s scale as a child and always either struggled with the condition or else took advantage of it. A direct consequence I have always been very solitary so that when it comes to studying and writing I can lock myself into whatever I am doing and immerse myself completely. On the negative side, I have never been able to maintain friendships or relationships.
By the time I went to prison in 2008 after a conviction for fraud, I had managed to alienate everyone with whom I had a relationship or connection. I found myself, as usual, alone. Before being found out as someone who defrauded clients, I had been totally lost in my own private hell of drink and drugs. Being forced to give up this vice, I found myself locked into a world of guilt.
So, I find that if I start writing, I start working on something that interests me – I don’t stop because I’m high on the Asperger’s Scale. So once I start writing, I can’t stop. Once I get started on it, once I’ve done my research, I can’t wait to get writing. I must say, every time I finish a script, I tell myself that I’m never going to do another one.
The Forgiven plays out very much as a protracted moral discussion between two archetypical figures –”foils” as you aptly point out – what was your creative process like when you wrote the play?
When I wrote the play – it was quite the journey from sitting in an English prison cell, looking out over a rainy yard, and writing The Archbishop and the Antichrist by hand, in a prison notebook, to an LA premiere. That’s quite a journey.
So, when I sat down and wrote, I was writing from the heart, not from the head. I was writing with no expectation. I thought I would hand this in – these 3 notebooks – I thought I would hand it into the people running the course who would mark it and I would get released from prison and return to life somehow.
I didn’t know that they’d sent it off and entered it into the Amnesty International competition. I didn’t know that.
Seven days after I was out of prison, I was sitting in a Salvation Army hostel, for homeless people in East London. I had 2 bottles of whiskey and I had 500 Benzedrine tablets.
I was halfway through killing myself, when a staff member knocked on the door and said, “There’s a phone call for you.”
The National Theater director Esther Baker said to me, “Congratulations! You’ve won!”
When I left the prison, what they do is, anything you’ve been working on computers they wipe. I asked for the hand-written copy of The Archbishop and the Antichrist, so I had that. I thought, that day, what am I doing looking at this? So, I threw it in the script.
Esther Baker said to me, “We’re going to be performing it at the Royal Festival Hall, but they lost the CD, so do you have a hard copy?”
So, at 1 o’clock at a night with one staff member shining a torch, I have to get into the script and find all the pages…
What drew you to dramatic writing, in particular?
I am not particularly devoted to dramatic writing and would write in other genres, but it just so happens that as I was in prison when I wrote The Archbishop and the Antichrist [the play upon which Ashton’s screenplay is based], it was natural the play would reflect issues of forgiveness and redemption. Being high on the Asperger’s scale means that I do suffer from long periods of depression, and this is naturally reflected in my work. As a matter of fact, if it were not for my wonderful Kim Ashton, I wouldn’t be here now. She has been my rock and the stabilizing influence in my life over a period of almost ten years.
Perhaps my background and life experiences are what draws me to write stories with strong human rights foundations. I have had a classical education and have a love for Shakespeare’s tragedies, so perhaps that is why I write drama.
What did you learn about the moviemaking process from working on this project?
The first lesson I had in moviemaking came from the brilliant Roland Joffe, a gentle, highly intelligent man blessed with the virtue of infinite patience. He needed it with me. Lesson one, and the most important one, is that making a feature film is a collaborative process and one in which the writer must surrender himself and his work to the hands of others. What happens when you let go of what you have written, which of course is the base of the film, in the case of The Forgiven, is something magical. The input of so many creative experienced people, the director, the producers, the actors, and the cameraman, coalesces into the final product.
What kind of advice would you give young screenwriters?
My first piece of advice for first-timers is to bear in mind that most producers and industry specialists get bombarded with scripts on a daily basis from people who firmly believe that their script is the next great thing the world needs and is waiting for. Most of the people you will be contacting simply don’t have the time, or inclination, to read your script, so my advice is that you master the art of the synopsis and the logline. A great logline creates interest and, followed up with a great synopsis or treatment, gets you into a high position with the people who can make it happen for you.
My next piece of advice, which applies particularly to playwriting, is to make your work cost-effective. A first feature or a stage production will have producers and artistic directors considering how much it will cost to make. Write with this firmly in mind. It is of course desirable to secure an agent or manager to get your work before the people holding the purse strings, but it is not absolutely necessary, especially if you can master the art of the synopsis and logline. I am fortunate in having my ex-wife Kim as my manager, which removes from me the burden of pushing my work or in fact doing anything during the practical mechanics of making the film. It leaves me free to sit down and write without distraction.
And finally, enter every competition out there regardless of the prize offered. The competition will widen your scope as many demand particular rules such as a ten-minute script or writing in a specific genre. Winning a competition adds meat to your writing CV and will give you the experience of the process of bringing a story to life on the stage or the screen. So enter every competition you can source, in industry publications, on the internet, or wherever you can find them.
What do you hope audiences will take with them from The Forgiven?
I hope that audiences will be able to go away and be able to forgive themselves.
When it comes to getting angry and frustrated in this technological, technocratic society you live in, they’ll forgive people because none of us is perfect.
I learned on this journey from prison to a Los Angeles premiere, that I couldn’t attend because I managed to throw myself down the stairs and break my leg, …be nice to each other! Don’t go out and shoot somebody, just be nice to each other.
Experience is everything. It’s what we draw upon to fill the gaps when confronted by a blank page.
My own personal experience has taken me from the back streets of the Scottish city of Dundee (known for jam, jute and journalism) to the bright glittering lights of Hollywood. In between, I have been a soldier, a taxi driver, an ice cream salesman, a leather worker, a construction manager and a barrister.
I hope my story inspires those still enduring the hell of incarceration and lets them see that there is always hope and a light at the end of what often may seem a very dark tunnel.