The man behind Pawpaw
Family. You want to live without them, but can’t survive without them. That’s the essence of writer-director Koos Roets’ quirky satire ‘n Paw Paw Vir My Darling, which takes us on a humorous and heartfelt journey into the hearts and souls of a needy Afrikaner family living in the fictional Damnville in 2003.
Based on an idea which Roets skilfully adapted from Jeanne Goosen’ bestseller that offered an intelligent and her sharp observation and understanding of the pshyce of characters and their reactions to the social, cultural and political mileu in which they find themselves, the film adaptation aptly celebrates the core of Goosen’s work.
Daniel Dercksen shares a few thoughts with Koos Roets
Tell me about Pawpaw, how did it happen?
I visited Katinka Heyns at her house in Hermanus and found the book in my bedroom. I started reading it and couldn’t put it down. I immediately thought that it would make a wonderful film.
What intrigued you about the novel when you first read it 5 years ago?
I was always a great fan of Jeanne Goosen and always wanted to adapt her work for a film. Pawpaw struck me as an exceptionally visual and clever way of telling the story, through the eyes of a dog!
What inspired the process of taking it from novel to film?
I am a great dog-lover ( my family’s life is totally run by our two Dachshunds and the Schnauzer) so it was right up my sleeve. Apart from that, the fact that Jeanne has no social filters in telling the story, appealed very much to me.
Was it a difficult process and do you have a specific process of writing a screenplay?
The only problem I had in writing the screenplay was what to leave out of the book. There is enough story left for another film! The first draft is normally just a basic outline, a skeleton, if you like and then I start refining the storyline and add dialogue. You unfortunately have to add your own to bridge or shorten certain scenes. On average, my screenplays take between eighteen and twenty drafts. Faan se Trein had twenty two drafts!
I recently watched all of Jans Rautenbach’s early films and your involvement in the exceptional Jannie Totsien and Pappalap reminded me of the splendid work you did on Abraham? Has Jans been an inspiration in your life?
Absolutely! I have learned most of my film craft from him.
Your transition from master cinematographer to your skilful directing and scripting of ‘n Pawpaw vir My Darling is remarkable. Was it a difficult changeover?
I was fortunate that I was in the position to direct my first film at a very early age. Die Sersant en die Tiger Moth, TV productions like Koöperasiestories and later films like Die Groen Faktor happened relatively early on. I never lost my love for cinematography and was in the extremely fortunate position that I could carry on shooting films for Jans whilst directing my own. Later the same thing happened, working with Katinka, so I guess it was a natural transition and not too difficult. I have directed far more films than I have photographed, though.
What excites you about the film medium?
There is absolutely no end to what you can do with visual storytelling! Although all the new technical stuff scares me a bit!
Has film always been a part of your life and how were you bitten by the bug?
I started making films at the age of ten. For a few years my father was the housemaster at the orphanage in Bethlehem and Frank Opperman, the actor’s dad was one of the kids there. He was quite a bit older than me and one day he showed me what happens if you fill an old bulb with water and then shine a candle through it. The patterns it created fascinated me no end I started building my own projectors from empty Post-Toastie boxes. Obviously I had a lot of fires but I did manage not to burn the orphanage down! My aunt Katie then gave me ten bob for my birthday and I was persuaded by Elich, the black chap that worked in the kitchen to bet the money on a horse, running in the Durban July. The horse won and I had enough money to buy my first movie camera, an 8mm Kodak Brownie. I still have the camera.
That enabled me and my friend Douglas Hitchcock (no relation to Alfred) to write scripts and make little short films with a story. Although living in the Free State , we called ourselves Bosveld Film Productions because we loved Jamie’s Daar Doer In Die Bosveld so much! Don’t you think Post Toasties should finance my next film?
You live in the serenity of Meiringspoort, which is far removed from Damnville. Did it take you back to your days living in the suburbs?
Absolutely! I can relate with each and every character in Pawpaw and that helped me a lot!
Regarding relating to the characters, how essential for writers to write a story through their own experience?
I do base most of the characters in my stories on people I know. I suppose that is why I can’t write a ninja or a spy story! When I wrote one of my first scripts, Die Sersant en die Tiger Moth, I based the character played by Don Leonard, on my grandfather and Wena Naude on my grandmother. I realised then, by doing so, I could use the vocabulary of each individual, making each one uniquely different. I then discover that they all speak with a different rhythm as well! Although I didn’t write most of the dialogue in Pawpaw vir my Darling (it is as Jeanne Goosen wrote it) I based them on people I grew up with in a little town in the Free State.
How did your own experience inform the screenplay?
One of the very first things I discover whilst listening to people talk, was that the long monologues that screenwriters so love to write, do not exist in real life! There are constant interjections from the others. I try to keep my lines of dialogue to no more than three lines maximum before somebody else has a say. This way I have discovered that the actors can learn their lines much faster and deliver them with more ease. The Tiger Moth movie was about two youngsters rebuilding an old aircraft in which their parents were killed. Although I loved aircraft and built models from an early age, I could not fly myself. When Scully Levin, the legendary pilot who did all the stunt flying for the film, heard this he said .”How the hell can you make a film about flying if you cant fly? You won’t even know how the pilots speak!” He insisted that I get my licence first before I make the film and every morning at half passed four, I had to report to the Baragwanath airport for flying lessons. I must have been the first student pilot in the world that could do night take-offs and landings before going solo!
But today, 43 years later, the movie is still considered to be one of the better flying movies! Why? Because I got into the minds of the aviators and could speak their language! Does that mean I have to learn to be a ballet dancer before I can make a movie about Swan Lake? No, I suppose not but I’ll try to find out as much as I can about the dancing as well as the characters before attempting to make it! Pawpaw virr my Darling was easy, they are all Afrikaner people like me! I think I based old Vleis Beeselaar on myself!
Your casting is brilliant and you have an exceptional ensemble. Did you write the screenplay with any particular actors in mind?
No, on this occasion I had nobody in mind except Deon Lotz. Normally I do have an actor in mind when I write a screenplay and as I have worked with most of them, that helps enormously when writing.
Do you have advice for first-time writers and filmmakers who would like to tell their story on the big screen?
Keep it simple! Remember the audience see all the best American end British films on their screens and there is nothing these filmmakers can’t do. People fly or change into dragons or walk on the moon, nothing is strange to anybody any more. Tell a story with a heart, a fresh and unique story with a universal touch … and polish, polish, polish the script. I was flabbergasted when a young screenwriter told me the other day at the film festival that they shot draft number one! Unfortunately it showed!
How much has the industry changed since working on Jannie Totsiens? It was quite a revolutionary period in South Africa then?
The Industry has changed totally since Jannie Totsiens. For a start the crews were very seldom bigger that six or seven and we all multitasked. Two of the lead actors, Sandra Kotze en Jacques Loots were also the production team. Dave Dunyarker, my focus puller and myself, were part of the prop department! We also worked extremely long hours. Eighteen hour days, seven days a week were the norm. Everybody was so enthusiastic that it did not bother anybody too much, though. The industry is today much more professional and we certainly have some of the best crews in the world.
What do you hope audiences will get from watching ‘n Pawpaw vir My Darling?
I do hope that they get as much enjoyment from the film as I got making it. Working with a cast and crew like that is still one on the greatest pleasures in life! And I hope they will open up their hearts for the characters with their joys and pains, their hopes and aspirations caught up in particularly challenging social and economic circumstances.
Tell me about your next project?
No new project has been finalised yet but I do have a few that is close to hatching. Making movies is very much like farming, you plant a dozen seeds and one might eventually germinate. One of them is Don Quixote. Andre Brink gave me permission to adapt his book into modern times and instead of horses, our heroes now ride an old, battered Harley Davidson motorcycle and a Vespa scooter. They have all their weird and wonderful adventures, saving the Karoo from the masters of evil! Andre was very exited about the project and before he passed away, he even gave me a name for the film namely, Donkie-got, the Man from Prieska! Further more I have finalised the script of a most exiting Biker story (draft number 17) and another flying film, The Skytrap.
Why do you think there’s such a wide gap between the English and Afrikaans filmmakers in South Africa?
This is a very old and difficult question to answer. In the good old days, the SABC had workshops every year and a certain professor Zettel (I think that is how you spell it) from the BBC used to lecture on and judge the local productions and the same query popped up every year. “Why is the Afrikaans productions as good as anything else the BBC produces (his statement) and the English not?” Nobody could answer it.
There are a tremendous amount of highly talented and skilled English actors and directors working in South Africa, for instance Gray Hofmeyer, a director as good as it gets! But then on the other hand, Gray is a “makgemaakte Engelsman” . It might be that the English have the disadvantage that their stories are nor English (British) nor Afrikaans. But then there is the great Herman Charles Bosman stories to tell, I really have no answer to this one! The Skytrap is in English, I do hope I do not stumble as well!