Tuesday, May 30, 2006

What next for Tsotsi's Gavin Hood


Gavin Hood has gone from obscure South African director to in-demand film-maker deluged by script offers.

Gavin Hood's life changed the minute he walked on to the stage to accept an Oscar for his film Tsotsi. The South African film, which took out the award for best foreign film at this year's Academy Awards, had been a labour of love for Hood. The director now finds himself in the enviable position of being swamped with movie offers – more than he knows what to do with.

"I've gone from being in the business of begging people to help me make a film or finance a film to being in a position where people think I can help them get their films made," he says.

"The first week after the Oscars I got 70 scripts and thousands of emails. My manager got 3000 emails the week after the Oscars . . . It's a sign of the slight craziness of the business."

The Afrikaans word for thug, Tsotsi is set in the Johannesburg township of Soweto. It follows six days in the life of a seemingly cold-hearted young gang leader who ends up caring for a baby he accidentally kidnaps during a carjacking.

Tsotsi, played by Presley Chweneyagae, has been orphaned at an early age and forced to survive for himself – which hardens him and makes him devoid of compassion.

The Oscar win has forced Hood to employ a team of people to help him sort out correspondence and give him guidance on future projects.

"At the tender age of 42 I'm able to get access to funding in ways I wasn't before and on a scale that was unthinkable before," he says.

"I've got a team of people that I never used to have before. I feel lucky to have people helping me work out what I'm going to do next because the truth is, it could all go away if I made a bad film. It's a very fickle business."

Hood says that in filming Tsotsi he used twins to double as the kidnapped baby so as to make things easier on-set.

"They were a boy and a girl. What was very helpful was that the boy cried and screamed a lot and the little girl was a perfect angel and slept and smiled a lot. So we just swapped them over as the script required."

He is eager to point out that the ants which crawl over the sleeping baby's face are not real but computer-generated.

"When I first told the young 3D artist who put the ants on the baby's face (about the scene) he said, 'Great, come back in a couple of days and I'll have some drawings'. Of course when I went back the face was swarming with ants and I had to say, 'It's not a horror movie!' "

Hood trained as a lawyer and worked briefly as an actor before studying screenwriting and directing at the University of California.

After finishing his studies he returned to South Africa and got a job making dramas for the health department, which was about to launch a series of educational initiatives about the impact of Aids.

That work helped him establish a real understanding for the character because it involved working with plenty of real-life Tsotsi cases.

"When I first graduated from film school I worked with a lot of young people. I was writing and directing educational dramas, usually centred around HIV. We were trying to talk about it at a time when no one else did. I met a lot of very distressed young people. Tsotsi to me is about these young people all crammed into one character.

"I think it's about a child who is trying to pretend to be an adult and is doing some pretty bad things. He is understandably angry at the world and is like, 'f . . . the world, it hasn't dealt me a good hand so why should I give a shit?'.

"Through his encounters he is almost unwillingly bumped towards a point of self-awareness.

"The moment that point happens, he falls apart."

In 1998 Hood made his directorial debut with a short film called The Storekeeper which went on to win 13 international film festival awards, including the Grand Prize at the Melbourne International Film Festival.

That success helped to pave the way for Hood to make his low-budget feature debut, A Reasonable Man, in which he also starred. In 2000, he was named by movie industry magazine Variety as one of their "10 directors to watch".

Wood's next film will be a Middle Eastern thriller called Rendition, currently getting priority from New Line. "It's a story set between Cairo and the US. I've been reading a lot of scripts in the last month . . . I've (been) looking for a theme that fascinates me and that I find slightly difficult."

Despite the accolades and ever-increasing power within the film industry, Hood is a down-to-earth individual who seems a little unsure how to handle the praise.

"I think the trick is not to take it too seriously and yet be very grateful for it because it's enormously helpful and I've certainly been trying to work out how to make the most of my very good fortune at this moment."

He's delighted Tsotsi has broken into the mainstream market – always a difficult feat for a foreign-language film. Part of its success, he thinks, is the timeless storyline, originally penned by South African author Athol Fugard.

"I was very familiar with Athol's work and a huge admirer of the fact his characters are always profoundly human. What I like about Tsosti is on the one hand it's a very South African film set in a specific context, but actually at its core it's a universal and timeless coming-of-age story. You could set this film in almost any major city in the world."

When he wrote the film script, Hood deliberately tried to limit the dialogue.

"The language of emotion is universal, that's what I wanted to get in there. People's response to trauma is universal. You lose your mother, I lose mine, we both cry."

He is proud that the film is having a positive effect and that it is reaching the ghettos – as can be gauged by the number of pirated copies on sale. Days earlier, the South African media reported a carjacking case that mirrored Tsotsi's. The mother called the assailant on her mobile phone which was also in the car and he agreed to return her baby.

Coincidentally, the assistant to Tsotsi's director of photography was carjacked, only to be freed after he revealed he helped make the film. "As the robber held a gun to his head, the assistant said, `Man, come on, this is like Tsosti. I helped make that film. Did you see it?' and he says, `Yeah, that was a great movie, get out of the car'."

Sounds like something straight from a Hollywood script, an irony not lost on Hood.


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