A RELENTLESS BIG FELLA FOR THE LOCAL INDUSTRY
By Daniel Dercksen
Ross Garland is on top of the world and has more that enough reason to be. Garland not only wrote-produced and stars in the latest South African film Big Fellas, but also acquired the filming rights and is currently shooting the adaptation of Johan van der Ruit's runaway bestseller 'Spud'
His most recent project is Confessions of a Gambler.
When you meet Garland, his unassuming attitude and laid back coolness immediately reminds of a typical surfer dude from Durban, but after listening to him talk about his passion for filmmaking and his involvement in shaping the future of the local industry, you soon realise that this is indeed a 'Big Fella' with big ideas that has paid off and promises more rewarding entertainment.
Tell me about Rogue Star films?
Rogue Star Films is a company I set up after U-Carmen eKhayelitsha which is specifically focused on developing, producing and distributing feature films.
How did Big Fellas happen?
I was toying with the idea of writing a screenplay, having written sketch comedy in theatre before coming into film as a producer. It started as a quirky comedy in the style of Withnail and I, about two loser actors in denial and morphed into two losers who are a director and a producer. Probably closer to home now.
What is 'Big Fellas'?
It's a film about two white guys in SA in 2007 who need to find a black business partner in 72 hours to get some bucks from the government. The phrase "Big Fellas" comes from some aussie mates who call pretty much anyone they respect Big Fella. In the movie it's what we all aspire to, to be a player, to be Big Fellas.
Why did you write Big Fellas? Was it a difficult process?
I wrote it as an experiment in writing for the screen, with the thought that the process would make me a better producer, and also with a view to playing one of the parts, having a sneaky desire to return to my days as a stage actor. I went through 20 drafts, and had conflicting opinions thrown at me the whole way - too pc, not pc enough...opinions are not difficult to come by. Over time though you start to develop your own instincts. It's a producer mantra of mine that a film must be one person's vision. This is what gives it vitality and magic and this is where the rules must bend to accommodate that vision. Earlier on in the process I was more prone to taking on other viewpoints than later on when I was clearer on what I was trying to do with the piece.
Your views on the film industry in South Africa?
It remains in a huge state of transition. One day one feels very optimistic and one day on the verge of doing something completely different. It would be good if there was a period of stability on the funding side. Since I have been in the industry there have been gaps and stop start processes around the IDC, NFVF, SABC, and DTI funding amongst others. I think the local feature game is crying out for a sustained period where a solid volume of films are produced. At the moment it's still very piecemeal. 80% of local films in cinemas this year were made with cobbled together private funds which is positive in one sense, but I think premature. We still need a period of sustained public funding support to take it to the next level, which is hopefully coming from 2008. We need a paradigm shift where 20 films a year is the norm so that we can shift appetites for local content like has happened in music and literature.
Would you agree that there is a a new wave of Independent filmmakers in South Africa?
Not really. I think there are some very hungry, energised and talented young film industry people coming through. But based on films made, no I would say they are still dominated by an older generation who have been in the game a long time. We need more people kicking and screaming their films into the public eye to the point where we can talk about a new wave. John Barker's Bunny Chow is a good example of what can be achieved with next to nothing. I would say we may well be on the cusp of a new wave, but we are not there yet.
What do hope audiences will get from watching Big Fellas?
I wanted to make a comedy that South Africans could relate to, which was topical and fresh, and relatively smart. I may get a big pie in my face later in the year, but I think audiences here are much smarter than we generally give them credit for. A 15 year-old told me the other day about the BEE themed debates at this school and the raw humour that came out of that in his very mixed school. But then established people in the industry have said to me BEE is a niche subject matter, almost as if it is too relevant or something only for masters students at Wits. People like to knock Schuster but his career started making broad relevant comedies like "Zulu on my Stoep". I also found a lot of natural humour in life as it is here today, rather than in something more abstract. I listen to some of the local stand up comics like Cokey Falkow a lot, they are very in tune with what the broad spread of South Africans laugh at.
What do you as a producer look for in a screenplay?
First I look for an X factor. The script needs to sing and dance a bit. If I read it in one sitting, that's a good start. Bad scripts usually don't go past page 20. If I like it at a visceral reading level, then I think about budget and market and whether I could realistically finance and make it at this stage of my career, regardless of whether I like it. But Sid Field analysis is for the development process. You shouldn't immediately start boxing a screenplay into a pre set formula. Some of my favourite films have hugely unconventional screenplays eg Lost in Translation, which is 70 pages of action descriptions. Nice Oscar for Sophia, and a big victory against the script formula fascists.
How did you get into 'producing'?
I came back from doing some investment banking in New York, wanting to get into the film game here, like most people not really knowing what producers do. I cold called a few companies and got a break starting work on my first film immediately with Bonnie Rodini and Izi Codron. There isn't really a producing school. With each film I gain more knowledge as a producer. After four films I am starting to feel like I know what producers do.
How difficult is it to get your film made and produced in South Africa?
It's not for the faint hearted. It may get easier for a few years with all the government funding possibly coming into the market. But without that for the past year or two, most of us who have made films have struggled with private finances and taken pretty big risks. Getting it produced is easier given there is a lot of goodwill to getting local films made, with crew, cast, equipment, post production and pretty much across the board. But the financing is difficult, and much like directing, it's tough to get a second gig.
Is this what you have always dreamed of doing?
One of the things I suppose. Since I was 17 I was clear one thing I wanted to do was work in the entertainment industry and do something significant. I feel lucky to have had U-Carmen early on and now to have written something that got made. If I do nothing else in this game, I'm happy already. But I do recognise that I really love this game so it will hurt if I can't keep doing it.
Advice for aspirant filmmakers in South Africa?
As Bobby Moresco of Traffic fame said, if there is something that needs to happen, there is only one person who can make it happen and that is the person for whom it must occur. Don't rely on anyone, don't expect too much from the people around you. Be very hungry. Be very self-reliant. And be relentless in your pursuit of your plan. Learn what you need to learn, but when you are ready to take the plunge, be relentless in getting your film shot.
Tell me about SPUD? How did it happen?
John and I have been friends from high school days when I was at a humble government school and he was prancing around on a scholarship at Michaelhouse. He had told me about the book in his own self-deprecating way, and on the day it hit the bookshops I started negotiating. Even though we are old friends, it took a year to close the option. But I am very excited about it. It's a big project, and we want to get it right.
Have you a director and cast for SPUD?
Not yet. We are trying to be patient, waiting to see how the book does in the US (it launches on 4 October). We have a couple of different game plans depending on the book's reception there.
You are also producing Iron Love. Is this a big undertaking? Why?
Iron Love is a wonderful layered novel and is being handled by a sensitive and sophisticated theatre director, Ingrid Wylde. After U-Carmen I have a penchant for theatre directors coming into film, and I would like to make something period which deals with epic themes of love, life, death, memory. Period is big, but otherwise we want to keep it quite tight and controlled. It's not an easy one to finance so it will take time to put together. But we are making progress. Ingrid has a lot of endurance, key for a film director. And we already have an Oscar nominated DOP on board.
And the Corne and Twakkie film?
I want to mix the bigger budget, longer timeframe, more international films with lower budget more commercial, more locally focused fare. That's the international norm. France makes over a hundred films a year. How many get to our cinemas? Corne and Twakkie is a very well established local comedy brand, and Rob and Louw are unbelievable performers/writers. So we think there is a market for this film, and it introduces another fresh comedy to local audiences.
READ MORE ABOUT BIG FELLAS
READ MORE ABOUT CONFESSIONS OF A GAMBLER
READ MORE ABOUT SOUTH AFRICAN FILMS
Copyright © 2007 Daniel Dercksen/ The Writing Studio
Published with permission in The Weekend Argus (18/11/2007)