Daniel Dercksen talks to author John van de Ruit and producer Ross Garland.
A lawyer by profession, Ross Garland is the owner and founder of Rogue Star Films (www.roguestarfilms.com). He joined Lehman Brothers Investment Bank in their Global Media Group in New York in 2000, working with entertainment clients such as Disney and AOL Time Warner. He returned to South Africa in 2003 to pursue a career in the film industry. Since then, his films have included U-Carmen eKhayelitsha (executive producer/producer), The Story of an African Farm (co-executive producer), Confessions of a Gambler (Producer), Big Fellas (writer/producer). U-Carmen was awarded the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for Best Film, the first film from Africa ever to receive this award, and was sold worldwide. Confession's accolades include winner of Best Film at the Apollo Film Festival, SA Film Award winner, and official selection at the Dubai, Miami and Dublin film festivals.
John Howard van de Ruit is a South African novelist, actor, playwright and producer. He has been a professional actor, playwright and producer since 1998. He was born in Durban and educated at Michaelhouse, where he stayed in Founders House and from where he matriculated in 1993. He then went on to complete a Masters degree in Drama and Performance at the then University of Natal.
He is best known for his collaboration with Ben Voss on the satirical sketch show Green Mamba which has toured extensively throughout Southern Africa since 2002. His first novel was published in 2005 by Penguin, entitled Spud. The book was a runaway success in South Africa. It won the 2006 Bookseller's Choice Award. The sequel Spud - The Madness Continues... was released in mid 2007. Ruit has also sold the film rights to the book. The third book Spud - Learning to Fly was released on 10 June 2009. The first book Spud has also been recorded as an audio book, read by the author.
You must both be proud parents?
Ross Garland: Absolutely. I mean the premiere in Joburg was amazing. Everybody had a good time and really enjoyed the movie. Teary eyes and happy.
John van de Ruit: It's been an amazing journey. That's what it feels like. A Journey. It's been five years in the making really, from when Ross first picked up the book and said I want to turn this into a film, to the rights, to the screenplay development, suddenly getting Cleese to getting permission at Michaelhouse, getting closer, getting the money, obviously the shoot, but proud parent is how I feel in a way weirdly. I am no longer the Spuddy I have been for the last years because now there is a real Spuddy we've got. I think I just feel, in a weird way, just thrilled that this was able to happen because for a long time it felt like this was an impossible dream, really. And even John Cleese. If you think about it. John Cleese comes out to South Africa, to the Midlands, to Michaelhouse. Treading the very ground that you were at school and to come play the role of the Guv. It's truly amazing, so, ja, it's difficult to put into words how I am feeling because the emotions range. The Joburg premiere was … to see people watching the movie was wonderful.
John, did you ever, when you sat down to write the first novel and put the first words on paper, did you ever dream that Spud would escalate into the success it has become?
No, not at all. I was dreaming and I feel now that I was dreaming too small. I was just dreaming of being published. At that stage I did not even have a publisher and I was being told by everybody: 'You are going to get rejected', 'the publishing world is impossible', 'J.K. Rowlings got rejected 14 times', so all I wanted to do was get his thing published. I wasn't even thinking of how many copies it would sell. I was an actor at that stage. It just didn't really occur to me that this could really change my life until probably a month after the release of the book, when we suddenly had reprints and people started enquiring about the film rights. Suddenly I just felt, this life has changed. No, I did not think about the film at all when I was creating the book.
Ross, when you picked up the book the first time, was your immediate reaction that it was a film you had to make?
Ja, absolutely. It really was in the first 24 hours of buying it when it came out, and reading it, that I instinctively thought this is a real cinema movie. This really has got the whole range of emotions. You are going to laugh all your way through this movie and probably end up leaving with tears in your eyes. I am happy to see it come to fruition.
What is it specifically in the book that you connected to, Ross?
I matriculated in 1991 and Spud is set in 1990. I went to school in Durban and we played cricket and rugby up at Michaelhouse, so it was very much a world that I know, and that time of really, what I sort of describe as the coming of age of the country, this transition into democracy in 1990, and this boy coming of age .. it is very real to me and my life.
Why did you write Spud, John?
I think I was at a place in my life where I .. I've started to have some success in theatre and I now, I think I was thinking about what's the next step for me. For many years I was struggling in theatre to get to that point where I felt that I was actually .. knew that I had money at least in the bank to pay whatever I needed to be paying … And I think I suddenly reached a point where I was thinking what next? I think the idea of legacy was important to me and I think writing a book is almost like trying to put that footprint in the sand. It has now obviously become something that will always be associated with me because at the time I thought if I was published, at least I could say: 'Here walked John van de Ruit. He wrote this book!' He may have sold 3 copies and whatever, but at least he wrote this book, and this was in some way a retelling of his life. So I think it was that. I think I was getting to my later twenties and the time was right for me. When I look back now, I think people always assume that when I wrote it, I had this sort of vision and I knew somehow inside myself that this was going to go big. But I didn't. I was desperately insecure about it and I did not want anyone to see it. I did not even want to talk about it. My acting club would always be saying: 'Oh, John is writing a book!' and I would say 'Don't bring it up', And people would go: 'Is it published?'. 'No, it's not published'. 'Has anyone read it?' 'No, no one has read it.'. 'What is it about?' 'It's about a boy who goes to boarding school..' and everyone's just going 'Ok.' (laughs) I did not want to talk about it. That's how it started. I was insecure about it.
If you say it is a retelling of your life, who would you really be in the book?
I think Spud, certainly. I started from my own perspective of my first day at boarding school and was a very under developed kid. I came from a very ordinary middle class family, like many of the kids at Michaelhouse. But having said that, I did not set out to write an autobiography of my life. I didn't feel like my life was that interesting at that stage. It was more, I wanted to use my life as fodder for Spud's story, so, Spud probably has my soul, he probably has my sense of doubts and insecurity that I really use to carry as a teenager, and I took myself back into that world. So you can say it's an alter ego, but at the same time I think now I have probably moved away from that, he is almost .. you know, when you write three books, now these characters tend to branch out and become their own men, and I think in weird way, like I have said earlier, there's been a passing of the bat to Troye. I think he is going to become the image and face and soul of Spud now in a weird way, despite the fact that everyone I know is calling me Spuddy.
Who do you relate to in the book and the film, Ross, thinking back to your own childhood?
Well, actually I don't there's anyone specifically I feel close to. The boys, for some reason, named me Boggo, which really worried me (John van de Ruit is really enjoying this, laughing out loud). The one who brings porn back from the UK. And I was kind of the young guys in my class, so in a way I guess I wasn't a little guy, but I did feel a little bit of a kind of Spud when starting out in High School. I was kind of very young for my year, and I never felt completely kind of accepted as one of the kind of the jocks in school, which in many ways is what inspires you, because then you are least likely to be kicked about. So I think that the journey of Spud I identify with, and of the crazy eight, therefore him more than anyone. I would not want people to think that means I've got small balls.
John van de Ruit: (really laughs) It's something I've carried for years! (Ross shares in the burst of laughter).
How did you guys meet?
John van de Ruit: We met at a mutual friend, in their back garden. We were playing a game of cricket in the back garden, a real sort of boys .. I think we were about 13 or 14 … Ross is only a year older than me … and there were four of us playing cricket. It's a mutual friend that brought us together and it has been so weird in a way, the way our lives have intercepted. We knew each other at school. We went apart, I went off to do drama at University, and landed in first year, and he was in third year, and then one of the main guys in the Drama Department was Ross Garland, and within two months, I was cast in a play, ironically set in a boarding school with Ross. He was playing some nasty bully and I was playing an insecure slightly gay character. (they both laugh out loud) I was already type cast back then. So we actually had a year where we were in a number of plays together and ironically, this boarding school student play (Crowd of Twisted Things) went on to the Grahamstown Festival, and then to the Playhouse in Durban for two weeks and Ross represented us because he was a law student. Ross negotiated all the negotiations so ironically, it was my first pay cheque I'd ever received, so Ross kind of produced it and was our producer. So there's a weird, bizarre turn and then, obviously we both went through quite serious things, near death experiences in the late 90s, and the turn of the century where Ross was caught up in 9/11, and I had a boating accident, and then I was in Thailand with the Tsunami. We then hooked up gain when Ross came back from Oxford, and we met one night after a performance of my play in Durban and we spent the night chatting and sort of caught up and that's when I told him I had just started this little book and he said that he was going to Cape Town to try and be in the film game and that he did not want to be a lawyer yet and that he did not want to be an investment banker, so we had this weird kind of zig-zagging of our lives and intercepting that makes me feel now, when I look back, there's some sort of synchronicity that was meant to be, that Ross produces Spud the movie.
Would you say Ross that that's very much what contributed to the success of Spud, that there's this incredible passion that went into the making of the film, an almost tight-knit family working together and actually bringing the story to life?
I think that is true and was really feeling this at the premiere in Joburg. And actually John Cleese said that he felt he was stepping into this kind of family environment and I guess we've picked up family members as we've gone along. Brad came on board and had a huge amount of passion for making this into a film, and Donovan came on board and we sort of became what we call the Four Horsemen, and others kind of joined into that. We've remained very tight-knit at this stage.
John van de Ruit: The four of us were sitting on a couch like this looking at the audition tapes, and decided who was going to be which character, and it was a remarkably open process. I mean, Don could have said 'I am the director and I am going to make the choice', and Ross 'It's my property, I own this and I am making the call', but it was very much like we were the Four Horsemen. I have this memory at Michaelhouse of the four of us just walking along, walking to the set, or back from the set at the end of the day shooting, and it has felt like a real team of boys and I think the key was each one of them had a real passion for Spud and wanted to make a great movie, not just let's try and make money. Whereas some other producers in South Africa might have said 'OK, I want to buy the rights and try to turn it into a money maker!'. I think these guys took risks, and the size of the budget meant they were taking enormous risks. The film has to seriously travel to cinemas abroad to really be a financial success. When you get a guy like John Cleese, you pay an international star, your backing that this is going to be big, you are not saying this is going to be a small, successful Indie movie. Ja, so this man (Ross) had the vision and that's something I will always hold on to. You need other people to take your work to the next level and these guys have.
Ross, why do you think Spud is so successful?
It is really such an everyman book. It is remarkable what it reaches. I guess to start with, I wondered and we wondered because you don't know exactly who is reading it. Is it something just teenagers love? But over the years you just meet so many people who really love it, and that really goes across the board, I mean from gender, to age, to race. It really touches everyone. And I think it's just that the main thing is it is such an honest book, it in no ways tries to dolly up or dumb down the high school experience. I think the high school experience is something absolutely pivotal to all of us, to all of our development it remains a key part of your life. And because it is so honest, I think even people who were kind of intellectual, or a little prudish, all end up saying that they love the book because recognise at the end of the day that's what it really is like.
How do you feel seeing your words turned into image?
John van de Ruit: Amazing. It is wonderful I was an actor before, so the idea of film is not so foreign to me although I never worked in the medium. The idea of writing a play and producing it and putting it out there, that's always been what it's about. In a way it's a kind of coming home but at the same time, it's so interesting that I think quite often the image sort of supersedes the words, where you don't actually need the words, when you've got John Cleese and Troye outside the chapel after the death of Gecko, when you see this tall man, very big man, and he is 71, and this little boy who is quite broken and 14, you don't need any words., whereas, when you are writing a book, it's that that is the image. I've got a huge kick out of hearing the words coming out of John Cleese's mouth that I remember writing, but aside from that, the image can tell as they say 'a picture paints a thousand words'. And that is really true. And I love that and think I hope the Spud journey goes onwards, hopefully we can make better and better films, and define the art. I think that's a great challenge to.
I also think why the film (and the books) resonates with readers and audiences are because it deals with identity, about the search for identity and finding your place in the world?
John van de Ruit: It's about acceptance to, and about what lengths you go to, to gain that acceptance, and how you can very easily sell your soul in the bid to be accepted. I think in Spud you see a guy like Gecko who refuses to be sucked in by the peer pressure and that he is just his own man and as a result towards the end of the movie, you feel an enormous respect for that little kid, despite him being a slight odd little kid. Whereas Spud almost hates himself certainly for his slavish desire to be accepted by the Rambos and the Mad Dogs and so forth. It is about human nature, and I am also struck by the way that the guys you think were the brekers at school, the guys who were the jocks, very often say they empathise with Spud because everybody feels that lost little boy inside, even girls know how it feels to have that sense if somebody doesn't quite belong, we all feel like outsiders. I think that is a part of the human condition. So there are universal themes. When I was writing it, I suppose that that stuff was just there. I was very consciously trying to line up South Africa's development with Spud's development, I mean those were things I was trying to consciously do, but the sense of acceptance, and the journey of identity, that was almost just there. I think it was in me, and my teenage years, and I struggled at Michaelhouse to find that, and even though I enjoyed my last few years when I left there, I felt I hadn't quite stamped my identity of who I was, and that's quite strange going back there, now that I have a very definite identity, a strong identity, but I never did when I was there
We are also living in an era where people want ordinary characters to turn into super heroes, like Precious and Spud.
John van de Ruit: You are absolutely right. If I look at the books that are smash hits around the world, it's all about this now, it's about saying we can't be great in ourselves because we have to have something else, like you say, we have to have a magic wand or be a vampire, or have to fly. And Spud is almost an anti-hero kind of story, and I think that fits in well with the South African kind of identity because we often see ourselves as an anti-hero kind of country, we are not a hero country that leads the world although we have a Mandela, but Mandela is the exception. Most of the time we feel that we are a small country that punches above its weight, just like Spud. Searching for that identity, trying to be accepted by the rest of the world.
What do you hope local audiences will get from watching Spud?
Ross Garland: I think, I just want people to have a great ride, to just have a great cinema experience, not to judge it as a local film or the adaptation of Spud but just to go and really enjoy it because I think that's what it is. It will make you laugh, it will make you cry.
John van de Ruit: I am very intrigued to see what happens with this film. You know, some people will say the film market here is tiny and will all those Spud fans come out and watch the film? It is a great unknown, but I am sure they will.
Is this going to be the first South African trilogy?
Ross Garland: It is very much our dream and our plan to have this franchise of four films, not just for commercial purposes, but I think it goes back to what John talks about, which is legacy. I've got a two-year-old boy and I love the idea that when he's 15 or 18 he'll watch these films, he will read these books, and they will be passed on. I think they are universal kind of stories.
Any news for the fans of Spud the book?
John van de Ruit: The good news is that I have mapped out, and planned, and made copious notes for the final one, because there is one more book. The bad news is that I haven't start writing it yet, we have written a behind the scenes book and the movie has soaked up a lot of my time and focus, so I think I'll start working in January. I want it to end with a bang and South Africans to be proud of the series.
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