Daniel Dercksen talks to screenwriter and director Don Marsh.
Don Marsh began his career in the film industry in 1992. He has worked as a writer/director/editor in a variety of areas, from TV shows (Who Wants to be a Millionaire, Gladiators) to commercials (First National Bank, Castle Lite) to music videos and feature films. In 2005, he wrote, directed and edited his first feature film, Dollars and White Pipes, which was produced by Anant Singh. It debuted at the Montreal Film Festival and picked up "Best Director, First Feature" at the Pan-African Film Festival in Los Angeles. It also won "Best Director" and "Best Screenwriter" at the 2006 South African Film Awards, beating out Oscar winner "Tsotsi" in the process. Most recently, he directed the TV film, The Good Fight.
Spud must have been a great experience for you?
It's a difficult question that but I think that it has been the experience of a lifetime, the highs and the lows. It's been the biggest highs and the lowest lows, it's been a real total experience.
Your involvement in Spud, did you first read the book, and then the script, and then decided to join the team, or how did it happen?
I actually hadn't read the book yet. I was very aware of the book and how successful it was and it was on my to do list to read. When I read in the newspaper that they were making the movie and they were looking for an international director I thought I was the perfect person to direct this film. I still had not read the book, but I kind of knew what it was about and went to Bishops which is very similar to Michaelhouse, so I got the book and read it in one evening. The next morning I called the producer and told him that he really did not want an international director but me. He treated me a bit like a Mormon who had just knocked on his front door. He was very cool and said that they had an international director. I asked if I could please send in my showreel. So I sent him my showreel and my first movie (Dollars and White Pipes) which he liked very much and thought was great but was still looking for an international director. I assumed John van de Ruit was going to write the screenplay but when I found out that he wasn't writing it, I sent him samples, pitched and got the job to write the screenplay. About 3 to 4 months into writing the screenplay, they were so impressed with my thoughts that they asked me to direct it.
It is important to know what you write. Was it your association with the subject matter that got you to write and direct Spud?
That's right. It's nice to be able to direct something you wrote because you know exactly what your intention was and now you can realise that intention on film. It so often happens that other stuff I'd written that the director hasn't quite understood what I was aiming for and had done something differently that sometimes works better but mostly doesn't work. So it's great being that person, but it is also isn't great because it is all about you and you don't have other creative influences. It's quite nice when you can have a writer that you can have a dialogue with, but I had John van de Ruit and he was fantastic, giving me great feedback and infusing me with the spirit that is the book, which is really John's thing. So I was really trying to be honest to what John had created with this book. That was the real challenge.
How do you separate being the director and the screenwriter?
You do the one and then you kind of do the other, but I don't think you fully separate it. Even as I was writing … always in everything I write, I have to know that I can direct it, that it is directable … So often I am given scripts and I can see the writer hasn't thought about it being directed, and that the script can be filmed. Sometimes it is just a whole lot of adjectives on a page. It is a bit of a balancing act but when I write I try to write as the writer, and when I am finished writing, then I start directing. A director rewrites, it always happens. If I direct someone else's script I will rewrite it. I guess I was doing two jobs at once, which suits my hyperactive personality.
Was it a difficult film to make?
From a writing point it was really challenging because it is a diary, it doesn't have a storyline, so we had to create a storyline, and one we created a storyline it was filtered into the book. We still had a limited budget and shot the whole movie in six weeks. It was very challenging doing it in that short space of time and working with a lot of non-actors is not easy.
A highlight for you shooting the film?
My highlight was working with John Cleese. You don't get that experience in this country working with someone that is that experienced. South African actors are great but they are kind of inexperienced and do what you say. John Cleese doesn't do what you say. He comes with ideas and ways to improve the scene. He challenges you and questions what you are doing. He is challenging you all the way, but in a good way. He was collaborating with me. Every time I did a scene with John I was fine. When I start looking at the monitor and watched what I was shooting I realised how fantastic it was, There is no greater thing for a director than to shooting a scene better than you'd imagined it.
You enjoyed being challenged?
I enjoyed being challenged in a collaborative way, yes. Very, very much. I am very conflict averse on my set, it is a non-conflict zone. I never shout at anybody and don't accept anyone shouting at anyone else. I like when people come with ideas, especially somebody that understood the overall vision.
Are there any of the characters in the story that you can relate to?
I guess I relate to Spud. I was terribly nerdy, incredibly skinny and also a late developer. And I always felt like the outsider.
Why do you think people have embraces Spud the way they have?
I don't know. I use to think that the book was because it was a laugh-a-page, it was easy to read and was fun. But I don't think that is enough. I think the book does something much deeper than that. In a strange way you really feel for this kid and are devastated by a kid that dies, somehow it moves you in a deep way.
Do you think it helps to have not read the book before watching the film?
That's a good question. I don't know if you'll enjoy the movie more. It might actually be better to have no preconceptions. The people who have read the book loved it to. That's the hardest thing, to please those who have read the book.
What inspires you as a director?
Principally I am inspired by the material. If the material moves me … I mean, that's why we go to the cinema more than anything else, and laughing is also being moved. You want to have an emotional experience. And if I am having an emotional experience when I am looking at the material, I suddenly get ideas, and I want to shoot it this way, and I reference these six movies … so if the material moves me, and it's such a base thing, then I'll get inspired and I'll want to do things.
What inspires you in life?
I have a very fertile, internal situation in my mind. I am very imaginative and I find that I make interesting associations in my own head about the world, but I think books mainly … I find books incredibly inspiring, because books force you to create the world in your own head .. it's like codes … random words .. and you create that in your own mind. So if I need inspiration. I will read.
Did any filmmaker inspire your vision of Spud?
I struggled initially on how I was going to shoot Spud. How was I going to use the camera? What style was I going to use to film this? Typically I am known for … my first movie, Dollars and White Pipes … wild camera moves, and I am quite aware of how I use the camera and sound .. I decided on a very classical look for Spud. So I would say the movie is very much a Dead Poets Society. Dead Poets Society is a good feel for it.
Your views on the South African film industry?
The South African film industry is such a tentative industry. It's so hard to do what we do, and we do it for the love of it. What we are not doing is creating films that make money.
Fortunately there was an explosion of local films during the last year?
I think it is a false sense of a burgeoning film industry because the vast majority of those films lose money. The only people who seem to understand the market is Afrikaans films. They understand how much money they have to spend what their audience wants to watch. In the English speaking industry we haven't found that.
How does it feel sitting in the cinema and watching it with an audience?
The first time I did that was with test screenings. I missed the first test screening because my father passed away, but the second test screening was a dream screening. I could not have gone better. In some ways it is a bad thing because you don't see the faults. Every time you see it with an audience and you watch them and feel their reaction, it is wonderful to see that.
It is great that Spud can be a South African film.
It is fantastic. The producers have done an amazing job. All the cast is local (except for John Cleese). All the crew is local. It is such a real local production
What do you hope local audiences will get from watching Spud?
I hope more than anything else that they are seriously moved. I hope it is funny but I want people to be delighted. Whether they are laughing or not, I want them to be delighted.
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