South African/UK co-production Tsotsi won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the 2006 Academy Awards and is loosely based on the novel by renowned playwright Athol Fugard. It's a powerful drama about a young thug (the eponymous Tsotsi, played by newcomer Presley Chweneyagae) whose life changes when he carjacks a vehicle containing a baby. The film has put director Gavin Hood on the international map and he's now based in Los Angeles.
You shot the film on location in the shantytowns around Johannesburg. What was the experience like?
The people in the shantytowns were absolutely amazing to us. Obviously the crew were saying, "Will it be OK?" Some of our actors came from the shantytowns and some didn't - one from the shantytowns is an honours graduate in drama but I think he was more nervous about shooting there than I was. Our lead actor, Presley Chweneyagae, his mum is actually a police officer - although she works in a pretty tough area. The funny thing is people say to me, "What were they like?" The truth about people at every economic level of life is you get those who are kind and who are not, those who are greedy, whether they be rich or poor. That's a common thread through humanity on any street you go to.
The film had been in development a long time. How did it change once you came onboard as writer?
Athol Fugard became famous as a playwright, so although Tsotsi the book was written in the 60s it was only published in the 80s. It was then optioned pretty much every year by producers. I think the problem was that holding onto its period setting made it very hard to get finance. The book is also very much an inner psychological journey, and the tricky thing in writing the script was finding a way to translate that into visual terms.
Tell us about the decision to shoot the film in the Tsotsi-Taal language...
The first question after the script was finished was what language it would be shot in. I'd written it in English - although I also speak Africaans and Zulu - but South Africa has 11 languages. I really didn't want to make it in English because it's not the language these street kids would speak. By not doing it in English we weren't going to get any big name actors, so we went through hoops initially and I'm grateful to the financiers for letting us go for authenticity and shoot in Tsotsi-Taal - which means "gangster speak". It's a blend of all sorts of languages. When you're using this you have to cast carefully, and one of the places my casting director goes to find young actors is the community theatre halls within the shantytowns. And that's where we found Presley.
What was he like to work with?
Presley's a brilliant character, I think he's a prodigy. He's 19 years old and he's always wanted to be an actor. Comes from a tough area, has done a lot of work in community theatres, and he's basically a self-taught method actor! The funny thing is, these kids have access to the internet. Presley is completely hip to what's happening out there, he's watched tons of movies. Sometimes people in Europe are somewhat patronising towards these kids because they think they've had a tough life and therefore they don't know anything. Nonsense! Presley's highly educated, intelligent and well-read.
When he came in to audition I'd seen a lot of people, some of whom were very good, but emotionally he just blew me away. One of the things I needed most was actors who could spin on a dime emotionally - Presley understood the transitions from extreme rage to vulnerability that just happens in the eyes.
How much research did you have to do about Tsotsi's world?
Obviously I didn't grow up in the shantytowns and people say to me, "What do you know about this life?" But for me one of the privileges of being a writer is to poke your nose around and learn about worlds you don't know. If all we do is sit in our own patch then what are we really experiencing? In the early 90s I was hired to write educational dramas about HIV and AIDS in the shantytowns. I did that for two and a half years, and then I was hired on other films. When Tsotsi presented itself I thought, this is not a world I grew up in, but I've spent a great deal of time writing about it and researching it in my past. It just seemed like a story about compassion and dignity that I felt would be great to tell. And I hope that I've done it with respect.
There's a particularly realistic-looking scene in which ants crawl over a baby's face. Reassure us that it wasn't real!
I think we have to put it out to the world that the ants that crawl on the baby's face - which is a truly horrific scene - are CGI. An extraordinarily talented CGI artist drew every one of these ants. All of the scenes with the baby took forever to shoot. We had a sound recordist who would be with mothers and we recorded a huge number of screaming babies. Half the problem we had during the production is that we'd want the baby to be crying and it was fast asleep or just going [gentle sound] "Gurgh, gurgh". We'd have to put a louder crying sound in there that'd we'd recorded elsewhere and piece the baby's trauma together. It was also really tough getting the reaction shots we needed from the baby - we shot a lot of stock. I'm in no hurry to work with a baby again, it has to be said!
Tsotsi is released in UK cinemas on Friday 17th March 2006