READ THIS: Director and Writer Talk ‘Catch a Fire’


I have to admit, interviewing people can make you like a movie far more than you originally thought. However, just in reading my interview with director Phillip Noyce and screenwriter Shawn Slovo you will also gain the same respect for the film that I have, a respect I didn’t entirely have until I started my research for the interview and then the subsequent interview itself.

Set in the early ’80s Catch a Fire begins smack dab in the middle of the aparheid in South Africa. This is the true story of Patrick Chamusso as played by Derek Luke. Chamusso was a man concerned with only one thing, his family. When certain circumstances threatened his country and his family’s future he finally decided to stand up against the regime he had tip-toed around for so long.

Written by Shawn Slovo (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin), daughter of Joe Slovo a former head of the military wing (MK) of the African National Congress (ANC), and later a Cabinet member in Nelson Mandela’s first (post-apartheid) government. Shawn managed to weave a story so multi-layered it is amazing it was able to ever be brought to the screen, and one of the large reasons it worked so well is director Phillip Noyce who has directed such other political thrillers as Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger and Rabbit-Proof Fence and I had a chance to sit down with both of them recently and discuss this powerful feature that is already creating Oscar-buzz for Derek Luke’s performance as Chamusso.

Noyce an Australian born “giant” as he would later describing himself stands at about 6′ 5″. He seemed fascinated at the idea that I could be taller than him (only about an inch) but he did propose we would make a good team saying, “The RopeofSilicon and the Aussie giants join forces. If we were staring you down what would you do?” he asked the mild mannered Slovo. Her answer was, “I would run, I would run as fast as I could.” All this however, came at the end of our conversation, let’s dive in and see how it all started, trust me you will want to see this movie after this.

Catch a Fire is getting Oscar buzz, how does that feel?

Phillip: It feels good that you can ride the Oscar buzz for the national release before it’s proved wrong. Being released when anything is possible I say let it role, before they turn the rolling tap off.

Phillip, this story was close to the heart of Shawn and her sister Robyn. Did that weigh on your mind?

Phillip: Not just for them, but you are dealing with fairly well documented events and about 25 million people still alive today that experienced it. So it’s not like you can say, ‘You weren’t there, you don’t know about it.’ Truth is I wasn’t there and I don’t know about it and it is the history of a country that is not my country. It deals with two cultures that are not mine. So it was an enormous responsibility and you had to have a fair amount of cheek to take it on. The only way I could do it was by allowing plenty of time before I started shooting. Long enough to realize I was going to fail if I didn’t give up. By give up I mean give up authorship, give up being the director in every sense. I couldn’t be an expert so I enlisted experts to be all around me, starting with Patrick Chamusso himself who took us around all the locations. He described everything to us, we met people by accident who have been involved in his former life, including his former girlfriend who he had a child with out of wedlock. He came to the set on many occasions and helped Derek and helped the crew to try and get it right.

I also found people who were experts on every scene, not from a theoretical point of view and had read it in a book or someone had told them what it was like, but because they had been in that scene. They’d lived that. They came on the set and there is a whole list of them you see in the credits and that’s how I had the balls to take on the task that was almost impossible.

There are so many different layers, it must have been difficult to write and even decipher as a director. There are times in the film where an audience member may have an idea who the villain is in the film, but there are also times where you might not be so sure. Who is a villain here and is there a villain in this movie?

Shawn: I think we are trying to examine that everybody has their reasons. You want to find the humanity, not only in the writing but in a character that is pure evil, and that was Tim Robbins’ challenge.

Phillip: Except, I don’t think he was evil. I think he had the much harder job than Patrick, a much harder life to live. Because I don’t think that guy joined the police force to do bad, he joined the police force to serve and protect. He was called, like a priest is called, and he finds he is serving a corrupt, inhuman regime instead of a set of laws. So what does he do? How can he maintain his own sense of morality when the laws he serves, the institutions he’s got to protect, are totally corrupt?

That is a battle of right and wrong because Patrick doesn’t want to have anything to do with this but he suddenly believes he has to get involved. With Tim’s character I don’t think you can ever tell where he is truly coming from. Does he believe what he is doing is wrong? Or are his moments of caring actually just interrogation tactics? These questions along with the theme of forgiveness in this film… those hit me the most.

One of the themes of this film is forgiveness, could either of you have the kind of forgiving nature toward what was just described as “pure evil?”

Shawn: I have had to deal with that first hand. My mother, Ruth First, was assassinated in 1982 by parcel bomb and we have actually sat in the courtroom with the man who killed our mother.

Phillip: The man who killed your mother was sitting there? (points just across the table)

Shawn: That’s right. We were on opposite sides of the table, maybe ten feet away from each other. The plaintiff sits on one side and the defendants on the other, and there are lawyers, tons of lawyers because everyone sitting there had at least one lawyer, and the guy who masterminded it had a whole team of lawyers.

Phillip: The policeman?

Shawn: Yeah, they were all policeman.

Phillip: Did he admit to trying to kill your mother?

Shawn: No, what he did was he lied and said that the bomb was meant for our father, Joe Slovo, but we know it was a lie. We have the evidence that it was a lie. Yet, he was granted amnesty. So, there we are in a situation with the man we knew who murdered our mother and I think I speak for my sisters when I say we will never forgive, but we will not seek revenge. I think Patrick puts it so succinctly in Catch a Fire, because it de-humanizes you to do that. It empowers you to take that position and to get on with your life and at the same time it doesn’t mean that you harbor feelings of forgiveness particularly. You can live with both things.

Seeing the actual footage of Patrick in the movie was very powerful when looked at in context of the story being told.

Phillip: That was the attraction of this story and to make it into a movie. In the ending Patrick has gone beyond hate, beyond the things that divide us, he’s taken action, he’s gone beyond the struggle to a place of enlightenment that we would all like to reach in our lives. He has found a new purpose and I think that is very uplifting because you see the light at the end of the tunnel in him.

Shawn, I read you would have liked for your parents to have seen this film. What do you think their reaction would have been?

Shawn: I think they would have been proud and would have loved it for all kind of reasons, not only because it is their daughters’ achievement and it is our way of contributing to the lives that they led, but I think the politics in the story they would have totally responded to. For Ruth, she was murdered in 1982 on the 17th of August, she didn’t even get to see the liberation of South Africa so it is a great sadness that they can’t see this film.

My first film that I wrote (A World Apart), I don’t think I would have written that one had my mother still been alive, but I know had Joe lived there would still be the same need to tell this story. I think he would have loved it, particularly the music.

How difficult was it to let go of the project?

Shawn: Easy, because it is very cool to get a film made and if you work as a screenwriter it is a collaborative process and once your job is done unless a director comes on board there is no film.

Shawn, how old were you when all of this happened?

Shawn: In my thirties, I was born in 1950, and we were in exile at that point and I went off to work in the film industry which is about as far away from ANC politics that you can get.

Taking this film into consideration and the state of our world at this time did you at all relate it at all to the current situation in the Middle East?

Shawn: We get this question a lot so it obviously resonating with audiences, but we didn’t set out to tell a story of another time that was a parable about times particularly, but I think one of the reasons why Working Title wanted to make it is because there is a contemporary parallel there. One of the reasons people are responding to it is because of that as well.

Phillip: I think that is a testament to the power of history to enlighten the present and the future, illuminate it. Because we do keep repeating ourselves.

One thing I got while watching it, as I am sure will others, is what really is a terrorist? Especially considering the current situation in the Middle East.

Shawn: But the South African situation was so different to the situation in the Middle East today.

Phillip: It is, but, you do have to think there must be many young men and women throughout history starting with the American war of independence that felt they had to do something to change their world.

Shawn: Yeah, to shake off their chains really.

Phillip: Whether you call them terrorists or whatever you want to call them the thing that is in common throughout history people have reached such a low point that they felt they had to change things. Them giving up everything they had was a gamble for the chance of a greater future. That’s the story of human endeavor, it’s the story of migration in a way. It’s what makes the world go round. The film does challenge you in some ways to say, ‘Well, hang on, what is a terrorist?” We did not intend that but it’s a natural byproduct.

Shawn: It’s in the fabric of the story. We’re dealing with issues that are so predominant in people’s minds these days and that’s there as a given.

Phillip: The other thing is that there is no doubt that comparisons can be made with any society that throws out due process to try and solve a problem. This republic was founded on the concept of due process, habeas corpus, basic human rights. That’s what was fought for in war after war. Again, it wasn’t our intention but I think you can look at the South African experience and say here’s a story of a man who never would have wanted to fight back if he hadn’t been pushed so far.

This conversation is a testament to how complex the movie is. You say it wasn’t meant to be in the movie but we are sitting here carrying on about it…

Phillip: Well, the one thing we will admit to is that we did make the movie because both of us find it a miracle what South Africa has achieved. Patrick’s individual story exemplifies the bigger story of that country. Can you imagine if tonight at midnight we all decided, everyone in the world, said, ‘Okay every urge for revenge, every grudge we’ve been holding, we’ll leave behind on Friday.” We’ll set a date, we’ll wake up and it’s a new day for all of us. Now, that seems like a science-fiction or a fairy tale that belongs in a kid’s book, but it happened, they did it. They did that science-fiction, they practiced it and it’s a miracle.

How about Derek Luke for the lead role in this movie.

Phillip: Well Derek came in and he just blew everyone else that was up for this part away. You couldn’t even look at anyone else. He did it because he was so “un-showy.” You look at him, and you see him and he is taking up an AK-47 and you just still see this quiet man, almost a Gary Cooper character. The reluctant warrior. There is nothing flashy about the way he does it. He doesn’t have “Vengeance is Mine” painted on his forehead. He’s quietly determined to do something about the world in which he lives, and he’s not going to let his children go through the experiences he has been subjected to. He came in and he was like a time bomb and he didn’t say anything, he didn’t want to talk about anything and he didn’t want a cup of tea or Coke or anything that actors do. He just came in and it was like he was about to give birth or something. So I said, ‘What would you like to do?’ He said, ‘Oh I just want to do this scene.’ I said, ‘Which scene is that?’ He told me and I was there and we had one actress standing in and he did it and I said, ‘Thanks very much,’ and he had the part.

I was floored, the actress that played the scene with him couldn’t stop sobbing for about half an hour. So volcanic was his performance as he was holding on to her.

Let’s talk Tim Robbins. This is Tim going against type just because of what we know about Tim Robbins and his personality and his opinions.

Phillip: Tim Robbins, if it wasn’t for him the film wouldn’t have been made. He was the actor of stature that said, ‘Yes, I want to do this,’ but he didn’t just say yes, he said, ‘I’m interested in finding out how I can be that man.’ That’s what he was interested in, he wanted to explore that aspect of his own personality to explore what that man does. He wanted to see if Nick was in him, which is interesting because opposites do attract. Politically he is the opposite, but it goes to that great adage “If you want to beat your enemy you’ve got to know him.” And he does now because he had to spend a lot of time with the guys that had been through that process and I think he felt the burden of it all, the burden of a man that had to uphold a set of laws that were totally and utterly corrupt and immoral. How do you do that?

It seemed to me that through the addition of his family life it was almost his reason for doing what he did. It was for protection, the same as Patrick. This is understandable in his position where two groups are waging war, you still have to protect yourself with whatever side you end up falling on.

Phillip: Of course you do, each side is determined to seize power. Each side feels that they have the absolute justification for the steps that they have taken.

Shawn: This was the Cold War period and there was a very real fear that if the ANC had taken power that would be the beginning of the end for the country and that South Africa would go the same way as the rest of Africa and all the infrastructure would fall apart.

Catch a Fire opens in theaters today, October 27. For more on the film including pictures, trailers and cast listing click here.

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