Director Ralph Ziman takes us behind-the-scenes of this amazing South African crime thriller
The amazing South African crime drama Gangster's Paradise: Jerusalema is finally coming to DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, September 28th. Directed by Ralph Ziman, this intense tale proves to be an unflinching look into the crime, corruption and the transgressions of those looking to survive in the most crime-infested district of Johannesburg.
Compared to classics such as Scarface and Goodfellas, the movie follows young Lucky Kunene (Rapulana Seiphemo) who quickly graduates from small smash and grabs and petty crimes to more aggressive heists, such as armed robbery and carjacking. Soon, Lucky realizes he needs a bigger score to fulfill his goals of making it big, and escaping from the slums, to a dream house by the sea. It's a provocative look at the fifteen-year dissolution of Apartheid, and it has resonated with audiences and critics across the globe.
We recently met up with director Ralph Ziman, who told us quite a bit about the movie. We also found out that he got his start shooting music videos for the enigmatic all-genre band Faith No More. Here, he dispels the rumor about that pesky goldfish in their Epic video, and a whole lot more:
So you're the man responsible for torturing Bjork's goldfish on screen in Faith No More's Epic music video?
Ralph Ziman: Yes! It wasn't Björk's goldfish. But yes, I am responsible for that. And it wasn't even a goldfish, interestingly enough. I was talking with someone about this yesterday. We made that video in 1987. I remember, the band had one day off from tour, and they were in London. The record company had phoned us on very short notice and asked us to do a music video. They made it sound like a really low priority. I think it was being done for Warner Bros. at the time. I just made a list of a bunch of things I thought we could do. Exploding a piano. A fish flopping around. We literally had one day to pre-produce it. So we handed the fish off to the art department. I can't remember what it was. If it was a carp? It was a fresh water fish. We shot that in London in some studios next to the tour venue. And we wound up letting that fish go in the river when we were finished. We had a couple of them. We would let them flop around, and then we'd swap it over, and we'd shoot another one. I don't remember what kind of fish they were, but the animal handler had brought them in because they were so feisty.
So you are dispelling a huge rumor amongst Faith No More fans here. Revealing that it, in fact, was not Bjork's goldfish. I'm sure you've set the record straight before...
Ralph Ziman: No! I've never even heard that rumor! This is the first time that I've ever heard someone say that was Björk's goldfish.
That fish has its own Facebook page. Roddy Bottum had said that Bjork gave them that goldfish, then a few years ago, Bjork said they took it from a party, and she never saw it again.
Ralph Ziman: No! No!
Were you a fan of Faith No More when you took on those two music videos? And were you surprised by their recent reunion?
Ralph Ziman: Yes! I'd seen them once or twice, and I really liked them. For a long time, I had told Warner Bros. that I would like to do a music video for them. It had just come up very quickly. Mike Patton, the singer? He was just so great. He was so animated. That was the kind of band I was looking to work with back then. I have heard about their recent reunion. I suppose, given long enough, everybody gets back together. The wounds heal over. They swear they'll never work together, or speak again. Every band we worked with, and on every gig we ever did, there was always so much drama. And politics. I remember that Mike had another band, and the other members of Faith No More were very upset. His other band at that time was called Mr. Bungle. Remember them?
Yes, of course!
Ralph Ziman: Mike had just come on as a replacement lead for someone else in Faith No More, then they started doing really well. But I think his first love was Mr. Bungle. And everyone else in that band? Their first love was Faith No More. I remember there was quite a bit of tension about it when I was working with them. My wish is that they would phone me up and ask me to do the next video if they decide to make another one.
You did two videos for them, right? Epic and Falling to Pieces?
Ralph Ziman: Yeah, I think it was two.
I think it's the Epic video where Mike Patton is wearing the Mr. Bungle T-shirt. Was that a problem with the rest of the band? That flagrant advertising in the advertisement of Faith No More's own music?
Ralph Ziman: Absolutely. When I first saw that T-shirt, I asked Mike, "Who's Mr. Bungle?" And he goes, "It's my other band." Right then, I look over at the bass player and the drummer, and they're like, "Fuck that!" You know? It definitely was a sore point. I remember them being really upset about it.
When are you going to get Mike Patton back in front of the camera for one of your films?
Ralph Ziman: I would love to do that. That would be great!
Gangster's Paradise is such an awesome movie, and its great that a larger audience is going to see it, now that its on DVD. How did working on those music videos in the past propel and push your creative instinct, and help create the man we see behind the camera today?
Ralph Ziman: I don't know really. It's a different animal, because everything is driven by story. You want to make everything look good, but you want that in context of the story and the setting within. With a music video, you can put a fish flopping around, you can put an exploding piano in there, you can have torrents of rain. Everything. It's all about those moments of making it look good. What you learn from working on Music videos, at least in regards to my discipline, is that you learn to work very fast, and very cheaply, with very little. That was true with Faith No More. And it was similar to what happened with Gangster's Paradise: Jerusalema. We worked on a very small budget. We had a very small crew. They were mostly documentarians. We just went with what we had on the day. We didn't necessarily know from day to day what we'd have. As far as locations, we wouldn't lock down the location until the morning of the shoot. We had a location scout. At 5:30 in the morning, we were having breakfast. He was out knocking on doors. Take the apartment that gets raided by the police. He'd say, "I've got three options. Come and look at them." We'd pick the best, and we'd go. It was very much about taking a leap of faith. That's how music videos worked back in the day. You asked for a bunch of stuff. You took whatever was available that day. The band may come late. They might not come at all. They might not want to do what you want. You have to look at it and say, "Okay, however this plan changes, I will be flexible and I am going to go with it." That's how Gangster's Paradise: Jerusalema got made. There were scenes where we needed to drive a police car, but we never had that. We'd stop someone in the street, and see if they'd park their car in the morning while they had a cup of coffee. That's how the shoot went. We trusted our surroundings. We had a very small crew. We had a long shooting schedule. We shot it like a documentary, really.
How do you feel your use of music in the film was affected by your past work? That really has to play into how certain scenes are set up, and edited...
Ralph Ziman: I have always really loved working with music. I've always loved the interaction between music and pictures. There is a certain magic in it. I saw such a good South African band, they were playing at the Viper Room yesterday. We used some of their music. They were unbelievable. But I have always had a passion for African music. We pulled in everything from Gospel to Rap, to rock. I think it was the kind of soundtrack that reminds you of Johannesburg. When you are in the city, there are hundreds of people blaring radios. Cars pass, and the music is thumping. If you close your eyes, the noise is an African city. It's this heartbeat. That is what we tried to do with the sound design on the film. With the music, those were a lot of the songs we'd hear while either doing location research, or even just driving through Johannesburg. The gospel. The hymns. The rap music. We mixed it up, and we put it where it best fit with certain scenes. It probably comes out of a place...I'm not sure I learned this on the videos. Often times you will here a bit of music, or a song, and it will take you right back to a certain place, or a feeling. I was aiming for something like that.
Looking at the film's production notes, most of your cast was also in District 9. Is the acting community in Johannesburg a pretty tight-knit group of individuals? And how was your experience working with them different than some of the other acting circles you've immersed yourself in.
Ralph Ziman: It is tight. We had a big cast. District 9 was shot, maybe, a year after Gangster's Paradise: Jerusalema. Some of the guys were well known actors. Some of them weren't. We used the guy who plays the head Nigerian. He'd never acted before. But then he ends up with an even bigger part in District 9. It was nice that some of the guys we pulled in, who had never acted before, wound up with some really juicy roles later on. There's a lot of television, and there are a lot of soap operas. There is foreign film productions. So there is a really healthy acting community there. Rapulana Seiphemo, who plays the lead, was a big soap opera star. A lot of people have said that he is the first real African movie star. He can open a movie. We also had some of these guys who had never really acted before. Like Jeffrey Zekele, who plays Nazareth. He had a few bit roles in some things. Then there was Motlatsi Mahloko, who plays the young Zakes, Lucky's sidekick. He was a kid we found in the township who wasn't an actor at all. He was a township tough guy. He's gone onto do other things. It's very nice. Everyone in the cast was dedicated, and great to work with. They were superbly talented. We also used everybody we had around us. We used our camera assistants. We used our catering staff. We used our drivers. All of them had roles in the film. One line. Two lines. That was the way we did it.
Jafta Mamabolo, who plays the young Lucky Kunene, looks so much like Rapulana, that for a second, I thought the eight year span in your career came from letting this actor grow into a man. How did you luck out and find such perfect casting with these two? And did they spend a lot of time together?
Ralph Ziman: That was a really difficult part to cast, and we didn't get Rapulana on until two weeks before we started shooting. We'd push the shoot a couple of times already. We were down to the Friday afternoon before we started. We managed to get this kid in, Jafta Mamabolo. He looked so much like Rapulana. He had the same charm. The same smile. It was Friday afternoon, and we literally said to him, "You start on Monday!" Because we shot all of the kids' parts first. It was like a little movie. It took two weeks. Jafta knew of Rapulana. He knew about his acting style, and he'd watched the guy on television. He told me that he modeled his mannerisms on Rapulana. The physical similarities are eerie. There was a lot of teasing on set. Jafta knew what language that Rapulana spoke. And when Rapulana came on the third or second day, they chatted a bit. But it was a very organic process. Honestly, we were very luck with it in the end. We put a lot of time into casting. Months and months. I looked at every single person with the casting director. From the biggest role to the smallest role. Everyone who was up there. The hard work turned into a lucky break at the end. Just the fact that they were both such nice actors was pretty amazing.
The early part of Lucky's life is so compelling and entertaining to watch, were you ever worried that the grown-up version of this character wouldn't quite match the exuberance of those earlier scenes? Was it difficult to find that balance between these two time lines?
Ralph Ziman: It is difficult. There is a difficulty when you go through showing physical crimes like robbing banks and robbing armored cars, and stealing cars. That is very cinematic. Then you go into white-collar crime, like swindling and corruption. Stealing buildings. It's much less cinematic. The film is about this moment of hope when they are kids. Then this idea of how difficult life had become fifteen years after the end of Apartheid. It was difficult. That was a challenge, trying to get these two lives to marry up as best we could.
People have compared this to Scarface and Goodfellas. Like this movie, those are both based on true events, yet are fictitious accounts. Did you look at how they mixed fact with fiction in those films, with regards to bringing this tale to life?
Ralph Ziman: Scarface, funny enough? I am always surprised by that reference. I hadn't seen that film in twenty years, and I don't remember liking it much when I saw it. Goodfellas, on the other hand? I do really like that film. I wasn't aware of what was true and what wasn't in Goodfellas. The problems we'd run into here were that the person we based this on? His story kept changing all of the time. I really wound up taking the character from him, and plotting as best I could from what I knew to be real events. We wrapped the story around him in a way that made sense. I wanted to show what he had become, and the dream of this new paradise.