The director talks about winning the award, making the film and what he's working on now

Director Gavin Hood took a very circuitous route to becoming an Academy Award winning filmmaker. Hood received a law degree in his homeland of South Africa, did some acting and eventually came to the U.S. where he studied screenwriting and directing at UCLA. After winning the Diane Thomas Screenwriting Award for his screenplay A Reasonable Man, Hood returned home where he continued to hone his craft. He made the films A Reasonable Man and In Desert and Wilderness before he was approached by producer Peter Fudakowski to make Athol Fugard's novel Tsotsi into a feature film.

This tale of a young thug who finds redemption resounded so much with viewers, that Tsotsi was awarded the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the 2006 Academy Awards. Recently, Gavin Hood sat down with us to discuss the film and how his life has changed since Award's night.

What were your first thoughts and feelings when Tsotsi won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar?

Gavin Hood: All thoughts evaporated from my head. (Laughs) It was as if everything went very, very quiet and I actually didn't think that it had happened. Suddenly, I got an elbow and suddenly it went very, very loud. It was like everything was sucked out of me and then suddenly came back really loud. And I realized I had to get up and go. I'm not just saying it, it really was a shock. The reason I know it is because we'd been nominated for the Golden Globe, we'd been nominated for a BAFTA..., so I was getting pretty used to going to functions and having a good time and not winning.

What was it about the novel that made you want to tell this story on film?

Gavin Hood: I think, two things really, on the one hand I loved the character of Tsotsi in the script. I think that he is... I think the central character was truly unlikeable at the beginning. Then through a series of encounters, in a classically mythological sense, he encountered various mental figures starting with a few month old baby, and a man in a wheelchair and a nursing mother, and a drunk friend and a father figure and so on. Through these encounters he achieves a moment of heightened self awareness and if you like, he comes of age. Then of course the next story will start all over again.

It seems to me that what was appealing about doing the film was that on the one hand this universal and mythical and timeless tale, that on the other hand is set in a very specific place that is not often seen. So I got the opportunity of telling what I think is a universal and classical story of redemption, but the city of Johannesburg has not often been on screen. The kwaito music that I think gives the film a great energy is not often heard in films, so you've got the opportunity to present the audience with something kind of exotic but at the same time something strangely familiar. Which they perhaps don't realize is familiar until about halfway through the movie, if they ever realize it at all.

What was the process like of adapting the novel?

Gavin Hood: Well, there is a story out there that is partially true, is that I adapted it in two months. I did do a first draft in two months but it's slightly misleading, because of course I've known the novel for many, many years. It's not like I picked up the book, had never heard of it and then started writing. I knew the novel well. Though I loved the book and wanted to do it, the rights had basically been under option since 1980 when it was published. It was written in the Fifties and published in the Eighties when Athol became a famous playwright. When he first wrote it he couldn't get it published. I read it in about 1991 and I was a student and I thought, "Wow, this would make a great movie!" Then I found out that the film rights were taken.

Then I got a call from Peter Fudakowski the producer saying, "I've read this book, I really love it and I wondered if you might be interested and do you know it?" "Do I know it? Absolutely." So I wrote that first draft in two months but I have to tell you there are forty one versions of Tsotsi in my computer. There's just a lot of revisions and tweaking. I kept writing it for about seven months as we moved into the process of raising the financing.

Was it tough finding Presley Chweneyagae your lead? When in the casting process did you know you had him?

Gavin Hood: Well, I went through a few weeks of trying to find an international lead at the request of my investors. Unless I found someone that I hated... if you can find an actor who is right for the role and is also a name you've got to be an idiot not to take them. So lets clear that up right away. It's not for some purist reason that I felt, lets not use a name. If I could have found a name that I thought could have pulled off this role I would have. My problem was despite seeing really good actors, I kept thinking this particular story is just somehow not going to work. Audiences are not going to buy it no matter how good the name is. If it's being done in English, with a name movie star, somehow that necessary suspension of disbelief is just not gonna happen.

So my investors agreed with me after we'd been through the hoops and said, "Okay, go to South Africa and see what you find." And then of course, I'd got what I wanted and then immediately panicked because it was like, "Oh God, what if I can't find the right actor? Then I'm really in trouble. I have no name and I don't have the right actor." So we started extensive auditioning. Originally, Presley came in and he read for the role of Butcher. He was brilliant! And I was, "This is amazing! We found a great Butcher! This kid is terrifying." And I was saying, "Thank you so much." And he sort of looked at me and said, very shy, "Do you mind if I try for Tsotsi?" And I confess that I had a slight sinking feeling like, "Oh my God, I've got an actor who's perfect for a role but he doesn't really want it. He wants to do something else and this not going to work."

Of course you shut up and you say, "Sure, absolutely. Lets have a look and see." And we started working and the point is that Presley just has this extraordinary range. To go from cold blooded killer to vulnerable child that's just incredible. Then I was literally reading with him and I brought him back, I had two groups of actors at one point. I had an older group and then a younger group. My initial feeling in why we had the older group was thinking, "Because this is an emotionally demanding role, I might need an actor with some maturity to be able to pull it off." Actually, the reverse happened. The older actors who were great and frightening and scary and bad gangsters, just looked silly when they started to break. It became clear and my casting director said, "I really think we have to go young, because this is a tough transition to believe, lets be honest, anyway. If a guy's thirty years old and he hasn't got his shit together and he starts having a nervous breakdown because he feels bad."

So I brought Presley to the studio, I had cameras in there and we're working with different actors and suddenly it became really clear that this younger cast was going to be much more powerful, more believable and more effective.

What were some of your influences on the visual style of the film?

Gavin Hood: Well, starting with still photography because when I was a kid my dad was a very keen Wildlife photographer. He still is. My first experience with film was through a still camera. I would sit, very much against my will, with my father in the game reserve, watching some elephant or rhino or whatever, through a 400 millimeter lens and wait, and waiting and waiting. And my father saying, "Shhhh, don't move." And my father basically said, "There are three things that make a great photograph. The composition, the lighting and most importantly, the capturing of an emotional moment."

When you're used to looking through a stills lens and you have to capture an emotional moment, and that picture is not moving and yet it has to have impact, I think that's the first influence on my style. I'm not inclined to move the camera unless there's an emotional reason to. I just like to watch. I think in Tsotsi, one of the things I very much felt was that this was a journey that goes on inside the mind of this lead character. How will I get inside his mind? I didn't want the audience to feel my presence in the room with a handheld camera kind of swinging it back and forth.

I thought, "We need to watch him transform." One of the things that helps to watch, for example, is if we bring in the other actor during Tsotsi's close-up. Bring the actor who's not being photographed right up against the lens. So that the eyeline is very tight. Sometimes I would make Presley play to a cross just off the lens, which is why his performance is even more remarkable because I kept putting such technical demands on them. So that you the audience were looking right into those eyes. I think it was a feeling that the film needed to be both very intimate and then slightly epic. Because it's not a piece of realist, kind of doculike movie. It is a sort of mythical fable.

I feel that this kind of handheld documentary work has been done extremely well by others. I thought if I tried to do that with this film A) I'd look like I was imitating and B) I didn't think the subject matter, although it's a gangster movie, was a conventional gangster movie. It's actually much more of a psychological thriller. "What's going on inside his head?" So the way you comment on this cinematically was A) tight eyelines and close-ups and B) really wide shots. Where you get away and you feel the brooding presence of that over him. You know in that shot where he walks away on the railway line? After the meeting with the cripple? He's just walking toward the camera and the camera's just sitting still, but behind him is this huge city that's indifferent to him?

I guess I was looking that if I froze that image it would speak. It would speak as sort of an image of alienation. A little person with this vast city behind him, on a track that he can't get off of.

Did you have any idea when you were first embarking on the film that you were going to be getting compliments on Tsotsi from someone like Nelson Mandela?

Gavin Hood: No. (Laughs) The truth about filmmaking is you have all these ideas and you're trying to convince everybody that they should buy into this idea, but at two o'clock in the morning when you're all on your own you're going, "Geez, I hope I know what I'm doing. I hope this idea is gonna work." So to see the film come out and be received, especially at home, to see that so many people from all kinds of backgrounds, racial and economic, have embraced the film. Then to go and meet with Mandela, you couldn't have written a script for me better. Honestly. It's almost embarrassing. I don't know that I will ever have that experience again. It's been a great journey. It really has.

What are you currently working on? What do you have coming up next?

Gavin Hood: Well, I've been looking at a lot of stuff. What's changed in my life is that suddenly I'm sent a lot of stuff, which wasn't the case before. That's been a struggle. Trying to filter the volume of things; a lot of which are not good. You try to find what it is you want to do next. I do have a film called Rendition that I'm hoping to make. Which is a story set between Cairo, Egypt and Washington, DC. I think what draws me to projects is something that is, on the one hand frightening, entertaining or dramatic in some way, but also will leave the audience with some sort of discussion. Something to debate. Something that is not all neatly wrapped up and tied up with a bow.

I hope that Tsotsi does that in a sense. What I love is when I get people arguing over what they think should happen to him. Should he go to jail for the rest of his life? Or, would you like to take him home and give him tea and cookies? That's exciting because it means people are thinking, talking, debating. What I'm excited about on the new project is that I think I've found something that has... it's both exciting and will be a good thriller and at the same time will leave the audience with something to really go out and have a good debate about. I don't want to say too much. It's not greenlit, yet. We're close and I hope it will be in the next month or two.

Tsotsi comes out on DVD July 18th, 2006 through Miramax Films.

Dont't forget to also check out: Tsotsi

Cinemark Movie Club
Evan Jacobs