SPECIAL FEATURE – Lunch with the Oscar winner


Tsotsi’s director/writer Gavin Hood took time out of his frantically busy schedule during his South African visit in mid-March, celebrating the film’s Oscar win in the Best Foreign Language Film category, to meet with Screen Africa’s Joanna Sterkowicz at the Hyatt Hotel in Rosebank, Johannesburg.

The serious part of the interview, wherein Gavin Hood talked about the dynamics of independent filmmaking and finding the next great script, appears in the April issue of Screen Africa. This is the slightly lighter side of the interview, which, as per the publicist’s arrangement, was only meant to last 40 minutes. Two hours and 10 minutes later, the publicist literally dragged Hood away, while he was still in mid-speech. Anyone whohas metHood will know that he talks a lot. But that’s because he is intense, highly intellectual and incredibly passionate about filmmaking. Yet he remains friendly and approachable throughout.

When I met Hood on the pool deck he looked absolutely exhausted and was only a few hours away from meeting President Thabo Mbeki, having met Nelson Mandela a day previously. That night he was to attend the SABC Gala Dinner and the following day was flying to Germany to continue the Tsotsi international road show.

“I think the road show will continue for another two months. Basically it’s been going on from September last year, since we won at Edinburgh. Do you want to see the Oscar?” he asked suddenly.

Hood whipped out the award and its effect was instantaneous. Everybody at the tables around us started smiling and a gentlemen, who turned out to be from the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC), one of the major investors in the film, approached.

“Let me shake your hand,” he said to Hood. “You can come to me for money any time.”

All of which proves – everybody loves a winner.

The IDC man then asked if he could have his photo taken with the Oscar and Hood genially agreed but said that he was contractually oblilged to appear in every photo taken with the Oscar (to prevent its being used for marketing purposes).

Hood had alreadybeen asked a hundred times how it felt when he heard the winning announcement at the Oscar ceremony, but I asked him again anyway. “It was as if all sound and everything was sucked away – I felt like I was imploding and then suddenly everything exploded.When I got on stage there was this clock ticking away at me, so I had no time to go into my structured acceptance speed. Then I spotted the faces of the actors [Presley Chweneyagae and Terry Pheto] and told the cameras to focus on them. They’ve teased me non-stop ever since, saying that I automatically started directing the Oscars!”

If any Screen Africa readers wondered why Hood said “Amandla!” (traditionally the cry of revolution in SA during apartheid) in his acceptance speech, it’s because he was a Wits University student during the 1980s and attended numerous anti-apartheid rallies. “Amandla means ‘power to the people’ and as an ex radical student, the word is part of my vocabulary. It seemed an appropriate thing to say as this was Africa’s first ever Oscar for a feature film.”

He quipped that no-one had offered to ‘dress and coif him’ for theawards ceremonyas they had the actors. “I sloped off to a menswear warehouse in Los Angeles to buy a $150 tuxedo.”

During the week of the SA visit, Hood and his two actors were splashed across every television news bulletin and newspaper in the country, not to mention being the subject of many victory parades.

He recalls how when he and Chweneyagae were flying back to Johannesburg, they were informed that there was going to be a press conference at the airport. “We thought, ok, at least we will have time to duck into a cloakroom, splash on some deodorant and put onclean t-shirts. Well, the moment we stepped out of the plane into the connecting corridor, there was a mass of flashbulbs going off. Then a policewoman whipped away our passports and cleared us through immigration and customs while we were led into the arrivals lounge, to be greeted by crowds of cheering people. It was amazing.”

Was he surprised by the overwhelming SA response to the win? “Corny as it sounds, to feel the pride and joy that South Africans have taken in our win is a better feeling than winning the Oscar. The highlight, though, was meeting ‘Madiba’ [Nelson Mandela]. Embarrassingly enough, I had to fight back the tears.”

Thanks to the Oscar win, Hood is sizzling hot at the moment. He has received 270 scripts since the nominations were announced – everyone wants him. The win must be the ego boost of all time – how will he maintain a level head for the future? “Despite Tsotsi’s incredible success, it has received one or two bad reviews along the way. This reminds you that you will never make a perfect film and that you will always have to strive to do good work creatively. Similarly the highly competitive nature of this business keeps you on your toes.

“Frankly, having won I do feel somewhat intimidated about what to do next. The win is both a blessing and a curse and I hope it doesn’t immoblise me, because great stories are hard to come by and much of Tsotsi’s success must be attributed to the original novel by Athol Fugard and the extraordinary humanity of his characters.”

Hood noted that since the success, his business has changed from being an outgoing call business to an incoming call business. “I’ve struggled to find or write scripts in the past. Now I’m flooded with them, many of which are not good. I’ve also been swamped with requests for meetings and for good or bad, without any arrogance intended, I’m now seen by many people as someone who can help get their films made. This is a pressure I haven’t quite figured out how to deal with.”

Given Hood’s hot property status, he now has an entire team handling his career, headed by manager Michael Sugar of Anonymous Content in Los Angeles, to filter requests and submissions and to run his publicity and travel schedule for the Tsotsi road show. He is represented in Hollywood by the famed William Morris Agency and also has an agent in London.

I brought up the fact there have been some sectors of the SA industry which haven’t been overly delighted with Tsotsi as a film, complaining that the lead character is ablack SAgangster. Hood responded: “To SA filmmakers who have difficulties with Tsotsi – I respect their criticism and I look forward to seeing their films on the screen. What we need in SA is more and more films made by local filmmakers because the pressure for one film to fully define the SA experience is ridiculous. Our competition as SA filmmakers is not with each other but with every filmmaker in the world, at every level. We are also competing with video games and concerts.”

Hood made a point of acknowledging all the people who worked on his film. “On a technical level, I’m extremely proud of the work of every crewmember on Tsotsi. It’s world class.”

At some point during the interview, Hood mentioned how he’d learnt to frame shots for the camera. “My dad used to be an avid wildlife photographer so I would often go into the wild with him. He always said that that there were three elements to a successful photograph – composition, lighting and the emotional moment you capture in the picture. I’ve always remembered that in my filmmaking.”

Hood was eventually dragged away from the interview by the publicist who more or less ordered him to go and get ready for the President Thabo Mbeki meeting, but informing him that he would have to do a cell phone interview with the Natal Mercury newspaper on the way to his room.

See the April issue of Screen Africa for the serious part of the interview.



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