Oliver Hermanus on critics and Skoonheid’s marketing strategy

Date posted: August 11, 2011

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In the second part of our interview with Oliver Hermanus, he discusses Skoonheid’s marketing strategy, the critical reaction of the major trades and South African critics, his reasons for making the film and the faults of the local film funding system. By Roger Young (for Mahala)

Read Part One

Roger Young: Skoonheid is not going to make a lot of money in South Africa. You could have called it Beauty for a European audience. To me when you say Skoonheid it sounds like kind of hard.

Oliver: It is harder. It’s a much harder word and also it’s ironic because what it means and how it sounds is very opposite. The way you think about beauty and the certain things around what that word should feel like. Skoonheid just sounds so aggressive and it also looks quite ominous. I think an international audience looks at it like “I don’t know what skoon means but I’ve heard of heid. They had an Apartheid.” In Germany they were like ‘Is it about skinheads?’ In South Africa, we’re basically telling every Afrikaaner in the country that ‘It’s about you! You need to go and see it’ Which I do feel. And we’ve really gone really old fashioned, our marketing team is a team that does major, major Afrikaans genre films. I showed them Skoonheid and they were like we can take this to the people. So it’s not being played in like Cinema Noveau or Rosebank, it’s playing in multiplexes in Pretoria and Bloemfontein and other Northern provinces and in Cape Town, it’s only playing in Somerset West and the Waterfront and the marketing campaign is all Kyknet. The big media houses said we’ re going to make a point of helping you because we think it’s time to grow this audience. I think a lot more people are going to see it than if I had gone the NFVF system which is like, this film has the potential to make five bucks because in our limited experience that’s what it’s going to make. I think we may prove through this marketing process that if you market something in a certain way, it will attract a larger audience than you might think. I’m not saying that they’re going to stick around more than 30 minutes but they may go.

One of the reactions that I got coming out of the screening was from someone who said that she felt raped because she wasn’t prepared by the maketing and that’s essentially dishonest and you’re not allowed to do that to people.

I am allowed to do that; but the press isn’t allowed to do that. Mine is just like I’ve made this, whatever, but then again on Kyknet, we do have warnings in our trailers.

Graphic content.

Exactly. But I’m not going to have this huge disclaimer about like, this film is going to rape you because artistically that’s what you want. You want people to see this film without any preconceived expectations and I don’t want people to go in there just waiting for the bad parts.

Did you approach the script with the marketing in mind?

No but I always knew, making this film, that this was going to be something that would come up, as to how will people respond to this. But you know, Sanjeev Singh has been distributing films in this country with hard natures for some time and they have a limited audience. The difference now is that this is a film set here, about here and people will connect more with the content because it is familiar.

Was it The Hollywood Reporter or was it Variety who called it plodding?

The Hollywood Reporter.

In the same review they referred to that farm scene as an orgy which it’s not really. I mean, that’s not an orgy.

No, an orgy would be far more fun. Those guys haven’t been to an orgy clearly.

Well that’s what I thought and that’s a fairly educated publication and to call that scene an orgy kind of made me go, well these people don’t really know what they’re talking about.

Well, when you go to Cannes or Toronto then you must get reviewed by all three of them, Variety, The Hollywood and Screen and the way that the sales agent thinks about it is that the film gets screened and they just wait for one after the other and there’s like this value system that’s internationally understood. If you get bad Variety, bad Hollywood, good Screen then it’s not strong enough. You can’t give it to the distributors. If you get good Variety that’s always the strongest. If you get good Variety, good Screen, bad Hollywood, not such a train smash because they never ever really agree. And so the Hollywood one came out first and it was bad and at first we were like Yes, we’re going to get a good Variety. They’re trades and not really reviews, their job is to evaluate the sales potentials of the film so in terms of trade, Variety is the most powerful trade in the world and Hollywood is competing. Those reviews are important to distributors. For me the New York Times is not a trade, it’s a culture publication so as a film maker I would be more nerve wrecked by what they said. They are definitely reviewing me more than they are reviewing how much money my film is going to make. So here in South Africa I’m not sure how the reviewers think. For example, like Screen Africa or The Callsheet are supposed to do that if they want to take themselves seriously. Telling Mnet if they should buy it or telling Kyknet if they should buy it because they should be able to read the pulse. But they don’t. The other tragedy is that young people don’t read newspaper. That’s the big problem.

Well they don’t read the newspaper because there’s nothing of value in it.

Twenty-somethings, their choice of movie watching is not based on what so and so said in such and such a publication.

It’s based on what they friend said on Facebook.

And it’s also based on whatever the fuck is on the screen when they go to the cinema house because they don’t really make a choice until they get there. So the important thing for me is as long as they know what my film is about and they’ve heard something about it and they’re standing in the queue and they see the name on the poster and they go ‘ah!’ But that ‘ah!’ never comes from a newspaper, it comes from Facebook, it comes from friends and television ads and some sort of hype. You’ve got to create the hype.

Then the last thing is, the film winning the queer?

The Queer Palm.

And having people identify the film as a gay film, that’s like a problem?

Producers would say yes, that it’s a big problem because no one wants to be pigeonholed and the word queer does send people running. But for a film maker an award is an award. It’s an accolade and you appreciate it and it’s important, but from a marketing perspective, yeah. I think, I really do think that someone at the SABC read that wrong and this whole explosion about the Queer Palm is because they thought it said Palm d’Or because no one in my party sent out a press release regarding the Queer Palm. Fuck knows how they found this out. I’ve won the main award at a film festival and it never got this much attention.

But just in terms of themes you’re exploring, does having a label as a gay movie..

It’s kind of ironic. I was quite scared that the gay community would have an allergic reaction to Skoonheid. That it perpetuates a stereotype.

Does it perpetuate a stereotype? But I don’t really see him as a homosexual at all.

No, he’s homosexual in his true sexual preference. He’s not gay because he doesn’t live a gay lifestyle. Technically he’s a man who has sex with other men because that’s all he does and the process of this film is him actually equating his feelings with his preference and then choosing what he had before in the end anyway because he just can’t bring himself to kiss in the Spur.

I kind of read that scene as the culmination of choices of his life and his age and where he grew up.

And where we are now in the world.

And like he would never cross that divide and I thought that was what was so tragic about it for me was that even if he came to full realisation, he would never be able to.

No, and that’s part of the reason why he’s also the victim, massively in this process. So I think that it was my ambition to make a film that transcended gayness in terms of only for the gay market and I remember talking to Tom Ford about this, the fashion designer.

You had to. You had to drop that in.

I was talking to Tom, you know Tom. He won the Queer Lion at the Venice Film Festival for A Single Man and he congratulated me for winning the Queer Palm because I made fun of him for winning the Queer Lion about two years ago. He had just won it and he came to Toronto, because Toronto and Venice slightly overlap, and there was this big Hoo-hah about A Single Man and everyone was like oh it’s Tom Ford’s movie tomorrow night and he just won the Queer Lion and I was like “What the fuck is the Queer Lion?” Then I met him at a film festival in Sweden like a month later, we were up for the same award and the film was just about to come out in America, it was Oscar season and I asked him how’s it going with the film? Are you finding it hard for the film? Do you have an audience in America because of the award and because of you? And he said it is hard but at the same time he also wanted to make a film that was more than a film about a gay man. A Single Man is definitely more than that and it succeeded in the end. It did pretty well here in South Africa as well because it’s quality and it’s a solid story and it’s more than that.

Well because a lot of gay cinema is…

…intentionally exclusive and ridiculous and bad? I don’t think that anyone watching A Single Man who is not gay would find the emotions to be completely separate from them. It’s a broken heart and that’s it. It’s well made and it’s interesting. My hope with this film is that no matter how many gay awards we win, when people go to see it they won’t feel like that was just not for me.

That was too gay.

Yes. Or I just didn’t relate and I think the politics that undermine Skoonheid are not only gay politics.

I saw in Francois this guy that even if his priorities had changed, he was trapped.

Francois never really equates Christian with any other type of being, he doesn’t see Christian as being “Oh. I’m going to live this gay lifestyle” he just sees it as I want to be with Christian and he doesn’t even want to think about the definition.

Or the process or whatever would happen, the consequences.

That’s why that scene where they’re talking in the restaurant, Francois is trying to concoct a vision of what this future will look like and the way he describes it is by everything that it’s not. It’s not like them and it’s this and I can show you how it works and it’s like he’s expressing through all of these negative connotations about what he hates about himself and the world around him. So the reality for him though is that he spent his whole life compartmentalized and he spent his whole life constructing these separate rooms because he assumes that he must and it’s horrific for someone like that in his own space in Spur to see people of his own class and his own race in his own country and his own upbringing, himself 20 years ago doing that. Because as far as he knew because he hasn’t pulled his head out of his hole, and that’s horrific for him because he’s lost touch and there’s no way that he will be able to bridge that gap and I think even young people do that. It’s a choice.

There’s an amazing Faber and Faber, you know the Lynch on Lynch one.

I haven’t read it.

I don’t know the exact quote but he makes this statement “In life as you grow older you think you’re getting smarter but really what you’re experiencing is a narrowing of your choices.”

I think another element of that moment in that restaurant is the thought of like, I just don’t have the energy. I just don’t have the will to be able to reconstruct myself. And I think it’s also quite interesting because Afrikaaner men who are the same age as Francois who did make a choice 10 to 15 years ago, during Apartheid or towards the end of Apartheid, to live gay lifestyle and from very conservative Afrikaans families, I think they do find Skoonheid to be not their tale, like this is not how it goes because I didn’t do that. But that’s unfortunate for them because yes, it’s not that story. It’s not the positive story of someone accepting themselves even though they were in very unfavourable conditions.

But why would you tell a happy story? That doesn’t teach you anything.

But I think Barry Ronge was one of those men who went into this film at his screening thinking this is going to be too much reality and no film worthiness. He seems to have dismissed it as an odd piece of cinema that is as odd as going to see Sara Baartman in a cage. I was very disappointed in his reaction, from the bits I was told, because again he will warn an audience against something that he deems to be “arty” and disconnected to what an audience “wants” to see. He will probably describe it as “slow and dull or labored” etc.

Has he done a review yet?

No, he’ll do one next week. I think what happened there with Barry was he saw it and I think it was just a little bit too much for him in terms of the choices of the main character. Perhaps he did identify massively with him, especially with the idea of age and youth and beauty in that sense. Charlie Keegan versus Deon Lotz and all that. Perhaps he just didn’t like the way the film made him feel. You can say that about Barry, he doesn’t care. Leon van Nierop saw it and he had a different reaction and they’re both gay men and they’re both critics and they’re both of a certain age and they both live in this country and one of them is Afrikaans and one of them in English. And so it’s interesting because as major film critics in this country and both being gay men, there’s a lot for them to say or not to say. Because they did both make choices to live their lifestyles and they probably do have some sort of connection to whatever Francois is going through. So I’m interested to see if they bring that.

That’s what I think is successful about Skoonheid, is the lack of detail. The detail is there visibly and in the actions and the emotions but the detail is not there in that you don’t know everything about Francois but you don’t know everything but you see where he is and you can make assumptions and everyone’s allowed to make their own assumptions and plot their own life on them.

But it’s interesting how people don’t need much thread to accept what must happen to him. Their narrative is so subconsciously existent so if I look at the two men in that sex scene on the farm, the two men that we found to shoot that scene when I spoke to them about doing this film they were very happy to do it because they felt so strongly about the content. I think that the older guy has had a very hard life in terms of that. He just immediately looks like someone who’s not gay in that very stereotypical way because he’s big and he’s got this great beard and he dresses in a masculine way. When people find out that he’s gay, well, I think his whole life has been this cognitive dissonance. He looks like Eugene Terblanche sometimes; so I have a lot of respect for those men because there are very few men of that age and of that culture who are very open about who they were in the 50s in the 60 in the 70s. So this one is for them.

This one is for the old Afrikaaners.

This one is for the old Afrikaaners who say ‘I am gay. Go away’. But also the other part of it is that every single person in the world can tell you their own story about their uncle or their cousin or their friend who was married and blah blah blah. Our script translator, when he was 21 his father did this, just left his mother and suddenly he’s gay. So I mean it’s there somewhere. Just like Shirley Adams is there somewhere.

I have to ask, that scene at the beach at the end of Shirley Adams, was that added in development.

You won’t believe this but that was the first idea. That was the fifteen year old in me.

So we can’t blame the NFVF for that one.

No you can blame me for that one. The NFVF never touched the script for Shirley Adams. They had no input. I refused.

So you went to them after, you didn’t go for script development?

Fuck no. No, The NFVF got involved in Shirley because I had Roland Emmerich paying for Shirley Adams. The South African producers went to the NFVF with this whole attitude like “what are you going to do when everyone finds out that a foreigner paid for this whole damn movie and you guys gave not one dime?” And then they were like “oh shit, you’re right” and that’s when they threw us R250 000 and for that they thought they were going to buy like complete creative control and that never happened. Clarence [Hamilton, Head of development for the National Film and Video Foundation] thought that he had won the battle then we showed him the first cut and he was like “this is unwatchable.” And then Locarno (International Film Festival) was like “we love it” and Toronto (International Film Festival) was like “we love it,” change of tune from Clarence. Suddenly, I’m talented. But he knows we don’t agree on much so he doesn’t bother anymore. I think he has too much power and that it has a negative impact on the films they make. It’s a big problem.

It’s not the job of the funding body to be involved creatively.

The majority of the time, in other countries is that they don’t really equate to the content. They equate the cost versus the risk. So they need to know how many films they can fund every year, that’s all they need to know. They need to be able to say ok, we can fund 50 films a year and that’s it and then the first 50 get it. Get your application in quick. Then it’s up to you to make sure you’re one of those 50.

Because you don’t get a second film if you fuck up the first one.

So it just sifts out the people who will never get more instead of making everyone basically beg for their supper and then hand it out in completely no logically fashion. I have this great quote from Clarence once when he told me “You don’t know what you’re doing, because you don’t know the first rule of film making which is drama is the essence of life distilled”. He was like you haven’t distilled anything in this film, Shirley Adams. That was at that meeting and then of course fast-forward five or six months later and it’s a completely different story. What has the NFVF done in terms of strong films or strong box-office? There no box-office and the Afrikaans film makers do have box office. So in fact if you want to talk about box office we should just go to all the Afrikaans film makers and say so Ok you’ve got box office, you’ve got an audience, you’ve got financers and you’ve got a market so let’s all just feed that market because that market pays to go to the movies.

It’s a culture that really supports the exploration of its identity.

They’re tried to test the depths of how far the Afrikaans audience will got to support the culture and the limit is the Kurt Darren movie. It only lasted a week. Getroud Met Rugby, Hansie, yes but Kurt Darren, fuck this! I’m trying to push them up a little bit. But what is amazing is that this audience is learning and it’s consuming and they’re buying. This is a business. This is what America is, American’s buying American; made in China.

And with you it’s Afrikaaners buying Afrikaans.

Made by Coloureds.

Paid for by the French.

Exactly but the point is as long as they have something to take from it, that is theirs. So with the NFVF model, I don’t know what the masses of this country pay for in terms of cinema. That’s why people should feed the street distribution market because black people, en masse, don’t go to the cinema, because there are none in the townships. And you can’t get a bunch of people from Sandton to understand how the street market system works. And that’s why it works in Nigeria, because it’s their system. So the NFVF can’t really tell you what movie is going to drive the majority of Joburg mad because the truth of the matter is the majority of Joburgers don’t really go to the movies. But the whole of Pretoria and Bloemfontien does. Everyone should just become Afrikaans.

Reprinted from Mahala