Hollywood? Hollyhood!

2013-12-21 15:40

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Gavin Hood is back with a major new blockbuster star ring some of the biggest names in the industry. He’s come a long way since tsotsi – although the movie remains close to his heart

He doesn’t get much time to reminisce about life before winning an Oscar.

These days he’s too busy directing the likes of Harrison Ford and having high-powered meetings with Hollywood hotshots – in between raising a set of twins.

But late last month pangs of nostalgia washed over Gavin Hood as he watched another South African director showcase a new film that’s hoping to follow in Tsotsi’s award-winning footsteps.

Gavin (50) was giving Ian Gabriel’s movie Four Corners a boost by introducing it at a screening in Los Angeles for members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Four Corners, a gritty coming-of-age tale set amid the ganglands of the Cape Flats, is South Africa’s submission for the Oscars in the Best Foreign Language Film category, just as Gavin’s triumphant Tsotsi was when it was released in 2005.

‘I had a real feeling of déjà vu,’ he tells us from LA, the movie capital he now calls home. ‘I know exactly what Ian and his team are going through – how excited they are, how nervous. It makes me nostalgic because I remember it so well.’

His days of being a struggling newcomer are long a thing of the past though. Seven years may not be a long time in the grand scheme of things, but for Gavin so much has happened it must feel like a lifetime ago.

His name now leads the credits on big-budget productions that feature the best names in the business.

There’s Rendition, his first major movie since Tsotsi, that starred Meryl Streep, Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine with Hugh Jackman in the lead role. And now there’s Ender’s Game, new on the SA circuit and his most ambitious project to date.

Based on the military science fiction novel by Orson Scott Card, it stars Asa Butterfield of Hugo and The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas fame as a gifted boy sent to a military academy in outer space to prepare for an alien invasion. Also in the star-studded cast are Harrison Ford, Viola Davis, Abigail Breslin and Ben Kingsley.

It was one of the most eagerly awaited big-budget movies of the year and Gavin admits to feeling intimdated at first.

‘But then any project you do is intimidating, and if it’s not you aren’t paying attention,’ he adds. ‘The journey of making a film is very unpredictable.’

However, he was prepared to tackle Ender’s Game because he’s a fan of its themes. ‘I love the ideas it explores – the way humans are as capable of great acts of compassion and kindness as we are of terrible acts of violence. This is embodied in Ender – he represents humanity because he’s a complex kid, not just good or evil.’

Gavin admits to being a little star-struck about working with Harrison Ford.

‘The first day you walk onto the set of a film where you’re directing a guy like that is intimidating. I mean, I grew up watching him in a gazillion movies – he was the biggest star in the movie world for like 20 years!’

But he soon realised the actor who brought

Indiana Jones to romping life is uncomfortable with fame and sees it as a downside of the profession.

‘He told me it’s part of the whole job description, something he has to deal with, which is why you always see him looking so uneasy in public. But on set he’s there to work. And it’s great.’

Did he ever, when he was a young guy dreaming of the future, imagine his life would come to this? ‘Never,’ he says. ‘I had no idea at all.’

Gavin speaks with the same exuberance for making – and appreciating – movies I remember when I first interviewed him during the days shortly before Tsotsi’s runaway success.

He looks and sounds much the same as he did then too. His hair may be shorter, not as shaggy as it was back then, but aside from the odd ‘t’ sounding like a ‘d’ – an inevitable consequence of living in the US for several years – he’s still the same guy he was then.

Today he’s practically as fired up by Four Corners as he was about Tsotsi.

‘I think any society that doesn’t see itself reflected on the screen is missing an opportunity to examine itself,’ he says. ‘The more of these kinds of films, from all parts – all corners – of South Africa, the better.’

It’s hard to believe this passionate movie man once saw law as his career path.

He earned a law degree at Wits University before his enthusiasm for movies took over and he enrolled for a course in film at the University of California in Los Angeles.

While there he wrote a script that earned him a screenwriting award. He did some acting too – mostly in B-grade films and the odd TV series (remember the local series The Game in the early ’90s?) – but discovered his talents lay more behind the camera.

Disappointingly, interest in his script A Reasonable Man fell flat and he returnedto SA.

Which is just as well because Gavin believes his training and experience back then, even though it was gained while making ‘very, very low budget, tiny little TV shows for the Department of Health on the HIV crisis’, cemented the attitude he needed to pursue filmmaking.

‘I always tell budding filmmakers the most important thing is to make the very best film you can because without the work, there’s no career.’

He describes his HIV films as ‘these little half-hour docu-dramas’, but they served an important purpose: they tackled a subject the government at the time had all but swept under the carpet.

And Gavin’s hard work and dedication to his craft paid off: the films won an Artes award – SA’s equivalent of an Emmy in the 1990s – and boosted his confidence enough for him to make his first short film, The Storekeeper.

‘I’m often asked, “How did you get here?” The answer is always “one step at a time”. If you’re making a short film, make the best short film you can. Put it on the festival circuit – that’s how it slowly builds.’

This ethos has stayed with him, even though the bucks he has at his disposal now are hollywood-studio-sized bigger. Ender’s Game involved a budget around the $150 million mark – a long way from Tsotsi’s $3 million.

It may sound dazzlingly exciting but there is a downside to making big-budget films – and it’s all very different to the Tsotsi days.

‘With Tsotsi I was entirely focused on telling the best possible story and making the best film. I wasn’t faced with opinions from marketing departments and studio execs.

Not only is there the challenge of making a film, but also the challenge of navigating the politics – which I’m not always good at.’

Gavin has previously admitted that X-Men Origins: Wolverine was a ‘baptism by fire’, and rumours were rife that he did not see eye to eye with 20th Century Fox. Ender’s Game also wasn’t without controversy.

Writer Orson Scott Card’s outspoken stance against gay marriage led to a boycott of the movie by some people in America and Gavin, a staunch supporter of same-sex unions, said it was ‘a difficult line to walk’.

‘I have a lot to reflect on after this experience,’ he admits. ‘The reality of big studio filmmaking is there are huge amounts of money at stake and you have to deal with all of what that means, while attempting to reach the largest possible audience.’

Yet he’s proud of Ender’s Game, he adds. ‘After a roller-coaster ride of a story on the big screen with all these great special effects, the audience is left with something to talk about afterwards.’

Gavin wants to keep making films like this – movies he will soon be able to take his twins, a six-year-old girl and boy, to see.

He lives with his kids (whom the fiercely protective moviemaker refuses to name) and his wife, Nerissa Black – a production manager who worked on Tsotsi – in a neighbourhood an hour away from the hustle and bustle of Hollywood.

He returns to SA to visit his family here once a year and is hoping to work on another project in his homeland one day.

Meanwhile he’s considering his options – of which there are many. ‘Since Tsotsi, things have come to me – offers I could never have imagined. Life’s a journey and you have to be open. I couldn’t possibly tell you what’s going to happen next!’

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