Oliver Hermanus, born in Cape Town South Africa, is a filmmaker who is definitely on the one to watch list. Since graduating from his BA he was awarded a private scholarship to the film school of his choice, completing a Masters degree at the London Film School and going on to win numerous awards and attend the 19th session of the Cinefondation at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009.
Following the success of his recent feature Beauty (Skoonheid), Oliver agreed to talk with us about cinema, writing and directing, and unfortunate car accidents.
Has cinema always been a big part of your life? Did you always want to become a director?
Yes, my parents would take me to the movies each Saturday. My dad was worked in a different town to where we lived, so he would come home on weekends and take me to the movies on a Saturday morning. The last film my parents and I watched together though was Requiem for a Dream… it was the end of our ritual.
Are there any films, or filmmakers, in particular that inspire you?
Many! Hitchcock, Haneke, The Dardennes, Billy Wilder… I love seeing new films and finding moments in them that really work for me and give me ideas, so most films I see often give me something. The list is long.
Beauty (Skoonheid) is your second feature. How did you find the filmmaking process the second time around, did you find you had more confidence, or are you very comfortable behind the camera?
Yes, you do feel a little more confident in the driver seat. But the car is bigger and faster, and the course is longer so you still have that fear that I think comes with every film no matter how seasoned you are as a filmmaker. I am a wreck during shooting, always having doubts.
How do you find the writing process – does it come easy to you?
It depends on the content. Skoonheid was a fast write because I was writing about a man in South Africa who I think we all know somehow. He was very familiar to me from the beginning so the writing was fairly swift, but other concepts are harder to write down and develop because I have to get comfortable owning the content or idea first.
So far you’ve been both writer and director on your projects, obviously this has the advantage that you can fulfill your vision – do you enjoy having this control over your creations?
I think it was necessary for the first two films but I am very much ready to work with writers now who can give me stronger scripts thus better films. I don’t really see myself as a writer.
How would you feel about either directing someone else’s story, or handing your writing off to another director?
I have handed my writing over to other directors and really love that. It’s so fun to let it go and then come back in a few months and see it alive and breathing. As for the other way around, I am very keen to interpret the scripts of other writers and make their films.
Beauty is such a complicated and wonderful story of both one man’s nature and also a depiction of a changing social atmosphere – how did you come up with the story, is it based on any real occurrence?
It is not based on anyone I actually know, but Francois is a character that is always hinted at in South African society – the repressed Afrikaner who just didn’t let go and embrace the change. He is a representative of that part of our society that refused to allow the change that came to influence their life choices or politics, and as a result they got left behind and are living in an Apartheid of their mind. I feel like he really just walked into my mind one day and was fairly complete in his construction as a character. I was living in Paris at the time and it was winter, so perhaps I was home sick.
These men in the movie, the ones that resort to clandestine orgies to express their repressed sexuality, hidden from their real lives by anonymity: do you think they represent a real fragment of South African society – are they a generational fracture existing between a conservative past and a present striving for equality?
Yes, indeed. They are a fallout of the previous system. And it’s not only sexual repression, but a host of other types of repression that has left a generation of South Africans feeling very uncomfortable and very fractured in post Apartheid South Africa. They were that age bracket that were in their mid twenties when the change happened, and their life choices were so cast in stone that, when suddenly everything changed and there was this incredible freedom, it simply frightened them.
Beauty has such a successful cast – in particular Deon Lotz and Charlie Keegan – was it an involved casting process, or did you see them and realise that they’d be the ones to embody your characters?
It was a fairly involved process but once I saw Deon’s tape I knew we had found our Francois. Charlie was recommended and he came in to meet with me, he’s a rising star and was keen to play this role to diversify his usual ‘football hottie’ persona.
The movie has been phenomenally successful, do you find this humbling?
I do. It calms me just a little bit. But now the challenge is to do something new and better, and stronger, so you shake off the complements and deem it your worse work and aim to make something of more value.
Finally, is there anything else you’d like to share with us or get off your chest right now?
Great question! Erm, well I just had a car accident last week and want to say FUCK YOU to the guy who hit me. I feel better…thanks!
Beauty (Skooneid) is in UK theatres April 20 and our review of the movie can be read.
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