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SAFILM.ORG INTERVIEW WITH KEN KAPLAN
           - South African Independant Film Site -

Click to go to SAFilm.org
Headlines
(07/03/01)

KEN KAPLAN INTERVIEW

We’re pleased to announce a new initiative - to get South African filmmakers talking about their work and process in a regular interview format. We kick off this series of interviews with a look at Kenneth Kaplan who made a splash at last year’s Sithengi Film Market.

Kenneth Kaplan: Director of Pure Blood

kennethAt last year's Sithengi South African Film Market one of the few films that stood out from the largely politically correct fare on offer was a small independent feature titled Pure Blood. Directed by Kenneth Kaplan it is a veritable breath of fresh air in our stagnant industry.

With his good-looking-guy-next-door appearance, most would think that Kenneth doesn't look like the kind of person to pen a film about blood sucking, right-wing, neo-nazi, zombies trying to take over the world in a small South African town. They'd be wrong.

Click to enlargeKenneth has been in the film industry for over a decade, making dramas and documentaries and working with Anant Singh, supervising post-production and delivery on feature films like Cry, The Beloved Country. It was in part, thanks to Singh that he was able to make Pure Blood, his first feature, which he wrote and directed. The fact that a local feature film was made in South Africa is impressive enough. That it actually works is even more so. Pure Blood hasn't hit our screens yet, but hopefully it will soon (Feel free to contact Ster Kinekor and ask them why it s not on circuit yet).


How did you get into directing? Was film school involved?

Yah, I went to film school. I did drama at Wits and tried to remould the department to suit my needs - to make films. In my final year our class produced a 16mm drama "THE HIDDEN FARMS" - the students raised the money and got the equipment free. We all drew lots to see who would do what job. I pulled the director straw - so I guess it was meant to be! After Wits, I received a scholarship to study further at New York University Graduate Film - at that time - it was a terrific film school and the calibre of staff was really inspiring. I immersed myself in cinema and watched up to 30 movies a week. From New Latin American Cinema, Cinema Novo, Soviet era cinema to 5th Generation Chinese and Hollywood's Hitchcock, Welles and Surtees. At that time, Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee and Sarah Dryver had made their names and New York "indie" was very much the thing.

You weren't just a director for hire on Pure Blood. Where did the concept come from?

Ever since my first short movie was banned as "undesirable" by the old regime in South Africa, I wanted to make a feature film that reflects the state-of-mind that created Apartheid and look at those people today and what they're going through. The film had to be accessible and entertaining and I chose to write a dark comedy that kept far away from the obvious heavy political drama of those anti-apartheid movies from the 1980's. PURE BLOOD is about a dysfunctional family, obsessed with their dark secrets from the past and a very unhealthy and screwball view of the future. I was inspired by the humour and social satire in films like PARENTS (dir: Bob Balaban), THE YOUNG POISONER'S HANDBOOK (dir: Benjamin Ross) and DELICATTESSEN (dir: Jeunet & Caro).

The film has been labelled as bizarre, quirky, gross and funny. How would you describe Pure Blood?

I see the movie is a grand tart. An over decorated sweet cake that looks seductive on the surface, but inside is full of surprises and forbidden fruits. For PURE BLOOD I used elements of Jacobean tragedy, the pulp fiction of that era. I turned to American splatter movies of this century and combined these themes into a story that deals with revenge, jealousy, betrayal, ascendancy and bloodline. In this I found really dark ghoulish humour

What was fascinating about the film was the way you created a unique mythology using South African taboos such as white, right wing fanaticism and racism?

Were current sensibilities in the new South Africa ever an issue? I think issues are one thing, human conditions and drama are another. I focused on the human drama, the things that motivate people to turn against one another, seeking revenge, and justification for their actions. I wanted to show the human dimension and play it off against the political allegory in the film.

What was it shot on, in how many weeks and how much did it cost?

We shot Super-16mm on Kodak stock. It was a pretty gruelling schedule as we had to shoot the whole thing in 4 weeks and I think I went in with a 103 page script. But we got it and I think we only went into overtime on one or two days. So far the cost of the movie has been well under R 2 million.

There is often much controversy surrounding violence in films. How did you approach the depiction of violence in Pure Blood?

I tried to use some of the stylistic elements made popular in splatter movies like the stuff from Roger Corman, George Romero, Tom Savini. Though PURE BLOOD is not actually a genre movie, I liked those techniques of using lots of really gushy bright blood because they have a sense of parody and I was not interested in using violence in a cathartic or pornographic sense. I think the final tally was about 2000 litres of fake-o blood for this movie. We had 2 of South Africa's best known actors bathing in the stuff!!!!

Do you as a director feel you have responsibility to society at large or do you appreciate Oscar Wilde's approach that morality has no place on an artists palette?

Yussiss! I didn't know the Academy had given their annual awards statue a surname. The only thing I can say on such a damning question is that under certain circumstances I could feel one thing and in other situations, the very opposite. Maybe that answers your question. Maybe I try to tell moral tales in an immoral way - that could be somewhere close to how I feel

Would you classify Pure Blood as an Independent film? Why so?

I really think it is an "indie" movie in the true sense of the word because firstly it was made without any distribution presales from broadcasters or theatrical exhibitors. It was made totally on spec and everyone that invested, did so on purely a risk basis by going into a movie without an uncertain script and an unknown director.

Tell us how you went about raising the financing for the film. Was it a struggle and who eventually came to the table?

Raising the money took an impossibly long time. First in was the Department of Arts & Culture with a production grant. Against this I raised matching finance from Anant Singh's Videovision and Revolution Pictures. The short fall I raised from private equity investors through my own company, Bioskope Pictures. We had enough money to go out and shoot the film and then edit for 4 weeks. That was it! The really hard work was after the money ran out, sitting with a half finished movie and trying to raise the funds to complete. None of the original investors were going to put in to finish the film and they wanted to know how they were now going to get their money back. In the end it worked out and I found completion funds to finish up.

Local filmmakers often justifiably complain about our low budgets? Did you feel that you had an acceptable budget to accomplish the feature successfully or were compromised necessary?

Oh we had to compromise all the way and everyday. I think you have to on every movie. Even if you're sinking the Titanic before lunch, there comes a time when you say okay we'll have sardines for lunch instead of lobster so we can have a bigger iceberg to hit. But the point is, going in I knew the limitations of my budget and I had written the script with this in mind. I produced the movie as well so I had been working the budget for a couple of years before going to shoot it and I had a damn good idea of how many locations I could afford and how many actors I could get into those days. Art department is always full of surprises, because you always want more and more on set on the day and you just have to prioritise. Pierre Hinch, who line produced the film, was very helpful in giving me as much as possible on the screen. The whole crew was a fantastic and really went the extra distance to get the best they could. I had crewed up very carefully and felt that I was casting two things - the actors and the crew. And it worked out very well.

Production Design is very strong in Pure Blood. How did you conceive this and how does it link into what you wanted to achieve with the film?

The Production Designer, Zack Grobler, and Art Department started work on pre-production before the rest of the crew. I had a few weeks just with them as I knew the design elements were going to be important. We had a limited budget so the first thing was to find locations that were good, cheap and close to each other so that we would not have too many moves. The big choice was whether to build the interior of the family house or shoot on location. We were looking at taking over someone else's set and re-doing it. In the end we went with the location and it worked very well.

I had a lot of references that I had collected for the film during the writing and was aware of the aesthetics that I wanted to communicate. I wanted to portray a society where everyone wore a uniform of sorts. The police, the nurses, the doctors, the mother, the brother. They all had their rank in civil society. It was important to create a world that was rooted in institutional South Africa - a place of linoleum corridors, paperwork and boring stationary - yet there had to be a stylistic edge to everything the art department turned out. Even though we had so little money for all this, I think you really get a feeling of this strange world that is logically unified.

Another complaint is the lack of development time, especially scripting. How did you go about writing and developing Pure Blood? How were you financed and how long did it take? How are our local script readers and input?

I had no development money for the script and wrote it on my time between jobs. I had to build up a nest egg and then I knew I could put aside 12 weeks of solid writing. And then I went the through the drafts like this. It took me about 7 years to develop the script this way. Not the best way to work! During that time I also wrote some other screenplays and put PURE BLOOD down for long periods. I tried to develop a group of readers that I could rely on to track the progress through various drafts. The coverage I got from producers and distributors here was practically non-existent. Some were even sub-literate. Anyway I had done development work when I was with Anant Singh's company and had a fair idea of what I was looking for in the script reports and what comments to ignore. Part of the art of writing in development is to know what not to listen to.

What was the most difficult aspect of making Pure Blood in your experience?

I suppose the final part was the hardest in terms of having a half-completed movie and trying to get the funds to finish it. No-one is really interested in what you've got to say. If they can't see it on the screen in front of them - forget it! Also the market has changed a lot for low budget "indies" - there used to be a hunger for them. But now there is such an incredible amount of product and so few places to get this niche stuff distributed that it's almost impossible to get people hooked on an unfinished movie. But then of course there are always those films that do work that way - though I think they're probably always from the United States and appeal to the right target audience - and they go on to do big things. It was hard to realise that once I'd sweated to make the movie and then somehow when I stopped worrying so much - it came together.

How did casting affect the project and do you feel that our local actors are up to scratch on the film medium?

Casting was one of the best parts for me. I cast really widely for the young leads. I wanted to really see the talent out there in the 20 to 30 age group. And I was really happily surprised. There's some great talent, but sadly, I don't know if there is much of a career path for these people unless they stay in TV. Carl Beukes was a great find and I think he could play in movies anywhere. It was his first feature and he had the leading young male stuff to carry the film. In the end I think I auditioned about 160 people for about 7 parts. Then I had call backs and more call backs and finally a read through in Cape Town with the "almost" final cast so I could see if the chemistry of these characters in a dysfunctional family was right.

Those rehearsals really hummed and I started to see how the writing on the page could tranform itself into real flesh and blood. It's a bit of a scary process, because at the point where you say, "okay you're the part." You have to stand back and approach your shaping of the characters from a very different mind set to the way you wrote them. It's just the way it happens and if you try to stand in the way, you end up doing more damage and cutting yourself off from having choices and trying new ideas. That's what I was always wanting from the actors, more choices, more options, more ideas and always lots of opposites to what was obvious. These are things you can really work with and I think actors anywhere in the world are going to respond to these things and if they give you everything and are really honest with what they're doing - it'll be real and in the moment when it's up there on the screen. And that's what I worked hard to get.

Tell us about the ongoing journey of distributing and marketing Pure Blood. How prepared were you for this part of the filmmaking process?

Well the marketing and distribution is evolving at the moment and I can't really say too much now about this except that we are have had interest from local and international pay TV and will exploring these options. We have been invited to the best festivals for this type of movie and I'm trying to find the funds to make a 35mm print to screen for these festivals as I believe it'll lead to sales and elevate the profile and price for these territories. Festivals like Roma Fantafest and International Fantasy Film Festival of Sitges in Spain are responsible for launching movies like, RE-ANIMATOR, HEAVENLY CREATURES, BRAINDEAD, CRONOS and PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER. That is company I would be proud to keep and we have been invited into Main Competition at these festivals.

However we have to screen off 35mm and that is going to cost more money. After all the hard work, and after having one of the only South African "indie" movie to be made this way coming out of the first Interim Film Fund initiative set up by the Department of Arts & Culture, I think it would serve the industry that we are all trying to create, by having the film screen at as many international festivals as possible. I think our industry really needs this kind of exposure and festivals are very, very political affairs and filmmakers are going to need as much help as they can get to have their films shown in this places. It's the only way for our industry to start branding itself as an international player. You can only make so many brochures, and so many promo tapes, and have so many cocktail parties advertising your countries industry, until the time comes when you have to show the world a movie.

What are your general thoughts on SA feature films? What are our weaknesses and strengths?

Right now, my feeling is that broadcasters have to start helping us with presales of between 15 - 20% of our budgets on local movies and we can't spend more than 5 to 10 million rand on these ventures. That's my general view. Once that is possible and you can get another 15 to 20% from NFVF then you have enough leverage to go to equity partners for the rest. I think we'll have to think really small in South African for awhile and I believe that we need to start making digifeatures for no money. This will happen!! As filmmakers come out of filmschools and go "screw this" I'm making my film with or without money, it'll happen. And it's only a matter of time before some smart kids shoot a movie on DV and everyone starts frothing at the mouth for a piece of the action. Our big weakness is people aren't taking enough risks out there. Our big strength is that people are tired of listening to the bullshit.

Do you feel that, at the moment, South African directors can make a living by directing only drama/feature projects?

What are the directing options in the real world really like at the moment? Darrell can! I don't know really how they do it, but there seem to be a few living and dead who have managed to make a career out of features. But remember being a director anywhere is hard and everyone wants to do it and everyone thinks they should get a shot next. More movies are being made than ever before and more and more will come. But of that total number, less and less will get picked up and make money because global entertainment companies are back on top and consolidating their empires. The dot.com internet movie thing didn't breakup the majors it just created a whole lot little entities who want a slice of the pie.

It's often noted that, while directors oversee the whole project, directors have certain strengths (e.g. visual, performance, storytelling etc &). What do you feel are your personal strengths as a director?

Well I'm really bad at the camera and technical stuff. I thought I used to know what was going on having been a camera assistant for few shoots and stuff. But on set, the only thing I could do was make sure the equipment boxes were latched close properly. I love the storytelling and hope to improve my skills on that side. Making movies is really the only wayand I hope to get the chance to continue refining that. The thing that gets me through the day is figuring out solutions to problems before they happen or coming up with very quick alternatives. Sometimes they work and sometimes you've just blown your foot off with a shotgun. But most of the time, I've been lucky.

What is the most frustrating aspect of being a film director in South Africa today?

Not having a deal with someone and having them option literary properties for you and pay to put them into development. The rest I find quite challenging and I try to work on things that are going to interest me, whether it's a corporate, a documentary or and insert. You can become bitter and twisted very easily and while it's fine to be twisted, don't ever let yourself get bitter for more than a few seconds at a time

Any advice for aspirant directors out there?

Go roll some tape or film and work with some actors and direct scenes. You can't be thinking up the next Star Wars movie, you have to be focussed on what's available and what you can do here and now. And there is a lot!!!

What's next on the directing front for you?

I am attached to direct 2 Television Drama series - if they happen.
I am attached to direct 1 Feature Film - if it happens.
I am writing 2 feature scripts to direct - if they happen.
I am also developing a TV pilot - if it happens.

Besides that, I'm available. THANK YOU.


Above content courtesy of SAFilm.org & Underdog Productions.

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