Background Notes and Quotes
Athol Fugard's novel Tsotsi was first published in 1980 and over the years has attracted the interest of various eminent film producers based in New York and Los Angeles. Several screenplays based on the novel had been written before producer Peter Fudakowski came across the story, but production finance had never been fully secured. It seemed that adapting a book based largely on an inner psychological journey to the big screen had considerable difficulties.
Fudakowski had seen two of writer/director Gavin Hood's previous South African films, The Storekeeper and A Reasonable Man at the Cannes Film Festival, and had found them provocative and moving. Having fallen in love with the story, like many others before him, Fudakowski arranged a meeting with Hood in Los Angeles where they discussed ways in which the book might be adapted for the screen. Fudakowski decided to take a calculated risk. Without having secured the film rights to the book, he commissioned Hood to write a first draft script. Fudakowski was convinced that Hood could capture the essence of the book in a screenplay while giving the story a modern spin. What he wasn't expecting, however, was the speed and passion of Hood's writing. "Gavin produced a screenplay within two months," says Fudakowski. "And it was of such exceptional quality for a first draft, that I had to ask him how he did it?" Gavin's reply was immediate. "I've wanted to adapt this story all my life!"
Fudakowski bought the book rights and the process of raising the finance began. Meanwhile, draft followed draft in rapid succession as Hood continued to refine the script in collaboration with script editors Janine Eser and Henrietta Fudakowski. Finally, the script got to a stage where Fudakowski felt he would like to send it to Athol Fugard. But Fudakowski hesitated. Fugard had a reputation as a tough critic of adaptations of his plays for the screen. What if Fugard hated this adaptation? Finally Fudakowski sent Fugard the script and waited with some trepidation for a few weeks before Fugard finally responded by email.
"Dear Peter," wrote Fugard, "Thank you very much for sending me the script of 'Tsotsi' which I have now read with great fascination and pleasure. Gavin Hood has done a wonderful job and although I noticed the changes and departures from the original I believe the script is totally faithful to the spirit of my book. I would just like to add that in my opinion it is the best screen adaptation yet of one of my works." Both producer and director were thrilled and relieved.
The novel Tsotsi is set in the South Africa of the 1950's, but early on in the script development process it was clear that the timeless and universal themes of redemption and self discovery explored so powerfully in the book would translate very effectively into a modern setting.
"Setting the story in the present was intended to ensure two things," says Fudakowski. "Firstly, that the story would resonate as strongly as possible with a modern audience and secondly, that we could actually afford to make the film!" South African co-producer Paul Raleigh agrees: "Setting the film in the present rather than the past saved a great deal on expensive period sets and costuming. It meant we had a far better chance of getting the film financed." Says Hood, "In bringing Tsotsi to the screen, our primary intention was to make a taught, well paced, character driven, psychological thriller. We also wanted to transport our audience into a world of radical contrasts. Skyscrapers and shacks, wealth and poverty, violent anger and gentle compassion - all collide in a film that is, ultimately, a classic story of redemption."
At the beginning of the film, the lead character (the "Tsotsi" of the title) appears almost irredeemably lost to a loveless life of casual violence. He lives in a shanty town on the outskirts of Johannesburg; a city of 10 million people that pulses with a visceral, cross-cultural energy. Tsotsi is a product of the extremes of this city. Violence is an integral part of his life. He exists without a thought for the future and he avoids any reflection on his past. He lives only in an angry present.
Hood wanted to deal with violence in the film in a frank and realistic way, without glamorizing crime or criminal behavior. The film is driven by a series of violent incidents, but the director insists he did not want to glorify these events. They happen suddenly and simply. And we are left to focus on the consequences of the violence on the lives of the characters.
All of Fugard's characters are profoundly human and their humanity is revealed gradually through the film. "I hope that the audience will feel, in the quieter moments of the film, a profound intimacy with and between the characters. It was my intention that, by the end of the film, the audience would find that they have developed a genuine empathy for characters whose lives may in reality be very different from their own," says Hood.
In order to achieve the above, Hood felt strongly that he should cast local actors who would be able to perform in "Tsotsi-Taal": the language of the streets of Soweto. "There is a wealth of young acting talent in South Africa. One sees great work in local community halls and student theatres and yet all too often these performers are not given the opportunity to display their talent beyond these small venues," he says.
But asking investors to allow Hood to make a 35mm feature film in "Tsotsi-Taal" without any marketable international stars was not easy. By this stage, The UK Film & TV Production Company plc and The Industrial Development Corporation of South Africa had already committed finance towards the production. "Our investors asked me to at least meet with international actors," remembers Hood. "The script was getting a good response from talent agents in LA. I spent three weeks there meeting some very talented people. They were fabulous actors, but in the end it just didn't feel right to do the film in English rather than "Tsotsi-Taal". The flavor of the story felt diluted." After agonizing for three weeks in LA and reluctantly turning down an opportunity to work with some great talent, Fudakowski and Hood flew to South Africa and held auditions in Johannesburg. At first they tried actors in their late twenties and thirties in the lead role of Tsotsi. They were looking for tough guys. But they found it was difficult to empathise with a violent Tsotsi who was already a grown man.
Casting director, Moonyeen Lee, suggested they go much younger.
"Tsotsi does some terrible things," says Lee. "The idea was that the audience would be more willing to forgive a boy who was on the verge of becoming a man than they would someone older."
In a classic sense, Tsotsi is a coming of age story. They needed a troubled teenager who has yet to figure out who he is, rather than a violent man already set in his ways.
"We saw dozens of young people," says Hood. "Most had never appeared in front of a camera. But still, despite pushing hard, we weren't quite finding the "Tsotsi" I knew we needed to carry the film. I was starting to feel I might have shot my mouth off too soon in rejecting the idea of an internationally recognized actor."
But in the end the decision was easy. When Presley Chweneyagae came into the room and auditioned for Tsotsi, he was riveting.
"We'd already found an amazing Miriam in Terry Pheto. She was a beautiful woman and a Madonna at the same time" says Fudakowski. "Gavin asked her to stay and work with Presley. He worked with them both on the scene where Tsotsi forces his way into Miriam's home and demands at gunpoint that she breastfeed "his" baby. He pushed them both quite hard. I could feel something exciting was happening. When Gavin felt they were ready, he stepped back and went for a take on camera. In the take, Presley's performance was so intense that Terry burst into tears. Not because he yelled at her, though the scene is pretty aggressive, but because he was so focused and real. I remember at that moment looking at Moonyeenn who had tears in her eyes, and then at Gavin. A simultaneous "YES!" came to our lips. We had our Tsotsi." Hood is proud of all the performances by the young cast. "The total commitment from all the actors and their extraordinary professionalism under at times very tough conditions was inspiring. We filmed in winter. Most of the film takes place at night. It was cold. It was wet. And almost every scene was emotionally demanding."
The film was photographed in a wide screen aspect ratio (2.35:1) on Super 35mm in order to lend an epic quality to this intimate story. Hood deliberately chose this format against the convention of shooting ghetto style films on grainy 16mm film stock. The wide screen format allows for compositions that, even in a close-up, contain a sense of the environment in which the characters exist. Hood also wanted to create a feeling of texture - not from using grainy film stocks, but rather from doing the opposite: using fine grain stocks that would ensure that the grit, color and textures of the actual environment were captured in detail.
"The challenge in this film was to draw the audience into the world of a very marginal, anti-social character and have them empathize with him," says Hood. "So we shot most close-ups with eye-lines very tight to camera. I wanted to create a real sense of intimacy between audience and actor; to allow the audience to look almost directly into the actor's eyes."
The production design was also intended to support the idea of a world of contrasts, emphasized through the use of color and texture to differentiate the various lives of the characters. Tsotsi exists in a world of minimal color. This is reflected in the drabness of his shack and in the dark tones of his wardrobe. Miriam on the other hand, despite her poverty, embraces color in an eclectic and imaginative way. Her shack is a rich blend of found objects and colorful elements.
Finally, selecting the music for the film was another adventure. When Fudakowski first came on a recce to South Africa, Hood took him to a music store and asked for piles of local CDs. When Fudakowski heard the Kwaito music of South African star ZOLA, his eyes lit up: "Now I know we HAVE to make this movie, and how to set it up. It's a dark story but we need to make it entertaining and accessible to a world audience. With this pumping Kwaito music, it will have energy and pace. It will be a vibrant counterpoint to the story and help young audiences empathise with Tsotsi!" The music for the film is a highly charged combination of street wise and sometimes aggressive "Kwaito" tracks and the more lyrical sounds of Vusi Mahlasela, whose haunting voice dominates the score and imbues the film with a transcendent, spiritual quality.