The last words of our first meeting were those that everyone here lives by: “Fuck the 9 to 5”
There are rare few professions that pull those involved away from the mundane. Most people have to cope with repetition and boredom while at work, but not us. A film is being made here by people who love to do so. Every drop of sweat and blood spent so far has been given to the creation of art; there are few more enriching means by which one is worked to exhaustion.
Every day has been new. The intensity so far is unlike anything I’ve come across. My writing has been relegated in importance and rightly so, these words will not be projected 40 foot high onto cinema screens across the country. I’ve been absorbed as an assistant to the Grips and Lighting departments to help in setting up rigs and lights, and to carry heavy metal things. It’s a very different workday to the cerebral focus of pre-production; my productive time is now a large physical effort. The benefit is that I’ve hardened up a bit. I’m losing the soft side I had to me and replacing it with calloused hands, cuts, scrapes, and actual muscles.
Those in Grips and Lighting must maintain a double nature; not only must they carry the heaviest items on set around, but they must also put it to use with a great deal of intelligence and nous. Were it not the case that everyone here works to the fullest of their abilities according to their brief (briefs that are extraordinarily varied in the skills required) then one would point to these people as being the most hardworking for sheer physical effort.
The only piece of advice that my big brother gave me before we began production was this: Don’t piss off Grips and Lighting. The logic was that these guys are not only the biggest and strongest on set, but that they are the engine of the production. They have to do a lot; carrying, setting up, and running everything, everywhere. As such, with my safety in mind, I thought it best that when it came round to writing about them, I would try to capture them in soft focus. I’ve spent two weeks with them, and I can’t find a reason to colour them so – these are a really good collection of people. This is a tough film, in tough conditions and the toll is toughest on this group of people.
Riaan Hanekom is in charge of the Grips department. He’s a man built to withstand the aftershock of a nuclear explosion, with close cropped hair and beard, and a uniform of short sleeved hiking shirts and cargo shorts. He doesn’t give much away in conversation, but he does have a readily shared smile. He has a very dry sense of humour – I think he plays off his physicality, making what seems a serious point before dropping the punch line. He got into the film industry in the same way that many here did, via a friend. Riaan was invited to the set of a music video six years ago, and the force of attraction was too great to exist. An almost fully qualified electrician by trade (Grips got in the way of his trade examination, but he plans on completing that during our stay in Hazyview), he has been known to do the improbable to make a shoot work, be it opening up and tapping into a street lamp to secure a power source, or in Wolwedans in die Skemer’s case, building (along with JP) an insane cable rig to be strung up between trees for high speed tracking shots.
His sense of responsibility is unmatched by anyone. He insists on proper protocol on set, because if something should go wrong from his department, people could get badly injured. Rigs must be set up exactly right, electrics must be checked by him, equipment must be treated with care, and respect for its value. The scope of the shoot doesn’t allow him to micromanage everything that falls under his department’s purview, so he has surrounded himself with people who are capable of working to his high standards.
One of the few was Siza, who was here to assist for a week. Siza too was introduced to film by a friend – a 21st birthday party on set placed the idea of working in film in his mind. He saw order in the chaos of shooting film, and a sense of productivity and creativity that he had not encountered in his job in finance at Liberty Life. It took him 2 years to extricate himself from the world of derivatives and fiscal damnation, starting at the bottom rung of the film ladder as a PA. He has worked in nearly every area of film, but Grips allows him to work with his hands and his mind, the space to tap into the set’s creative energy, and become part of the community of people who make films. His departure left a void; the man knows grips, and is a bloody lovely person to spend time with.
Siza’s departure coincided with Jean du Plessis’s arrival. Fresh off another job, the man people call Rambo was fair trade as a replacement. When one is surrounded by people who can do things that are astounding, the arrival of another such person might appear less than remarkable. Not so in this man’s case. Rambo is a remarkable physical specimen with a thousand yard stare. I was taken by surprise the first time he cracked a joke – he just looked too intense to be funny. It was a misconception that has been proved wrong a number of times. His nickname is not quite apt; I see Sylvester Stalone’s Rambo as a more solemn figure. This Rambo, Jean, is a livewire, bristling with energy that bursts from his work and conversation.
Then there’s Jaun de Jager. While Jaun looks like how one expects a Grip to look, and perhaps gets taken by some as being just that, his mind is occupied by the desire to write and make his own films. This will be his last outing as a grip; next year he is to move into AD-ing as his next step towards direction. He has strong film knowledge and probably has the best film quoting abilities in the crew. But shit, he works hard at Grips. He is always at it, running and slipping and dolly carrying and squashing frogs by accident as he darts from one location to another. He takes a beating from the elements. He gets tense, even when things are going well, but hides this behind humour. He’s got a gift with his laugh and random singing that makes hard work a bit better. I reckon he works best when at the point of being overwhelmed, and I reckon he knows it too, so he will do more than anyone else because it would be against his instincts to do otherwise.
Riaan and JP’s company, RJP Grips and Gaffers has the motto “No isn’t an option”. The message has been closely followed by the Grips. The crew of Riaan, Siza, Jean and Jaun have pulled off some more than remarkable physical feats; if you’re familiar with what a dolly is then you’ll know that the device used to track steadily was adapted from the devices used to carry missiles – and these guys carry this thing around by hand. Casa do Sol and the Hazyview environs aren’t the easiest locations to be running around in. The heat outside is oppressive, the bugs incessant. Casa do Sol’s paths are labyrinthine, the pavements cobbled, the tourists ever-present. The moment night falls, the floors fill up with frogs – our lights tend to attract all sorts of insects, and have given the frogs plenty of time to fatten up. Some amazing constructions have been built out of bits of timber and heavy duty clamps, and some of the tightest dolly shots have been successfully manoeuvred. We’ve had a few dolly tracks sat over 1.5 metres high due to the uneven terrain. Simple engineering skills have produced incredible results – the frames have supported the weight of the 250kg pee wee dolly as well as the DOP, Focus Puller and Grip. A pretty excellent job has been done so far – the tracks have been dead level and the shot’s been got every time.
JP du Preez is the Gaffer, in charge of lighting on this shoot, and he is one of the most remarkable figures on set to watch. Like Riaan, JP is unusually strong. He never seems to be overwhelmed by the weight or volume of the items that he gets around, which, for me, is a bit disconcerting when I’m struggling up one of Casa’s many pathways with a tall boy and combo stand under each arm, hoping that the next corner will be the new location so that I might reattach my muscles to my shoulders. He’s fast too – lights are up and in place before you even think you need them. He’s someone who teaches generously, not only because he has so much to impart about the art of lighting, but because he enjoys the development of skill in others. It’s an extraordinary gift. But what is perhaps his best quality as the Gaffer is how he understands and enjoys how light works on film. JP and Director of Photography Tom Marais work very closely, discussing the lighting and effects of lighting on every shot.
Zakhele Mavuso or Zak follows the form of Riaan and JP in that he is one of the more reserved people on set. He is deceptively fast; his unobtrusiveness means that it’ll take a while for your brain to register that the patch of grass that was packed with stands and sandbags and lights has emptied out before your eyes in a matter of minutes. From the dark of our location, whole array of lights will burst into being, and hidden behind a monster light and tall boy will be the man himself – Bra Zak. It’s a skill that has come in handy because time, that fickle friend, is the great frustration for Lighting. Hour and a half set-ups must be done in a third of that time, because this is Hollyveld, not Hollywood.
But there have been times when the artist (of Light) feels the portrait is complete, and any addition would be to the detriment. Lighting’s moment of artistic contentment was the evening that we shot at the poolside bar at Casa do Sol. The Art department had transformed the location to a place rich in detail and beauty, and Lighting’s job was to ensure that the Camera captured it in the best possible way. It was, in JP’s words, one of his most accomplished set-ups. I walked the exterior between takes, noting of the massive lights that pulled the pools reflection onto the side of the building, the Kinoflos that gave life to the look of the characters in the scene. Inside, he had set up an array of spot-lights that highlighted the detail of the location, lights that fought against the architecture to create warped shadows, and a light that spun fragments of its luminescence through a fan. It was beautiful, and through the discerning perspective of the Camera, magical.
The day is long for Lights and Grips. You feel all those things that in normal life you try to avoid: tired, sweaty, frustrated, sore and flustered. Come the end of the week, every muscle works against you, knotting at intervals. I think we’re fortunate to have a place to come back to that is as serene as Sabaan, because bodies and minds at work like this need all the assistance they can.
On this film, you know that tomorrow is going to bring things that you’ve never before encountered. There have never been doubts about the ambitions of this film. A lot is being attempted in the making of this film that has not been seen in any other South African feature film production, and as a consequence a lot is required from those making it. In our way is Misfortune and its minions; Weather, Technical Problems, and Time. This gang of miscreants tend to slip out from the shadows at the most inopportune moments, to do battle with the valiant quartet of Preparation, Skill, Experience and Enthusiasm.
When you’re not sat behind a monitor like Grips and Lights, it takes something special to keep the belief in the finished product going. There is now a Saturday night ritual for the crew and cast. Jozua Malherbe and Alex Kiener get together after the day wraps and before supper is served to cut some of the week’s footage into scenes, set to the music of our composer Braam du Toit. A disc is burned of these scenes and played on the TV in the lapa at our accommodation. The crew sits around with beers and bottles and brandy and coke and watch something close to what the finished film will look like.
If you were there you’d see a mood changed; 40 or so people transformed from tense near-wrecks to a group tingling with giddy pride in their work. If you were to walk around afterwards you’d hear conversations sparked with astonished exclamations. You’d observe a community remembering the reason that they’re sweltering in the heat of Hazyview, that what they’re making happen will be held in comparison to the movies that they fell in love with, and fell in love to, and fell into this line of work to make. Job satisfaction is too small a phrase to describe the immensity of the feeling. Existences are being justified.