I sat down with writer/director Gavin Hood of the Oscar nominated foreign film “Tsotsi.” Hood had the energy of a kid of a sugar-high even though he had been talking to the press for five hours until I showed up. We talked about the film, the characters, the Oscar buzz and even MacGyver. Hood is quiet the talker, and we even got sidetracked with some South African political history (which I didn’t include below). Look for my review of “Tsotsi” in a future edition of the Torch. “Tsotsi” opens in Chicago on March 10.
Where did the process of taking the novel Tsotsi, published in 1980 and update it into this movie?
The novel was actually written in the early 60s and he couldn’t get it published for years, until Athol Fugard became famous as a playwright … And it was optioned ever since (which means someone owned the rights to it). I had read it some 12 years ago and hadn’t even made a short film while I was a student at UCLA … So I went home (South Africa) and made educational dramas … and slightly built up a body of work. And a film was seen my Peter Fudakowkski and he is our producers (on “Tsotsi”). Five years later, Peter phones me and just read this book called Tsotsi and wants to make this film.
Completely not knowing that this was a passion of yours?
Yeah… I pitched a take on setting it in the present … Here, there’s a kid from a dark world, who descends into a world of light … and comes out wiser.
When I saw Presley on the screen he had almost feminine quality, almost childlike and then to see this anger come from him, how hard was it to fit that role?
We did look at actors who were tougher and meaner looking and older. There shift seemed less believable so there was something more frightening on taking a nineteen-year-old kid who is trying to be a man, but is still a child. Rather than think of a tough guy who turns good, you think of it as a good kid who is trying to be tough, but he’s f***ing lost all sense of past or future cause he’s developed this magnetism that his intelligence affords him despite his lack of education.
Early in the film one of Tsotsi’s gang members (Butcher) stabs a man on the train.
I was expecting [Tsotsi] to really get upset with Butcher on the train …
We he does, but then he got to get back to looking like a leader cause he doesn’t want this guy taking over.
So at what point to you hope the audience feels empathy for Tsotsi?
Different people feel it in different points. One or two never feel it and that’s ok. There is no way that you can make this film work with one single moment that he changes … I love when he says to the guy, “Get up and walk.” (Hood is referring to when Tsotsi attempts to bully an old man in a wheelchair.) … What he’s really saying is, “How dare you have a worst life than me.”
After that scene Tsotsi has a long walk along railroad tracks.
… He is walking looking at his feet, and hopefully what you feel is a certain inner reflection which here-to-for was non-existence.
With the nomination for best foreign picture are you the type who thinks ‘I want to win this thing,’ or are you the type that thinks ‘It’s just a pleasure to be nominated.’
I think the answer lies right in between. Here’s the deal, I would be an absolute liar if I said to you, ‘I wouldn’t love to win for myself, for my country.’ It’s not an award for the director; I’m just collecting it for everyone that worked on the movie. Do you have any idea what kind of party would go in South Africa? I mean, we don’t make a lot of movies. A part of me felt relived when we got nominated … On the other hand, I don’t want beat any of the other filmmakers. I hope they win and I hope I win too. I mean, what can I say?
What do you consider yourself more, a writer, director or actor?
I think ultimately I would say director.
If we had more time I wanted to ask you about MacGyer, I saw you were on an episode of “Stargate.”
You see how we struggle on our way up.