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Dark Arts of the Silver Screen

We're steeped in the lives of actors, and we've thrilled to documentaries about film-making. But with a gun to your head, could you explain what a producer actually does? Ross Garland and Brad Logan, the producers of Spud: The Movie, tell all.

Original publication: Private Edition, 2012.

Had there been a mistake? A mix-up with the appointment? It was Ross Garland in the office alright, or at any rate someone cheerfully answering to that name and resembling the suave bad-boy depicted on his website. Ross is one of South Africa’s leading young film producers, and, met in person, he’s a handsome brute, lean and buzz-cut and his eyes glinting with IQ. He duly shook hands, served coffee, and settled in for a chuckle and chat. But something in the picture remained a touch off-kilter, a tad all-out, mind-janglingly weird.

Ross Garland and Brad Logan

Was this really the lair of that fabled renegade, the independent film-maker? Or the habitat of a mogul-in-the-making whose credits range from the loopy road-movie Big Fellas to the internationally acclaimed art-house success, U-Carmen eKhayelitsha? Was it here that Ross, aided from Durban by fellow producer Brad Logan, had hatched Spud: The Movie – an adaptation of John van de Ruit’s bestselling novel that some believe could be South Africa’s smaller-scale but highly robust answer to Harry Potter?

No film posters adorned the walls, nor were Klieg lights and clapperboards anywhere to be seen. No cocaine-chic starlet in fishnet stockings lay on a couch weeping and ignored, no handgun rested beside the Remington, and empty bottles of rotgut were not piled above ring-stained, Rizla-scattered scripts as testament to the creative process.

Waiting at the elevator to go up, you didn’t double-take at any halfway famous faces coming out. Instead advocates in gowns poured forth with briefcases and underarm files, en route to the Cape High Court across the street, while upstairs in Ross’s neat, wood-panelled office, the tomes on the shelves bore titles along the lines of (presumably) Elements of Roman Law and Tractatus De Statutis.

What gives, Ross? Loud laughter. The place is dinkum, it emerged, not a stage-set or squat. A drama school graduate from Durban University as well as a former Oxford cricketer and Rhodes Scholar, Mr Garland is an attorney with a speciality in constitutional law. What’s more, for several years he was an investment banker in New York, and worked with clients of the likes of AOL Time Warner, Sony and Disney.

All of which comes as a surprise, much like learning that Leon Schuster sidelines as a Princeton nuclear physicist, and all of which underscores a basic point. If this combination of artistic pursuit and legal-corporate work seems a little bewildering, it’s because the outsider tends to know sweet Fanny Adams about who producers are and what they do.

We’re steeped in the lives of actors, we’ve thrilled to behind-the-scenes documentaries, and we’ve all watched the credits of a 90-minute movie roll by like an organogram of the Chinese army. We know lots about film. But, with a gun at your head, could you explain the division of labour between directors and producers, let alone between producers, co-producers, associate producers and executive producers? Be honest now.

‘Outside of producers themselves,’ Ross said, ‘very few people understand the dark arts of producing. In theory the producer should hire the director, not the other way round. The producer should be the driving force of the show, both creatively and on the business side. Basically he takes care of the entire business side of making the film. The director must have the space to be the auteur and pursue an unrelenting creative vision. At the same time the producer must know when to push back.’

He reflected: ‘Film’s an interesting thing. It’s at once an art-form and a business to be monetised. Any film, even the most art-house, is a business, and in a way, the more art-house it is, the more commercial potential it has because at that end of the bandwidth there is a serious market for it.’ At the far side of the scale is the blockbuster, and between them is the ‘grey area’ of films for which it ‘gets trickier to find a market’.

Spud: The Movie evidently falls into this challenging area, and for Ross, the travails of bringing it to term could have been a film within a film, ‘one of those epic quests full of obstacles that we overcome against all odds. Brad, John van de Ruit, director Don Marsh and our principal investor are the multiple protagonists in this epic tale. The antagonist is really the history of film and film financing, where you keep pushing on into the dark night, trying to play your dreams up against reality.’

Spud was published in 2005, but it took more than a year for Ross to acquire the film rights, this despite the fact that he and author John, as teenagers, had been neighbourhood chums playing backyard cricket in Durban North, and, later as students, had co-performed at Grahamstown. When Spud came out, Ross had known it was on its way, but John spoke so self-deprecatingly about it that he wasn’t sure what to expect. A ‘voracious’ read on an airline trip made it clear Spud had ‘‘hit’ quality’, and the next day Ross was on the blower to John, talking movies. Still, it was only a year later that the deal was clinched.

‘There were a lot of other vultures circling ....’ Ross grinned at where the image was going to lead him. ‘Circling the carcass. … Whilst I loved making U-Carmen as an art-house film, I’ve always wanted to make something more populist as well. But in South Africa those types of film properties are hard to find. Leon Schuster is the only established brand. Spud came along just when I was looking for a property like this.

‘Perhaps more importantly, I connected with the material, both the comedy and the tragedy, and the universal coming-of-age element. It’s hard to go on the multi-year journey of putting a film together without feeling like that about the story you’re putting on screen.’

This multi-year journey is not only ‘gruelling’. At the outset it’s also lonely, and given to the abstractions of script development. Ross and director-screenwriter Don Marsh spent two years redrafting the script until they found its narrative force and felt it had ‘started to really hum’. The idea was to stay as faithful to the novel as possible and ‘deliver to its substantial fan base’ (thus laying the ground for making sequels, ‘which was always the master plan’). But the novel presented special difficulties in its diary format, over and above the workaday ones involved in adapting a 380-page book to a 120-page screenplay.

‘The challenge was to settle on a core narrative that was true to the book, in a sense teasing out of the book and placing it more front and centre. … Until you have the screenplay, you don’t have anything – you can’t go to casting, you can’t go the money people …’

With the script developed, the rest of the tentacular operation could begin slowly to take shape – hiring a director, casting lead actors, arranging the logistics – all of it leading to the intensity of a six-week shoot and the post-coital hurly-burly known as post-production.

Securing John Cleese for the role of ‘the Guv’ was a hard but crucial achievement. ‘I don’t subscribe to this view that we have some moral obligation to cast locally,’ Ross said. ‘That’s an extremely myopic approach to creativity and is naïve from a commercial point of view.’ Given that the character is British, Cleese posed no problem of authenticity. He was, moreover, ‘a key hook in getting the film financed at a more ambitious level, and I believe will also be key for international sales.’

Another important moment was bringing Brad Logan on board as producing partner. ‘I did a lot of the work on the ground,’ said Brad, speaking by telephone from Durban. ‘I handled the kids’ casting, a large process we rolled out over six months around the nation, visiting most big cities twice. I also did the majority of the location work, that kind of thing.’ He chuckled. ‘I’m a nuts-and-bolts producer. Ross deals with the higher-brain activities, if you want to put it bluntly.’

Brad and Ross initially recruited other people to raise capital for the film, but wound up generating most of it themselves. ‘As far as I know, we raised more money out of private investment than anyone has ever done in this country,’ Brad said. ‘Investors are notoriously wary of film productions, which haven’t had a fantastic record in South Africa. They think it’s very fly-by-night, and if they’re traditional investors in stocks and bonds, they’ll typically find it quite an obtuse area to go into.

‘But with Spud, its popularity and massive book sales opened a lot more doors for us than another project might have. It’s just that film investment is an unknown, whereas Spud already had a history attached to it and the buzz around the potential movie was huge.

‘We approached high-net-worth individuals as well as a few big companies where the company wouldn’t invest but the directors were keen to get involved as individuals and a unit. They’d all sit down in a boardroom where we could show them a prospectus and talk in very business terms, and they’d think, Ah, this is cool – sounds like fun, and the potential for some decent earnings.

‘Those guys saved our hides, and the group of investors we got together for this film were amazing. We had them coming to visit sets, we had a great time, showed them what we’re doing, and Ross keeps them updated on the whole process – what we’re looking at in terms of distribution, what the response has been to test screenings, and so on.’

What sort of visuals should be imagined for these high-finance solicitations – smoky clubs, cold-calls from a telephone directory …? ‘Cold calls, yeah, sometimes. "Hi, my name is Brad, we’re doing this movie Spud and looking for potential investors …." You want to meet certain high-net-worth people, captains of industry that your mom or dad knows; then again maybe someone contacts you because they’ve read about you in Business Day. Sometimes the meetings happen at their homes, sometimes their boardrooms. But it’s just like setting up any other appointment.’

If he were to draw an all-encompassing lesson from this experience, what would it be?

Now Brad roared with laughter: ‘The more things change, the more they effing stay the same! Look, I’ll make no bones about it. There were times, nights and days, when you ran a gamut of emotions you don’t ordinarily get to feel – the highs and lows that come with this business are immense. As you think you’ve got one thing in place, another will drop out, a gap you then have to fill. Take nothing at face value until the money’s in the bank.’

Or, as Ross observed, ‘It’s a humbling experience to go and pitch stuff … One of the greats said closing a film deal is like trying to cook a steak by having a series of people walk through a room and blow on it. It’s esoteric, painful and delusional for the most part. Funding independent films has become even more difficult lately with the hedge fund/private equity money that flooded the film in the past 20 years having largely gone away.

‘In South Africa we have the additional challenge of not having the entrepreneurial venture-capitalist culture that’s helped the US and other regions capitalise their film industries. Until recently, we also haven’t had much of a track record in making profitable films.’

On the upside, ‘putting a strong brand like Spud into play really made a difference’, while Ross’s background in investment banking equipped him ‘to develop sensible business plans’.

‘From an investor’s perspective you should feel scepticism about film proposals, a field littered with wrecks and skeletons. To make the game more accessible, you should see film as a manufacturing process, at the end of which you have a product that can be sold in various media and markets – cinema, DVD, pay TV, free TV, video-on-demand, online, airline – over long periods of time. That’s the opportunity; the risk is that it will sell nowhere at all.’

With this in mind, the investor needs to look at the material, the people involved, and the screenplay. ‘If you still want to take a punt, it’s important to have a grasp on the viability of the budget level and revenue projections. Just as in any investment proposal. Now your investment is rational, though it remains ultimately something of a punt, given the execution risk on any movie.’

Overall, Ross believes the South African film market is ‘buoyant’: ‘Seven years ago we were hardly making films, against a 20-year average of about six films a year. This year we’ll make over 20 films locally. Some of this is due to the opportunities of cheaper digital film-making, but it’s also a reflection of performance growth year on year. Local films, especially Afrikaans language, are stacking up at the box office, which has knock-on effects on DVD and TV sales. There have also been significant government-sector contributions, like the DTI rebate and the National Film and Video Foundation.’

His concern, though is that ‘the industry remains fairly cottage in character, without much direction or leadership’. Put differently, it’s strongly reliant on ‘crazy-uncle money’ – anonymous, happenstance capital that comes to light as producers ferret through personal networks, as opposed to financing made available by groups of regular and committed film investors.

‘The industry’s successes are pretty ad hoc, and the capital and other challenges it faces could be solved by maturation and consolidation, including the entry into the content game of one of the big media players or another entity. There is definitely an opportunity here, and it would serve a lot of different sub-sectors if it happened.’

As the roleplayer most central to the age’s defining medium, the film producer is in certain ways its least visible star. He or she must be both artistic visionary and the operator who materialises a project in the face of real constraints and opportunities. But if it sounds schizophrenic, this isn’t necessarily so.

‘Ultimately the goal of the producer, the Holy Grail, is to hold the whole film-making equation in your head, to reach that point where you can hold the entire process together in your thoughts.’ The endeavour offers ‘the thrill of creating something that wasn’t there before, and if all goes well, that entertains and delights people you have never met.’


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