WGSA member Martin Nel caught up with the co-founder of Dark Matters Studios, Henk Pretorious, in North Hollywood last month. Henk is a highly creative writer, director and producer and his credits include Blood and Glory (2016), Leading Lady (2014), Fanie Fourie’s Lobola (2013), and the Bakgat Trilogy (I 2006, II 2008 & III 2010). In this insightful interview, Henk talks about why writers should understand genre and audience.
How do your expectations compare before going to Hollywood with now?
I think people talk about Hollywood and really mean: Los Angeles. But probably most mean Beverly Hills and imagine themselves on Rodeo Drive, sitting with a movie star and gazing into the land of opportunity with people captivated by their talent and what they have to offer. Los Angeles is not like that at all. It’s home to ten million people trying to get their projects off the ground or kick start their careers as actors. Waking up in Hollywood is a noisy pool of desperate voices all screaming to be heard. Only a few ever get invited to the inner circle of show business.
You have credits as an actor, writer, director and producer, but from what I’ve read you started more as a writer. Do you think writing better prepared you for your successes?
Firstly, I do not view myself as successful. You have to stay humble enough to learn and be confident enough to put your work out there. It’s a fine balance. In all honesty, my goal to become an international storyteller is still a few miles from my reach. I think I am a writer first, because I have been writing since I got taught by my patient grade one teacher and have been decoding meaning by mostly scribbling my thoughts on paper. I then see myself as a businessman in the arts. It’s not really about the money, it’s about the joy I feel when walking in the streets of South Africa and hearing a quote from one of my films or someone thanking me for changing their perception on something that helped them to grow.
I’ve heard Hollywood gurus advise new writers to start with a comedy. Would you agree with that?
I think it is because the budget of “comedic films” is generally lower than other film genres. I would advise against writing a film just because you want to crack into the film industry. You have to think about the economic aspect of the film, but more importantly if it is really the best possible work you can offer. Producing a film is also sometimes much cheaper than actually distributing the film. The content’s potential returns needs to outweigh the risk of distribution and for Dark Matter Studios, we are currently more interested in working with bigger budget films, in an array of genres, than something as difficult as comedy. My rule before I write anything is: do I have the means to get the film that I am writing made? And if so, will distributors be interested in spending an exorbitant amount of money distributing it? This study usually takes me anywhere between two to six months to complete before I start writing the first page.
You were quite successful writing SA’s first teen comedy trilogy, what motivated you to go for that audience? Was it because you wanted to hit the ‘four quadrants’ as they say?
I was twenty-four years old when I wrote and directed Bakgat 1. At heart, I was still a teenager and it was definitely a phase that I understood well and also really enjoyed. Just like the lead character, I was a geek in school, yet excelled in sports. Achievements are only meaningful if you can share them with others, which is why my business partner, Llewelynn Greeff, and myself, really believe in the philosophy of uplifting other creatives. It is important to write for a specific market. As a producer I usually tell writers: come up with a concept that really moves you and let me see if I can find a market for it. If I do manage to find a market, Dark Matter Studios might commission it and we can make your dream film together.
You’ve said in an interview that you don’t have a favourite genre, yet the majority of your films have been comedies. Do you really not have a favourite genre? Or has that changed?
I have produced a number of other genres and I am also busy with a slate of dramas, science fiction films, post apocalyptic content, etc. Most of the films I have directed thus far have had comedic elements in them, but if you watch them closely you will see the style of comedy actually changes. Bakgat 1 is more caricaturized, its sequel is more dramatic and character driven, and Fanie Fourie’s Lobola is a cultural clash comedy. Yet one ingredient in all of them is that the story has an element of “heart” woven into the genre. That is my only concern when choosing a script to create or direct: it has to have “heart”. I don’t have a favorite genre. I am fascinated with most genres, but I will never be able to make a film that doesn’t move the audience emotionally.
Your first two screenplays were rejected. How did you deal with that? Did you re-write them or is that what motivated you to come up with the Bakgat trilogy? Looking back now, can you see where you went wrong then?
When I shopped my screenplays around Johannesburg in 2003/2004, there were only three producers that actually attempted to make films. And none of them, in my knowledge, made any money from them. Actually, they lost a boatload of cash, so the “advice” I was getting on my scripts was shockingly little and mostly subjective. One producer even told me, “People like you can’t spell and shouldn’t write”. Luckily there was less competition and I kept going even though I considered pulling out of the film industry a couple of times to study medicine. I think my scripts mostly sucked. One was too formulaic and the other one was too unorthodox. Go figure! Bakgat was clean cut, formula driven, but injected with my sense of humor at the time, and like I mentioned: about an emotionally present character.
Do you think it is possible to break in as a writer without formal training? Which mistakes should writers avoid if they do not want their work to get rejected?
“Formal training” really depends on who your writing lecturer is. Mine were Deon Opperman, Bata Paschier and Anton Basson from AFDA. They were all diverse and in my opinion masters of the craft. I also studied every writing book I could find, from Aristotle’s teachings about the three-act structure, to Blake Snyder’s over simplified Save the Cat books. I was motivated to understand the art of engaging an audience and there is most definitely a skill to it and yes, you can develop your skill.
Another important ingredient to becoming a working writer is talent. But what does this illusive word mean?
In my opinion it means the ability to translate your inner theme to an audience. The more dense the theme, the more skill you need to acquire to translate it. My advice:
• Be open to criticism and expect to rewrite your rewrites
• Only send your script when you are 100% sure it is the best possible work that you can deliver. Second chances are rare
• If you want to break rules, be sure to master them first
• Be resilient and do not take rejection personally
• Be realistic.
You are in a massive line of wannabe content creators all screaming to be seen When you write do you use the cork board-index card method?
No, but I do drink wine. When I hear the word cork, I think about wine. Okay, so I had to look that one up… I believe in structure, but structure can’t feel like it rules the “character”. It needs to feel organic to the character responses. Sometimes I plot the structure first, mostly if I write for people a little younger than thirty. And sometimes I plot the characters first, usually when I write for people older than thirty. It’s a very loose rule of thumb and really depends on my mood. But I do no put index cards up in my room. I kind of do it all on my Mac. Green peace. In another recent interview you mentioned that even in Hollywood these days there is confusion about what to aim for: a feature or a TV series.
What do you think the trend is now? Is there a genre preference related to this trend?
Studios tend to spend most of their budgets on superhero franchises. Which, for the moment, makes a lot of sense to me. I have never met anyone who wants to spend money on something that doesn’t make any money back. If you want to be an independent filmmaker, now is the time. Most of the great writers are in television and studios are doing massive films. Obviously there is still an incredible amount of competition, but there is a real opportunity for stellar content too and some phenomenal indie movies. Sure, globally people are going less to the cinema, but that might mean… less competition in the production of films too. Television’s attraction is a steadier pay check. There is nothing wrong with steady, but you will compete against the world’s best writers out there. Do you think writers should have both a feature and a TV series first episode ready, just in case? Stellar content. Never mind what genre, or format. It’s all about the content. Quantity will never outweigh quality. We employ a number of writers to write for Dark Matter Studios, and only pitch the cream of the crop scripts to studios, investors etc..
Which film genre is making the most money in Hollywood right now?
I think it is science fiction films at the moment. If you are actually interested in profitability, then it’s probably horror films. Comedy is hit and miss and star dependent. I would also not underestimate the power of an incredibly well told independent film, with strong performances, made by a visionary director. Great stories will always find an audience if they have a marketing budget and strong distribution network behind it.
I’m dying to know if Dark Matter has a sci-fi or thriller on their slate right now?
And then some. In terms of genre, which SA films are the most commercially successful right now? Probably yours, right? Profitability wise, probably Bakgat 1.
We have made a substantially big ROI for our investors on that film. Performance at the box office, probably something Leon Schuster made.
Do you think South Africans have a genre preference?
At the moment it seems that South Africa prefer romantic comedies to dramas and teen comedies. They also look like they enjoy melodramas and some musicals. Read the paper everyday and make something that makes South Africans forget all the doom and gloom, and I think you will probably have a success on your hands.
You mentioned The Gods Must Be Crazy as one of your favorite films, what about it do you think made it such a runaway success?
It is an incredibly funny film and also quite poignant. It thematically contrasted the western way of life with the life of the Bushman. And frankly, seduced most to see the holes in our culture. It was also one of the first films to really tell a story about the bushman. It gave an audience a look into what South Africa was during apartheid and offered an alternative view to its inhabitants. Jamie Uys was a genius, in his own right. The legendary producer and businessman, Boet Troskie, also supported the film. Without his support and his pursuit in getting it distributed in the USA, it would probably only have stayed in South Africa.
What motivated you to change course from the rom-com Leading Lady to the period drama Blood and Glory?
I didn’t write and direct Blood and Glory, but I was attracted to the emotive quality of Sean Else’s pitch to Dark Matter Studios. His heart was really in it and I imagined a film that would speak to a South African audience in a very intimate way. I loved the idea and both Llewelynn Greeff and myself put our weight behind making the film happen.
Finally, how are you enjoying being in the thick of it in Hollywood?
I feel like the underdog again, this motivates me to work harder and to be more focused. How do you eat an elephant? One spoon at a time. Who said that again?
*Interview shortened for newsletter