INCOMING | Five Fingers for Marseilles
Tau, we’ve been waiting for you…
Five Fingers for Marseilles is a nail-biting Western-style African drama-thriller (yes, you read right). The plot follows freedom-fighter-turned-outlaw, Tau, as he returns to the community of Marseilles in search of a peaceful, pastoral life. Twenty years prior, Tau formed part of the heroic Five Fingers: a group that fought for Marseilles against brutal Apartheid police oppression. But when the young Tau killed two corrupt police officers, he had no choice but to flee. Now, an older, wiser Tau returns to find his hometown under new threat. He is faced with the reluctant decision to join the fight for its freedom once again…
This feature film is a raw, beautiful exploration of redemption, pain and the chaotic aftermath of violence. No wonder it’s already making waves. It was announced as one of the official selection for Toronto International Film Festival in 2017, and has also been featured at the Fantastic Fest, BFI London Film Festival and Busan International Film Festival.
In anticipation of the local release of Five Fingers for Marseilles this April, we get into the minds of its makers.
But first, watch the trailer:
Chatting To: Writer & Producer Sean Drummond
Sean Drummond has an honours degree in screenwriting and documentary film from UCT, with experience in media and marketing before starting his journey in the local film industry. He’s the founding manager of the local wing of shnit Worldwide ShortFilmFestival and a co-founder of Be Phat Motel. Sean has worked on numerous projects, including Impepho, and is constantly switching between writing, producing and docu directing. Five Fingers for Marseilles is his debut feature film.
Tell us about the narrative of Five Fingers for Marseilles.
It’s a modern South African story that draws on the conventions of the western to look at the history and legacy of damage in the county’s past, and how it affects us still today, playing out as a slow-burn character-driven thriller set in a small town in the Eastern Cape. It starts twenty years in the past as a community called Railway is under the thumb of Apartheid era police, with only a group of kids calling themselves The Five Fingers fighting back. Some heavy events take place, and fiery young Tau flees town.
The story is what happens when he comes back in the present day, to find the town freed and reborn, with his former Fingers now in prominent positions. He tries to settle in, escape a legacy of violence and find peace in his roots. But there are cracks in the façade of New Marseilles, and as he becomes a direct target from new threats, he’s reluctantly drawn back into a new fight for the town…
What inspired you to write this story?
The Director, Michael, and I were travelling around the country, and finding small towns with European names and just this amazing contested space, with incredible landscapes and communities and towns on the verge of a new frontier. Former townships attached to old settler towns, that are growing and becoming towns in their own rights, with all that comes with that. We met amazing people, heard amazing stories and knew that we had to get back out there and do deeper research. It was also a chance to work with some of the most amazing actors in the country, giving them really meaty complex roles to make their own.
We also wanted to make the sort of film we’d want to watch, which has been our driving philosophy since we started Be Phat Motel. A grand, thrilling ambitious epic set in one of the most cinematic spaces we’d ever seen in South Africa. ‘A major motion picture’ was the running joke-not-really-a-joke.
Talk us through your process.
Mike and I spent a month travelling and visiting small towns, meeting people, learning histories, listening to stories. When we found Lady Grey, we immediately knew it was where we needed to make the film. We spent almost a month there the first time, absorbing as much of the place, the language, the people, the geography as we could. I went back every year for weeks at a time in the 6 years it took the film to come together, to craft the story more each time. And we formed incredible bonds with the community there, who helped shape the story.
At the same time, delving deep into the western genre, watching films, reading scripts, reading books about westerns and quite a lot of academic theory on the western and its themes. It was really important that this plays as both a true South African story and as a true western, not in a gimmicky sense, but in its themes, conventions and aims. And then to subvert that in a sense, in that we tell the story from the perspective not of the ‘taker’ of the land (like westerns so often did) but from those trying to rebuild and reclaim their space, their livelihoods, their place.
We had amazing input into the story and script from friends and mentors in the industry here, from our co-producers Asger and Yaron at Game 7 Films in the USA. From our actors. From Mamokuena Makhema, who worked with me to translate the dialogue into Sesotho, preserving the poetry and intention of the lines, but in a way that’s truthful to the language and in a lot of cases elevates it even beyond the English versions of the lines. It was a real journey bringing this story to life.
How and why did you choose the crew to bring this to life?
Many of the core creative team have worked together since we were students – almost 15 years now – including Michael and I as director and writer (and producers together with Game 7 Films). Shaun, our DOP, Jamie, our composer, Dan, our editor, Morne, our sound designer, we all go back years together as the Be Phat Motel collective. We worked with Dylan and Marcelle at Stage 5 Films, who are masters of production, and together we assembled really a dream crew in every way. A mix of experience at the top levels of SA film, and fresh, hungry young blood.
I hate to single people out, because it was such a team effort, but Franz Lewis as production designer and Pierre Vienings as costume designer brought so much, as well as our art, stunts, SFX and production and technical teams. We were all out there in the mountains and the cold fighting to bring the film to life. And a special shout out to the town of Lady Grey, who were supportive and involved in every possible way in making the film happen. It was a co-production with a whole town.
What were the biggest challenges, and rewards, in bringing this script to life?
Funding was a huge challenge, and it took us 6 years to raise the funding, with Game 7 Films. Part of it was that we really had a minimum level we needed to achieve what we wanted with the film, and having it break out beyond SA, as well as make a massive impact in SA, were both priorities. Too often films sell themselves short here by going ahead without the resources to achieve their visions. We juuuuuust got there on the budget we had. It was tight with some very hairy moments along the way, and a lot of waiving of fees and lowered rates from people who really believed in the film.
The culture and nuance was a challenge, and thanks to everyone who advised and helped to keep it true, and to Mamokuena for the Sesotho translation and cultural advice. Thanks to the cast for bringing what we hoped were complex characters on the page to life, and taking them even further on the screen. That was a huge reward.
Part of the challenge was maybe in explaining the tone and vision of the film, the balance with the westernness vs authentic South Africanness, the genre versus the realness, finding the balance between entertainment and ‘message’, and keeping it true and not gimmicky. I don’t think we ever had doubt about what we wanted to achieve, but we’ve had a few interactions now where people are saying: ‘You know, we just didn’t get it before, but now we see it’. So that’s incredibly rewarding.
What was it like shooting in and around Lady Grey? What are some of the challenges and perks?
It was cold as hell, far from major cities, so it was logistically tough, and everyone had a lot of travel hours. Especially cast, travelling back and forth where needed. We had weather challenges, a lot of unexpected rain. We were up mountains and far out on farms, and had to fight slippery roads, ice and snow, long treks to remote locations inaccessible by car. The crew had it tough.
Then, shooting in a functioning town has its own challenges, in homes and streets and churches, working around the community and trying not to disrupt their way of life. We had amazing support from the town. It was fun shooting in streets, looking one way at the scene, turning around and seeing 100 people watching, gathered around the set.
We had a few times when a storm would knock out the power in the whole town for an afternoon, that was tough. The main perk for me was just feeling like we were living in the world of the film the whole time we were there. The world of the story felt so real because it was real. We were in it. And the landscapes are so spectacular, being able to spend our Sundays off hiking, wandering in the hills. We even went skiing. It’s a great space.
Films like this one don’t make themselves. What went into this production? Please share with us some insights / hacks.
Blood, sweat, tears, friendship, healthy debate, shared vision, conflicting vision, amazing commitment, compromise where necessary, but only where necessary. It was such a journey every day, and was such a huge part of my life for so long – almost nine years by the time it comes out – that I don’t think I could quantify it in any one way. Literally everything was sacrificed for it, and I know I’m not the only one who can say that.
Hacks? Long johns. And farm boots. But really, it’s all about the people involved: the skills, the temperaments and the shared adventure of an undertaking like this. I’d work with pretty much anyone from this team again and we’re already planning the next projects. Work with the right people. There’s the main hack.
What did you learn during this shoot?
I think we all learned a lot about filmmaking on this ambitious level. That might be an obvious one. I learned a lot about my ability to handle pressure and curveballs as they came. Being part of a big machine, where you’re responsible for big decisions that will affect the whole project, and having to make (with the other producers and core team) those decision very quickly and decisively.
For the screenwriter in me, and also a producer on this film, a really valuable learning was going through the whole start to finish process, from the writing of the script – including in the last few weeks before production, cutting it down by a few pages to make sure we could get everything we needed within our schedule and budget – then going through the process of shooting, where decisions and script changes are made to accommodate schedule changes, missed scenes or beats for whatever reason, or even where a better idea pops up, then again in the edit, where you reconfigure your story in places as best suits the finished film.
Being part of every decision and every change was a healthy, very interesting process. Often writers deliver a script, and don’t see the film until the finished product, and then complain about what was changed. Being part of the whole process has definitely opened up my perspectives. You really do write and rewrite and rewrite throughout, down to the final, final edit. What’s important is the film, more than any ‘precious’ words on the page.
What do you hope this film tells people about here and now?
We’re hesitant to have it be a message film. Hopefully it challenges people to look at where we are, where we’ve come from, and where we’re going. And what our parts are to play in the future of the country. And, of course, to be entertained and moved and thrilled at the same time.
What are some of the obstacles in the local filmmaking industry? How can these be tackled?
We’ve got our fair share of challenges, but I’d rather focus on the positive movement… SA films are breaking out regularly around the world with a higher frequency now than I can remember. Almost every major international film festival has at least one South African film this year, and did last year… Five Fingers, Inxeba, Vaya, High Fantasy, The Number, now Nommer 37 premiering at SXSW. And many more. I think our boldness is on the rise and we’re seeing that pay off. There’s a lot of pride and debate in SA around our cinema at the moment, and that’s a trend that hopefully leads to a sustainable industry.
I think its hard for independent producers here… unfortunately very few filmmakers are earning a sustainable living making films like this. We have to turn it around. You hope that the investment and commitment of this generation of filmmakers, who built on the investment and commitment of the last generation of filmmakers, is going to open more doors for more filmmakers who in turn grow it further and eventually everyone wins. We’re hoping that Five Fingers is going to make an impact at the Box Office and we’re seeing big positive buzz, so we’re optimistic. We really want and need to win the trust of audiences and repeat the successes of films like Happiness is a Four Letter word and Keeping Up With the Kandasamy’s more often. And we need to keep making sure our films travel and the reputation of SA cinema worldwide keeps climbing.
Any advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Believe in it. Commit to it. Tell the stories that you can’t stop yourself thinking about. Even if others don’t see it. Don’t try to develop the films you think people want to see. Make the films you would want to see. There’s crazy strength in numbers too. Surround yourself with positive people who genuinely believe that they can do it, and that you can do it, and that we can do it. Keep pushing each other. Supporting each other. That’s the only way we all get ahead.
Chatting To: Director & Producer Michael Matthews
Michael co-founded Be Phat Motel in 2007 with the aim of developing and producing progressive cinema pieces. Since then, Michael has made award-winning commercials and short films, working with brands like MTV, Axe, Nike and more. His work has been nominated and won awards both locally and internationally. Five Fingers for Marseilles is Michael’s feature directorial debut.
What inspired your vision for this specific film?
What kept me excited the whole way through the process was the idea of looking at South African cinema through a genre lens. Not in an action, or overly commercial way, but in more of a weighted, slow boiling, powerful way. Specifically using the landscape, art direction, cinematography, music and deep internal performances to create a steady, deeper tension, with the constant threat of violence or conflict. While still keeping the film feeling rich with ‘flavour’ and detail. Although quite different to Five Fingers, I drew inspiration from the Australian film The Proposition, and the general progression of South Korean cinema over the last 20 years. Seeing what can be achieved with foreign language genre filmmaking.
Tell us about shooting Five Fingers for Marseilles. Any interesting challenges? What were some highlights?
The whole film really was a challenge. It was a very ambitious project from the beginning. Financing the film at the level we were aiming at, yet keeping it all local cast and the dialogue mostly in Sotho, took us 6 years from the point we had a good draft of the script. Then the 5 weeks of production was very challenging, because it was all shot in the middle of icy winter near the Maluti mountains, 7 hours drive from JHB and 12 hours from CT. So we really had to bunker down and all work as a big team through a difficult production. A week of snow, hail, rain and sub-zero temperatures was in there too.
But those challenges become the highlights and the rewards. When we pulled things off day by day, it was a great feeling. My biggest highlight was working with these great actors. It was on about day 3 when I had a great moment watching the lead, Vuyo, in a climactic scene. His performance was amazing, and I felt like I was watching a real ‘Major Motion Picture’ on the set monitor. I had a couple of tears in that moment.
Please share with us some filmmaking hacks you used during this shoot.
I think these would be considered hacks:
We worked with the composer long before the shoot and he created a sketchbook of musical ideas for the film without any edited visuals. We then used those throughout the edit rather than other pre-existing music or references. This helped us craft our own audio-visual experience, rather than getting sucked into the ideas from other film scores.
We did a test shoot on location three days before actual production with wardrobe, makeup, our camera and lenses, as well as the lighting styles we planned to use. We then colour graded a few different ‘looks’ for day Int, Day ext, Night etc., and created our own LUTS that were uploaded to the Alexa for the shoot. This way we had a good idea of what the final image was on set, so we could take some more risks or push things in a certain direction more confidently. It also meant that the film looked ‘quite’ colour graded while still in the offline, so that when sending incomplete screeners off to the first festival it still looked pretty good already.
We also had our editor on location throughout the shoot, so that he could view the rushes, and assemble the edit while we shot. This way we could see if there was anything missing from a scene or if anything wasn’t working and rectify it while still in production.
What do you hope this film tells people about here and now?
I hope audiences get excited about the potential of South African cinema and what is possible. As well as showing the international hunger and excitement for what we can do. On a deeper level, I hope the film helps South Africans take a step back and think about the lingering effects of our colonial past. The damage it has done and the cycle it perpetuates. We don’t want audiences to feel like we are preaching to them. Hopefully the film resonates with South Africans on an entertainment level, as well as sparking conversations about where we are, as well as where we’re heading.
Any advice for youngsters wanting to do what you do?
Make films, and make them the best you can with who you have. Learn from the best filmmakers, but don’t try not copy other movies or do what you think other people want to see. Try to make the kind of films you really want to see.
Chatting To: Lead Actor Vuyo Dabula
Vuyo Dabula is no stranger to the screen and has amassed a large following since his break-out role in as Kumkani Phakade in Generations: The Legacy. He’s also performed in various other productions including The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, Invictus, and Small Town Called Descent. He was named GQ South Africa’s Best Dressed Man in 2016, and Sowetan LIVE: Mzansi’s Sexiest Man in 2015. Daym.
What about this story was intriguing to you as an actor?
Tau has a super profound history and loads of demons from his past. The universe has a role or task for those who may have lost their way, even the darkest: that’s what makes it sweet for me. The very thing that causes pain, eventually will be the thing that brings peace… It may just take a wolf to save the sheep.
Were there any activities or mindsets that helped you embody this intense character?
He is a fighter and does not hesitate; he has that raw unmistakable energy about him from the screenplay. Mike Tyson says he did not know how to be anything else, he felt like a Marauding King come to take over Rome. Something inside, something not quite natural has to switch in the psychology of a man, so I went to boxing; trained with ex fighters and observed them. They all – or most of them – learned to take the suffering. Most of us will self preserve the walk towards it, but they know that they can. Because their training mentally and physically is unbelievable. As for demons and what have you – it’s for me to deal with them.
Do you identify with the character? Why and how?
My younger version identifies with him. It’s the impulse, the anger, the quick response. I have mellowed down in my 40’s. I kind of do a little, but scantily so now.
What was the biggest challenge in portraying this character?
The biggest challenge was coming out of it, after the fact. I think the sadness lingered on for a while.
What did Tau teach you?
He did pay the ultimate price. I learned to dig deeper for those I love. But I kind of knew that.
What do you hope this film tells people about here and now?
It will say: you must take responsibility for your society and the future. The powerful are easy to corrupt, but people will simply recognise that. They’ve seen that for too long.
What was the production like?
We got things done! We battled frozen roads, rain, icy conditions, emotions, fatigue, frayed nerves, impossible terrain… but we got things done.
Any advice for youngsters wanting to do what you do?
Youngsters must just do it, if it is honestly what they must do, if that’s their thing. They must not give up, but be brave enough to honour their calling. Because the gods are watching.
Keep up: Find Five Fingers for Marseilles on Facebook
Director: Michael Matthews
Writer: Sean Drummond
Music: James Matthes
Cinematography: Shaun Lee
Editing: Daniel Mitchell
Casting: Moonyeenn Lee
Production Design: Franz Lewis
Photography by: Graham Bartholomew
Asger Hussain Producer
Yaron Schwartzman Producer
Sean Drummond Producer
Michael Matthews Producer
Jeff Hoffman Executive Producer
Paulo Areal Executive Producer
Joshua A. Green Executive Producer
Dumi Gumbi Executive Producer
Dylan Voogt Co-Producer