Recreating historical events from the turbulent era of South Africa’s apartheid policies, Catch a Fire tells the story of two men, one black and one white, both family men, both fighting for what they believe is right. It traces the journey of real-life hero Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke), a non-political black refinery worker whose false arrest, imprisonment and torture radicalizes him to become a freedom fighter in the struggle for the emancipation of his people. At the same time the film looks at the perspective of the fearful white minority through the eyes of Nic Vos (Tim Robbins), a white colonel in the police security branch, who strives to maintain order and protect his family during increasingly volatile times.In a time when those considered terrorists by some are considered freedom fighters by others, it is hard not to draw some parallels between this story and current conflicts. Although director Phillip Noyce denies any conscious intent to contemporize the subject of his film, he is pleased if people draw their own parallels between history and the present because, “From the past there is always a path to the future—a future where we can choose to learn from our past mistakes.” BTL: Were you familiar with the history of South Africa before you took on this project?Phillip Noyce: To take on the responsibility of recreating a vital part of South African history from both the black and white point of view, I spent eight months before we started shooting trying to understand the history and the culture of that country and the forces that were at play during the latter part of the apartheid era. Into the eight months of research, I realized that I was never going to make it. BTL: You had a number of technical advisors that helped you capture the times.Noyce: As a white Australian, I could never hope to bridge the cultural gaps. I had to enlist the aid of people who had lived every aspect of Shawn Slovo’s script, whether it was someone who was an expert on the freedom songs that led black and white South Africans in their opposition to apartheid, a former security branch policeman or someone who knew about guerilla training. I had many technical advisors, who often went beyond technical advice.As a 17-year-old, David Mbatha, fled to Mozambique where he joined the struggle against apartheid. He became a walking encyclopedia of the freedom songs. When we came to film a sequence where the crowd was singing one of those songs, David stepped forward with the words, the music and the melody. David speaks every one of the 11 official languages of South Africa and was able to communicate en masse. He taught these extras, many of who were not familiar with these songs—one by one, ten by ten, a hundred by a hundred. He instilled a sense of the joy, but also the struggle that those songs represented. David is one example of the many South Africans who offered more than just technical advice because the story touched their own experience.BTL: Most of your crew was South African. What was their experience level?Noyce: The South African film industry is quite big, so there is a huge technical crew pool. Many commercials are shot there. Because it is in the southern hemisphere, you can shoot in fine weather and glorious sunshine when it’s snowing in Europe. Other than my editor, Jill Bilcock, who I would take back to Australia to complete postproduction, and my two cinematographers, Ron Fortunato, from America and Garry Phillips, from Australia, all the rest of the crew were South Africans. I’ve found that in making films there is expertise everywhere. If you use local crew you find that what they lack in experience, they make up for in local knowledge and enthusiasm.BTL: How did you choose production designer Johnny Breedt?Noyce: I saw a couple of his films. The one that struck me most was Hotel Rwanda. He was art director and took over late in preproduction from the original production designer. Johnny served a long apprenticeship as art director to many great production designers. He’s extremely practical, but he provided something that no one else in the world can give to this film—an absolute understanding of the events and a passion to bring this story to the screen.I liked Johnny’s realism. This is a true story. It was important that everything looked real—that there was no artifice. Johnny’s team of black and white South African technicians was able to reproduce interiors of a black house in the township or a white house in a suburb of Pretoria. Johnny has a meter that all good production designers have. He knows when things are not real. He’s quick to point out when stylization has gone too far and it’s about to erode the audiences’ belief in the events on screen. BTL: Your costumer brought that same authenticity to his work.Noyce: Reza Levy is a young South African from Capetown who had worked as a costume supervisor on many foreign productions coming to South Africa. I was attracted by his understanding of that particular period of the 1980s in South Africa, his sense of style, but once again, his understanding of what was real and what would appear fake to an audience. In choosing South Africans to do these two vital roles, I was also betting that even though I could have turned to much more celebrated people, I really felt that in this case, as long as I chose the best that South Africa had to offer, those people would be the best for the job.BTL: In your second collaboration with cinematographer, Ron Fortunato, how did your working relationship develop?Noyce: I worked with Rob on the pilot for the Showtime series Brotherhood. For that, Ron and I worked on HD, so we were quickly able to create a distinctive look for the show. For Catch a Fire we experimented and shot tests at potential locations in South Africa using HD, 35 and 16mm, and mini-DV. These tests were sent back to Australia where our colorist, Al Hansen, at Frame, Set & Match, in Sydney, used a series of split screens that were then filmed out at Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital in New Zealand, then printed by Jackson’s lab Park Road Post. The prints were sent back to Johannesburg where we screened the results in a 500-seat cinema. We experimented with all these formats to see which one would produce the best look for the film. Eventually, Ron and I decided to shoot in a combination of 16mm, 35mm and mini-DV.Sequences set in South Africa were filmed in 35. When our hero joins the struggle against apartheid, we decided to film those sequences—in Mozambique and Angola where our character has found a new hope and a new freedom—using 16mm cameras, which are much lighter, can more easily be hand-held and have a greater fluidity, as well as increased grain that we thought would give a greater grittiness to the imagery. At the end of the movie—where the story travels from the 80s, through the 90s to the present day—we see the real Patrick Chamusso and realize that this is one man’s true story. The ending was shot using a three-chip Panasonic mini-DV camera. All of the disparate material was evened out in the DI studio at Frame, Set & Match. BTL: How did you weather changing cinematographers in the middle of production?Noyce: Ron got sick and had to return to New York. Given that I needed someone who could start tomorrow, I had to choose someone who could fly immediately, so we didn’t lose any days of shooting. Garry Phillips has a distinguished career shooting commercials in Australia, but I had been particularly impressed by a feature that he shot for a friend of mine, Getting Square. It had really impressive lighting. He also shot a film that will be released shortly starring Heath Ledger called Candy. Australian cinematographers learn to be extremely practical and fast, working with as little lighting as possible, while maximizing the look of the film. We had a situation where we needed someone who was flexible, confident and used to making quick decisions. Also someone working
in Australia was used to the harsh southern hemisphere light. There is probably no harsher light than in Australia, but if there is, it’s in Africa.BTL: Editor Jill Bilcock is well known for her work both in America and Australia.Noyce: I had never worked previously with Jill, but had admired her work, particularly with Baz Luhrmann on a number of films, starting with Strictly Ballroom, then Romeo and Juliet and finally in Moulin Rouge. She is a virtuoso editor, an enormous asset to any director. I must say that so much of the finished film bears an uncanny resemblance to the very first cut that she delivered to me during the shoot. A lot of times working with great editors, I’ve had to explain myself. I never had to explain anything to Jill. She seemed to be on the same wavelength and way ahead of me in terms of expressing my intentions. She always exceeded my expectations. She would start where I left off, then go a bit further finding the rhythm of a scene or a performance. She is also remarkably quick. BTL: How was it working across several continents?Noyce: One of the wonders of the technological revolution is that you can have vital crewmembers working on your film without them being in the same city or country. The film was processed in Johannesburg and transferred to hi-def. We edited in South Africa and Australia, then went to London and New York for previews. The preview process is important to a film’s life, but there is no longer a need to conform to film. It can be done much easier if you conform the hi-def and then project on D5 in any cinema in the world with remarkable image resolution and basic, but vital grading. We continued to make cutting changes in our editing room in London, which were sent across the Internet to Australia. They sent the re-conformed and re-mixed sections of the film back via the Internet wherever we happened to be. Joe Rand, the American music editor that I’ve worked with since the early 1990s, stayed in Pasadena with his family, but communicated by Internet as efficiently as we had ever done face-to-face. We achieved the same thing working with our South African composer who was always in Johannesburg. With actors stretched from Johannesburg to New York and LA, we were able to cheaply and efficiently re-record the actors’ dialog in three different places, which were all linked back to Sydney.
Written by Mary Ann Skweres