Interview: Beauty Director Oliver Hermanus

‘I’ve never felt completely damaged or broken by a South African film.’

In UK cinemas this week is the intriguing, disturbing Beauty.

Titled Skoonheid in its native South Africa, it’s the story of repressed middle-aged married businessman Francois (Deon Lotz) who becomes obsessed with young family friend Christian (Charlie Keegan). A study of a certain age group in post-Apartheid Cape Town, it’s not an easy watch. Read our full review here.

Young Cape Town writer and director Oliver Hermanus made his debut with Shirley Adams, with his second feature bringing him international attention. We caught up with him in London last month, where we learn why he writes about an older age group, his tastes in cinema and his interesting new project.

Have you been to the UK before?
I went to university here, but I hadn’t been back, so it’s a strange sense of coming home. I did my master’s degree at the London Film School, which basically in film terms is film school, but it was nice to get my master’s qualification. My thesis was my first feature, which I shot in South Africa. I never came back for graduation. It’s nice to be back.

Congratulations on winning the Queer Palm at Cannes. How was Cannes for you?
Cannes was definitely a life-long dream, to have my work shown there. So there was the expectation of what it was going to be like, and then there was the reality of what it was like! It was a lot of work, I got terribly ill, I drank a lot of champagne… If I do it again, I now have a reference of what I would do and what I wouldn’t, and what time I’d go to bed.

Do you think winning that award pigeon-holed your film?
It just associates a concept around the film, and the business of filmmaking is always this concern about limiting your audience. But I was actually quite relieved to win the Queer Palm because no one had seen the film before it premiered in Cannes, and I was not certain whether the gay community would embrace the themes of the film, and the main character, and whether they would reject it as perpetuating a negative stereotype or message. So we were relieved that the themes of the film were seen as being important. The only interesting reaction that I didn’t expect was for gay men of South Africa of the same age group of the character, finding him someone they didn’t want to engage with, because it was a memory of a certain time, and a memory of a certain kind of choice-making that they weren’t necessarily ready to revisit. That was interesting. Generally the gay community… This is a cautionary tale of what happens if you don’t accept yourself, or if you don’t live the life that you genetically, or instinctively feel you should live. I think most gay people see the value of that.

He’s kind of an ambiguous character, as I’ve seen people argue he’s not gay.
He’s not gay - when someone says he’s gay it refers to a certain kind of lifestyle that’s not just your sexual orientation but the way you engage with the world, how you define yourself in a social and professional context. Francois is a man who has sex with men. He doesn’t subscribe to any gay lifestle choices, and he would not want to develop relationships with men in a serious way. Obviously there’s a moment in this film where he’s attracted to this other man where he’s thinking about shifting his self-identification, but the whole point of the film is that he doesn’t have the bravery, the guts, the tools that he needs to be able to accept himself.

I find it interesting that as a young filmmaker you write about middle-aged characters.
I don’t know why that is! Everyone is like, you really understand women in their forties, you really understand men in their forties. I don’t know why I gravitate towards that age bracket. Maybe it’s because people at that age, their self-awareness, their self-knowledge, and the relationships in their lives are more valid. If I was dealing with the issues of twentysomething people, it may come across as being a little bit too heavy for the age, because you still have time to solidify your choice-making.

It’s the themes that dictate it then?
It’s the themes. It’s a bit too late for Francois to connect with post-Apartheid South Africa. It definitely fits into the age group. My age bracket doesn’t necessarily have that problem. My first film it’s similar; a woman whose son is the victim of gang violence, and she’s also having to find the ability to forgive the society. That comes with emotional maturity, which I don’t think I could bring to the screen with younger protagonists.

Can you talk about how you cast Deon? His face speaks volumes.
The casting process was fairly conventional; I had a casting director who went out, and I would watch a lot of DVDs. But then you get that DVD and you watch it, and here’s the first actor who, immediately in the audition tape, you feel he has the gravity of the character. The audition piece was this moment in the film where there’s long dialogue in the restaurant and he’s trying to tell the guy in conflicted ways that he’s in love with him. All the actors who came in had no context of what the film was about, but Deon immediately was able to interpret quite closely what was going on. For me as a filmmaker, when the actor understands the character… we, the producers, were quite set on him.

What were you looking for?
It’s general things at that point. A lot of South African actors have not done much film work, and are based in theatre, and it’s not the same beast. You want an actor who looks alive and has thoughts in his eyes. Deon definitely has a lot going on when the cameras are on him - you can see he’s tormented in some way. There’s that dynamic. An actor who can bring the character from a 360 degree perspective. It’s an instinctive thing - you feel like this guy can go the distance. This was obviously quite a challenging role, but Deon was never really afraid of Francois, which was the biggest thing. He ran into the head space of this character and was quite comfortable to go there.

It’s also a challenging role for Charlie Keegan - how did you go about casting Christian?
The hard part for Charlie, for the casting process for this role was that this guy has to be Helen of Troy in some way. He’s got to be this face that launches a thousand… I basically went to the girls in the office with all this pictures on the wall, and asked which one of these guys do you gravitate to? Charlie definitely got the most red stickers! Then obviously I had to make sure he could act! We had a collection of actors who had a body of work under them. To be honest though, it was a case of ‘where does the eye go first?’ The biggest challenge for Charlie was that his work before had been in safe television, and he was a model, and he wanted to do this film as it was a chance for him to do something very different. He’s a very serious guy, so he was keen to get involved.

I found it interesting that after the uncomfortable pivotal moment in the film, there’s no resolution or easy answers. Was that deliberate?
Yes. For me, strong cinema is cinema that doesn’t provide you with answers but poses difficult questions, or throws things up in some way. That was definitely the intention behind this narrative, to play something on the screen and not necessarily simplify it into to terms and sum it up. I just wanted it to linger. Retribution wasn’t important to me, what was was acknowledging that there are people like this out there, and there is no end in sight. Social punishment for someone like Francois doesn’t mean anything for the main theme of the film.

Can you tell me about your tastes in cinema?
I like films that deal with the human condition, films that educate me about myself. [Michael] Haneke is a great example - you go into his films and you question a lot of different things about what we are like as society and individuals. Films about morality. I like films that set a strong sense of control around those themes. I like films that affect me. I like to leave the cinema feeling somehow traumatised! I have memories of seeing films in Cape Town, and some movie houses are in malls, and you emerge with your friends and go back into the mall and go have lunch. Sometimes you come out and it’s as if the mall is on mute. You’re just so distracted by what you’ve just seen. That was the experience I was craving. I remember coming out of Eyes Wide Shut - I was underage - and I really being affected by it. Requiem for a Dream.

You have European tastes, but can you tell me about the South African film scene?
The South African filmmaking scene is in its teething stages. It has a long history, but they’ve never really spoken to me in the way that I was describing. I’ve never felt completely damaged or broken by a South African film. That’s probably why I’ve tried to make these kinds of films, and force this experience on South Africans! We make genre films, what everyone else makes. Films that only sell to our country - slapstick comedies. They don’t speak to me creatively.

Do you work with the same creative team?
Working with Jamie [Ramsay, cinematographer] is essential as he’s the only person I trust! He sits right next to me. It was a bond formed very closely on our first film together. It definitely matured with Beauty, and he’s an integral part of my safety net. You can only be better as a filmmaker when you have a team around you and you have a shorthand, you trust and depend on each other - you can do so much more as you do so much unconsciously. I remember when Clint Eastwood was in Cape Town shooting Invictus, all the South African crew were just marvelling at his team, because they get through it really quickly. He’s constructed a family that work like clockwork. The trust is there.

What is next for you?
I’m doing a film that has been described as a Biblical thriller. Not South African content, but we will try and make it in South Africa. It’s my own script. A thriller set against the backdrop of a conspiracy to kill a very famous prophet. Is that cryptic enough? The script is in development, and I think I’ll shoot it early next year. So watch this space!